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Upstate N.Y. Sports Lore: Pine Tree Rifle Club

A road marker near Pine Tree Rifle Club in Johnstown details its history. (Photo courtesy of Pine Tree Rifle Club archives)

A road marker near Pine Tree Rifle Club in Johnstown details its history. (Photo courtesy of Pine Tree Rifle Club archives)

When you think of the origins of International Sports with their beginnings in the United States, baseball has Cooperstown, football has Canton and basketball has Springfield. And when it comes to the sport of benchrest shooting (shooting very accurate & precise rifles at small paper targets at long distances), the beginnings are found right here in Fulton County.

In the spring of 1937, a group of Fulton County shooting enthusiasts gathered at the home of Robert C. Kilmer located at 312 Pleasant Ave. in Johnstown to organize a shooting club called the Pine Tree Rifle Club. In addition to Kilmer, the charter members included; Anton Albrecht, Floyd Bradt, Richard Brower, K. Wm. Buchner, Michael DeMagistris, Douglas Harvey, Harry Kilmer, Edwin Kilmer, James Kilmer, Howard Musgrave, Donald Shaver, Michael Sollak, Walter Theurer, Robert VanHorne, John Velisky, and Donald Wagschal.

The club’s mission Statement was the following:

Encouragement of rifle and pistol shooting, clay target shooting, and archery, among the residents of our community, with a view toward a better knowledge on the part of such citizens, of the safe handling and proper care of firearms as well as improved marksmanship. To propagate, protect and aid in the distribution of fish and game. To aid in the reforestation and the prevention of forest fires. To work for the enactment of sound conservation measures, to promote the observance of measures, and to oppose all measurements detrimental to sound conservation. To instruct our junior members in the proper handling and use of firearms, and the true meaning of sportsmanship. To support sound legislation pertaining to ownership and use of firearms, and oppose restrictive legislation which may be detrimental to the interest of this club in accordance with our 2nd amendment rights to keep and bear arms, as per the Constitution of the United States of America.

In early 1938, the club leased 30 acres of land north of Johnstown located on what is now Johnson Avenue. On this land, they built a 100-yard range and an area for trap shooting. For the first few years they would hold meetings at each of the member’s homes. In 1940 they built a clubhouse on the same piece of leased land, and in 1941 the club was granted a State Charter.

The firing line at the 1947 benchrest competition at Pine Tree Rifle Club in Johnstown in pictured. (Photo courtesy of Pine Tree Rifle Club archives)

The firing line at the 1947 benchrest competition at Pine Tree Rifle Club in Johnstown in pictured. (Photo courtesy of Pine Tree Rifle Club archives)

Around this time, club membership had risen to approximately 150 members, all of whom used the ranges and property for family picnics. Turkey shoots, clambakes and dinners were held to raise funds for improvements at the club and in 1942 they purchased the land. Nothing out of the ordinary compared to the thousands of Rod & Gun Clubs that blanketed North America at that time. However, in the mid-1940s the club had a few avid woodchuck hunters who were about to bring international acclaim to the organization.

By definition, the club was made up of firearms enthusiasts. Many hunted or shot targets. Some of these enthusiasts also hunted woodchucks. Woodchucks are a nuisance to area farmers as they damaged their fields, crops, equipment and livestock. Farm equipment damages their axles when riding into their holes, and broken legs of livestock ensue if they step into the holes burrowed by the rodents for their dens. Eradicating a woodchuck is difficult, as they have excellent eyesight, and on open farmlands of our area they have open views of hundreds of yards. And once they sense danger, they immediately drop back into their dens. In order to shoot such cunning creatures, woodchuck hunting demands accurate long range shots at a very small target.

Four of the most notable woodchuck hunters involved with the club were Harvey Donaldson, Frank Hubbard, William “Bucky” Buchner and Bill Van Nostrand. Donaldson, was a gunsmith from nearby Fultonville who developed the .219 Donaldson Wasp cartridge by lengthening the body of the case of a bullet to allow more grains of powder. This increased the velocity of the bullet and also maintained its accuracy. All four shot rifles specially chambered for the .219 Don-Wasp case, which were extremely accurate at long ranges (great for woodchuck hunting). After proving the accuracy of their equipment on Upstate New York woodchucks, the members of this group took their long range shooting skills on the road attending various shoots across the Northeast where they had great success.

In 1945 Donaldson came up with the idea to hold a “benchrest shoot” (shooting from the position they often sat in at a table to test their equipment) at the Pine Tree Rifle Club, which would allow them to test their long-range accuracy in a competition. But at that time, the club did not have a rifle range long enough to facilitate such long-range shots. The group suggested that the club create a 200-yard range, which would have meant cutting down and removing hundreds of trees and stumps on the property. Other than Donaldson and his small core of woodchuck enthusiasts, the idea did not gain much interest with the general club membership.

After two years of asking, the only way they were able to gain permission to build such a range and hold a competition was by Donaldson and Hubbard agreeing to make good on any loss the club incurred if the range/match was not a success.

