Swing out, shoot!

Gun enthusiasts get a bad rap. Some quite ordinary men, women, children—and even a few Kenny Rogers look-alikes—just like to squeeze off rounds at stuff.

Preston Rusch aims at a clay pigeon.

Preston Rusch aims at a clay pigeon.

Photo By Larry Dalton

There are some sports that have a reputation for violence—hockey, boxing, rugby and Australian Rules Football, to name a few. Then there are sports in which the fans are more dangerous than the game being played. There isn’t a soccer championship that goes by without a bunch of fans getting hurt at a game. I lived in the Netherlands for two years, and any time a championship game was happening, you were risking your health just by being on the street. I once saw a man who was minding his own business get thrown off a bridge into a canal in Amsterdam by soccer fans leaving a big match.

I have been shooting guns, although not steadily, since I was 8 years old. I went through a hippie stage when I didn’t like guns, but that soothing smell of gunpowder and the satisfaction of knowing that you can hit a target brought me back to the sport. Shooting at targets is often described as Zen-like. Knowing you hold in your hands a powerful machine that, through skill, patience and practice, can send a projectile almost instantly into the exact area at which you are aiming is a spiritual experience. The responsibility of shooting safely is an honor that is not taken lightly by sport shooters.

“Number one, you got to be safe. That’s the most important thing,” said Keith Pawloski, an attorney for a local corporation. “You have to handle it safely, you got to understand all the safety, and you have to be careful and responsible. That, in and of itself, is a lot of mental preparation. Then, the actual shooting, the ability to hit the center of a target—it’s like bowling a strike or putting a golf ball in a hole. It’s the same thing, except you use a different projectile. Instead of a ball, you shoot a bullet.”

There are hundreds of kinds of sport shooting, many of which are homegrown. Bill Farnham is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who is involved in a locally invented sport that is a variation of military silhouettes. His group at the Sacramento Valley Shooting Center (SVSC), at 15501 Meiss Road outside of Sloughhouse, uses pre-Korean War military rifles, though. Lying prone, the shooter aims at metal targets of rams, pigs, turkeys and chickens at 500, 300, 385 and 200 meters, respectively.

“The origins were when [Mexican landowners] had a big fiesta on their big estates,” explained Farnham, the SVSC’s treasurer. “They had all this game that they had to butcher, and so they put them out, had a shooting contest and ate them.”

On a recent day, Farnham was using a 7.5-by-55-mm, 1917 Swiss Schmidt-Rubin K-31, an inexpensive but highly accurate rifle used until recently by the Swiss army. “The Swiss army decided to rearm with modern semiautomatic rifles,” said Farnham. “So, all their old rifles were put out on the market, and they are like a Swiss watch—really, really nice. You look at them and, my God, here is this design from 1896, and what a well-designed, simple, accurate and reliable [gun] it is.”

The gun may be inexpensive, but the bullets are expensive, and most serious shooters load their own ammo. Farnham loads different grains of gunpowder for specific distances. “That doesn’t mean that I’m the high scorer every time,” Farnham said, chuckling.

The SVSC is a massive 950-acre shooting range with rifle ranges of 100, 150 and 300 yards; a 350-yard pistol range; a full metallic silhouette pistol range at 200 meters; a trap range; a skeet range; a 500-meter rifle silhouette range; a 1,000-yard rifle range; and a .22-caliber-only range for the kids, with knockdowns, targets and swingers.

“Part of the range is public, and part of it is private,” said the SVSC’s assistant manager, Bill Chizar. He added that the club’s dues, which give a shooter a reduced rate and access to all of the other ranges, are $100 a year. “We prefer that a lot of the ranges just have members on them because we kind of have to watch the general public. Safety is our primary concern out here, and we do our best to watch people on the public range to make sure that they know what they are doing. We also walk the lines to make sure that all guns are open when they are supposed to be, and they are shooting when they are supposed to be to make sure that nothing happens.”

