The History of the Long Range Steel Target
Shooting Sport of Rifle Silhouette

With thanks to Bill Baumbeck the History of Rifle Silhouette.

Bill supplied me with The Gun Digest Book of Metallic Silhouette Shooting written by Elgin Gates, published in 1979. Bill was personally involved with the forming of the United States Silueta Association in 1976. The USSA was instrumental in establishing the handicap class system as we know it today. In the book I found a wealth of information going back to the roots of Rifle Silhouette. I am using the book as reference for what you will read here. The book inspired me to rebuild what was here. I would like to give the history of the sport the justice it deserves. What has been found on the internet is generally true but,there are some blanks to be filled in.

With thanks Wolf Publishing Co. Publisher of Rifle Magazine

Wolf Publishing Company, Publisher of Rifle Magazine - has allowed me to reprint the entire article written by Roy Dunlap for the November-December 1969 issue of Rifle Magazine. As far as giving an idea what the sport was like at that time, it is a great article. If you have any interest in the history of Rifle Silhouette, it is a must to read it. Reprinted by permission Wolfe Publishing Co. Rifle magazine. READ Silueta By Roy Dunlap, November 1969

Pancho Villa's Army and...The Beginning of a Sport

Prior to the 1940's very little is known about the sport of shooting live animals in Mexico. The reason the sport is traced back to Pancho Villa relates to the writings of a former soldier in his army. It was written after his service in Villa's army and mentions a memorable event that happened during a few days raid on a Ranchero in northern Chihuahua. The name of the soldier was not given nor the location of the writing. The army of Pancho Villa had to live off of the land at times and reportedly stole cattle to sell or trade for military supplies north of the border. It is easy to picture the army struggling to get by at times and having a festive occasion when things were plenty. The writings of the soldier described two soldiers under the command of Juan Martinez arguing about their skills at marksmanship. It was a heated argument and had gotten to the point of being a duel. It was suggested by Juan that they could prove their marksmanship while dispatching the two steers needed for the upcoming feast. The idea caught on and, what was described as "un gran competencia" was held. There was enough time for word to spread around and get a big buildup to the event. The buildup included gambling drinking and merriment and, generally a good time. Two steers were tied to separate trees at a far but unknown distance. Each person was allowed one shot each until one killed his steer and was declared the winner. It was not written as to who the competitors were, how many shots were fired nor where or when the event took place. Since the personal desire to prove accuracy began just after the first projectile left a cylinder, it is easy to see how the story not only could be accurate but, how the talk of the event could lead to what followed.

What followed...

To understand how things might have progressed afterward you need to think more of how things were there and then. Back in that time, there was a need to raise your own meat and grow your own vegetables. There was not a supermarket on every corner. There are places around the world today where people grow and butcher their own livestock. The large Rancheros would have the need to butcher livestock regularly to feed the hands. At times there were large fiestas held on the Rancheros where multiple animals would need to be butchered. It is not hard to see how an event such as the one described by the soldier could be recreated, not only by the two arguing soldiers after returning home but, by others who had witnessed it or just heard about it.

What we do know is that by the 1940's there were fiestas in which live animal shoots were a part of the event. In The Gun Digest of Metallic Silhouette Shooting, Dr. Mario Gonzalez, who was member of the IHMSA in Fresno, California, writes of his participation in such events as a youth in Mexico. His first shoot was at the age of 13 at a festival held in the state of Jalisco, possibly in Guadalajara. At that festival only pistols were used to shoot at chickens from a distance of 100 meters. If you drew blood on the chicken, you won the chicken.

Keeping this in context, it is easy to understand how someone who would normally be butchering his own poultry or, one freshly bought at the market, might compete in such an event. It was not a matter of going out and trying to see how many animals you could destroy, it was a matter of winning the meat in a contest of accuracy. As in the old fashioned Turkey Shoots held here in the United States, it is the exact same principals under similar conditions.

Dr. Gonzalez joined a Guadalajara shooting club in 1946. At that club they weekly shot .22 pistols and high powered rifles. The number of chickens used matched the number of competitors. The .22 pistols would shoot chickens from a distance of 100 meters and pigeons from a distance of 50 meters. The competitors would shoot the pistols from a standing position, one handed. Along with the rifles, the chickens were moved out to 200 meters. Turkeys were added at a distance of 400 meters and sheep at a distance of 500 meters.

