A Day at the Range

Does it make a difference?

For about three weeks, I have watched a kid playing in the shared yard of our town house. Each sunny day, armed with what appears to be a plastic Nerf rifle, he sets a shoebox on end that has a white, homemade target taped to it. Dropping back about 10 feet from the target, he cocks his “rifle” and fires the foam bullets at it.

After a couple of days, I noticed he was using his middle finger to pull the trigger. Furthermore, I witnessed what I thought were other developing bad habits of shooter safety. Sure, I knew he was firing a harmless toy, but his target shooting persistence  while displaying some improper firearm handling and safety weighed on my mind.

Wanna go Shooting?

I watched to boy shooting his plastic rifle for about ten days when, while filling my bird feeder, I noticed his mother watering her flowers. I struck up a small conversation about the birds, the weather, and seeing her son playing in the yard. She told me how he loved the idea of learning how to shoot, but really didn’t have anyone to teach him. Not being a guy who willingly jumps into other’s business, I said, “I have to get back home…I am cooking supper.”

Okay, I think I know what you are thinking: “JAG, that was your cue to say, ‘Hey, I will take your kid shooting!’” Well, I am just not that bold—or quick-witted. I had to let it roll around in my brain for a while.

The next day, the pattern played out as usual, the kid came outside, set up his box, and commenced pelting it with foam bullets. This time, I grabbed the birdseed, and despite the feeder still remaining as full as it was the day before, I slid open the patio door to refill it — and maybe catch the kid’s attention.

Kids being kids, he dropped his gun and ran over to me to ask, “Whattya doing?” After explaining the obvious, I asked him, “So, you have been shooting a lot?”

I didn’t have to make any more small talk. He launched into an explanation about his Nerf rifle, how he wants to be a soldier, how he reads books about the Civil War and World War II, and on and on. Well, that made me feel a bit more comfortable. I recognized something in this kid—he was just like me when I was 10 years old!

We talked for a long while comparing notes: What’s your favorite World War II plane? (His: Japanese Zero; mine: British Spitfire); What’s your favorite WWII Tank? (His: Panther; mine: Sherman M4A3); What side would be on during the Civil War? (Him: Confederacy; me: Union—forever!); and finally, “How old where you when you learned to shoot? (Me: 4 years old; him: Never shot a real gun).

The townhouse sprinklers starting for the evening were his cue to run back across the lawn to his own home, as we called out to each other, “Talk at ya later!” and “See-ya!” As I watched him disappear through the sliding door into his home, I stood their replaying the conversation, “I have never shot a real gun…”

The next day, I saw his mother out watering her flowers. Walking across the lawn, I considered the gravity of what I wanted to ask. Finally, through the course of the small talk, I mentioned, “I see that your boy likes to shoot his Nerf gun.” She rolled her eyes, commenting, “Does he EVER! All he talks about his military this and shooting that. I get so tired of not knowing what to say to him about any of it.”

Okay, I don’t like to get involved. I am not even that big on kids, but I could feel this particular guy’s enthusiasm for history and frustration in not being able to share that excitement with anyone else. So, I took the plunge, “I go shooting every Thursday afternoon…if it is okay with you, I would be happy to take your son to the range.” She didn’t even seem to think before answering, “That would be fantastic! What time on should I have him ready to go?”

Crap. I was in it now.

What should I take?

All of Wednesday, I was thinking about the upcoming range experience. My first thought was, “I will take the Garand, the AR-15, the black powder “Seneca,” and probably my pistol (a 9mm Sig). The more I rolled the scenario of introducing a young boy to the hobby, the more I remembered my own experiences.

Dad had taken all of his kids shooting about once a month through the summer and early autumn when hunting season began. I was the youngest of the five. My brothers and sister all had their own weapons and seemed to know how to handle them safely. I stood behind while the four kids formed a “firing line.” On Dad’s command, they would load and fire at will until Dad would call out “King’s Ax!” Today, I don’t know the origin of the expression, but then, everyone knew that meant, “Cease fire, unload your weapons, and walk down range to check your target.”

I sat far back behind the firing line and watch this play out several times. The variety of weapons my family were firing included several .22s rifles, a .22 revolver, and the odd shotgun or two. Pretty much everyone shot their own weapon, only handling someone else’s with permission.

Dad liked his revolver. He shot that most of the time. About 30 minutes into the shooting, he turned to me and waved me to the firing line during one of the “King’s ax” pauses in shooting. I wasted no time.

After everyone was back on the firing line and he declared it “live,” Dad withdrew the single-shot, .22-caliber Remington rifle from a sleeve and proceeded to show me how to pull back the bolt, load a round, and even cock the hammer for firing. Then, he demonstrated how to shoulder the weapon by firing at a tin can about 20 feet downrange. With the bolt re-opened, he handed me the rifle—it seemed to weigh 50 pounds—and instructed me to load a round as he had shown me.

With the round in the chamber, I put the rifle up to my shoulder. The heavy barrel drooped. Dad wrapped his arms around me and assisted in holding it level. He whispered in my ear, “Take a deep breath.” I did as I was told. “Now let out half of it and hold.” Air slipped past my lips before I clamped them shut. “Now squeeze the trigger.”

Crack! went the little .22. I could see a puff of dirt about 6 inches to the right of the can. Dad said, “That was good, but I think you jerked the trigger. You have to squeeze it slowly.” Before I could protest, he gently added, “Open the bolt and load a round. Let’s do it again.”