A lot of things happen when members of the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), also known as Cowboy Shooters, set up their targets. Members dress in Wild West gear and exclusively shoot 19th-century shotguns, rifles and pistols at steel plates; the competition is timed. The SASS has a worldwide membership of 50,000. “We compete for total time, which is the time that it takes you to shoot, plus five seconds for every time that you miss,” explained organizer Black Jack, who also is known as Rod Ruberts.

Ruberts was dressed in a white duster and hat. His pistols hung in a holster belt around his waist. His tiny, wire-rimmed glasses made his face look huge. He was quick with a laugh when he talked about his hobby.

“It’s really hard to take ourselves seriously,” said Ruberts. “We’re just out here to have fun. Lots of laughing. At the typical shootout here, you’ll spend maybe five or six minutes shooting and spend two or three hours jabbering with folks.”

Ruberts’ wife and two children are involved in the sport. His son, Badlands Bud—a.k.a. Steven Ruberts—is the third-place junior boy in the world and California State Junior Boy Champion.

Clouds of black powder and the dinging sound of targets getting hit filled the air. About 50 members, all in character, were either shooting or milling about chatting. There were many women and at least six Kenny Rogers impersonators.

“It is the most friendly sport that I’ve ever seen,” said Chris Blaine of Sacramento, whose cowgirl name is Allie Mo. “I love the dress-up. I buy a lot of my clothes on eBay, so I have this fun thing on there. I never know what I’m going to end up with.”

Blaine’s husband, who only gave his name as Jess Brown, looked as if he had stepped out of a time machine. His cowboy name was actually his great-grandfather’s name. “He was a shotgun messenger for Wells Fargo, out of Deadwood, Dakota, right after the Civil War,” said Brown. “In fact, it was him and seven others that took the original gold shipment out the Black Hills out of the Dakotas. He wrote a book in the 1920s describing all the events from about 1860 on forward. He interviewed people who were there, like when Wild Bill Hickok got shot and Custer’s Last Stand. He had four daughters, one of which was my great-grandmother, and they all lived into their 90s. They told me all of their stories when I was a little kid.” Brown had to pay big bucks for an original copy of his great-grandfather’s book online.

Closer to Sacramento is the Cordova Shooting Center, at 11551 Douglas Road in Rancho Cordova, tucked into the southeast corner of Mather Field. What it lacks in size, it makes up in location and quality. It has guns to rent, buy or order; safety classes; and private or group lessons. For insurance purposes, ammunition has to be purchased at the range. Besides pistol and rifle ranges, the Cordova Shooting Center has excellent state-of-the-art, computer-controlled skeet and trap ranges.

To the unenlightened person, skeet and trap shooting look the same, but to the enthusiast, they are as different as baseball and softball. Both use shotguns. In skeet shooting, the clay pigeons are ejected from a central bunker, one at a time, at random angles away from the shooter, who rotates in five different stations. On the other hand, in trap shooting, the shooter rotates in eight different stations in a semi-circle, firing at multiple pigeons flying at high and low angles from multiple bunkers.

“It’s about trusting yourself, trusting your instincts,” said Preston Rusch, a retired Navy demolition expert and graduate of the Naval Academy. “Swing out, shoot. You see the [clay pigeon] coming, you subconsciously identify where you need to put the pellets out of the shotgun and where it’s going to intercept its flight path. It’s a mental-body coordination perfected in time, but there is always the fear of the unknown, too, on your first couple of shots.”

Rusch laughed at the style of a trio of men shooting trap. “Would you think about playing tennis without getting a lesson from a tennis player? I think not. Somebody has got to show you how it works, and then you have to fine-tune.”

The stereotypes of gun owners are just those—stereotypes. And contrary to the sport’s middle-aged-white-guy stereotype, there were plenty of females, minorities and young people at the ranges. Every single person with whom I spoke during my 18 hours on the two gun ranges emphasized safety and responsibility. And everyone was friendly, polite and safety-oriented. As one shooter told me, “It has never occurred to me to ever shoot at a living thing.”