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Students Blow Away the Stress

By Brian Chase

COLUMNIST

Quick. Name the most popular phys. ed. classes at MIT. I’ll spot you downhill skiing during IAP. Now name the second most popular. Firing blanks? Well, if that horrible pun didn’t tip you off already, the answer will definitely surprise you: Beginner Pistol. This IAP, 131 people lotteried for Beginner Pistol, the second most of any P.E. And this isn’t isolated, either. You might be asking yourself, why pistol? Turns out that pistol class suits MIT better than you might think and is nowhere near as threatening or dangerous as some people assume.

When I first saw “Beginner Pistol” as a heading on the P.E. list, I was kind of skeptical. And when I learned how many people signed up for it, I was more skeptical still. I mean, pistol at MIT? An institute with the brightest minds in world? Well, believe it. Students consistently fill the pistol P.E. classes, and the interest in open shooting sessions of the range is huge. Why the interest? “You don’t have to be born with agility or strength to succeed in pistol,” he adds. “This ... attracts a lot of students.”

When I asked some students in my class why they enrolled, the reasons they gave were the commonplace reasons you would expect for taking any sport.

“I wanted to learn another skill I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Matya Y. Gilbert-Schachter ’05. He also said his curiosity was a factor in choosing pistol, and he was enjoying it much the same way he enjoyed ice skating. David M. Sachs G wanted to “do something unusual” and said that he “didn’t really think about it” when he signed up for the class. Rafiq Z. Dhanani ’05 did find one reason pistol was more popular than some other sports: “I think the frustration helps,” and pistol does give a better catharsis for the stress of MIT than some other sports might.

So MIT students are willing to take pistol for understandable reasons, but are they any good at it? In fact, MIT students are better suited to pistol than students at most other schools, according to Coach Hart. He related to me that “shooting ... attracts a lot of people in the hard sciences” and that “MIT students are inquisitive, have self-discipline, and attention to detail ... all the qualities for a successful MIT student also make for a good shooter.” This might explain why the MIT Pistol Team dates back to the thirties and why the Pistol Team can beat any other team in the country, including those from military academies, where the students are expected to have some experience in pistol before they join the team. MIT has had national champions that have never touched a gun before they set foot on campus. The same determination and dedication that lets MIT students excel at everything else lets them excel in pistol shooting the same way.

The curious reader might be asking, what’s Beginner Pistol like? It begins and ends with safety. I took the class this IAP, and it was two sessions in before we even touched a gun, and three before we fired one. The first things taught are the rules of gun safety, and they are repeated at the beginning of each class. We learn about the pistol’s mechanics, parts, and operation before we even step foot on the range. The point of Beginner Pistol, as Coach Hart emphasizes, is to learn safety, not to learn to shoot well. This emphasis on safety goes a long way towards disabusing students of the notion that guns are inherently bad, or that they cannot be used in a controlled fashion.

Once I finally got to fire the gun, I was surprised at how unaffected I was. I may have been expecting something more than simply a bang, slight recoil and a hole in a paper square 50 feet away, but that’s all I got. And that’s all you need to have fun in Beginner Pistol. The challenge of the sport, like any sport, is to improve yourself, and in Pistol, the challenge is accuracy. You’d be surprised at how many detailed things can throw off your aim, from the set of your shoulders to how you focus on the sights of what target you are using. Some might think firing a pistol accurately is as easy as pointing and pulling the trigger, but they are deceived. Those of us in the class learn that it’s just as easy to miss the target as to hit it in the early stages of firing, and that it is almost impossible to achieve the accuracy we see in the target posted on the walls of Pistol Team members.

I am proud to say that I have improved over the course of the class, and I found myself looking forward to the opportunity to shoot again, to see if I could improve on my best set of shots. And that’s part of the reason sports are there in the first place, to challenge us to keep improving ourselves through persistence and concentration. In that way, Pistol is like any other sport. Though, to be honest, I think I have found another reason pistol is popular. When I signed up for Beginner Pistol, it was to gain a P.E. credit without breaking a sweat. While my motives may not have been admirable, I’m glad I got to expand my knowledge and enjoy myself in a very enjoyable, albeit noisy, activity.