It's early on a Saturday morning in the farmland of southeast Missouri. Beyond the tall grass that borders the two-lane country roads, two dozen women huddle around an instructor who's splayed on the ground, clutching a pink .22-caliber rifle and demonstrating a proper shooting position.
The women who are gathered here look more like weekend Wal-Mart shoppers than aspiring markswomen. There are grandmas and grade-school girls, housewives and dental hygienists. One is pregnant; another is lugging around an infant. Some drove 15 minutes to get here, while others came from as far as St. Louis.
Several of the women came from Kansas City, which is two hours away. They left at dawn to make the 8:30 a.m. shoot, driving through puffs of mist that hung low over hillsides glowing electric-green in the early morning sunlight. Once they arrived, they unfolded camping chairs and coolers, staking claims on patches of grass a safe distance from the firing line. A passing driver might mistake the scene for a well-armed tailgate party.
They are here — on an old goat farm in Humansville, Missouri, on Labor Day weekend — to learn how to squeeze off a kill shot from 500 yards.
The event is one of 1,000 being put on this year by the Appleseed Project, which has taught 20,000 people to shoot since 2005. Run by a nonprofit called the Revolutionary War Veterans Association (RWVA), the program promises to teach attendees the six steps to firing a shot and to "reaffirm your heritage" with stories from the Revolutionary War. The Appleseed events usually cost $50 a day, but women, children and U.S. soldiers shoot for free. This event is the organization's fourth all-women's shoot, or "Lady Seed." It was promoted on gun-enthusiast websites, on bulletin boards in rural Missouri gun shops, in local newspapers and on local radio.
The instructor, known as the "shoot boss," goes by the name Dinky Dao. She has a linebacker's build and curly, brown hair tucked into a red RWVA cap. Her nickname comes from a phrase that U.S. Marines heard shouted at them by Vietnamese villagers during the Vietnam War. "It means beaucoup number one crazy," she says.
To demonstrate the "prone" shooting position, Dinky has borrowed a teenage girl's unloaded, Barbie-pink .22. She lies flat like a toy soldier, bending one knee and keeping the other straight. She presses the butt of the gun to her cheek, noting how her bent leg lifts her diaphragm off the ground, keeping the rifle steady through every breath. "Ladies, we got a lot going on right here, so it's kind of like lying on a waterbed," she says, indicating her chest. "We can't help moving around."
The women listen quietly, making mental notes for when it's their turn on the firing line. The woman with the baby pulls a camping chair closer to the circle, places the baby on her lap, and begins breast-feeding.
The Appleseed Project is the brainchild of a gun outfitter in Ramseur, North Carolina. "Fred," of Fred's Military M14 Rifle Stocks, is actually named Jack Dailey.
Along with hawking gun accessories and teaching people to shoot, Dailey pens political missives for his website. The columns reveal his suspicion that the government wants to encroach on gun rights, and his distaste for "big government" sounds like the stuff of Tea Party rallies. But Dailey goes further, encouraging people to form "teams" of fellow gun owners with proper training. The object: To "multiply your effectiveness and decrease your risks, if the stuff should ever hit the fan.
"The founders placed the burden of defending liberty on YOUR shoulders, and put the Second Amendment in just to prove it," Dailey writes. "You want to be ready if — when — the time comes."
The group has stirred up suspicion from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, organizations that monitor hate groups, cults, modern-day militias and, most recently, so-called patriot groups that promote an overhaul of the government. They worry that Appleseed is teaching deadly skills to people who see the government as the enemy.
"There were a lot of links from militias and others to their site, and several postings on anti-government sites, suggesting that people take their gun training," Heidi Beirich, director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center, tells The Pitch. "I was very concerned about the potential for people with deep loathing for the government ... taking a sniper course from them and doing something violent."
Dailey dismisses those concerns.
"What are we doing when we do Appleseeds?" he says in an interview. "We're exercising our Second Amendment right to practice marksmanship and our First Amendment right to associate and communicate ideas."
