A new facility is a shooting range of another stripe
He’s watching a logging road in a frozen, windless, hardwood bottom. A step here cracks like an ice tray in a library. So, he knows they’re coming, fast, but he’s ready when the first pig steps into his shooting lane. He raises his rifle, both eyes open, swings the red dot along the pig’s midline, finds his lead, fires and swings through as the pig rolls away.
Hunters dream of such a performance, and in September 2013, the Sportsman Shooting Center (SSC) began training them for it. The 9,000-square-foot facility in Grapevine, Texas, is anchored in America’s fourth largest metroplex: Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington. A multi-million-dollar investment has put a high-tech facility with the aesthetic of a high-end lodge at the steps of some 7 million would-be customers. Here instructors teach hunters how to take the kind of shots that present themselves in the field, says Brian Lisankie, president of Aimpoint and subsidiary Sportsman Shooting Center, and helps them understand their limitations and the types of shots they should never take.
“For example, I will always try to get a deer to pause by grunting or whistling to get the best shot I can,” said Lisankie, “even though I know I have the ability, acquired by practice, to cleanly kill a wild boar running full speed through heavy brush.”
The decision to shoot is the hunter’s burden. An honest assessment of his abilities must precede every decision to shoot. Will I harvest this animal cleanly? For some, a “yes” is limited to the ideal standing broadside shot. For others, who have trained and practiced, a “yes” may be something entirely different.
“Success with moving game requires some acquired skill,” he said, “We teach those skills. The shooting tunnel makes sure equipment is doing what it should. On the simulator we evaluate your skills and remove some bad habits to get you on target faster and more accurately. Then, we move you to the cinema range to practice. That three-step process is the ultimate training experience.”
That experience has brought Pam and Travis Nau to SSC twice in three days. Next weekend is opening day for whitetails back home in Missouri, and they’re getting ready.
NRA-certified instructors Michael Cuttrell and Mark Robinson greet the Naus in the lobby, where leather couches and trophy mounts set the stage for coffee, donuts and good conversation. Had the Naus brought gear, Robinson would inspect the firearms, optics and ammunition for safety and proper assembly. Because the Naus are renting modern sporting rifles (MSRs), Robinson, instead, briefs them on safety and on the plan. He and Cuttrell will help them become better shooters. To do it, they’ll use equal parts technology, personal attention and repetition, repetition, repetition.
Step 1. Getting the equipment in order: 25 minutes
“Here’s where we dial it in,” says Robinson as he leads the Naus into a closet of a room with a chair, a monitor and a rifle rest. Cuttrell slides open a wall panel, which engages a ventilation system and reveals a lighted target at the end of 100-yard tunnel. He hands Pam a round and watches. She chambers it and fires.
A Sius Targeting system measures the projectile’s sound waves as it passes through the target and then registers the shot on the computer monitor. Cuttrell adjusts the MSR’s Aimpoint sight and coaches Pam on trigger pull. She loads a round, fires. Better. Another tweak and she’s ready. Travis has his go. The rifles are dialed in.
Step 2. Polishing technique: 45 minutes
In the SimTarget Simulator room, Cuttrell and Robinson teach hunters how to take moving game quickly and accurately by shooting with both eyes open. The hunter fires a laser emitter from an inert rifle at video-game-like scenarios projected onto a wall. The screen then presents the hunter’s tracking pattern and shot placement. Cuttrell and Robinson look for coachable moments.
“Our learning system teaches and refines stance, grip, animal identification, commitment to shoot, focus on the kill zone and shot placement,” Cuttrell said.
He projects 10 bottles on a rack. It’s time for plinking. The Naus take turns. Cuttrell coaches on the path through the bottles and on technique. Both shooters shave time.
Next is a still target at 50 yards.
“Shoot the center,” were Cuttrell’s only instructions. The screen shows Pam’s shot; the barrel was meandering.
“Come from below,” Cuttrell said, “and as soon as you’re on the bull’s-eye, shoot.”
The next shots are quicker, smoother and more accurate.
A moose walks past at 50 yards.
“Track him from low to high, back to front,” Cuttrell said. “Swing across the midline. Watch the leading edge. Swing through.”
Travis and Pam practice the scenario to perfection.
