The last range visit
A poignant story reconstructed from near 30 years ago. Shooting is not just about "those nasty guns", it is also about sportsmanship and camaraderie.
You'd find it difficult to imagine the old range ... it really needs a picture.
Long ago it was a military range which was at least 100 yds, but land was sold and playing fields took most of it. What was left, which we used, was a rear covered section in front of which was a trench, brick lined and also under cover. From there to the target turning system was 25 yds. Oddest thing to many though would have been the huge brick wall behind a generous berm.
It was a Saturday in the early 80's and one of many I remember with utmost clarity - ostensibly just a regular meeting at the club, general plinking in the morning with the prospect of some good competition shooting later in the day. Being early spring, there was still frost on the ground but a strengthening sun was quickly dispersing that and the weather looked fair.
Tim, Roger, Bob and I were as usual the first there, and got things organised. Target frames were put out, and the red flag hoisted near the driveway gate .... we always had a visual display that live fire was taking place. Guess that was mainly to try and avoid hassles with the local horse riding fraternity but once we got under way, there was rarely any mistake that shooting was going on!
Next to arrive was Paul, with George his Dad - pretty much the founder member of the club. George had not been to shoot yet that year, having been confined to a wheelchair since the amputation of his legs the previous fall ..... diabetes had been cruel to him, although he had made it thru as far as his 79th birthday, just before surgery.
We all helped manhandle George's wheelchair up the three awkward steps into the range .. barely getting thru the door, and settled him at the back with a coffee. He was alert but looking very pale, cracking his usual jokes (a wicked sense of humor this man had) but with less gusto than of old. I helped Paul get the guns and gear from his car and whilst we were out of earshot of George, he expressed his concerns, feeling that this would likely be the last time his Dad made it to actually shoot.
Once the gear was all inside we prepared to kick off the first session .... only Alan, the local cop had since arrived so we were good to go and wouldn't wait for any others.
The trench was too deep and too narrow to let us install George in the trench, which would have been best from choice, but instead we shunted the wheelchair round the top and set it up just in front of the trench ... probably close to the 20 yard line. None of us was in a hurry to shoot and unanimously and silently, felt that this was George's shoot for now.
I offered to be ''loader'' and sat on the ground on a tarp to his right, with his ammo, and three guns to hand. Bob had gone down to the targets to pin up a couple of fresh sillhouettes and a bullseye.
''Which one first George''? I asked, pointing to his guns.
''Blackhawk please Chris''.
I picked it up and passed it to him, having established Bob was back now, and behind the line. I opened his box of 50 homeloaded .44 mags ... yes, he still did his reloading! He proceeded to rather shakily stoke up with five rounds .. he always had done that - old habit I guess from way back. Roger was in the trench with a spotting scope, ready to call the shots.
Now this was strange in a way .. from a shaky load ritual, George brought up the gun in a well established two hand hold, and cocked for his first shot - and yet, hardly a movement at all now. The control was almost uncanny, considering his condition.
He proceeded to shoot off all five .. and these were ''stout'' loads too! Roger called out the score .. something like two nines, an eight and a coupla fliers in the white. ''Not bad at all'' said I.
''[expletive] that'' said George, seeming to liven up a lot. ''I'll not have shots in the white, let's load up again.''
I took the gun and emptied it for him .. he seemed more than willing to let me do that for him. Handed it back and he commenced a reload .... five again!
''OK guys - no interruptions now - I'm gonna shoot off 10 and then you can score for me''. I watched as he fired off another five .. and we quickly repeated the unload and reload sequence - then he fired the next five, showing I fancied some signs of unsteadiness. I took the gun back and emptied it.
Roger then called out the score. ''six nines, two eights, a seven and one in the white .... looks like a six''. In fact even without a scope you could see the holes and all but the one shot was in a very reasonable group ...... anyone would have been pleased with it. George of course was back to his expletive! One in the white was serious for him. It was plain though that this string of fifteen had taken it out of him a bit ... but I couldn't help but notice that despite his apparent (mock I think) ire at not staying in the black .. he had this wonderful grin on his face ... a look of unmitigated joy.
''Chris - that's enough of the .44 ... I think I'll put some 38's down now''.
