Shooting Target from Mali

Taking Aim at the Target

What “good design” means when it comes to an object that takes bullets

Years ago, a friend took me to a shooting range in, of all places, Manhattan. Although I grew up in a Texas town where hunting was so commonplace that one of the three choices for our eighth-grade woodshop project was a gun cabinet, it was the first time I’d pulled the trigger of a real firearm.

It was a gentle introduction, involving minimal-recoil .22 caliber rifles. But not surprisingly, I was pretty bad. Mostly I remember firing at concentric-circle targets from various distances, and my shots tending to hit the outer edges.

There was one exception: When we switched to a target featuring a vaguely human shape, my accuracy improved dramatically. This made an impression on me. I kept the target.

My target.

It’s a compelling object. Not my target, per se, but targets in general — and especially those depicting or suggesting a human form. Apart from being quietly iconic (we instantly recognize these things for what they are), they’re vaguely chilling. The design’s function is to improve shooting accuracy. And the undeniable subtext is to promote the skilled use of a gun to inflict damage on another person.

The specific image depicted on a target can be, you might say, a loaded design decision. And it’s one we respond to here in a novel way.

This essay is accompanied by its own limited-edition object, created by designer Tim Belonax. If you act fast, you could own his creation, for free: We’re giving them to the first 50 readers to tweet a link to the story with @ReadReform in the tweet. Details at the bottom of the post.

But don’t just share this essay — read it! You’ll want the full back story. It includes a photographer’s revelatory project documenting shooting targets around the world — and an insightful conversation with a man who shot a friend for art.

The Lethal-skill Object: A World Tour

I was reminded of my minor shooting adventure — and the broader idea of what targets really mean — after learning about photographer Herlinde Koelbl’s project, and book, Targets. Over a period of years, Koelbl visited nearly 30 countries, with the aim of documenting a specific iteration of the target idea.

“I was interested in the targets at which soldiers were trained to shoot,” she writes in the introduction. “Who is the bad man? What does he look like — the enemy that they are later expected to kill? Is he an abstract figure? Does it have a gender and if so, which? Are there cultural differences?’

Over time, Koelbl expanded her photographic subjects to include documentation of elaborate, purpose-built fake towns, designed to train soldiers in house-to-house combat — the target notion extended to an entire landscape. She also worked in portraits of soldiers in training: “The living targets, which is what they ultimately always are.”

Above: Targets from Germany Left: Austria Right: South Africa

This may not have been Koelbl’s agenda, but her book made me realize that while the shooting-range target is clearly a designed object, it’s one that is really not intended for wider public consideration. Yet the graphic creativity that’s gone into the making of targets around the world is perversely dazzling. It’s fascinating to note a target design used by British, South African, and Mongolian soldiers, “as if they had all been ordered from the same catalog,” as Koelbl observes.

But it’s the startling variety of solutions to the challenge of target design that makes a lasting impression.

The challenge of designing a good target in this context is not trivial: Shooting skill can be a life-or-death matter for a combat soldier. Thus the form and function of their training tools matter as much as any design project can. And clearly, many efforts have been made.

Occasionally, the result is an abstraction. A target in Japan is a square divided in two horizontal color halves, red above, white below; in Poland, soldiers aim at a starkly simple convergence of lines on a central circle.

But mostly, the solution involves the blunt invocation of a person — presumably an enemy. In Mali, a human-ish figure is divided into point zones. In Ethiopia, a ghostly abstraction would look childishly charming if it weren’t riddled with bullet holes. In Lebanon, a soldier stands between targets depicting a cartoonish woman brandishing a huge pistol. In Norway, we see a target showing a photograph of a man holding a woman at gunpoint.

And in the United States, there is a photorealistic man with a machine gun, his face mostly obscured by a red-and-white keffiyeh, and a mannequin obscured within an Aeropostale hoodie.

Of course targets used to train soldiers to kill are an extreme use case. But by and large the target-as-object is designed to aid lethal skills. Maybe the figure depicted isn’t a mortal enemy, just an intruder or “bad guy.” What does the designer use to represent this killable entity? The New York Times once entertainingly pursued a specific instance of how that question has been answered with a lengthy attempt to determine who, exactly, “Cops’ Favorite Target Thug” might have been.

Burden of Accuracy: Shooting a Friend

These objects are, to me, both impressive and unnerving. I admire the range of creativity. I despair at the ultimate goal. Targets, then, are a reminder that “design” is merely an activity, a means to an end that may be wonderful, but may just as easily be grim.

All easy enough to say. But maybe this is an instance where it’s more useful to respond not with words about design, but with design itself.

I conferred with designer Tim Belonax. I assumed he’d have interesting things to say: I’ve admired his projects, from a clever collaboration with The Thing, the unique object-art quarterly, through his recent book of self-assignments, The Reward Is In The Process.

But I did not expect this: “My brother got into guns recently,” Belonax replied. “And I’ve been thinking about how to subvert the usual target graphic with something different — something that looked more like art than a cartoon of a robber. I find the shooting range in general to be a very scary/odd/interesting place.”

