I’ll shoot straight with all y’all: I was born and bred in Georgia, a state whose famous red clay mirrors its perennial color on the political map. But I’m from Atlanta, that one blight of blue in a sea of perfect scarlet. While I can slip into the languid drawl of a southern belle at the drop of a camo-and-fishhook baseball hat, I normally maintain the accent of many an Atlantan – that is to say, none at all. I grew up going to church barbeques and then the latest “Van Gogh to Mondrian” exhibit at the High Museum.
All this to say: mere geography does not qualify me to expound upon the mysterious Princeton Rifle Club. I began my research with as many stereotypes of a backwards, gun-toting bunch of hicks as any cultured Manhattanite. Compounding this were rumors of a “Girls ‘n’ Guns” calendar of bikini-clad babes locked and loaded, so to speak, as well as a secret lair down in the (now doomed) Armory, a building noted mainly for its connection to ROTC and smelly herds of awkward OA frosh. Only the latter of these suspicions proved to be even remotely true, but they certainly spurred on my ill-founded curiosity.
Even my first steps of research, however, began to prove my preconceptions wrong. The captain of the team, one Patrick Hough ’07, is majoring in Classics and Medieval Studies. I was intrigued by a rifle club captain whose academic passion lay with a past in which gunpowder existed only in the labs of some Chinese Taoist alchemists (thanks, Wikipedia!): clearly, the rifle club was going to confound my narrow expectations.
When we finally arrived at an innocuous doorway along the Armory’s south wall, I was surprised by what I found inside.
Best described as a combination between a hobbit-hole, a well-appointed 1950s nuclear fallout shelter, and the common room of a suite of sophomore guys (minus the cabinet full of rifles), the main room was surprisingly cozy. Sitting on top of the gun racks were the trophies and plaques which the team had won throughout the years, and the nondescript couch was strewn with Pequod packets and the like.
Three members of the team greeted me. Besides Hough, I met range officer Paul Markoff ’09, hailing from Raleigh, North Carolina, and the resident whiz-kid on the team, Abigail Fong ’10. Markoff spoke with an easily identifiable Carolina twang and seemed to fit the profile of the typical gun-toting Southerner. Yet, I learned later in the afternoon that he is studying the ballsy linguistic combination of Arabic and Chinese while hoping to major in politics.
Fong, however, was the true surprise. Not only is she small, Asian, and from New York City, but she also sported black-heeled boots, and a “Gay? Fine by me” t-shirt. After her dad decided to restart his high-school rifle shooting game at the Empire State Games – an annual New York state event mimicking the Olympics – he fell in love with the sport again, began bringing his two daughters with him, and “the rest,” as Fong said, “was history.” Now, Fong has secured a spot on the American World Cup team and hopes to represent the U.S. of A at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
After introductions, Hough offered to let me shoot a few rounds on my own. As he rummaged around to find me earplugs and a beginner’s target, I nervously poked my head into the rifle range room to see what I was up against. Built after World War I, the range can accommodate the 50-foot span needed for shooting .22 rifles, as well as the shorter span of the air rifle. Wide, with low-ceilings, the room is lit only at its two ends, the one from which you shoot and the one which holds the targets. Piled in dully gleaming waves along the shooting line were what must have been hundreds of used bullet shells. By the door stood sentinel a lone American flag that would have looked more at home in an elementary school assembly hall than a rifle range.
In fact, the whole place contained only that one piece of obvious patriotism. Though partially built with government money, the range and the club are separate from ROTC and the military. The team itself is only six years younger than the football team, making the rifle club a continuous presence on campus for about 125 years. Despite its longevity, the whole team gets less money from the University each year than Old Nassau happily spends on just one sprint football player. The sheer number of trophies I saw down in the rifle club’s lair versus the sheer number of losses accumulated by our benighted sprint team attests to the injustice inherent in our athletic system.
After Captain Hough called a cease-fire in the range, I was introduced to another member of the team, Clint Montague ’09, and a delightful curmudgeon, Coach Joe Sundra. Short but bulky in his shooting jacket, Joe spoke with the trucks-over-gravel growl that one would expect of a 20-year rifle coaching veteran. Originally having worked in various labs throughout the University as technical support, Joe fell into coaching the team and has been a guiding presence ever since.
As Hough and Markoff lined up my rifle on the sandbag and table used for beginners, Joe tried to impart some simple words of shooting wisdom to me. While I nervously smiled and nodded, all I could think about was my chronic inaccuracy. In church-league basketball, I would foul-out rather religiously, but I could never make more than a lay-up. I even failed the driving-in-reverse-in-a-straight-line segment of my driver’s test. Suddenly, my fear of shooting a gun was overwhelmed by my fear of humiliation: I could only pray that I might hit the target.
With my first bullet locked into the chamber, I cautiously swung the rifle around to my target, lined up my sites so they were gunning for the bullseye, and, wincing, pulled the trigger. For those of you who have never shot a real gun before, it is rather exhilarating. I have no idea how a gun mechanically works its violent magic, but mentally, you feel pretty damn cool. The mindless motions of loading the gun and lining up the sites to the target are very soothing until you feel the shudder of power when the bullet is shot. In fact, to my shock and awe, I discovered that I had been only one ring away from the bullseye! After a few more rounds, I started hitting the very center consistently. This shooting thing is not too shabby, I thought.
My rifle pipe dreams were quickly dashed, however, when the other team members were good enough to inform me of how a competition actually works. As I staggered under the weight of one of the real guns used, Hough and Markoff demonstrated the three positions: prone (lying on the ground), standing, and kneeling. In the space of two hours, each competitor must get off 20 rounds in each of these positions with only a 10-minute prep period beforehand. The NCAA matches, in which Princeton’s team competes, are highly competitive.
Among NCAA teams, Princeton is the only representative of the Ivy League. All of our other elite brethren have disbanded their rifle teams because of the protests of more “liberal” students. Despite interest in restarting teams at several schools, administrations seem too scared of inciting some sort of Western-style campus show-down between gun-lovers and peace advocates.
Yet, the diversity of the rifle club exposes the stereotyping hypocrisy of many “open-minded” students, myself previously included. As Fong’s shirt proudly declared, she does not seem in danger of using her Annie Oakley-like skills on members of the LGBT community. Captain Hough, himself a native of Guilford, Connecticut, is not even a member of that notorious political machine, the NRA. Perhaps, however, the example of recent alumnae speaks loudest. The former star of the rifle team, Lucy Jacobson ’06, could have pursued a professional career but instead opted to be a high school physics teacher, a position in dire need of qualified teachers. Another female rifle team alumna, Maia Schweizer ’04, is currently earning her master’s degree in earth sciences on a Marshall Scholarship, after majoring in geosciences with a visual arts certificate here at Princeton. These cases cannot but illustrate the ridiculous simplicity inherent in mentally typecasting anyone at this rich and varied school because of one easily misunderstood activity on their list.
The rifle team, however, does not have time to be concerned with their image on campus, as they have more pressing concerns. Their beloved headquarters is facing imminent demolition as the University prepares to flatten the Armory. Theoretically, every activity in the Armory that is losing its space must be given a comparable deal elsewhere, but Hough and his teammates know that they will have to fight for their bit. While the University hires former-NFL players to coach the sprint football team, a sport with a tradition at this school just as old as football’s is scrambling to continue. We “enlightened” students would do well to take stock of our equal-opportunity principles and consider the implications for such genuine passions of others that we may find hard to understand.