Walking into Delaware’s Black Wing Shooting Center is not like walking into a shooting range. It is not a lobby-style entryway leading to rows upon rows of firing lanes.
It is also not like a firearms section of a discount superstore, tucked away in the back corner under flickering fluorescent lights, next to the mop closet. Black Wing is a one-stop shop for any type of gun, accessory, training session, or extracurricular activity a firearms consumer could want – a microcosm of the American gun industry.
Three inches of snow at 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday finds Black Wing with a full parking lot and a buzzing interior. The casually milling patrons and attentive salespeople give it a department store feel, as if a 9 mm firearm could be purchased as nonchalantly as a sale rack sweater from last fall’s line. Searching for an unoccupied employee leads to Todd Hicks, a middle aged ex-paratrooper with a deep, calm voice. While he describes his five-year career as a Contract Instructor with Black Wing as his “fun job,” he also works as a turf grass pathologist.
After quickly explaining that he studies diseases in grass, he launches into a much more heartfelt description of Black Wing.
“First off, Black Wing’s a really different firearm store. It’s a five-star rated NSSF (National Shooting Sports Foundation) facility.”
They boast indoor shooting with both pistols and rifles, as well as outdoor aspects: trap, skeet and sporting clays.
“Those are all different ways to throw these clays and shoot them with shotguns,” Todd expands. “With all these aspects we can do things like summer camps for kids, so it’s a whole family thing with all the aspects you can just about get with gun shooting.”
Todd relays information casually, reflecting his lifetime of experience with learning about and using guns. Complicated details of size and category are smoothed over with as much practical ease as teaching a teenager to do their own laundry might require.
“I grew up in (a) small town in Ohio,” Todd reflects, slowly warming up to the idea of being interviewed. “I’ve been shooting ever since I could. We used to hunt raccoons and sell their pelts for Christmas money … America grew up on gun culture; for me owning a gun was a right of passage.”
Growing comfortable, his speech gets more animated, and his tired features become more expressive. It’s clear why Todd’s teaching services are in such high demand as he explains that the only way to really teach someone how to use a gun is to make the material your own. Todd has a lifelong relationship with guns.
While teaching someone to use a gun doesn’t require a license, there is a training and testing process for those who want to be NRA concealed carry certified instructors. Todd teaches both concealed carry and basic courses, and speaks fondly of organized training courses and skill building competitions. “With my (turf pathologist) job at OSU, I work with a lot of international folks … and people are blown away by how fun it is, how diverse it is, and they can’t figure out how (they) can go and just do this, we don’t have to fill out paper work. They’re blown away that we have this much freedom.”
With the first Second Amendment freedom reference tallied, we’re approached by a long-term member of Black Wing, an interruption Todd accepts politely, insisting that we stop the interview and resume after talking to the newcomer.
“Robin (Salvo, Director of Operations) sent me over,” interjects Don Warsham, who first began his membership eight years ago. His bravado and southern Ohio twang match his slightly aggressive approach to our conversation.
“I’d love to help tell the good stories about firearms, as long as you’re not gonna try to film me,” and with that Don had decided exactly where this was going to go. Another lifelong gun owner, he prefers self-defense training to hunting, and has competed in shooting obstacle course competitions for years, such as those run by the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA). The IDPA’s courses are designed to simulate a real-life situation, wherein the gun owner has to defend themselves from an assailant.
“These are multi-target courses that get your adrenaline going,” Don explains. “It’s a way to safely and accurately prepare yourself for a real life safety situation.”
While he now takes courses that are easier on his joints, Don continues his firearms education so that he can teach his five grandchildren how to properly use weapons, some thing he encourages for every gun owner.
“I don’t think training should be mandatory, but it should be heavily encouraged; you never know who you’ll run into,” he warns.
And while the interest areas for each member vary, Don represents the majority of Black Wing patrons: knowledgeable about guns, sporting options, and training programs, but determined to also discuss gun control. Don is opposed to restrictions on America’s ability to acquire guns legally, and stresses the importance of being able to defend yourself at any moment against a potential assailant.
The safety argument is a powerful one for many Black Wing patrons, especially women. As the conversation shifts back to Todd, he explains how commonly this concern leads first-time gun owners to Black Wing.
“People can be against owning guns or against concealed carrying, but then if they find themselves alone without a gun or without training in a dangerous situation, suddenly the ‘gun people’ aren’t so crazy.”
Not so crazy indeed, as loitering around the aisles of carrying cases, holsters, sweatshirts, and various other outdoor sports equipment items showed.
The conversations among customers were as mundane as at any other store: Black or camouflage? Is a bag that holds three guns at once really necessary? Do you think this Beretta long sleeve shirt will fit your dad?
