Story by Cindi Nobles
A typical early August evening for retired Arkansans would be sitting in their comfortable air-conditioned homes. For others it might be picking through the remains of sunburned gardens, or sitting on a porch swing sipping sweet tea. August evenings in the Arkansas River Valley this year haven’t been typical, the weather cool and, for some of the young at heart, energizing. George Holt – most call him Jeff – of Russellville spends his evenings like any gun enthusiast might. Holt is plinking targets.
At the base of a steeply inclined road on the outskirts of Dardanelle stands a stout, locked steel gate with intricate lettering that states ownership of the property by the River Valley Gun Club. The sign’s centerpiece is a realistic life-size rifle cut out of steel plate with a handgun in the center of it. Club member Don Romine created the sign.
“Don Romine runs a cutting torch better than I can run an ink pen,” Holt said. “It’s a work of art.”
At the peak of the drive, situated against a backdrop of lush hardwoods, sits a parking area and a football field-sized shooting range. Holt steps out of his vehicle and nods to a little dog running around the parking area.
“That’s Buddy, the Model-A dog,” he said.
Holt’s son steps out of his Model-A pickup truck and the dog runs circles around the younger Holt, oblivious to the echo of gunshots in the background.
In front of the parking lot is a covered seating area the length of several church pews that looks out onto metal silhouettes. Chickens, pigs, turkeys and rams sit erect on the neatly landscaped grounds of the 100- yard shooting range. Picturesque Jones Mountain rises beyond the range and Mount Nebo emerges to the northwest.
“Line cold,” a man shouts as he walks across a red safety line to check targets.
“Line cold,” Holt shouts back. “Safety is a big deal here. It’s got to be.”
“See that red line on the ground?” he asks. “Nobody can go across until they know for certain there isn’t anyone about to shoot and all firearms are down. It’s a big deal to have the gun cylinders open, that way when someone is walking around this way they will know this gun is safe and it will not hurt me.”
“We aren’t looking for new members,” Holt said. “We’ve got plenty. We are looking to provide gun safety and offer our concealed handgun classes to the community. We’ve been at this a while. Some of us, like Jeff Ellis over there, have been around longer than most of us have.”
Ellis, leaning back in his seat said,“Yeah, tell everyone I’m old.”
The club had a difficult time finding a home for many years.
“We were chartered in 1977 by the NRA,” said Holt. “We originally were able to shoot on Mount Nebo Road at Doc Harbison’s property. Soon after, the Russellville Police Department let us play for a little while. Then, as new police chiefs were hired, we were run off and as others were hired we got to come back.”
“Nobody was allowed to shoot there anymore,” Holt said. “After a while, they remodeled the shooting range and turned it around and were able to begin using it again, but the gun club members couldn’t.”
But everything seemed to come together after a big announcement from the state in 1994.
“Some of us were watching the news one night and saw where the concealed gun permit was coming up for a vote in the Arkansas Legislature,” Holt said. “While this was cooking I went and found an NRA training counselor that could train us to be NRA training instructors.”
Approximately eight members became certified NRA pistol instructors within the club.
“We got certified, got all ready to teach … and then the law failed,” Holt said.
A year later the concealed gun permit law passed.
“So in ‘95 people all over the state were scrambling around to become certified to teach the class that we already had instructors certified to teach,” he said. “We went down and took the state police test in order to teach the state test, and went at it hot and heavy.”
Classes were full, and the club couldn’t hold enough of them to keep up with applicants.
“We had class after class,” Holt recalled. “Everyone kept asking, ‘when are you going to do another one,’ over and over. We had classes that would have 50 people in them over at the armory for a while. We just wore ourselves out.”
“We’ve been very fortunate the prosecuting attorneys have been doing the legal parts of our class instead of a deputy or someone who has limited knowledge of the law,” he said.
For many years the RVGC rotated from the Yell and Pope County sides of the river with the prosecuting attorneys until David Gibbons was elected in Pope County.
“David Gibbons has been excellent. He’s not pro-gun or anti-gun. He just tells you what the law is. He just tells what you can or cannot do and what he would have you charged for and whether what you did was justified if you were to use your weapon,” Holt said.
In the beginning, the club held classes at Don Casey’s property on Linker Mountain near Dover. The club took money made from the concealed weapon courses and put it in the bank, meanwhile searching for land to meet the needs for a shooting range. The shooting range now sits on property purchased in 2001. Holt explained that mostly volunteer work by members and friends made the shooting range what it is today. He said the gun club hired Kirby Construction to build a road and the rest came about.
Holt said they called a friend, James Alvey, who spent six days moving dirt to extend the pad 70 yards.
“He charged us for the diesel fuel and hydraulic fuel that leaked,” Holt said. “That’s it, just trying to help out.”
Now, almost 10 years after the concealed weapon legislation passed, Holt said the number of courses available to the public varies by demand and classes are now taught on club property.
“A lot of it is political,” he said. “Depending on who takes office, we may do classes every month for a while. Normally, we do classes every 60 to 90 days.”
Deep relationships have formed through the club. Leda and Sam Cullum spend Thursdays shooting at targets. Leda is one of nine women in the state who is an NRA certified “Chicks with Guns” instructor.
“We like to have three or four classes a year,” she said. “The classes are women only. Sometimes women are a bit intimidated by male instructors, so this gives them an opportunity to come out with their girlfriends and learn about firearm safety.”
Leda admits the shooting range is a special place for her and her husband, Sam. They met and later married there.
“I had been in Iraq and felt I needed a place to just go shoot,” Leda said. “I wanted to do something. I trained to become an instructor, and this nice gentleman was so helpful and buzzing around. I was not shopping for a man. I had been single for 13 years.”
After shooting one evening, Sam got in his pickup and Leda watched him pull away. Holt’s wife, Pat, noticed.
“That Sam’s a nice man and he’s single,” Pat said to Leda.
Soon the two were married in front of the sumac bushes at the shooting range. They say it was literally a shotgun wedding.
“People brought shotguns,” Leda said. “Everyone shot their shotguns afterward and we had a full reception here. Pat made our cake. It couldn’t have been more perfect.”
The couple has been married four years. As Holt and his wife Pat got ready to pack up for the evening, he points to Pat’s embroidered gun bag and toys in the back of her vehicle.
“I say if you can’t beat ‘em shoot with them,” Pat said.
Arkansas River Valley Gun Club, Inc. is a not-for- profit NRA affiliated shooting club. Concealed handgun carry class cost $50 ($25 non-refundable deposit – $25 day of class). Class includes a complete ready to mail package meeting the requirements of Arkansas Act 419 of 1995, classroom and firing range instruction and fingerprints.
For more information on concealed weapon classes contact Jeff Ellis at 479-229-2228.