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Authors: Stephen Hunter

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Bob shot with extraordinary concentration. What separated him from other shooters was his utter consistency, his sameness. He was a human Ransom rest, like the mechanical gizmo they use to test pistols, coming each time to the same strained yet perfectly built position, cement to bone to wood, bone to rifle, fingertip to trigger. Each time, the same: his cheek just so against the fiberglass of the stock, the same pull of rifle into shoulder, the same cant to his hand on the grip, the same angle and looseness of his off-hand, the same distance between eye and scope, the same half-breath held, the same three heartbeats in suspended animation, the same infinitesimal backwards slide of trigger as the slack came out, the same crispness like a grass rod snapping as the trigger broke, the same soundless detonation and blur as the rifle shivered under the ignition of its round.

“X-ring, little high, maybe a third of an inch high at two o’clock.”

“X-ring, within an inch.”

“X-ring, inside an inch.”

There were no flyers, no glitches, no mistakes. Bob
found the groove and stayed there, throughout the long morning, hardly moving or breathing or wasting a second or a motion. It pleased him queerly that the rifle was taken from him empty, then brought back loaded, that regularly someone ran to record and change the targets.

He lost count. It was like the ’Nam. You just shot and watched the bullet go where you sent it, with the tiniest of deviations. It became almost abstract, completely impersonal; you didn’t brood on it, merely broke it down into small rituals, small repetitions. And on and on the score mounted, so that nobody could stay with him and he got closer and closer to Carl Hitchcock’s legendary figure of ninety-three.

“X-ring.”

“X-ring.”

“X-ring.”

When he was done, had shot all four five-shot strings at all three ranges, he put the rifle down, while technicians ran out to secure the targets and calculate the group sizes.

Of course Bob had made the loads early on, by the slight difference in the kicks. He knew his own rounds right off, and was just a bit slower in marking the difference between the Federal and the Lake City loads, but in time he could tell; that left by process of elimination only the Accutech Sniper Grade ammunition. It shot a mite high, he felt, and he had the impression of the shots clustering just over the X-ring, carrying a bit. Lots of ooomph though, a hot round, very consistent.

“Mr. Swagger, would you like to see your results?” asked Hatcher.

“Yes, I would,” said Bob.

He went over to a bench where the results were being tabulated, by two men with a set of dial calipers.

“Okay,” said Hatcher, “I think you’ll be pleased. I’ve
marked each target according to the distance and the ammunition you fired. At a hundred yards, you fired Federal Premium, Accutech, Lake City Match M852’s and your own handload, in that order. Here are the targets.”

Bob looked at the mutilated X-rings, the small spatters of perforations dead center where the bullet holes had cloverleafed.

“The group size, as we make it, is as follows. Federal, .832 inches, Accutech .344 inches, Lake City Match .709 inches and your handload .321 inches.”

Bob examined them; yes, the Accutech stuff was about as good as his own handloads, and quite a bit better than the two best factory loadings. He nodded.

“Let’s see how she holds out a bit,” he said.

“Okay, at two hundred you drop the four and a half inches the ballistics table says you’ll drop but you’ll see the group sizes remain under a minute of angle, though the Federal begins to push it.”

Again, Bob saw the neat clusters of punctures; this time, however, cloverleafs were rarer, almost a function of coincidence. Each group was between one and a half and two inches in diameter, and each about two inches off the X-ring, as the bullet had dropped. The Federal, surprisingly, yielded the sloppiest grouping with the holes spread out at almost two inches exactly; again, Bob’s handloads held truest, at .967 inches, center of outer hole to center of outer hole, less than half a minute of angle, but the Accutech lot was pressing him closely, with a .981-inch rating, also less than half a minute of angle, and Bob felt he might have done better because he sensed his own round immediately and relaxed, having the confidence in its ability to perform.

“And now, our
pièce de résistance,”
said Hatcher. “Mike, the three-hundred-yard targets, please. Mr. Swagger, I think you’re going to see why we call our
ammunition ‘Sniper Grade.’ You, above all others, should grasp the significance.”

He handed the four targets out.

