Bang at the Ernakulam Rifle Club
TNIE fires a few rounds at the Ernakulam Rifle Club, which bagged 24 medals at the recent state shooting championship and is gunning for greater glory
KOCHI: One cannot be blamed for mistaking the old, dilapidated building beyond the football ground and cricket nets at Regional Sports Centre (RSC), Kochi, for a storage shed or a cloakroom. However, the building’s unassuming exterior belies the rich legacy housed within.
This is the Ernakulam Rifle Club, which, despite its purported infrastructural inadequacies, has been producing champions for many years. As TNIE visits the facility to uncover how this was achieved, we find the answer in the beaming smile of M S Akhil, the club’s coach and practising shooter.
“Shoot first, questions later,” Akhil tells this reporter just moments after stepping into the range. This is unexpected, as we imagined the affair to be blanketed in bureaucracy. But, Akhil has a subtle and deft way of easing the prospective shooter into the process. He guides me with simple instructions, step by step, reducing the gun to just another instrument of metal and wood.
Bang! The sound was a stark contrast to the measured anticipation that had come before. The pellet had scored cut-4 on the target. While this is indeed a desirable beginning for a first-timer, the exercise underscored the kind of precision and clarity of mind that this sport demands. To hit a 10.9, i.e. the perfect score, the flesh must meld with the machine, and the gun must fuse with the shooter.
As this reality slowly sunk in, Akhil said, “You must be free in the head when you shoot. And to eliminate distractions here [pointing to his head] is no easy task. Shooting is a mind game.”
This is precisely why the 32-year-old considers himself to be a low-key psychologist, too. Here, he is not only training youngsters to shoot but also draft the next moment.
It’s probably the years of training with the National Cadet Corps (NCC) that moulded the coach in Akhil. “We used to train using the .22 rifle. During my later years in NCC, I used to train juniors. That experience was instrumental, and I carried all the lessons with me when I began my stint as the rifle association’s coach at RSC in 2009,” he says.
The past 14 years have seen Akhil transform the Ernakulam Rifle Club into a force to reckon with in the state’s shooting scene. Former city police commissioner Nagaraju Chakilam, who is currently in charge of Thiruvananthapuram, will vouch for that. “While the Idukki range has more active members and the Alappuzha range boasts of more facilities, Ernakulam has the best trainer,” he sums it up.
However, Akhil is disinclined to don the laurel of ‘the best’. “The Ernakulam Rifle Club is what it is today thanks to the hard work of its leadership - Shivshankar Raghu, John Ralph, and a group of youngsters such as Ashuthosh Kamath, Diya Samson and others,” says Akhil, who is also a non-practising lawyer.
Abhinav Bindra connection
A lot of credit also goes to Abhinav Bindra. His winning gold in the 10m air rifle event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, thereby becoming the first Indian to clinch the yellow metal, was a big impetus for rifle associations across the country. It helped dislodge the idea that the sport was only for the elite.
In fact, Bindra’s win was the catalyst for the RSC constructing the indoor shooting range in Kadavanthra. It was inaugurated in April 2009, and Akhil was posted as its coach shortly after. Until then, the Ernakulam Rifle Association, which was started in 1970, didn’t have a public shooting range of its own.
“There were only a handful of members in the association then, and they used to train at Sacred Heart College in Thevara. Since the inception of the range at RSC, a lot more youngsters have embraced the sport,” says Akhil. Indeed, many of the club’s current members took to the sport after discovering the range during RSC’s annual summer camps.
Ashuthosh was 12 when he first learnt about the rifle club at RSC. It was 2015, and he was attending a summer camp then. “I was crazy about guns from a young age. So, I wanted to give it a try. While there was some resistance from my family, I managed to convince them,” says the Ernakulam Law College student. After he secured distinction in the Class 10 examinations, Ashuthosh’s mother got him a pistol, which she imported from Austria, to support his passion for the sport. “That’s when my training really began,” says Ashuthosh.
Today, the 21-year-old is one of the club’s most proficient shooters. At the recently concluded 55th State Shooting Championship in Alappuzha, he bagged four medals and secured a place in the all-India G V Mavalankar Shooting Championship to be held in West Bengal next month. Ashuthosh, who was the 2021 state champion, also manages a fair share of the rifle club’s activities. This is yet another way that Akhil grooms the youngsters here into leaders: by giving them administrative responsibilities.
The selection of contestants from the district to the national team has helped boost the club’s visibility, notes Akhil. “Many girls are also coming forward, inspired by the likes of Elizabeth Susan Koshy, who clinched gold in 2015’s National Games – Kerala’s first medal in shooting in the Games’ history,” he adds. Diya Samson is one of them. It was in 2019 that Diya, then 14, came with her mother to enquire about the sport. She, too, had learnt about the range during a summer camp at RSC. That same year, she bagged the gold in a local open-sight shooting contest.
Last year, Diya emerged as the state champion. “The rifle club has become my second home,” says the St Teresa’s College student, who bagged three medals at the recent state championship. “Akhil sir and the team have been very supportive. They are the reason why I have been able to accomplish so much in my shooting journey.” It’s not teens and youngsters alone who have made the club their second home. Businessman Baiju P Mani, 70, is among the patrons who cherish the place. He was keen to take up the sport after he read Abhinav’s autobiography, ‘A Shot at History’.
“Photography was the only shooting I had done until then,” says Baiju. “I had no idea about rifles. But when I came to the club the first time, Akhil’s only instruction was to take the gun and shoot! There was no theory. That came much later. Akhil is a big motivator.” Practising the sport, Baiju adds, has also helped him become less temperamental and argumentative. “Also, earlier, I suffered from a form of arthritis and that bogged me down. Not anymore,” he says.
Buoyed by the new-found passion, Baiju built a 10m range on his house premises. “However, I love coming here and engaging with the youngsters. They are taking this sport to new heights,” smiles Baiju, who shoots not for trophies but for the clarity it brings to his mind. There are many others like him.
Ernakulam Rifle Club’s recent haul – 24 medals in the state championship – has even encouraged RSC to remedy the infrastructure hurdles. “A new range has been built on the third floor of RSC’s main building. It can accommodate 10 shooters at a time. We will shift this September,” Akhil says. The future is 10.9.
Dawn of rifle clubs
Close on the heels of the 1962 Indo-China war, it was imperative that, in addition to the professional armed personnel, civilians, too, be equipped with the knowledge of how to use guns. “The idea was to develop a trained civilian population to protect strategic resources across the country,” notes former city commissioner Nagaraju Chakilam.
To achieve this, rifle clubs started mushrooming across the country. Each district had one, governed by the local authorities, which included the collector, the police chief, and an elected body of members. “Usually, in the normal course, these clubs operate as a sports association where Olympic Games’ drafting is the main objective,” the officer adds.
If you think about it, a javelin is, in fact, a spear, a baseball bat is a mace. They don’t have negative associations. Thanks to the efforts of rifle clubs and some notable wins in both national and international avenues, more parents are willing to let their wards take up shooting now - Nagaraju Chakilam, former Kochi City police commissioner, who is currently in charge of Thiruvananthapuram