Walk — or cart — the lush grounds of the Ancient Oak Gun Club, the new 24-station sporting clays course in Lakewood Ranch, and the place feels more like a subdued golf course than a rapid-fire shooting ground.
Stations, split up in two courses, separated by 80 yards each, look more like covered wooden huts under which golfers take breaks as they sip water.
Shooters can ride golf carts to get from station to station.
Each station throws a different presentation, and every week brings a new course layout, like changing the hole location on greens.
A scorekeeper, kind of like a caddie, tracks shots on a scorecard.
There are birds out here, too. Shooters must break two types of clay pigeons with their shotguns.
Often called “golf with a shotgun in the woods," sporting clay shooting will be on full display April 28, when the Ancient Oak Gun Club hosts the Roger Hill Memorial Shoot.
The club, built on 78 acres zoned for agricultural use, three-quarters of a mile south of State Road 64 East, off Uihlein Road, will open to the public during the first few weeks of May.
The exact public open date is undetermined.
The course, a Schroeder-Manatee Ranch (SMR) project, endured a tumultuous approval process prompted by concerns from officials and parents at the Center for Montessori School and Bayside Community Church, who were worried about the proposed gun club’s proximity to their facilities and the noise from gunfire.
Manatee County Hearing Officer Lori Dorman officially approved a special permit for the club March 19, after engineers proved decibel readings from the shots ranged from 43.2 to 47.7 — below the 60-decibel county limit.
SMR hired Wayne Evans, who owned a sporting clays shooting club in Lithia, in Hillsborough County, for two-and-half-years, to run the club.
As a child, the now master-level shooter shot rifles while hunting in Pennsylvania.
He’s assisted by Ed Fallon, a 21-year clay shooter from New Hampshire who ran women’s and children’s clay programs for 15 years and sat idly in retirement in Parrish, before Evans called.
In a visit last week, Fallon was eager to clear up any confusion about what makes sporting clays different.
The sport differs from trap and skeet, games of repeatable target presentations, in its unpredictability in that orange clays (small disks) shoot out of two green and blue automatic, battery-powered clay machines at different angles, speeds, heights, zigs and zags.
Shooters know the line of the clay and where the target is going to fall. They just have to connect with it.
“The best way to describe shooting at a clay target is it’s similar to football; when the quarterback throws to the receiver, he leads the ball to him,” Fallon said. “You must lead the bird. If you shoot at the target, by the time the mind reacts, you will shoot behind it.”
The machines from which the clays are released cannot be seen from the station or shooting box, where shooters point their guns from behind hay bales.
The machines shoot out clays when a shooter presses a button on a remote, after swiping a pre-authorized card into a small machine nailed onto the shooting box.
The clays are either 120-mm thick standing targets, “rabbits” that bounce off the ground and don’t break; or smaller 99-mm clays, “birds” that eject from a machine and climb at an arch.
The ammunition intended to shatter the clays aren’t bullets. They are shot shells, multiple pellets specifically designed to break clays.
Shooters can choose from two courses: a 10-station north course for beginners and intermediates and a 14-station course for tournament-level performers.
Shooters try to hit the most clays out of 100 at a plodding pace similar to round of golf. One round through a course can take two-and-a-half hours.
There will be no rifles or pistols allowed at the club, and employees will check the shells of new shooters before they shoot.
In addition, safety officers will prowl the course to listen for higher-powered shells.
Shooters, who can only load their gun over the front rail of a station while they prepare a shot, don’t have to pass a safety test but have to sport eye and ear protection.
Fallon and Evans want people to feel comfortable around guns, in a sport less about shooting than sporting.
“It takes hand-eye coordination like any other sport,” Fallon said. “You think, ‘How can I miss that clay?’ It’s an elusive bird.”
IF YOU GO
ANCIENT OAK GUN CLUB
Where: 16800 State Road 64 E., Bradenton
When: Open daily from
8 a.m. to 7 p.m. The club will open to the public during the first few weeks in May. The exact public open date is undetermined.
Info: Pistols and rifles will not be allowed.
For more information on what the club offers, visit YourObserver.com.