When Bob was impressed, that respect took the form of a low, involuntary whistle. He whistled.

At three hundred yards, cloverleafs were a thing of fantasy. At three hundred yards, the groups fell between nine and eleven inches from the X-ring, at six o’clock, outside of the black. The groups opened up and the Federal revealed its fraudulence: it had exploded beyond minute of angle to a full 4.5 inches.

Bob shook his head with an evil snort, deeply disappointed. The group looked like the random pokings of a child.

The Lake City did a bit better, but not much; it was just at the minute of angle limit, the group playing across three inches, though in truth one of them might have been a flyer, because if you subtracted it the group fell to 2.5 inches.

And Bob saw that the Accutech stuff had beaten him. His own group still had the illusion of a circle, the punctures clustered within 1.386 inches; he was sub-minute of angle still, but the damned Accutech was 1.212 inches, with one three-shot triangle within .352 inches!

“Damn,” he said.

“That’s shooting,” someone said. “That’s
fine
shooting. Most men can’t see at three hundred yards, even with a 24x.”

“No,” said Bob, awed. “That’s ammo. That’s
fine
ammo.”

It
was
fine ammo. Only fifty to sixty men in the world could handload ammo that fine, Frank Barnes maybe, a couple of the sublime technicians at Speer or Hornady or Sierra, a few wildcatters of a dying breed, old gnarled men who’d lived with guns in machine shops their whole lives. A few world-class benchrest shooters who
agged in the 1’s. A few Delta or FBI SWAT armorers. Whoever put this stuff together knew what he was doing. Bob had an image in his head of some old man who’d done it a million times, working the brass down to the finest, smallest perfection. It took more than patience; it took a kind of genius. He felt him. He felt him on the range: the presence of an old shooter who knew what he was doing.

Bob knew then. He’d suspected before but now he knew. They were playing him, guiding him; they weren’t what they said. Then who were they?

Bob smiled.

“Now what, colonel?”

“Well, let’s eat; then, this afternoon, we’d like to take you to another range, where you’ll be gunning for targets at even farther ranges … beyond five hundred yards. Out as far as a thousand.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Bob.

“Then, tomorrow morning, Mr. Swagger, I’m going to give you some
real
fun!”

That night, Bob turned down an invitation from the Accutech crew for a nice feed at a restaurant in Thayersville, and instead took his rented car and simply drove alone until he found an unpretentious place farther out, away from the built-up areas, a country place where he could sit by himself and not be paid any mind.

They didn’t follow him. They now kept their distance, thinking sure they had him.

And maybe they did. He was damned curious where all this was headed. He knew in a general sense, of course, what it had to be. It had to be about killing.

His reputation had preceded him. People in certain zones knew of him. Occasionally something weird would come his way—a nibble, a veiled hint, just the
slightest indication that some really nice money could be his if he’d only meet so-and-so in St. Louis or Memphis or Texarkana and listen to a certain proposal. These offers came from strange sources, over the years. Certainly, some were from what he took to be organized crime interests. Others came from what had to be intelligence sources—Bob, after all, had done two jobs against civilian targets in the ’Nam, when ordered to in writing by higher headquarters. Still other approaches were simply well-off men with pathological inclinations who wished to use him, in some way, to solve a business problem, to right a wrong, to avenge an infidelity.

No, Bob always explained. It was against the law.

Go away, please.

Most of them did. Though occasionally, one didn’t: there was one breed of hater it took special effort to drive away—those who knew that the country was entirely theirs, and that all good things would flow if others were removed. Of course what they meant, usually, was the black people. Bob had served with too many fine black NCOs in the ’Nam to listen to this kind of shit, and though he had more or less given up on violence, he had broken the nose of a fellow from some outfit calling itself the White Order. The man had said through blood and anger they’d put Bob on The List too, and Bob had grabbed the man and thrust the blunt muzzle of his Colt Government Model down his throat and explained simply, “Mister, if you can’t do your own killing, you don’t scare me worth a drink of spit!” The man had pissed in his pants and disappeared off Bob’s mountain but fast.

