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Re-enactors' safety important at Gettysburg

| Monday, May 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

YORK — The document is 39 pages long. And this year it is going to contain some of the most important words read in Gettysburg — maybe not timeless, Gettysburg Address important, but important nonetheless.

It is the Safety Standard Operating Procedures for the United States Volunteers, the must-have guide for thousands of re-enactors who will arrive in Gettysburg this summer.

With two re-enactments and an expected 20,000 daily visitors in Gettysburg for the anniversary event, local law enforcement and re-enactor organizations have their eyes glued to safety guides like these.

“Those are our rules,” said Darrell Markijohn, president of the United States Volunteers, a re-enactor organization that plans to bring 1,000 members to Gettysburg this year. “We demand that any event we go to adopt those rules.”

This year, that event will be the Blue Gray Alliance re-enactment in June, the first of two re-enactments that will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle. The second, hosted by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee and scheduled for July 4-7, has its own extensive and nearly identical safety guide.

The guides will prove crucial when thousands of re-enactors and their weapons gather. The Gettysburg Anniversary Committee re-enactment alone will host 400 horses, 135 cannons, and 12,000 re-enactors.

Before the re-enactors are allowed on the battlefield, each must go through a weapons inspection, conducted in a military fashion by the company commanders. And to ensure that no one is given special treatment, commanders do not inspect their own units' weapons, said Terry Shelton of the Blue Gray Alliance.

During inspections, the commanders drop ramrods into the barrels of the rifles to make sure there are no projectiles accidentally or intentionally hidden inside, Markijohn said. Re-enactors are only permitted to use black powder to simulate gunfire. Live ammunition is never permitted on the battlefield.

Rifles also are checked for any dirt that might be stuck in the barrel, Shelton added, because a rifle with a clogged barrel can explode.

There are heavy restrictions on the type of weapons that re-enactors can bring onto the battlefield. No modern-day weapons are allowed, and anyone who does not submit to a weapons check is not permitted on the field, Shelton said.

Ramrods, which traditionally were used to pack bullets and powder into rifle barrels, also are restricted. The only people who are allowed to draw their ramrods are safety inspectors while checking weapons in the field. Otherwise, re-enactors are told not to use them because if they are accidentally left in the barrel, they can become projectiles, according to the United States Volunteers guide.

Even the black powder that the re-enactors use to simulate gunfire can pose a threat on a battlefield packed with people, so security guidelines have been established to manage that risk.

Firearms cannot be fired within a 25-yard range, and all shots fired within 40 yards must be elevated, according to the safety guide. Distance markers are placed on the ground so re-enactors know when they are in the no-fire zone, Shelton added.

Another big aspect of weapons safety on the battlefield is the re-enactors themselves.

“The entire staff are all veteran re-enactors,” Shelton said of the Blue Gray Alliance. “Many are military vets. We understand weapons safety.”

All of the re-enactors in both major events must sign waivers in order to participate, verifying that they have read and will abide by the safety instructions.

Similarly, every member of the United States Volunteers must be certified by the unit commander and must pass military drill and weapons safety tests before walking onto the field, Markijohn said.

EMS vehicles will be on site in order to respond as quickly as possible in case an emergency does occur. The last time something like that happened at a Gettysburg re-enactment was in 1998 when a re-enactor was accidentally shot in the neck by a bullet left behind in a rifle.

Organizers from the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee and the Blue Gray Alliance said safety procedures have since been updated.

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