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Matthew Gandsey, left, hands his unloaded firearm to Riley Johnston as instructor Kevin Wilts observes during an exercise in how to correctly cross a fence. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton
Matthew Gandsey, left, hands his unloaded firearm to Riley Johnston as instructor Kevin Wilts observes during an exercise in how to correctly cross a fence. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton

Forty years of youth firearms safety have come from this outdoors haven near Benson

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outdoors Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

BENSON -- John T. Hutchinson stepped up to a line of rifle-carrying, 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls on his land outside of Benson last Saturday, and began by lifting his trigger finger.

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"One is all you need," said Hutchinson. "Don't count on that second shot. It could be a crippler."

Being absolutely certain of the first shot is a lesson that Hutchinson has been making to young, aspiring hunters for no less than 40 years now.

Since 1970, Benson area students who participate in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources firearm safety education classes have been completing their program at "Hutch's Outpost," as it's called.

Many in this year's 40th anniversary class had parents who made their rite of passage into the tradition of hunting on this very land as well.

Hutch's Outpost lies just outside of Benson along the original, S-curved channel of the Chippewa River, a portion now bypassed by a straightened channel. There are plenty of superlatives to describe these river bottom lands, but nothing says it better than an admission Hutchinson once made. These lands have made him skeptical about a life hereafter, because he just doesn't know how it could get any better than this.

It's hard to imagine a better setting to learn the essentials of firearm safety than right here.

"We're going to sorely miss this place someday," said Neal Henriksen, a conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Henriksen and Kevin Wilts were among the volunteer instructors who led groups of students through their paces Saturday morning. The students are required to demonstrate their knowledge of firearm safety not only on the firing range, but also in woods and fields like those they will someday hunt.

Their adventure included real-world experiences on everything from how to pass a gun safely when crossing a barbed-wire fence, to the challenges of split-second decision making and the awareness of your surroundings that is so critical in hunting.

Halted by their instructor during a hike in the woods, the youths noticed a blaze orange-clad man hiding amongst the trees. If they were hunting deer and saw a deer some 20 or 30 yards to the man's side, would they shoot?, Wilts asked them.

That's when a camouflage-clad hunter surprises many of the students by emerging from the shrubs just a few yards down range of the imaginary deer.

An Ohio native who grew up on the shores of Lake Erie, Hutchinson will celebrate his 83rd birthday this month. He made his career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He transferred to Benson in the late 1960s. A gunsmith by trade as well, he started serving as a volunteer firearm safety instructor in 1969. He invited his students to his land in 1970 because he felt it was a good place for the final lessons.

This year's class numbered 25, the smallest ever in the last 40 years.

Classes typically numbered over 120 students in the 1970s, he said. In more recent years, the classes have numbered in the 50s. Asked about the decline in numbers, Henriksen and Wilts offered these observations: There are fewer youths in rural areas today; not as many have parents or other adults encouraging them to hunt; and young people are so busy today with all kinds of activities.

The students who arrived here in 1970 wore bell bottom jeans and may have had a good mop of hair on their heads, but they were exclusively male. Two years ago, Benson saw more girls than boys taking the firearm class, said Hutchinson. Boys still outnumber girls in most years, but the girls are certainly catching up, he said.

Another noticeable change is the presence of young adults in their late teens and early 20s in the classes. State law requires anyone born after Dec. 31, 1979 to complete firearm safety training before they can buy a hunting license.

Instructor Wilts is among those who have witnessed the changes here. He is an avid black-powder enthusiast who loves to put his flintlock through the paces alongside Hutch on the Outpost's firing range.

Wilts said he was encouraged to become an instructor by the late Steve "Buckshot" Kufrin, a Benson native and outdoor writer remembered statewide for his waterfowl conservation efforts.

For years, Kufrin and Wilts divided the firearm classes in two and competed against each other to see whose students could get the top scores on the 100-question test.

It's a 50-question test today, and the curriculum has changed a bit as well. Hutchinson said he stopped serving as an instructor in disagreement with the new approach. He'd like to see more emphasis placed again on the fundamentals, in particular gun safety and shooting skills.

The emphasis on safety remains the same at the Outpost. There has not been any sort of injury or accident in its 40-year history.

As he has since 1970, Hutchinson made it known to all of the firearm safety graduates that they are always welcome to use the firing range there.

At the conclusion of Saturday's event, Henriksen awarded the students their certificates. Hutchinson congratulated them, and with a handshake, presented each with a "good luck" coin to keep. The silver coins were all minted in the 1940s, and have a $9 value each.

Hutchinson also had a final word. He admonished the young people to take seriously the responsibility that comes with carrying a firearm, and to always be certain their one shot is sure and true. "You cannot make a mistake," he told them.

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West Central Tribune (320) 235-6769 customer support
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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