Things That Go Bang: The Olympics and Shooting

By Chris Mills on at

One of the less-popular Olympic sports that will grace our TVs (admittedly, probably in the darkest corners of the red button) is...shooting. Following in the Olympic tradition of stuff like javelin, shooting’s been around in the modern Olympics since the beginning. What’s the history behind the weapons though, and how far off modern military shooting is the current-day Olympics version of it? Read on to find out…

There are three categories of Olympic shooting: rifle, pistol and shotgun. Rifle and pistol are shot at set distances (10, 25 and 50m) and at stationary targets. (Ok, so those targets are pretty freaking small.) Shotgun is shot at small flying discs, travelling at unknown distances and speed. All three weapons have rather different histories, and a different modern application.



The rifle: mainstay of modern shooting

The difference between the rifle and what came before it, the musket, is technically quite small. The rifle derives its name from its unique feature: a rifled barrel, or a barrel which has grooves carved into it in a spiral pattern. This spins the bullet as it flies, which adds accuracy – anyone who’s ever thrown an American football know what I’m on about here. Rifles started life early in the 18th century, but didn’t see any kind of mainstream service until the Napoleonic Wars, when a few experimental sharpshooter units nicknamed the “Rifles” were issued with the legendary Baker rifle.

By modern standards, those rifles were pretty crap. The gunpowder they used produced smog like a crowded Chinese city, and they were very slow to reload. In the late 19th century it all began to change though. Bolt-action rifles came into being, and smokeless powder was developed.  With all that increased visibility, there was now a need for longer-range shooting, so the rifle designers needed to make their weapons more accurate, leading to designers playing with different cartridges and barrel lengths, to end up with some of the innovations like free-floating barrels that make target rifles, like those used in the Olympics, as accurate as they are today.

Fundamentally, though, the rifles used by the Olympic shooters aren’t all that different to those used in the First World War. Yeah, they look quite cool and space-age, with all sorts of funky stuff like Kevlar in the stock. The actual rifle, though, is pretty much the same: bolt-action, magazine fed, rifled barrel – even the .22 size bullet they fire is a century old!



What about those awesome Hollywood-style badass rifles?

Don’t think for a second, however, that there’s been no development in the world of rifles. Military rifles are a world away from Olympic rifles, and they’ve come a long way in the past century. They’ve gone from being bolt-action to fully automatic, meaning you can blat off a full mag from the hip (a la bad guys in a Bond film); they’ve got lighter and more reliable; add-ons like optical scopes and lasers are pretty standard; and the more cutting-edge weapons are now modular, meaning that different size and length barrels can be swapped out depending on how gnarly your firefight is getting. Most of these things have gone over the head of Olympic shooters, though, who are happy to stay with their good ole’ faithful bolt-actions. Shame – I would’ve loved to see an Olympics with the targets getting totally obliterated Mission-Impossible style.



Enter James Bond and the pistol

Ah, the pistol. If you believe Hollywood, it’s an unstoppable piece of tech that in the right hands (a.k.a. the good guys) is able to hit ridiculously small targets from hundreds of metres away while the hero’s flying through the air. It has been around a while though – arguably longer than the rifle. The first pistols were basically just shorter versions of rifles, with the same primitive mechanisms, slow loading and with truly dire accuracy – a lot of people thought the only way to use an early pistol properly was to push it into the stomach of whoever you didn’t like very much and fire!

Then the revolver came along, and everything changed. The revolver was the brainchild of Samuel Colt, an American arms manufacturer, who patented the revolver mechanism in 1836. Revolvers became ubiquitous in the States, and were central to the American Civil War and the ‘taming of the west’. Around 1900, revolvers became a bit old hat – the new boys on the block were semi-automatic. Rather than having the revolving chamber of Sammy Colt’s finest inventions, the new breed of semi-autos used a magazine of rounds and a single chamber. The spooky thing, though, is how identical these old pistols are to the ones in use today. In fact, one of the first mainstream semi-auto pistols, the M1911 (1911 being its year of adoption by the US military) is still in service with some special-operations units today.

Like the rifle sports though, Olympic pistols are still stuck in the past. They use the same titchy .22 bullet, and the shooters are limited by how they can hold the pistol, and specific things like trigger pull are regulated. Olympic pistols are very accurate, but because of the tiny magazine and super-long barrel, they don’t resemble modern military pistols very much. Military pistols are pretty much the same on the inside as they were 100 years ago, and pretty much all the improvements have been with stuff on the outside, with things like torches and lasers being added on to get that authentic gangster look.



The shotgun: not just for farmers and country gents

The final Olympic shooting event is the shotgun. The really big difference between shotgun shooting and the rifle and pistol is that in rifle and pistol the targets stay in the same place, and they’re not moving. With shotgun, the competitors have to deal with small, round clay targets (imaginatively known as ‘clays,’ a shortening of 'clay pigeon') being thrown every which way at high speed, and the shooters have to work out the distance to the clay; the speed it’s moving at, and then how far in front or behind to aim – all in a split second.

The shotgun’s been around since the middle of the 19th century, and hasn’t changed much since then. Unlike rifles and pistols, which have a rifled barrel and shoot a single projectile, shotguns are smooth-bore and shoot a cartridge made up of lots of small lead ball-bearings. This gives the shot a ‘spread,’ or area that the shot spreads out over, which makes it far easier to hit things. For this reason, shotguns have always been the weapons of choice for shooting birds, or for American citizens or police who can’t be bothered to learn to shoot.

Shotguns do also have a military application, however, and military shotguns have had some major innovations in the past years. Whereas hunting shotguns tend to be break-action (two barrels and two shots before the barrels have to be “broken” open and reloaded), military shotguns can be pump-action, semi-automatic or even fully automatic in the case of the awesome AA12. (Worth watching the video, it’s quite funny.) The most badass innovation, though, are the different cartridges that have been developed for military shotguns. There are flechette rounds, which shoot aerodynamic tungsten darts that go through body armour rather nicely; ‘Dragon’s Breath’ rounds, which don’t just shoot the target, but burn it as well; and FRAG-12 rounds, which are basically a miniature grenade. Sadly, none of those have managed to make it into Olympic competitions yet – we’re still stuck with watching bog-standard shotguns with bog-standard rounds.

Still, when you’re watching the Olympic shooting competitions on one of the Beeb’s many platforms, take a moment to spare a thought for the tools that the athletes are using – they’ve had a fairly quick evolution, and the amount of technology packed in gives F1 a run for its money.

Image credits: Header image from Yahoo, 1st image from ArtAmerican, 2nd from Eberlestock, 3rd from deviantart, 4th from Quantum of Solace, 5th from Aceros, 6th from PagunBlog, 7th from Armoury in Action