The Wild West.

Heber Valley’s Hot Shots

The American West has always been synonymous with firearms. Many ranchers carried a rifle or a pistol for defense against whatever might threaten their livelihood. Shooting at targets for sport gave ranchers, citizens, and lawmen a time and place to safely hone their skills. However, the pass-time dates beyond the foundation of our country. With the invention of gunpowder in 9th century China, it was inevitable that target shooting would eventually evolve from using archery tackle to 10th century fire lances to our modern day firearms. For centuries, society has embraced the sport of target shooting.

Heber Valley’s residents pursue all varieties of outdoor sports; target shooting included. The exact year is not clear; however, sometime in the 1970s, the Heber Valley Gun Club opened its doors for membership. Initially, the club was created specifically for trap and skeet shooting. Today, the club also boasts an additional sporting clays course. Now, you may be thinking, aren’t they all the same thing, but the answer would be, no.

All three use saucer-shaped discs made from clay or other material that are launched into the air. However, the delivery, goals, and courses are different. Originally designed as practice for bird hunting in the 1800s, the goal of trap shooting is to hit the clay ‘pigeons’ or ‘birds’ as they are shot in the air at varying angles using an oscillating machine known as a ‘house’ or ‘bunker.’ The shooters know the target’s point of origin but don’t know the target’s angle. Skeet shooting was introduced in the 1920s to “more effectively simulate the way real birds fly in the field.” Skeet shooters take it up a notch as they try to hit not one but two clay targets as they reach the field’s center and cross one another. Although trap and skeet shooting are useful practice tools for bird hunters, they also create an intense challenge for the novice, hobbyist, and experienced shooter. Today, both are seen as competitive sports and are recognized as official sports of the summer Olympics. Recently, sporting clays has become another popular shotgun shooting discipline. Often referred to as ‘golf with a shotgun,’ this discipline involves shooting on a scenic course with the target’s speed, angle, and distance varying at each station; creating one of the most realistic and challenging bird hunting and sport simulations.

While trap and skeet shooters have had specific places to practice, rifle and pistol enthusiasts were relegated to public land, Do-It-Yourself, shooting galleries. In our valley’s case, that land was just uphill from Heber Valley Gun Club’s site. Thankfully, a series of events precipitated action from the Department of Wildlife Resources and Wasatch County. In 2005, pistol and rifle shooting bays were carved into the mountainside where locals had been shooting for years; creating the Big Hollow Shooting Range.

Scott McGregor, longtime resident and volunteer Range Safety Officer (RSO), explained that the combined efforts of the State of Utah, Wasatch County, and other volunteers made the pistol and rifle range what they are today. Now, both bays have covered shooting positions which allow for relatively comfortable shooting in most weather conditions.

Augmenting the experience from the days of DIY shooting on public land, Big Hollow’s range offers target stands for paper targets, and if there are enough volunteer RSO’s then the pistol range can open the steel targets. Unlike many other ranges, Big Hollow is subsidized by the State of Utah and Wasatch County, and is operated completely by volunteers. The range is open to the public; you do not need to join a club or organization to shoot, and there are no range fees. All participants need to do is sign in and follow the rules of the range. RSO’s maintain the facility.

They also run the show. Upon arrival, they will direct folks to either set up or wait until the range is cold to set up. They volunteer to help keep people safe and offer guidance. Many RSO’s have extensive firearm backgrounds. Some are former military, some retired law enforcement, and some who have approached target shooting as a hobby or for sport.

Often, when asked about the function of a particular firearm, or a malfunction, at least one RSO is onsite who has the knowledge and skills to help. In my personal experience, the volunteers at the rifle and pistol range are among the friendliest and most experienced — not just with firearms — people I have met on the day-to-day. Every RSO is genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of each participant.

A notable observation about the patrons of the range: all are peers, united by a similar interest, from the least experienced to seasoned veterans. There is a mutual interest in how and what other participants are shooting. It is what might be expected when individuals from all walks of life meet in one place to do the same thing.

Someone might be shooting the reloads they crafted in their workshop. Another might be testing out a trigger modification on a competition pistol. The stalky, bearded guy may be working on his pistol grouping on a 7 yard target. Whatever the reason, whatever the passion, people come from all over to use the range to improve and have a good time.

The public can access the range on Wednesdays and weekends. If you hear shooting (it can be heard across the valley) on an off day, there might be some law enforcement officers training.

Big Hollow Shooting Range and Heber Valley Gun Club are about 100 yards from one another which makes it nice for groups, clubs, families, and individuals with interests in different types of shooting. Downhill from Big Hollow you’ll find the Heber Valley Gun Club lodge. While the club operates on DWR land, it admittedly runs with a high degree of autonomy. However, unlike the rifle and pistol range, it is not free. Club dues fund the maintenance of the facility, fields, and traps. Club President, Steve Zwicker, gave me a tour of the club grounds. There are two skeet fields, three trap fields (with an extra on reserve), and a sporting clays course. Zwicker explained how different trap and skeet shooting is from shooting a pistol or rifle. Certain aspects of shooting are roughly the same, the idea of a smooth trigger pull, holding the firearm to your shoulder; shooting a clay target means fixing your sight down the barrel and tracking the target in that manner, whereas the paper and steel targets used for rifle and pistol shooting are generally stationary.

Zwicker took me upstairs inside the lodge to show me where new shooters are oriented. In what appears to have been a small bar at some point, RSO’s teach novice shooters about gun and range safety, and what to expect on the trap and skeet fields before they ever take their first shot. A long poster on the wall shows a landscape horizon with images of clay targets superimposed in the sky; allowing instructors to demonstrate sighting.

Anyone who is new to the sport, or simply curious, can begin with little to no knowledge at Heber Valley Gun Club. A testament to this is how the youth of the community have used the facility for just that. Two clubs from Wasatch High School have become regulars because of the unique quality of the range and, according to one former club member, Wyatt Cummings, the welcoming and supportive quality of the Board of Directors and other volunteers. These clubs are the Wasatch Claybusters and the Wasatch Rodeo Trap Shooters.

Cummings, now a sophomore at Southern Utah University, often sports a trophy belt buckle that symbolizes the fruits of his labor; won from High School trap and skeet shooting competitions around the state of Utah. In 2018, Cummings was one of the first students at Wasatch High School to sign up for the newly formed Wasatch Claybusters. Back then, he explained, many of his peers came from families that spent time hunting which gave them familiarity and experience before they started shooting clay targets. Today, there has been a shift as several participants have had little to no experience with hunting, or firearms for that matter.

Preceding his own membership with Wasatch ClayBusters, Cummings was shooting with other students as a division of the rodeo team, Wasatch Rodeo Trap Shooters. Wasatch ClayBusters was offered as a committed trap and skeet club, so it just made good sense to jump on board. With the great support of the Heber Valley Gun Club, the 15 or so student team began building their name across Utah.

The Heber Valley Gun Club wants the youth involved. Zwicker expressed that it is important for newer generations to keep up the sport; to advocate for it. The same could be said for all forms of target shooting. Given the social nature of skeet and trap shooting, the resulting comradery lends strength to the longevity of the sport.

Having access to these two ranges gives the public a place to safely operate their firearms. Shooting targets requires safety measures and unquestionable backdrops. For residents of Heber Valley, there really is no better place to pursue the passion of shooting than at the Heber Valley and Big Hollow shooting ranges.

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