Off and Gunnin'

Action shooting clubs are a blast all over the Midwest. Lock and load, baby!

Bringing a Benson & Hedges menthol to his pursed lips, Hebert blames his mediocre shooting today on his hangover. On Friday night he closed down That One Place, a Fenton watering hole, before bringing a lucky lady home for a little hanky-panky. It's high noon, and Hebert still has booze and boobs on the brain.

"It's getting to be Hooters time," he calls out to his buddy Jeff Matsche. "Hooters is calling!"

For the moment Matsche, a marine electronics technician from Godfrey, ignores his friend. He's walking a dry run through a practical shooting stage called "Matt's Video" in homage to the guy who dreamed up the course design.

Billy the Kidder always carries a big shtick.
Jennifer Silverberg
Billy the Kidder always carries a big shtick.
Rick Hebert doesn't play nice, and he's damn proud of 
it.
Jennifer Silverberg
Rick Hebert doesn't play nice, and he's damn proud of it.

The stage is arranged like a miniature baseball diamond. The shooter begins at home plate and runs backward along the base path, firing shots at fourteen cardboard cutouts positioned like outfielders twenty to thirty feet down range. Several of the targets wear stripes of black paint representing places where the "bad guy" is seeking shelter. Any bullets landing in these areas do not count and add five seconds onto the contestant's overall time.

Preparing himself for the shoot, Matsche places noise-dampening earphones over his curly blond locks. At the age of 47, he looks not unlike a weathered William Katt, the title character from the '80s sitcom Greatest American Hero.

Practical shooters bill themselves as the most athletic of the action-shooting sportsmen, and though a good many tout impressive beer guts, others, like Matsche, take pains to keep themselves fleet of foot. On any given Sunday, he is one of the fastest shooters in the region, bopping and weaving through obstacles like Barry Sanders cutting up a backfield.

In the starter's circle, the range officer asks Matsche the standard line: "Do you understand the course of fire?" He responds with a thumbs-up and loads his weapon. An electronic buzzer sounds. He's off.

Matsche draws his gun in his first frantic steps. By the time he reaches third base he's squeezed off a half-dozen shots. The report of his pistol punches the still morning in a staccato of snaps -- like packing wrap exploding under a steamroller. The noise is deafening.

In mid-flight he tosses his spent magazine clip to the ground and loads another round of fourteen bullets. A blink later, the game is complete. In 16.23 seconds, he has shot 28 bullets and blown a pair of holes in each target.

The air is gray with gunpowder when the range officer walks the field of fire, checking the cardboard targets. "Double Alpha," he notes. "Alpha Charlie. Double Alpha."

The targets resemble boxy human torsos with tiny square heads, like Lego characters without their legs. An "alpha" means Matsche hit the target in the "A" region, a Frisbee-size circle in the center of the target where a person's heart and lungs would be. Charlie (or a "C") is the area surrounding the "A" region and about the size of a trash-can lid. The head of the target is the "B" region, but few people aim their shots above the neck. To do so increases one's chance to pick up a "Mike" (or missed shot), a penalty that tacks five seconds onto the shooter's time.

On this stage Matsche breezed through without a single Mike. Still, he's upset with his overall time.

"I got hung up in the reload," he announces. "It probably took six- to eight-tenths a second off my score."

A similar fumbling in a national match could knock Matsche down fifteen places in the standings.


Action shooting developed in the 1950s, when fans of cowboy movies in Southern California re-enacted gun battles on private ranches and in gun clubs. But it was in Missouri, some two decades later, that the sport formed its first organizing body.

It was 1976 when, according to action-shooting lore, a battalion of hard-core gunners from seven nations met in Columbia to form the International Practical Shooting Confederation.

As Nick Alexakos, the current president of IPSC, tells it, the meeting arose from a need for tighter regulations and safety requirements.

"At the time, Westerns were the hottest thing on television," says Alexakos. "Fans of the shows were staging 'quick-draw' competitions where people re-enacted the proverbial cowboy showdown to see how fast they could draw their weapon and fire. Problem was, a lot of people ended up literally shooting themselves in the foot."

IPSC made the sport more "practical" by providing players with strict guidelines, requiring eye and ear protection, and placing stern limits on the handling of the weapons.

"Our record is impeccable," boasts Alexakos. "I know of no incidents where anyone has gotten hurt in an IPSC match."

But while Westerns were all the rage in the '60s and '70s, critics of practical shooting say the sport has morphed over the years to resemble the schlocky shoot-'em-ups of the '80s and '90s. Gone was outlaw cowboy Clint Eastwood. In was cyborg cop Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"IPSC started out with its roots in practical shooting and kept pushing the envelope," says Jerry Mosher, a defensive-shooting advocate at the Caseyville Rifle and Pistol Club. "Now there's little that's practical about it. Their scenarios are more like 'Attack of the Green Men from Mars,' whereas defensive shooting is more true-to-life, like a mini-mart robbery."

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