Tuesday, January 22, 2008

My Humble Origins: Episode III - The Pellet Strikes Back

When Episode II ended, I had just replaced my ineffectual BB gun with a new Gamo Hunter 440 air rifle in .177 caliber in order to deal with a pesky rat that was pilfering birdseed in my backyard. Now all that remained was to mount and zero the scope, and get in a little target practice so I could count on dispatching the rat quickly, cleanly and humanely.

Luke used to bullseye womp rats in his T-16 back home

You can read the first two episodes here:
Episode I
Episode II

Being an absolute beginner with spring-piston air rifles, I was afraid to zero the rifle and practice with it in my back yard for fear of it being too loud to do stealthily. I can hear you now... "Moron," you say, "you bought the rifle for the sole intent of killing pests in your back yard -- now you say you're afraid to shoot it IN the back yard!?" Well, says I, there's a big difference between taking shot after shot to zero a gun, and taking a single shot out of the blue to kill a rat. The first will eventually draw the attention of any neighbor who happens to be in their own back yard. The second will likely go undetected.

I looked into rifle ranges, but there were few nearby, and they did not seem to allow pellet guns. So I called my dad (who lives about 90 miles away) and asked him if he knew of any place in the area that might be suitable. My dad grew up in the Sacramento Valley of California, and lived in a time when undeveloped areas were in abundance. In those days, you could drive 15 minutes out of town and find a place to zero a deer rifle. Times have certainly changed, but he was sure we could find a place without having to drive too far.

So my dad and I met the next weekend and headed north to find a place to shoot. We eventually wound up in an area called Camp Far West near the reservoir of the same name. We stopped at a bait shop near the lake to inquire about a place to shoot and were told that there was a public outdoor shooting range just a bit up the road. Exactly what we were looking for!

Fifteen minutes later we were parking in an open spot right at the shooting line. The loud report of large caliber rifles and pistols was plain to be heard. Stepping out of the pickup, we surveyed the scene. There was no range master, just a collection of about 30 folks on the line, firing every description of ordnance at an assortment of improvised targets -- from hand-drawn bullseyes on scraps of plywood to shards of demolished ice chests and the remains of major appliances. It was clear that no serious attempt had ever been made by shooters to clean up after themselves. The target area was littered with the detritus of everything that had ever been shot out there. The ground around us was literally covered with spent shells and casings. If the range had a name, I don't recall it. But it looked about two steps removed from the Apocalypse.

A fair representation of "the shooting range at the end of the world"

At the next cease fire, as the motley assemblage of shooters ran out to inspect their destructive powers, I paced off 10 yards and set down my Gamo Cone Pellet trap. Yes, I felt just as ridiculous as you'd expect while doing this. With my air rifle and pellet trap, I was a Cub Scout amidst seasoned mercenaries.

The Gamo Cone Pellet Trap - perfect for high velocity pellets and public humiliation

When shooting resumed, I loaded in a Beeman H&N Match wadcutter and began zeroing the rifle. The Gamo was nowhere near as loud as I'd worried -- and not only because there were .30-06s going off to compare it to. There was a subtle recoil, though it was not unpleasant. But the scope needed lots of adjusting. The gun was shooting really low and left (barrel droop, anyone?). In fact the pellets were ricocheting off the ground, kicking up earth and striking the base of the trap. I kept cranking the turrets of the BSA 4x32 scope to bring the point of impact closer to alignment with the center of the target. It took a LOT of cranking at that close range.

A beauty shot of my Gamo Hunter 440. That's not the original 4x32 scope by the way

Meanwhile, the chaos continued all around us. A couple of gents in their late 30's a few places to our left had a table set out with an armory of weapons. My dad directed my attention to them as they filled a large plastic tube with what looked like black powder. I shuddered to think what they had planned with that little treat, but I didn't have to wait long to find out. At the next cease fire, they ran out and placed the tube inside the blown-out shell of an old TV set they had been shooting at about 40 yards away. They then proceeded to take turns aiming their pistols at it and taking shots. My dad and I watched nervously as they hammered away, oddly unsuccessful at finding their mark. When one of their missed shots caused the canister to fall down out of sight inside the TV, the so-called marksmen groaned their disappointment and I resumed my .177 caliber tea party.

Now that my shots were landing on the 5 1/2" square paper target, I had moved the trap out to 20 yards. I put a couple more clicks on the elevation turret and -- KABOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!! There was a thunderous explosion on the range. I looked out to the TV and it was gone. Literally gone. Small fragments of it were now landing around us. I covered my head and gave my dad the "holy shit" look and was unnerved to see it in his eyes as well. Everything came to a momentary standstill on the range as the two gents exchanged high-fives. There was some nervous chuckling from others around us. I think we were all just glad to still be alive.

