Swiss identity has long been summed up by the image of the army, with its part time soldiers who keep their guns and equipment at home, ready to answer the call. Target shooting for sport, honing military skills, goes hand in hand with this.This content was published on July 1, 2000 - 17:59
By far the biggest gathering of sportsmen and women in Switzerland, the National Shooting Festival, which only takes place every five years, is underway in canton Vaud.
The organisers of this year's shooting festival expect around 56,000 gun enthusiasts to head for the village of Bière to test their skills during the three weeks the event lasts. This Saturday around 5,000 took part in a parade of shooters, brass bands, and costumed folk groups, to celebrate the festival, which is being held in French-speaking Switzerland for the first time since 1954.
The event is being honoured by the presence of Swiss president Adolf Ogi, for whom it is an opportunity to exercise his ministerial defence and sports portfolios at the same time.
The country has around 2300 shooting galleries, maintained at the expense of the local community. While shooting 300 metres at a target may look as napoleonic as the battle re-enactment groups joining the shooting festival parade, it remains an essential part of the Swiss military system.
After learning the how to handle an assault rifle during their basic training, the Swiss get called back regularly for compulsory refresher sessions. For many of them, it's not a simple chore to be accepted grudgingly as part of the obligations of the citizen, but also a pastime.
Switzerland has 3,360 shooting clubs, the members of which are divided into four associations for hobby shooters, grouping a total of 259,000 enthusiasts. The largest, the Swiss shooters' federation has around 180,000 members.
But 10 years ago, federation membership was at a high point of 572,000. By 1996 it had slipped by 70,000, and then haemorrhaged the following year, down to 229,000.
The shooters blame the "Army 95" military reform, which saw cutbacks in Switzerland's military establishment, and reduced both the number of people with weapons training, and the subsidies given to the clubs.
A new round of reforms, the "Army XXI" programme, is in the pipeline, and is being eyed nervously by the shooting associations, whose declining membership has made them even more reliant on subsidies. In a defensive move, a commission set up by the four associations is looking at ways to bring them together to form a large, united body.
To the outsider, there may not seem much to differentiate the four associations. However, for those who know their arms, the members of each have a set of preferences when it comes to calibre, type of weapon, and philosophy.
This makes the task of creating a single association a delicate one. The commission the associations set up to do so aims to be finished by the start of 2002.
Despite feeling threatened by army reform, the associations are fortunate in having influential supporters.
Most shooting clubs are lead by officers, and Peter Schmid, the head of the Swiss shooter's federation, works for the defence ministry.
The clubs have the military's ear, and the army appreciates the shooting lobby, which helped defeat a popular initiative against the purchase of the F/A-18 fighter aircraft.
Adolf Ogi has reassured them that, despite rumours, compulsory shooting practice will not come to an end.
But in a growing number of communities, those living near the shooting galleries criticise the noise, and the decline in the number of shooters has led some local authorities to close or merge their galleries.
Colonel Jean-Jacques Joll, responsible in the defence ministry for organising compulsory shooting, says he believes that by 2002 at least a quarter of the galleries will close. This, combined with the closure of small, local shooting clubs, suggests a very different national shooting festival in 2005.
by Jonathan Fowler
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