Across from Swan Lake and east of Montana 83, the Bigfork Gun Club is tucked more than 3 miles into the woods.
Traveling down a winding gravel road on an afternoon in May, gunshots rang out, cutting through the silence of the woods that envelope the shooting ranges that eventually come into view at the end of the road.
The serene setting likely enhances the concentration of individuals lined up at five stations who were trap shooting — their eyes locked on focal points in the distance and guns held in “holding points,” waiting for the impending launch of targets.
The individuals are members of the Bigfork Competitors, a Scholastic Clay Target Program team. The Scholastic Clay Target Program is a national organization administered by the Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation. The team primarily practices and competes in trap and skeet shooting. Occasionally, the team does sporting clays.
Bigfork Competitors Head Coach Robert Henneman summed up trap and skeet shooting as sports that mimic hunting birds, noting that trap shooting is also called clay-pigeon shooting.
Skeet shooting is a derivative of trap, and the difference is that targets are typically launched at two points on the field from a “high” and “low” house that are located across from each other.
The Bigfork Competitors team is open to elementary- through college-aged students. The members who make up the Bigfork team range in age from 8 to 21.
This was the hope when Bigfork Gun Club members Jim Browne and Wayne Hylton established the shooting sports team for youth in 2013.
“Everybody in the club was in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 80s and they didn’t have any youngsters,” Browne said, who noted that it’s provided educational opportunities that extend beyond the shooting range into the classroom through college scholarships.
One of the members to earn a college scholarship was Luke Comstock, who recently graduated from Concordia University. In 2018, he was the all-around state champion in the college division at the Scholastic Clay Target Program state competition.
At practice on May 21, Luke Comstock and Christian Vestal, both 21, were among the original five or six members to join the team. At the time, they had already learned about a variety of shooting sports through 4-H.
“We pretty much mastered rifle, pistol, archery — shotgun was the next thing. It was the one thing we didn’t know how to shoot,” Comstock said when he and Vestal joined the team.
“It’s a lot more dynamic than say a rifle, which is relatively stationary and you stay there a long period of time in prone, kneeling or standing positions,” he said.
Comstock’s mother, Carol, has been a supporter of the team since its inception and serves as the team organizer and grant writer. She said shooting sports are something that people of all abilities can try.
“I think the good thing about shooting sports is that any kid can do it,” she said. “You don’t have to be a jock. You don’t have to be the varsity football player. You can be any kid — boy or girl — young or old. It’s a sport that includes everybody.”
No prior shooting experience is necessary. In addition to Henneman, assistant coaches are on-site at the gun club twice a week for practice on Sundays and Tuesdays.
“Everybody starts off with the basics and then you take the basics and you tweak it a little bit to make it your own and what makes it comfortable for you,” said 18-year-old Mathew Murphy, who is a member of the team and whose dad, Miles, is one of the assistant coaches. “You take a bit from every coach. You take a piece from here and a piece from there and ya kind of build up your own style.”
Team members have the opportunity to compete at the local, state and national level. Last year, the Bigfork Competitors placed third as a team at state. Mathew Murphy placed first at state in his division for trap shooting, which is his favorite event.
He said he got into shooting about three years ago.
“My dad and my uncle took me out to a gravel pit one time and they were throwing birds for me and I was pretty good at shootin’ them, so they just started me in a league,” Murphy said.
When out shooting, he described it as a moment of concentration where the mind empties and focuses on the target.
“To me I find it relaxing,” Murphy said before heading toward the first of eight stations, joining his teammates for skeet shooting practice in preparation for the next state tournament June 29-30.
Although state signals the end of the season, many of the competitors will continue practicing at home.
The Bigfork Competitors practice at 2 p.m. Sundays and 5 p.m. Tuesdays. Guns, ammunition, clays and safety gear is provided free of charge through a National Rifle Association grant.
For more information call Henneman at 608-332-5666.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.