From what has been described thus far, it is similar to an old fashioned turkey shoot. You pay to compete. You win the animal as the prize. On some occasions there was an award given to the one who did the best. Dr. Gonzalez mentions some regional State Championships. He was not specific but, based on the distances and the animals described, I assume it was a competition using the .22 pistols. His memory did not seem to be exact but he described it as follows: "I believe each shooter fired five shots at the dove (50 meters) , 5 shots at the chicken at 100 meters and 150 meters, and 5 shots at turkeys at 200 meters." This account describes a format that could have been the groundwork for the format used in Metallic Silhouette today. There were some informal live animal shoots that continued into the 1950's.

The first chapter of Egin Gate's book describes an event in 1952 when he attended a Ranchero in Guadalajara. For a fiesta, they selected the animals they were going to butcher, then had a shooting contest to put them down for the butchering. Of course there was some drinking and gambling to add to the atmosphere.

The Introduction of the Metallic Silhouette... Steel Targets

In what follows, the history of the metallic silhouette has been established by the recollections of Manual Zuber, an veteran shooter from Mexico. This is based on an interview with Mr. Zuber at the 1978 NRA National Championships for Rifle Silhouette.

There were some activist groups speaking out against live animal shoots. Some types of shoots gave more ammunition to the activists. One such shoot described involved separating a kid goat from its mother, placing the mother on the other side of the field, then shooting at it as it ran across to return to its mother. Sometimes the mother was the runner. This style of competition was replicated with framed paper targets being moved across the course on a rail and shot from a range of 300 meters.

The activists were a contribution to the change to metallic silhouettes but not the only reason for change. Cheating was bringing doubt into the validity of the contest. When the integrity of the competition rules are questioned, the desire to compete dwindles. When the sport began, the rifles were shooting military type solid bullets. One advantage of this was, when you shot an animal with a high powered rifle, the solid bullet bore a hole through it and the meat was still good. Fortunately, most people that really like to compete in marksmanship want to win by their accomplishments. Unfortunately, competitions have a way of bringing out of a few who desire to be the winner no matter how they have to do it. Some started bringing in soft-point hunting bullets. For some, it might have been all they had; for others it might have been to increase their odds. Because the rule was, "if you draw blood", it was counted. A near miss with a spray of shrapnel from the soft pointed bullet would have a better chance of counting. It was also discovered that the down-range judges were accepting payoffs to influence their decision on if blood was drawn on the animal or not. If the briber was shooting soon, the previous shooter that wounded an animal would not get the credit and, the later shooter that bribed the judge would. Another reason for a change to metallic animals was the managing of livestock that had to take place in order to create a large event. Enough animals needed to be brought together and managed prior to the event. As the event took place, the animals needed to be tied down to be shot. The wounded and dead animals needed to be managed as the event progressed. It could be quite the project to pull off.

As luck would have it, in 1948 Don Gonzalo Aguilar had an idea to hold an informal match using metallic silhouettes of animals. With the previously discussed problems with the live animal shoots, some match holders wanted a way to bring the integrity back to the sport. Senor Antonio Gutierrez Rodriguez, President of the Orizaba Hunters, Fishermen and Shooters of Veracruz had heard of the metallic silhouettes and soon started using them in their local club matches. It is evident that the popularity of the metallic silhouette grew because only 4 years later, in 1952, the first metallic silhouette shooting championships were held in Mexico City declared as "Siluetas Metalicas Nationales". The silhouettes used then were: S Gallina or Chicken (no leg) at 200 meters S Guajalote Turkey (no leg) at 385 meters S Borrego or Sheep (no horn, no penis) at 500 meters Ten shots were fired at each animal for a total of 30 shots for the match. There was a .22 rimfire competition at that match in which pistols fired at dove silhouettes from 50 to 100 meters and rifles fired at 3/4 sized chickens at 150 meters.

Metallic Silhouette Shooting was born and would start to grow.

The Early Evolution of Metallic Silhouette

It is easy to understand how metallic silhouettes of the animals would gain popularity over live animals. It would eliminate any doubt about a hit or a miss being counted accurately and, it would be much easier to hold a match. In the early years most matches held were meant for fun. All of the rifles were the competitors personal hunting rifles and no vests were allowed. The sport of Siluetas Metallicas started to spread around Mexico and became very popular. There were National Championships held and Regional Championships in many parts of Mexico. They typically shot steel Gallina, Guajalote and Borrego targets. It had not yet developed into the sport we know of and there were some informal matches using various metallic targets at various distances. There were also competitions using pistols, standard and smallbore and smallbore rifles.

