Once upon a more innocent time, a newspaper reporter asked J. Edgar Hoover to describe the ideal FBI agent.

Reporters are always asking dippy, softball questions like that. Usually (and deservedly), they get softball answers. But one fine day, one reporter got a reply suitable for needlepointing.

"The ideal agent," the director intoned, "can handle a teacup as well as a Tommy gun."

Ah, how that crackled with crispness. But Hoover could have done just as well if he had simply replied, "Paul Cajigas."

Paul Cajigas is a smilingly smooth FBI agent who can handle a teacup just fine. But he fires guns extrafine.

For the last three years, Cajigas' job has been to demonstrate pistols and machine guns -- and then answer the public's questions -- at the end of tours at the FBI's downtown Washington headquarters.

But Paul Cajigas isn't just some agent the cat let in. He has spent 15 years as an FBI weapons instructor. In that time, round after round, draw after quick draw, he has gotten to be a better and better shot.

Now, at 48, an age when most men's golf games and hairlines recede into memory, Paul Cajigas is heading the other way. "I'm about a 100 percent shooter now," he says.

Very few other agents can say the same. According to FBI officials and weapons specialists, Cajigas (pronounced kuh-HEE-gus) is one of the 75 best shots the FBI has.

The word is out at the Hoover Building. If it's about shooting, Cajigas is the man. And he is a man who, surprisingly enough, doesn't like guns.

"I'm basically afraid of guns," Cajigas says. "Well, I respect 'em; that's another way of saying it."

On his first day of FBI training, Cajigas stunned his firearms instructor by admitting he was scared. Twenty-five years later, he is still as safety conscious and careful around weapons as a person could be.

In his time as a special agent, Cajigas has neither drawn nor fired his.38, "and I hope I never do." And while he owns "a few guns," Cajigas never removes them from headquarters, never hunts and never shoots competitively.

Nor does he formally practice. "When I'm standing out there in front of 200 people," says Cajigas, "that's my practice."

It's also his oyster. While he admits to getting tired occasionally -- he sometimes must go through a demonstration fusillade every six minutes, all day -- Paul Cajigas confesses to being "as happy in my work as I think a man can be."

Cajigas has gotten so good with pistols and submachine guns that he sometimes doesn't even bother to look at a silhouette target the has just riddled. He doesn't have to. He knows from "feel" that he has delivered 15 shots right where he aimed them.

"It's all concentration," says Cajigas. "It's not the same thing as shooting golf, where it's a matter of the physical condition of the body. You see many skeet shooters with gray hair."

Cajigas first fired a gun at 11, in the backyard of his family's Northwest Washington home, when his father gave him a.22. "I never thought I was that good a shot," Cajigas recalls. "I was more interested in baseball, anyway."

After graduating from George Washington University, Cajigas taught in the Arlington County schools for two years before joining the FBI in 1955.

The first years of his FBI career were spent as a field agent in the South. But the love of teaching never left him, and Cajigas "saw the chance to combine being an agent with being a teacher by becoming a firearms instructor." In 1963, he got his wish.

Cajigas still spends nearly every weekday morning instructing. All special agents must pass a range test eight times a year, and many of them like to do their shooting before 9 a.m., when the public tours begin and Cajigas (or his stand-in) is the only shooter allowed on the range. So Cajigas begins his day early and energetically -- scurrying around the nine firing lanes, patching up stances, firming up grips, correcting bad habits.

"Shooting is kind of like a horse race," he said. "There are 100 different ways you can lose a sure thing at the track. And there are 100 different ways a weapon can get out of control for one shot."

For that reason, the FBI ceaselessly preaches good habits, particularly good balance. "Agents never have a Gary Cooper-High Noon middle-of-the-street shootout. It just doesn't happen that way," Cajigas explains. So the emphasis is on drawing quickly but steadily, and holding a pistol with two hands, for accuracy.

In one way, much of Cajigas' teaching is nearly useless. "The use of a weapon is an absolute last resort item for our men in the field," he says. "Our training tries to preclude any situation where a firearm is necessary. Very seldom do agents have to fire a gun in the line of duty."

But Cajigas fires all the time, and he is pure box office.

His demonstration shooting takes place at the front of a theater. The public can see every move through bullet-proof glass. As if on cue, most audiences gasp three times -- once when Cajigas first fires, next when he fires bursts from his machine gun, third when he flicks on back lighting to show the holes in the hanging paper target.

One recent afternoon, Cajigas had been perfect, as usual. As he stepped from the firing range into the auditorium to take questions from his audience, one spectator slapped the side of his head, amazed.

"That's good shooting, that's all I can say," the man told Cajigas. "Thank you, friend," the veteran agent replied. Gary Cooper was never cooler.

Paul Cajigas expects to retire in about 18 months, to spend more time with his wife and four daughters and to join a religious group based in southern Virginia. "I can't think of anything outside of working for the FBI that would be better than working for the Lord," he says.

What will Cajigas do? "Whatever He asks. I'll put my whole future in the Lord's hands," Cajigas said. "But whatever He wants me to do for Him, it certainly won't be shooting guns."