Hi-Line Living: VFW Bear Paw Junior Rifle Club
Shooting since the 1930s
Last updated 3/24/2017 at 3:48pm
Kids and young adults in the Havre area have been shooting .22-caliber rifles at Havre's VFW Bear Paw Junior Rifle Club since the 1930s, and shooting instructor Randy Martin said he's had teams place as high as second in national competitions.
"If you look at our showcases," he said Monday, gesturing toward showcases in the club's shooting range under the Havre Fire Department, "when we go to these matches, we often place nationally. Some of these guys have made second and third in the whole nation.
"Like this team here - second in the entire United States," he said, adding that the group was either the '98 or '99 team. "Or like this team here" - he pointed to another picture - "they were also second or third. What these kids have achieved, usually, even their school mates don't even realize," Randy Martin said.
Members meet two nights a week for three hours a night and there is room for eight kids each hour. This season, 32 kids were enrolled, but they have capacity for 48, Randy Martin said.
The Junior Rifle Club took nine kids to this year's Montana Junior National Sectional. With competition weekend conflicting with prom night, the lowest number they'd ever taken, shooting instructor and wife of Randy Martin, Laura Martin, said. She said one of the kids on the team took third place in his age bracket.
Randy Martin, who said he joined the club as a child in 1968, speaks passionately about the discipline of shooting and usually with an accompanying grin.
He stayed in the shooting club until 1977, joined the military and started helping out in the club years later in 1984, he said. He has been the club leader and instructor ever since.
Laura Martin said she has been an instructor 12 years.
The club has three age brackets. The sub-juniors bracket encompasses those from 10 to 13 years old, intermediates are for 14- to 16-year-olds, and juniors are 17 to 21.
Shooting, Randy Martin emphasized, is every bit as challenging and deserving of respect as mainstream sports.
"The kids try so hard. This is no different than football and basketball - you're willing your body to stay completely still, and after an hour of shooting they're exhausted. You get any more than an hour, now your eyes are wearing out, your arms are wearing out and their scores show it," he said.
Laura Martin explained what it takes to shoot through the tight peep sight the kids in the club use.
"You have to line up what you're looking at from the rear sight and the front sight, and what you're seeing is basically a circle, and what we ask the kids to do is look down through the rear sights, line up the front sights, and try to see that black dot that they're looking at down there," she said. "Then we ask them to relax and make sure they can see that before they fire the gun. That's all that it takes is a decent sight picture and good position."
Aside from the mental and physical skills learned, shooting has many uses, among them filling the freezer with fresh meat, as well as self defense, Randy Martin said. And for others it's a hobby, he added.
"Once you shoot a gun and you hit the target you're aiming at, you're hooked," Laura Martin said, laughing. "It's fun."
"Shooting can be fun without killing anything. This here is a lot harder than it looks," Randy Martin said.
People might have a tendency to think the 50 feet distances club members shoot from aren't that impressive, but, he said, it would be a mistake to underestimate the degree of difficulty.
"We're talking a one-hundredth of an inch can determine winner or loser at a match. It's pretty precise, and you gotta be on the money if you wanna take home any medals. It's a lot harder than it looks," he said.
Seventeen-year-old Izhanna Erickson knows what it's like to shoot hundred of rounds. She joined the club about three years ago, at the behest of her friends, she said. Erickson earned her Distinguished Expert Rifleman Award Jan. 10.
"It is really hard to get. You have to shoot hundreds and hundreds of targets to achieve it. It takes a high level of determination and concentration and I'm very happy to have won it," she said.
Erickson believes good shooters can be good for different reasons.
"For me, it's relaxing, and letting everything go, letting all the stress that I've built up over the day go and just relax, thinking just about the gun, good focus," she said. "You have to hold completely still, you have to mentally slow your breathing down so you can hold still."
Erickson supported an assertion the Martins made - the discipline it takes to shoot well translates to life.
"It lets me know for all of my other goals, school, or whatever - 'Oh, look, I've already got my Distinguished Expert, and that was really hard to get. This isn't going to be so difficult,'" she said. "'I can go and do this and I will succeed.'"
The Martins emphasize shooting as a discipline, and the teach the rifle club youths the importance of safety along with the lifelong benefits of shooting skills.
Former club members have gone on to careers in law enforcement and the military.
"I would say that the majority of people who pick up a gun and learn to use it, or do something like this, I would say that they have a different respect for the gun than the average person," Laura Martin said.
Randy Martin said they don't play around, and the kids aren't allowed to either - safety rules are enforced and followed at the club.
"For the first time in 34 years, I had to take a kid off the line this year because he was not being safe. Before he went home, he realized what he was doing and why it was wrong. They all are told these rifles are capable of killing someone and we have to be really careful. We never ever put our finger on the trigger until we are ready to shoot," Randy Martin said.
"I feel bad that there are people shooting people, but that's a pretty small minority when you consider there are 90 million law-abiding gun owners in America. They're not out shooting people daily," Laura Martin said.
She said the fear or antagonism toward guns may have a lot to do with geography.
"If we were city slickers," she said, "we'd probably fear guns, too."
Here in Montana, Randy Martin added, guns are a way of life.
"What kids don't go out and shoot gophers sooner or later? What kids aren't asked to go on a hunting trip sooner or later?" Laura Martin asked.