In the early 1960's the northern region of Mexico became organized and formed the La Liga Del Norte or translated, "The Northern League". Casual clothing was worn; no vests, hunting rifles with open sights or, low-power traditional hunting scopes were popular.

From the 1950's and into the 1960's some Americans started hearing of the sport and became interested enough to start traveling south to join in the fun. In later years, the Mexican Customs officials started to put a heavy tax on guns being brought over the border to shoot in the competitions, making it less desirable to make the trip in either direction. Eventually that turned around and some are crossing the border in both directions to compete.

The Early Expansion in the United States or The move north of the border...

In 1967 the George Patterson Rifle Club of Nogales Arizona, (later to become The Nogales International Rifle Club), created a range with twenty animals, 5 of each including the Javelina. Another Nogales range was created just west of town and one was created in the Bisbee-Douglas area; (both of which would die out by 1970). Also in 1967, the Tucson Rifle Club was in search of a new range. When the new range was created, Roy Dunlap created a twenty target metallic silhouette range; 5 targets for each animal. All were at the same distance we know of today except the steel Javelinas was set at 250 meters. When Roy made the steel silhouettes for the range, he added the horn to the sheep creating a similar Ram, (no penis), and is what we have today. Roy thought it would help the sport in the U.S. to have the shape of a Bighorn ram instead of the domestic ewe which was traditionally used in Mexico. I am not certain when the time limit of 2-1/2 minutes was established but, I know it was used by the Tucson Rifle Club in 1969. As described by Roy in the 1969 Rifle Magazine "Silueta" article, it was a full day's event to shoot at the standard Tucson Rifle Club match when only four competitors could shoot at one time. It helped that the match was only twenty shots at that time. A dinner was included in with the $3 match entry fee. There were only two classes; "A" and "B". Anyone who had at least twice scored 5 or more out of 20 at a match would be in "A Class", all others would be in the lower "B Class". It sounds like a low dividing point until you find out the record at that time was 12 hits out of a possible 20. A tie was a sudden death shootoff with one shot at a Ram. If it was still a tie after that, they fired at a Turkey until the tie was broken. Roy also described a "Jackpot" shoot. In that event, the competitor would throw in a dollar. The club kept half of the money, the remainder went to the winner. Each person had a turn to shoot four shots; one shot at each animal in that turn, starting at the Ram. A total of 4 was perfect. If there was a tie, those tied did it again.

In 1969 the Tucson Rifle Club held the first notable match in the United States. It was an international match with the Mexican La Liga del Norte in attendance. In 1970, the Nogales, Tucson and Mexican clubs combined to form Liga Internationale del Norte. The typical match, according to the 1972 rule book, consisted of 30 total shots. There were 10 shots each at Chickens at 200 meters, Turkeys at 385 meters, and Rams at 500 meters and note , without the Javelina. The Javelina was first added to the informal events at a range of 250 meters. It is not certain when the Javelina target was moved out an additional 50 meters to its current 300 meters but, in the 1972 Liga Internationale del Norte rule book, it stated that the Javelina could be used at informal matches at 300 meters. There was an optional .22 rimfire rifle and .22 rimfire pistol match. The .22 rifle had 10 shots at doves set at 150 meters. The .22 rifle had a maximum weight of 3.15 kilos without the scope. The .22 pistols were fired at 2/3 sized chickens from a distance of 150 meters.

The exposure of Rifle Silhouette in the United States was growing in the early 1970's. It does not take much to understand how this sport could grab a person's attention in that era. Many of those who were shooting in competitions or, reloading and spending a lot of time shooting, were captivated by the challenging sport. The only competitive shooting going on was at paper. Basically, long range paper punching did not allow you to see the results until the target was examined. Enter a new competition with an arcade atmosphere where there were physical results to your success. Not only did you know if you scored right away, but you were knocking things around in the process. Being a sport that anyone with a standard hunting rifle could compete helped to bring in many that were not competitive shooters, just hunters.

The Introduction of the NRA and Rifle Silhouette

In 1972 or early 1973, talks began at the NRA regarding their involvement. Milton Hood, the award winning designer of the Three Points Shooting Range, and Jim Holden, President of the Tucson rifle club and member of the NRA Board of Directors, began talking to the NRA about Rifle Silhouette. Roy Dunlap spoke of it at the NRA's annual meeting. The NRA agreed to sponsor the 1973 NRA Metallic Silhouette Championships.

