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Armed with enthusiasm

The rules are simple here in the land of shotguns and sunshine.

Rule No. 1: "Keep your gun open until you're ready to shoot."

Basic gun safety stuff.

Rule No. 2: "Guns must not be loaded when moving between stations."

Gotcha. Walk safely.

No. 3? "Load only one shell at a time except when shooting doubles."

No problem.

There are six other rules listed at the Silver Dollar Shooters Club, but Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are the biggies.

Sure, No. 9 reads "Please do not litter," but it doesn't carry the same consequences as the first three.

Load your gun too early around here and someone will point out your mistake. And you'll suddenly wish you were stuck in heavy traffic instead of being wedged between two shooters who are politely telling you your shotgun has no business being loaded at that particular moment.

But understand and follow the rules and you'll probably fit in pretty well at the Shooters Club. After all, 587 shooters from all over the world have found something here they like, something that keeps bringing them back.

Located off Patterson Road, the Shooters Club shares space with the Silver Dollar Golf Club. If your gun isn't shooting quite right, you can walk across the street with a set of clubs and work on your short game.

Charlie Tyler, 65, has been a Shooters Club member for about 10 years. He comes down from Pennsylvania for six months to beat the winter and to shoot every day the range is open.

At the moment, he's the only one shooting on this cool, sunny morning, a light breeze carrying the smell of gun smoke back toward the clubhouse.

Tyler, wearing ear protection to muffle the sound of his shotgun, hits about three out of every four of the orange clay targets that spin out when he yells "pull." His gun is gold-plated and looks special, very expensive.

"Paid 15 big ones for it," he says. "It's a Silver Seitz, designed by a guy named Seitz. Seems expensive, $15,000, but some kids will spend that much so they can run around on a Harley-Davidson. And I use my shotgun every day, which is probably more often than those kids ride their Harleys."

Tyler said he shoots about 70,000 rounds a year. How does he know? His gun has a counter.

"The great thing about this is, you can do it until you're 80 or 90 years old," he says. "And you can still compete."

Records are set here

Like Tyler, most members of the Shooters Club have this lifelong love affair with shotguns and shooting.

The long list of names includes some of the best shooters in the world. About 25 percent of the members are women.

"We throw just under 5-million targets a year," says general manager Ken Ross. "We throw more targets than all the other gun clubs in Florida combined."

The Shooters Club opened 30 years ago, and it currently hosts two national tournaments each year (the Dixie Grand in January and the Southern Grand in March) as well as the Florida State Shoot in late March.

For those who don't know shotgun lingo, trap is where the targets are thrown straight out and away from you. With skeet, the targets are thrown across your shooting area.

"This is the Augusta National of the shooting world," Ross says. "We've set a lot of world records here."

The club itself is among several small houses and motor homes, living quarters for shooters who head south during Florida's busy winter shooting season.

The neighborhood's short streets are named Clay Bird, Target, Fast Pull and Lost Bird, and there is usually someone walking toward the range with a shotgun broke open and draped over the shoulder. You know you're in trap and skeet heaven.

Symbol of pride

Morris Stinebring, 63, has been shooting shotguns just about his whole life. He grew up in pheasant hunting country in Illinois and he's been a Shooters Club member since the '70s. Over the course of his shooting career, he's held three world records. He wears a ring he won in 1979 that reads, Grand American Champion, doubles championship.

"It's a shooter's version of a Super Bowl ring," says Stinebring, who was enshrined into the Trapshooting Hall of Fame in 1997.

"I wear it all the time. You win something like that and you don't want to take it off."

Stinebring has just finished playing cards at one of the tables in the large clubhouse. Across from him sits one of his shooting buddies, Bob Hoyt, 61.

Stinebring is talking about numbers, about how breaking 200 targets in a row might just be enough to qualify you for the next round of shooting in some of the tougher tournaments.

He's also talking about shotguns and personal preferences.

"It all depends on what you want in a shotgun," he says. "You can decide you want to upgrade your gun, but you can't buy a score. You have to earn it."

Concentration is key

Both Hoyt and Stinebring say they've seen a lot of shooters pull out expensive guns and miss everything they tried to hit. They've also watched shooters with second-hand relics score high.

Hoyt, from upstate New York, started hunting when he was 10. But he says it's better now to come out and shoot 25 traps in an afternoon than to go out and maybe get two shots at a bird in a full day of hunting.

"I think people are tired of killing things," he says. "But they still want to be able to go out and shoot."

Both men say shooting is all about hand-eye coordination. But it's more than that. You have to keenly focus on what you're doing. You can't afford distractions.

"Think about something you should have done at the office and you're going to miss your target," Hoyt said.

Tyler has seen it.

"To hit 300 or 400 clays in a row, you've got to be able to think about nothing," he said. "You have to have your head completely clear. I can't do it."

According to Stinebring, the bigger tournaments at the club can draw 1,200 to 1,500 shooters.

"It's the competition that brings everyone here," Hoyt says. "But you're really only competing against yourself. And there are times when, if you don't break every target, you're out of the game."

If you're not to the point of breaking every target, you can still join the club and shoot.

The different divisions range from novice to elite shooters who actually do break just about every target.

"We enjoy getting new people to come in," Hoyt says. "And everyone can compete at their own level. We have all kinds of people here who are ready to help you learn."

First lesson? Don't load until you're ready to shoot.

IF YOU GO

Silver Dollar Shooters Club

17000 Patterson Road, Odessa, (813) 920-3231

Annual membership: $75

Open to the public. Cost: $6.50 per round (25 targets)

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