Public shooting ranges are sprouting up across North Carolina, giving shooters such as Joel Statler of Caswell County a place to sight in the scope on his .50-caliber muzzleloader.
“I’m trying to get ready for deer season,” Statler said at the new R. Wayne Bailey/Caswell Game Land Shooting Range, pausing while firing at a green-and-orange target 50 yards away.
“I love it,” he said of the 2-month-old range. “It’s convenient. Safe. Friendly people.”
Shots by Statler and John Trumpower of Alamance County pierced two targets on a recent Saturday in October as they prepared for the two-week muzzleloader (black powder) season. It began Nov. 1 in Caswell and elsewhere in the Piedmont, to be followed by the modern gun season on Nov. 15.
Bailey/Caswell is one of three outdoor ranges that opened this year, either built or renovated by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. The two others are Flintlock Valley in the Uwharrie National Forest near Troy and John F. Lentz Hunter Education Complex at Ellerbe in the Sandhills, which re-opened in late October.
A fourth, Wayne E. Smith/Cold Mountain near Waynesville in Western North Carolina, began hosting shooters in 2008.
Flush with federal revenues and spurred by a growing demand for ranges, the commission plans in 2015 to open two more, in Cleveland and Pender counties.
The Cleveland range, near Shelby, will be the state’s biggest. It will have a 10-lane, 250-yard rifle range; a 12-lane, 50-yard pistol range; two skeet and trap ranges, and a 3-D archery range. The wildlife commission has agreed to contribute $1 million toward a $2 million cost that includes four proposed additional pistol ranges.
At Flintlock Valley, full-time safety officer Garrett Goforth said the range has become a popular destination after opening in spring.
“Every Saturday, I’m slammed pack with people,” he said, with an estimated 40 to 60 shooters coming and going during the day.
Shooters fire from seven stations on the 100-yard rifle/shotgun/muzzleloader range; target stands can be set up at 25-yard increments. Next to the rifle range is a 25-yard, four-station pistol range.
When Goforth determines that shooters want the range to go “cold” so they can view or replace targets, he paces up and down the shooting stations calling out, “Cease fire. Cease fire. Cease fire.” At that command, shooters not only must stop shooting but also may not touch their firearms until he declares the range is again “hot.”
“Everybody says they feel a lot safer with me being here,” Goforth said. The Lentz range also has a safety officer; the others don’t.
Uwharrie Forest officials closed Flintlock Valley in 2010 because of safety concerns. The wildlife commission renovated it for $250,000 in federal excise tax money on gun and ammunition sales, state hunting/fishing license revenues, a $25,000 grant from the National Rifle Association and $5,000 from a private donor.
The range, near Badin Lake 3.3 miles west of N.C. 109, charges a $3-a-day fee or $30 for an annual pass. (The other ranges are free).
Flintlock Valley allows fully automatic rifles on the first Tuesday of each month. Goforth said shooters must show their National Firearms Act Class III tax stamps required for automatic rifles as well as for firearms equipped with silencers or sound suppressors.
Robert Carter of Greensboro made his first visit to Flintlock Valley in late October to target-shoot his .22 rifle from a benchrest.
“Good range. Feel safe. Good people running it. Fair price,” he said. “It’s the closest rifle range that’s not a club.”
Here are details on the other ranges:
• Smith/Cold Mountain, $156,000 construction cost, paid for with license revenues, five rifle lanes but no pistol range.
• Bailey/Caswell, $243,501 construction cost, paid for with license revenues, five rifle lanes and five pistol lanes.
• John F. Lentz, $87,260 renovation cost, paid for with license revenues and federal excise tax monies, six rifle lanes and three/six pistol lanes. In addition, the range offers archery, skeet and trap, five-stand sporting clays and 3-D archery ranges.
The impetus for creating the ranges came from two developments, said the wildlife commission’s Erik Christofferson, chief of the Division of Engineering and Lands Management in Raleigh.
First, a recent surge in firearms sales meant higher revenues from the federal excise tax. Second, target practice on state game lands, where not prohibited, led to safety and noise concerns by adjacent homeowners and the problem of litter left by shooters.
Christofferson said the game lands issues underscored the need for outdoors ranges. In addition, the commission is conducting noise tests around a proposed range on the Linville River Game Land near Morganton and evaluating a site near Lenoir in Caldwell County.
“We are seeking additional locations,” he said, on game lands as well as on private lands. “We’ll continue to build more with funding.”
Sites near big cities aren’t out of the question, but difficult to find.
“It’s hard to do something in Mecklenburg or Wake County,” he said, because of dense populations and the proximity of homes. As a rule of thumb, the commission looks for sites where gunshot sounds carried to the nearest houses is 60 decibels or less. That could be a quarter mile to a mile away. Sixty decibels equates to normal conversation; a gunshot registers 140 decibels.
Christofferson said the shooting ranges fill a growing need. North Carolina in 2011 had 335,000 hunters and 577,000 target shooters, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s most recent data.
At the Bailey/Caswell range, deer hunter Claude Custer and his daughter, Katlyn, drove the 40 miles from Durham in late October to sight in new scopes on his .308 and .30/06 rifles.
“I wish there were more of these,” Claude Custer said. “I wish there was one closer.”