Saturday, June 12, 2010

Appreciating Stephen Hunter

by Ben Small

I'll admit I hadn't appreciated Stephen Hunter's talent for the shooting and sniping arts until I became a shooter myself and became obsessed with the pursuit of the one-hole group. For those of you who are non-shooters, the one-hole group is the mythical pursuit of placing five shots in a row through one hole at one hundred yards or better. I've never attained that mythological stature, but then, nobody else has either.

Until now, that is. New to the computer age, are scopes and technology available that guarantee one-hole groups. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer obtaining my marksmanship, or lack thereof, the hard way, through better technique and mechanical adjustments.

Minute of angle ("MOA") is the key term every shooter knows: one inch at one hundred yards. At two hundred yards, a 1 MOA would be two inches, at three hundred yards, three inches, and so forth...

The best shooters manage groups below 1 MOA, but not without effort. To shoot sub-MOA, one must know variables such as humidity, temperature, wind, level (height from barrel level), distance and whether the gun barrel is cold or warm.

Hunter is probably best known for his character Bob Lee Swagger, a sniper of legendary accuracy. Swagger's not educated, he's a Marine sniper, one of the best who's ever lived. And when it comes to gun-smarts, there is no one more knowledgeable. You may wonder where you heard the name Bob Lee Swagger. More likely than not, it's not from reading Hunter's Point of Impact, a brilliant story of shooting technology and the evils of big corporate conspiracy, but from the movie made from this book, titled Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg and several other well known stars.

Granted, Hunter's last book, a forgettable excursion into the art of the Japanese sword, was a dud. But in I, Sniper, Hunter has once again found his groove. The tale begins with the sniping of four prominent people, a Jane Fonda-ish actress, political traitor and exercise guru, two well-known activists once convicted of numerous terrorist acts, and a comedian, all seemingly unconnected except for one thing: The bullets came from the same gun.

Hunter reunites Bobby Lee Swagger and his FBI buddy from Point of Impact, Nick Memphis, when Memphis calls in an aging Bob "The Nailer" Swagger to consult on the murders. All evidence points to Carl Hitchcock, previous holder of the record for confirmed sniper kills. Seems Hitchcock went off his rocker after his wife died and his record for confirmed kills was beaten. Hitchcock is found, an apparent suicide victim, and his gun is identified as the murder weapon. The only thing left is to determine for media release why HItchcock went off the deep end, release the report and close the file.

Enter Swagger, an expert on sniping and the mind-set of the sniper. Thorough as always, Bob asks to review the evidence, convinced himself that Hitchcock was the shooter. But the more Swagger studies the file, the more he becomes convinced that Hitchcock could not have been the sniper.

Why? The shots were too perfect, striking the exact center of their target. No shooter alive could make those shots, especially when considering that the rifle must have been moved in the three or four seconds between the killing shots of the two activists, husband and wife, sitting in their car. Swagger realizes that while Hitchcock's old  Winchester Model 70 was capable of such shots from a cold bore, his scope, found still attached to the rifle, was not.

Something stinks.

But the FBI won't listen to Swagger and loses confidence in Memphis, resulting in Swagger going rogue and Memphis being put on Administrative Leave pending termination and perhaps charges.

The clock is ticking, and only Swagger can connect the dots and prove beyond doubt that there's a massive conspiracy afoot.

Hunter won the Pulitzer for a reason: He's a damn fine writer. And nobody writes about shooting better than Stephen Hunter. Bob Lee Swagger is an American fiction hero worthy of your attention.

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