NSSF is the trade association for America's firearms industry.
Our mission: To promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports.
NSSF is the trade association for America's firearms industry.
It's mission: To promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports.
Search NSSF

Digital Library

Welcoming Shooters On Wheels

WELCOMING SHOOTERS ON WHEELS

By Dave Henderson and TRR Staff

(Reprinted from The Range Report, July/August 1999)

Kirk Thomas, of Montgomery, Alabama, has been an outdoor sports enthusiast all his life. He's an active hunter, shooter, archer and angler. He shares his love of the outdoors with others by organizing skeet and sporting clays shoots and archery tournaments as well as hunting and shooting experiences for people in his home state and three other states in the South. Kirk's love for and vigorous pursuit of these sports has not changed, but since 1992, he's participated with one extra piece of equipment: his wheelchair.

Kirk matter-of-factly describes the accident that put him in the chair as a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, pure and simple. While hunting, a tree fell on him, breaking his back. In 1995, he founded Wheelin' Sportsmen of America, a non-profit organization which provides people with disabilities the opportunity to enjoy outdoor sports.

A lot has changed since the times when disabled persons were thought to be frail and unable to participate in exercise. Today, physically challenged individuals seek access to more and more sporting activities, including shooting. Thomas points out that in a survey that asked 75,000 disabled veterans to rank the recreational activities they would like to participate in, target shooting and hunting ranked in the top ten.

Dave Baskin, manger of the National Rifle Association's Disabled Shooting Services, fields about 3,5000 inquiries each year for his Disabled Awareness Workshops.

"The whole idea (of accommodating disabled shooters) is relatively new and is still evolving," said Baskin, who for 33 years ran a company that designed adaptive equipment for operating rooms. "We're still in the learning curve."

Activists like Thomas are helping to flatten that curve. He has testified before Congress in support of the Disabled Sportsmen's Access Act and addressed the National Shooting Sports Foundation's annual Shooting Sports Summit in Missouri.

"There have been a lot of factors contributing to my success in overcoming my disability," Thomas said from his office in Montgomery, Alabama. "The support I received has been a tremendous blessing and a key factor in what I've been able to do. Unfortunately, a lot of individuals do not receive the support they need."

By listening to a few suggestions from disabled shooters and applying a lot of common sense and compassion, virtually any range can accommodate physically challenged shooters. And they will deeply appreciate it.

Kirk's Three A's: Attitude, Access And Adaptation

Support, in Thomas's dictionary, means attitude, access and adaptation. Thomas says that once range personnel have adopted the attitude that they want disabled shooters to be able to enjoy the range, much of the hardest work is done.

Dave Baskin points out that the resourcefulness of disabled individuals should not be underestimated.

"One very important thing to remember is that you can layout a lot of stuff, but no range is perfect because disabilities are so varied and individual," Baskin points out. "But don't worry. If you're not used to working with disabled shooters, a disabled person coming in will be able to tell you what needs to be done more than you'll be able to guess or figure out yourself."

Access

Wheelin' Sportsmen of America (WSA) recently accepted a donation of a large plot of land south of Montgomery, Alabama, and planning is underway to construct the nation's first totally accessible shooting facility. It will not only provide shooting for wheelchair-user sportsmen, but will also serve as a model for facilities seeking to accommodate the disabled. Among the design points WSA recommends:

  • "The two basic things that shooting ranges need to accommodate wheelchairs are the same as for virtually any other facility," said Wheelin' Sportsmen of America Administrative Vice-President Joe Lambert. "You need handicapped-accessible restrooms and a paved parking lot. A wheelchair simply can't negotiate gravel."
  • If your parking lot and walks are paved, curb cuts and/or ramps are the next priority for accommodating the disabled. A three-inch step or curb in a wheelchair is as big an obstacle as an eight-foot wall is to a pedestrian. Ramps, even the portable version, are necessities whenever access to rest rooms, the clubhouse, or shooting stations are elevated slightly.
  • Most tap and skeet fields have paved or concrete lanes and stations, which is fine when the wheelchair-bound shooter is in position to shoot. But negotiating a wheelchair over grass or uneven dirt to get there can also be difficult, if not impossible. It's a particularly thorny problem at sporting clays courses, which are typically built in woodland terrain and incorporate the roll of the terrain in their design. Even most five-stand sporting clays layouts have closet-like shooting stations on slabs, access to which - and passage between - may be problematical for a shooter in a wheelchair. Simple solution: Make sure at least one solid pathway reaches into shooting areas.
  • "Most shooting ranges have benches or racks to hold shell boxes or even shotguns," said Lambert, who joined Wheelin' Sportsmen this year after 32 years with Alabama's Department of Labor's physical rehabilitation branch. "If they are built to accommodate a standing shooter, they are probably too high for someone in a wheelchair. The same goes for public telephones and water fountains." Answer: Have at least one set of low-access equipment at shooting stations.
  • And this easy-to-overlook problem: "Hot water pipes in bathrooms and other heat conduits that may not affect a standing person must be padded to protect someone at a lower level in a wheelchair."

Adaptation

Once a disabled shooter has gained access to the line, existing equipment may need to be modified, or adapted, to allow a disabled shooter to put a round downrange. Key points to consider:

  • If someone at the range is going to be instructing a wheelchair sportsmen on shooting techniques, it makes sense to have a wheelchair handy for the instructor, so that he or she can get an idea of the feel and perspective of the student. The instructor should practice shooting from a seated position in a chair prior to giving instruction so that he or she can understand the specific problems disabled shooters face.
  • Shooting from a rifle or pistol bench may give solid support to an able-bodied shooter but is a physical impossibility for someone in a wheelchair. A standard shooting bench is going to be too high for a wheelchair shooter, and those with attached seats are obviously an impassable obstacle. Baskin notes that shooting benches should be limited to 28 to 31 inches in height to accommodate disabled shooters.
  • Controls for target carriers need to be accessible for the disabled rifle or pistol shooter. "The old overhead hand crank is obviously useless for disabled shooters," Baskin said. "And electronic controls need to be low enough so that someone seated can read and operate them.
  • Portable benches built at a lower level but with sufficient under clearance to accommodate a wheelchair are the only real answer to making a rifle or pistol firing line handicap accessible.
  • Specially adapted firearms or other shooting equipment can be helpful, Baskin said, but disabled shooters will often provide their own specialized shooting tools. "Because disabilities are so individual, there is not a lot of over-the-counter items to suit them," Baskin said. "If they shoot, they'll either already have equipment or someone is designing some for them."

There are so many forms and degrees of physical disability that they are difficult to categorize. Disabled shooters used to be lumped together based on their basic condition - wheelchair shooters shot among themselves, single-arm amputees against single-arm amputees, and so on. But that didn't provide fair and equal competition.

"The key is to look at each individual's function, not their disability," says Baskin, who designs adaptive equipment for shooters. "Each disability is individual. For example, two men may have virtually identical T-6 vertebrae breaks, but one will have function of his arms and the other may not."

Ranges that accommodate disabled shooters may find that other individuals and community support groups become interested. Thomas points out that his group introduces a significant number of volunteers and other to outdoor sports through their involvement with disabled members. "My program is not only for the disabled, it's for everybody," he said. "We have to work together."

Special thanks to the National Rifle Association and Dave Baskin for their assistance in producing this story and providing photos.