REED CITY — Nearly 60 youngsters gather at Reed City Middle School on a weekly basis to target practice with BB guns and pellet rifles, under the watchful eye of a number of adults, including Vern Benzing.

Benzing coordinates the 4-H Shooting Sports program in Reed City, and said he believes there are currently 56 boys and girls involved in the 12-week program. He has been part of the program for “about 30 years.”

The youngsters are divided up into four groups, including five through eight-year-olds, nine through 11, 12 through 14, and 15 and up.

Benzing said the program isn’t a hunter education or hunter safety program, but it is meant to teach the youngsters four basic positions, and teach them how to handle a gun in a safe manner. He gives credit to Datus Montague “for starting the club to begin with, and he got me started. We did a lot of hunting, and did skeet and trap shooting year-round. Several other adults get credit too, including Tom Proefrock, Connie Hull and Gary Halliday, who was a leader for quite a few years.”

Benzing said his two sons have helped for many years, and Phil, who “started out in 4-H Shooting Sports back when he was 11 or 12 years old, has been with it ever since.” Phil is 39. Son Vern, 40, “just enjoyed helping us as long as he could, but now he’s working second shift up in Cadillac, and can’t be here as much. He wasn’t much into shooting, but we talked him into helping anyway.”

Known as the Bad Toads since its inception more than 30 years ago, “and now I’m working with kids that are kids of the kids I started with, and one or two of them are actually beyond the 4-H years and helping out now.”

He noted that Gary and Linda Sweet were others “who worked with us for quite a few years too.”

The Bad Toads shoot during the winter months, 6:30 p.m. at the Reed City Middle School Cafeteria. “We tried some other places in the past, thinking we could maybe gain some more kids, but it seemed we lost more by doing that,” Benzing said.

Following the 12 weeks of shooting, Benzing said there is a 4-H Shooting Sports Awards Night. “Everybody will get a participation medal, and for the older kids there will be a chance to get trophies.

The state (MSU 4-H) doesn’t allow trophies and that to be awarded to the five through eight year old group. It’s part of the regulations they have, and they’re trying to keep it fun for the little kids. They can learn then without having too much pressure put on them.”

After the first four weeks, “the eight and up divisions break up into different divisions after they’ve learned to shoot in each position, and then they compete for gold, silver and bronze awards given at the end of the year.”

This year’s Shooting Awards Night is set for April 12 in the Reed City Middle School Cafeteria.