In November 2007, I visited a friend whom I'd met in Missoula, at his family's home in Mississippi. Clayton asked me if I wanted to try hunting, and I, after two years in Montana, was more than curious. I said yes.
In an old house with sloping floors, on a soybean farm owned by his grandfather, Clayton held up a picture of a deer and pointed behind its front shoulder: "This is where you should aim." Then he showed me the 30-.06 rifle.
In a tree stand overlooking a field surrounded by dense hardwood, we waited for the light to fail. Clayton explained that deer entered the field before dark to feed. We sat in the tree for an hour, silent in the deepening blues of the Mississippi evening. Then Clayton leaned over slowly and said, "There's a deer over there." Through the gloaming, a deer grazed on the edge of the field. It appeared small, the size of a big golden retriever. Clayton gave me a look that said "go for it." The shot was awkward because I had to lean across Clayton's chest to look through the scope, but also because I'd never shot a gun. "Once he's in your sights," he whispered, "slowly squeeze the trigger."
The shot vibrated through my cheekbone. The deer was on the ground, and Clayton was giggling. "You got him, you got him," he said. "Nice, nice, nice!" I climbed down from the tree on shaky legs. The deer was on the ground, still, with no sign of injury. Clayton explained that the exit wound would be more visible, and when we turned it over the hair of the front quarter was soaked in blood and speckled with fragments of bone and flesh. Clayton wanted to take a picture, and told me to hold the deer's head up so we were both looking at the camera. After panicky consideration, I smiled for the photo.
The next day, I called my mom and told her I would be coming home for Thanksgiving with fresh venison. I was proud. I experienced something so many of my peers had experienced, something vital and essential to the lives of so many in Montana. It was profound. Not fun necessarily, but powerful, and with the meat on dry ice in a Walmart cooler, hunting even felt good.
"You what?" she said.
"I killed a deer with Clayton. I have the meat."
"You what? ...I..." she trailed off. She began crying. "I just didn't think you were the kind of person who would do that."
I've lived in Montana for seven years now, and nothing continues to make me feel more like a tourist than guns. I grew up around New York City, where, generally, people don't own guns, and if they do, they don't talk about it. Before this story, killing the deer in Mississippi was still my only meaningful experience with a gun, but it was not for lack of opportunity. In Montana, guns are a tool, a sport and a tradition. To many, firearms represent a tick mark on the generations-long continuum of being Montanan. When it comes to guns in Montana, the distance between here and where I was raised cannot be measured in miles.
"This is a .22 manufactured by the High Standard Company," Stu Smith explains as he gently sets the pistol on the shooting bench at the Ed McGivern Pistol and Revolver Range outside Great Falls. He reaches into his metal-sided box again. "This is a .38," he says. "And this is a Colt .45...These are firearms, not weapons."
Stu has a thinning black mustache and wears dark blue work pants from his job as a handyman. He's an avid competition pistol shooter and a director of the shooting range. He and Jamey Williams, a physical therapist from Conrad and president of the Montana Rifle and Pistol Association, have agreed to spend the afternoon teaching me how to shoot.
Competitive pistol shooting involves shooters hitting targets that are 25 or 50 yards away. Sometimes matches are timed, allowing the shooter seconds to fire his rounds. Sometimes the shooters are allowed minutes. "The key to success," Stu explains, "is fundamentals, and doing it the same way every time...Our sport is all about precision."
Stu's routine begins with proper grip: He uses his middle and ring fingers to hold the gun in the crook of his hand. His pinkie and thumb hover over the gun's surface. Then he holds the gun to the target with his right hand, resting his left hand on his belt, so he looks a little bit like a badass. "This is where your breathing becomes important. You don't want to be breathing when you squeeze the trigger."
"You want to be holding your breath?" I ask.
"No," he says, pulling a half-smoked cigarette from his shirt pocket.
"You don't want to be holding your breath?" I ask.
"No." His smile doesn't make it to his eyes. "Think about your breathing. You inhale and then you exhale. If you pay attention to when you exhale, there is a hesitation before you inhale. What you want to do is extend that hesitation. That's when you squeeze the trigger." Stu goes on to explain that master pistol shooters are able to control their breathing without conscious thought. They do it the exact same way every time, for hundreds of rounds.
"It seems like there's something sort of meditative about it," I say. "Like with the breathing, forcing you to be present."
Stu looks at me and then down range, as if a response may be near the targets. "No, not really."
Stu hands me the .22 first, and tells me to open the action to make sure the chamber is empty. He tells me to squeeze the trigger with the gun unloaded to feel "how light the trigger is." Then he loads a magazine and instructs me to aim. Stu's pistols have optics that produce a red dot telling you where your bullet will go. My red dot is wobbling all over the target. Stu tells me to accept my wobble. "Don't try to control it," he explains. "Even master marksmen have a wobble."
I squeeze the trigger. The recoil of the .22 is mild and somehow satisfying like popping a zit. Stu urges me to keep shooting. I fire five rounds into the paper target 25 yards away. It feels good, the release of energy, the propulsion of a projectile. I am reminded of every camping trip I've ever been on, where at some point I became obsessed with hitting a tree with a rock.
Stu hands me the .38 next. It's heavier than the .22, but I find the recoil similarly satisfying. I can also smell gunpowder this time. It smacks the back of my throat, a combination of taste and smell like dirty socks and bleach.
Finally, Stu hands me the .45, and as he did with the previous two guns, he runs through my safety checklist. All good, he tells me to aim and fire. The gun recoils aggressively. It takes me a moment to find the target again. I squeeze a second time, and the recoil is more nerve-wracking than satisfying. I decide a Colt .45 is more like a weapon than a piece of sporting equipment, but I keep my mouth shut.
With the .45, I hit the target but barely. I ask Stu if I can watch him shoot. He picks up the .45 with one hand, resting his other hand in his belt. He aims, and his shoulders settle into a remembered rest. He pulls the trigger and the shot is concussively loud. All five of his shots hit the target in a fist-sized group.
When I was shooting, I didn't hear anything, at least not like the thunderclap shot from a beer bottle Stu produced. I tell Stu what I experienced.