What do a pond, giant barbecue grill, pavilion and shotguns all have in common? At the North Forest Rod and Gun Club, mixing these items adds up to safe family fun, even though nonshooters may have difficulty believing it.
Grilled steaks and pig roasts are just some of the activities for families at this country club for shooters, located in a hard-to-reach spot beyond the brush off Old Niagara Road.
It's common to see a mom like Debbie Szlachta pushing the buttons that release clay targets in the air for her son, Kyle, to shoot during a round of skeet. Or Marilyn Johnson, 42, firing rounds at small, clay saucers that zip through the air at more than 50 mph.
Skeet, trap and sports clay shooting are the main activities at the gun club, with in-season hunting of deer and rabbits also available to properly licensed club members.
Membership is limited to 100. Only members can gain access to the 75-acre range that features a pond stocked with bass and trout for catch-and-release fishing, a decent population of blue birds and colorful wood ducks, as well as a family of Canada geese that established residency seven years ago. Coyotes, foxes and deer also roam the grounds.
"This is a country club for shooters," club President Bryan Meahl said. "It's not a bunch of ruffians. The fellas here refer to each other as gentlemen, and gentlemen they are. Those people who aren't interested in following the rules, or are more interested in doing their own thing, soon find themselves not welcome."
The big rule is gun safety. Shooters can load their weapons only on the shooting pad as they prepare to fire at a target. Being caught walking around with a loaded gun is grounds for dismissal.
Members and their guests are prohibited from drinking alcoholic beverages during shooting, and aren't allowed to drink before showing up to shoot.
"This is my own personal opinion, but if I see someone doing something wrong with a gun I don't get in their face right away," longtime club member Rich Evans of Lockport said. "I just go up to them and say, 'Hey look. This is not tolerated here. This is not going to work here. If you keep that up, you have to go because nobody wants to get shot with a shotgun. Nobody, especially me.' "
The North Forest Rod and Gun Club, which has been in operation for five decades, is one of 20 shooting clubs that belong to the Niagara County Federation of Conservation Clubs.
Its targets for skeet, trap and sports clay shooting are about 4 inches in diameter and weigh 2 to 3 ounces. In most cases, the mini disks move through the air, but there are slightly heavier targets (3 to 4 ounces) that roll along the ground and jump up suddenly to imitate what a rabbit might do when running for its life. There also are smaller 1 1/2 -inch round clay targets that zip through the air like a bumble bee on steroids.
Target shooting is all about hand-eye coordination and has little to do with brute strength, which means it's not uncommon to see men and women shooting against each other. It's also not unusual to see youths competing against the adults -- although the county federation does offer all male, female and youth leagues.
One recent Saturday at the club, a fivesome shooting on the trap range featured two shooters separated in age by 70 years. Both shooters, 13-year-old Christopher Miller of Olcott and 83-year-old Ike VanDerlind of Lockport, routinely broke the targets in a game in which shooters must possess quick reflexes in order to have success.
"That's the cool part about shooting," Meahl said. "It's a lifetime sport. It's not something you have to stop when you're 65 years of age. We have shooters here in their mid- to late 80s who are still enjoying the sport, and are just great fellas to have around because of the stories they tell. The camaraderie is very interesting. It would be hard to explain, but it's cool to experience."
For those unfamiliar with shooting sports, trap is a game in which disks are thrown in the air from an underground bunker that's a minimum of 70 meters (230 feet) from the shooters. The targets move at speeds up to 65 mph, in different directions.
Skeet is different in that success depends on being able to pick the right angle to attack the target. The disks are thrown at least 65 meters (213 feet) from a high (10 feet) or a low (3 feet) house. The eight shooting stations on a skeet field are in between the houses, and shooters fire one shot per target. During a 25-shot round, disks may be released one at a time from just one house or from both houses on an alternating basis at speeds up to 55 mph.
Shooters in these two sports, as well as sports clays, also must factor in the weather elements. The slightest 10-mph breeze can change the trajectory of a target rather suddenly. Targets are released only upon the shooter's request and points are awarded only if the fired round of 400 small lead pellets breaks the target. If the ammunition hits the clay but doesn't break it, you don't score.
Sport shooting has been an Olympic sport for more than a century, with trap being a staple since 1900. Skeet has been contested at the Olympiad since 1968. It is a sport for all seasons, regardless of the weather conditions. The county federation has winter, spring, summer and fall leagues. Blizzard conditions also won't stop these sportsmen from shooting.
"The shooting sports -- whether it be the target shooting sports, the hunting or just the informal shooting -- are among the safest of all sports that a person can ever become involved in and much safer than, let's say, basketball, baseball or football," said Meahl, also a certified state gun safety instructor.
According to statistics in the state's Hunter Education Manual, approximately 880 out of 14.75 million hunters and target shooters have suffered injuries while prowling for game -- a tally that includes ankle sprains and other various nonshooting injuries.
While contact sports like football obviously have higher participant and injury numbers, fishing, another noncontact sport, has surprisingly high injury numbers -- more than 72,000 of an estimated 45 million.
"(Shooting) can be very family oriented," said Lockport's Bob Baron, a longtime North Forest Rod and Gun Club member who breeds harness racing horses. Four of Baron's five children also have shooting experience.
While hunters must be certified by the state, sports shooters don't need a license -- they are required to receive one instructional lesson from a certified teacher before being allowed to fire at targets. However, gun safety is continually stressed and taught, Meahl said. Youths are under constant adult supervision when on the shooting range, to make sure the slightest careless act doesn't become a habit that can endanger the safety of others.
Christopher Miller, a seventh-grader who is a member of the modified track and field team at Newfane Central Schools, has been shooting at the club with his stepfather, Joel Hambruch of Olcott, since October. Shooting, he says, provides an weekend activity.
"I've hunted before," said Christopher, who began learning how to handle guns by shooting a BB gun. "I came down here for cookouts and stuff and seen how it was, and I kind of wondered what it was, and then I did it once and thought it was pretty cool. And then I started doing it more often.
"You start off small, so you learn how to handle a gun, and then you can work up and then you know how much it's going to kick because of further experience."
Marilyn Johnson's son James Schunk, 16, has always had an affinity for shooting guns, including BB and paint ball guns. The Lockport High School junior received an award for excellence in his conservation studies at the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, and his reward from his mother was a family membership at the North Forest Rod and Gun Club.
Initially, Johnson considered signing up for two classes at the club through the Dale Association, but realized the club was five minutes from his home and decided it was better to pursue a year-long membership.
Johnson is no stranger to shooting. She hunted with her parents and brother before the responsibilities of motherhood made it too difficult for her to engage in the activity. She, James and her daughter, 14-year-old Katie, have been shooting at the club for about two months.
Johnson says joining the club will help him pursue a career in conservation.
"It was a no-brainer for me because I couldn't think of a better atmosphere than a group of guys who are very serious about firearms, . . . and learning to enjoy it but doing it safely," she said. "People that are knowledgeable and promoting to young people like James, so he would get the right information. They're so willing to work with him there, and that's what's so great."