Who says suburbanites are poor shots? Here’s how to take up a hobby that may raise eyebrows at the golf and tennis clubs.
Okay, I’ll say it: shooting is fun.
Now, I know I’m getting a few raised eyebrows out there. I know there are people who think shooting is something practiced by self-indulgent aristocrats weekending at country manors, or by guys in neon-orange Elmer Fudd caps who want to blast little birdies. I also know that I’m getting raised eyebrows from a whole different group of people who know guns and who’ve been raised around guns, and who won’t regard the discovery that shooting is fun as something that might be called news. Well, at the risk of seeming politically incorrect to one group of readers and about five centuries out of date to another, let me address the broad middle, namely, leisure-loving Westchesterites who might be happy to learn that there is an option to the golf and tennis routine, one that’s challenging and engaging, that involves time outdoors, and that, if it’s not exactly right for the whole family, might work for families with hard-to-please teens.
And there is a terrific place to go shooting, about an hour north on the Taconic Parkway in Millbrook, New York, where Orvis, the Vermont-based retailer and outdoor-living specialist, operates the Sandanona Shooting Grounds. The beautiful 450-acre facility is enjoyed by private members who want to hunt pheasant and partridge, but it also has a unique shooting clays course that allows anyone, the rank neophyte and the expert marksman alike, to feel the pleasure of spending a day in the fresh air, trying to hit high-flying, fast-moving, four-inch-wide discs.
Shooting at Sandanona has been described as “golf with guns,” and it’s an apt analogy: shooters walk (or take golf carts) along the course, accompanied by a trapper who’ll fire up the clays for you. Instead of holes, there are stands, 20 of them altogether; a round typically consists of shooting at 10 of them with a double-barreled shotgun, firing 10 shots at each stand.
Golf with guns: Enthusiasts shoot clay discs at Sandanona Shooting Grounds.
What makes the experience so challenging and engaging is how different the stands are. Some are very easy—the clay follows a level trajectory, and it’s pretty easy to track. But there is a variety of presentation and difficulty. At one stand, two clays are released at once, and as they sail away, they diverge; the shooter has to react very quickly to get a good shot at the second disc. Once on station, you stand on a platform over a ravine, and the clays come out from under your feet; on another, the clays come out of the woods opposite you and fly directly over your head; a slowpoke like me didn’t even get off a shot until the clays were nearly over my head, and while I didn’t hit a one, I was very pleased I didn’t lose my balance and fall on my butt. The most diabolically difficult stand is called “Fur and Feathers.” There, the clay skitters across the ground like a rabbit with unexpected quickness, bouncing off ruts and stones; just when you’ve taken a bead on it, it disappears behind a woodpile.
New shooters shouldn’t fear being overmatched; they can ask their trappers to select a reasonably easy variety of stations, or to mix it up a bit. You’ll quickly get a sense of whether this is your sort of thing or not, and very soon you’ll acquire a sense of when you’re ready for bigger challenges. But, right from the start, you can appreciate the ingenuity that has gone into the creation of the stands, and understand why the facility has so often played host to clay-shooting tournaments and championships. On a more immediate level, here’s something else to appreciate: when was the last time you did something, and as you got into the car to leave, not one but two of your teenage children delayed the insertion of their iPod buds long enough to say, That was fun! Let’s do it again!
Sandanona was founded in 1907 by a Manhattan financier named Morgan Wing who wanted a place to hunt. He spruced up property his family owned, rebuilt a schoolhouse that dated back to the presidency of Thomas Jefferson into the main lodge, and named it with a Native American term for “brilliant sunshine.” Under his stewardship and that of subsequent owners, Sandanona developed a reputation as second-to-none. In 1995, it was acquired by Orvis and complemented its shooting and fly-fishing schools and its other products geared to the outdoor lifestyle.
A day at Sandanona is not cheap, but is hardly unreasonable by current recreational standards. New shooters are encouraged to take a lesson, at which correct stance, positioning, and safety are emphasized; a one-hour lesson costs $175, with $25 for each additional person, up to a group of four. The cost of a round is $75, which falls to $50 with the purchase of a $150 annual membership. Shotgun rental ($25) and shells ($9 a box) are extra. There are eating facilities in the lodge at which hungry shooters can enjoy premium dining or sandwiches and soups, and for those who just can’t go anywhere without shopping, a branch of the Orvis store is on premises. Sandanona is open 363 days a year—sorry, no shooting on Thanksgiving or Christmas—with traffic heaviest on the weekends, when reservations are encouraged. For more information, log on to orvis.com/sandanona, or call (845) 677-9701.
Jamie Malanowski lives in Briarcliff and is the author of the novel The Coup.