The 1973 NRA Metallic Silhouette Championships was held in Tucson, Arizona from August 31st to September 3rd. There were three official matches to determine the championship. There was an unofficial 20 shot practice match on August 31 that was a 20 shot format with the U.S. style course used by the Tucson Rifle Club; 5 shots at each of the steel Gallina, Javelina, Guajalote and Borrego targets, (all of the distances which are used today). The first official match, held on September 1st, was in the tradition of the 30 shot Mexican National course of fire; 10 shots each at the steel Gallina, Guajalote and Borrego targets. The September 2nd match was in the format of a 40 shot U.S. match, (which is used today); 10 shots at each, including the Javelina. The last match on September 3rd was again in the 30 shot Mexican National course of fire for a total of a 100 shot Championship. There were 120 competitors in the Championship - a very good turnout.

The 1974 NRA Metallic Silhouette Championships were again held in Tucson. It was again a 100 shot match as was held in 1973. It was the year of rule changes which changed the sport forever. The rifle weight limit was changed to 4.5 kilos with the scope. I assume the change was for a good reason. It allows a rifle weight to be verified without removal of the scope. Prior to NRA leadership, the rules for rifle weight was on the honor system in adhering to the "Hunter" type rifle. The previous rules stated the rifle to be, "capable of being loaded with 5 rounds", and was dropped out of the specifications. Over 50% of the rifles at the 1974 Championships had a custom heavy barrel and 8x or 10x scopes. Some of the rifles used were described as "exotic". Even though the term, "hunting type rifle", was in the NRA rules through 1978, rifles with non-typical barrels and stocks were allowed to compete. The rapid changes in the rifles that were allowed at that time and, over the next few years, were drastic enough to show that the few people that were making the rules for the NRA were not concerned about the tradition of the sport.

The Change From Traditional Silueta Metalica.

The rapid expansion of the sport here in the U.S. brought an end to the traditional Siluetas Metalicas that was born in Mexico. As the sport migrated slowly, the traditional rules of casual clothing and simply a hunting rifle remained intact. The tradition of a standard hunting rifle and stock was easy to control when the majority of the competitors were veterans of the sport. The hunting rifles at that time did not have the Monte Carlo type cheek rest. The rapid expansion of the competitors shifted the percentage to the point where the traditionalist were well outnumbered. This made it easier for the changes in the rules and equipment to come about. To understand Siluetas Metalicas prior to 1970, those of us who know the sport as it is today need to back up and take another look to really understand it. The traditional Siluetas Metalicas rules were very simple. From the 1972 Liga Internationale del Norte rule book the rifle rules were, "Hunting type high power Rifle. Minimum caliber permitted is 6mm. Maximum rifle weight is 8.8 pounds, without sights (Spanish version only).

The use of any accessory designated to aid the shooter, such as a shooting jacket or glove, palm rest, adjustable buttplate and/or any type of sling, is strictly prohibited. Sights may consist of open, micrometer or telescopic." NOTE: The Elgin Gates book describes controversy about this rule being with or without sights. The English or Spanish version had been misprinted. I am certain that it is meant to be, "without sights", for two reasons: 1) Rule 19 in the English version specifically describes the .22 rifle weight being, "without sights". 2) Roy Dunlap in his article in the 1969 Rifle Magazine specifically states the high power rifle weight being, "without sights". Rifle Scopes were allowed but expected to be standard hunting type. A target type scope was not allowed. Scopes at that time wore out quickly and were less reliable on tracking to the same position every time. The sport at that time was intended to be one in which anyone with a hunting rifle could participate. The average Joe could bring his deer rifle in and have at it. Silueta Metalica was intended to be very difficult. As stated by Roy Dunlap in 1969, "The Mexicans believe nothing should be easy, so any hit is a victory to be proud of...and I think they are right." 12 hits out of 20 shots was a record at that time.

Before 1970 the .22 caliber rimfire rifles shot at steel "Doves", (7.5 inches long by 3.5 inches high), at a distance of 150 meters. That would be a target similar in size to the NRA Smallbore Ram set at 150 meters.

