Nobody would have guessed in August of 1962 that the inauspicious opening of the Thunder Mountain Public Shooting Center in Ringwood, N.J. (below) might be launching the decade's most significant trend in shotgun shooting. To most of the sportswriters and spectators who found their way to the top of a remote, bulldozer-scarred hill in the Ramapo Mountain area of northern New Jersey, Thunder Mountain at that time looked like any not-quite-finished gun range. The paint was barely dry on the trap and skeet houses, the turf was distinctly sandy and the owners, like nervous hens at hatching time, seemed uncertain of what they were about to bring forth. But to the men who were there from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Thunder Mountain presented a quite different picture.
It was the first Winchester-franchised shooting operation, the pilot project of a proposed billion-dollar nationwide network of public shooting centers. Before the Winchester project got under way, virtually all organized clay bird shooting in the U.S. was private, and for most gunners the price was prohibitive. The average shotgunner took one look at the already high prices of shells and birds (approximately $3.50 a round), club dues, fees, assessments and various other costs, and promptly put his gun back in the case. Shooting hours were no more encouraging. Shotgunners have been known to run a rabbit or so before catching the 8:02 but the number with time on their hands between 10 and 5, when many private clubs are open, is hardly impressive.
This combination of factors, apparently, was discouraging enough to keep at least 14½ million of the country's known 15 million shotgun owners—and untold nonowning neophytes—from sampling cither skeet or trap.
In the three and a half years since Thunder Mountain sent its first clay target sailing over a New Jersey ridge, Winchester has wagered some $1.5 million, the time and talents of some of its top executives and, most significantly, its national reputation on transforming a traditionally private sport into a publie one. With the 26th Winchester Public Shooting Center about to open next month in Houston, and a dozen others already building, the wager is looking like a winner.
Public trap and skeet ranges have not changed the sport. The basic object of both games is still to break 25 moving clay targets with 25 shots. The way the targets are thrown, the way they are supposed to be broken and the way the fields are laid out are meticulously prescribed by the national governing bodies.
To meet such standards, however, even on a small scale, involves an imposing investment in land (Winchester considers 60 acres minimum for a modest two-trap, two-skeet field setup) and facilities. Most private gun clubs do not have to rely upon the return from such an investment to survive. Members of such clubs are usually pleased, in fact, simply to break even. With dues and other fees to offset operating costs and members to pitch in on odd jobs, a club generally can bridge the gap between overhead and income that would put a commercial operator out of business. This, more than any social consideration, is the major reason why most trap and skeet shooting has been private.
To render the sport public, Winchester first had to bring the independent businessman back into the picture, and make certain that he survived. Both objectives became attainable through franchising. Winchester offered its name, know-how and national reputation to a number of small, independent operators. The company also provided a streamlined package that included everything from machinery, equipment, guns, field layouts, building plans, shooting manuals, even road signs, to an accounting system, a two-week management-training program and the unlimited assistance of technical experts. From groundbreaking to target-breaking a center now averages about three months and from $45,000 to $60,000, exclusive of land, to complete. Winchester will even find the land, arrange the financing and secure the insurance.
Winchester's second move was to adapt the sport for the public. This meant changing it from a strictly daylight activity to a combination of day and evening. Attempts had been made before at lighting ranges for night shooting, but most had been disappointing. A battery of electrical engineers went to work and came up with an entirely new lighting system that makes even the darkest trap field look like Yankee Stadium at a night game.
"Most shooters like the lights," says Bert Gleckel, one of the three owners of Thunder Mountain. "We have some shooters, in fact, who have never shot except at night. The idea of night shooting has really caught on."
Making it catch on was the third and most important part of the Winchester program. "I'll try any legitimate promotion," says the project's director, J. W. Mangels, who arranged for three of Hugh Hefner's bunnies to keep things hopping at the opening of the Hilldale range outside Chicago, "as long as it brings the public to the centers."
