Like seersucker suits and Waffle Houses, churches are icons of the southern United States and the area around Charleston, South Carolina is no exception. Believe us, when we were there it seemed at times you couldn’t turn around without finding yourself staring at a place of worship.
A church, in the strictest sense, is a house of God, but, in their more literal life, often at the center of communities, churches fill a multitude of roles for folks coming to them from innumerable denominations. To many churches represent a safe place—an institution that offers protection and sanctuary from a world that is, at times, violent and chaotic. Many others turn to churches for guidance on how to best conduct themselves in their personal lives and pursuits. And still others flock to the chapel, simply to feel a bond with like-minded souls, a good place to engage in worship and fellowship with their neighbors.
Celestial aspirations aside, if you’re looking for an equivalent institution in the shooting world for churches, gun ranges pretty much fit the bill in that shooting ranges serve a similar function for gun folk. Monuments to Shooterdom, ranges act as refuges of protection, bastions of gun knowledge and venues of clean and meaningful social interactions between recreationally compatible people.
The handful we visited while down south are proof positive of this principle and paint a pretty picture as to why, in times of trial and triumph, folks turn to the range:
1340 College Park Road,
Summerville SC, 29483
If you ask about gun ranges in and around Charleston, the name that comes to most folks’ lips first is ATP. Less than 25 minutes north of Charleston in Summersville, South Carolina, one only needs to step foot in their showroom (home to just about every drool worthy, self defense weapon produced in the last 20 years on five continents) to understand why, in 2011, to many low country South Carolinians, ATP exemplifies their concept of guns.
A large warehouse looking thing located off of Summerville’s main street just a short jaunt away from I-26 and surrounded by a sea of widely dispersed trailer homes, ATP Gunshop and Range is clearly set up to cater to shooters with an interest in self-defense and exercising their 2nd Amendment rights to the fullest, with a jaw-dropping array of class-3 tactical wonders hanging from the walls, up to the minute handguns of the full-frame and pocket pistol varieties glistening under glass, scatterguns, ARs, and even a respectable sampling of vintage Garands, carbines and other milsurp guns ready for sale on their floor racks. All this and your basic smattering of civilian sheepdog gear under one roof with dueling ranges adjacent to the salesroom; a pretty darn impressive venture at first blush.
We had come to ATP to check out their Ladies Night, a women’s intro to firearms program and an event that, after a year’s time, was getting a lot of buzz from shooters in the area as well as on the local and national media (while we there a local radio station was shuffling one of their DJs through the paces).
The brainchild of store manager and certified pistol instructor, Stephanie Kaestner, Ladies Night has gone from a hesitantly funded side project to the mainstay in ATP’s vast offerings, consistently selling out their several sessions every Tuesday and Thursday night.
For a modest $30 fee, shooters receive 50 rounds of .22 rimfire ammunition, the use of a semi-automatic handgun and a revolver, custom pink targets, eyes and ears (also in the ubiquitous pink), a tee-shirt and a 5-day range pass. The only requirement for participation is that you’re a woman (and if you’re “underage” you have an adult present). All in all this may seem just like a pretty good price for your basic, girl meets gun course, but the stroke of genius, however, was in taking men out of the equation. After I watched a class in session, Stephanie filled me in on how and why that came about:
“Before we did ladies night, we did a couples shoot once and it was a disaster. The guys couldn’t resist telling their girlfriends or spouses what to do, mostly because it was guns. Women, when they’re just learning how to be comfortable around firearms, can be easily intimidated not just by the guns but by the guys and it’s not helpful, especially when you’re trying to get more shooters out there. Eventually the man ended up doing all the shooting while the girl watched.”
Female shooters get their own range, staffed entirely by female instructors—and not without special writ of permission from the Range Pope (or Pope-ette?) may a member of the opposite sex step foot in this domain (we got a bit of a well intentioned tongue lashing from an employee who had not been informed we were invited to see the event as we exited the lady’s range).
Hosting several sessions per night, new shooters begin with a classroom component run by a certified pistol instructor on safety, function and what to expect once they head over to range. When they get to the range, decked out with pink targets of the classic thug shooter, their implements, namely guns, ammo and eyes and ears, are waiting for them at one of several shooting lanes. The whole thing looks like a really nice female shooters birthday party, and the mood is appropriately relaxed.
From what we saw, the ladies were mostly shooting Walther P22s, but the range was also trying out at least one Smith & Wesson M&P. Their review of the S&W was resoundingly favorable, with one instructor pining, she hoped Ladies Night switched over to the small caliber polymer exclusively. Participants were also shooting a sundry of nine-shot revolvers with many offerings also coming from Smith and Wesson.
