Marine Corps veteran Justin Whaley grew up in a small town in Missouri. As a boy, he was always hunting and enjoying the outdoors. The shooting skills gained in his years of hunting as a youth led to his service as an infantry rifleman in the U.S. Marines in the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Following his stint in the military, Whaley trained as a paramedic and served as an EMT in Los Angeles and in New York City, where his wife, Heather, attended medical school. When Heather’s career as a physician brought the couple to the Chattanooga area in 2008, Whaley continued his career as an EMT in Hamilton County.
Throughout his travels, Whaley continued to participate in the shooting sports. However, when the family settled in the Chattanooga area, he couldn’t find a place to practice long-range shooting. With some creative thinking, he turned this inconvenience into a business opportunity, coming up with the idea of building the kind of world-class shooting park that he and his friends would like to have available.
He began his search for land in Chattanooga but found that the business environment wasn’t favorable for the kind of shooting sports destination he was envisioning. He broadened his search to the surrounding counties and found a location that was even better than the land he had been looking at in Hamilton County. He found that spot among the rolling hills and woodland at the very end of the Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative service area just over the Sequatchie County line in Van Buren County.
The 254 acres of reclaimed land from the days of the area’s coal mining history is centrally located to a number of rural and urban areas with large populations of shooting sport enthusiasts.
Only 15 minutes from Fall Creek Falls State Park, the most visited state park in Tennessee; 45 minutes from downtown Chattanooga and Cookville; 90 minutes from Nashville; two hours from Knoxville; and less than three hours from Atlanta and Huntsville, Alabama, Dead Zero Shooting Park currently has around 1,000 members and has been hosting day shooters from across the country and around the world since opening in November of 2017.
“Our location is close enough for shooters and sportsmen from the urban Chattanooga, Nashville, Knoxville and Atlanta areas to enjoy as well as those in the more rural areas in between,” said Whaley. “The majority of our members are within three hours of the club, but we have members from as far away as southern Georgia and South Carolina. We pull in shooters from as far as eight hours away.”
What attracts sportsmen from around the world to a remote spot in rural Van Buren County Tennessee? “I think our staff is probably our greatest asset,” Whaley said. “We have 13 employees, eight of them full time. Some of our employees have military backgrounds, and all have a love for the shooting sports. They are all highly trained and qualified and serious about safety. We bring in guests who have never shot as well as world-class marksmen, and our staff members are as friendly and attentive to the beginners as to the pros.
“We have a range safety officer present at each station. These officers provide safety instruction to shooters each time they come to the range. They also give shooting instruction to new shooters to help them feel at home on our ranges, whether they are a family just visiting for the first time or one of the experienced ex-military regulars at our ranges. They all know they are going to be safe.
“Our 1,000-yard rifle range with electronic targets is also a big draw. There aren’t many of them around, and ours is state-of-the-art. We have a top-notch, world-class facility. We have the largest number of ranges and facilities not only in the state but in the region. In addition to our rifle range, we offer two trap and skeet fields, two sporting clays courses — a beginner course and a more challenging one — two five-stands, eight pistol ranges and a 3D archery course, which we are currently expanding. We are growing all the time. Plans are to add a restaurant and lodging on site. Many of our guests currently stay at Fall Creek Falls State Park or in nearby hotels, which gives a boost to the local economy.”
Dead Zero features a fully stocked pro shop — something not found at most shooting ranges. Members and visitors check in at the pro shop and will find a wide variety of guns, ammo, clothing and all types of shooting gear available for purchase. Since Dead Zero has a large number of lady shooters, it has recently added a line of concealed carry handbags. Visitors can rent guns in the pro shop to use at the range if they do not have their own or if they want to try out something different. The shop also pulls in visitors who just want to shop.
“For those who want to learn more about the sport, we offer classes and set up individual one-on-one sessions for our visitors with a qualified instructor in the sport or firearm of choice,” Assistant Manager Scott Victor said. “We also offer a handgun carry permit class once a month on the fourth Saturday.”
“We draw in a lot of new visitors for competitions as well,” Victor continued. “We host a number of competitions each year with top shooters from across the United States and some from around the world; however, we also host a number of large regional competitions and small monthly club-level competitions for all skill levels. We will be host to the Top 100 F-Class shooters in the world in July. There is talk that one of the cable networks may broadcast that competition.”
“You don’t have to be a member to use our facilities, but for those who come more than a couple of times a year, a membership is the most economical way to go,” said Whaley.
“Our goal for the future is to make Dead Zero the premier shooting destination in the world.”