Before a single round — of ammunition or rhetoric — is fired at an Appleseed shoot, there's a bit of obligatory paperwork. After they arrive, shooters sign forms promising not to hold the RWVA responsible if they leave with more holes than they came with. Then another instructor — nickname: Mama Bear — hands out name tags. "On your backs, ladies — ooh, that didn't sound good," she giggles. The name tags go on the women's backs so that the instructors can read them while the shooters fire on their stomachs.
Once liability is sufficiently released, Dinky goes over some basic safety rules: Always keep your muzzle pointed in a safe direction (straight up or downrange); do not load until given a load command; keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target ("keep your booger hook off the banger"); and don't be afraid to yell "cease fire" if someone else isn't following the aforementioned rules.
Finally, she instructs the women to bring their weaponry to the firing line, which is defined by a hot-pink rope. Though the flier for this Appleseed said larger-caliber guns were welcome, there's nothing bigger than a .22 on the range.
The targets are 25 yards away, taped to the backs of old campaign signs. The owner of this property, Paulette Wohnoutka, participated in an Appleseed shoot in Osage Beach, Missouri, last year and has been deeply involved ever since. She and her husband offered up four acres in the middle of their 80-acre property, which was once home to the state's largest herd of South African Boer goats.
From afar, the targets look like red clouds on an off-white background. But after Dinky refers to them as "Redcoats," it becomes clear that the clouds actually represent human heads and shoulders. A red, 1.25-inch rectangle, set on a 25-yard range, translates to a head shot at 250 yards.
"SHOOTERS!" Dinky yells. "YOUR PREPARATION PERIOD HAS BEGUN."
The women are sprawled side by side along the firing line, on camping tarps and camouflage blankets.
"With 10 rounds," Dinky says, "LOAD!"
Viki, a slim 17-year-old Ukrainian exchange student, has clearly done this before. She effortlessly feeds 10 bullets into the magazine of her .22 and pops the cartridge into the belly of the rifle.
A rapid pop-pop-pop erupts from the line, continuing until each of the women has emptied all 10 rounds. Everyone wears specialized ear protection to muffle the sound, although a .22 rifle fired outdoors is probably less damaging to their hearing than a Fourth of July fireworks display.
Viki does well. So does Shirley, a middle-aged woman in a long-sleeved NRA shirt. When the shooters retrieve their targets, Mama Bear circles a cluster of holes on Shirley's target and says admiringly, "Now, that's a group."
Grouping is good, Dinky explains, because if you can shoot a tight cluster on a target at 25 yards, your shots will likely be on-target at 500 yards. She cups her hands at chest level, showing how the bullets would spread with distance (the "cone of fire") but remain focused in an area the size of a man's torso. "Unfortunately, that's what the military uses to gauge things," she adds.
Down the line, Kay Hummel is disappointed with her opening salvo on the Redcoats.
Kay, who's 54, became interested in marksmanship after reading about the zombie apocalypse. The thought of an undead takeover seemed like a decent metaphor for real-world scenarios, she figured, the chaotic aftermath of a natural disaster or a political coup.
Once she read The Zombie Survival Guide, she wondered: "How would I defend myself from the horde?"
But she's also defending herself from boredom. Kay, who lives 30 minutes west of the St. Louis arch, was laid off January 15 from her job at an engineering firm.
"On the 16th, I was on the range," she says. "Now I have seven guns." She also has three motorcycles, 18 guitars, four kids, three grandkids and one ex-husband. "Notice the correlation between things I like and quantities," she says.
Further down the line, Kira and Kim Midkiff, two teenage sisters from Kansas City, are shooting well. They have no choice, they joke; their father, Chris Midkiff, is the Missouri state coordinator for the Appleseed Project.
Kira, 16, owns the pink rifle that Dinky borrowed earlier. It was a gift from her father for passing the Army Qualification Test, which is given at the end of each Appleseed. She's considered a "Rifleman" now, and can train to become an instructor, but she's not planning on pursuing an instructor's red RWVA hat. The Revolutionary War stories don't interest her, she says.
