A Rifleman's History

The Appleseed Project teaches guns, history, & good ol’ fashioned American patriotism.

By Ben Tepfer

Sergeant Rock sidles up to the firing line, arms crossed. His face is emotionless, his eyes hidden behind a dark pair of aviators. “Fire!” For a moment after the word leaves his mouth, the only sound comes from the wind blowing through the surrounding cornfields. And then, two dozen gunshots fill the air.

Nearly 70 miles southeast of Syracuse, I turned off of U.S. Route 20, onto New York State Route 50, and into Edmeston, the home of the Burlington Flats Fish and Game Club. Endless farmland replaced suburban neighborhoods. The town square of Edmeston was desolate, with only a small post office. I took a left over an old wooden bridge as the pavement gave way to dirt paths and street signs changed into hand-made guideposts pointing up the hill. I began to wonder how I would know when I was in the right place. And then I saw flags. All six flags originated from the Revolutionary War, including the infamous Gadsden flag embroidered with the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” As I stepped out of my car to the discharge of .22 caliber rifles, a large man in a bright orange hat handed me a waiver. His name is Larry Jaegar. At 53 years old, he’s a dairy farmer in Edmeston and secretary treasurer of the Burlington Flats Club. Although our eyes met when we shook hands, my focus quickly drifted to the pistol holstered on his belt.

It’s September 18, exactly 11 months since Burlington Flats held its first shoot in partnership with The Appleseed Project. Founded in 2006 by the Revolutionary War Veterans Association (RWVA), Appleseed is a national rifle marksmanship program that holds boot camp training programs at rifle clubs and ranges in the continental United States. But Appleseed isn’t just another firearms training program, and don’t you dare call them a militia.

“We teach people a lifetime enjoyment of using firearms safely,” Jaeger said through a thick, Midwestern accent. “Some guys like to play golf; I can’t stand it. I can’t see how they can beat the whale snot out of a little white ball. I like to shoot.” Jaeger, a hunting safety instructor for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, helped bring Appleseed to Burlington Flats when a former club member approached him nearly two years ago. Jaeger’s orange hat means he’s an Appleseed Instructor, an honor received after completing several shoots and scoring at least a 210 out of 250 on an Army Qualification Test.

“For a lot of these folks, this is their first shoot,” said Jaeger. “The more you shoot, the more you get into it and progress to be a Shoot Boss.” This weekend, the Shoot Boss is Sergeant Rock. His real name is Stephen Stoner, a 52-year-old self-employed carpenter. He’s in charge of everyone’s safety. After positioning the barrel of a 12-year-old’s rifle, Stoner walks over to me. “Safety is a wonderful thing,” he said with his eyes locked on the range. “It’s especially important to have these kids absorb it like a sponge.”

Firearm safety is nothing new for Stoner, who fired his first rifle at age 18 and spent 23 years in the Army. For 32 days following the attacks of September 11, Stoner assisted the Army in physically protecting the subway system below the streets of New York City. With his gun in hand, Stoner not only kept America safe, but also protected his fellow soldiers.

“I had 28 bodies beneath of me I had to keep safe and, as far as I was concerned, we were in a potential war zone,” Stoner said. “Anything could flare up in a heartbeat.”

Stoner came to Appleseed because it offers unique training for its participants. Today, like every shoot he runs, Stoner teaches more than just shooting posture and technique. “There is a secret to the RWVA,” Stoner said. “We want to get history out to people. And we use firearms instruction to draw people here to hear the story. These people deserve to hear the story and they need to hear it properly.” They don’t teach the American Revolution you learned in middle school. This isn’t the story of the war. It’s about the people who died, the choices they made. After all, America emerged from the barrel of a rifle.

Now, 235 years later, the rifle is Appleseed’s textbook. “Not only do we have to teach rifle marksmanship, but we have to teach history,” Stoner said. “I believe there are people in this country who just can’t handle freedom. I love my freedom.” Stoner’s freedom took him from Long Island, N.Y., to the Canadian border to teach others what it takes to be a rifleman. He said he would go further if he could, but like all Appleseed instructors, he volunteers his time.

Before coming to Burlington Flats, I expected everyone to be ex-military or radically right wing. But as I looked down the line, I found no easy generalizations. To my left sat a 71-year-old man who fired his first gun at age 8. To my right, a young mother watched as her hearing-impaired teenage son shot with help from his father. This diversity is typical for an Appleseed shoot as almost everyone shoots for free. Women, anyone under 21, veterans, and government officials all don’t pay to shoot. In fact, it’s rare that anyone pays the $70 fora weekend shoot. Just bring your own rifle and ammunition.