But now—these others, this damn Colonel Bruce with his medal and his little bird dog Payne. Rich enough to buy this whole spread, bring him way out here, have someone make up these excellent cartridges.
Who were they? Who was worth killing to go to this much trouble?

Agency.

He could smell it all over them. This was how the Agency worked, at odd angles, never quite out in the open, bringing you halfway in so that by the time you figured out what was what it took more effort to get out than to stay.

So? He sat and considered, perplexed, aching for a taste of liquor, a cold splash of beer against his throat, to soften up his mind so that he could think better. But he knew one drink and he was lost, so he fought his way through stone-cold sober.

Agency wants me hunting again.

But who?

Bob thought and thought on it in the little restaurant, his head and hip aching, and got nowhere and only after many hours did he notice the place was about to close, and the waitress was making hungry eyes at him. He’d have no part of that, no thank you. No women, no liquor, never again. Only rifles and duty.

But what was duty?

Who was worth hunting?

Who had loaded the Accutech ammo?

Bob got in his car and drove back; he slept dreamlessly, still setting course by a single star: nothing is worth killing.

He’d tell them tomorrow after hearing them out. He would not kill again.

CHAPTER FOUR

The next day they met at the three-hundred-yard range, but without explanation the colonel was absent. Without his intense presence, his people seemed a little more relaxed. The man Hatcher seemed to be in charge, though only barely. He was a wiry fifty-year-old redhead, with spaces between his teeth, a pocketful of pens nested in some kind of plastic envelope in his breast pocket, and the distracted air of a man who knows too much about one thing and not enough about a lot of things. He herded Bob into a black Jeep Cherokee and with two others, including the stolid Payne, they drove over a network of back roads, around the hilltop, to another area.

What he saw shocked Bob some—a large, clear
field on the down slope of a hill, at one end of which stood a jerry-built scaffolding, pipes bolted together, the whole mad structure held stable by guy wires sunk into the ground at a variety of points around its perimeter. It looked like a circus tent without the canvas, or the skeleton of a building without the cement.

Bob saw a series of ladders to its upper reaches, and up there he saw a platform where a shooting bench and a chair had been installed.

“It’s a building in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” said Hatcher. “Or, rather, the height and the distances equal exactly the height and distances of a building in Tulsa, Oklahoma. See the car?”

At one end of a dirt road that ran before the whole ridiculous structure there was an old limousine chassis, its engine long since gone, its body rusty, but its passenger compartment reasonably intact; it was attached by chain and winch to what must have been an engine a half mile away.

“Now what the hell is this?”

“It’s our SWAT scenario,” said Hatcher. “We’ve gamed out a situation where we’re going to ask you to fire on a moving target in a hostage situation. You’ll be operating off cues—you’ll be earphoned into a network and you’ll get an okay to fire at a bank robber who’s fleeing the scene surrounded by hostages. You’ll have an envelope of about five seconds to go for a head shot. It’s based on an event that took place in Tulsa in 1986, where an FBI sniper had to take the same shot.”

“What happened?”

“Ah, he hit a woman hostage in the spine, paralyzing her. The bad guy shot two other hostages to death and then killed himself. It was a horrible thing, just a horrible thing. Man, that agent trained for that shot his whole life, and when it came, he blew it. A shame.”

“They were in a limo?”

“No. It was the back of a pickup. We got a deal on the limo.”

The Cherokee parked, and various people stopped scuffling about and came over to greet the team. Hatcher checked with technicians, radios were issued and handed out and they took Bob to a blackboard under a lean-to.

“You know, Mr. Swagger, in the past fifteen years, by our computations, law enforcement authorities, federal and local, have taken over eight hundred fifty precision shots. That is, through scopes at armed felons at ranges from between thirty-five and three hundred fifty yards. Do you know what the one-shot stop ratio is?”

“I’d bet it’s low.”

“Thirty-one percent one-shot drops. Hell, just last year in Sacramento, California, a police sniper took a clear shot at an unmoving gunman through the door of an electronics store and missed him completely. The guy shot three hostages to death before they settled his hash. Do you know why?”

BOOK: Point of Impact
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