FORSYTH, Mont. — There’s a big kid’s playground just northwest of here — rolling pine- and juniper-dotted hills surrounding a wide level valley and bentonite gray
bluffs. Don’t look for any swings, slides or jungle gyms, though. Instead, the hillsides are speckled with the steel of black silhouette shooting targets.
Al Lee is the big kid who master-minded the playground. The shooting range, where each June hundreds of people amass for the Matthew Quigley Buffalo Rifle Match, is located on his ranch north of the Yellowstone River. To say that shooting is his passion doesn’t do justice to the depth of his love of the sport, the guns and their history.
“I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. Shooting is my one bad habit,” he admitted with a large grin. “It’s my bad habit because of how much I spend on it.”
“He grew up hunting, he grew up shooting, he just thinks it’s really important,” said Lee’s second son, Bob, a Rosebud County commissioner. “He’s been a very avid shooter all of his life, and he takes it very seriously. If he can see some young kid start a shooting sport, that makes his day.”
Despite that, Lee was against a recent bill in the Legislature that would have allowed 9 year olds to hunt with an adult.
“Now, a 9-year-old is still playing at everything he does,” Lee said. “Hunting and handling firearms is a serious business.”
A “dumbfounded” Lee was recently honored for 55 years of service to the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ hunter education program in Forsyth. He began teaching a firearms course to youngsters in 1958, the year after the hunter ed program began in Montana. He was 28 then, now he’s 83.
“I believe I taught every kid that went through that program,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure to do it.”
He retired from the volunteer duty a couple of years ago. Standing up in front of a class for an hour was getting too tiring for the beat up old cowboy. But he’s left a legacy of public service to the community and in the shooting world that will long be standing strong.
“He’s one of those guys who just care a great deal about the future of hunting and youth,” said Dwayne Andrews, a former FWP information manager who guided the region’s hunter education program. “He’s dedicated a major portion of his life to that.”
In recognition of his service, back in 2001 he was given the National Rifle Association’s public service award. The group gives out only one each year.
“I’m proud of that one,” Lee said. “It fell on me out of the blue.”
Lee grew up in Sweetwater, Texas. His father, a World War I veteran, went into partnership with a Texas druggist who had made money prescribing whiskey for “medicinal use” during prohibition. The Montana ranching operation began when Lee was only 15. At that time, there were still no fences north of the Yellowstone River, all of the grazing was open range.
“When I came up here as a kid in the summer, my dad gave me an old .300 Savage and told me to keep that freezer full of antelope,” Lee said, since his mother was feeding a crew of ranch hands. It didn’t matter that the animals were shot out of season, a fact Lee now regrets but doesn’t hide. “There was no law north of the Yellowstone back then.”
After finishing high school in Texas and starting college, in 1945 Lee moved to Bozeman, attending school at Montana State University. It was there that he met his future wife, Sharon, after his fraternity stole the screen door off of Sharon’s sorority. To get the screen door back, the sorority sisters had to cook the frat boys breakfast.
Brains of the family
Sharon, a Fort Benton farmer’s daughter, was studying industrial chemistry at MSU. The couple’s first date was a trip to shoot prairie dogs.
“She operates on an intellectual level with which I am unfamiliar,” Lee said. “She could be running Dow Chemical. Instead, she married a dumb ass cowboy.”
The cowboy served in the Air Force during the Korean War as an armament electronics instructor on huge Convair B-36 jet bombers known as the “Peacemaker.” Other than teaching fencing to fellow college students, it was his first role as an instructor. After leaving the Air Force, Lee returned to college and married Sharon on Halloween. They have three sons — Brian, Bob and Travis — six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Since moving to Forsyth in 1954 to partner with his brother running the family ranch, Lee has volunteered as a scout master, started the Quigley match with his friend and led the muzzleloader program in the Big Sky State Games. He’s served on the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Selective Service Board during the Vietnam draft. To this day, he continues to cattle ranch with his son, Bob, and annually opens 30 sections of his ranch to the Boy Scouts, the Quigley match and to public hunters.
“The Boy Scouts have the run of the ranch,” he said. “It’s a place for the public to go and enjoy themselves as long as they don’t burn me out and damage me.”
Cut fences, rutted roads and the occasional garbage scattered across their land has angered Bob Lee to the point that he’s suggested on occasion closing the ranch to the public just to make a point. But Al would never go that far.
“Nope,’ he’d say, ‘This is for the public,’” Bob said. “‘It’s been open for 60 years.’”
Lee has held to that vow despite the fact that some of the hunters have injured game animals. Of one group of out-of-state hunters who visited, Lee said, “Those guys were so abysmally ignorant of firearms that they couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a handful of rice.”
Lee schooled his own boys on shooting well. Bob, now 55, remembers firing a wax bullet in his father’s .45 caliber pistol at the wall in the basement when he was only 3 or 4. His father would hold the gun and let the boys pull the trigger. When he was in high school, they shot trap together.
“He is deadly with a shotgun on pheasants,” Bob said. “In his heyday he’d be 15 for 15 on roosters. He lived to bird hunt, even back in the ’90s. It got to the point that it wasn’t even sport anymore because it was so easy.”
Back in time
So Lee started hunting with a flintlock fowler, the precursor to the modern shotgun. He had long had a fascination with the guns, even building his first flintlock, a .38 caliber, using furniture maple for the stock.
“I’d rather kill a fat doe with a flintlock then a big buck with a .300,” Lee said. “It’s a challenge. You’ve got to be a damn nut to shoot those things.”
He’s also participated in cowboy action shooting, blowing up the end of one double-barreled shotgun when a shell misfired. But Sharon never liked the idea of him shooting for speed, so he gave that up.
A lover of many different styles of firearms, he noted that he “blew away a thousand charging beer cans” with an 1858 cap and ball officer’s service revolver from the Civil War era before he found out it was worth a lot of money.
“I think he shoots almost every day,” Bob said of his father. “If it’s cold and windy, he may just hang a rifle out the window, but he’ll still shoot.”
And why not, he’s got the perfect place for it – a shooter’s playground that he designed.