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March 26. 2013 7:29PM

Nation's oldest

Exeter shooting club marks 135 years of promoting gun safety


President Butch York, left, and Vice President Tom Wharon of the Exeter Sportsman's Club talks about the history of the club as its 135 anniversary approaches. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)


Club facilities captain Anthony Picciano, right and range captain Joe Kenick, Jr., enter the clubhouse at the Exeter Sportsman's Club on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Club range captain Joe Kenick, Jr., points out a photo of championship winning team from Exeter from 1884 at the Exeter Sportsman's Club on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Officials at the Exeter Sportsman's Club Joe Kenick, Jr., from left, Bud Field, Butch York, Tom Wharon, Anthony Picciano, Mike Rowe and Roberta Pevear gather to talk about the history of the club as its 135 anniversary approaches. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

EXETER - They don't shoot live pigeons anymore, and that is just one of many changes that have been made at the Exeter Sportsman's Club during its first 135 years.

The makeup and size of the membership, the targets offered - even the club's location - are different from when it formed.

"Everything's changed really, except the reason we're here," said Joe Kenick Jr., the club range captain. "The club was founded for 'the protection of game and improvement in shooting.' We're still here, and we've been following that lead ever since."

The club organized on March 23, 1878, and is the "oldest trap shooting club in the U.S.A.," according to club historian and secretary - and former state legislator - Roberta Pevear.

Club officials say its membership continues to grow.

"We've seen a definite uptick in demand for the type of services our club offers - the opportunity to learn the sport and do so safely," said President Butch York. "My philosophy is I really can't control who can purchase a firearm. What I can do is try to make sure they handle them safely. ... Right now we're running one class a month for 12 students, and we're booked up through June - and the only reason we aren't booked past that is we haven't posted any other dates yet. The demand has essentially been more than we can meet here."

Tom Wharton, club vice president, said: "It really is amazing to see the response the courses are getting, and 70 percent of those signing up are women. It's incredible to see all the women that are interested that have never touched a firearm before. They're tentative at the start, but it's fun by the end to see them realize they can handle a gun and shoot it accurately and enjoy doing it."

Long history

In 1878, the club had 27 members who organized with the idea to promote the conservation of fish and game, stimulate interest in the shooting sports and create a high standard of sportsmanship among members.

After a few years, the club outlawed the shooting of live pigeons and took up glass ball target shooting instead.

"There was some public resistance to shooting pigeons," said York. "Plus, the number of pigeons available to them declined, so they had to switch to another target. They switched to glass balls, but you can imagine the refuse that was left after shooting them."

The club shot the glass targets until the invention of the clay target in 1880, which eventually led to a change to the new targets. The club's original glass ball target launcher has been donated to the Exeter Historical Society, where it is on display.

In 1884, a team of five members from the Exeter club, led by Dr. Charles E. Gerrish, won the first International Clay Pigeon Shoot, held in Chicago.

"The whole town showed up at the train station when they pulled in at midnight," said Tony Picciano, the club's facilities captain. "They were shooting off guns, dancing, drinking - they were treated like heroes."

The Exeter Sportsman's Club club originally used grounds behind Rowland Springs in Exeter to hold shoots, but in 1919 moved to Jady Hill, where it shared land with the Exeter Country Club until the mid-1950s. In 1955, Exeter town officials offered the sportsman's club a lease on land surrounding the Water Works Pond. In 1957, the Sportsman's Club built the clubhouse that's used today.

Growing interest

York said the interest level he's seeing in club membership - and gun ownership - is higher than in recent years has spiked.

"It's an increase over what we've seen in the past, and it's probably being driven by more people buying firearms because they think that firearms are going to be restricted," said York. "We have no control over that. What we consider to be our social obligation is to make sure the people who come to us are trained to handle a firearm safely. Safety is no accident."

The club's instructors go through courses certified by the National Rifle Association. The only course the club is currently running is a handgun safety course. Soon it will offer a course on personal defense in the home.

"We haven't offered that course, but we will be," said Kenick. "When we talk to people in the pistol course, half to three-quarters of them in there want the personal defense course."

York said a variety of people make up the club's membership.

"It runs the gamut from older individuals to, maybe, some 10-year-olds supervised at arm's length by a parent or guardian," said York. "There was a guy out there one day, a World War II veteran, and he had his M1 with him. That thing is loud. But he was out there, shooting at targets from about 100 yards out. I spent some time talking to him. You could tell he was enjoying it."

Last weekend marked the actual anniversary of the club's founding, but members will celebrate the occasion during the club's annual meeting on April 15 in the Alemaker's Room at the Redhook Brewery in Portsmouth.

pfeely@unionleader.com


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