Nobody would have guessed in August of 1962 that the inauspicious opening of the Thunder Mountain Public Shooting Center in Ringwood, N.J. (below) might be launching the decade's most significant trend in shotgun shooting. To most of the sportswriters and spectators who found their way to the top of a remote, bulldozer-scarred hill in the Ramapo Mountain area of northern New Jersey, Thunder Mountain at that time looked like any not-quite-finished gun range. The paint was barely dry on the trap and skeet houses, the turf was distinctly sandy and the owners, like nervous hens at hatching time, seemed uncertain of what they were about to bring forth. But to the men who were there from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Thunder Mountain presented a quite different picture.
It was the first Winchester-franchised shooting operation, the pilot project of a proposed billion-dollar nationwide network of public shooting centers. Before the Winchester project got under way, virtually all organized clay bird shooting in the U.S. was private, and for most gunners the price was prohibitive. The average shotgunner took one look at the already high prices of shells and birds (approximately $3.50 a round), club dues, fees, assessments and various other costs, and promptly put his gun back in the case. Shooting hours were no more encouraging. Shotgunners have been known to run a rabbit or so before catching the 8:02 but the number with time on their hands between 10 and 5, when many private clubs are open, is hardly impressive.
This combination of factors, apparently, was discouraging enough to keep at least 14� million of the country's known 15 million shotgun owners—and untold nonowning neophytes—from sampling cither skeet or trap.
In the three and a half years since Thunder Mountain sent its first clay target sailing over a New Jersey ridge, Winchester has wagered some $1.5 million, the time and talents of some of its top executives and, most significantly, its national reputation on transforming a traditionally private sport into a publie one. With the 26th Winchester Public Shooting Center about to open next month in Houston, and a dozen others already building, the wager is looking like a winner.
Public trap and skeet ranges have not changed the sport. The basic object of both games is still to break 25 moving clay targets with 25 shots. The way the targets are thrown, the way they are supposed to be broken and the way the fields are laid out are meticulously prescribed by the national governing bodies.
To meet such standards, however, even on a small scale, involves an imposing investment in land ( Winchester considers 60 acres minimum for a modest two-trap, two-skeet field setup) and facilities. Most private gun clubs do not have to rely upon the return from such an investment to survive. Members of such clubs are usually pleased, in fact, simply to break even. With dues and other fees to offset operating costs and members to pitch in on odd jobs, a club generally can bridge the gap between overhead and income that would put a commercial operator out of business. This, more than any social consideration, is the major reason why most trap and skeet shooting has been private.
To render the sport public, Winchester first had to bring the independent businessman back into the picture, and make certain that he survived. Both objectives became attainable through franchising. Winchester offered its name, know-how and national reputation to a number of small, independent operators. The company also provided a streamlined package that included everything from machinery, equipment, guns, field layouts, building plans, shooting manuals, even road signs, to an accounting system, a two-week management-training program and the unlimited assistance of technical experts. From groundbreaking to target-breaking a center now averages about three months and from $45,000 to $60,000, exclusive of land, to complete. Winchester will even find the land, arrange the financing and secure the insurance.
Winchester's second move was to adapt the sport for the public. This meant changing it from a strictly daylight activity to a combination of day and evening. Attempts had been made before at lighting ranges for night shooting, but most had been disappointing. A battery of electrical engineers went to work and came up with an entirely new lighting system that makes even the darkest trap field look like Yankee Stadium at a night game.
"Most shooters like the lights," says Bert Gleckel, one of the three owners of Thunder Mountain. "We have some shooters, in fact, who have never shot except at night. The idea of night shooting has really caught on."
Making it catch on was the third and most important part of the Winchester program. "I'll try any legitimate promotion," says the project's director, J. W. Mangels, who arranged for three of Hugh Hefner's bunnies to keep things hopping at the opening of the Hilldale range outside Chicago, "as long as it brings the public to the centers."