by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

A history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Valuable lesson
  • Sighting
  • Multi-tasking
  • Student behavior
  • Sign’s up!
  • Why this is so important
  • History?
  • Bottom line
  • Why airguns are important
  • And why today?

When I was a kid I knew everything there was to know about guns. Just ask me; I would tell you. I read Guns & Ammo and was learning the ballistics of popular cartridges like other kids were learning baseball stats. I didn’t own a gun, which in retrospect was a good thing, but I knew all about them.

Valuable lesson

Then my mother sent me to an NRA basic marksmanship course. Over the course of three weeks they taught me how to shoot. I wish I had been more observant because those gentlemen really knew what they were talking about.


We started by everyone learning how to sight. We did something they called triangulation where we learned the proper sight picture with target sights. It involved getting down on the floor and sighting through a homemade set of “sights” that rested on a box at a target that was 40 feet away. The object was to watch the instructor move the target and tell him how to move it. When you got it perfectly aligned in your “sights” you told him to mark it, and he marked through the center of the bullseye with a sharp pencil on a sheet of plain paper behind the target. This was done three times. If you did it well you got three pencil dots on the plain paper that were very close to each other. The goal was to get the dots as close to each other as possible

sight training stick
The sight training stick was simple and easily made.

sight picture
This is the proper sight picture for a peep and front post.

instructor moves target
The instructor sits about 40 feet from the student and moves the target as the student tells him. When the target is in the right place for a shot, he marks through the center of the bull with a sharp pencil.


I thought they were just training me how to sight properly, and they were. But just as importantly they were watching me to see how I reacted to their instructions, because we hadn’t touched any firearms yet, but we soon would.

The goal of the exercise is to have three pencil dots as close to one another as possible. The three dots should be inside a dime (17.91mm) at least, if the instructor was 40 feet from the student. Ideally, the three dots should be inside a circle the size of a pencil eraser. What this exercise illustrates is the student’s understanding of the correct sight picture, because they should be able to acquire it three times at very close to the same place each time.

It is important that neither the sighting stick nor the box in front of the instructor move during this exercise, because they are the fixed standards. We are training the student to sight correctly without having a rifle to manage. The next step in training will be the first shooting exercise, so do not progress beyond triangulation until the student has demonstrated proficiency.

Student behavior

When you teach children anything you will encounter a wide range of behavior. I want to transition now from the mid-1950s when I was taught to shoot to the late ’90s, when I was involved in teaching youngsters to shoot. It was a whole different ballgame then, because the kids we taught had not been brought up the same way kid of my era were. I was amazed to see little boys running around the room during class, apparently paying no attention to the lesson. That just didn’t happen in the 1950s, but it was the norm in the ’90s.

Sign’s up!

Fortunately, I had a few tricks up my sleeve. First, I fell back on my experience as a Boy Scout. When someone was speaking to the group and some kids were not paying attention, the person speaking would stop and hold up three fingers — the Boy Scout Sign. The rest of the kids would see this and say, “Sign’s up!” and everybody would get quiet. It might take the talkers a few times experiencing this before they learned to shut up, but the other kids would put pressure on them to conform, which was the whole idea.

We didn’t do that with our junior marksmen, exactly, but we did something similar. When we went from the lesson to practical application, the noisy kid(s) were not allowed to do what the rest of the group did. They took exception to this immediately by hollering, “That’s not fair!” That gave us the opening to take them to a quiet part of the room, or better still, into a different room and have a heart-to-heart discussion with them. We then explained why they were not permitted to take part in the exercise — because they didn’t know what we were doing, since they hadn’t paid attention during the lesson. Naturally some of them tried to bluff their way out of this, but we were firm. This was a safety issue, and safety trumps almost everything else when you’re shooting.

At the end of that evening’s session, when a parent would come to pick up the misbehaving child, we would tell them what happened and why their child could not participate with the rest of the kids that evening. Never once did a parent make excuses for the child’s behavior! I expected some opposition, but none came. This was done for the children of a gun club, so maybe the parents understood a little better than they might have otherwise.

We did have one or two kids withdraw from the training, but the rest learned to get serious when they were in marksmanship training. And, when we moved to the airguns, all the kids were ready to be safe. We even had them calling, “Cease fire” when an instructor or anyone would violate a range safety rule — which we did from time to time to make sure they were alert.

Why this is so important

I was taught the fundamentals of shooting and the lessons stayed with me all my life. When I went to summer camp in ROTC (the equivalent of Basic Training) I already knew how to shoot. That was fortunate, because our Army instructors there were not as gifted as the men who had taught me a dozen years before.

There were only a few things that I was taught by the NRA.

Breathing control
Sight picture
Proper trigger squeeze
Proper positioning for shooting in
Obeying range commands and knowing what they mean.

But I learned them well enough that they are still with me today.


Why did I put this in the History section? And why today?

I put it here because I believe this awareness of firearms safety and range control is rapidly dying off. I believe it is becoming a part of history. Oh, some fundamentals are still in effect, like don’t shoot while somebody is downrange — but the finer points of range control are now a mystery to many shooters — things like what does a red flag or red light mean on a gun range?

I can prove that statement. Non-optical sights are now called Back-Up Iron Sights or BUIS by the U.S. Army. Optics are the preferred method of sighting. I see that last year our Army decided to return to testing soldiers with open sights during Basic Training, after three years of only using the Close Combat Optic (red dot) sight. The reality of how vulnerable we are when we rely on electronics has finally come to the surface.

Bottom line

As always this dinosaur says learn to use open sights first. After you master them then optics are okay.

Learn to shoot a handgun with one hand. After you become proficient, two hands are okay.

Rant over.

Why airguns are important

Airguns give us the ability to keep our shooting skills sharp. Or, if we don’t have those skills, to practice them until we do! It doesn’t take a formal range that’s far away and a lot of expensive equipment to shoot. We have readers doing it in 20 feet of space inside apartments! Guns like the Daisy 499 and the Air Venturi V10 Match Pistol make constant practice safe, affordable and easy.

And why today?

I wrote this today because even I am getting tired of reading about vintage Dianas. There is so much more to write about, but I needed a break, and if I did I was certain you did, too.

Enjoy your weekend.