The Yale Pistol Team (college days)

Guns on Campus Legally: The Yale Pistol Team

Yale Herald, Jan 29 2010

He wears penny loafers and argyle socks from J Press. On his back he wears a striped purple button-down underneath a double-breasted jacket, both Brooks Brothers. On his face, a Cheshire smile framed by Dean Acheson’s mustache and Cardinal Richelieu’s beard. On his head, a yarmulke and heavy-duty ear protectors. In his right hand he holds a Smith & Wesson pistol.

He raises his right arm, revealing the tzit-tzit—the tassels on a Jewish prayer shawl—beneath his jacket. He places the sights directly on the line connecting his eye to the bull’s eye. There’s a bang, a flash, and smoke. The target twitches. When it stops moving, we see a small hole through the eight-point circle, two centimeters away from the bulls-eye.

Trevor Hines, DC ’10, is an Orthodox Jew, an aesthete, and a pistol ace.

He rolls the paper target back to the firing line; takes it off the clip; and looks at it closely. All 10 rounds are in the black, with a bit of a cluster just left and high of the bulls-eye. “I’ve done better,” he promises me, and starts to fiddle with the sights.

We’re at the Yale Armory, a dank corner of that ugly building in the middle of the intramural fields. It’s Thursday night, and I am at the weekly practice of the Yale pistol team. There are eight booths, each occupied by a single shooter. They wear hideous leather jackets, which are designed, I am told, to improve posture. And when the command is given, I hear bangs—not booms—and see smoke and flashes from each.

The relatively remote location of the Yale Armory means that participants rely on the members who have cars on campus to take them to each practice. I meet a group of five others at Phelps Gate. We pile into Trevor Hines’ green Subaru Outback and set off. He blasts bluegrass music by Mike Marshall and Daniel Anger—he calls it “avant-garde bluegrass”—on the speakers. There’s a certain irony to five Yalies driving through New Haven listening to bluegrass, and I begin to wonder whether that, irony, is the very thing that has convinced almost 200 Yalies to give the Pistol Club a try.

I ASK EVERYONE IN THE CAR WHY THEY like shooting. Hines is eager to make a convert of me. “It is very meditative. You have things to worry about all week. But when you come here, all you have to think about here is breathing and your heart rate—holding your hands very, very still. You focus on your sight picture and forget everything else. It’s very relaxing.”

Daniel Gelernter, CC ’10, sits shotgun. “It’s a precision sport, that’s what I enjoy about it. There’s little physical activity, it’s all mental. You have to be able to control your breathing and your pulse, and be absolutely consistent with everything you do,” he tells me.

An enjoyment of absolute control and precision is a predominating theme in my discussions with the shooters.

Mike Kamrath, a PhD candidate in Chemistry, speaks in that precise and controlled way scientists do. “As a scientist I have an appreciation for the exquisite engineering involved in producing a pistol that can consistently put high-speed projectiles in a single, small place, right where you want them—and also for the human component, of being very deliberate in your actions, very consistent, very controlled. This organization provides a structured and safe environment for people who are interested in firearms and marksmanship.” It seems the appeal is more than ironic.

The club attracts a diverse crowd. One woman is on the Yale staff, and she brings her husband along. They’re middle-aged and extremely friendly. There’s a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, wearing hipster glasses and fancy shoes, but he still seems just as much at home here as he did in my Kafka seminar last semester. There’s Professor William Whobrey, tall and bearded—he’s teaching Middle High German Literature this semester. And there’s a quiet woman in a camel-hair coat who is, she tells me, a visiting French professor of math. One girl, on the far right, has blonde bangs, purple shoes, a green plaid jacket, and trendy glasses. She’s rail thin, delicate looking and occasionally needs some help cocking and reloading the gun, but she’s a good shot. In short, it’s not the crowd you find at a typical shooting range.

The man in charge is Coach Rick Kamp. He’s been at this range three to four times a week for the past 25 years, he claims, ever since he started at the Forestry School in 1985. “My primary focus is to teach people how to properly and safely handle firearms.” And he’s done just that. The Yale Pistol Club, which, according to the New York Times, was competing against Harvard in the 1890s, hasn’t had a single accident or injury in its history. In other words, the Yale Pistol Club is safer than Intramural Soccer.

THE YALE PISTOL CLUB AND THE range in which it is stationed has a long and illustrious history. The structural terra cotta blocks on which it is built show the building to date the building back to the nineteenth century. And in the waiting room there is an Army-issue chair from World War II. The range was used to train officers for World War I and World War II and has been used by the Pistol Club in the interim. The club has waxed and waned in popularity, but now appears to be experiencing a peak. More than 200 students signed up this year, and Coach Kamp estimates most of them have been through at least a couple of times. “This is not something you get in one evening. It takes a good half-a-dozen passes through here to really get your wits about you. But if you stick with it, I can turn you into a high-score shooter.”

Of course, the club isn’t just for kicks. It engages in serious competitions on a weekly basis, against local teams, and occasionally travels to compete with other universities and even military academies. Competition shooting takes place from a distance of 50 feet. They shoot .22 caliber rifles and pistols, 30 rounds in an evening. The standard “national match course” includes three rounds: slow, timed, and rapid fire. Slow is 10 shots in 10 minutes. Timed is two five-shot strings, 20 seconds per string. And rapid is two five-shot strings, 10 seconds per strings. This for a total of 10 points per target, or 300 total.

“Most people, when they start off, are lucky if they can hit the paper,” says Coach Kamp. There are serious members shooting three times a week—some even are meeting on Wednesdays for the rifle club. But at each meeting there are inexperienced members, whom Kamp helps extensively. “It seems like it would be really simple, but it’s not. Most people have a great deal of trouble processing everything to the point where they can just focus on shooting skills.”

The gun they shoot is a Smith & Wesson, “probably the most popular gun in the world.” It’s a semi-automatic, .22 caliber pistol that’s nothing special to look at. It has a nondescript black barrel, and an ugly brown handle designed more for ergonomics and accuracy than style. No side-arm with this one. Because it is semi-automatic, once the magazine is loaded, you shoot to the end without needing to cock it again.

I DECIDE TO TRY MY OWN HAND. I have no experience with pistols, sheltered suburbanite and baby of the family as I was. But there’s something enjoyable about holding a dangerous weapon in one’s hands. There’s really no danger here. It’s all so carefully scripted and closely regulated that it’s almost impossible to get hurt. But still, I think to myself, it’s a goddamn gun!

I go to the line, wait for the command, look down the sights, listen to my heart-beat, control my breathing, try to keep my hand steady (I never realized how much it shook until then!), try again to control my breathing, look down my sights again, and pull the trigger. Nothing. A misfire. I raise my hand and ask for help from Ccoach Kamp. Pulling a trigger seems like it would be really simple. It’s not.

But I know I’ll come back and try again. Dan Gelernter, I think, summed up the great appeal of the pistol range for me: “It’s American.”

–Matthew Shaffer

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