In 1968, Congress took aim at the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice, a small Army advisory panel created during President Theodore Roosevelt's administration to teach Americans how to shoot military rifles and pistols.
But the group, which offers Boy Scout troops and other groups the use of military guns and free ammunition, suffered only a flesh wound. And today, in the pro-defense environment of the Reagan administration, the once-doomed program is not only alive but flourishing.
Its $875,000 budget request for fiscal 1983 sailed through Congress this year without a whisper, and the Army's Office of Civilian Marksmanship, which implements the rifle board's decisions, expects to add at least 125 new clubs to the 1,997 it lists now.
"We have been in a rebuilding stage since 1968," explained Col. Jack R. Rollinger, who has directed the civilian marksmanship program for nine years. "And we are doing well."
Congress created both the rifle board and the marksmanship office in 1903 at the urging of the National Rifle Association.
During the Spanish-American War, the Army had found that many recruits did not know how to handle its rifles, much less hit the target. The NRA and Secretary of War Elihu Root asked Congress to create the training program so that Americans could "defend their country at a moment's notice." In turn, Congress asked the NRA, which was formed in 1871 to promote marksmanship in the military, to organize a network of shooting clubs, using weapons, ammunition, targets and trophies supplied by the Army.
The Army required that all shooting-club members join the NRA and limited the sale of surplus military weapons and ammunition to NRA members. Not surprisingly, the NRA and the program grew together.
But the program was successful in the Army's eyes: a study found that 1.7 million GIs who fought during World War II had participated in it.
The program came under fire from Congress during the Vietnam War. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) called it an "obsolete anachronism," nothing more than a direct subsidy to NRA members -- many of whom, he said, had no intention of joining the military. Others criticized the Army for spending up to $2 million to conduct national shooting contests during a controversial war.
While the NRA and Army stopped the Kennedy forces from eliminating the program, they could not keep them from gutting it.
Before the congressional attack, the Army said it had supplied 385,000 persons in 6,000 NRA shooting clubs with 18,000 rifles, 5,000 handguns and millions of rounds of ammunition in 1968.
Congress cut the $670,000 budget to $50,000 and eliminated all but five of the Army's 25 staff positions. The Army was forced to cut the number of clubs to 1,200.
As a result, Rollinger said, the Army decided to "reorient" its program. It dropped its requirement that participants join the NRA and began focusing on recruiting younger members, between the ages of 10 and 20. It also turned over most of the responsibility and costs of the national shooting championships to the NRA. And after the United States pulled its forces out of Vietnam, it began rebuilding.
All it takes to qualify for 10 loaned rifles and, for each member, 300 rounds of ammunition per year, Rollinger said, are 10 teenagers and three adult sponsors, one of whom should have some formal small-arms training, either through a police department or the NRA. The Army runs a routine background check of the sponsors, Rollinger said.
A few clubs are sponsored by churches and schools, but 1,187 of them are listed as "independent" -- a designation that critics claim is used to mask the fact that the NRA is the real sponsor.
Rollinger said that since the Army does not ask the sponsors if they belong to the NRA, it has no way of knowing whether that is the case.
A Kennedy aide said the senator still believes the program is a boondoggle, and the National Coalition to Ban Handguns also isn't wild about it. But both have refrained from attacking the program because it involves rifles and they want to focus their efforts on handguns.
The Carter administration's Defense Department said, in its fiscal 1980 budget request, that the program was expendable -- "not a high priority or directly related to the combat readiness of our armed forces."
Rollinger disagrees. A recruit in basic training has to fire only 250 rounds from an M16 to qualify for rifle use, he said. By comparison, it takes most marksmen six to 10 years of daily practice to qualify for national marksmanship contests. "Those are the two extremes," Rollinger said. "But, if it's your son in the foxhole, how much training do you want him to have?"