Today’s line of 32 people consists of predominately men. Jacquie Popen of Rochester is the exception, the lone female participant. Although today marks Popen’s first Appleseed shoot, she’s no stranger to the “real” history of the American Revolution. “I think we’ve lost the history of our country,” Popen said. “So it’s important to come out here and learn about the Revolutionary War and the men who died for the freedoms we enjoy. There are obviously soldiers dying all the time for our freedoms, but back then, they were going to die or live free.”

My conversation with Popen was cut short as the group gathered around one of the instructors to hear the story of the “First Strike” between the colonists and the British that started the Revolutionary War. Appleseed divides the story of the American Revolution into three strikes, all representing the major battles that led to America’s freedom. The first tells the story of the Boston Massacre, through the Boston Tea Party, to the ride of Paul Revere, and concludes with the sound of a rifle shot in Lexington.

“You might think the whole shooting thing is bad, but the whole premise of Appleseed is not about a revolution,” Popen said. “It is our Second Amendment right that we should not just be shooters, but riflemen.”

Wait, their right?

I won’t lie—something troubled me about this whole event. Who were these people teaching 12-year-olds how to use rifles (children under 12 use an air rifle or a BB gun)? I instantly linked Appleseed to another national group rooted in the history of the 1770s, The Tea Party. Both groups seek to revitalize patriotism, proudly fly the Gadsden flag, and reference themes of American freedom from the British monarchy.

Don’t let the similarities fool you. The Tea Party talks about radically changing the political system today. The Appleseed Project teaches American history through a hands-on experience and encourages citizens to get involved any way they can.

After I alluded to such a partnership, Stoner scoffed. “Project Appleseed is affiliated with ourselves,” he said. “Not saying we don’t have Tea Partiers here, but if they start spouting off their stuff, they’re squashed. Especially by me. I love squashing people.” I’m not the first person to assume Appleseed is a bunch of radical nut jobs. We live in a world where it seems as though someone dies from a firearm shot every week, where clandestine, right-wing militias stockpile weapons in preparation for the oncoming Apocalypse. But Stoner will tell you I’m wrong to think that old cliché is right. Guns don’t kill people—people without proper gun training kill people.

“I love to see kids on the line,” said Stoner with a smirk. “They aren’t going to hurt others with their actions with firearms. It’s all about camaraderie for me, being with like-minded people who enjoy shooting sports and love this country.”

Cue “America, Fuck Yeah.”

When I first arrived at Burlington Flats, the sight of all these kids crouched over their rifles scared the hell out of me—could we, as Americans, be fostering the next Columbine or Virginia Tech shooting? In fact, it’s quite the opposite: firearms will always be part of American life—both legally and illegally— and as every person I spoke to said, it’s our right. But Appleseed works to instill safety in kids, so when they do see a gun, they know what not to do.

Ethan Livingston is only 12 years old, but this is his second Appleseed shoot; he is a member of the Junior Rifle Team. His body is covered with dirt and sweat from hours of disciplined shooting, both standing and laying on the ground. Ethan had no problem telling me why he kept coming back to Burlington Flats.

“I like it because I get to do it with my dad. And I just like shooting,” he said.

Today, Ethan’s father David joined in, as well as his cousins Daniel and Ryan. David Livingston is a dairy farmer 20 miles West and told me shooting brings his family together. “I believe in what this organization as a whole believes in,” David said. “I am a man of the soil, and I think that’s where our whole country started. Of that original militia, most of them were farmers.”

Jaeger, who carefully watched me since I first arrived, took this opportunity to walk by and add a few thoughts of his own. “It’s a good program. It’s not what a lot of people think. We’re not militia men, and we’re not radicals. We’re just—”a bunch of guys who like shooting holes in paper,” interjected Ryan, a first time instructor and current solider in the Army. The men laughed.

“I’ve heard some people say we are anti-government,” said Dan, a second time instructor and full time accountant from Utica. “But, we are pro-government. We want people involved and voting. We don’t care how you vote, just vote and know what you’re voting for.” As the story of the first strike came to a close with Paul Revere riding across Massachusetts, Stoner came up to me and asked that I portray Appleseed honestly.

“If anyone picks up one of these guns and starts using it for destructive purposes, you just lost everything,” Stoner said. “If you want to fight a war in this country, do the soft war: write. That’s how you fight in a democracy.”

To this day, Stoner trains not only in Appleseed, but for numerous troops before they deport overseas. But he doesn’t expect quite the same level of skill from Appleseed shooters as he would a soldier. “We have to tone it down for the civilians,” he laughed. “We don’t want this to be like a boot camp, but it damn sure ain’t no pussy crap.”

Photography By Alex Pines