The world of shooting sports covers a wide array of firearms, disciplines and passions, but twice a week shooters looking for a morning of friendly competition, camaraderie and, of course, tests of long-range marksmanship should be at the shooting range northwest of Havre.
Saturday and Wednesday mornings at 8 a.m. throughout the year, shooters with a desire to go beyond punching holes into paper targets meet at the Hill County Shooting Sports Recreation Area, five miles west on River Road north of Havre, to challenge themselves against a variety of targets and distances.
Generally, six to 12 shooters show up each time, said shooting range member Chuck Evans and, beyond extreme cold, the only weather that really stops the action is heavy rain.
"You don't want to get your guns wet. They're way too valuable for that," he said.
The targets are placed on permanent rails set at 50, 100, 150 and 200 meters and 300, 400, 500 and 900 yards. These targets are half-inch metal plate silhouettes of sheep, pigs, chickens and turkeys. For the keen of eye, pop and water bottles filled with colored water, softballs and even golf balls are added to the three closest rails. A permanently mounted metal gong hangs in a frame at the 150 meter distance.
The metal targets will fall when struck or at least ring out with the sound of a bullet strike.
"Most people enjoy something that's more reactive to what they're doing, even video games" or trap shooting, Evans said.
Originally started for enthusiasts with antique and replica lever-action rifles, using home-cast and reloaded bullets, the group evolved to allow shooters with any firearms, even pistols.
"The majority of the people out here still shoot cast bullets, and the majority of us cast our own," Erv Hamblock, the range officer who oversees activities at the shooting range, said about using reloaded bullets rather than factory loads.
"It's cheaper, too," he added. "It costs one-fourth of what a loaded round costs you."
Contrary to the Hollywood image of the modern gunman, for these shooters part of the attraction to the sport is the science of reloading and the personal investment of time and care that comes with the process.
"It's the self-satisfaction to put it all together," said Hamblock, who has been shooting and reloading for more than 40 years.
The reloading process begins with casting bullets out of melted lead then sizing and cleaning the metal bullet cases. Next, fresh primers are seated into the cases, powder is added and finally bullets are fitted into the cases.
All the work is by hand, one bullet at a time, using a mechanism called a single stage reloading press.
Reloaders customize the power of the loads and generally stick with what works for them and their rifles, Hamblock said, because changing the amount of powder in the reloads changes the setting for the gun sights.
"Some people live and die for golf," Hamblock said. "We're shooters, this is our golf game."
The historical significance of shooting the antique and replica guns is another piece of the attraction.
"You're taking something that's a part of history like these old lever guns, like my 32.20," said Evans, "... I found it in a used gun rack."
The rifle, he said, was designed in 1892 and built the year his dad was born in 1909. It required some cleaning and refurbishing to get it in shooting condition.
"For me to be able to take that old gun, even as ratty as it looks, and tip over a steel target at 300 yards with ammunition that I've crafted, that's what I love. And I make history live again."
Member Bob Brix said the 45.70 rifles that many of shooters use go back to the "buffalo days" and the time when Fort Assinniboine was being built.
All of the shooting is done standing without a rest, called off-hand, and with open sites rather than a scope.
Some open sights, made specifically for long-range shooting, are up to several inches tall with measurements like a ruler, and the shooter can keep track of what numbered settings work best for each of several different distances. The ability to adjust sights is important when shooting distances vary as much as they do on this range.
Those unfamiliar with shooting can think of it like throwing a baseball. A ball thrown to the catcher from the pitcher's mound travels much flatter than a ball arced in from deep center field. That throw from the outfield is aimed much higher to create the arc.
Bullets also have to be lobbed at distant targets. A gun with fixed sights set for a 50-meter target would have to be pointed well over the top of a 500-yard target to account for the amount of arc, and this would make accurate aiming impossible.
Eighty-year-old member Charles "Bing" Coe, who has been an avid shooter since he purchased his first pistol at age 10, said that when shooting at 500-yard targets or farther the amount of drop of the bullet - distance from the top of the arc to the level of the target - is measured in yards rather than inches or feet.
When shooting a 45.70 rifle from 500 yards, Evans added, the spotter sees the bullet strike the target, but it takes time for the sound of the strike to travel back to the shooter. The time from when the gun fires to when the sound of the strike returns can be up to five seconds, he said.
Whether shooting at a 500-yard target or one at 50 meters, shooters have to get in the zone, Evans said. Getting there is a matter of mastering habits, starting from the moment you pick up the gun and load the bullet to when you take your stance and aim, he added, "you slow down your breathing and your heart rate ... the concentration is the key."
"When we leave here after we shoot," said Brix, "we leave and we're thinking about the next day."
The rifle range started up in 1978 when the Havre Rifle and Pistol Club leased the land from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
As part of their agreement the range is used for the practical portion of area FWP hunter safety programs. Erv Hamblock, the range officer in charge of maintenance and safety, said a total of about 80 youths come to the range each year to learn about safe gun handling from certified instructors.
The club also supports the Havre VFW Junior Rifle Club
Long-time members said that, of all their activities, they are most proud of their affiliation with FWP and their community service for the kids.
To get a $15 membership to the shooting range, contact Hamblock at 265-4918.