THE TIDY SUM of $4 million in U.S. government money is spent to supply rifles, ammunition and even food, transportation and laundry for civilian shooting matches. The giveaway is conducted by the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice "to promote and provide support to U.S. citizens in marksmanship training in the use of military-type small arms." Competitors are sponsored in state, regional, national and international matches, and the "target group" is made up of 10- to 20-year-olds. In a brief bit of candor, the Defense Department described the program in 1980 as "not a high priority or directly related to the combat readiness of our armed forces." In a word, expendable.

On top of that ringing endorsement came word last month from the Army's budgeteers that most of the money for this boondoggle wasn't even in the official budget for the program, which totaled $875,000, including $680,000 for ammunition. The Army was tossing in, but not listing, an estimated $2.3 million extra every year for national matches at Camp Perry, Ohio. In addition, the Army informed a House subcommittee, the tab for ammunition might run a bit higher this summer -- $519,000. And according to a ruling of the Army general counsel, support beyond direct appropriations for the national board would be "improper" and "an apparent violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act."

What with the big match about to begin, this put a scare into the sponsors. But Congress came to the rescue in short order with a special amendment allowing the Army to add $3 million "and ammunition as necessary" for the Camp Perry contests. In the future, however, said congressional conferees, all costs will have to be budgeted and financed through the national board appropriations.

In brief, taxpayers are still stuck with supporting a shooting program for teens that ought to be "privatized," but there's a little more truth in packaging of this outmoded subsidy. When will Congress bite the bullet and kill the program?