About 100 participants from as far away as Arkansas and Tennessee gathered at the Lefthanders Gun Club in Loami to show off their marksmanship with Civil War-era long guns. Teams dressed in uniforms worn by the Union and the Confederacy and represented regiments, such as the 2nd Wisconsin and the 56th Virginia, which saw action during the conflict that divided the nation. The event last month was sponsored by the North-South Skirmish Association and the American Civil War Shooting Association.
Martin Woulfe, a member of the Lefthanders and a Springfield pastor, explained that the middle of the 19th century was a time of great innovation in firearms. A series of European wars in the two decades before the Civil War led to rapid improvements in powder, bullets and firearm designs. The result was a wide variety of weapons found on the battlefield, from muskets to carbines to breech-loaded repeating rifles, and contestants competed in each of those categories. Some of the long arms were of the same design used by American revolutionaries nearly a century before the War between the States, and others were European imports incorporating the latest technology available in the early 1860s.
Woulfe said that skirmishers, as the contestants are called, represent a niche population of Civil War and shooting sports enthusiasts. "In this community, you have reenactors who devote a lot of resources making sure every detail of their uniforms and gear is historically accurate, but they don't fire live rounds. Then you have collectors who might display their firearms but rarely shoot them. Our group combines elements of both." He said that the common bond among the men and women shooting that weekend was a love of history.
The Lefthanders Gun Club sits on the former site of the Illinois State Police training facility. According to Kevin Hughes, a former ISP officer, the Illinois State Police Pistol Team bought the property from ISP when the agency decided to decommission the site. Eventually, Lefthanders bought the grounds, which consists of two shooting ranges, a clubhouse with a kitchen, and a campground. According to Hughes, "Someone is here most every day, and we host a wide variety of shooting events. Club members enjoy fellowship and the opportunity to swap guns and equipment as well as stories, some of which are true," he said.
Members of the club also travel to events sponsored by the North-South Skirmish Association. The biggest is held twice a year, in the spring and the fall, in Winchester, Virginia. The 147th Spring Nationals this month is expected to attract more than 3,000 participants competing with such varied weaponry as mortars, cannon and pistols. The lower Shenandoah Valley town provides a scenic and historic backdrop for the event in a place that changed hands more than a dozen times during the Civil War.
Woulfe says that strict safety protocols are followed at every event, and safety is the number one priority at the club. "There are people whose only duty is to keep everyone safe at skirmishes," he said, and safety is the most important skill a shooter has to learn.
Lefthanders hosts events during the entire year. For more information about membership and a schedule of activities, contact Kevin Hughes at [email protected].
Don Howard is an intern at Illinois Times while completing his master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting at University of Illinois Springfield. He can be reached at [email protected] or 336-455-6966.