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The Successful Gun Club - Dan Mitchell's Passion, Story and Photos by Suzanne Marx

Here is Dan at the entrance to his Salem Clay Target Sports. Mother Nature was not in her best mood this day, but Dan is still smiling!

he desire to create the ultimate gun club began to take shape when he was in his early twenties and mirrored his love of the shooting sports. In those early years, Dan Mitchell was a competitive skeet shooter and Captain of the Navy Skeet Team. His desire to grow the sport he loved drove him to contribute to and learn everything he could about all aspects of the shotgun shooting world. He worked at gun clubs, served on gun–club boards, worked at the NSSA/NSCA headquarters and served on state, zone and national committees.

Using the knowledge gained from those years of service in the shooting world, Dan asked himself what he believed were the necessary ingredients to build and sustain a successful gun club. He determined the first and most vital component was a passion for the sport, with club location and facilities as two other critical elements. With his knowledge of the shooting world, leadership, financial knowledge and management skills he gained in the Navy, Dan was able to combine those components to successfully build the Wolf Creek Gun Club in Atlanta, Georgia, and, in Salem, Oregon, Mitchell’s Clay Target Sports. He hopes to inspire others to have similar success at their gun clubs.

Building successful gun clubs on both coasts started with Dan’s passion. He was determined the club owner — the person behind the counter and the club greeter — would project enthusiasm through his voice and demeanor and be able to impart his knowledge and love of all the clay–shooting sports to the customers. This person, Dan believes, should be the “pro,” the guy who is there all the time and keeps up–to–date on all aspects of the shooting world. The club owner’s enthusiasm and knowledge is what makes club patrons excited and keeps them coming back for more. The same patrons will go out and spread the word, bringing in even more shooters who will keep coming back with their own newfound passion for shooting. The second ingredient for a successful gun club, like any other business, is location. Dan was fortunate in finding two locations he was able to take just one look at and see potential. Once he found the optimal location for a gun club, he set his goal on understanding the local economy to help him set prices and provide the goods and services appropriate to the area.

Dan also recognized hours of operation are an integral part of a thriving gun club. Without regular hours for people to come out and shoot, the business will not be able to sustain itself financially. If a club does not run itself like a business and have regular and convenient hours, shooters will turn to other forms of entertainment with hours that suit them. A lack of regular, convenient hours (and, therefore, income) is what Dan believes plagues nonprofit gun clubs. Even in the nonprofit world, you must have enough revenue to keep the sport and the club alive. That means the club has to be open during hours that are convenient for all local shooters.

To make a shooting facility successful takes not just knowledge, location and regular hours. Making the shooting sports fun at a state–of–the–art facility will keep a steady flow of revenue coming in, but it takes one more factor to tie it all together: advertising. The best advertising to help a club grow and thrive is word–of–mouth from people who experienced a good time at the club in combination with print–media ads. Once people read about the club in the local newspaper or a magazine like Shotgun Sports and good word–of–mouth gets out because of great experiences at the club, shooters start coming in and keep returning.

The club owner needs to be involved in the Chamber of Commerce to promote the economic benefits of a healthy shooting community to other businesses in the area, stressing how tournaments and charity events bring revenue to other businesses in the community, like hotels and eateries, as well as other forms of entertainment. Another area to promote is how corporate events at the gun club can also help their businesses, a win–win for both the businesses and the gun club.

Club interior.

A typical Dan Mitchell gun–club interior — clean, everything in its place and welcoming to visitors.

The third and final component of a successful club is the facility and its amenities. Dan identified the elements needed to create the ultimate shooting facility by asking himself: Is the clubhouse heated and cooled? Does the club have an active pro shop with all manner of shooting–related gear and supplies available when a shooter needs and/or wants it? And, most important, are the restrooms properly maintained, cleaned and always ready for customers? Restrooms are often the first places guests visit upon arriving at a gun club; thus, the condition of the bathroom is one of the shooter’s first impressions of the club. In general, are shooters enjoying an atmosphere of warmth, welcome and enthusiasm at the club? Is the club aesthetically pleasing and easy to negotiate? Do the patrons have a place to get out of the weather, sit and chat with others, get warm or cool off? An aesthetically pleasing and comfortable atmosphere at a club is important, inside and out.