Though participants represented all age groups (there was one eight-year old girl plugging the paper intruder consistently in the “Get out of my house” ring), most shooters were young women in their twenties and thirties. When asked about this, Stephanie cited the desire and need for females to take control of their own personal protection:
“These women might live alone or have had bad experiences in the past and it’s important that they know how to protect themselves and that there are ways that they can protect. It’s also important that they are confident in themselves, and knowing how to fire a gun can help with that.”
And, indeed. Whatever was happening there besides just a bunch of women shooting .22s did seem to have an ameliorating effect on their overall poise and all I witnessed while I was there were a bunch of smiling, empowered looking female faces, taking to shooting like chips at their first fire. For lack of a better (or less ironic) word, all the ladies seemed genuinely “disarmed” about soaking in the experience and I’m not sure this would have been the case had they attempted to shoot on their own or had there been a bunch of dudes tripping over their tongues to help these damsel’s in distress (well, not so much in distress after a couple sessions at ATP).
But the proof is in the pudding as they say and, with female shooters representing the fastest growing demographic of firearm purchasers in the country, it’s no surprise ATP’s Ladies Night boasts almost a 50% turnaround on participants purchasing firearms, and this is as much testament to Ms. Kaestner’s business prowess as it is to an increase in girls with guns.
We’ve never been in the business of knowingly lying to you guys, and we’re not gonna start now by blowing a bunch of smoke up your keisters about ATP’s standing amongst shooters: all you need to do is google the shop to find out they have somewhat of a reputation for high prices and they don’t seem to be winning a lot of awards for stellar customer service.
That said, we found the ATP crew (and they were a whole lot of them which was a little strange) to be friendly enough and definitely hospitable (even in so much as they let us throw some lead downrange with their MP5 and a couple of pistols well after closing time), their selection of weapons, in-house, is mesmerizing and unfathomable in other regions of the country, and if you can’t afford their guns, well, that’s kind of your problem, not ATP’s, because somebody’s buying them. Aside from this, their Ladies Night program was one of the most brilliantly executed woman’s self-defense introductions we’ve come across and conducted in a manner that other ranges across the country would do well to take note of, their range fees are a bargain at $5 for daily use and they are by far the largest indoor range in the area.
1643 Savannah Hwy, PMB 285
Charleston, SC 29407
Coach Smith (from this article) tipped us off to Palmetto Gun Club, and even arranged for us to meet-up with the range’s acting president, Gary Wilson (a position Coach Smith himself held at one time). I felt a little embarrassed I’d missed this range during our research for the Charleston project, until I realized they’re not really that interested in being found, so I’m ostensibly off the hook.
The fact that these guys don’t go around advertising, or that it is a members and guests club, isn’t code for this outfit is snobby—in fact, quite the opposite; they’re just full up on members and have been for decades now so there is no real incentive to promote themselves (what we found is their reputation pretty much speaks for itself anyways).
Daniel and I headed out there mid-week and, waiting at the security coded gates for our contact, I was thoroughly impressed by how many cars I counted coming in and out. Clearly this bustling activity was a sign of good health, only to be confirmed once Gary arrived and gave us the grand tour.
As we nosed around the rifle range, Palmetto reminded me of the gun ranges of my youth, despite the fact that I never once shot at a place this nice when I was a kid. Beautifully manicured but not golf course manicured, strolling the grounds was a lot like taking a walk in a park, birds chirping, sun smiling, shooters shooting (but in a good way, not like in the inner city park way). This was the kind of range I’d take my rifle to in mid-october to tighten up for deer season or dig out my old Ruger .22 and make a day of picking off plastic army men (yeah, I still do that sometimes).
With no club house to speak of (there’s a small trailer that acts as their administrative office), in theory and practice, this organization is about as divorced from the ever-present sportsman’s club image (often just a bar with a big back yard and a rifle hanging over the door) as I can imagine. Everything we saw screamed one word and one word only and that was shooting and really all you had to do was look at the series of competitive shooting matches, concealed carry classes and hands-on instructional events with stamps like NRA on them that Palmetto had lined up to realize this was a place of learning and recreation for shooters of all experience levels. A place that had the proper infrastucture to accommadate every strand of gun folk.
The range consists of 10 pistol bays, a series of plinking ranges, Cowboy Action Shooting set-ups (complete with real wooden saloons and metal silhouettes) as well as a 100, 200 and 300-yard rifle ranges alongside a long range line with targets up to 800 yards. Currently, Gary put their numbers in excess of 300 members. He also told us these are literally people from all walks of life—truckers, doctors, janitors, businessmen—including many from law enforcement (and at least one ATF agent). A membership costs somewhere in the 300 dollar range annually which, given all you have access to is a steal, and requires member sponsorship plus a two part vote, one of which is usually pursuant to an interview that emphasizes the candidates familiarity with range safety.
