For most of its history, NRA had no need to own ranges. Relations with the military services were close and cordial, and the emphasis of NRA’s competition programs was on service rifle and pistol marksmanship. Military ranges, most notably the Ohio National Guard’s Camp Perry on the shore of Lake Erie, were the sites for many NRA competitions, whether on the local or national levels.
The complacency that cozy situation had bred was rudely upset in 1968 when the Defense Department withdrew support from the National Matches, and only a heroic effort by NRA volunteers saved the event. More ominously, anti-gun legislators pressed to change Camp Perry from a shooting venue to a summer camp for poor children.
Problems continued with a brouhaha over military support for the 40th World Shooting Championships, held at Phoenix, AZ, in 1970. NRA leaders of the time became convinced that the shooting sports needed a permanent home free of government control.
Founded in 1973, the public is welcome to stay at the Whittington Center. In addition to the multiple ranges, the center has a shotgun center, a firearms museum, specialized firearms training, guided and unguided hunts, RV and tent camping, also an adventure camp for younger shooters.
It should, they agreed, be in a place remote enough that development would never intrude, in a state favorably disposed to gun ownership, and on a site large enough to contain bullets from any sort of small arms.
After looking at 12 different properties in 10 states, a committee appointed to find a range site settled on a 33,335-acre tract nine miles south of Raton, NM. The site met the environment criteria and also had a 900-foot range of hills that formed a natural backstop.
The purchase was ramrodded by past NRA President George R. Whittington, an oilman and lawyer from Amarillo, TX. Whittington worked tirelessly to bring the purchase to fruition, even walking the property to set its boundaries.
NRA’s leadership hoped to put the Association in tune with the rising environmental movement of the early 1970s and also hoped to get major foundation funding for what was being called the National Outdoor Center.
The Whittington Center is on over 33,000 acres of land in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (Spanish for “Blood of Christ”)—the southernmost subrange of the Rockies.
This approach put the center in the middle of the crossfire that erupted in Cincinnati in 1977, when a members’ revolt overthrew the incumbent officers and installed Harlon B. Carter as NRA’s executive vice president. Some wanted the NRA to abandon the center altogether. Instead, a full year was spent studying the center’s role and, in 1978, the membership approved a plan that emphasized shooting sports development and fund-raising from NRA members rather than corporate or foundation sources. During that year, the center was renamed to honor its most enthusiastic backer, George Whittington.
Whittington served until his death in 1983 as chairman of the NRA Special Contribution Fund that raises money to support the facility and its programs.
The Whittington Center Founders’ Club, prominent in support of the center, is a group of more than 3,600 donors who have put up $1,000 apiece in support of the center. For the smaller donor there is the Santa Fe Trail Gun Club, whose small annual fee allows members to use the facility free of charge.
Though it is often used for formal competitions—and can handle the national championships for most shooting disciplines—the majority of shooters the NRA Whittington Center hosts come strictly for recreation.
Since 1985, Whittington Center has hosted hundreds of national and international championship shooting events, including the prestigious Palma International Match. Additionally, there have been numerous regional, state and local competitions held there. Beyond competitive shooting, which accounts for less than 20 percent of visitation and usage, Whittington Center has hosted many clinics, junior programs and hunting trips. The majority of use, however, has been from outdoor enthusiasts who go there to “just shoot”—and that was the whole idea.
Use of the facilities at the Whittington Center is open to all shooters, not just NRA members. Visitors are entitled and welcome to stop by, stay a while and shoot all they want (provided there is not a scheduled event on the range or a hunt in progress). They’ll have to pay for accommodations and a daily range fee. Fees are $20 for informal range use; $45 for 100 birds on the sporting clays range, with five-stand being $10 extra; and $7 per 25 bird round of trap or skeet.
The first step in any visit to the center is a visit to the upcoming events section of their website at www.nrawc.org. Because the center hosts at least 100 activities a year, that’s the only way to know when to show.
Shooters who want to stay a while at the center have a choice of accommodations, including cabins or dorm-style rooms. The town of Raton is nine miles north.
There are several forms of housing available on-site at prices you can’t beat. Places to hang the earphones range from cabins tucked nearest to the wilderness at $20 a night, to modular with dormitory-style rooms for $60, to RV parking (with showers and full hook-ups) at $32, to primitive camping areas for just $12 a night. The recently remodeled Brownell Family Suites are fully furnished with daily housekeeping and go for $150. Or you can go into town and choose among 750 rooms at varying levels of cost and amenities. There’s a very good place to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner on-site by the shotgun ranges.
Take I-25 about six miles south from Raton and turn onto Highway 64 (road to Cimarron). Follow that about four miles and you’re there. Stop at the gatehouse and check in, and then your first stop should be immediately to the right of your vehicle—the Administration Center. You’ll be able to watch an informative video, have a cup of coffee and browse through the gift shop while you plan your tour.