The public came but, to everybody's astonishment, including Mangels', it was not the public—bunny hunters excepted—that had been anticipated. In addition to the predictable group of gun owners that Winchester originally had set out to attract, the centers also attracted an overwhelming number of non-shooters. In just the first year, between 30% and 40% of those who showed up had never fired a gun before. Most came back for more—and they are still coming.
"It's wonderful to see somebody get the bug," says Myra Gleckel, Bert's wife. "Especially the gals. They come out the first time just to watch. Then they are talked into trying a round. The next time they come they don't have to be asked. And the next time they usually show up with complete shooting outfits. We have so many families shooting here now that we are building a playground just to handle the kids while dad and mother are shooting." Besides building in baby-sitters, Thunder Mountain last year increased its original four fields to seven.
Encouraged by Thunder Mountain's success and by that of similar experimental ranges opened the following year in Clinton, N.J. and Lubbock, Texas, Winchester put up 23 new shooting centers in 1964-65. The franchise owners Winchester chooses are, by and large, established business and professional people who are not financially dependent upon the shooting centers. The majority have split the investment between two or more partners. In Chattanooga the Moccasin Bend range has 100 stockholders, each of whom put $240 and whatever special skills and talents he had into the project. They include doctors, lawyers, teachers, printers, plumbers, contractors, restaurateurs, advertising men, the president of an insurance company, a housewife and a horse trainer.
Most owners are in the 30-to-40-year age group, although a few, like a retired New York surgeon, Dr. Alfred Scharbius, who last July opened the first international public shooting center on Grand Bahama Island, are older. Some have specialized interests in shooting, such as Firearms Writer Larry Koller, co-owner of the Mohonk Valley range at New Paltz, N.Y., and former Winchester Salesman Kinky Carapellese of the Redlands, Calif. center, but many, like Myra and Bert Gleckel, had no previous experience at all with trap or skeet.
Locating the right site for a center has presented its own set of problems. A private gun club can be miles from nowhere and its members will still find it. If a public one is not easily and quickly accessible, nobody will find it. But 60 acres or so of suitable land close to a population center is usually priced beyond economic reality or zoned against anything mildly suggestive of guns. A shooting range, after all, is something of a noise factory.
Winchester currently has a full-time staff scouting the countryside for suitable tracts that might be leased or purchased for future centers. These men are equipped to handle everything from negotiating long-term contracts to placating outraged housewives. They have not, by any means, won all the battles, but several of their victories are notable. The center in Chattanooga, for example, is built behind a disposal plant and the one on Grand Bahama over the Free-port municipal water storage system. Both utilize large tracts of otherwise idle land and have the advantage of long-term leases at token rents. The Wantagh range at Long Island's Jones Beach and the Elm Fork range which opened this fall in Dallas are both on public land. Others combine trap and skeet ranges with hotel resorts, shooting preserves, rifle and pistol ranges and archery courses.
The right combination of partners and property is, nevertheless, only half the formula for success. Labor and leagues make up the other. The real mainstay of a shooting center is its manager. A good one can put a range in the black within a year; a poor one can destroy it almost overnight. The best managers, not surprisingly, have turned out to be ex-servicemen who ran military gun clubs before retiring and who welcome a chance to get back in the field. With $400 to $500 monthly salary to supplement retirement pay, plus incentive bonuses, a hot manager, one who not only can handle the paperwork, inventory, personnel and day-to-day operation but whose personality, ideas and teaching ability bring in new business, can come out way ahead. So, obviously, will the range.
Equally important is the league shooter who, like the league bowler, represents regular, predictable income. Industrial league activity in most public shooting centers this year will add up to some 50% of the business.
When the blue-collar world that hacked the original trail from the TV set to the bowling alley finds itself this much at home on a traditionally white-collar range, there is perhaps conclusive proof that a once private sport has indeed gone public. It is clear, not just to Winchester but to all shooters—blue-, white-or mink-collared—that the future of shooting at clay pigeons has never looked brighter.