Originally published in the Manchester Journal on Feb. 14, 2018.
By Cherise Madigan
MANCHESTER — Eyes focused on the old-fashioned sight resting atop the barrel of his musket, Bill Hampton squeezes his finger around the trigger.
A chaotic moment of cacophony, and all is still once again. This time, however, the target that Hampton has taken rests in the snow, blown off of its fixture. He reloads with powder, poured from a horn, and primes the musket with a ramrod for its next blast.
And so the scene repeats for a mile and a half through Manchester’s Skinner Hollow Farm, where the Southern Vermont Primitive Biathlon has been held for more than a decade. While you may see a more modern iteration of the event in the 2018 Winter Olympics —featuring cross-country skis and high-tech rifles — these competitors canvas the forest on wooden snowshoes, and many are clothed in historic garb.
They carry black powder rifles and muskets, taking aim at four target shooting areas throughout the course. While that course had become treacherous with ice and slush by Sunday morning, the shooter’s spirits were not dampened.
“It’s beautiful, and it’s great being outside,” said Danielle Rougeau of Orwell, who has participated in the event since 2012. “I love guns, and the course is great. Then there are all of these wonderful people taking care of you, looking out for you, and having a fun day.”
That camaraderie is what brings many back year after year, as well as the unique atmosphere to be found at the biathlon. Fires crackle at each target station, faraway fiddles accompany the excursion, and friends draped in furs laugh with one another along the way.
“There’s a really great feel here, even in the rain,” said Manchester Rod and Gun Club President Harry Lux. “You can kind of step back into history.”
Originating in Smugglers Notch in the mid-90’s, Eric Severance of Skinner Hollow Farm — a member of the Rod and Gun Club — brough the biathlon to Manchester alongside his father in 2005. In doing so, Severance says he has been able to share the areas natural beauty while facilitating friendships between historians and gun enthusiasts alike.
“We host it on our property, and we enjoy sharing the beauty of it,” he said, noting that the biathlon will go on regardless of weather conditions — including the rain showers that plagued the Northshire throughout the weekend. “This year hasn’t been horrible, but our numbers are down a little bit. There’s still plenty of people coming out.”
“Dealing with Eric, I’ve never met a guy who is so bound by integrity,” added Lux, who explains that the Rod and Gun Club has helped to organize the event in recent years. “He’s a great guy, and he really has put down an anchor. This program has good roots.”
New roots, Lux adds, are planted in each of the young marksmen attracted to the event. While connecting with both nature and history, sharpshooters like Lux’s seven year old son also benefit from the “fundamentally honest” nature of the biathlon and its participants.
“You think about people hunting or fishing, and maybe the community at large doesn’t know what to think sometimes,” Lux said. “When you to talk these guys, they’re just so engaged. They’re really passionate and smart people.”
Finding harmony within hunting and nature is a larger goal, he explained, and that aim doesn’t end with the competition. The biathlon is also a major source of revenue for the organization’s Green Mountain Conservation Camps Scholarship Fund, which has contributed more than $30,000 thus far to help local youth attend the camps, offered by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“In the spring kids can apply to the scholarship fund,” Severance said. “The kids we sponsor will get to go to conservation camp and learn about forest ecology, wildlife, and conservation.”
“The combination of hunting and nature is a real benefit in my mind,” Lux added, noting that the competition’s rugged and antiquated nature provides a compelling challenge. That challenge, he says, encourages participants to confront their fears on the course. “There’s more to life than running away from things you’re scared of. We do that a lot as a society, I think.”
Reach Freelance Journalist Cherise Madigan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @cherisemadigan.