The public came but, to everybody's astonishment, including Mangels', it was not the public—bunny hunters excepted—that had been anticipated. In addition to the predictable group of gun owners that Winchester originally had set out to attract, the centers also attracted an overwhelming number of non-shooters. In just the first year, between 30% and 40% of those who showed up had never fired a gun before. Most came back for more—and they are still coming.
"It's wonderful to see somebody get the bug," says Myra Gleckel, Bert's wife. "Especially the gals. They come out the first time just to watch. Then they are talked into trying a round. The next time they come they don't have to be asked. And the next time they usually show up with complete shooting outfits. We have so many families shooting here now that we are building a playground just to handle the kids while dad and mother are shooting." Besides building in baby-sitters, Thunder Mountain last year increased its original four fields to seven.
Encouraged by Thunder Mountain's success and by that of similar experimental ranges opened the following year in Clinton, N.J. and Lubbock, Texas, Winchester put up 23 new shooting centers in 1964-65. The franchise owners Winchester chooses are, by and large, established business and professional people who are not financially dependent upon the shooting centers. The majority have split the investment between two or more partners. In Chattanooga the Moccasin Bend range has 100 stockholders, each of whom put $240 and whatever special skills and talents he had into the project. They include doctors, lawyers, teachers, printers, plumbers, contractors, restaurateurs, advertising men, the president of an insurance company, a housewife and a horse trainer.
Most owners are in the 30-to-40-year age group, although a few, like a retired New York surgeon, Dr. Alfred Scharbius, who last July opened the first international public shooting center on Grand Bahama Island, are older. Some have specialized interests in shooting, such as Firearms Writer Larry Koller, co-owner of the Mohonk Valley range at New Paltz, N.Y., and former Winchester Salesman Kinky Carapellese of the Redlands, Calif. center, but many, like Myra and Bert Gleckel, had no previous experience at all with trap or skeet.
Locating the right site for a center has presented its own set of problems. A private gun club can be miles from nowhere and its members will still find it. If a public one is not easily and quickly accessible, nobody will find it. But 60 acres or so of suitable land close to a population center is usually priced beyond economic reality or zoned against anything mildly suggestive of guns. A shooting range, after all, is something of a noise factory.
Winchester currently has a full-time staff scouting the countryside for suitable tracts that might be leased or purchased for future centers. These men are equipped to handle everything from negotiating long-term contracts to placating outraged housewives. They have not, by any means, won all the battles, but several of their victories are notable. The center in Chattanooga, for example, is built behind a disposal plant and the one on Grand Bahama over the Free-port municipal water storage system. Both utilize large tracts of otherwise idle land and have the advantage of long-term leases at token rents. The Wantagh range at Long Island's Jones Beach and the Elm Fork range which opened this fall in Dallas are both on public land. Others combine trap and skeet ranges with hotel resorts, shooting preserves, rifle and pistol ranges and archery courses.
The right combination of partners and property is, nevertheless, only half the formula for success. Labor and leagues make up the other. The real mainstay of a shooting center is its manager. A good one can put a range in the black within a year; a poor one can destroy it almost overnight. The best managers, not surprisingly, have turned out to be ex-servicemen who ran military gun clubs before retiring and who welcome a chance to get back in the field. With $400 to $500 monthly salary to supplement retirement pay, plus incentive bonuses, a hot manager, one who not only can handle the paperwork, inventory, personnel and day-to-day operation but whose personality, ideas and teaching ability bring in new business, can come out way ahead. So, obviously, will the range.
Equally important is the league shooter who, like the league bowler, represents regular, predictable income. Industrial league activity in most public shooting centers this year will add up to some 50% of the business.
When the blue-collar world that hacked the original trail from the TV set to the bowling alley finds itself this much at home on a traditionally white-collar range, there is perhaps conclusive proof that a once private sport has indeed gone public. It is clear, not just to Winchester but to all shooters—blue-, white-or mink-collared—that the future of shooting at clay pigeons has never looked brighter.