Shock and awe at the rifle range

On our right, a recently-arrived family with a young teenage boy were laying out some rifles on a folding table they had just set up. As the range resumed their shooting after the fireworks, I loaded up another pellet and -- BOOM! a bullet went whizzing into the ground in front of us. The boy had gone to pick up one of the rifles from the table and had inadvertently pulled the trigger, nearly striking the leg of a man who happened to be between us and them. The kid had made the exactly wrong assumption that the rifle wasn't loaded. His parents were suitably apologetic and stern with the young man, and he was clearly shaken up and started crying. My dad and I looked at each other and decided immediately that we were well past high-time to get the hell out of there.

We hastily called a cease fire -- much to the chagrin of the other shooters as it was only a few minutes since the last cease fire. I suspect their annoyance was only magnified when they saw it was me running out to collect my dainty pellet trap. I closed my rifle into its case and we beat a hasty retreat out of that God-forsaken mark on the map. We left so fast, we were a mile down the road before I realized I'd left an open tin of pellets on the hood of the truck.

Camp Far West Reservoir - go for the fishing, stay for the unsupervised shooting

We ended up finding a secluded (and unsanctioned) spot off the main road where I finished zeroing my rifle under the quiet boughs of some sprawling oaks. We kicked ourselves realizing that's what we should have done to begin with. So with a spot-on air rifle and a few new gray hairs, I finally headed home to face my quarry.

It was not long before the rat showed her face again. Within a few days of the range exploits, while I was scanning the back yard through the kitchen window, I saw that big Norway rat back out under the feeder.

She was right alongside the wooden rail, directly under the feeder

The time for which I had so laboriously prepared was upon me. I went into the closet and took out the case that held the Gamo, laid it open and lifted out the rifle. I crept to the sliding glass door and slowly pushed it open wide enough to accommodate my rifle. I broke the barrel and inserted the same Beeman H&N wadcutter I had zeroed with. I had selected the wadcutter because I figured the broad head would bring a real wallop at the 20-yard range I was shooting. And having zeroed with it, I knew I could group it well enough for this target. I snapped the barrel shut and edged the muzzle out through the open sliding door. I leaned my left shoulder against the door frame, brought my cheek to the rifle and my eye to the scope.

The rat grew 4 times larger, but at 20 yards still felt like a small target. She was facing directly towards me as she scoured the ground for seeds. I placed the crosshair right between her eyes, snicked off the safety and started to pull through the squishy first stage of the trigger. I could feel my heart pounding and the blood throbbed in my head. I took a deep breath, let it halfway out and squeezed the trigger. The rifle let out a 'thunk' and the spring buzzed inside. Out in the yard, I saw the rat do a flip and start to squirm in the grass. I ran into the garage and grabbed an aluminum baseball bat thinking I might need to finish off the poor devil. By the time I got out to the scene, the rat was making its last gasp. A second later she was dead.

The pellet had gone in at the right cheek and had anchored her right on the spot. All told, she had expired within 20 seconds of the shot. Still, I felt that slight twinge of guilt at having killed her. But the feeling faded as I considered the accuracy of my shot and the delivery on the goal of one shot, one kill. It was a job well done, and I was pleased. I double-bagged the carcass and sent her off to the rubbish bin. Then I went inside to collect accolades from my wife. And although she was squeamish about the entire idea of it, she delivered props in abundance.

More satisfying than destroying the Death Star

Well, that's story of how this adventure began for me. Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it. I know I had fun recalling those days (and marveling that I survived them with all limbs intact). Cheers!


TSBrat2002 said...

About ranges - When I was shooting in the '90s, the indoor pistol range near me allowed pellet rifles. When I went back recently, I noticed that they were on the "ban" list. I have to remember to ask why, and hope to soon. Doesn't matter, I got my backyard and basement (rather cold right now, though) for them.
As for your experience at the shooting range, Wow! Look at all that nice brass to pick up... LOL I think "Moron" might be better tagged to the ill-shooting men with the gunpowder than you!!! After all, look at that great experience of seeing what those folks were doing vs what you were accomplishing.

Kodiak said...

Glad you enjoyed the story.
I find it very odd that ranges wouldn't want to allow air rifles. I can't even guess why that is. If you find out, be sure to let me know.
Hey, if you want brass, you could make your fortune at that place.
Thanks for reading and for taking the time to leave a comment. Keep checking back and I'll keep posting as interesting stories allow. Rat season is only a couple months away. Until then, I'll see you on the forums...

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