Todd, who had become my guide through the Black Wing jungle, then began pointing out the “more interesting” items for sale, but with intrigue came education. “Did you know that these are legal?” Todd asked, pointing to a case of gun silencers as he began a brief but technical lesson in the legal side of gun control. Owning a silencer will initially cost around $700, with an additional $200 tax stamp, and having the extra money for such an accessory doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get one. Customers then have to apply for ownership through the federal government, a process that can take six months to a year. And if a Delaware County resident is awarded the right to buy a silencer, they then have to register it through the Sheriff’s Department.
Owning a short-barreled rifle has similar restrictions and taxes, but with a price tag closer to $2,000.
“It’s sort of like a Ferrari,” Todd explained, “if you can afford it, go ahead, but most drivers will never get one.”
Even having the option to own weapons like these has come into question by many Americans, and Todd offered a more practical reason in addition to it being a collector’s item.
“Let’s say we’re a couple,” he began. “The gun fits me when it’s adjusted this way.” He then readjusted the butt of the gun, making it about an inch shorter, “now it fits you and you can protect yourself.” Then he adjusted the gun to it’s third and shortest setting, “like this, our child can use the same firearm and protect themselves, too.”
Buying most guns doesn’t come with the same set of restrictions, and the experience at Black Wing is tailored to the customer.
Questions about caliber, size, skill level and intended use help the Black Wing staff narrow a patron’s options, and if they’re still not sure, they can rent the guns they’re most interested in and practice shooting them in one of Black Wing’s ranges.
Deciding is most of the battle because after a gun is chosen, the purchasing process concludes with a simple form and driver’s license submission to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for a U.S. government background check. If the customer passes the background check, they may purchase and take home their gun that day.
The question of choosing the right firearm is directed to Keith McDaniel, Indoor Range Supervisor and Instructor. Put simply, Keith “helps fit the gun to the person.” Soft spoken and unassuming, Keith can barely be heard over the constant popping of guns being fired in the indoor ranges behind him. Clipboards with customer ID cards and paper work line the wall to his left, documenting everyone currently practicing or testing guns in the ranges. “The people I work closely with most commonly are first time buyers or learners, especially women and children, and they’re the best to work with because they don’t come in with as many bad habits,” Keith explains.
Waiting for your turn in the range, with or without Keith, leaves you alongside a table of various purchases: ear and eye protection, which can also be rented, and an extensive selection of targets. They range from a basic black bull’s eye, to a silhouetted man, to a macabre illustration of a half skeletal man dressed and groomed to look like a traditional Middle Eastern Muslim. After making your selections, going into the range is fairly straightforward. Present your ID, pay for rentals or purchases and follow all safety precautions as they’re thoroughly explained.
The ranges are randomly inspected for safety, but all of Black Wing’s facility is meticulously maintained. From the gun counters, to the accessory sales floor, to the ranges and the “squadroom café,” every inch of the center is well presented.
Walls of taxidermied animals (mountain lions, billy goats, moose, deer, etc.) are evenly spaced, and in some cases artfully posed. The café, however, is the most well decorated section. A stone fireplace adorned with two miniature American flags and a rustic old rifle is the focal point of the room. Next to it sits a plasma screen television, from which Fox News assesses Hillary Clinton’s successes and failures in office for the patrons relaxing at wooden tables throughout the room.
While in the café Robin offers insight into the ins and outs of the business.
“If it’s not retail, it’s mine,” Robin jokes as she explains what exactly she oversees at Black Wing. Beyond sales and shooting range access, the facility offers group courses and events like date nights for members. “We’ve had a few bachelorette parties,” said Robin.
The emphasis on events for members speaks to the community aspect of Black Wing.
“Can you buy ammunition cheaper at Wal-Mart?” Todd asks rhetorically. “Sure. But they don’t care about you there. We offer a tailored experience, and our members come here because they want to support a business that cares about guns and gun owners, not just making a profit.”
Robin echoes this sentiment, and describes the success of the events she organizes that are tailored to women. The increase of female customers at Black Wing has been substantial.
“Our normal class size is 18, and before we would only see two or three women in those classes, now we see that its almost 55,” she says.
These women tend to be more interested in taking self-defense classes, and the influx caused Robin to begin her “Women on Target” course, which offers both indoor and outdoor training.
A former Marine, Robin has been raised around guns, and is an avid hunter with both guns and crossbows. She and one other Black Wing employee are two of approximately three combat-focused shooting certified instructors in Ohio, and her subdued temperament belies a wealth of information and insight she has.
“I don’t consider my time in the Marines to be part of my firearms training because I wasn’t on active duty, and you have a specific job,” she said. “You don’t fire everyday if you don’t need to.”
Her emphasis on hands-on training translates to the programs she organizes.
Classes at Black Wing include programs specifically for women, as well as summer training programs for kids. The market among gun consumers in the area exists for these classes, and for many, Black Wing is the ideal location. It has normalized gun culture in a sensationalized political climate, and their clientele responds positively with membership subscriptions and loyal patronage. Black Wing Shooting Center creates a community out of gun culture.