Although the property totals more than 33,000 acres, less than 10 percent of that areas has been developed. All 15 ranges lie along the southern boundary of the property. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to travel to the “back country” unless you’re there for a hunt, but that won’t dampen the Whittington experience.
The reason the outlying areas are off-limits is a matter of safety. There are approximately 80 miles of roads that crisscross the property, and unless travelers know exactly where they’re going, they’re liable to wind up looking down on a “hot” shooting range in use.
It’s an everyday occurrence for shooters to have to stop shooting and wait for a herd of deer or elk, a flock of turkeys, or maybe even a black bear, to cross the range and get back to the hills and out of the line of fire.
Wildlife will sometimes venture on the ranges, shooters have to wait for them to pass.
Safety is paramount to the center. Whittington’s layout brings it as close to fail-safe as can be imagined. Because the ranges face a great expanse of mountainous country, no bullet fired properly from any range can exit the property.
Try to imagine anything that you don’t like about any range anywhere, imagine the best solution to the problem, and then compare it to Whittington Center’s approach. Chances are that the crew fixed it. “When we build any range here, it’s built such that a national championship can be held on it,” said former Whittington Center head man (and current Fundraising Officer) Mike Ballew.
A good example of this attention to detail can be seen in something as seemingly insignificant as the little post-mounted plastic containers at each firing point on the silhouette ranges. While other ranges might overlook something like giving the shooter a place to stow his gear, Whittington Center actually went a step further and provided an outstanding solution.
Ballew’s comments on the silhouette shooting points reflect the whole philosophy of the place: “we tried boxes and most everything else, and then finally said, ‘what’s the best way to do this?’ That’s when we designed the apparatus we have now and had a company in Denver custom make them.”
Going from range to range at Whittington, it’s possible to find dozens of examples of such attention to detail, and it’s plain that no details were spared or missed. The real beauty of these ranges is that they provide a shooter on the line with the best possible platform to get a bullet down to the center of a target. Shooters may not be aware of all that’s assisting them to that end, but they’re likewise not aware of anything that’s hindering them—and that’s a well-designed range.
All shooters will find the ranges at the center to be economical and scenic.
One of the more impressive uses of this real estate was the construction of the high power rifle range, which has firing lines from 200 to 1,000 yards. Outside those housed on military bases, this is the largest range of its type in the country, with 100 firing points, a complete underground electrical system and a mobile control tower.
Every shooting discipline hosted by Whittington Center has its own range, including separate sight-in ranges. As a result, there are 15 separate range areas. Some, like the shotgun area, have multiple ranges in one location, and all ranges at Whittington Center can be used concurrently.
It’s pretty easy to figure out where to be: To shoot smallbore rifle silhouette, follow the road signs to the “smallbore rifle silhouette range” and have at it. To give “old smokey” a workout, take it over to the black powder range.
State flags greet visitors at the entrance to the center.
Given this design, people with different firearms or different interests—either of which may necessitate shooting on different targets or at different yard-lines—don’t ever compete with each others’ unique needs. In addition, every range has electricity and refreshments on hand.
According to Ballew, “If there are better ranges anywhere, it had better not be because we didn’t know how to build them.” The Whittington Center is a model for future ranges built in this country. Construction foreman Ron Troyer built some of the ranges. If you recognize that last name, it’s because Troyer won four consecutive NRA High Power Rifle Championships at Camp Perry, 1970-1973. Indeed, when he builds a range, you can bet it’s made for shooters.
He also built a 75-point 300-meter range that hosts the Coors Schuetzenfest and National Bench Rest Shooters Association matches. Coors footed the bill for the range, while the NBRSA chipped in for a building.
At any time during the year, you’re liable to run into world-class competitive marksmen during a stay at Whittington Center. But there are programs for the average shooter, too.
Juniors are important visitors. “Maybe the one thing that impacts us the greatest are the junior programs we do during the year, and in particular the ‘Whittington Adventure Camp.’ That’s probably the most comprehensive junior shooting program in the world today. In 14 days those kids will fire 800 to 1,000 rounds apiece, and they’ll do so with rifle, pistol, shotgun, black powder—all the shooting disciplines. It’s a tremendous introduction to the shooting sports,” Ballew said.
Not all targets at Whittington Center are paper and metal. The Whittington Center offers some of the finest hunting in the West, the sort you’d pay thousands of dollars for elsewhere.
Every year, around 100 applicants are selected by drawing for unguided deer, elk and turkey hunts. “I think the center offers as fine a hunting opportunity as there is in the Rockies. If you’re lucky enough to get drawn, you’re going to hunt unguided, but the success rates run at 50 to 60 percent. That’s very high for an unguided hunt,” added Ballew. Best of all, the price is just a $200 service fee for spring turkey hunts (plus New Mexico hunting license fees). Call or visit the Whittington Center website for an application. For hunters with deeper pockets, the center offers guided hunts for bear, deer, elk and mountain lion.
The NRA National Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC) is held each year at the center. YHEC participants receive hands-on training in eight skill areas of hunting, allowing kids ages 18 and under to build expertise in taking all types of game.