Harvey Donaldson, right, presents a trophy to Darce Crowther during a 1951 competition. (Photo courtesy of Pine Tree Rifle Club archives)

Harvey Donaldson, right, presents a trophy to Darce Crowther during a 1951 competition. (Photo courtesy of Pine Tree Rifle Club archives)

In the summer of 1947, this small group of men began clearing the land to create a 200-yard rifle range, and created five benchrests (something never seen before). They then hosted the very first benchrest competition during Labor Day weekend in 1947. Approximately 30 participants from across the Northeast attended the shoot and 21 matches took place being scored in the following ways; (1) smallest group in fractions of an inch, (2) highest score, and (3) closest to the center. This event marked the world’s first official benchrest shoot.

Another historical occurrence in the history of benchrest shooting also took place that weekend when the Eastern Bench Rest Shooter’s Association was formed by those in attendance.

The aim and object of the Association was voted to be:

The advancement of experimenting through benchrest shooting, in order to improve the performance of various rifles, both in match and varmint shooting, along with the components and other accessories; to obtain the utmost in rifle accuracy; and to force the improvements in rifles and ammunition through individual experimenting.

Donaldson was appointed president of the organization and it was agreed upon that the group would meet and hold a benchrest match every Labor Day at the club. With this meeting, the sport of benchrest shooting was officially born. The organization changed its name to Benchrest Shooters Association in 1948 so as not to limit them to a regional membership and allow shooting enthusiasts from across the United States and Canada to join. Today the organization still operates under the name International Benchrest Shooters.

True to the original initiative set forth in 1947, The Pine Tree Rifle Club would be the site of state and national Shoots until the mid-1980’s.

At the 1983 Nationals, club member Dr. Richard Maretzo set a world record on the range when placed 10 shots into a .119 inch diameter grouping (a record that still stands today).

After a nearly 30-year hiatus, IBS competition was brought back to the club in 2014 using a SCORE format, spearheaded by club member and accomplished area shooter John DelSavio.

After two successful IBS shoots, the club was awarded the 100/200 yard IBS SCORE Nationals Championships in August 2016. This brought 54 of the top shooters from across the country to compete, and Dean Breeden from Maryland set two new world records. Because of the success of the these recent events, future national championships are expected to be brought back to the club.

As the club enters its 80th year in existence, it now supports a membership of 1,300 and maintains one of the best & most historic shooting facilities in the nation. In addition to the historic 200 yard range built in 1947, they now have a total of 39 benchrests (30 for IBS competition).

The facility now consists of 94 acres containing; two skeet fields, one trap field (complete with skeet building made out of the original club house from 1940), 1½-mile 3D archery course, outside pistol range, pavilion and a 30′ barbecue pit. The original clubhouse (now the skeet building) was replaced in 1951 by a state of the art building complete with a full bar, banquet hall, meeting rooms and 50′ indoor pistol range. Led by Paul Catucci (President), Paul Christman (Vice-President), Steve Raich (Membership Secretary), Mark Wendt (Recording Secretary), Maria Cozzolino (Treasurer), Ken Benton (Rifle Range Director & IBS League Director), Peter Tautznik (Groundskeeper), Mike Kowalski (Scoring Chairman), Alvie Gallt (Clubhouse Director), and Doug Simek (Forestry Program Manager), the club and its members are very active in the local community. The club supports the K9 efforts of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department, Toys for Tots, and SOCKS (Save Our Cats and Kittens). Each year they award cash scholarships for high school students to attend college and the NYS DEC Sportsmen Camp. They also support the Honor Flight Program and worked with the Fulton-Montgomery Community College to help bring the Vietnam Memorial Wall to the college campus in 2016.

Today, the original benchrest organization formed at the club in 1947 still operates, but under the name of International Benchrest Shooters. The organization is now nearly 1,000 shooters strong and boasts members from all over the world, who approach long-range shooting with the same philosophies and reverence that Donaldson and a bunch of woodchuck hunters from the Pine Tree Rifle Club set out to create back at that historic Memorial Day 1947 competition.

Who knew that Upstate New York had the “Doubleday Field of benchrest shooting” right here in its own back yard.

The Pine Tree Rifle Club will be inducted into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame for its role in establishing the first modern benchrest rifle competition in 1947, leading to the sport becoming established internationally. The induction will take place on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Johnstown Moose Club (109 S. Comrie Avenue-Johnstown) during the Adirondack Outdoorsman Show’s two-day event.

Board members of the club will be on hand with an exhibit documenting & celebrating the 80th Anniversary of the formation of their club and the 70th Anniversary of the world’s first benchrest shoot. Local benchrest legend and shooting sports historian John DelSavio will also be on hand at the event signing copies of his book “Pine Tree Rifle Club — A Pictorial History (1937-2014).”

For more information on that event, visit www.adkshow.com. A special thanks to John DelSavio, Ken Benton and Paul Catucci for their help with this article.

Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organization’s website at www.fchof.com or at 725-5565.

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