Whitehall Jr. Rifle Program teaches marksmanship, safety
By Derek Liebig
Jacob Gosselin wrapped the sling around his forearm, laid down on the piece of carpet barely longer than he is tall, chambered a shell, held the gun firmly against his right shoulder and gently squeezed the trigger.
A fraction of a second later, the .22 caliber shell, traveling at 800 miles per hour, tore through a paper target 50 feet away, landing just right of the bulls-eye. To his left, six others—some lying, others sitting, kneeling or standing—fired round after round, trying to perfect their aim, while a handful of instructors kept close watch, offering advice and words of encouragement.
A similar scene has played out every Saturday for the past five weeks as area youths have learned more about marksmanship and responsible gun handling.
“We’re teaching competitive marksmanship with a strong emphasis on safety,” Jim Lafayette said.
More than two dozen youths, as young as 10 and as old as 18, participate in the Whitehall Jr. Rifle Program. The program is open to kids not only from Whitehall but from other communities as well; there are members from Ticonderoga, Dresden and Hartford.
Every Saturday through the months of February and March, participants, their parents and members of the Whitehall Rifle Club assemble at the Hollister Road gun range, a roughly 80-foot long by 20-foot wide steel building constructed on John Hollister’s farm at the intersection of County Route 9 and Hollister Road.
Parents stand in the “lobby,” a small room featuring several desks and lockers separated from the shooting range, drinking coffee, reading newspapers and hunting magazines and shooting the breeze. The young shooters, dressed in shooting jackets, safety glasses and ear protection that would make an air traffic control operator blush, stand in a corner peering through a window at their fellow shooters waiting for their turn at the firing lane.
The group of youths features both experienced and inexperienced shooters.
“Some have never fired a gun before. This gives them exposure,” Lafayette said. “It’s very rewarding to see them progress.”
Others like Noah Ramey, Hollis Paquette, Jay Lawrence and Malia and Joe DeLorme have been shooting for years and have become so adept they compete on area rifle clubs. Last week, Ramey and Joe DeLorme shot a 190 and 189 (out of 200), respectively, in a Whitehall Rifle Club match against Hartford. Lawrence, a Hartford resident, shot a 192 for his hometown team.
“These kids are really holding their own,” Lafayette said.
Although no one could remember a firm date, all agreed the Jr. Rifle Program has been in existence for more than 50 years. Several members of the Whitehall Rifle Club, including Lafayette, participated in the program when they were kids.
The Whitehall Rifle Club was formed in 1947 to offer local marksmen an opportunity to compete against area shooters. The Jr. Rifle Program was later created to teach area children responsible gun handling and to serve as a feeder program for the senior team.
Both the Rifle Club and the Jr. Program shot for many years on Lower Main Street. But as the building aged, members decided it was more cost effective to build a new facility and have been shooting on Hollister Road ever since. Since the new range opened more than a decade ago, the team has never lost a home contest, a span of more than 90 matches.
“Whitehall and Galway both have youth programs and you can tell the difference it makes,” Lafayette said.
Members of the club serve as Jr. Program instructors, teaching the kids everything from the most rudimentary skills like how to load the gun to more refined skills, such as controlling their breathing, an important skill in a sport where the difference between winning and losing is millimeters.
But teaching the next generation of marksmen (or markswomen; there are almost as many girls in the Jr. Program as boys) is second to safety.
“You know that one day they’ll be in the field with a rifle and they’ll know what to do with it to be safe,” Lafayette said.