Share this article

print logo

Bill Hilts Jr.: They're loading up for a shot at history

“The National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA) exists to promote, support, nurture, and preserve NMLRA's and our nation's rich historical heritage in the sport of muzzleloading through recreational, educational, historical, and cultural venues such as match competition, hunting, gun making and safety, historical re-enactments, exhibits, museums, libraries, and other related programs.”

The Mission Statement of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association is the perfect segue into what muzzleloading is all about. Steeped with history, these old-fashioned member clubs and gatherings afford excellent meeting places for family and friends alike. They are also the perfect venue for newcomers to become acquainted with a way of life that no longer exists. And with a huge focus on firearms, it’s also a super way to get involved with the firearms of yesterday – and show off your marksmanship – with a long list of shooting events available all around the country.

Alabama Hunt Club

The Southern Zone Big Game Muzzleloader season is currently underway (Dec. 12-20), opening last Monday. A week earlier on Dec. 4 (the first Sunday of the month), the Alabama Hunt Club (AHC) members were assuming the (shooting) position at their clubhouse and shooting range on Lewiston Road in Alabama, N.Y. –  holding its monthly competition shoot. For many, it was an opportunity to give their guns one last sighting before the muzzleloader opener ... and to fulfill the mission statement of the NMLRA. They are a proud member of the national organization.

Dena Erbacher of Williamsville enjoys black powder shooting at 86 years young.

The idea of forming the AHC was initiated back in the 1930s, when a few hunters interested in black powder shooting and history got together. The club actually was established in 1946, when it became incorporated. In 1948, they purchased 40 acres of land and by 1954 they built the clubhouse.  In 1958, the club held its first sanctioned shoot with the help of the NMLRA, and the following year they erected the roof for the firing range, a range that is 400 feet wide and offers distance options out to 200 yards.

By 1988, the club had doubled both in property size and members. Today, the AHC has more than 100 members – men and women, young and old, veteran and novice. Within an hour of my visit to the shooting grounds, I felt like I’d been a member for years. People were offering me the option to shoot with their own guns or with an extra gun that they had available. The camaraderie was incredible.

“We have people from all walks of life,” said John Szumigala of Elma. “It’s the nicest group of guys … and ladies. There are no cliques here. We’d love it for more people to come out and get involved with the club and black-powder shooting. It’s a family affair for sure.”

Regarding the shooting end of things, Szumigala was quick to point out that this kind of shooting “humbles you. It’s more difficult than it looks.” On this particular day, targets were set up at 25 yards. “We like to move them around.”

Sandy Stornelli of Medina is a retired machinist who had worked for Fisher Price for 25 years. He puts his talents to work for his fellow shooters, making everything from iron sights to ball starters and ram rods at a fraction of the cost  – all with a smile. “I’ve been given a gift and I’m happy to share. This is a great bunch of people.”

Cassie Sargent of Middleport, related to Stornelli, has also caught the black powder bug. At 18 years old, she’s actually been shooting longer than some of the other members – shooting black powder for six years and BB guns for six years before that. “Shooting has been a family activity for a long, long time,” said Cassie. “The public has a misconception on guns and shooting. It gets stereotyped as something bad. It’s not. I really enjoy shooting and hunting.”

There were other youngsters at the firing line, too. Gerald Slack of Medina was overseeing his 12-year-old son, Gerald, Jr. This was his third straight month of participating in the Sunday shoot and he was there as a mentor to make sure he was loading the gun properly.

Gerald Slack, Jr., 12, of Medina loads his muzzleloader for another shot.

“Muzzleloader shooters are a dying breed,” said the elder Slack. “I love passing on the tradition to my boys. I have another son who also shoots but he’s only 10 years old so he can’t participate in the club shoots yet. We also have a BB gun range in the basement of the club.”

Another member who has turned this into a family affair is Brian Boyle of Medina. He alternates with his 15-year-old son Dillon and 12-year-old boy Sam for the monthly shoots. Brian has been a member for five years and the shoots are fun for everyone.

It doesn’t have to be with just the kids either. The oldest shooter in the club is Dema Erbacher, who currently lives in Williamsville. She’s 86 years young right now; she’s been shooting in the club for more than 25 years with her son, Moose, from Newfane. “I really enjoy it.”

Speaking of young shooters, the club recognizes the important role that it plays in passing on the time-honored tradition. Every August tit hosts a special Youth Shoot that includes a wide range of different shooting disciplines with the hope that it will light a fire inside. At the very least, they are educating the next generation on firearms safety.

To keep things interesting for members, every month is a different type of shoot. Target boards can be posted at 25, 50, 100 or 200 yards. Twice a year, the shoots are opened up to the general public to show off the range and the clubhouse. They also initiate safe gun handling and the fun of shooting a smoke pole … the old fashioned way if you would like. The newer in-line guns are also acceptable.

Other shoots include a “clanger” shoot with metal targets crafted by the club’s ex-machinists, welders and metal fabricators; animal target shoot; a team shoot in July – anything they can come up with that’s fun. That’s really what it’s all about.

For more information on the Alabama Hunt Club, visit the website at www.alabama If you want to learn about black-powder shooting, there isn’t a better venue or a better group of dedicated people focused on the shooting sports.


There are no comments - be the first to comment