For some Germans, shooting is a way of life enjoyed in rifle clubs. But these groups are more than just a meeting place for fellow rifle lovers, with their traditions and a strong social aspect.
Annual parades are a highlight for shooting clubs
In Germany, almost anyone can find the right Verein, or club, for their taste. There are currently close to 600,000 such clubs in Germany for practically every area of interest and every hobby. There are clubs for environmentalists and chocolate lovers, for the volunteer fire department and for the friends of the guinea pig.
The oldest and most traditional ones are the sport and shooting clubs. The latter in particular are a relatively typical German affair: the Schützenverein. Most of them are keeping an old tradition alive, such as the Saint George rifle brotherhood in the town of Saint Augustin near Bonn.
The club headquarters is a small house in the middle of a residential area. The entrance is decorated with a mosaic of Saint George. Inside, a picture of the dragon slayer is also on the wall.
Through the rustic assembly room, you get to the shooting gallery. The walls are plastered with certificates, carved wooden plaques and trophies, which members have won for the club. But the house itself is the members' real pride and joy, said 82-year-old Mira.
"We have a wonderful gallery," she said. "We built the club house completely ourselves. We women entertained, but the men, the members, they built everything themselves."
"For belief, customs, homeland"
As is the case with most rifle clubs, Saint George has a long tradition. It's a member of the Federation of Historic German Rifle Brotherhoods, whose goal it is to defend the image of shooting.
A rifle brotherhood parade in Rosenheim
In the 19th century when the first rifle clubs were founded, they played a different in society. At that time shooting clubs were organized, armed groups, which had strong ties to the church and the nation. The rifleman's motto -- "For belief, customs, homeland" -- dates back to this time.
These clubs became independent of the state and church a long time, even if they still carry this motto. But they are also trying to keep up with the times.
"In the past you couldn't be divorced and had to be Catholic. Nowadays, it isn't like that anymore," said Erhard Soba, the head of the Saint George brotherhood.
Supporting the community spirit
The range of clubs and societies has broadened somewhat over the 150 years they've been regulated. Whereas in the past, you could practically only find rifle and gymnastic clubs, today they deal with everything a person could be interested in: environmental and animal protection, social welfare and cultural, education or economic interests.
Gymnastics clubs also have a long tradition in Germany
Despite the possibilities, most clubs even today follow the tradition of gymnastics clubs. Of the close to 600,000 clubs in Germany, three-quarters fall into the category of sports and recreation. There are about 15,000 rifle clubs still in existence.
But whether it's sports or citizens' initiatives, the sense of community is fundamental for all associations. Clubs organize parties, tournaments and other activities.
"In a club, we also support togetherness, the community and culture, history -- a little bit of everything," Soba said.
There's at least one custom that all rifle associations share: parades, bird shooting or flag waving -- and it should be adhered to at all costs. At the Saint George brotherhood, members are particularly attached to the crowning of the shooting kings.
"At the crowning ball, we have a kind of dance, where the royal couple has to dance and all the members stand around them and form a circle," Soba said. "The royal couple has to kiss, then part, then come together again during this waltz. They do this two or three times and then the royal couple is officially recognized."
The customs and friendliness of rifle clubs don't appear to be attractive enough, though, to lure new members. Although the number of club members in Germany has risen in the past few years, the shooting brotherhoods are getting older, and young people aren't showing much interest. This long tradition might be coming to an end.