Chris Midkiff's wife, Amy, is here, too. "I never wanted a gun in the house," Amy admits, once out of earshot of her daughters. "I don't like guns at all, but I've seen the discipline of it work on my girls. I just don't know how involved I want to get, because I like it when Chris gets out of the house and takes the girls. It means I have the place to myself. I can take a nap."
Heidi, the pregnant woman, isn't having much luck keeping her shots on target. The woman nursing the baby is Heidi's sister, Noreen, who has equally iffy aim. They live nearby in Humansville. Their husbands suggested that they learn to shoot.
"We live in a peaceful community," Noreen says. "But if you're capable, people are less likely to mess with you."
She says her husband asked her, "What would you do if there were an intruder in the house? Would you know how to use a gun?" She'd be better off using his rifle as a club, she says. She's hoping this Lady Seed changes that.
"Everyone in America could shoot at the time of the Revolutionary War," Noreen says. "We were known for our marksmanship. If everyone knew how to stand up for themselves, maybe there'd be less crime. And less of a chance for us to be invaded by other countries."
When the sun peaks, directly overhead, Dinky gathers the women in the shade and launches into a story about the events of April 19, 1775. It's the date most dear to the Appleseed Project: the day the Revolutionary War began.
After some background on events leading up to that date — namely the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party — Dinky describes the Battle of Lexington. The story takes an hour to tell, and other than Paul Revere, it's full of names too obscure for anyone here to recognize. When it's over, everyone looks ready for a nap. But nap time isn't on the itinerary.
Next, the instructors demonstrate a proper kneeling position. The key to kneeling, Dinky says, is to "let your heel hit ya where the good Lord split ya." Cookie Lady, an instructor named for her baking skills, demonstrates the cross-legged stance, using the "two-cheek sneak" to adjust her angle to the target.
The day ends without any signs of a coup, or even a decent Obama joke. The group gathers under the dusty beams of a barn for a flavorful, Revolutionary-era dinner of sausage, cabbage and carrots, applesauce, cornbread, and sassafras tea served in canning jars. Dinky hands out playing cards from a custom-made deck, each card printed with the biography of someone who played an important role in the Revolution. She instructs the women to read them aloud, one by one. She chokes up when she reads the card for Hannah Davis, the wife of the first man to die on the bridge at the Battle of Concord, and again when describing the sacrifices of women who saw their silver and linens turned into bullets and blankets.
"If we, as women, don't think we had contributions," Dinky says, "well, there's no shame in being a cook."
She doesn't mention that "cooks" are what Appleseeders call shooters with bad aim.
Once the sun goes down, the glittering streak of the Milky Way is plainly visible in the night sky. I need the light of my cell phone to find my way from the barn to my car. My plan is to camp out on the range until morning.
Headlights suddenly appear at the field's gate. It's Mama Bear, who says there's room on the couch at Paulette's, where the instructors are staying.
Inside Paulette's kitchen, Dinky presides over a postmortem meeting, seemingly unconcerned by the presence of a reporter. The instructors all agree that the day had gone terribly slow — usually, they get through all three shooting stances on the first day. The group still needs a lot of preparation for the Army Qualification Test, which combines all three stances, loading and unloading, for points that add up to a Rifleman score.
Dinky tells the other instructors that she made a mistake earlier in the day when she related the Redcoat targets to human body parts. She ought to have been more abstract, she says. While it's OK to be blunt about colonists outgunning Redcoats in a historical context, instructors aren't supposed to connect the pierced pieces of paper with actual humans. Appleseed leaders seem to prefer some distance between the skills they teach and their potential liability, just in case an errant attendee shoots up a Federal Reserve building.
Not that Dinky likes it this way.
"I think P.C. is a disease that's ruining this country," she says. "I don't buy into it. I'm old-school."
Later, I call Chris Midkiff, the state coordinator, to ask why Dinky might have felt that she had to water down Appleseed's rhetoric.
