At gun range, area marksmen shoot and socialize

by Karla Kingsley | 11/19/02 6:00am

As I walked up to the padlocked gates of the Grafton County Fish and Game Association (GCFG), the loud shots of double-barreled shotguns struck fear in my heart. I soon saw, however, that I had overeacted. The GCFG turned out to be a laid-back shooting range, a place where target shooting allows members to practice their accuracy as well as socialize with other marksmen.

The shooting range, located just outside of West Lebanon, lies hidden up a gravel road, its presence signaled by a rustic sign swaying by the roadside. Chain-link gates deter uninvited visitors, but members of the GCFG possess keys, giving them access to the archery, 50 and 100-yard pistol and rifle ranges, indoor facilities and trap fields.

The GCFG's current president, Larry Ranslow, outlined members' various reasons for using the shooting range. He said that many hunters come to brush up their shooting skills, while others come to site their rifles, "so you know the gun is accurate." Aside from hunters, some frequent the club purely for sport.

Chuck Dickerson, one non-hunting member who has been shooting since he was eight years old, packed his guns and targets into his car last Friday afternoon. He had just finished a shooting session on the 100-yard range with his Springfield M-180 rifle. Dickerson explained that he enjoyed shooting as a sport and for the satisfaction he derived from hitting his targets.

"You get the same sense of accomplishment as you get in other sports," Dickerson said. "You forget about everything else and just focus on the targets." Although Dickerson doesn't hunt, he uses the facilities to practice for competitions in the nearby towns of Nashua, Pellam and Plymouth.

Leaning his cardboard target against his car, Dickerson explained that he made his own bullets for competition and practice. "Most that do it seriously make their own bullets," he said.

Walking up the gravel road to the clubhouse, the atmosphere struck me as slightly surreal. A swing set and basketball net sat empty near the red building behind a sign mandating, "Family Area: Positively no shooting." I walked past the family area to the empty archery range, where five wood-framed Styrofoam targets -- 3-D targets -- stood scattered in the small field.

Joyce Ford, a member and former director of archery, said that archery's popularity has decreased in the past few years.

"Things run in cycles. Right now sporting clays are really big. It used to be archery that brought in the money," she said. When she was at the height of her archery involvement, Ford said she would shoot six days per week and compete all over New England, winning first place in the New England championship one year.

She took up archery when her husband joined the GCFG, and became "heavily involved for about five years." During this time, she won over 100 trophies and even took 16th place in the World Championships in Alabama.

Ford also enjoyed the social aspect of the GCFG, in spite of being one of only a few women involved. "The atmosphere is always very lighthearted and a fun. It is fun to listen to the bantering going back and forth," she said. In the past few years though, Ford has spent less time at the club, concentrating more on family and other activities.

"There are other things in life than just shooting, shooting, shooting," Ford said.

As I left the archery field, a deep shot shook the air, causing me to jump a few feet in the air. As I ventured closer, it was apparent that there was nothing to fear. Each field is carefully placed so that people entering don't end up in the line of fire. I entered the most popular of the ranges, the trap field.

In this wide-open space, members can shoot trap, skeet and five-stand, three of the most popular clay target sports. In each of these, two towers on the sides of the field shoot clay disks into the air, mimicking birds as a target for hunters' shotgun bullets.

According to Ranslow, clay pigeon sports are currently the most popular at the GCFG, but members practice different specific games. "It's a tossup really, it is like the difference between a Ford and a Chevrolet: some like trap and some like skeet," he said. "Personally, I like skeet -- it is more like real hunting."

Dartmouth chemistry Professor Russell Hughes also spends most of his time at the club on the trap field. About five years ago, a friend introduced him to shooting, and Hughes started with indoor pistol target shooting. But then, "I realized I didn't have a steady enough hand, so I got interested in shotguns."

Hughes doesn't hunt, but that doesn't dampen his enthusiasm for shooting. In the summer, when clay shooting runs three days per week, "occasionally, I will do all three days," he said. "I have so much fun doing this that I really wish I had discovered it much earlier in life."

As I walked around the grounds, crossing a wooden bridge, I didn't see many shooters, but Ranslow said that more members attend during the GCFG's league events.

There are indoor leagues for pistol, rifle and archery during the winter, he said, and during these times, non-members are welcome to visit the GCFG and shoot for a fee. Moreover, these leagues can help foster the social atmosphere among members of the club.

"You get familiar with the people. This winter it will be the same group of guys that show up all winter long," he said. "It is very social."

Director of archery Matt Patch agreed that the club fosters companionship. "Things are pretty light, very social. A lot of the members know each other, especially if they are into the same entities," Patch said.

Of a total 350 members, most are residents of the Upper Valley -- many have grown up in the area and have been shooting since they were children. As a whole, however, the members do not form a homogeneous group.

Hughes, a British chemistry professor, shoots alongside "plumbers and welders" of the Upper Valley, other Dartmouth faculty and students and traveling shooters passing through to brush up their skills.

"It is really a tremendously varied group of people, there are several Dartmouth people, and there are lots of locals. They come from all walks of life in the Upper Valley and everyone gets along just fine," Hughes said.

Ranslow said that about 12 extremely involved members form the core of the club, volunteering as directors of different leagues. Since the club has no paid staff, members do the maintenance work and run the facilities themselves. Using a system similar to Dartmouth's honor code, each member has a key to the GCFG and must follow the posted rules.

In general, Ranslow has been happy with the member's use of the facilities. He could recall only a few "minor problems" involving litter and noise complaints.

"Occasionally there are complaints from the neighbors about noise, but we don't shoot before 9 a. m. on Saturday and Sunday, or after dusk," Ranslow said. "We try very hard to be a good neighbor."

Currently, only a few Dartmouth students use the GCFG, but the College has provided physical education courses in shooting. Ranslow encouraged Dartmouth students to get involved.

"The club is certainly open to any Dartmouth student who wants to use it," he said, adding, "If a kid is from a shooting family or something like that, and even if they are out partying Saturday night, there is no reason they can't come in at 10 to shoot some skeet in the morning."

He noted that the fees were reasonable -- a membership costs only $50 per year, and non-members can pay by the round during league nights.