Monday, May 1, 2006

Boom with a view

Exploding targets a hit at shoot

Hank Moreno watches a giant fireball triggered by explosives at the start of Boomershoot, a shooting event with explosive targets. (Photos by Jesse Tinsley The Spokesman-Review )

See video

Watch video from the event at Video Journal.

See also:

James Hagengruber
Staff writer
May 1, 2006

CAVENDISH, Idaho – Because shooting at paper targets can get boring, there is Boomershoot, where the targets blow up.

The weekend-long event is held each spring in a remote Idaho farm field and is considered a "Magic Kingdom" for serious long-distance shooters, said organizer Joe Huffman, who spends most of his time in Seattle working as a software programmer.

Participants pay $100 for a slot on the firing line, from which they plink at hundreds of high-explosive targets, some not much bigger than a brick and barely visible to the naked eye from 2,100 feet. Even from that distance, the targets can produce a chest-thumping shock wave.

For some shooters, the event is all about marksmanship. Others say they're driven by politics – how the combination of guns and explosives is the ultimate expression of their constitutional rights as well as a gentle show of force for anybody watching in the federal government.

Huffman falls into both categories – but mainly the latter. "The Second Amendment is about providing a deterrent to tyranny," he said. "I'm using this as a vehicle to further gun rights. I want to give people a reason to get guns and have fun with them."

All philosophy aside, there also is the prospect of being able to blow stuff up.

"Everything's better with a boom," said Lee Ann Frailey of Spokane.

Safety first

Before stepping foot on the shooting field Sunday morning, shooters were required to memorize and recite a short list of safety regulations, mainly having to do with keeping the gun pointed in a safe direction at all times.

Wearing an orange vest, Huffman walked the firing line, keeping a close watch on preparations. He was thankful for a heavy dose of rain the night before. "People shooting tracers won't catch the grass on fire," he explained.

Huffman, who grew up on a farm in the area, started the shoot in 1998. Each year, he and several helpers build 600 targets by hand, filling the cardboard containers with the same ammonium nitrate explosive farmers use to blast stumps from fields. Although Huffman has a federal permit to manufacture high explosives. He said the state has no prohibition against the activity, "as long as you're not hurting anybody," he said. "It's a little bit unique to Idaho. It's not going to happen in New York City."

Along with the small boxes of explosives, Huffman also places several steel plow blades as targets. They emit loud pings when hit. Huffman instructed the shooters to take it easy on the metal. "Keep the armor-piercing and 50-calibers off them," he said, minutes before shooting began Sunday. "I want to be able to use them next year."

Huffman had one final safety command. Concealed weapons are allowed, he said, hoisting his jacket to show a handgun tucked beneath the waistband of his bluejeans. "But no going prone with a pistol on your hip."

The Olympics might begin with a torch light but Boomershoot began with a massive fireball, when a pile of fuel-filled milk jugs are shot from 50 yards away. The blast of heat wilted clusters of nearby daffodils. Swallows darting above the field flew elsewhere. The sun turned the color of dark amber from the cloud of black smoke.

The shooters cheered, then began firing. Pop-pop-pop-THWUMP! – a direct hit on one of the explosive targets 380 yards away. The first hit of the morning prompted more cheering. The pattern would be repeated hundreds of times by the end of the afternoon.

I'm a 'hardcore liberal'

Peter Biddle was one of the 60 or so paying shooters. He lives in Seattle and, like several other participants, works for a large software company. Gun enthusiasts aren't common at the company – "We keep a low profile," Biddle said.

Sunday was Biddle's first time at Boomershoot. He learned to shoot growing up in a rural setting, but only recently returned to the sport. He likes the technical challenge, plus he said the chaos following Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call that citizens can't always rely on government to provide protection. "I'm actually a pretty hardcore liberal," Biddle said, sitting next to his $1,200 high-precision rifle topped with a 20-power scope.

Like the other shooters, Biddle was assisted by a spotter, who used even higher-powered optics to keep an eye on the target and offer suggestions for fine-tuning the shot.

Hitting the 8-inch-wide cardboard box at the farthest distance is not easy. Just the tiniest twitch of the barrel – a movement no more than the thickness of a playing card – can put the bullet off by 7 inches at 700 yards. Plus, other shooters might be aiming for the same target.

"You take it personally when someone hits the boomer you're trying to shoot," Biddle said.

Most of the participants shoot a .308-caliber bullet and most of the targets are filled with a pound or high explosive. Several years ago, Huffman made some 4-pounders. He said he stopped when "neighbors complained about stuff falling off walls."

At the far end of the shooting range was a cluster of men using very large rifles. This area is known as the "50-caliber ghetto." The rifles are powerful enough to flatten grass within 10 feet of the barrel. Stand near the rifles long enough, Huffman said, and "you'll get sick. The shockwaves hit your guts."

A man shooting one of the black rifles had blood trickling down his forehead and nose from being hit by the recoil of the metal scope. With each shot, he sent grass blades flying into the air.

"Hurts my teeth," said Spokane resident Stephen Knezovich, who stood about 15 feet behind the rifle.

Despite more explosions than a bad day in Baghdad, shooters say they enter a Zenlike calm when they're preparing to fire. "I liken Boomershoot to the state of mind when one is doing yoga," said Stephanie Sailor, a shooter and event promoter from New Jersey. "It's very peaceful."

Anvil-blasting at lunch

Steve Joachim, a welder from Tum Tum, Wash., blasted an 80-pound anvil high into the sky for halftime entertainment Sunday. As the shooters watched during their lunch cease-fire, a steel tube was packed with black powder, then covered by the anvil. Before the fuse was lighted, Huffman offered a critical piece of advice: "If it starts coming down on top of you, move."

The anvil blew 75 feet high, prompting shouts of "Make it go higher!" and "More powder!" and "You might be a redneck if…"

Joachim poured an even larger charge for the second attempt. It would be the biggest blast ever, he said, even bigger than last anvil launching on Easter.

This time the anvil soared for nearly 6 seconds.

"Wile E. Coyote's got nothing on us," Joachim said.

His friend, Michael Burrows, looked to the sky and proclaimed, "Ain't freedom beautiful?"