MY AIRGUN HEROES PART 1

Of all the things I’ve been involved in within this airgun world of ours, nothing has given me more lasting pride and satisfaction than what we achieved when we refurbished the disabled shooters’ airgun ranges at Stoke Mandeville. This satisfaction exists at many levels and for many reasons, and the overall effect of it will bless my life forever. Bit gushy? Not a bit. Our work at Stoke Mandeville involved truly life-changing moments for so many of us.

Bill begins it

The whole thing started in 2007, when Air Arms marketing guru, Bill Sanders, arranged for a group of us from the Airgun Manufacturers and Trade Association (AMTA), to visit the airgun ranges of the Disability Target Shooting Great Britain, on the site of the world famous Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire. Here, inside a couple of ‘temporary’ structures originally built in 1942 to house injured WW2 soldiers, I met the force of nature that is the DTSGB’s coordinator, Rosie Hughes, and its chairman, Rikki Singh, who were to become my contacts. What I saw, and the people I met there, affected me deeply and set in motion a four-year mission that concluded earlier this month.

My head was spinning when we left the DTSGB that day, and once I reached home I had to tell somebody what we’d seen and get the project, whatever it turned out to be, up and running. I’m an administrator on the airgunBBS forum, and with over 15000 members, I knew we had quite a platform from which to launch the first appeal, so I eventually sat down, composed myself and wrote the following:

I went to Stoke Mandeville today... and came away thoroughly ashamed of myself.

I was ashamed that, as I drove into the hospital sports complex, the magnificent, state-of-the-art building on my left contrasted so starkly with the leaky, draughty, smelly, 1940s Nissen hut on my right that housed the disabled shooters.

I was ashamed that, as a representative of my sport, I hadn’t been aware of this disgraceful disparity between the facilities enjoyed by other disabled sports people, and those endured by the disabled shooters.

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I was ashamed as I studied the ‘facilities’ the disabled shooters have, the leaking toilets, the lack of heating, the buckets meant for the collection of funds now pressed into service as drip-catchers and many other things I can’t publicise.

I was ashamed that this is the national centre for disabled shooters, from where our representatives at the Paralympic Games and other championships must come - and somehow do, despite the awful state of the place.

Most of all, though, I was deeply ashamed of the times I’ve moaned and bleated about my own medical problems over the years, when all around me were people of all ages enjoying their sport and staying positive, with only a fraction of the advantages I have, and so many more challenges than I’ve ever faced.

I was horrified, angry, despairing and frustrated in turn, as was Bill Sanders of Air Arms and Peter Martineau of BSA, all of us there on behalf of the Airgun Manufacturers and Trade Association. We all spoke at length to the disabled shooters and the officials from their association, in an effort to find out more about the situation and what was needed to improve it.

After an hour or two I noticed something; none of the disabled people were moaning about things, they just got on with their shooting. I mentioned this to a shooter and what he said to me next brought tears to my eyes. He told me ‘most of us have serious stuff to think about just to do the things everyone else takes for granted. We generally don’t have the time and energy to complain, we just get on with it - and that’s probably why we get treated like we do. Another fact of our lives, is that many of us won’t be around long-term, so we don’t want to waste the time we have on negative things.’

The tears came again when I discovered that a lady I’d interviewed a couple of years ago, Isobel Newstead, had passed away in January. Isobel was a fantastic person and a seriously talented shooter, and I’d managed to get some sponsorship sorted out for her a while back. To hear that she had died was a real shock and I just couldn’t bring myself to talk to her husband, who was helping out at the shoot.

We came away from Stoke Mandeville with a resolution to do what we could, and what we should, for these shooters. We’re not sure what that will be, but we’re determined to make a difference somehow or other.

Actually, we can all do something; if you’re going to the CLA Game Fair, look out for people collecting for the Disabled Shooters Association, and drop what you can into their buckets. Every penny goes directly toward this fantastic cause, and believe me it needs all the help it can get.

Thanks for reading this, and above all, enjoy your shooting and be grateful that you can do so to the full. Just spare a thought, and a few quid, for those that aren’t so lucky.

