Beginner's guide to Germany's shooting festivals
Complete with parades, oompah music, beer and top marksmen, Germany's shooting festivals are an impressive tradition. The biggest one - in Hanover - starts on June 30. Here's what you should know before you go.
Germany's quiet gun tradition
While Germany is known for shyness when it comes to patriotism and vocal when it comes to gun control, it has its own centuries-old tradition of shooting clubs and festivals. What began as a medieval self-defense strategy has turned into a light-hearted affair steeped in tradition. The largest so-called Schützenfest runs from June 30 - July 9 in Hanover. Here's what you need to know before you go.
How it all began
In the Middle Ages, the region which is now Germany and Switzerland was divided into Germanic principalities. To defend itself, each village set up its own paramilitary group, usually made up of farmers. To hone their skills, they met for shooting competitions - and made a party of it. Pictured is a medieval shooting festival in Switzerland.
Germany became a unified country relatively late in history (1871), and regional identities developed independently in the many smaller principalities. Even today, dialect, cuisine and customs can vary greatly if you travel just a few kilometers. Today, shooting festivals remain a celebration of regional culture and are most common in Bavaria, Lower Saxony, Rhineland, and Sauerland.
The wooden bird
Some traditions stay the same no matter where the Schützenfest takes place, and the actual shooting competition is the most prominent part. Nowadays, marksmen don't take aim at live birds as they did in the past. Instead, they shoot wooden representations of birds or other animals. They take turns shooting the same target. The marksman that causes the last piece of wood to fall wins.
King of the Marksmen
The winner of the contest is given a huge necklace and holds the title of Schützenkönig (King of the Marksmen) for one year. Pictured here is a Schützenkönig celebration held during the Oktoberfest in Munich. Some shooting clubs now allow women to participate. A few gay winners have stirred controversy in recent years, and in 2014 a winner had his title revoked for being a Muslim.
Soundtrack to a tradition
Huge parades with military fanfare are an important part of every Schützenfest. Members of the local shooting club turn out in uniform - complete with their award pins, of course - while brass marching bands, flag brigades and drum lines play traditional folk music.
Where was that bird again?
Apart from testing marksmanship skills and marching in the parade, enjoying the local brew is part of every Schützenfest. Every new medal of honor for shooting success is a good reason for a toast. Firearms play a smaller and smaller role at modern-day festivals, and even though participants use very low-caliber guns, participants are advised to lock them up before the reveling begins.
Hold on to your hats
Proper dress is an important part of every Schützenfest, and if you don't follow the dress code, you'll stand out. Members of shooting clubs turn up in military-style uniforms complete with feathered hats and decorations.
Pins worn on hats and jackets demonstrate loyalty to the local club and boast about marksmen victories. Each club has its own logo or coat of arms, and the medals often resemble military paraphernelia. Naturally, the more you have to show, the better.
The world's largest
The world's two largest Schützenfests take place in Hanover (June 30 - July 9) and Neuss (August 25-29). German-style shooting fairs have also found fans abroad and take place in many regions that have a large number of German immigrants, including Australia, Brazil and parts of the United States.