Who will be this year’s Schützenkönig?

I now attempt to advance on the the topic of Knabenschiessen, roughly Boys-Shooting, my previous approaches to the topic having foundered on Monday 9/12, as feelingly reported in yesterday’s posting “Knabenschiessen!” (inspired by a Frank Yellin Facebook posting on 9/12).

The basic facts, as assembled in a compact Wikipedia entry:

Knabenschiessen is a traditional target shooting competition in Zürich, held on the second weekend of September each year [the 2022 event started on Saturday 9/10 and ended on Monday 9/12].

The festival, officially held for the first time in 1889, is one of the oldest in Switzerland, dating back to the 17th century.

The competition is open to 13- to 17-year-olds who either reside or are enrolled in a school in the canton of Zürich. Originally reserved for boys (Knaben), the competition has been open to female participants since 1991. The shooting is with the Swiss Army ordnance rifle, SIG SG 550. The competition is held in the shooting range at Albisgütli to the south-west of the city center, on the slope of Uetliberg [and is organized by the City of Zurich Rifle Association in Albisgütli.] It is surrounded by a large fair.

The festival is culturally deeply Swiss, being decidedly local (only in Zürich; and, for that matter, restricted to teenagers) and also decidedly communal (expressing shared responsibility for the military defense of the confederation). Local shooting clubs are everywhere, but gun users must show that they’re proficient in gun use and in a range of gun safety practices; that’s part of their responsibility to others. Knabenschiessen is just a piece of a much larger fabric of attitudes, beliefs, and practices surrounding guns that is so different from its current American counterpart that I have trouble explaining it to Americans (and I haven’t even mentioned compulsory, near-universal, part-time but long-term military service).

Getting the fuller story about Knabenschiessen and how it’s worked into the larger culture only makes it seem way stranger to American eyes. It’s competitive, but not about displays of dominance or violence; instead it’s about skill, and pride in doing a good job, and accomplishment for the sake of the local community, the canton, and in fact the confederation — but it’s still a competition, for the title Best in Show: der Schützenkönig ‘the king of the marksmen’.

Meanwhile, there are lots of medals, and prizes mostly cashed out in fun-fair food, like sausages. The kids’ family and teachers are pulled into the whole business. The more the details pile up, the harder my task of explaining the custom gets. (I have a similar experience in explaining voting in Switzerland — who votes, on what, when, where, and how. Easy at the very beginning, and then we slide into unfamiliar social and legal concepts and practices.)

In the end, I think, oh, this is one those nightmare moments when I find myself trying to explain, say, Groundhog Day to friends in Brighton (Sussex), or the Christian holiday of Pentecost to my earnest Hindu and Muslim students. (Well, all of Christian belief and practice is a hard slog, but Pentecost far transcends the basic difficulties.)

More details. From the Newly Swissed site (which explains Swiss things to newcomers and outsiders), “Knabenschiessen: Who Will be this Year’s Schützenkönig?” by Christian on 9/8/11:

You know it is September when the kids are back in school and the workers have returned from their summer vacations. Since the beginning of the month, yellow flyers have been posted in Zürich trams and buses. They show a cartoon face with one eye shut: Knabenschiessen.

For many from outside of Switzerland, this appears to be a fairly odd event. And for those who have learned German (whether a little or a lot), the literal translation may pose a slight problem: “Boys’ shooting”.

Are the people of Zurich celebrating the shooting of a group of boys, perhaps dating back to Wilhelm Tell and the shooting of an apple off his son’s head? Or is there a group of boys shooting around? [AZ: N + N compounds are notorious for their range of meanings]

And if it is the latter, why just boys and not girls?

The answer is that it is boys doing the shooting. This event dates back to the 17th century, when competitions were held for the Schützenkönig (King of the Marksmen) in order to get young boys excited about shooting and their future military service.

Today, the actual shooting takes place at the shooting range in Albisgüetli in south-west Zurich.

[list of criteria, then:] Since 1991, girls fulfilling the same criteria have also been allowed to partake. For the entry fee of 12 Swiss Francs, competitors receive the right to participate, ammunition and – of course – a Bratwurst!

(#1) Kids checking out the equipment and learning about the event

Participants shoot at a standard A-target with points up to 5. The highest achievable score is 35. Anyone shooting 28 or more points will get a prize medal. Each year, 35,000 rounds are shot during the Knabenschiessen!

(#2) Participants at their stations in the shooting hall

Each participant will receive 20 francs from the Zürcher Kantonalbank (ZKB), and the Schützenkönig will receive a cash prize of 5000 francs. [AZ: today, 9/14, the official exchange rate is 1 Swiss franc = 1.04 US$, so this is a significant prize]

Although “Knabenschiessen Monday” is not officially a holiday, it is recognized as a half-holiday with many businesses closing shop at 1 PM. Teachers and students, however, have the entire day off. The winner of the shooting competition is announced on the same day. [AZ: also see Dean Allemang’s comment on my “Knabenschiessen!” postinglet]

For most people, the target shooting competition is second to the “Chilbi” (fun fair), which takes place at the same time and is the largest in Switzerland. The fun fair usually attracts some [in 2019, 800,000] visitors and on Monday, there is a half hour “happy hour” where all the rides are free!

Lexical notes. From Wikipedia (with significant editing by my hand):

Schützen (Engl. shooters, but usually translated as marksmen) is a German plural noun used to designate a type of military unit of infantrymen, originally armed with a rifled musket and used in a light-infantry or skirmishing role —  hence similar to the Jäger. [Each individual infantryman is termed a] Schütze. Prior to the introduction of firearms the word was used for ‘archer’, and is sometimes used in the form Bogenschütze (bowman — lit. ‘bow shooter’).

The verb schützen (‘to protect’) is not related to the plural noun Schützen, nor [is] Schutz (‘protection’) [on which the derivative verb schützen is based].

2 Responses to “Who will be this year’s Schützenkönig?”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I’ve seen the title of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz translated as “The Sharpshooter”. (The title character makes a deal with a devil-figure that allows him to shoot with perfect accuracy, except that the devil gets to control the seventh shot.)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Ah, sharpshooter is nice. And resonates with me, since back in ancient times when the NRA was actually about rifle skills and safety, at summer boys’ camp I worked my way through the levels of certification to the top: Sharpshooter. I was genuinely good at this stuff, I loved it, and it bought me some much-needed boy-cred at camp. Plus, it was eventually useful — when my cousin Ted (who served as a surrogate older brother) took me hunting with him. By then my dad had given me a Winchester rifle of my own. Beautiful, well-balanced, easy to handle, responsive, fitting nicely against my body, and smelling of gun oil (which I still like). There’s an aesthetic for everything. Meanwhile, I’m still absurdly proud at having once been a Sharpshooter.

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