It took my brother Steve years to establish a rifle team at the high school where he taught physics. One of the strongest arguments offered by his opponent on the Board of Education was emotional: the danger of kids and firearms. He was able to eventually squelch the argument by pointing out that, nationwide, between 1982 and 2011 there were 115 fatalities in high school football but just one in organized scholastic competitive shooting. He further noted that that single incident was the only one ever recorded. His perseverance paid off with a successful program.

This is not to say that competitive marksmanship, at all levels, is not without its dangers to health. However, those dangers have been long recognized and there have been aggressive steps taken to insure student athletes involved in the shooting sports are well shielded from danger.

The first and most obvious is vision and hearing protection. Most ranges now require safety glasses and ear plugs. My club even provides free disposable earplugs to all from a gumball machine type dispenser mounted on the range wall.

Perhaps the biggest concern is ingestion of heavy metal, volatile liquid fumes, and gunpowder dust. 

In the shooting world lead is the dirtiest of the four-letter words. Clubs, especially those with junior programs, follow stringent hygiene plans to insure the cleanest and safest range environments. My club’s plan requires a semi-annual washing of the range with a special soap, periodic rinses with water and vacuuming with a HEPA vacuum , all brass is pushed forward of the firing line to be picked up the by the range committee, no juniors are allowed forward of the firing line, eating drinking and gum chewing are prohibited in the range, special soap is provided to wash hands and face after shooting, a sticky floor mat is installed at the range door, air flow is tested, protective gloves and booties are provided for work parties, and all work is required to be logged.

Most rifle cleaning solvents are classified as volatile fluids, a liquid with the tendency to become vapor, and are often petroleum based. You don’t want to breath too much of the vapor and using rubber gloves when cleaning is not a bad idea.

The touch stone of cleaning fluid is Hoppes #9 As a member of the Cult of Hoppes I ascribe to the mantra, “It’s okay if you don’t start with Hoppes, but you’ll probably end up with it.” It’s banana like smell evokes the nostalgia of the carefree shooting days of my youth. They make an odorless version of the venerable elixir, but one wonders why.  

The final leg of our danger triad is gunpowder dust. For those who are serious reloaders, both black powder and IMR types, when dealing with kegs and caddies of powder there is the inevitable dust kicked up as it is transferred to small container or the reloading press. This poses two dangers, loose powder which might ignite from a spark or static electricity and lung issues.

This problem is best solved by keeping a clean reloading station, sweeping-never vacuuming-the floor regularly to avoid spilled powder build up, and wearing a surgical mask when transferring powder.

This all was brought home to me by an incident that involved an old and venerated member of my club, Chris Beebe. When I first meet Chris, he was in his late 70s and long retired. I inevitably would find him on the first bench of the high-power range. A bit arthritic, he pulled his car right up to the line to ease his loading and unloading of a myriad of gun cases, tool boxes, and a portable loading bench. It was a no parking zone but Chris’ status as a respected and beloved elder statesman of  the club rendered the sign moot. He was held in such affectionate high esteem that one of the wives of a fellow bench raster made him a special jacket with an extended back flap so when he bent over the bench in cold weather his lower back would be covered and kept toasty warm.

Chris would usually be testing some esoteric load, perhaps a .22 PPC6mm PPC, 338-06 A-Square, .35 Whelen or the 6.5mm Grendel cartridge. at 50, 100, or 200 yards as he prepared for some bench rest event or another. He was a fastidious reloader with eye that was as accurate as the well-worn Brown and Sharpe spindle micrometer tucked into his shirt pocket.   He was a friendly old fellow who loved to yarn and was also a wealth of information. We all enjoyed spending time with him and usually went away in a better mood and wiser in the way of reloading

As a member of the Range Hygiene Committee I hoped to learn something of his safety and hygiene procedures which might help us. I started by asking him how he managed his work space and the state of his health. For more than a half century he had been inhaling gun petroleum-based cleaning solvent fumes like a rock start snorting coke and ingesting gun powder like a kid at the circus attacking a cone of cotton candy. He replied, “Hap, I am nearly eighty years old and that am doing OK even though I have probably sniffed a barrel of Hoppes and swallowed enough gun powder to keep you in cartridges for a year.”

And he was right in so many ways. When he passed away at the age of 95 he left a wife, three children, nine grandchildren, 27 great grandchildren and a 15-foot crater where the crematorium used to be.       

About Hap Rocketto

Hap Rocketto is a Distinguished Rifleman with service and smallbore rifle, member of The Presidents Hundred, and the National Guard’s Chief’s 50. He is a National Smallbore Record holder, a member of the 1600 Club and the Connecticut Shooters’ Hall Of Fame. He was the 2002 Intermediate Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion, the 2012 Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion a member of the 2007 and 2012 National Four Position Indoor Championship team, coach and captain of the US Drew Cup Team, and adjutant of the United States 2009 Roberts and 2013 Pershing Teams. Rocketto is very active in coaching juniors. He is, along with his brother Steve, a cofounder of the Corporal Digby Hand Schützenverein. A historian of the shooting sports, his work appears in Shooting Sports USA, the late Precision Shooting Magazine, The Outdoor Message, the American Rifleman, the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s website, and most recently, the apogee of his literary career,
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