Shooting for fun

Williston gun club offers learning clinics

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Penny Finnegan jumps when a gun goes off nearby.

Emptying the spent shell from his shotgun alongside Finnegan, Shelburne resident Zack Burris, 18, prepares to aim again at the clay targets hurtling into the field before them.

“I’m scared to death,” Finnegan acknowledges, lining up for her turn behind the trap house for her first go at trapshooting.

The 64-year-old Williston resident has never shot anything before, she tells instructor Parker Brown. Except for in video games, she adds.

With eyeglasses resting atop her close-cropped white hair, Finnegan places the butt of the shotgun in the crook of her shoulder as instructed. Brown tells her to rest her face against the back part of the gun. When she is ready, she calls out “Pull!”

A target is mechanically released out of the trap house in front of her. Within seconds of the start of the “pigeon’s” flight, Finnegan pulls the trigger, breaking in midair the roughly 4-inch neon orange disc.

“Pull!” she calls again moments later.

Finnegan waits longer this time, the target hurtling away from her at roughly 50 miles an hour, before pulling the trigger and shattering the target.

“I think you could have waited another couple of days,” Brown jokes with her, noting it’s easier to hit the targets when they’re closer. “I can’t argue with the results, though.”

Finnegan was one of six who turned out Sunday for a “Learn to Shoot” clinic sponsored by the North Country Sportsman’s Club. A middle-aged couple from Underhill, two young adult brothers from Shelburne, and a Williston teen rounded out the class. The 54-acre club, located off Old Creamery Road in south Williston, will be offering clinics weekly through August as a way to get more people interested in the sport of trapshooting, according to club secretary and Williston resident Cindy Pease.

Trapshooting originated in England around 1750, according to the Amateur Trapshooting Association Web site. Real pigeons were used as targets until the population neared extinction; fake birds were then introduced, and eventually clay targets. The sport got its start in America in 1831.

The sport, which has an Olympic competition, requires a shooter to stand at least 16 yards behind the trap house. In the first part of the lesson Sunday, targets launched directly in front of students. In the latter part of the lesson, the trap house launched discs in five directions randomly. Within seconds, shooters must locate the target and pull the trigger in anticipation of where the target is moving. Generally, Brown told students on Sunday, a target will move roughly five feet between the time a trigger is pulled and when the shot gets there.

“You’ll probably poke a few holes in the sky,” Brown said.

Before walking onto the field Sunday, students also learned about gun safety (“in trapshooting, unlike football, there’s never been a fatal accident,” Brown said), how to hold a gun (“with a firm grip, not a death grip”), and how to aim (move from the hips up). Each 28-gauge shell contains about 350 pellets, Brown said, and it takes only three pellets to break a target.

“You’ve got a 100 to 1 shot,” he said.

The 90-minute clinics cost participants $10, which covers the use of a gun, hearing protection, eye protection, and enough ammunition for 25 targets.Part of the costs are covered by a $1,000 grant the club received from the Federation of Sportsman’s Club. Children under 10 are not advised to participate in the sport. A parent or guardian must accompany clinic participants under 18.

Williston resident Josh Paquette, 14, was the only youth participating Sunday and he brought his own gun. Josh nailed three out of five targets in his first round, aiming straight out over the trap house. He struggled, however, when the launcher oscillated, randomly sending the targets in various directions.

“It didn’t turn out as well as I planned,” the Mater Christi School eighth grader said after he’d wrapped up class. “I didn’t really concentrate; I shot before I was ready.”

This wasn’t Josh’s first try at the sport, and he’ll be back, he said. His family, who lives on Sunset Hill Road, is within hearing range of the club.

“Our attitude is if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” his mother, Linda Leavitt, said Sunday. “Since we hear all this noise anyway, we figure we might as well be a part of it.”

Finnegan can hear club activity from her home on Oak Hill Road as well. She’s known about the club ever since she moved to Williston in 1970, she said, but Sunday was her first visit. Now she plans to join. Though afraid of guns, she’s an avid horse rider and has always been intrigued by the sport of mounted shooting – shooting targets from atop a horse.

“I guess I’m a cowgirl at heart,” Finnegan said. “I don’t want to hunt. I don’t want to kill anything. But shooting targets seemed fun.”

North Country Sportsman’s Club is open for practice on Sundays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. January to March and on Sundays April to December 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The club is also open Wednesdays 4 p.m. to dusk, April through October.