Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — The Lee Kay Public Shooting Range, one of Utah's top firearm education shooting ranges, turns 40 this year.
While its upcoming birthday will result in celebratory discounts, historians are using the upcoming anniversary to reflect on the unique history behind that dates back to World War II and the need that developed in Utah for hunting safety education before the range opened.
Before the building came to be
There was another building that once stood prior to the opening of the shooting range.
The Utah Ordnance Depot served as a Remington ammunition manufacturing plant. The company manufactured and tested .30 and .50 caliber ammunition at the facility during World War II, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, which operates the shooting range.
Here's one fun historic tidbit: The site of the shooting range was previously called the "Utah Ordnance Depot." It was used as a wartime ammunition plant operated by Remington to produce and test .30 caliber and .50 caliber ammunition during World War II.— Faith Heaton Jolley (@FaithHJolley) July 22, 2021
But the need for the ammunition manufacturing plant ended after the war. Much like a large portion of Fort Douglas land ended up in the hands of the University of Utah in the late 1940s, the land where the plant existed ended up in new hands. DWR experts say Congress authorized a land transfer in 1949 that stated the federal land located in northwest Salt Lake County would be used for wildlife conservation.
The shooting range and education center wouldn't come until a few decades later, though. It was constructed as the state began to deal with hunter safety issues.
A need for hunting education
Utah had one of the highest hunting incident rates in the country in 1957. Per division data which goes back to then, there were 126 "hunting incidents" that resulted in 22 deaths that year among the 165,081 licensed hunters. Most of the incidents involved juveniles, who only made up about 5% of licensed hunters at the time.
Newspaper archives from the time highlight all sorts of incidents from the era, and state wildlife officials began to crack down on them.
An article published in the Iron County Record on March 22, 1956, stated that Utah wildlife officials would begin to require a "hunting safety questionnaire" of first-time Utah hunters before a vendor could sell a license.
"The questionnaire is designed to alert all new hunting license applicants to the rules of safe gun handling as a stop to reducing gun accidents," the outlet wrote, adding that other states experienced declines in hunting casualties as a result of similar tactics.
State wildlife officials also pointed out that hunters could only wear red during big-game hunts for safety. That message was delivered after a surge in people wearing colors like yellow were reported, according to an article in an Oct. 10, 1957, edition of the Southeast Independent.
Utah also launched a hunter education program for the first time in 1957. The first 310 instructors and 726 students were trained that year through the program. The number of hunting incidents and deaths then started to fall as the program grew.
By 1967, there were just 20 incidents and six deaths. There were more than 5,000 instructors and 130,000 trained students in Utah by that time. It meant that more than half of the total licensed hunters had training by the first decade of the program.
The number of incidents continued to fall as education rose. In 1984, the division reported just nine incidents and, for the first time since at least 1957, no deaths. It has continued to report few deaths annually since the 1980s.
Lee Kay was a key player in getting the education program up and running. Kay worked in the division from the 1920s to the 1960s, and created outreach programs, magazines and videos that highlighted the importance of hunting safety. When he retired in 1962, Utah, just five years into the safety program, received an award for having the lowest gun accident rate.
Meanwhile, the idea for a new hunting center took off in the 1970s as a way to expand hunter education opportunities. Lee Robertson, the state's first hunter education coordinator and the son of a gun accident survivor, pushed heavily for a shooting range and education building.
"(He) wanted a place for hunters to have a place to sight in their rifles, so they could make a clean, ethical shot in the field," said RaLynne Takeda, DWR's hunter education program manager now, in a statement Thursday.
It took several years of securing funds before construction would begin in 1979.
Though Kay died one year before the center opened, the division honored him by naming the building after him in 1981. The Park Record, in an article published on Sept. 24, 1981, referred to Kay as "the father of hunter education in Utah."
Takeda said the efforts of Kay and Robertson were "very successful." Education at the shooting range is a part of that success even to this day.
"Since the beginning of the program, hunting incidents in Utah have decreased drastically," she said. "In 2019, Utah had 448,271 licensed hunters, and only saw three hunting-related incidents and no fatalities."
Celebrating 40 years on the range
Now, 40 years after it opened, the Lee Kay Public Shooting Range still offers important education — including classes for dog training in hunts — and also recreation. It's estimated that some 50,000 people visit the facility every year and over 1 million clay targets are tossed at its shotgun ranges.
The division announced Thursday that it plans to celebrate the building's 40-year history with a handful of free or discounted events every Saturday next month.
- Aug. 7: Visitors will be able to shoot at the archery range for free.
- Aug. 14: Visitors will be able to shoot at the Big Bore rifle ranges (100, 200, 300 yards) for free.
- Aug. 21: Visitors will be able to shoot for half-price for one round at one of the shotgun ranges (includes trap, skeet and five-stand).
- Aug. 28: Visitors to the 25/75-yard rifle ranges will be able to shoot for free.