Ah ha. I tossed out my only line of thought: How thinking about targets and shooting skill had reminded me, indirectly, of Chris Burden’s famous 1971 performance, “Shoot.”

If you don’t know it, the piece involves … Burden getting shot. You can watch the wildly anticlimactic video on YouTube. “In ‘Shoot,’ I’m shot in the upper left-hand arm by a friend of mine,” Burden deadpans in a voiceover.

The artist was shot, by the by, with a .22 caliber rifle.

But who, I wondered, was this friend? Imagine the pressure on this shooter! If he proved inaccurate, he could kill a friend. To me, this shooter seemed like an unsung hero in the history of non-lethal shooting (and of art).

His name is Bruce Dunlap. These days he’s a partner in a regional CPA firm in Carmel, California. We conferred by email about his experience. Drafted into the Army in the mid 1960s, shortly after finishing his undergraduate degree as the Vietnam era was escalating, he learned to shoot as part of his basic training at Fort Dix, in New Jersey. He was never called overseas, and upon his discharge went to art school via the G.I. Bill — at the University of California, Irvine, where he became friends with Burden.

“I helped him with some of his projects, and when he developed the idea for the ‘Shoot’ piece he asked me if I would be the shooter,” Dunlap tells me. “I said sure, and we started to plan it out.”

That sounds pretty casual, but the process involved “many hours” of practice — using the same wall and location in a spot called F Space, in Southern California, where the actual piece took place. “F Space was the practice range,” he recalls. “ We put a 6-foot-long piece of 8x8 lumber behind the drywall, and then drew a vertical line about 6–8 inches long on the wall, where Chris’ upper arm would be if he was standing there. I practiced shooting that line until the drywall and lumber were totally destroyed. Then we would repair the wall and begin again. I did this for a number of weeks before the performance; Chris was often there watching.”

Dunlap was, of course, extremely concerned with hitting his mark as precisely as possible. “If I went too far to the right, I would miss him and we would have to do it over again … not a good performance!” he says. “(Maybe a bit more dramatic if I kept missing and we kept setting up and shooting over and over!) But if I went too far to the left, I could have destroyed his arm, or worse.”

Screen grab from “Shoot” documentation video.

Apart from his military stint, Dunlap wasn’t really a gun guy. He’d been duck hunting “once or twice,” but didn’t relate to it. “I found the Army experience and especially the weapons training to be distasteful,” he adds. “But I was very impressed with what a gun could do! There was a certain power and an adrenaline rush while practicing and shooting.”

So was he scared? “I was not scared of the piece so much as what could happen to me living in Orange County, California, in the early 70s if things went haywire and the police got involved,” he answers. And indeed, it was agreed that the identity of the shooter would be released only when Dunlap was comfortable.

“For many years as I worked as a CPA I left the ‘Shoot’ piece alone,” he tells me. “Then I began to disclose it to very selected individuals when the situation was right. From a distance, I saw it was becoming a very important piece in the art world (rightly so!).”

Aiming to not Kill

Dunlap’s experience seemed like a useful starting point for inspiring an object that offered its own critique of target design — the idea of honing the gun skill to shoot a friend potentially redefines the skill-enhancing object.

Belonax, of course, has his own thoughts.

“My process for this piece started by exploring a few ideas: less-lethal areas of focus, old school targets (old cans and bottles), as well as abstract symbols,” he explains. “I wanted the focus of the shooter to consider the target in a new way — one that still met the need for practice but took into account new factors (beauty, personal conscience, etc.).”

After playing with ideas around targets that directed the shooter at hands and feet, “I grew more fond of the story behind Burden’s piece,” he continues. Partly that meant having his target zero in on the left arm, referencing “Shoot” and its fundamental emphasis on the aimed-at figure’s survival. But to go beyond that: “I started to consider how the concepts of identity and non-lethal targeting could serve my goals.”

Usually, Belonax observes, targets depicting human forms essentially turn those forms into some sort of cartoonish, anonymous, and essentially dehumanized “villain.” So he went the opposite direction, rehumanizing the target by using a photo of a specific individual (who wears a somewhat nervous expression) with “a brief life description,” he explains, “in an attempt to influence empathy and give a real identity to the target.

“I combined this,” Belonax concludes, “with the notion that placing a non-lethal shot takes more focus and care than simply aiming a gun and pulling a trigger.”

In short, here we have a target that subverts the traditional meaning of a target. And I have to say, I think it really hits the mark.


If you’d like to receive one of Tim Belonax’s limited edition target posters, please tweet this story and use our handle, @ReadReform, in your tweet! We’ll contact the first 50 people who complete this task and get your mailing info. (Only available to US residents this time around.)

Poster specs: Paper: French 80# “Old Green” Speckletone cover. Size: 14"x 22". Inks: Fire Red, Black. Prints will be signed and numbered by the designer.

Thanks to Paul Lukas for taking me on that shooting-range adventure back in 2005; read his related story here. And thanks to Randy Kennedy for knowing the name of the “Shoot” shooter; read his 2013 article about Chris Burden here.