Target Shooting

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Evidence of target shooting activities involving bows and arrows as well as hand propelled projectiles such as spears can be traced as far back as ancient cultures of Asia and Europe. However, modern target shooting with firearms is a relatively recent phenomenon. In Europe, the formula for black powder, the propellant used in guns of the period, was first written down by an English friar, Roger Bacon, in 1242. By the mid-1300s, black powder artillery pieces were in common use throughout Europe, and hand cannons, the predecessors of modern long guns, had been developed. Hand cannons consisted of a smooth-bore iron barrel and were fired by manually igniting the priming powder with a smoldering wick called a match. These early firearms lacked any mechanical firing or aiming mechanisms, making them too inaccurate and impractical for hunting or sporting use. By the late 1300s, attempts had been made at increasing the portability of firearms, which resulted in the introduction of rudimentary pistols in England and Italy.

The development of target shooting as a sport was to a large extent a reflection of the progress occurring in the firearms technology, including the evolution of firing mechanisms and other inventions that increased the accuracy and reliability of early firearms. A device called the matchlock that allowed guns to be fired by pulling the trigger, but still relied on a smoldering match for ignition, was introduced in the early 1400s. In the early 1500s, wheel-lock muskets came into use in Germany. The flintlock was invented in France in the early 1600s. It consisted of the hammer with a piece of flint attached to it and the flash pan with a metal cover called frizzen. Flintlock revolutionized firearms design as it combined reliability, ease of use, and low cost, and thus it contributed greatly to popularizing shooting sports. Another invention that made target shooting a reality was the rifled barrel. Introduced in the first half of the sixteenth century, it substantially enhanced accuracy and range of guns.

Although shooting matches employing early firearms were held, along with archery competitions, as early as the second half of the fifteenth century, it was not until the sixteenth century when the sport of target shooting gained popularity, initially in Germany and then in other nations of Western and Central Europe. Archery societies evolved into shooting clubs that held regularly scheduled competitions often coinciding with religious holidays. Monetary prizes were sometimes awarded to winners. The European custom of holding shooting matches alongside other festivities was eventually brought to the New World where target practice with firearms was already a common pastime.

During the early 1800s, firearms were further improved by the introduction of the percussion cap ignition mechanism, along with breech-loading rifle designs. By the 1860s, breech-loading firearms using metallic cartridges that integrated the bullet, propellant, and the primer became popular, even though muzzle-loading guns continued to be used through the Civil War. In the 1880s, smokeless powder suitable for use in small arms was invented, making black powder guns obsolete, and marking the birth of modern firearms. Partly as a result of the rapid technological progress in the nineteenth century, target shooting had become not only increasingly popular, but also more formal and more competitive. The first national shooting federation was formed in Switzerland in 1825, followed by a number of other European nations. In 1871, Colonel William C. Church and General George Wingate formed the National Rifle Association (NRA), whose goal was to promote shooting sports and improve the marksmanship skills of the American population. In 1886, "The Great Centennial Rifle Match"—involving teams from Australia, Canada, Ireland, and Scotland—was fired at the Creedmoore range, beginning the tradition of prestigious Palma matches. A decade later, the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, included five target-shooting events. The following year, the first World Shooting Championships took place in Lyon, France. In the United States, national matches began in 1903, followed by National Smallbore Rifle Championships that were first fired in 1919.

Modern Target Shooting

Modern target shooting sports include a wide array of nationally and internationally recognized disciplines characterized by different shooting techniques, targets, firearms, and accessories. Many disciplines go beyond the tradition of shooting at a stationary target from a fixed position and involve either moving targets or the competitor navigating a course with several firing positions. Firearms used in competitive shooting range from unmodified pistols and traditional bolt-action target rifles to highly accurate custom bench-rest rifles, air guns, and replicas of antique muzzle loaders.

International shooting competitions, including the Olympic Games shooting events, are governed by the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF), formerly the International Shooting Union. The ISSF, founded in 1907, is composed of 157 national federations from 137 countries. The Forty-eighth ISSF World Shooting Championships that took place in Lathi, Finland, in 2002 included over seventy individual and team events in center fire and small-bore rifle, pistol, air pistol, air rifle, and shotgun disciplines. Target-shooting events were part of all modern Olympic Games with the exception of 1904 and 1928. As of the 2004 Games, there were seventeen individual Olympic shooting events, including five rifle events, five pistol events, six clay target events, and one running target event. Moreover, the Olympic sports of modern pentathlon and biathlon involve target-shooting activities. Modern pentathlon combines pistol shooting, epee fencing, swimming, equestrian show jumping, and cross-country running. Biathlon, offered during the Winter Games, involves cross-country skiing combined with small-bore rifle shooting scored based on time and accuracy. Women began competing in Olympic shooting events in 1968, and in 1984 separate shooting events for women were introduced.

Besides international shooting sports sanctioned by the ISSF, there are many other popular shooting sports. The Civilian Marksmanship and Firearms Safety Program oversees the service rifle center-fire national matches, in which historical military rifles and copies of current military rifles are fired. Practical shooting events involving target shooting with pistols, rifles, and shotguns using multiple and moving targets are organized by the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) and U.S. Practical Shooting Association (USPSA). A number of associations promote precision bench-rest shooting and shotguns sports, such as skeet and trap events. A growing number of organizations promote black powder target shooting, using both modern firearms and replicas of historical guns. American shooting enthusiasts with physical disabilities are served by the National Wheelchair Shooting Federation (NWSF), which provides training opportunities and participates in various national and international competitions, including the Paralympic Games.

The choice of shooting sports and the range of resources available to competitive shooters in the United States steadily increased over the past century. However, target shooting plays a more important role as a recreational activity than as a competitive sport. Although no reliable estimates of the number of recreational shooters were available, informal "plinking" appeared to remain among the nation's favorite pastimes.

See also: Archery, Historical Reenactment Societies, Hunting, Olympics


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Blair, Wes. The Complete Book of Target Shooting. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1984.

Carter, Ray, and Gary Anderson. The CMP Youth Shooting Opportunities Guide. Port Clinton, Ohio: Civilian Marksmanship Program, 2002.

Cooper, Jeff. Art of the Rifle. Boulder, Colo.: Paladin Press, 2002.

Farnell, G. C., and M. Farnell. Target Shooting, Small-Bore Rifles and Air Rifles. Boston: Charles River Books, 1974.

Morrow, Laurie, and Steve Smith. Shooting Sports for Women: A Practical Guide to Shotgunning and Riflery for the Outdoorswoman. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Monika Stodolska