Outside the clubhouse, Dan’s questions included: Is there a decent road to access the club? Does it have a parking lot that is not covered in mud or dust? Are the fields walkable, with no mud, snow or dust? Is there a foul–weather shooting sport available like a covered 5–stand, in case the weather is too nasty to allow shooters to be out on the other ranges? Is the machinery always loaded and ready to go during business hours? Are targets set for skeet and trap? Can a tournament shooter come in and have fields set so he can engage in intense practice with targets adjusted for his specific needs? Dan also understands gun clubs are in competition for local entertainment dollars. He built his clubs and works hard to maintain them to ensure shooters and their guests always have an experience that is pleasant, welcoming and fun so they will keep coming back for more.

Recognizing many clubs do not have all the facilities necessary to be successful now and in the future, Dan recommends boards of directors and/or proprietors create a plan to build, improve and maintain their facilities. Dan built his first club, Wolf Creek, starting out with five skeet fields, nine trap fields and no sporting clays. When he left Wolf Creek in 1996, the club had 25 skeet fields, 20 trap fields and two major sporting clays courses, as well as a $16,000,000 Olympic facility. Wolf Creek has successfully held U.S. Open Championships, Armed Forces Championships, Junior World Championships and the Collegiate Championships — some of the biggest competitions in the country. The dedication and planning paid off, and the club was named NSSA/NSCA Club of the Year in 1991.

In 2000, Dan and his wife Patsy moved to Salem, Oregon, and leased from the Salem Gun Club what is now known as Mitchell’s Clay Target Sports. With his background, Dan knew the location of this facility would make it a premier gun club, and sporting clays, which was rising very quickly in the shooting world, would work well there. No nearby clubs were offering sporting clays, and no other gun clubs were operating as a business in the valley. At the time Dan entered into the lease, the club boasted only trap and skeet and was a volunteer–run gun club. Trap and skeet participation was dropping nationwide, so Dan felt it was crucial to offer another shotgun sport in order to grow his business. As Dan put it, “If you have three flavors of ice cream in your ice–cream store — say, chocolate, strawberry and vanilla — you put emphasis on the flavor selling the most. Sporting clays is the flavor many new and seasoned shooters are attracted to.”

Club grounds.

Even when the club is closed, it looks good and makes you anxiously await the first open day of the week.

Currently, Mitchell’s has four trap fields, eight skeet fields, one 5–stand that guarantees income in months of inclement weather and a mile–long, 14–station sporting clays course. Slated for the future is an additional 1–mile sporting clays course with possibly 18 stations and at least one more 5–stand course. Mitchell’s had the honor of being named NSSA/NSCA Gun Club of the Year for 2002 and has to its hosting credits a U.S. Open Championship, several state skeet shoots, a Ducks Unlimited Shoot, the 9th State Sporting Clays Championship coming up in July (visit the website) and yearly hosts the Oregon Hunter’s Association Shoot.

Since 1967, when he began shooting registered targets, Dan’s passion has never wavered. He has now passed on the helm to his successor at Mitchell’s, Stephen Parks, but is still active in the day–to–day operations of the club, giving lessons and helping on the sporting clays course. Stephen has taken on a big workload, doing the jobs Dan and Patsy did as a team. It’s sometimes tough to be upbeat and project enthusiasm all the time with the amount of responsibility running a gun club provides, but Stephen does it superbly. Watching Stephen smiling at customers and seeing the business continue to grow and thrive is incredibly rewarding to Dan. You can view the Master Plan for the new sporting clays layout at www.mitchellsclaytargetsports.com.

Dan built a name for himself in the shotgun world through his shooting accomplishments and dedication to the sport. His years of experience in the Olympics, designing courses, building financially successful gun clubs and being involved to ensure the future of the shooting sports, add up to a man with a huge passion for all the shotgun world has to offer. Your club can also experience growth and success if you have a passion for the sport and direct that enthusiasm toward running a quality gun club.