Deputy Sheriff Edward Swain squinted out the window toward the shed 90 feet away. There was an unarmed man inside it, he knew. Taking a deep breath and holding it, the deputy raised his shotgun and pulled the trigger.
Thirty men had already fired. Now, barrels at the concrete floor, they could only wait.
This night, at the Philomont Volunteer Fire Department's turkey shoot, Swain and those around him were shooting for pleasure, not for pain. The man in the shed -- no fugitive, or target -- stood calmly behind a shield, his ears safe from the bark of the guns, in a heated building the size of an outhouse. There he replaced spent targets.
Richard Gardner, a fire fighter and general contractor, sometimes works the window loading guns. "But the best job," he says, "is down there in that shed where they've got a heater and the only thing you have to do is take care of the targets. Loading is about the worst part of it. These guys stand right beside you and pummel you all night. Man, it makes your head ring," he said.
The next shooter was Charlie Williams, an interloper in a town small enough to get by without a mayor. He came to the village of 200 with a friend, driving nearly a hundred miles round-trip from Woodbridge to Loudoun County to compare guns, shoot the bull and a few targets -- and, they hoped, fill up the ice box and wallet. Williams, a long-haired repairman for Metro, owns about 20 guns. Except for occasional hunting trips, this is the only time he gets to sling a little lead. On the way to the turkey shoot, he and Sawain tossed down a few cans of beer and got their minds right on target. "Hell, yeah, I expect to win," he said. "There's no sense in going if you're not going to win. I know I wouldn't go."
On arrival, he pulled his double-barreled bird gun from its protective sleeve, stepped up to the counter and paid $1.25 for his first crack at the 4" x 5" piece of white cardboard. He waited his turn and fired. The man in the shed retrieved the target. Williams had fired high. He studied his card and said, "Now I know what I'm doing wrong. Next time I'll hit the cross-hairs."
Williams stepped up to the left shooting window and its carpeted ledge, shot again and waited for the results. Targets collected, everyone gathered around and stared, quietly straining to measure the shots, each hoping his number would be called the winner. Like Babe Ruth, Williams hit where he was aimimg: Bull's eye. Pick up your turkey. The next shot is free to the winner.
Turkey shoots are as different as the birds and their many-colored feathers.
Most, like this one, are friendly gatherings that raise money for a fire engine or some other benevolent cause. Some are outright money-makers where cameras and questions are clearly not wanted. A few are run by black men where whites are out of bounds -- and vice versa. Prizes range from pizzas to hot dogs, hams, guns and turkeys.
The shooters, too, vary as widely as their aim. There are cheaters who try to sneak in a sleeved gun -- an altered barrel with a tube inserted -- that sends forth a tighter pattern of bird shot. Some connivers grease up the inside of the barrel with petroleum jelly for the same effect. Judges and card-carriers have been known to puncture the target with a sharp pencil point -- hard to detect, since the lead shot leaves graphite tracings around the hole. Hard-core shooters often gamble in side bets -- usually five bucks, but bets of more than $2,000 are not unheard of. Some come only for the prizes, others for the competition, to compare their marksmenship with country boys'. Women and children are infrequent contestants. But no matter who is pulling the trigger, the common ground is the 90 feet between the gun and the target.
Stan Licky runs the general store in Philomont, and he's in charge of the turkey shoot unless a fire strikes nearby. Then he and the rest of the volunteer firemen jump into their trucks and turn the shooting over to one of the regulars. "It happens once in while. But not too often," says Licky.
On some nights, a few fellows will work just as hard on their whiskey as their shooting, paying no attention to the sign outlawing alcohol in the firehouse. "Yeah, once in a while we have to hold them up to the window to get a shot off." Although guns, bullets, booze and good and bad shots are at play, accidents at turkey shoots are almost unheard of, because most places, like Philomont, make contenders place the barrel of the gun outside the window before loading.
Robert Gant is a regular winner at Philomont. A 55-year-old quarry mechanic, Gant has been entering turkey shoots for 20 years.
On this night he entered every round, along with his brother and son-in-law. At the end of the firing, the Gant family loaded six turkeys and two hams into their truck. Oddly enough, Gant had one thing in common with most of the winning shooters -- they wore glasses. Gant says there is skill involved. "That, and you've got to have a good gun. And I guess there's a little luck too."
A Unison, Virginia, grain farmer, Bob Craun, agrees: "One night in Sterling, I saw this man that was drunker than . . . wobble up and take three shots and win three times. Then they had a shoot-off between the winners. He was so drunk that he fell straight into the window just as his shot went off. He won that time too. So I guess you could say there is a little luck to it."