Back in high school, I was a big kid: 6-4, 230 pounds. I ran slowly; my fielding ability was below-average. But I could flat out hit a baseball. I could see which way the ball’s seams spun before it got halfway to home plate. I knew early if it was a curve, slider or fastball. I had quick hands and good reflexes. When I felt the ball leap off the bat’s sweet spot—with an impact so pure that I never even felt it—I felt joy. Pure, simple, unadulterated joy. Today, at age 40, I doubt I could even foul off an 80mph fastball out of a pitching machine. But I can still find the same kind of joy. Only now, it comes out of the muzzle of a bolt-action .22 rifle, not off the barrel of an aluminum Easton bat.
I love shooting a .22 bolt gun at small targets on my backyard range. When I connect with a difficult shot, I get the same feeling in my chest that I used to get when I hit a deep fly, or a frozen rope during batting practice. My hands feel every bit as quick and dangerous as I flick the rifle bolt, as they used to feel when I flicked the bat back and forth in the on-deck circle. Sometimes when I put a 40-grain lead projectile dead center on an old golf ball, I get to watch it sail off into the woods, just like I used to watch a batting-practice homer sail over the fence in left-center.
It’s easy to get so involved with the self-defense aspects of shooting, with the tactical side, or the on-going political battles, that I forget the simple joy of plinking. Lost in discussions about stopping power and ballistic coefficients, the Heller Decision and open carry, wind drift tables and cover garments, we can quickly forget the wonderful fun of shooting stuff with a .22.
Besides playing baseball while I was in high school, I also shot for a 4-H rifle team. We took shooting so seriously that we altered our diets, gave up processed sugar and caffeine. We worked and practiced, and won a couple of 4-H state championships. In college, I shot as a member of the Pershing Rifles air rifle team, and took that very seriously. Today, I coach a college air rifle team, and teach concealed carry, and find myself being very serious about shooting much of time.
But no matter how serious I get about shooting, I eventually, I find myself on my backyard range, setting spent shotgun shells and plastic milk jug lids and .38 Special casings on top of a pair of railroad ties. A few times, I’ve actually propped up an ax and placed clay pigeons on either side of its head, trying to split the bullet on the blade and break the clays. I know, I know: it’s “high velocity splatter” that breaks the targets, not actual “split” bullets. But still, hitting that shot, especially two or three times in a row, is about as much fun as I’ve had with my clothes on.
One of the reasons that I have always preferred a bolt gun for plinking is because the physical sensation of working the bolt sparked my imagination. When I was a boy, I pretended to be a World War I sharpshooter, with a 1903 Springfield, holding off an enemy platoon across no-man’s land. Or I was a big-game hunter in Africa toting a .375 H&H, or maybe I was a SWAT sniper taking the almost impossible shot to rescue a hostage.
Of course, I’m too old for those childish pretend games any more, right? What 40-year-old would do something as silly as pretend he’s Private Daniel Jackson in the spire of a bombed-out French church? No sane adult would recite part of Psalm 144 while putting crosshairs on a little chunk of charcoal briquet that looks like it has Waffen SS insignia on its edges. How ridiculous.
I do confess that sometimes I put a pair of empty 12 gauge shells so close that they almost touch each other, and then place a yellow 20 gauge shell that barely shows in the gap between the other two shells. Then I try to rescue the two 12 gauge shells from the evil 20 gauge hostage taker with one precise shot from 30 yards away. The first time I played this game, I was ten, and in the side yard of my childhood home. It still feels just as satisfying to see the yellow shotshell go flying and leave the other two shells standing perfectly still as it did 30 years ago.
There are always the practical arguments in favor of shooting .22s. It’s economical. You’ll shoot more. It’s a great way to practice shooting fundamentals without developing a flinch. There are all the .22 conversion kits out there for AR’s and 1911’s, and stock kits for the Ruger 10/22 that make it look and feel like a tactical carbine. You can practice your serious shooting easier, so on and so on, ad nauseam.
But every so often, I think every single gun owner and shooter should take one afternoon, and say to heck with all that deadly serious stuff. Take one afternoon, and grab a .22 bolt action, and a $15 box of bulk ammo, and gather up a bunch of small items for targets, and go somewhere it’s legal and okay to shoot, and shoot, and shoot. And take somebody who’s not a shooter with you, and let them find out just how much fun, how joyful a day at the range can really be.
Be safe, pick up your trash. But have fun. Be a kid again. Live the joy of .22.