Sports coverage tends to focus on major league teams, but every day in Toronto people make fun (and sometimes wacky) activities an important part of their lives. Sporting Goods looks at some of these.
It may come as a surprise to learn that for decades, average, law-abiding citizens have been going out to gun ranges and shooting their 44 magnums, .38 specials, .22-caliber pistols, as well as a variety of other types of handguns, at paper targets.
The sport of handgun target shooting has a long, safe, and established history in Toronto, and if you think only a minimal amount of skill is required to aim and shoot a handgun at a bull’s eye 20 yards away, think again.
My visits to the Forest Hill Revolver Club revealed target shooting to be a demanding sport requiring unparalleled levels of concentration, stamina, and focus.
Formed in 1940, the Forest Hill Revolver Club shares range space at the Royal York Range with six other gun clubs. The basement range is located below a former police station. All calibers of handguns, as well as .22 rifles, are permitted. This includes both revolvers and semi-automatics.
Official club membership is around 80 people. Typically, Sunday evening turnout averages 20 members. Due to a limited number of shooting bays—there are seven in total—members must wait their turn to shoot.
Before venturing onto the range, I sat down with Hugh Smith. The affable Smith is club secretary treasurer, and on this evening, the range’s safety officer. The atmosphere in the room was casual, jocular even. Several members waiting their turn to shoot exchanged light banter.
This is a diverse group. Young and old, male and female; among other occupations, members include school teachers, doctors, bakers, and lawyers. Under federal law, the minimum age for membership is 18. The oldest member of the Forest Hill club is approaching 80 years of age.
While in conversation with Smith, an individual wandered in from the street inquiring as to the possibility of joining the club. Smith invited the young man to sit and listen in on his talk. That kind of welcoming attitude permeates the gun club. Though the mood in the room remains light, safety is foremost in everyone’s minds. In fact, Smith said membership is based primarily on its practice.
The process of gaining membership into the club is arduous. Smith explained: “To become a member, the very first thing you must have is a Restricted Possession and Acquisition Licence.” This initial application process includes a safety training course, testing, and background checks. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are the licensing body.
Next, there’s a mandatory club safety course. Potential members then must participate in 10 probationary shoots in the presence of a club safety officer.
The process doesn’t end there. At the conclusion of the probationary period there’s another written safety test. A mark below 90 per cent is considered a fail. Once hopeful members have passed this hurdle, they must shoot a qualifying target. All ten shots must hit a bull’s eye target. The target radius measures only seven inches—no easy feat.
With that accomplished, the club will apply on their behalf to the Chief Firearms Officer of Ontario for the granting of an Authorization to Transport Licence. This licence permits the safe transport of the members’ firearms to and from any accredited range. Is it any wonder the sport of target shooting in Toronto boasts an unblemished safety record?
Only after members have completed these steps, and submitted a cheque covering club dues, will full membership be granted. Including fees and equipment, members can expect to spend a minimum of $700 getting set up.
The Forest Hill Revolver Club provides marksmanship training for members interested in competing against other gun clubs. Shooting competitions between clubs are held annually in the Metro Pistol League, and only top shooters from the Forest Hill club compete. The competition involves a variety of shooting techniques for points. The course of fire includes slow fire, in which the shooter is given two and a half minutes to discharge five shoots; then timed fire, which requires five shoots in 20 seconds; and then rapid fire demands five shots in 10 seconds. Each series is repeated to a maximum score of 300 points.
Winners receive trophies, but, mostly, it’s all about the bragging rights. A heavy set of back-to-back hinged doors separate the range from the informal gathering area where we’ve been talking. When the green light above these doors is illuminated, entry to the range is permitted.
Inside the range, an odor of gunpowder similar to that of a fireworks display hangs in the air. Brass casings litter the floor. (During my second visit, buckets had been placed on the range to catch rainwater leaking from above—the gutted upper floors of the building are being renovated.) At the far end of the range, seven paper targets stapled to sheets of cardboard are suspended on a wire. Behind bull’s eye targets the angled steel backstop is heavily pockmarked.
With new targets in place, seven shooters prepare their firearms in their individual bays. When not in use, a firearm must be stored safely in its case. Firearms are never left unattended.
A knowledgeable safety officer is present at all times. During the first shoot I attended, the duty fell to Smith. On all matters concerning safety, his word was final. Upon his order, the doors were closed and secured; the light above switched from green to red.
Smith announced, “The range is live.”
Protection for eyes and ears is a must. Gunfire is loud—no surprise there. Interestingly, the sound a firearm produces in reality is noticeably different from it representation in film. A .22 makes a crisp sound akin to a snapping tree branch. A .45 sounds like a brief thunderclap.
Under Smith’s careful supervision, I was given the opportunity to shoot a .22 pistol, a .38 Special and a 9mm Beretta. (On another occasion, George Cormack, president of the gun club, permitted me to discharge his .357 magnum.)
Assuming an isosceles shooting stance, I squinted at the distant target. Using my dominant eye, my attempts to aim seemed feeble. With each pull of the trigger, the unsteadiness of my grip, coupled with my amateurish aiming skills, had me questioning the accuracy of my shots. After minutes with my arms extended, fatigue caused the firearm to feel unnaturally heavy.
Torontoist writer Ed Brown takes his aim.
Then Smith demonstrated how it was done. Alternating between shooting first with one hand on the stock, then both, he appeared at all times relaxed. And Smith’s not even the club’s top shooter⎯that honour goes to Comack.
When I had been shooting, with each recoil, my eyes involuntarily blinked. Not so for Smith. Not once did his focus waver from the target. Later, Smith said target shooters practise specific shooting exercises in order to curb the natural blink reflex. “There’s an assumption that all you do is pull the trigger,” Smith explained, “There’s more to it than that.”
For one, breathing techniques play a critical role. So does the ability to block out distractions. A club member named Dave compared target shooting to another sport requiring intense focus: “It’s like archery—with a bang.”
About 20 minutes passed before the range officer announced, “Cease fire,” at which point firearms were made safe. Shooters stepped back behind a yellow line on the floor while the range officer inspected the shooting bays. Only after he was satisfied all firearms had been rendered safe were shooters permitted to inspect their targets for accuracy.
At the end of a session, shooters are responsible for gathering their discarded brass casings. Some casings can be reused. Besides the recycling benefits, making your own ammunition is cost efficient. Because of an accumulation of lead on your hands from shooting, upon leaving the range, members wash their hands thoroughly.
Though unconventional, the sport of target shooting in Toronto boasts many dedicated adherents. When availability permits, the Forest Hill Revolver Club accepts new members.
Photos by Nancy Paiva/Torontoist.