At the Tri-County Sportsmen’s League, shots ring out over the pouring rain. There is a man in an oilcloth duster and matching Stetson, and the gun smoke hangs low in the cool spring weather. The gunslinger fantasy is slightly marred by the sight of safety glasses and industrial-grade earphones, not to mention the box of pizza that someone has ordered for lunch. The fantasy dissolves completely with one look at the targets: old bowling pins donated from area alleys.
The league has hosted monthly bowling-pin pistol shoots every summer for longer than anyone can remember. Mike Cowhy has been running them for more than ten years. Cowhy reaches up to release some of the water that has accumulated in the tent canopies set up to keep both the participants and their pistols dry. “We’re getting too hard-core,” he says with a smile.
Despite the rain, more than a dozen men and women have shown up to compete for the best time: participants pay $5 to shoot down six sets of five pins each. The pins are set on shelves roughly fifteen paces from the firing line. A shot timer reports results of each set to a scorekeeper. “It’s a way to add pressure,” says Cowhy. “You could be the best shooter in the world, but when that timer goes off, it’s a different thing.” Last summer, Cowhy’s best time for a five-pin set was 2.45 seconds.
Out on the firing line, one of the shooters misses his final pin and has to reload. “I know who’s buying the beer tonight,” calls out another competitor, waiting his turn under one of the tents. There are tables behind him stacked with cases of guns–.22s, .357s, and .44s, double-stacking and semiautomatics–and boxes of corresponding bullets. Participants are responsible for supplying their own handguns and ammunition, although Cowhy and others are willing to share. Pin shoots are a chance to try out another’s gun, and, if you don’t have the correct bullets, a sly way to get free ammunition for the shoot. The biggest rub comes if a borrower shoots faster than the owner. Achieving the best time, says Rick Parsons of Saline, is all about bragging rights. “It’s even worse if you beat him with his own gun, even by a tenth of a second,” he says.
The Tri-County Sportsmen’s League occupies fifty-seven acres of rolling, partially wooded property just east of Saline. The league was founded more than seventy years ago and offers everything from archery practice to firearm training courses to youth events to monthly steak fries at the clubhouse, with most events open to nonmembers. “It’s a neat place just to be around a bunch of interesting people,” says Mike Moehl, who maintains the league’s 900-strong membership list.
The league has seen an increased interest in target practice, self-defense scenarios, and gun safety courses. The league’s most recent CCW (carrying a concealed weapon) safety course sold out in six days. Another popular event is the annual Women on Target instructional clinic. “People are finally learning that if you’re going to carry a gun, you have to learn how to use it,” Cowhy says.
Edd Carrico says he’s noticed a greater interest in gun ownership, both out at the range and at work–he sells firearms at Cabela’s in Dundee. “More people are getting associated with shooting,” he says. “They come out and try it, and in the back of their mind, they think ‘I wouldn’t mind owning one.'”
More immediately, however, Carrico is worried about his standing in the day’s pin shoot. Mandy Furlong of Milan, a young woman who first began shooting pins when she was eleven, is having another good day. “I’ve got to get her thinking about something other than shooting,” says Carrico as she prepares to shoot her fourth of six rounds. He calls out through the rain, asking her about her feet, clad only in flip-flops.
At the sound of the buzzer, Furlong lifts her gun towards the pins, shoots them down in a cool 3.84 seconds, and turns to Carrico. “My feet,” she says, “are just fine.”