Gun clubs keep firing - with duelling pistols

Handguns are banned in the wake of Dunblane, but the law says nothing about muskets and crossbows, reports Mark Rowe
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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S gun clubs are turning to duelling pistols, muskets and crossbows in the hope of halting a dramatic slump in membership following the Dunblane tragedy.

Thousands of large calibre handguns have already been handed in to the police after they were outlawed under the new Firearms Act. At the end of this month, the last of the smaller, .22 calibre weapons must be surrendered, leaving an estimated 57,000 shooters unable to continue their sport.

A ban on private ownership of handguns was introduced last autumn after 16 primary schoolchildren and their teacher were shot dead in Dunblane in March 1996 by gun enthusiast Thomas Hamilton. Surrounded by police, Hamilton then killed himself.

But enthusiasts and gun clubs have been quick to exploit the possibilities offered by a wide range of other shooting sports not specifically covered by the Firearms Act.

The Muzzle Loaders Association of Great Britain, the sport's governing body, said 400 people have joined its ranks over the past 12 months - an increase of 20 per cent.

Muzzle loaders, also known as blackpowder guns, first became popular in the 16th century. There are four main types: duelling pistols, match locks, Brown Bess muskets, used by Wellington's troops at Waterloo, and military rifles.

All four have to be loaded down the muzzle with loose black powder and a ball, pushed down with a ramrod. Pistols are usually fired over 25 yards while muskets can reach 50 yards and rifles 100 yards.

"They are unsophisticated weapons with a strong historical connection," said the association's chairman Andy Courtney. "They are not going to attract the macho type. It's not a case of Dirty Harry. They are a messy old business.

"This has always been a very esoteric sport. It's a poor substitute for the modern pistol. For some gun users, it must be like changing from a Formula One Grand Prix to the London to Brighton vintage car rally."

Although some of the weapons are replicas, many are antique, handed down the generations, dug out of a loft or cupboard and possibly worth thousands of pounds.

Around 100 shooting clubs are affiliated to the Muzzle Loaders governing body and interest is likely to be increased with the World Muzzle Loading championships, to be held this summer in Warwick.

One club which has decided to diversify or go out of business is the Wednesbury Marksmen, in the West Midlands.

Roger Schwirtz, manager of the club, said membership has dropped from 450 to 280 in less than a year. "We have had to diversify to try to survive. A shooter is a shooter and, as a result, many people will just channel their interest into another target sport.

"I put my mortgage up against the club. If it goes under, I lose my home, so I have to make it work. Many gun clubs in the area have closed and I don't want this to be one of them."

The ban on handguns has broadened the appeal of other forms of shooting, according to Albie Fox, director of the Sportsman's Association. "Crossbow shooting has taken off in a big way," he said. "The ironic thing is that some clubs are actually gaining members because of the furore. Many people never knew that such options existed."

However, Mr Fox recognised the pressure on many clubs. "Any target sport is a challenge but we have lost something we will not be able to replace. Many people have, of course, simply walked away from shooting," he said.

The message from the gun lobby is clear: it believes that the handgun ban introduced in the wake of Dunblane has not reduced the chances of a similar related tragedy.

"We are not getting away from the original problem," said Mr Fox. "We believe police mistakes rather than the guns, led to Thomas Hamilton.

"You either ban all guns or properly enforce a licensing system. Neither has been done. If someone is determined enough to do something like that, he will find a way."

The argument is rejected by the Gun Control Network, which was set up in the wake of Dunblane. "All the evidence shows that the tighter your gun controls are, the safer your community," said spokeswoman Gill Marshall- Andrews.

"Shooters are working against the spirit of the law and we are pressing on the government to close these loopholes in the gun laws."