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Guns, Girls and Ammo

A Seven Days writer learns the joys of shooting a shotgun


Published June 15, 2011 at 9:22 a.m.

There are things in life every woman should know how to do: change a car tire without getting dirty, operate a power drill and craft snappy comebacks to sexist troglodytes, for example. Using a shotgun is not conventionally regarded as one of those things, unless you’re one of Sarah Palin’s Mama Grizzlies. But it should be, if only because blasting things out of the sky is equal parts thrilling and therapeutic.

I learned this recently at a shotgun clinic held at the North Country Sportsman’s Club, a shooting organization in Williston. The 120-member club was hosting its annual Women on Target day, a program coordinated by the National Rifle Association in an effort to attract more women to shooting sports (and, most likely, to Second Amendment activism).

I signed up thinking it would be fun to learn to shoot a gun, if for no other reason than to do something totally out of character. Let’s just say, for the sake of diplomacy, that I’m not a card-carrying NRA member and probably never will be.

I wasn’t alone in my supposition that pulling the trigger and smashing clay pigeons to bits would be fun, or at least a memorable experience — 20 women showed up to participate in the clinic on an intermittently drizzly Saturday. My fellow firearms neophytes included a caterer, a newspaper editor, two college students, and the current secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and her daughter.

Before we could indulge our Annie Oakley fantasies, we had to learn about the weapons we’d be shooting. Walking us through the first part of the safety instruction was Laura Blair, a 25-year-old shooting-sports enthusiast who has been running these clinics for the past three years. Blair explained that, when she began shooting 15 years ago, the sport was dominated by men. Slowly, that’s changing. One of the other instructors, Bob Rose, admitted to the group that his wife is a far better shot than he.

Blair began by telling the group the three rules of gun safety:

1. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction — up in the air, toward the ground or straight at the target.

2. Always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.

3. Always keep the gun unloaded until you’re ready to shoot.

She followed up the last point by telling us that strolling around a gun range with a loaded weapon is really not cool. Point taken.

Next, we got a lesson on the variety of shotguns available. There’s pump action, break action (which can be an over/under or a double-barrel), bolt action and autoloader. The selection seemed dizzying. And curiously alluring.

For me, guns had always been taboo. They were dangerous things that killed people, and I had never so much as held one. Now I was about to not only hold a gun, but shoot one.

As Blair and Rose explained the guns in detail, my intrigue grew. I found myself mentally salivating over the idea of owning something so powerful and raw. I fantasized about going to a gun shop, getting fitted for a shotgun and becoming really awesome at blowing things out of the air.

Never mind that I don’t know the first thing about shopping for a gun, or even where to buy one. By the time the lecture ended, I knew what my hulking break-action over/under would look like: It would have a lustrous walnut stock and glinting engraved receiver. I planned where in my tiny apartment I would put my gun locker, and imagined what my friends would say when I told them I was the proud owner of a sleek, sexy firearm.

My performance on the range would quickly disabuse me of these notions — and demonstrate that Vermont’s upland birds and waterfowl have nothing to worry about when they see me coming.

After the classroom portion of the clinic, we split into groups of five and headed out to the range. The club is equipped for trap competitions and sporting clays, an elaborate pursuit meant to simulate live-quarry shooting. My group set up at the trap field.

Rose, a commercial airline pilot and dedicated hunter, served as our instructor. A jovial man with meaty hands, he had a nervous habit of chewing on his earplugs — equipment we were all required to wear, along with eye protection. He called us gals or girls, though the youngest in our group was 33.

We started by reviewing a few things we had already learned: The clay moves through the air at 40 miles per hour, while shotgun pellets fly at about 800 miles per hour; wait for two counts before pulling the trigger; the gun shoots where you’re looking.

Then Rose circled back to the basics. “A new shooter always has a strike against them, and it’s safety,” he said — meaning the lack thereof.

We were ready to pull our triggers. Thinking I would be pretty good at clay shooting because of my decent hand-eye coordination, I volunteered to go first. Rose handed the gun over and helped me get it seated against my shoulder and my cheek. I felt a tingle of nerves as I stood in the grass, holding the 20-gauge autoloader, feeling its weight in my hands and waiting for the clay bird to fly.

I don’t know how I thought it would feel to shoot a shotgun, but this wasn’t it. After popping off one cartridge, I stumbled slightly backward — not from the recoil but from surprise. I was stunned, like I’d accidentally touched an electrified wire. My cheek, which had been lodged squarely against the stock of the gun, buzzed with transferred energy. I looked at Rose with what I can only imagine was a dumbfounded expression, and he removed the gun from my grip.

I didn’t come anywhere close to smashing that first neon-orange clay. But I was determined to try again, though a frisson of the contact with gunpowder and spark lingered in my cheek.

Rose offered a few tips: straighten the head, lean forward from the hips, close the left eye. This last one was important, since earlier in the day I’d discovered I was cross-dominant, meaning right-handed but left-eye dominant. Closing that eye would help me get a more accurate read on the target.

I tried to keep all that in mind as I tucked the gun into my shoulder and peered down the barrel at the sight. I called for Rose to pull the bird and counted to two. Boom! A fleck of orange sailed away from the clay. I’d nicked the pigeon. I couldn’t help but crack a smile.

On my next shot, I obliterated the bird. Orange shrapnel rained on the meadow below. My fellow shooters cheered. But my luck was not to last. My fourth and fifth shots were well off the mark, and I handed the gun to one of the other women. As I walked away, Rose offered me one of my spent shotgun shells — a tiny trophy for my efforts.

The next shooter, 55-year-old Margo Callaghan, picked her first bird right out of the air. The rest of the women whooped.

“Save your shell, honey,” her friend Holly Bartlett called to her. “We’re making jewelry!”

Callahan missed the next couple of birds. Before she took her fourth shot, Rose leaned in and offered a sort of shotgun mantra: “Take your time. See the bird. Kill the bird.” And, with that, Callahan nailed her shot.

By far the best shooter in my group was 52-year-old Maura Finn, a chatty nurse who brought her own gun. After blasting two birds in a row, Finn opened her break-action over/under and blew the smoke from the barrel, Wild West style. Then she proceeded to hit two more, for a total kill of four out of five clay pigeons.

True, Finn wasn’t exactly a beginner — she said she used to shoot glass bottles when she was getting divorced and found it “very therapeutic.” She’d signed up for the clinic because her partner is a hunter and sport shooter, she said, and they wanted an activity they could do together.

Out of about 25 shots, I broke 10 clays — a 40 percent success rate. Not horrible for a first-time gunslinger, but certainly not enough to warrant a trip to the gunsmith.

Despite my performance, I couldn’t stop thinking about the experience of shooting a gun. My cheek hummed with vestigial vibrations for the rest of the day. I could feel the butt of the gun pressed against my shoulder for hours. The sensation was thrilling. And, after a long week of work, I can think of nothing as cathartic as blasting something to smithereens.