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Saturday 20 July 2019

Photo Essay

The King’s gun club

Brass bands, beer and shoot-outs: it’s the annual German marksmen’s festival

By Arne Piepke

Every year, from May to September, marksmen’s festivals are held in the Sauerland in Germany. The three-day extravaganzas consist of marches through villages, church processions and dances. The highlight is a shooting competition, aimed at a wooden bird, that determines the new annual King.

The origin of the clubs behind the festivals goes back to the civil defence in the Middle Ages. Most of these clubs or “brotherhoods” have strict rules; they represent conservative Christian values and do not allow women as members. 

Growing up in a small village and visiting the local marksmen’s festivals since childhood has led me to this personal reflection on the tradition, which started in 2015 and took in 31 festivals.

The bird raising for the shooting competition in Olsberg. In this village, women are not allowed to join this ritual. The bird is based on the imperial eagle and wears crown, sceptre and orb.

Michael Lehmkühler, King in Brunskappel for 2016/17, posing for a portrait. In this village of under 250 inhabitants, an invitation to join the club is sent to all at the age of 16.

The Marksmen’s Brotherhood in Warstein. Flag-bearers are tasked to carry the flags during the parades. In some clubs they receive penalties if the flag is damaged or the flag’s tip gets lost.

The so-called “Geck shooting” in Oberkirchen determines the viceroy. Only a few clubs shoot for the viceroy on a figure of the medieval court jester. In other clubs, the penultimate shot counts as viceroy.

Marksmen during the parade in the village of Oberkirchen, in which the anniversary couple and the new royal couple are picked up and escorted through the village with a marching band.

Silke Hülfshoff poses for a portrait. She is the Queen in Brunskappel for 2016/17. Usually, the dresses are bought especially for the occasion.

The last shot of the competition in Warstein in which Marc Brautigamm became the new king. The shooting competitions are being regulated more strictly; clubs complain about this and see their tradition as endangered.

The jubilee king in Brunskappel, who shot down the bird 50 years ago, has requested that this year the marksmen march the last meters to the hall through the nearby river. This had not happened for several decades.

Spectators during the parade in Warstein. During the festival, residents are asked to decorate their houses with the club flags.

The king and court are celebrated at the royal table at night. The bird on the ceiling is the emperor bird which is shot out of all kings every five years.

Hans Dieter Baller, a member of the royal household in Warstein for 2018. To be king once is his big dream.

Ladies of the royal household on the royal table in Brunskappel. The royal household is chosen by the King and Queen. At night, the marching band plays directly at the king’s table while people stand on table and chairs.

Preparations for breakfast on the day of the shooting competition in Warstein. The chairs are reserved for the royal couple.

The marksmen and the marching band shortly after entering the marksmen‘s hall in Oberkirchen. The club was founded in 1827 and has about 750 members. Only men are allowed to join the club.

Marco Schäfer, the first flag officer in Brunskappel, poses for a portrait in the marksmen’s hall.

Ladies of the royal household in Balve celebrate the royal couple shortly after the marches. In Balve, the festival is celebrated in a big natural cave.

One bird is constantly hanging in the marksmen’s hall.

The village, Silbach, used to be a mining town. The usual club clothing for the mining industry was also taken over by the marching band.

Marksmen’s hall of Brunskappel. Club flags are hung in the hall after the parades. In the Sauerland, the halls were built decades ago and belong to the marksmen’s clubs.

Hans-Georg and Kriemhilde Vogt pose for a portrait in Silbach. Georg shot the bird in 1968, which is why the couple celebrate their 50th anniversary in Silbach and get honoured during the festival.

Marksmen during the mass in Siedlinghausen. The sermons mostly deal with the charitable tasks and history of the marksmen.

Two marksmen at the emergency exit of the marksmen’s hall. The beer nearby is usually transported in carrying baskets for 10 beers.

The first marksmen’s festivals were celebrated in the time around Pentecost. The May was also called the green month, which is why the marksmen dressed green.

Carolin Dreisbach, ladies’ cup bearer 2002 in Langewiese, is a member of the only club in the Sauerland where women are members, and are also allowed to take part in a shooting competition.

Snack house in Küstelberg. A stand with currywurst and fries is indispensable on a marksmen’s festival.

The 43rd marksmen’s festival in the city of Marsberg. The city-festival is celebrated each time in a different associated village. Because of the number of visitors, a tent was built next to the marksmen’s hall.

Two second world war carbines are used for the shooting competition. The ammunition for the shootings is subject to strict regulations and is much weaker loaded.

Frank Gerke poses for a portrait. His uniform is based on the old mining town of Silbach. He had the task being torchbearer.

A marksman late at night at a shooting gallery. Such booths can be found at every festival. For many years, the same booth operators have come to the festivals.

Marksmen and visitors during the royal dance in the Balver Cave. For over 150 years, the Brotherhood celebrates its festival in this cave. The oldest surviving flag in Balve is from 1845.

Markus Rustige poses for a portrait. The wooden rifle is worn during the processions and often decorated with flowers.

The war memorial in honour of the dead from the two world wars in Brunskappel. A visit to the memorial, with prayers and wreath-laying, is an integral part of every festival.

The Kreisschützenfest in Grevenbrück, a festival for all the clubs in the Sauerland area, and the last of the season, ended with a firework display.

Felix Hagedorn and Nicole Ewald pose for a portrait in the marksmen’s hall in Warstein. They are the royal couple of the bachelor Marksmen’s Club in Warstein for 2017/18.


Arne Piepke grew up in a small village surrounded by hills and trees. His attitude towards photography was shaped by an urge to break out and explore. He deals with social issues and the people’s connection to history and their surroundings. 

In 2018 he won the PDNedu Student Contest in the category photojournalism, was among the winners of PDN Emerging Photographer and got nominated for the W. Eugene Smith Student Grant.

He is a founding member of DOCKS Collective and currently attending the MA Photographic Studies in Dortmund/GER.

All photographs Arne Piepke