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Straight-A shooters

Sure, MIT students tend to know their way around Bunsen burners and graphing calculators. Turns out some aren't too shabby with a pistol, either.

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By Hiawatha Bray
February 6, 2011

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“For your sixth and final series, load.”

On command, Alexandra Jiang begins feeding .22-caliber bullets into a magazine, and then slides it into the grip of her semiautomatic pistol. Twelve similarly armed young people stand to her left and right at the firing line of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shooting range, a place that few outside the university even know exists.

Her gun loaded, Jiang begins shuffling her feet, pivoting her body, seeking the ideal firing stance. Denizens of the gun range call this the shooter’s dance.

An electric buzzer sounds. Jiang and the 12 others take up their pistols, holding them downrange but lowered at a 45-degree angle. The buzzer sounds again. Thirteen pistols rise and fire in a ragged fusillade at paper targets hanging 50 feet away. Another buzz, and the pistols angle down again. Seven seconds pass. Another buzz. Lift, aim, and fire. This continues until the five rounds in each of their magazines are gone.

The game is called women’s sport pistol, and Alexandra Jiang and her MIT teammates are winning. A 21-year-old computer science major from Wellesley, Jiang is outshooting a group of women from the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. The cadets are well versed in the military arts – they need to be since there’s a chance they could soon be asked to take aim in battle – but shooting is relatively new to Jiang. Until she arrived at MIT, she had never seen a real gun, much less fired one. Nevertheless, she shoots the day’s highest score in her event, 531 points out of a possible 600.

Among the general public, MIT has a much-deserved reputation as a training ground for brilliant scientists and engineers. But as a home to expert marksmen and women – well, not so much. Yet in the world of collegiate pistol shooting, MIT ranks among the elite. In 2005 and 2007, the team won the National Rifle Association’s intercollegiate championship, beating out teams from the Coast Guard, the US Military Academy at West Point, and the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.

As it turns out, the skills that make a good MIT student are pretty much the same as the ones that make a good pistol shooter. “You need good focus, concentration skills, self-discipline, attention to detail,” says Will Hart, who coaches the MIT team. “These are traits that students had coming into MIT. That’s why they got into MIT.” When it comes to shooting, then, it’s as if the budding scientists and engineers are engineered to succeed.

* * * * * * *

For many people, any mention of guns calls up memories of berserk killers, most recently in Arizona. But for the 30 student shooters of MIT and their coaches, guns are sporting tools, no different from baseball bats or hockey sticks. At one point, I refer to the pistols as “weapons” and am quickly corrected. They’re always “firearms,” designed not to kill, but to punch neat little holes in printed sheets of paper. What happened in Tucson last month, Hart says, “is so far removed from what we do at the range that it’s got nothing to do with the matter.”

Indeed, a pistol meet features about as much violence as your average chess match. There are no fistfights breaking out among spectators – in fact, there are no spectators at all – and the most pervasive noise is the steady drone of a massive ventilation system designed to capture lead particles blasted from the bullets. Ear protectors are mandatory down here, one level below a university basketball court, and they’re quite effective. Tiny as they are, .22 rounds make an awesome crack, but protectors reduce the sound to a gentle pop.

Once they’ve settled into a stance, the competitors hardly move. Stillness is the essence of pistol shooting. As any freshman biology major could tell you, the human body is more liquid than solid. Every inhalation, heartbeat, and eye blink sends ripples of movement through the flesh. Since even the best shooters can’t hope to entirely calm these waves, they learn to ride them, their subconscious zeroing in on the brief moment of perfect stillness between ebb and flow. That’s when a shooter pulls the trigger.

“There are a lot of Zen aspects to it,” says Michael Conti, MIT’s range master and pistol instructor. “You lose yourself in the moment.” Hart likes the description coined by one of his former students: “Republican yoga.”

Like Jiang, the typical MIT shooter has never handled a gun before arriving at the school. But physical education courses are a mandatory part of the curriculum, and many students gravitate toward MIT’s pistol courses. For Jiang, who participated in tae kwon do and volleyball in high school, the novelty drew her in. “My mom actually really liked the idea,” she says. “She thought it was cool because it was something really different.”

For students at one of the world’s toughest universities, each day is a series of relentless demands on their time and attention. “You generally have nights during the week where you’re working till 2 or 3 in the morning,” says Daipan Lee, a 2007 MIT graduate and member of the 2005 and 2007 championship teams. Far from resenting this, students approach sport shooting as an athletic challenge that demands the same degree of absolute excellence as their studies. “Practicing pistol . . . taught me a great deal of discipline and self-control,” Lee says. “You always need to strive to achieve perfection in what you’re doing, and that mind-set carries with you to your academic life and your professional life.”

A perfect score in the “standard pistol” event means hitting the 10 ring, the dead center of the bull’s-eye, 60 times, for a score of 600. It’s never been done in official competition. The world record of 584, set by American Erich Buljung during a match in Caracas, has stood for 28 years.

But just because nobody’s yet managed to achieve perfection doesn’t mean the MIT students will stop striving for it. Perfection with a pistol is theoretically possible – the way uncovering, say, dark matter is theoretically possible – and working on seemingly uncrackable problems is just what MIT students do.

* * * * * * *

One afternoon last month, I had the opportunity to test my aim at MIT’s range. I was the guest of Conti, a veteran lawman who developed the Massachusetts State Police firearms training program.

Conti outlined a series of safety instructions and handed me a pistol from MIT’s arsenal. All firearms belong to the school; most students are too young to own a pistol legally in Massachusetts. He clipped a 14-inch-square paper target to a pulley system and wheeled it out 10 meters, or a little more than 30 feet.

