Gun clubs on mark for hunting day

COLUMN

September 24, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

Yesterday, I got a big bang out of being at the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore campus just outside downtown Marriottsville. So did lots of others, from Boy Scouts to office workers.

Ellen Radliff, a Frederick resident who works at a mortgage company, experienced the powerful kick of a 50-caliber rifle and the fun of hanging out with her father, Gene.

"I'm enjoying it," she said, after handling several of the guns. "I'm hoping this will become a regular thing for my father and I to do."

About 10 women spent the day in the classroom and on the field, learning how to trap shoot from Roxanne Byczkowski.

My fun came from firing replicas of Revolutionary and Civil War black powder guns and a modified World War I-era machine gun, and from chatting with re-enactors, safety instructors and a rocket scientist - more about him later.

For all of us, the occasion was an open house to celebrate National Hunting and Fishing Day. Hallmark doesn't have a card, but it ought to.

The idea for a day of recognition took root in 1970, when Ira Joffe, owner of a gun shop outside Philadelphia, suggested it to Pennsylvania's governor, who proclaimed the fourth Saturday in September as "Outdoor Sportsman's Day."

The next year, Congress got involved, usually a sure sign that a good idea is headed for the scrap heap. But in this case, lawmakers unanimously approved, and President Nixon signed into law a hunting and fishing day. All 50 states scurried to adopt local versions that same year.

Events were held around Maryland yesterday, ranging from the Izaak Walton League of America opening its Montgomery County tract to hikers and anglers to the CastingKids competition sponsored by the Maryland Bass Federation and held at Bass Pro Shops Outdoors World at Arundel Mills.

The casting event is always fun, with youngsters showing off accuracy that would be the envy of most reporters. It's like football's punt, pass and kick contest, only the kids have to pitch, cast and flip. Last year, Alex Thomas of Crofton won the national title in the 11-14 age group. Yesterday, his brother, Hunter, won the morning competition in the same age group, the first step down the championship road.

The winner in the morning 7-10 age group was Joshua Stowe of Glen Burnie.

The afternoon 7-10 contest was won by Douglas Neary of Crofton, last year's state champion. Zachary Sams of Easton finished first in the older group.

All four youngsters will compete for state honors Oct. 28 at Bass Pro.

But back to the open house.

The Associated Gun Clubs, an umbrella organization for 27 clubs with about 3,000 members, was founded after World War II by a group of veterans. Its 87-acre property is by the McKeldin area of Patapsco Valley State Park.

Del Cockey, AGC president, says he knows many people don't look on his sport too kindly. But the fact is, the Olympics awards medals and universities field shooting teams. And that marksmanship doesn't just happen, it takes years on the range.

"We are constantly fighting the Saturday Night Special image," Cockey said. "But this is a sport, and it's not cheap or easy. It takes concentration and discipline."

Lots of people have the shooting bug, and many of them aren't hunters. The range runs multiple events every week - even in the dead of winter and, on the lighted trap fields, after the sun drops below the horizon.

There are personal safety classes, competitions for all types of firearms and youth programs.

Bryant Cramer coaches the junior shooting program, which is subsidized by the senior club and attracts about 60 students annually.

"We provide everything: the rifles, the ammunition, the targets, the safety equipment," says the rocket scientist who started his career at the Johnson Space Center and now works at NASA headquarters. "We preach safety. We drill the rules until they're almost reflex. The junior program has been here since the early 1970s, and we've never had an accident, I'm proud to say."

Wayne Long and Charlie Swinford were gracious and patient as they allowed visitors to experience their sport. For Long, dressed in period garb, it's a 1742 black powder musket almost as tall as me. For Swinford, it's an equally long replica of the type of Springfield black powder gun used 100 years later.

I fired both. Suffice it to say that no paper targets were harmed in the making of this column. Call me a nimrod for real.

The machine gun is a chronological jump of 77 years. Matthew Hiteshaw, a Virginia Tech engineering graduate who grew up just blocks from Governor Ehrlich's Arbutus home, modified the 1919 Browning from automatic to semi-automatic to stay in the good graces of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The gun fires 10-round belts at a cost of 20 cents a round. Hiteshaw estimates visitors have fired about 500 rounds - for free.

Crouching down behind a bale of hay that supports the gun's bipod makes you feel like Sgt. Alvin York. Mustering enough strength to pull the trigger makes you feel as feeble as Alvin the Chipmunk.

But this time, I tore up the target. By locking the gun in place, Hiteshaw saw to that.

Talk about hospitality.

To learn more about AGC, see www.associatedgunclubs.org.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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