Tourists are flock­ing to ranch to ride a Leop­ard

Never mind gi­raffes, range of­fers way to have blast with tanks

The Dallas Morning News - - STATE - Ron­nie Crocker, Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

UVALDE — It’s hard to say which is the more un­likely sight at Ox Ranch, a gi­raffe munch­ing on mesquite leaves or a West Ger­man army tank rac­ing across a spring-fed creek.

Th­ese 18,000 acres west of San An­to­nio are both a freeroam­ing range filled with ex­otic an­i­mals — some to hunt, the gi­raffes and oth­ers sim­ply to ad­mire — and home to, where tourists pay to trans­port them­selves, Fan­tasy Is­land style, into an­other era and an­other life. With some of his­tory’s fiercest mil­i­tary weapons sud­denly at their dis­posal, they can strafe a sandy pas­ture with a belt-fed ma­chine gun or shell the side of a moun­tain with a how­itzer.

The most ad­ven­tur­ous choose from among a half­dozen vin­tage tanks, steer­ing one like the Cold War-era Leop­ard around a rugged course through the South Texas brush. Top­ping the menu is one of the M4 Sher­mans that helped the Al­lies win World War II. For $2,800, guests can drive the famed tank and then hurl a round from its mas­sive tur­ret at an abandoned car hun­dreds of yards down range.

It’s the world’s only live­fir­ing Sher­man gun in pri­vate hands the pub­lic can shoot, says Todd DeGidio, a re­tired Hous­ton Po­lice De­part­ment he­li­copter pi­lot who founded with his step­son. The at­trac­tion opened last sum­mer.

The pri­mary ob­jec­tive, DeGidio says, is for cus­tomers to “just have fun.” He stresses that al­most as much as safety.

“Ev­ery­body who comes here has a smile on their face,” adds Glenn Flem­ing, an Air Force vet­eran and firearms ex­pert tasked with pre­par­ing the guns and ord­nance and deal­ing with the in­evitable jams and break­downs on equip­ment that is more than 70 years old.

Yet for some vis­i­tors, proves to be about much more than hav­ing a good time.

The bill­boards for shoot­ing ranges and feral-hog hunts that line the high­ways between Hous­ton and Uvalde, four hours to the west, sug­gest plenty of folks out here would love to empty the clip of a high-pow­ered ri­fle in a few adren­a­line-soaked sec­onds.

DeGidio knows how the busi­ness can look to much of the world.

“A lot of peo­ple see what we’re do­ing and they think, ‘Oh, they’re a bunch of gun nuts … a bunch of red­necks blow­ing up [stuff ] in Texas.’”

The story is not so black and white, and DeGidio main­tains a sense of hu­mor about the pre­con­cep­tions.

“I guess we do get la­beled that,” he says with a smile. “We are in Texas, but we’re not red­necks.”

DeGidio, 51, is a man of ro­bust build with an as­sertive salt-and-pep­per beard. He’s also a by-the-book sort who taught him­self how to run and main­tain tanks largely by por­ing over the orig­i­nal man­u­als.

Be­fore en­rolling at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton in the late 1980s, DeGidio served as a Green Beret. He put in 21 years with HPD be­fore launch­ing his next project, de­vel­op­ing a tech­nol­ogy to help mil­i­tary and po­lice agen­cies cope with ac­tive shoot­ers, ter­ror at­tacks and other chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions where ac­cu­rate fire from he­li­copters, boats or other mov­ing ve­hi­cles is re­quired.

Sta­bi­liz­ing cam­era mounts are com­mon on news he­li­copters, and DeGidio says he fig­ured he could ap­ply the tech­nol­ogy to weapons, so marks­men could rely on more than straps and bungee cords to hold steady.

With an in­vest­ment from his step­son Brent Oxley — “a busi­ness mogul-type guy” and the owner of Ox Ranch — DeGidio worked with en­gi­neers in Cal­i­for­nia for four or five years to de­velop a pro­to­type of a por­ta­ble “gyro-sta­bi­lized marks­man plat­form” that can im­prove a weapon’s ac­cu­racy to within 6 inches at 300 yards.

The Talon, as it’s called, is now in pro­duc­tion and be­ing mar­keted strictly to po­lice and mil­i­tary in a few coun­tries.

About five years ago, DeGidio went to his step­son with an op­por­tu­nity to pur­chase a work­ing Sher­man tank from a col­lec­tor.

It turned out that Ox Ranch, which sells guided hunts for many of the 40-plus species of ex­otic an­i­mals Oxley has im­ported over the past five years, has sev­eral ge­o­graphic ad­van­tages for tank­ing as sport. In ad­di­tion to 28 square miles of space, there are earthen berms, ridge lines and hills tall enough to keep stray shells from skip­ping onto other prop­er­ties.

They bought the Sher­man and an­other tank, then some more, plus ar­tillery pieces, ri­fles, ma­chine guns, mor­tar launch­ers and even a flamethrower. Many of the weapons are from the WWII era.

As they built in­ven­tory, they also se­cured an ar­ray of li­censes from the fed­eral Bureau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives. One au­tho­rizes DeGidio to pack ar­tillery pow­der into cas­ings and af­fix ar­mor-pierc­ing pro­jec­tiles that are shipped in from a man­u­fac­turer in Ten­nessee. It takes as lit­tle as half an hour to pre­pare a Sher­man tank round.

Con­struc­tion on the fa­cil­ity at Ox Ranch be­gan in early 2016, and the first tourists came through last July. Gi­raffes, camels and kan­ga­roos are kept from harm in an­other part of the ranch.

A tele­vi­sion pro­ducer is shop­ping a pro­posal for a re­al­ity TV series.

But DeGidio says busi­ness at the tank at­trac­tion has been about dou­ble what was pro­jected for the first year. Ex­pan­sions are un­der­way.

He, Flem­ing and the oth­ers have hosted bach­e­lor par­ties and spring break out­ings, as well as fa­thers and sons, a sin­gle mom with her 15-yearold son and a for­mer Rus­sian mil­i­tary of­fi­cer who de­fected to Chicago.

They dis­pense his­tor­i­cal tid­bits and en­cour­age peo­ple not to worry about hit­ting a tar­get on the range. Just let that ma­chine gun rat­tle.

“We’re not killing things,” says DeGidio. “Just sand. Mostly sand.”

“A lot of peo­ple see what we’re do­ing and they think, ‘Oh, they’re a bunch of gun nuts … a bunch of red­necks blow­ing up [stuff] in Texas.’” Todd DeGidio, re­tired Hous­ton Po­lice De­part­ment he­li­copter pi­lot

Michael Cia­glo/Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Spencer Jones (left) and his cousin Casey Jones watch while rid­ing atop a Sher­man “Easy 8” tank through a river dur­ing an Al­lies and Axis all-day DriveTanks. com ex­pe­ri­ence at Ox Ranch in Uvalde.

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