I aimed, trying to hold my arm steady, and forced myself not to blink. Then I pulled the trigger. To my surprise, all six of the rounds I fired actually hit paper. My last shot even smacked the 9 ring, one off the bull’s-eye.

Conti politely feigned admiration, but we both knew he went easy on me. A real match involves shooting 12 groups of five rounds each under increasingly tight time limits – competitors start with a relatively relaxed 2½ minutes, and by the end are squeezing off strings of five shots in 10 seconds. Plus, in standard pistol, the targets must be 25 meters away (about 82 feet), which was more than twice as far away as mine had been.

Conti didn’t bother to try me out on women’s sport pistol, the competition in which Alexandra Jiang excels. It’s similar to standard pistol, but with a stage where the shooter must raise the pistol, aim, and fire single shots within three seconds. It’s Hart’s favorite pistol challenge, and he’s annoyed that it’s only open to women. During the Coast Guard meet, one male MIT shooter participated just for fun; his score didn’t count.

Then there’s free pistol, the most demanding of the handgun sports. Shooters use long-barreled pistols that hold just one round, and the distance is set at 50 meters, or about 164 feet. (Since the MIT gun range only stretches 50 feet, the school uses a smaller target to simulate the experience of shooting the longer distance.) It’s like aiming at a golf ball. The shooter loads, takes aim, fires, lowers the gun, does it again, for two hours or 60 rounds fired, whichever comes first. “Scorewise, it’s the most difficult shooting sport in the Olympics,” says Hart. I didn’t even think about trying it.

* * * * * * *

Even with a dozen shooters firing at once, pistol is a curiously solitary sport. Indeed, the NRA sponsors “postal matches” between shooters thousands of miles apart who mail in their perforated targets. But even when rivals meet on the same range, there’s no effort to psych one another out; shooters are too focused on their own mental states. “You weren’t really competing against the other competitors,” Lee says. “You were competing against yourself.” It’s the kind of challenge MIT students are well practiced in, trained by long days and nights at lab tables and hunched over dense texts in the library.

“These kids are just brilliant,” says Hart, a former firefighter who bears a striking resemblance to radio personality Rush Limbaugh. “I never tried to compete with them intellectually. I knew I was going into a fight unarmed.”

So, instead, Hart learned to listen to his students. In 2007, MIT was set to challenge West Point, the reigning national champions. Looking for an edge, Hart’s shooters came to him with a plan. The weekend of the match would coincide with the switch to daylight saving time, and they hypothesized that they could gain an advantage by resetting their body clocks early. So in advance of the meet the team began getting up an hour earlier than usual each morning. The experiment was a success. At the match, Hart says, “we were the first ones on the range every morning. We were wide awake. We were ready to go.” And they won.

And then they lost.

In April 2009, in the depths of the nation’s financial crisis, MIT announced that it was abolishing the varsity pistol program and seven other varsity sports, in a bid to save $1.5 million. The pistol team reorganized as a “club sport,” supported by a much smaller stream of funding.

“We were shocked, because we were one of the most successful programs in the whole [athletic] department,” Hart says. MIT’s rifle team, for instance, has never won a national title, but it was allowed to preserve its varsity status.

Hart stayed on as pistol instructor and range master in the physical education program and coached the team without pay. Now retired from MIT, he still keeps it up. “If I had to leave MIT cold, and leave all those students, I would have gone through some serious withdrawal,” Hart says. “This gives me my fix.”

Asked about the cut, assistant athletic director Barb Bolich says that something had to give. “We had to reevaluate all our programming,” she says. And though she wouldn’t say exactly why pistol was downgraded, she does say the fact that the national pistol championships are not sponsored by the NCAA, which does sponsor a national rifle competition, played a part in the decision.

Still, Bolich adds, the change has made little difference to the pistol team. “It still competes for the exact same national championship that it did before,” she says, “and it’s doing well.” At last year’s national championship, the MIT shooters took second-place honors in two events, but finished in fourth place overall.

* * * * * * *

The match against the Coast Guard lasts all day. Between rounds, the shooters do what students do. They read textbooks, a Tom Clancy novel, the latest issue of Cosmo. This being MIT, one writes a computer program that plays poker. And they form small groups, trading advice and friendly insults. It’s only on the firing line that the backchat and bustle of their lives fall away, as the ear protectors go on, the world goes quiet, and the bullets fly.

Jiang and her female teammates win the day’s women’s pistol shooting competition, beating the Coast Guard women by 83 points. But the MIT squad falls short in most of the other events, giving the overall win to the Coast Guard.

It’s not necessarily the outcome of a match that will stick with the students, though. It’s the lessons of dedication, focus, and commitment “that will help them in life,” says Coast Guard coach Lieutenant Commander Camilla Bosanquet, who teaches moral philosophy when she’s not coaching pistol. “These are transcendent lessons.”

All of us possess these traits in some measure. But it’s a rare individual with the fortitude to thrive at MIT. Jiang and her teammates have accomplished this, and then some, as they’ve mastered the steps of the shooter’s dance.

Hiawatha Bray covers technology for The Boston Globe. E-mail him at bray@globe.com.

AIMING HIGH Before she arrived at MIT, electrical engineering major Alexandra Jiang had never held a gun. Now she's manager of the university's pistol club, one of the most competitive teams in the country. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff) AIMING HIGH Before she arrived at MIT, electrical engineering major Alexandra Jiang had never held a gun. Now she's manager of the university's pistol club, one of the most competitive teams in the country.
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