Sharpshooter by
(84 Stories)

Prompted By Guns Then and Now

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Packin’ heat and ready to punch some cows, around 1953.

I owned my share of toy guns as a kid—I could play Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians for hours—but when it came to the real thing I was chickenshit. And so, when our fathers took Bud and Jeff (my two best friends) and me to a father-son weekend in northern Michigan the spring before our first summer at camp, they literally had to drag me to the rifle range.

Why my friends had to drag me to the rifle range, and why I kept coming back.

This is not hyperbole. In my nine-year-old imagination, I was certain that, in the presence of real guns, at least one of us would be shot. I envisioned the scene a dozen different ways and they all ended badly. When they set out on the path to the range, I followed, hanging back about twenty paces. “Chief Bringing-Up-the-Rear,” they taunted me, but who cares about teasing when I was worried about being killed? The specter of death already weighed on my family that spring, as my father had lost one leg to cancer. My mother would be devastated, I fantasized, if they brought me home in a coffin. Finally my Uncle Jim (Jeff’s dad) came back, took my hand, and escorted me down the path.

We finally arrived at the range to find an open, shaded, wooden platform facing a row of paper targets at a distance of 50 feet. Kochie, the riflery instructor, was a good ole boy from somewhere in the south, maybe Tennessee. He knew his weapons and insisted that we respect them. He unlocked a case and handed each of us a .22-caliber rifle and a small box of ammunition. He positioned us prone on the platform and showed us how to check the safety, pull back the lever, open the chamber, and load a single bullet. He taught us how to aim, hold our breath, and gently squeeze the trigger. Then we took the safety off and did it for real.

Horsing around in our Sunday whites with my best friend Bud (top) and my stepbrother-to-be Neil (right) at camp, 1962.

I can still remember the sharp recoil of the rifle against my shoulder, the metallic ping of empty, ejected casings hitting the platform, the acrid stink of gunpowder. Those first shots missed the target entirely, but with practice we were able to hit the paper and even occasionally the outer circles of the bull’s-eye. I could do this, I found. I even liked it.

My friends and I earned riflery medals each of our four years of camp, progressing from Pro-Marksman to Marksman to Marksman First Class and finally to Sharpshooter. Our fourth year, to add variety, we experimented with standing positions—much harder than prone—and pistols instead of rifles. Kochie also taught a hunter safety class. After we passed the written test, he took us by twos into the forest for the field exam. We had to decide simultaneously whether to fire our unloaded guns at a series of targets he had set up. I was relieved when my friend Bud and I both held our fire at a partially obscured target that turned out, on inspection, to be a caricature of Miss America. That was as close to hunting as I ever got.

Sharpshooter award

My Sharpshooter certificate from the NRA, 1962.

We returned home that year proudly clutching hunter safety certificates bearing the seal of the National Rifle Association—an affiliation that now makes me cringe, but the NRA, and guns in general, were less political in those days. Today, I deplore the proliferation of guns in America. I don’t own a gun, and if I had kids, I wouldn’t teach them to shoot. But I have to admit that mastering this grown-up skill I’d feared was a confidence-building rite of passage on the road from boy to man.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Marian says:

    John, I love the photo, brings back memories of my brother’s outfit! I can relate to your experience in the story. As an adult, I wanted to get over my terror of guns (if you encountered one in NYC it was bad), so I went out to a range with a group and shot a rifle (I nearly fell over from the recoil) and tried to shoot a .45 pistol. I couldn’t even pull the trigger with both hands but did manage to shoot a .22. I wouldn’t own a gun either, but it was a memorable experience.

  2. I can project clearly how the kid with the elaborate cowboy garb got to be you. Still imagining things, right John? I also really enjoyed your gun experience from the irony of being a six-gun quick draw to inventing elaborate gun accidents ahead of time.

    Also enjoyed your reflection on guns, then and now. Things have changed tremendously. I had a .22 rifle as a kid. I lived in a forest and loved shooting tin cans through the birches. I learned a lot about myself back then. I never shot a single living creature the whole time I had that rifle in the wilderness.

    Great photos, too!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Isn’t it interesting how our values have gone from sporting (learning to proudly shoot at camp) to loathing the NRA and guns in general. I remember shooting once at 8th grade camp, but, as you and Marian have described, the recoil from the rifle was tremendous and I had no interest in pursuing it. The pride you describe from your progression along the marksman route at camp is palpable and there certainly is skill (and safety) involved. And fascinating that you still have your certificate, signed by the NRA. I agree that I would never own a gun and abhor the prevalence of guns, violence, stupidity in our society today.

