By Ford Walpole
When Boy Scout Camp is in session at Camp Ho Non Wah on Wadmalaw, you can expect a steady rhythm of shotgun blasts along the banks of Bohicket Creek. “Shotgun Shooting” is one of the merit badges offered by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and earning it depends on skills and success, besides effort, time and study. To qualify for the badge, boys must “hit 12 of 25 targets (48 percent) in two 25-target groups. A minimum of 50 shots must be fired.”
The course is more interesting under the tutelage of Donnie Godwin of Andrews, who, for the past eight years, has served as the shooting sports director at winter camp and summer camp. As director, he oversees rifle shooting and archery while focusing on teaching shotgun shooting. Unlike other merit badges, shooting sports instruction requires a rigorous, eight-day training to become an NRA-certified instructor.
“Every day, I preach safety; I concentrate more on that than anything else,” Donnie assures us. “So many people aren’t taught safety with guns. Growing up, my daddy told me ‘don’t point the gun at nobody and don’t bring a loaded gun in the house.’ We had an old house with a big porch and I unloaded my single-shot .410 shotgun on the porch, which I didn’t consider in the house. Before that .410 shell hit the porch floor, my daddy was beating my rump with his belt!”
The BSA Merit Badge Book outlines “Fundamental Rules for Safe Gun Handling,” which Donnie teaches and reteaches in the spirit of his father — save the corporal emphasis. “1.) ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. 2.) ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot and 3.) ALWAYS keep the action open and your gun unloaded until you are ready to shoot.”
“Coming back to camp refreshes my brain,” Donnie smiles, reflecting on his 16 years at Camp Ho Non Wah. His reward is watching a boy who has never shot before light up when learning to handle the gun safely and developing the fundamentals of shooting. “Every year, we have a boy — this time it was Ian — who learns how to hold a gun and qualifies for the badge. In summer camp, boys who have never shot a gun often win the camp award.” Such beginners “haven’t developed any bad fundamentals.”
Shotgun Shooting may evolve into more than merely a badge earned at Boy Scout Camp. It sparks a passion for hunting and shooting. Donnie continues: “I have taught boys to shoot and they go on to competitive shooting. We got this one boy hooked on shooting; it gave him the fever. He and his father came back and thanked me. He will be really special. They’re all young with bright minds and futures.”
The class teaches boys the Scout Marksman’s Code, which holds that a Scout “always follows the rules for firearm safety, accepts the responsibility that goes with the use and possession of firearms, follows the laws that govern the use and possession of firearms in his community, practices wildlife conservation, follows the spirit and the letter of the game laws and is especially careful to be a true sportsman when using firearms.”
At Camp Ho Non Wah, shotgun shooting was made possible through the Safari Club, which donated funds for a competition course consisting of a high tower and a low tower. Donnie named the mechanical target thrower George. Scouts routinely hike from camp to the Charleston Tea Plantation, though George’s malfunctions caused Donnie jokingly to suspect the thrower might instead have sampled some muscadine wine from the nearby Irvin-House Vineyard. “It was giving me trouble one year, so when we had the adult leader shoot at camp, I said: ‘George, you old wino! You ain’t going back to the tea farm’!”
“A lady got upset with me because I was being so mean to George.” Upon discovering George’s true identity, the kindhearted woman was summarily amused. “That Friday, during awards, she gave out patches from her council — one for me and one for George. I said ‘I’ll sit for George; he’s sobering up.’”
While one Scout holds a semiautomatic shotgun anticipating a clay target slung by George, you’ll see another on deck practicing his swing with Betsy, a wooden shotgun used for demonstration that was carved from light wood by Jim Pifer. Donnie tells his pupils: “You know about Pinocchio? He was made of wood and wanted to be a real boy. Well, Betsy is made of wood and she wants to be a real gun.”
Donnie discusses his approach to the unique class: “I try to cut the fool a lot and make it lively for the boys. At camp, you can earn merit badges required for Eagle Scout. But, shooting sports is different: It’s fun and exciting and you don’t have to earn it.” This past winter camp, Donnie offered some inspirational closing comments once his students had finished harvesting the discharged shotgun shells. “Guys, I enjoyed it! I hope you had fun. Tomorrow, we’ll show you how to clean the guns.”
He reminds Scouts that learning does not end at camp. “Be sure to read your books at home. Two things I noticed some of y’all had problems with — stance and follow-through. Swing to the target. For the ones of you who didn’t qualify, I’m sorry. But, you have the opportunity to come back and qualify at summer camp.” When they do, expect old Betsy to be envious, hope for George to be cooperative and bet on Donnie to be preaching safety … and cutting the fool.