A notable point made by Roy in his article is that the shooting was humbling to everyone. The newcomers were missing a lot but did not feel badly because the veterans were also missing. As time passed, the rule changes made by the NRA here in the United States carried across the border to change the sport in Mexico.

The 1974-1977 Transition of Metallic Silhouette

After the 1974 NRA Metallic Silhouette Championship, some of the traditional minded shooters got together to form a new and separate league. The clubs from Tucson, Phoenix, Nogales, Yuma and Tombstone joined together to form a more traditional hunter rifle league, which was called the "United States Silueta Association"; (USSA). One important product of the club was the creation of the classification system. Dave Dodson of Tucson was the statistician for the club and studied the statistics to find a dividing point for the four classifications. The classification system was agreed upon but not much was done to validate the individuals classifications.

In 1975, the third NRA National Silhouette Championships held, dropped the Mexican National format altogether. The National Championships from then on consisted of three U.S. style 40 shot matches; 120 shots total.

In 1976, because of the delay in creating the individual classification cards for the USSA, Bill Baumbeck, Ray Minard and Walt Rickell urged Jesse Rogers to head the USSA and implement the classification card system. Because some members of the USSA wanted to recognize the NRA for the USSA rules, there was some dissention.

Ultimately the small and local USSA could not overpower the nationwide NRA. The USSA was not without influence and negotiated with the NRA to adopt some of their rules. The NRA tentatively, and later completely, adopted the USSA Shooter Classification system at the 1977 NRA National Silhouette Championships. At that time, the USSA went to the wayside completely.

By the 1977 NRA National Silhouette Championships, the amount of competitors had expanded to 288 from 120 competitors in 1973. The NRA allowed rifle stocks to vary away from the traditional hunting rifle design. At the 1977 Championships, there was controversy over one stock design because it had a lower drop on the heel and a higher cheek rest. By the 1978 NRA National Championships the NRA had decide to create rifle-stock design standards.

The Modern Development of Metallic Silhouette

From this point, the traditional "hunting rifle" sport was completely out. Over the last few years exotic pistol grip stocks, electronic triggers, target scopes and other developments were allowed to change the sport entirely. By this time, the steel Gallina and Guajalote targets were all that remained of the Siluetas Metalicas brought to the United States from Mexico. Did the changes made create a better sport than the traditional Siluetas Metalicas? Who can say...? There can be many things said for both sides of the issue. The High Power Rifle Silhouette is still a good, challenging sport today. Many sports are different today from when they started. After doing the research I have done, it is evident that the changes in Rifle Silhouette were very rapid from 1974 to 1975. I can understand how the veteran shooters of Siluetas Metalicas could be upset at the changes. What is done is done and, there is no going back. If the high power rifle sport had stayed alive in Mexico, we would have a better idea of what the sport would be like. On a side note, the same happened to the pistol competition. Traditional competition was standing only, using one hand on an outstretched arm. Because of the rapid acceptance of the sport in the United States, in July of 1977, the NRA sent the Silhouette Committee a memo requesting the development of the metallic silhouette sport in other areas including small-bore, pistol, black powder, air gun, spring gun and even archery.

The NRA introduced Smallbore Rifle Silhouette in 1978, and Pistol Silhouette in 1979. Both sports were designed comparatively easier than High Power Rifle Silhouette. It is easy to give an accurate comparison between the Smallbore Rifle Silhouette and High Power Rifle Silhouette. The NRA gives a Grand Slam award for anyone who can knock down 10-in-a-row on each of the 4 different steel silhouette targets. It does not have to be in the same match but, it is required to be two consecutive banks of 5 animals. As of May 2010 there were 414 Grand Slam awards given out to Smallbore Rifle Silhouette shooters; 276 for the Standard Rifle and 138 for the Hunting Rifle. For the High Power Rifle Silhouette there were only 38 total awarded; 30 for the standard rifle and 8 for the Hunting Rifle.

In 1985 the "Hunting Rifle" division was created. It brought back a little bit of tradition, but it is still not the same. The heavier rifle is the primary choice, with the hunting rifle taking a back seat.

At theTime I write this, the 8 total Grand Slam awards for the Hunting Rifle division is an eye opener. For a comparison to the traditional Silueta Metalica, today's modern rifles allow the Monte-Carlo cheek rest and high quality telescopic sights.

No matter what... For any who is sporting a High Power Rifle Silhouette Grand Slam award, you've gotta give them a thumbs up!