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Westover officer rifles through history

Maj. Warren Smith, Chief of Mobility and disaster preparedness with the 439th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, is also a private with the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry. The Civil War shooter is shown with his Whitney militia rifle.

Maj. Warren Smith, chief of mobility and disaster preparedness for the 439th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, is also a "private" with the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry. The Civil War shooter is shown with his Whitney militia rifle. (Courtesy Photo)

WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. -- Maj. Warren Smith loves the firing range, but he usually can't see how he did until the smoke clears.

But, that's pretty typical when your weapon-of-choice is a live-fire, Civil War musket - and you're competing on a Civil War shooting team.

Major Smith is chief of mobility and disaster preparedness with the 439th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, but he is also a private with the 34th Battalion Virginia Cavalry. He has spent 22 years in the Navy and Air Force "making" history and five years with the 34th "reliving" history.

The major is a self-admitted "history nut." He has a history degree from Northeastern University and has been shooting since he was a kid. He saw a Civil War ad while visiting his brother who lives outside Richmond, Va. He later found the 34th unit near his home in Glastonbury, Ct, and discovered that most of the others in his unit had Civil War ancestors as he does. "Our unit has the highest number of direct descendants than all the other units," he said.

The original 34th Battalion suffered massive casualties during the Gettysburg battle. The Confederate 34th, led by Lt. Col. Vincent Witcher, lost 75 percent of its men when they battled the Union's 5th Michigan Regiment, led by General George A. Custer.

Major Smith's history enthusiasm is contagious as he cites detail after detail.

The major's unit is one of about 100 historical Civil War units that are limited to shooting competitions and not reenactments. He is quick to point out that his unit strives to be historically authentic. His uniforms are hand-sown, using woven cloth colored with the old-fashioned vegetable dies - and he makes his own ammunition.

He competes with the Whitney Militia rifle which shoots 58-caliber soft lead minie balls. He uses an outdoor turkey fryer to melt down the lead and uses special molds to create the right size balls. "Mr. Whitney" (as he calls his rifle) has a range of 600 yards, is off-hand, front-loaded one shot at a time - and is considered deadly at 200 yards.

The single-shot capacity of the militia rifle stands in stark contrast to the clip-capacity of the M-16 and M-9 the captain uses in his modern day military position.

"The 42-inch rifle has sites mounted on the barrel (which changes with the temperature of the metal) and it has a decent kickback," he said. "All shooting is done in a standing position - and each single shot has to be right on target."

Major Smith has competed in a dozen competitions - with paper targets for the individuals and clay targets for the teams - shot from 50 to100-yard range. "All the competitions are timed, so it's critical to reload quickly and make each shot count to clear the targets," he said. "It's challenging as all get-out."

Mr. Whitney and the captain have won a second-place individual award at the national competition level and a couple of team firsts at regionals.

"There's a lot to it, but it's a lot of fun," he said adding that the camaraderie is similar to what he enjoys in the Reserve.

"When 4,000 shooters fire at once to open the national matches, it's as close as you can get to the historically-accurate, smoky opening of a real Civil War battle."