This past weekend, Better Half and I took a drive up to the free-to-the-public Royal Blue / North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area Firing Range about 36 miles north of downtown Knoxville.
What? You did not know there was a range up there, or that it was free? Well, it is almost one of the best-kept secrets in the area.
Pretty much everyone knows about the John Sevier Hunter Education Center just north of Knoxville on the appropriately-named Rifle Range Road, but everyone also knows how much of a pain in the ass it can be to shoot there – the hours are limited, all non-shotgun shooting has to be done from a benchrest or sandbag (and they do mean all, including handguns), no "rapid fire" (which apparently means whatever the Range Safety Officer thinks it means, but, on average, about one shot every three seconds might be acceptable), and various other rather stupid rules. I will not say that the North Cumberland WMA Range gets rid of all those stupid rules, but it comes close.
Anywise, get on northbound I-75 however best you want to, and start looking for exit 141 for Howard Baker Highway / TN-63 / Oneida / Pioneer. Get off, take a right at the bottom of the ramp, and follow the road as it curves around until it is parallel with the interstate headed south. Drive on past the gigantic "Adult World" store (unless, of course, you want to stop), and when the road takes a fairly obvious Y, bear left onto the dirt/gravel option. Continue to follow the actual "road" (I use that term lightly) – not the ATV/offroading tracks on the power line right-of-way – for about 1.5 miles… and then it gets interesting; you can see below in the map for what I mean (RSS readers – click through for the map):
View North Cumberland WMA TWRA Firing Range in a larger map
The three arrows mark the 150-yard, 100-yard, and 50-yard ranges, starting from the east and working west. The blue pin marks where we parked. The red pin marks why we parked there. And, yes, that is almost exactly a 1/4-mile hike, one way, carrying two full .50-caliber cans of ammunition, a Pelican case full of shotguns, and various other accouterments… thanks for asking! Anywise, the road back into the woods is periodically maintained, but very rough, and very rocky; we encountered an exposed rock channel earlier on the road that we were able to not-quite-literally scrape by, but that red pin marks an exposed rock face that had a greater convex curvature than our Volvo’s ground clearance could provide… and if the Volvo was not going to swing it, the Bullitt sure as hell was not. In other words, if you actually want to drive to the range, you need a vehicle with at least 4 inches of clearance underneath it, and preferably with the terms "SUV", "truck", or "crossover" describing it; this is especially true if it has rained recently – three days after the last rain, there was still standing water almost at the road level to either side in a few spots.
Me, I would have very nearly considered trading one of the firearms I was carrying for one of these (and I may still make one of my own regardless).
Anywise, as you roll (or walk) into the first parking lot, you are met with the following rules:
This range is dedicated to every person needing a place to shoot and especially the young generation who have a desire to learn about firearms. Firearms have a rich historic tradition in our American History. It is through the teaching of safe firearm use that our future generations will learn to enjoy the sport we have cherished, and also protect our National Heritage.
The staff at Royal Blue includes Stan Stooksbury, Danny Akins, Fred Jordan, Danny Forrester, George Birdwell, and Charles Chandler. These men have dedicated many hours to ensure the safety and protection of all users. Safety is our greatest concern and we ask that every person who uses this range will always think safety first. It is our wish that safety, courtesy, proper firearm use, and conduct will keep this range accident free.
Rules and Regulations
1. Range Use Policy: "To ensure proper maintenance of facilities, users must police themselves. This range will be considered opened during operational hours, with the understanding that no litter is present before and after your visit. (Litter includes all material that is not natural to the range, except spent lead. range is considered temporarily closed until litter is removed.)"
A. Hours of operation: Daylight hours only.
B. Firearms and Ammunition that may be used.
1. Rifles: .22 Rimfire and Centerfire up to .454 Calibers.
2. Muzzleloading Rifles: Up to .58 Calibers.
3. Pistols: All calibers.
4. Shotguns: Rifle Slugs and Shot sizes up to #four.
*Ammunition: (No armor piercing or buckshot permitted.)
C. Unattended vehicles will not be left in such a manner as to deprive or interfere with the parking areas or access roads. Offending vehicles may be towed and the drivers issued a citation. Parking is for Range Use Only. Visitors and Visitor parking restricted to ten minutes. No trailers allowed.
D. No person will deface, damage, destroy, or remove any equipment, structure, trees, dirt, gravel, or sod on the Royal Blue W.M.A.
E. No garbage, rubbish, litter, or any refuse, sewage, or any other material that would pollute this facility or render it unsatisfactory or unsanitary will be left on the range.
F. No species of wildlife may be molested or hunted in or around the restricted area as posted.
G. Shooting positions will be allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis.
H. Only the shooter and coach may be on the firing line. All others must remain in designated areas for non-shooters.
I. All incidents resulting in the injury to persons or damage to property must be reported by the persons involved as soon as possible to the Area Manager or one of the Staff.
This report does not relieve persons from the responsibility of making any other accident report that may be required under state law.
A. Participants may not possess any alcoholic beverage, narcotic drug, barbiturates, marijuana, or other behavior-modifying substance while on this facility. No individual may be under the influence of these substances anytime while within the facilities.
B. Firearms may only be loaded while at shooting stations. All firearm actions must remain open, except when on the firing line.