The response from the BBS membership was nothing short of amazing, and before I knew it, we had a complete refurbishment project as our goal. I knew that nothing less would bring those DTSGB ranges into the condition the shooters needed, but I’d seen the size of the task and it was vast.

Then, before I could freak out about the enormity of the undertaking, volunteers lined up, offers of practical and financial help poured in, and gradually an action plan began to form. As the plan developed, a team of people came into being right alongside it. Pete Clarke and Richard Harley, my fellow admins from the airgunBBS, placed themselves front-and-centre, along with the super-sparks from the frozen North, Keiran Turner and Steve Valentine, plus Steve’s far-too-wonderful wife, Julie. Then, Paul Howell came through with his expertise and ‘contribution contacts’ (basically, he’s a top blagger), and the redoubtable Neal ‘Nealsey’ Rainbow girded his rigger’s belt and pledged his considerable skills.

More magnificent offers followed, the B.A.S.C. made my forum post its ‘Letter Of The Month’, and invited much-needed donations, and I’m immensely proud to say that I could fill this entire magazine with accounts of airgunners’ generosity, and I hope any I don’t mention will forgive me. The true spirit, nature and worth of our shooters was brought to life over the following weeks and months, and my pride grew with every offer.

Over to the trade

From the outset it was obvious that the refurbishment of the Stoke Mandeville ranges would require proper funding, and an assessment visit confirmed that the first phase of it absolutely had to be the fixing of the roof. Further investigation revealed the best ‘fix’ to be a complete exterior coating of some hi-tech compound that would stabilise, insulate and seal the roof in one skilled application. The only downside of this miracle cure was the cost; we needed �13,000 and, with just a few weeks of good weather left, we needed it right away. Enter the Airgun Manufacturers and Trade Association.

I explained the need of the disabled shooters at Stoke Mandeville at the next AMTA meeting and the feeling around the table was unanimous; the DTSGB would get the funds it needed for the roof, plus a couple of thousand for unseen extras. Ian Harford from Countryman Fairs was there, and he pledged his support right there and then, making the DTSGB his company’s official charity for the year. Again, I was so proud of the people around me, and I couldn’t wait to tell Rosie and Rikki. Rosie cried, and as it turned out, we’d make that lady cry quite a few more times before this mission was complete.

Work party people

With the roof repair funding in place, the BBS’s magnificent Pete Clarke set to and organised a series of work parties, composed of forum members who collectively travelled thousands of miles to help the disabled shooters of Stoke Mandeville. Once the roof was weatherproof, we could begin to make the ranges fit for shooters to use, without the need for industrial space heaters, hot water bottles, blankets and gloves.

Soon, we’d civilised the place to such a degree that the awful smell of damp and decay had been replaced by a feeling of warmth and an atmosphere of pleasant possibility. The howling draughts were no more and fresh paint replaced the peeling, flaking finish that had existed for so long.

This was real progress, but there was a massive phase looming very large on our horizon, and we’d run out of money. The rear end walls of the ranges were beyond mere refurbishment and had to be replaced. Not only that, this had to be done in one trip, a single work party weekend, and once we started we wouldn’t be able to stop until the job was done and the ranges were secure.

I lost count of the times I silently shook my head at the thought of this huge reconstruction, but Pete Clarke and the BBS wrecking crew were willing to pitch right into it and give it everything they had, if only we could raise the money to buy the building materials we needed.

Bob’s gift

Then, Bill Sanders stepped in and ‘mentioned’ our need to Air Arms’ owner, Bob Nicholls. In a gesture that was entirely typical of the man, Bob didn’t hesitate, and he gave us �5000 to rebuild those end walls. Bob passed away last year, and those of us fortunate enough to know him are still coming to terms with that loss. At Bob’s funeral, a collection was made with the DTSGB as the benefactor, and over �1000 was donated to continue the work that Bob Nicholls had so generously supported. Yet again, pride in one of our people overwhelmed me.

Now or never

Meanwhile, back in August of 2008, our team of volunteers stood ready to tear down the old and build up the new. We had 48 hours to do the lot, and the weather looked decidedly dodgy. There was nothing else for it, though, we had to get that mega-makeover sorted, so out came the hammers, ladders, crowbars and sturdy gloves, and we were off! n