WHEN CONGRESS IS CHEWING OVER a $100-billion Defense Department budget, few are likely to pay great attention to a $694,000 item - especially if it's an item Congress has faithfully approved every year for the last 75 years. The item is a bureaucratic anachronism known as the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice. The official reason for this U.S. Army-affiliated board, created in 1903 after a vigorous campaign by then-Secretary of War Elihu Root and the National Rifle Association, is to train the citizenry in the use of small military arms. It does this by promoting matches and competitions and by supplying rifles, ammunition, targets and trophies. This familiarity, so the official Defense Department position goes, will enable those citizens to take up active duty and immediately and effectively defend the country in the event of an attack by, say, Mexican ground forces. The Army would be well advised, by this line of logic, to resume riding lessons against the day when we may wish to revive the cavalry.

The more likely explanation for continued congressional support of the rifle board lies in the dubious alliance between the board and that stalwart protector of the right to bear arms, the good old NRA. For example, federal law authorizes the rifle board to sell - at cost, not market value - U.S. Army rifles to those who meet certain qualifications. One of the qualifications for purchasing the guns is membership in the NRA. Many of the gun clubs that benefit from the rifle board's largess are closely connected to the NRA. And U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Lloyd Mustin (Ret.), a member of the rifle board's civilian military oversight committee, happens to be NRA president this year.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Abner J. Mikva (D-Ill.) have led the opposition to the continued existence of this board for the past decade. It's too bad they can't drag more of their collegues into the last quarter of the 20th century and into a realization that the federal government has no business subsidizing either the well-heeled NRA or those people who shoots guns for sport.