“Good shot. Here’s why.” And with that the moose rotates to highlight the bullet’s path. Then the scenarios heat up from one running moose, to two, and so on until they’re taking running pigs at 100 yards. They’re ready to hunt America’s first live-fire cinema range.
Step 3. The hunt: 45 minutes
The Naus take two of five stations and look 25 meters downrange to a 12×30-foot movie screen.
Robinson briefs them on range rules and explains that to help create a safe environment, SSC also relies on a 12×3-foot rubber bullet trap, 3/8-inch AR-500 steel baffle plates, a rubberized floor and a 96-ton HVAC unit with a three-stage air filter system.
Robinson distributes live rounds and grabs his tablet.
“I’ll see how they shoot and run different scenarios. I have about 140. So, I’ll bring out smaller animals and close the shot window. I want them to get better,” he said.
He puts Pam in a hardwood bottom with pigs walking past at 50 yards. She fires. Infrared sensors detect her shot. A computer system freezes the screen and projects a red dot on the point of impact. Kill shot. After two seconds the scenario resumes, and Pam is swinging, firing and connecting.
She and Travis take turns. In the next 45 minutes, they each take some 80 shots. More often than not, they connect. And as they do, Robinson arranges a hunt where animals run fields, slip cover and spring narrow lanes. At day’s end, the Naus have gotten their gear in order, refined their technique and shot life-like scenarios on three continents.
“It’s great for me to learn to shoot this way” said Pam, who started hunting last year, “And, it’s great practice for me for deer season.”
“It’s a lifetime of shooting in one day,” said Travis, “And, it’s helping me get rid of my bad habits.”
Since September, Cuttrell says, everyone from first-time shooters to African big-game hunters have gone through this process with similar success. Lisankie can relate. He went to Sweden in 2010 for a driven mixed-game hunt, where as is custom there, he first went to a high-tech hunter training facility in Stockholm to prepare. The experience, he says, made his hunt a success and compelled him to bring the opportunity to American hunters. SSC was born.
The inside scoop
The Sportsman Shooting Center opened as the first of its kind in the U.S. Though such facilities are popular in Sweden, learning needs to be done here in the U.S. – both by SSC and by the market. The Grapevine location is meant to facilitate both.
Here SSC is putting its shooting training into business practice by readying its equipment and polishing its technique in sales, marketing and service. For SSC, the hunt begins in 2014. Lisankie would like to see SSC centers across the U.S. Though SSC’s plans are private, their actions thus far give some insight into their values and how they may approach concerns common to ranges:
- Location is key: SSC sits in America’s fourth-largest urban area, in one of the most ardent gun states, in a business complex that is near an airport, an Interstate, hotels and restaurants and an outdoor superstore.
- Be a good neighbor: Planning commissions and others want good neighbors. “We have noise control and air filtration down to a science,” Lisankie said. “We have a safe, efficient facility that won’t provide any negative externalities for neighboring businesses.”
- Find first-time customers: SSC draws hunters through multi-media advertising, social media, and partnerships with Dallas Safari Club and others. Social media is attracting new shooters. The experience brings them back.
- Design for success: SSC is an interpretation of successful European facilities. Each new facility will be a refinement of the previous.
- Engage advisors: SSC values insight from partners and industry experts at NSSF, NRA and elsewhere.
- Focus on the customer: SSC is a multi-million dollar investment in customer satisfaction. For Lisankie, the ability to tailor a shooting experience is key. That tailored experience relies on location, technology, safety, lodge aesthetics, quality instructors and gear such as Blaser firearms, Norma ammunition and Aimpoint sights. The experience exceeds the sum of its parts.
SSC’s future remains to be seen, but this we know: More Americans than ever—more than 80 percent—live in urban areas; hunting is growing in popularity for the first time in decades; and firearms sales have rocketed in recent years. The new American shooter walks concrete more often than creek beds. They were raised on the web, video games, CNN 24-hour news cycle, iMax cinemas and instant visual gratification.
Punching paper and plinking plates will always be good practice, but there’s great promise for a facility that captures the customer’s imagination, holds his attention, drops him into real hunting scenarios and gives him confidence, calm and capability when he needs it most, that is, when he’s watching a tight shooting lane and the game is coming fast.