Turning back time
WILLMAR - The Willmar Indoor Range at the City Auditorium has seen its share of handguns, rifles and pistols over the years, but not anything like what is loading and firing down the line this winter.
It would have been unheard of in the days of these rifles to have an indoor place to practice. Honing one's craft in accuracy was done practically - by hunting and in conflict. There weren't even pop cans to place on fence posts.
The black powder rifle harkens back to the days of the Revolutionary War. No cartridges, pellets or scopes. Just black powder for the charge, a patch and a roundball. Images of the English army lining up shoulder to shoulder and releasing a volley at the Americans, then having to reload before another shot come to mind.
But there aren't any red coats and no one is lining up shoulder to shoulder. This group does line up in each booth when they are ready. But it's still only one shot, then step back and reload.
"My reason for doing this is getting more interest in the traditional way of shooting," said Dean Eichelberger, a member of the Willmar Rifle and Pistol Club, who was one of the people to organize this event. "People who watch the hunting shows on TV don't see this kind of shooting. They see the modern, inline rifles. It's a lot more satisfying to shoot the old ones. If you can imagine the gun that the English soldier shot during the Revolutionary War, I have one of those in a 20-gauge. They are a lot of fun to shoot and a challenge."
Black powder rifles hadn't ever been fired at the indoor range before, to anyone's knowledge. That meant checking with the Community Education and Recreation Department, which has oversight at the City Auditorium, and with the City of Willmar.
"Nobody could answer my question," Eichelberger laughed. "I asked if I could put together a position paper with rules and all that and they said I could have a shoot."
The first black powder shoot was in December. The second event was Wednesday night and two more are tentatively scheduled for February and March.
The group comes up with different challenges to keep the event fun. It's not just stepping up to the line, aiming and firing at a paper target with a silhouette on it. But you can do that if you want.
"We have a good time. We set up some games, novelty shoots and target shoots," said Eichelberger, whose wife, Dena, has also particpated in the shoots. "If you want to practice your shooting, we set up some targets. We play poker by setting up some cards that you can shoot. We have a tic-tac-toe tournament. Novelty targets are like a playing card on its edge and have to cut it in half with a round ball. We have some fun challenges."
Some of the challenges require a lot of skill. Shearing a card in half with the narrow edge facing you takes a lot of focus. So does cutting a plastic worm lure in half. If the shot isn't placed correctly, it just burns a groove in the lure. It has to be an exact shot.
But why have all these difficult tasks when after each shot you have to clean the bore, repack the powder, patch and roundball, and refocus your shot again, which can be a five-minute break between shots?
"You're adding a little more challenge to shooting, especially if you go back into the flintlocks. This is technology that is from a time period of the middle to early 1700s to the Civil War," Eichelberger said. "You get a turn-back-the-clock (feeling) and shoot the way our ancestors did it. It's a different and relaxing way to do it. There are some of us that like to go deer hunting with these rifles. It's the challenge that we like."
The rifles can be purchased -- Eichelberger said there are some models that cost around $5,000 -- but many prefer to buy kits and put the rifles together on their own.
As for the question of safety, the parameters of the shoot were determined by the City of Willmar and the person in charge at the time of the shoot.
"The rangemaster sets the rules of the range. We are always concerned about safety first," Eichelberger said. "We never put powder in the pan until we're up on the fire line and ready to shoot with the gun pointed down range."
They have to use less powder -- only up to 25 grains -- which equates to a speed of about 600-700 feet per second.
"We're shooting a lot less powder and a lot less velocity," Eichelberger added. "And we didn't have any problem with smoke in the air."
And it wouldn't have come to pass if there hadn't been an indoor range to do it in.
"Willmar is unique that we have a place we can go and do this in a safe environment. We're really appreciative of things like that," Eichelberger noted.
The black powder shoots run from 6-9 p.m. one Wednesday each month, with the exact dates to be announced. For more information on how to participate, contact Dean Eichelberger at 320-235-6367.