I put the Blackhawk back in it's case and passed him his favorite, the old Model 19. With that too, at his request ... a 50 round MTM box and two speedloaders, placing them on his lap. George instructed no scoring for now ... he was just gonna ''kill'' them two sillhouettes! I stood up and moved back ... the others looked at me and grinned ... here was this dear fella going for what he had done so many times as a fit man ... and in so many competitions too.
George loaded up his speedloaders, and stoked the 19. He raised from his rather awkward low ready and commenced fire. He was obviously thinking somewhat ''El Pres'' .. and was going pretty much a ''2 COM, one to head'' sequence or rhythm. He fired fast but deliberately ... his old smooth D/A .. and the gun was like silk. His sixth shot was barely gone when he fluently raised his right hand a little, opened the cylinder and dumped the cases .. and in one sweeping movement eased the speedloader six into place. He was coming up on aim whilst closing the cylinder and recommenced fire. He did that again after the second string.
I expected him to stop but he emptied the cylinder again and loaded up with loose rounds from the MTM ... he picked out rounds in pairs .. and fed them quickly into the cylinder, rotating that ready for transfer of the next pair and then the next. He was still fast even in the chair. He fired off those six with the same rapid but disciplined rhythm. Then stopping and emptying gun ... to look round to see where we were .. again, that delicious grin.
Roger didn't spot those targets ... he went to get them and brought them back to us. On inspection, there were twelve shots on each ... eight very much COM and tight together on one, with four well centered on the head. The second one was similar but one body shot and one head shot a bit wide.
''Not too bad'' George muttered, still grinning. In fact, these were damn good results for anyone and I wished I had had the clock on him .. he was so quick. Paul was noticeably impressed and also was grinning .. well, I guess we all were actually.
''Son'', George said, ''I think that'll about do me but, if you don't mind the cleaning, let me just have a few shots with the old front stuffer''. He referred to the rather ugly and short barrelled .44 cal kit pistol he had built many years before. Simple percussion piece.
I resumed my position by his wheelchair ... and laid out the materials. Shook the powder flask, poured in a charge of 20 or so grains, placed a greased .454 cal ball on the muzzle and rammed it home tight. Gave him the piece and offered the primer charging tool. He added a cap, cocked it and took careful offhand aim ... not so steady but I knew he was tiring.
With the characteristic sound and envelope of smoke, the piece discharged .. and a pop bottle on the berm danced. He didn't want a paper target now, this was just fun stuff. He passed me the piece .. an even wider grin showing but I noticed too how much more pale he appeared. We repeated this excercise a few times, with berm detritis getting disturbed each shot.
''Enough'' said George, unlocking the brake on the chair and signing that he was ready to move on. ''That was great guys. Thank you for being so patient.'' In fact, the last thing on our minds was shooting ourselves.. . that could wait. We had instead watched with pleasure as George enjoyed himself.
''Son ..... can you put my stuff away''? Paul gathered up all the gear and packed it back in his range bag. I asked him if he was going to shoot but he said he'd wait until next time, preferring to make this session just for his Dad, who was obviously now quite tired.
We all helped get the wheelchair off the range and back out through the awkward door and steps, also stopping to help Paul lift him into the car. After a few words and general BS with us, they made to depart but as the car moved off, George wound down his window and almost yelled at us ...... totally great boys ..... totally great'' ... and showed us perhaps the widest grin of the day. It felt good.
We resumed our usual routine after that and a few other guys turned up .. they had though missed something, rather special.
What made it so very special in fact was that George died, a mere 36 hours later. Paul called me, and the others .. to say that on the Sunday evening George had had a massive stroke, followed (mercifully we think) by total loss of consciousness. He hovered in that state for just a few hours, before expiring peacefully in his own bed.
What's the message here? Well, I am wiping away a tear as I recall that day ........ but am reminded of the fact that we are all mortal. Tomorrow carries no guarantees. Here though was perhaps the ultimate ''parting shot'' .. pun both intentional and unintentional! This old fella had radiated utmost pleasure as he shot that last time, and though I know he was feeling pretty rough, could not but help get caught up in his enthusiasm and sheer pleasure. It was really an honor to have shared those moments. The other guys felt the same.
Two weeks later, Paul came along to the range ... and brought his Dad's guns. We all .. every one of us ... fired a cylinderfull through the Blackhawk and the M19 .. our way of saluting a dear old friend. Paul wept as did we, but we smiled too.