The NRA Whittington Center is a 33,000 acre Mecca for shooters that was opened to the public in 1973 and just celebrated its 40th anniversary. Over that time, it has grown to be one of the premier shooting facilities in the world.
Located in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range just seven miles south of Raton, N.M., the facility is known as America’s premier outdoor recreation destination.
I recently spent a week at this amazing congregation of shooting ranges, camping, shooting and hunting preserves at the invitation of Lt. Col. Robert K. Brown, the courtly and irascible publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine, with some of his Green Beret and war buddies, and a select group of young movers and shakers in the gun movement.
Col. Brown has just published his long-awaited autobiography, “I Am Soldier of Fortune—Dancing With Devils,” and it is every bit as funny, entertaining and colorful as the man himself. I had written a review of the book, and Brown invited me to join his crew at the Whittington Center, where he is a member of the board.
Imagine 17 ranges covering the gamut of shooting disciplines from practical pistol (IPSC); hunters’ pistol silhouette; high power silhouette; practical police; combat (PPC); benchrest; high power rifle 1,000 yard; sight-in; and multiple shotgun ranges in skeet, trap, five-stand and sporting clays.
There are RV hookups, primitive camping areas, and various cabins and houses for rent with different levels of amenities to meet every budget and required level of comfort.
We stayed in what is called “Competitors’ Housing”—dormitory-style buildings with a central lobby and three separate wings. Each wing contains a kitchenette, two bathrooms and five bedrooms, each with two single beds. This is a comfortable, inexpensive way to go, with the rooms renting for only $44 per night — that’s $22 per person per bed. It’s a great facility for a group.
One of the neatest things waking up each morning was the pronghorn antelope and mule deer feeding in the yards of the cabins. Drink coffee, watch the gorgeous sunrise in the arid mountain air and count deer on your doorstep.
Bring everything you ever wanted to shoot, because there’s a range on the center to shoot it. The sight-in range is fun because after you avail yourself of the 100-yard and 200-yard targets to sight-in your favorite long gun, you can aim over the back berm at the mountain rising behind it and take long shots at various silhouette targets mounted on its side. The farthest, and most prominent and tempting, is the full-size silhouette of a white bison — only 1,200 yards away.
See if you match up to the shooting skills of the old buffler hunters and try to hit it. Ring the steel and you have joined the White Buffalo Club. T-shirts are for sale at the gift shop in the welcome center that proclaim your membership for all the world to see.
It’s not all just shooting, either. Guided draw hunts for elk, mule deer, pronghorn, spring turkey and black bear are available on the facility.
The visitor’s center hosts a library, gift shop and Museum of the Southwest. The facility sits at the head of the old Sante Fe Trail, so many colorful characters of the Old West have passed through the area, and the museum details their visits, the rowdy mining towns for copper and the iconic St. James Hotel that saw its share of gunfights and killings — and played host to a great number of gunslingers who passed through on their way to California. The hotel merits an entire display in the museum, so rich is its history.
Located only a few miles down Highway 64 is the town of Cimarron. Blink as you enter, and you will miss the whole town. But follow a surprisingly small sign to the St. James Hotel, and you will drive down a street that has changed little in over a century. You might also dodge mule deer that stroll the streets, blissfully assuming they will not be run down by gawking turistas.
The hotel was built a few years after the Civil War. It stands basically unchanged, its walls covered with pictures and news stories of the historical characters who have visited it.
Noted guests included the Earp brothers, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday. Jesse James was said to be a recurring guest under aliases, always requesting the same room. Enter the bar and step back into an earlier century, appointed just as it was 150 years ago (they have added modern conveniences like indoor plumbing, and air conditioning), and notice the original stamped tin ceiling that still carries various holes from bullets discharged by rowdy patrons and, in some cases, in gunfights.
Every gunfight and killing was scrupulously recorded from 1872 through 1884, when it is to be assumed a more decorous period began — or more likely the proprietors just quit keeping count. If a killing occurred outside on the sidewalk, in the interest of veracity, it is noted in the hotel’s handout on the subject.
Clay Allison is a name familiar to Western history buffs as one of the real old-time gunfighters. His name occurs more frequently than any other in the list of gunfights because he was a local rancher who led a respected, genteel and married lifestyle — except when he either came to town and got to drinking or some wanna-be arrived looking to enhance his own reputation by taking out Allison. The fact that none of them survived the encounter is underscored by the fact that Allison met his maker by falling off a buckboard outside of town — an incongruous end for one more colorful character in New Mexico’s history.
The Whittington Center is a destination vacation all in itself. But the treasure trove of Old West history in which it is situated should not be missed — the Indian, Spanish and American cultures all added to the richness of this area.
Only a few miles south of Raton, I passed a gaggle of trucks and horse trailers parked across the fence on the prairie. Mounted cowboys in chaps, their cow ponies setting back on the ropes they had around the neck of a yearling, were working it toward the trucks. The real, working West, just like in the old days — with modern conveyances to drive their cattle to market.
For more information on the NRA Whittington Center, go to NRAWC.org or call 575-445-3615.