By Dave Workman,
Seventeen years ago, Will DeRuyter of Valleyford, a tiny community southwest from Spokane in the eastern Washington farmlands, wanted to raise money for the NRA Foundation and to make that happen, he created a long-range handgun shooting event in memory of the late, great Elmer Keith.
Once recognized as a pioneer of using big bore handguns for hunting and shooting, Keith was responsible for the .41 and .44 Magnum cartridges, was deeply involved in development of the .357 Magnum and was also known for his hunting and guiding exploits all over North America and a couple of times in Africa.
This long-range shooting event has attracted a small but devoted cadre of shooters, and over the years one undeniable fact has emerged: This is not just a guy’s game. Among the participants are, and have been, some remarkably skilled women whose marksmanship has frequently put some of the guys to shame.
The Elmer Keith event has attracted as many as 50 shooters, and that’s not bad considering that the first event had only a dozen participants. It has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the NRA Foundation, and brought together some incredibly good shooters from all over the Pacific Northwest.
At this year’s event, I advised several of the old-timers about an email from a guy in Spokane who claimed to have “never heard of” the Keith shoot. Their tongue-in-cheek reaction: he obviously
This is a tight knit little group, and they enjoy this annual exercise in marksmanship. While the competition may be stiff, it is very good-natured. Laughter and shaking heads seem to occur frequently and simultaneously once the scoring begins.
DeRuyter’s daughter, Morgan, competed when she was 12, using a S&W Model 17 revolver and later with a custom built Freedom Arms M-87 in .44 S&W Special! His daughter, Mackenzie, has competed as well, with an S&W Model 686.
Over the years, other women have done rather well, according to DeRuyter. They include Jeanette Makaad, who won an S&W Model 29 in .44
Magnum that had been engraved by Paula Biesen. She used that gun to compete the following year.
Competitor Trish Shride went away one year with a custom Ruger Blackhawk from Hamilton Bowen in .44 Magnum, in a presentation case created by Larry McMillian.
Shooting at ranges that stretch from 100 to 580 yards across a crop field behind DeRuyter’s home, competitors have unlimbered everything from .22-caliber rimfire semi-autos to a .500 S&W Magnum. During this year’s event, I was shooting my favorite S&W Model 57 chambered for the .41 Magnum, and sitting next to me during the shooting relay was Debbie DiTunno of Kamiah, Idaho, armed with the very same model and caliber of handgun.
Beat me flat. (Somebody said the Russians hacked my loading data, and that seems like a credible excuse until a better theory comes along!)
According to her husband, Ed, she was shooting a well-crafted handload consisting of a cast lead bullet out of a Lyman mold, propelled by 19.0-grains of Hodgdon H110 powder and a CCI 350 primer. That will make no sense to someone who doesn’t load their own ammunition, but for Debbie it turned out to be a blue ribbon recipe for success. She turned in the top score among women shooting in the event, and that’s saying a lot.
Long-range handgunning is more than just a sport. It’s something of an athletic event for the serious shooter, especially at the Keith memorial gathering. Nobody uses a scope. This is all done with “iron” sights, plus an appreciation for “Kentucky windage.”
It requires remarkable concentration, no small amount of patience, a mountain of eye-hand-finger coordination and just a wee bit of luck. At the longer ranges, wind can throw off a shot, as can
gravity. Get beyond 200 yards and many handgun bullets will develop a trajectory that drops like the proverbial stone.
Participants spend a fair amount of time and ammunition practicing on the evening and in the morning before they fire a dozen shots for score.
Those who call their shots get additional points. (That doesn’t apply to anybody calling a “ground” shot!) In this game, you get some points for just showing up.
Targets are steel, and they come in various shapes and sizes. The closest target is a wolf silhouette at 100 yards, and uphill from that about 35 yards is a choice of five hanging targets on a long steel rail. There are also targets at 150 yards and beyond.
The 580-yard target isn’t there just to frustrate people. Keith is known to have hit a mule deer buck at approximately 600 yards, using a .44 Magnum revolver, while he was hunting with a pal in Idaho. Anybody who can duplicate that shot at DeRuyter’s event racks up a huge score that makes it nearly impossible to beat.
It takes about a second for the bullet to land anywhere near or hit that target, so anyone firing at it will see a little dust cloud, or perhaps hear a faint “clink” if there is a hit.
As many shooters of both sexes have discovered, this long-range shooting challenge can become something of an addiction. It is good fun, creates good camaraderie among all the participants, and shooters have even been known to coach one another.
One may never see the names of these folks in lights, but if you ever see them on the range, you may witness some terrific shooting, perhaps accompanied with a wink, an eye roll, and a big smile.
Our thanks to Will DeRuyter, Ed Parry, Shawn McMillian and Ron Behrens for background and some of the photographs.