Again, with the barrel drooping a bit, Dad wrapped his arms around me. I could feel his whiskers and smell the coffee on his breath as he repeated in my ear, “Deep breath…Half out….Squeeze.”

Crack! This time, the tin can tipped over! Dad called, “King’s ax,” and when everyone had laid down their weapons, I ran the 20 feet to the injured can. “I hit it!” “It went right through the corn!” (It was an empty tin with the illustration of a hot plate of whole kernel corn on the front). Dad walked down to meet my outstretched hand showing him the hole that revealed the bullet’s entry and corresponding hole of exit. “That’s good,” he said. Let’s go do it again.

This played out several more times before everyone slipped their firearms into their cloth sleeves, tied off the ends and laid them in the trunk of Dad’s ’62 Impala. With his five kids piled in, we drove home talking about the day of shooting, eager to show our “targets” to Mom who was at home getting work done in the peace of a childless house.

So, sitting on my patio the other day, sipping coffee and recalling this episode of my youth, I decided: The most important thing I can impart to the kid across the way was not the variety of firearms I could show him, but teaching him the fundamentals.

A day at the range

It so happens, I have that .22 single shot Remington. Before Dad passed away, he and Mom called me into his bedroom one evening. “We want each of the kids to have one of their Father’s guns.” I guess because I am the youngest, Dad gave me two: The .36 caliber “Seneca” muzzle loading rifle and that old .22 single shot.

At the time, I was a bit envious. Joe got Dad’s Browning shotgun—it was a hand-me-down from my Grandpa. Tom received Dad’s double barrel 20-gauge—it was my favorite squirrel hunting shotgun. Jim got the revolver. Celine got a .410 shotgun and a couple of pellet guns for her kids. But, I wasn’t going to complain. A guy can never have too many guns, especially if they are family-provided!

But now, faced with showing a young boy how to shoot, I was grateful to have that heavy barreled, .22-caliber single shot. I slipped into a sleeve, tied the end off, and grabbed some muffs and targets. It was time to go shooting.

When we arrived at the range, I put the muffs on his little head and tested the sound. He said he could still hear really well. So, I rolled up some earplugs and inserted them into his ears, then set the muffs back on. “WHAT?” was his response to, “How’s that?” We were almost ready to go, but first, eye protection. I slipped a pair of shooting glasses under the muffs and over his eyes.

At the firing line, I repeated all of the steps that I remembered Dad teaching me nearly 50 years earlier. After explaining some basics safety issues (weapon unloaded, pointed downrange, be aware of other shooters, etc.,) , he watched as I slipped a round in the chamber and locked the bolt down. I shoulder the weapon telling him all of the steps I was going through. “CRACK!” The target was only 15 yards down range, so we could see the whole in the 9-ring, just at the 1 o’clock position (it was then I remembered that rifle always did shoot high!).

Ejecting the round, I showed him the empty chamber, declaring, “The weapon IS clear.” I handed it to him. “Now you try.”

He fumbled to insert his first round. “That’s good. Now close the bolt.” He followed the instructions. “Next, cock the hammer.”

With the butt of the rifle resting in the pit of his arm, he looked down range. “Remember how I stood?” I reminded. He shifted his position and leaned back a bit as he brought the rifle up to his shoulder. Only a second past before I saw the barrel droop. I remembered how Dad helped me. “Put the weapon on ‘safe,” I said. As he did so, I wrapped my arms around him and helped support the weight of that long barrel. I clicked off the safety and whispered, “Take a deep breath. Release half. Hold it…squeeze.”

CRACK! The report startled both of us. His rifle droop as we both strained to see where his shot went. Then I remembered what we were doing. “Clear your weapon and set it down.” When he did so, I had him check the firing line (we were the only shooters). “The firing line is CLEAR,” I announced. “Let’s check our target.”

We went down range. We could see my shot, but where was the second? Finally, on the top edge of the paper, we spotted the lead-outlined perforation of a .22-caliber hole. He hit high and to the right.

Walking back to the firing line, I said, “That was a really fine shot, but I think you need to aim a bit lower. Want to try again?” He was eager to shoot. This time, he made it clear he wanted to do it all on his own: The loading, the aiming, the firing.

After the report of his second shot, he ejected the round, showed me the chamber and said, “The weapon IS clear.” He laid down the rifle and looked down the right of the line and then to the left. “The firing line IS clear,” he declared and then looked to me. “Let’s check the target.”

He ran down the range and pointed. There it is! His second shot was just a fraction of an inch to the right of my hole—right inside the 9-ring.

We continued shooting and changing targets until the box of 50 rounds was empty. “Let’s wrap it up,” I suggested. We checked the weapon for the last time, and then slipped it into the case. Walking back to the car, I noticed he had rolled up targets in his hand. “Going to show those to your Mom?” I asked. “Mm-hmm,” was the only reply.

Driving home, he chattered about the shooting. He asked me if I had any other guns, what was my favorite, and did I ever go hunting. The time flew and before we were all talked-out, we were sitting in my driveway.

He ran through my house, slid open the patio door, and ran across the yard to his townhouse. As he disappeared into it, he called back, “THANKS! See ya later.”

That was it. No angels blaring trumpets from the heavens, no accolades of triumph, no expressions of community acknowledgement. But it didn’t matter. I shared something that was important to me with a little kid. He was engaged, excited, and who knows…maybe 50 years from now, he will remember our night at the range and take a neighbor kid shooting.

Share the passion,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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