  4. Suzy says:

    Love your story, and your photos. I have never been anywhere near a gun – archery was as close as I got, and those sharp arrows were scary enough! But good for you for mastering this skill that initially so terrified you. And for making the distinction between learning to shoot in 1962 and now.

    It amuses me that on your NRA certificate, on the line where the name of the instructor is supposed to go, it says “Oscoda, Michigan.”

  5. Lutz Braum says:

    Lovely juxtaposition of your (initial) fear of guns and your joy of mastering a new skill involving guns. And the first photo is priceless. We didn’t have guns in Germany (still don’t) where I grew up, but we fantasized as much as you did about ‘Cowboys & Indians’, using wooden sticks (and later Lego) to stand in for rifles and guns.

  6. jefroe8271 says:

    Golly John….take me back to Camp Nissokone! Thank you for your vivid recollections from the rifle range; we sure had a good time there. I think that it was an interesting and confusing time for both of us, but Camp life and activities were an amazing foundation to learn some new skills and do some growing up. Your writing is evocative for me and I greatly appreciate it. I didn’t take to the live ammo (I like you feared something bad might happen) and spent more time on Lake Van Etten in sailboats following my introduction to both horseback riding and the rifle range.

    • John Zussman says:

      Jeff, thanks for your kind words and for being my friend and “older guide” through those years. I fully agree about camp being both interesting and confusing, both educational and a bit beyond our comfort zone. And there are certainly more stories to be told—about Van Etten’s waters and more!

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    I was impressed that you (rightly!) associated guns and real death at your young age. It seems that too many people think of guns as toys, cartoons, or video games, without appreciating the true consequences. Guns may be admired as machines and as a way to master a skill, but the context remains important.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Khati. Interesting observation. I’m not sure I dissociated guns from death, or that our generation was culturally trained to do so. So many of our fathers fought in WWII, and we grew up with war stories as well as Cowboys and Indians. Even Disney movies made us face death — think Bambi and Old Yeller. Perhaps that’s all different now, as you suggest, with the cartoonish treatment of death in video games and superhero movies. Worth thinking about.

  8. Thanks John for the wonderful photos and the amazing recall of a childhood incident and your feelings about it. Your mother would have been devastated indeed!

    Although I’ve had little experience with guns, and thus no story came to mind for this week’s prompt, it did remind me that as a kid in camp I found archery and riflery quite thrilling – and therein the problem!

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Dana. We’ve always felt inclusive about prompts, so whatever memories the prompt evokes are in bounds. I’d love to read your archery story, and I’ll bet no one would object.

      • Thanx John, and thanx again for Retro!
        I’ve tried to wrack the old brain for more archery and riflery memories from my camp days, but all I remember is a thrilling sensation when pulling back that bow and squeezing that trigger.

        But I do have another camp story coming up, bittersweet but thankfully no guns. Happy 4th!

  9. Jeff Gerken says:

    Interesting revelations from you and others about camp life. I grew up on a farm, so my “outdoor” experience was running through the woods behind our house, but also working long hours in the garden every day, picking sweet corn and beans to sell on the street in our small town in southeastern Ohio, and making hay on July 4 when all the other kids were having a fun day in town. Oh well, I learned how to work hard, and I learned that I did not want to be a farmer when I grew up.
    All of my instruction with respect to guns came from my dad. He was not a nice person, but he did teach all of us gun safety.

  10. dj discoworm says:

    John, Glad Your Mom Took Those Pictures. i always wanted to be adopted by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. In Massachusetts in the 50’s i had it all. guns, cowboy hats. horses head on a stick. Country singing on tv. so glad i got to enjoy Americana. Happy 4th Of July 2021 I can hear the fireworks right now in the San Francisco bay area. yippy yeah Dj discOworm

  11. Laurie Levy says:

    I love this story, John. You were certainly a cute little cowboy. But the point you make about learning gun safety is really important. My son had a similar experience at summer camp, earning several NRA certificates. I think he ultimately ripped them up.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Laurie. I respect your son’s decision but I’m not going there. I like the certificate’s reminder of where I was in my life and where the world was. Besides, the certificate makes the story better!

  12. A terrific tale of initiation in America, John. I think you were absolutely right to be scared. Your description of many little boys, each one with a locked and loaded .22 rifle scared the hell outta me! Kochie was a brave man.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Charles. Never thought of it from Kochie’s point of view! Lesson #1 was always respect your weapon, but we were boys who grew up on Westerns and war stories, after all. A brave man indeed.

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