"The program has progressed," Midkiff says. "When we first started out, it was all middle-aged white guys with .30-caliber rifles. It's gotten to a point now where it's families with .22 rifles. I wouldn't say we're trying to be P.C. by any stretch of the imagination, but we're trying to tone down the terminology we use to make the group more comfortable."
The ominous columns on Dailey's website no longer represent what the Appleseed Project is about, Midkiff says. "This was [his] brainchild, but although he's still very involved, it's grown beyond one man's capability," Midkiff says. "Like anything else, as we get more media attention and exposure, we try to keep things as noncontroversial as we can. We want to keep the program growing on its current pace."
Dailey says he regrets some opinions he expressed in the past. "At some of the early Appleseeds, I probably made a couple comments that I would not make now," he says. "I'm much more conscious that being nonpolitical is a key part of the program."
Growth also requires being media-savvy, and the Appleseed Project is trying to take control of its image. When The New York Times recently published a story about the group, a rebuttal was posted on the Appleseed website within 48 hours.
"Appleseed does not see our government as an enemy or force of arms as a solution," the rebuttal read. "Rather, our enemies are laziness, ignorance and apathy. Appleseed sees education and lived history as the means to get people to the real solution: Personal involvement in civic processes to ensure a better future for our nation."
Instructors are told to shut down discussions of politics when they arise, Midkiff says. "The only political parties we talk about are the Tories and the Whigs, and if you're talking about anything more modern than that, you don't belong at Appleseed," Midkiff says. "We do see it from time to time, and it's discouraged."
The group does not run background checks on its participants. If an extremist comes to a shoot, Midkiff says, he hopes they'd leave with the impression that political involvement is a better alternative to violence. "We're not training you so that you can use your skills to take out your least-favorite politician," he says.
The second day of Lady Seed draws a lighter crowd than the first. Several women haven't returned. The sun feels hotter than the previous day. Dinky urges everyone to keep drinking water.
Around noon, it's Mama Bear's turn to tell the story of the "second strike" at Concord. She gets nervous before speaking in front of groups — in the past, the anxiety was so strong, it made her puke. So when she's out of earshot, Dinky encourages the group to be especially attentive and to clap when Mama Bear finishes.
Her speech is tearful, more serious and emotive than Dinky's was. "The sight of the Regulars (British regiment) was a breathtaking spectacle," she says, quoting a historical text from memory. "They looked like a ribbon of scarlet and white winding through the bright-green countryside, and their bayonets were glistening in the early morning sun."
Like Dinky and Cookie Lady, she talks about how lucky Americans are, how our forefathers fought and died for our right to play Xbox — or to own weapons. But the instructors also seem wistful, jealous even, that they'll never be asked to fight — like, with guns — for something as important as the birth of a nation.
Later in the afternoon, when the time to be tested on the Army Qualification Test is imminent, a few women announce that they're leaving. "I've never left early before," the Midkiffs' daughter, Kim, says. "But we're tired, and we have homework."
Sisters Heidi and Noreen, seeing an opening, say they're going to bolt as well. Suddenly, Lady Seed is hemorrhaging ladies.
Dinky decides to skip ahead to the last speech of the day, the "Benediction" — or, as some Appleseeders call it, the Seventh Step.
"I've had so many people that complain, you know, about how bad things are in this country, and how things are going sour, and this isn't the country that they were living in when they were children," Dinky says. "I want to look 'em in the eye and tell 'em, You did this. No one else did, because we, the people, didn't do our jobs."
Cookie Lady adds, "Appleseeders, I don't care how you vote ... I just want you to be informed. Be involved."
But while Appleseed officials say they want to keep its events apolitical — Dailey says he doesn't even vote — they have recently started to attract politicians. The mayor of Sandusky, Ohio, attended a recent shoot. And Republican Jim Tomes, a member of the 2nd Amendment Patriots of Indiana, which successfully pushed legislation creating lifetime handgun licenses for gun owners in Indiana, is a big Appleseed supporter. He's running for Indiana state senate.
"Hopefully, one day," Dinky says, before everyone goes home, "we'll have an Appleseed president."