"Stand by, I'll tell you when to load," said Sgt. Gregory L. Bartles of the Maryland Natural Resources Police. "Keep your muzzles downrange and load your guns. Stand by for the command to fire."
They grasped their guns in different positions. Some knelt, some sat upright with braced legs and others lay prone. A few brought poles and stood.
"Fire when you're ready," Bartles said, leveling his binoculars to his eyes. For a moment, the range was still. Then the first salvo sent puffs of dirt into the air behind the range. The paper targets rippled with each impact.
Andy Naylor, 14, fired his first one high. Back behind the line, his father watched through a telescope. "Hold it still, Andy," Guy Naylor said quietly to himself. He explained that his son developed a passion for the outdoors independently.
"He watched hunting shows as long as we can remember, instead of cartoons," the Middletown resident said. Naylor does not hunt but competes in Civil War musket competitions. "I don't know what it is, but he loves it," he said.
Braces showing in a beaming smile, Andy marched back to the fence. "He said stop after I got them all in," he announced.
"I'm excited for him," said Naylor as he put the gun away. "If he's going to get a deer, this is as good a place as any." The managed hunt is safer than an open territory with too many hunters around, he said.
To succeed, hunters had to hit three out of five times within the circles. When the last tiny explosion's echo faded, most had not missed many. Ranger Scott Forrest said he had six "DNQs," or those who Did Not Qualify.
"We've found that as the years go on we're getting better and better shooters," he said.
At qualifying sessions, hunters can use only shotguns with rifled shot, a single projectile. Local hunters generally use rifles more than shotguns, Forrest said. Five years ago, more shooters were missing the dinner plate-sized target.
This is the fourth year Fort Frederick is holding a managed hunt, according to Forrest. It is intended to reduce a booming population of whitetail deer. Hunters are allowed to kill one animal each on specific days.
Proponents believe the plant-eating animals' increased number creates an imbalance in the ecosystem. Browsing deer reduce the food supply for other animals and damage farmers' crops.
When the first managed hunt was held, the park's deer population was estimated at 300, according to Forrest. He puts the number now around 150.
"I think we're starting to get a handle on the problem," he said. "There's still a healthy herd here. Basically we're just maintaining the size now."
The DNR holds managed hunts throughout the state at several parks, military installations and natural resource management areas, including Fort Detrick in Frederick County. At Fort Frederick, 315 hunters applied by mail, according to Forrest.
Those who succeeded Sunday may return Dec. 7 or 8. They are instructed to follow rules and an itinerary. For example, the arrive at 5:15 a.m. and attend a brief orientation and safety talk.
Between 6 and 6:30 a.m., rangers take them to separate pre-determined sites where they are picked up at 1 p.m. Ground blinds are used and tree stands are prohibited. Hunter orange is required and alcohol is prohibited.
Pok Schultz and her husband came from Abingdon, Md., in Harford County to take the shooting test. Both qualified, but Schultz was the only female in the group. She didn't think she would make it.
"I just barely made it, but I'm glad," she said.