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Piru Rifle Range Serves as Outpost for Marksmen

June 22, 1989|RALPH NICHOLS | Times Staff Writer

Go ahead, make my day.

Michael Briggs peers down the barrel of his .45-automatic pistol and gently squeezes the trigger the moment the target appears in his sights. He pumps two rounds near the center of each target and then reloads his clip for another assault.

After reloading, Briggs repeats the exercise with methodic precision. He zeroes in on a yellow circle at the center of each target, attempting to bunch his shots together as close as possible.

A tight cluster, indeed, makes the day's endeavor worthwhile to Briggs.

After years of practice, Briggs, of Malibu, has become proficient at shooting a handgun--considered by many gun enthusiasts to be far more difficult to master than a rifle.

"The mental discipline required to compete in this sport is intense and something I really enjoy," Briggs said.

Yet, like many gun enthusiasts in densely populated Southern California, Briggs has a problem. Finding a place to shoot without having to drive hundreds of miles has proved to be more difficult than hitting a bull's-eye with a pistol from 100 yards away.

Outside of private gun clubs, there is a scarcity of outdoor shooting ranges in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Since it is against the law for Briggs to shoot his pistol on the beaches near his Malibu home, he had few places left where he could practice his sport.

Briggs' problem was solved when he found Wes Thompson's Piru Rifle Range--the only public outdoor shooting range in Ventura County and one of only a handful in Southern California.

Opened to the public three years ago, the range, which is located three miles south of Lake Piru in isolated Holser Canyon, is surrounded by 1,500 acres of mountainous land. The acreage is split by windy dirt roads, small canyons and gullies that provide ideal backdrops for shooting ranges.

In addition to a rifle and pistol range that is open to the public, there are 35 other ranges on Thompson's property that are used by private pistol and rifle clubs from throughout Southern California.

Thompson's range is home to the Los Angeles-based Southwest Pistol League and the International Shootists, Inc., a pistol club. Members of the various pistol clubs compete in periodic speed-shooting championships and fast-draw contests in which competitors are judged on both speed and accuracy in target shooting.

In addition to the pistol clubs, a variety of shotgun and rifle clubs--such as the Burbank Muzzleloaders--also lease private ranges from Thompson. The public shooting range is popular with hunters, who use it to scope their rifles in preparation for hunting season.

"Those who stop by during hunting season are extremely skilled and knowledgeable," said Russ Wightman, caretaker of the ranges for the past three years.

As caretaker, Wightman's duties include overseeing the shooting ranges, cutting weeds or showing a first-time gun owner the proper way to hold a pistol. He also lives on the property, along with Thompson, and patrols its 1,500 acres in a rickety pickup truck.

One of Wightman's main responsibilities is protecting the wildlife that is indigenous to the Lake Piru area. It's a job he takes seriously.

"I'm the law west of the Pecos," Wightman said. "Safety is our prima facie concern. When we get somebody here who has never been here before, we have to assume they have never used a gun before and we treat them accordingly."

Most of the regulars who frequent Thompson's ranges, however, are both knowledgeable and experienced gun owners.

Raymond Glazner of the Burbank Muzzleloaders is among them.

Glazner, a former New Jersey state champion muzzleloader, treks to Lake Piru from his Simi Valley home to pursue a sport that American frontiersmen popularized more than 100 years ago--musket or black-powder shooting.

"It's our country's first form of recreation," Glazner said. "Long before there was basketball or baseball, there was shooting."

Glazner, 48, has been involved with shooting black-powder guns for more than 35 years. After moving to Simi Valley from New Jersey last November he did not know where to pursue his sport in Ventura County. Then he discovered Thompson's range and the Burbank Muzzleloaders.

"I think Wes Thompson is doing us a favor because there are not a lot of places to shoot out here," Glazner said.

The Burbank Muzzleloaders relocated to the Lake Piru area two years ago after the club lost its Newhall-based range to developers. Club secretary Skip Stokes said he hopes the club, started in 1923, has found a permanent home.

"It gives us a chance to get out in the country and we don't have to listen to high-powered shooters right next to us," Stokes said.

Club members such as Glazner enjoy the mental and physical challenges of muzzleloading--or black-powder shooting. A retired history teacher, Glazner would rather pour his own gunpowder down the barrel of a rifle than simply load a factory-manufactured bullet and shoot.

"There's a whole mystique and attitude involved that I'm actually doing something that Daniel Boone did, maybe not as well, but I'm doing it," Glazner said.

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