Five years after the Spanish-American War, Congress had an idea: start a program to train young men in rifle skills before they joined the Army.

But today, in an era of deficit reduction and high-tech tanks and missiles, critics call the Army's Division of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM) a $4.6 million-a-year anachronism.

Last month, the House Armed Services Committee decided to cut funding for the program to $4 million next fiscal year and to make the program self-supporting by 1992. The committee's decision came after the General Accounting Office reported that the program's goals had not changed in 70 years and that it did not contribute to military strength.

"If usefulness is defined as a measurement of whether or not this program contributes to the military preparedness of the United States today, then I would say that the Civilian Marksmanship program is of limited value," GAO Army Issues Director Richard Davis told the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness. "If the program were justified on some other basis, maybe our assessment of its value would change."

In the Senate, the Armed Services Committee approved the program's request for $5.6 million for fiscal year 1991.

The program, started in 1903, loans and sells surplus weapons and ammunition to 1,945 gun clubs around the country. Part of its 36-member staff also runs the National Matches, a shooting competition at Camp Perry, Ohio, each summer.

In 1989, according to the GAO report, the division loaned more than 24,000 guns to member clubs and sold 6,000 M-1 Garand rifles to those clubs. It also sold and gave away more than 37 million rounds of ammunition.

Except for what was donated, the guns and ammunition were sold at cost, the program's director, Col. M.S. Gilchrist, told the House readiness subcommittee. The M-1 Garand rifles, for example, were sold at $165 each, he said. He estimated that such rifles would cost at least $225 if bought used. Most of the ammunition that was given away was donated to Boy Scout and youth programs, Gilchrist said.

According to the GAO report, the program spent $1.4 million -- a third of its budget -- on the National Matches, in which 3,650 people competed. It also said a large percentage of the competitors were people who had participated year after year.

Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.), a longtime critic of the marksmanship program, has charged that the program provides a direct subsidy to the National Rifle Association (NRA) because the program's affiliated clubs are also affiliated with the NRA.

"As long as I've been around Washington, this has been a sacred cow of the NRA," he said. "Join our gun club and get free ammo."

NRA officials say they don't have figures on how many of the clubs are also affiliated with their organization. But Jim Baker, the NRA's director of federal affairs, said the program is "open to any American citizen."

"There is absolutely no requirement for NRA membership to take part in DCM programs," NRA Director of General Operations Gary Anderson wrote in the group's magazine last year. "Nor does NRA membership entitle anyone to any DCM benefits."

The NRA and the American Legion say the program is a valuable recruiting and training tool for the military. Baker said 3,000 marksmanship program participants enlisted last year. By dividing the cost of the program by 3,000, he comes up with a per-recruit cost of less than $1,500, which he says is much less than the average amount the Army spends to recruit a soldier.

"You have a core group of people who understand how to shoot a rifle, which is a pretty fundamental skill for infantrymen," he said.

Army spokesman Maj. Pete M. Keating said the program has no estimate as to the number of members who eventually join the military and has no way of knowing which Army recruits trained in the program. "We're not tracking people that join the military that have been in the program," he said.

The GAO report found that 53 percent of people who participate in the marksmanship program are over 26 -- considerably older than most of the people who join the Army.

Stark said that only 200 program members join the Army each year. He also questioned the need for any military recruiting in a time of defense cutbacks. "Cheney wants to lay off one in three of those currently in the Army," he said. "They don't need recruiting."

But the program's defenders say the recent events on the Arabian peninsula may change that. "We're in a situation in the world where we need military troops," said Ronald A. Engel, coordinator of shooting sports for the American Legion. "Ask those people who are on the Iraqi border right now."

Soldiers sent to Saudi Arabia "are going to need marksmanship skills, there's no doubt about it," he added. "As I watched them on the news, they were carrying rifles as they got on the airplanes."

Critics say other skills are more important in a modern Army. "We want people who are well-trained, that's certainly true," said James Davis, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in national security and defense policy. "But for what?

"They have to be well trained in anti-chemical defense, they have to be trained in vehicle operations, helicopter operations. But marksmanship is when the other guy is 100 yards away, not when you're lobbing grenades and firing artillery and ducking for cover."