C. All shooting will occur only from marked firing line positions into the designated backstop area.
D. Do not raise the muzzle of any firearm higher than the top of the backstop.
E. Only paper targets may be used. Targets must have name and address on the targets. Do not shoot cans, bottles, etc.
F. All firearms actions must remain opened at all times unless on the firing line.
G. All firearms must be unloaded and actions opened when anyone is down range of firing line.
H. When another person is down range, no handling of firearms will occur, including the adjustment of sights.
I. When a cease fire is called, all shooting will stop and all firearms will be unloaded, and will have their actions open until call for cease fire is corrected. Remember that anyone on the range can and should call a Cease Fire when they have or see a problem.
J. A Cease Fire will be called before making a target change or score.
K. No smoking will occur on the firing line.
L. Safety zones are defined as an area of protection that may have restricted activities around buildings, roads, and other designated areas.
M. Target practice is prohibited except on sites provided. Each shooting station has a specific target station.
N. Driving into/on woods, berm, or firing line is strictly prohibited and will be strictly enforced.
O. Acts of disorderly or unsafe conduct, including acts that interfere with the orderly processes conducted on this range, are prohibited.
P. Domesticated animals are prohibited.
Q. Youths less than sixteen years of age must be supervised by an adult at all times.
R. Paper targets must be placed on frames provided by T.W.R.A.
S. All targets, expended rounds, and litter must be removed from range.
T. Eye and Hearing protections must be worn while on or near the firing line.
U. If present, Range Officers will have control of range safety, activities, and persons using the range.
V. Hunter Education Instructors will schedule use of range a minimum of one week in advance, and will not be charged a user fee for participants.
And not to disparage the range – after all, free is free – I do have a few problems with those. First, excluding .50 caliber ammunition is just dumb. Not all .50 caliber ammunition is as powerful as .50 BMG – for instance, .50 Beowulf is a not-unheard-of AR-15 caliber that closely replicates the power and ballistics of the old .45-70 Government round… the latter would be allowed but the former would not. On a similar note, while no <.454 rifle ammunition can quite equal the honorable .50 BMG, the .416 Barret and .408 CheyTac have somewhere around 70% of the muzzle energy of that half-inch slug, but they are ok and it is not? And, in any case, as the pictures below show, you are shooting into a berm in front of a very large cliff – that expended round is going nowhere. Something tells me there is a little fuddishness, or acquiescing to fuddish concerns, in that rule.
Second, slugs and birdshot, but no buckshot? I get it – buckshot would tear up your target holders – but if you would let people use their own target holders (more on that in a minute), that would not be a concern, and it is not like #4 is not enough to beat the ever loving carp out of plywood.
Third, "no armor piercing" would eliminate pretty much any centerfire rifle caliber, so I assume they mean "no steel-core ammunition". And, again, dirt backstop backed up with large dirt-and-rock cliff. What is the problem?
Finally, the combination of "only shoot from the firing line" and "only use our target hangers" is just annoying. Ok, I get the former – if there are more people at the range than just you, agreeing what constitutes "the firing line" without just sticking to the benches provided could be… more trouble than it is worth. But the "pistol" range at North Cumberland is 50 yards, which is a damned long way to be doing anything even approximating practicing for self-defense or even using compact handguns in general. I am really not seeing how setting up your own target stands at 10 yards would be such a problem. And, really, so long as people clean up after themselves (meaning no glass or other materials), I see no issues with them shooting non-paper targets.
However, look at what they do not say – no stupid rules about "rapid fire". No prohibitions against "shooting from leather" (drawing a loaded firearm from a holster and engaging a target – please do so carefully and slowly to begin with, and try not to shoot your own feet). No requirement to shoot from a bench or rest (though you probably will not be moving around a whole lot, either).
All said, we found the range to be very satisfactory – the facilities and grounds appeared to be well-maintained, the casing bucket and trash cans were definitely used and emptied frequently, the target hangers were replaced often enough to not be useless, it was very nice and quiet (though we were there Easter Sunday morning, which may have affected things, but out-of-the-way as it is, I cannot imagine it is that popular), and it provided a safe, easy shooting environment. Aside from the impassability of the roads and the quibbles with the rules, the only things I would change would be the addition of a port-a-potty (there may have been one at the parking lot for the 100 and 150 yard ranges – we did not wander up there).
To stress on the remoteness of this particular range, do bear in mind that the closest hospital is about 19 miles and 30+ minutes away. I neglected to transfer my individual trauma kit from my Bullitt’s trunk into our range bag for this trip, and if something had gone disastrously wrong, it might not have ended well; I need to either procure another kit, or get better about moving it around as necessary.
The Norris Police Department range is a little closer to Knoxville and is, last I was there, completely accessible by almost any vehicle, but it is also $40 a year, and does not have nearly as many shooting positions as North Cumberland; trade-offs are trade-offs, I guess. If memory serves, they have much the same rules as the North Cumberland range does as well, so if you are hoping to escape the last few "silly" rules, no such luck there either (and, in fact, I seem to recall rumors that the rules were tightened recently due to stupidity of folks).
In short, if you are looking for an affordable range within relatively easy driving distance of Knoxville (and directly adjacent to some decent hiking we availed ourselves of on the way home – might as well batch up trips with the way gas prices are going), I would recommend the North Cumberland TWRA range, so long as you have a vehicle that can get there and the optics necessary to hit a target a 50 yards and know you did (or a willingness to… bend… the rules).
(Note: While I have taken to referring to this range as "free", that is, of course, inaccurate – the TWRA is funded, in part, by the $0.10 excise tax stamp affixed to each and every box of ammunition sold individually in the state of Tennessee. Given that your money is being used to support and maintain this range, you might as well use it.)
(Photos courtesy of Better Half.)