The club has moved several times over it’s many years in existance and is actually in the process of moving now. Sitting on premium, lightly developed South Carolina country, real estate interests and the perpetually expanding developments to the north, east and south tend to eye the ranges acres hungrily. However, with an established and tenured existence in the area and a reputation for playing well with others i.e. their neighbors, I got the impression Palmetto Gun Club isn’t being muscled out of anywhere if they don’t want to be. Likewise, from the plans I got to see, the new range will be larger, offer more courses of fire (including a trap site) and is being developed on the other guy’s dime (as well it should be) after an agreement was made with parties interested in the current lot.
They’ve fostered a very family friendly vibe and caught myself musing about how if the winters get to me and I make my grand exodus down south, this is the type of range I’d like to shoot at. The very fact that they have an 800-yard rifle range is both venerable and atypical for the east coast and as Gary, Daniel and I shot the crummy little Kel-Tec Sub 2000 (I shouldn’t say crummy. Hey, it shoots straight.) and our Springfield XDM 5.25 Competition we brought along with us at one of the several plinking ranges, I remember distinctly thinking to myself, I could spend the rest of my life here.
Down Highway 41
Jamestown, SC 29453
We went out to Boggy Head our last day in Charleston to meet up with some fans of Guns.com who contacted us when we surreptitiously announced on Facebook we’d be in Charleston. In the interest of full disclosure, we were a little lukewarm about going there (not meeting fans of Guns.com of course, the greatest website and website audience this world has ever witnessed, period, just the choice of location).
We had actually been warned twice previously about this range which is located about an hour’s drive into Francis Marion National Forest by several members of Charleston’s shooteratti. One referred to it as simply “the Wild West,” while another regaled us with stories about yahoos stealing your guns when you went downrange to change your target and destroying the facility so regularly, the federal government (who maintains the place. It is on a National Park) just gave up on it at one point, and allowed it to go to pot.
Thankfully, we saw none of this during our time there, in what turned out to be an incredibly pleasant afternoon shooting a cache of arms that would make Rambo squeal with some truly fantastic and intelligent people. The only thing we can think is that these horror stories about Boggy Head are outdated (something even our sources conceded as none of them had shot there in many years) and though the range was packed and there was little in the way of target shooting going on, we all felt safe there and there was an abiding sense of freedom I’m not sure you ever totally got anywhere else that we shot. And hey, it is free.
The drive there from Charleston is gorgeous. Once you hit the National Forest, you cruise Highway 41 (and the only paved road we noticed), corralled on either side by thin, new growth trees standing in formation like an army ready and waiting to take back all that man has claimed for himself.
The range was in full swing when we got there and Enjay, a friend of the site and our source for Boggy Head, along with her husband greeted us. This was actually her first time at this range as well, though, as a resident transplant originally from Wisconsin, she had heard about the Boggy Head for some time.
The cast of characters at this range was far too large to mention here but suffice it to say we probably got the most honest cross-section of Charleston area shooters at this range. There were military veterans firing machine guns, there were hunters zeroing in rifles. There were industry professionals trying out new barrels, there were handloaders perfecting recipes. There were women, there were children, there were old men, there were young men. At times I saw people squeezing in between two shooters to pony up to the firing line (safety was most definitely observed but laxer than I’m used to).
I started off shooting Enjay’s little M1 carbine, then traded up for an AR pistol (with a cheek rest instead of a stock) furnished by a shooting friend of hers. In fact, it seemed like everyone was friends there (it really did) and it wasn’t until about the first hour was over that I realized many of these “friends” were meeting for the first time. That was the tone of the shoot and I think it’s important to understanding Boggy Head. It’s special in that we really saw people coming together over their love of firearms here.
All told, I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many guns I fired that day. There were silenced machine guns, M16s, vintage Remington shotguns, a gorgeous Kimber custom shop pistol with a trigger that breaks like a communion wafer (and that I now have my eye on), Springfields, HKs, 1911s and a big buck daddy pistol chambered in .460 Rowland (which temporarily—or at least we hope—gave our own Chris Callahan hearing loss in one ear).
All in all it was simply a blast and I was really glad we made it out there because, in truth, it probably provided me with more insight into what makes Charleston’s gun crowd tick than any other place we visited down south. I would say the tie that binds them all was that these people liked guns because there is no other way that they would feel about them. A writer could sit and ponder what inspires people to pick up a gun and go shooting and I could distill their responses into some piece of knowledge about how this bears on question what are guns to Charleston, but, in the scope of Boggy Head, this just seems wrong. These people all shot guns for an untold number of different reasons—who’s to say what drew them to guns in the first place or what purpose they’re shooting them now. Because at the end of the day, they all just like to feel something go bang in their hands. And for me that’s enough.