New Clay Rising
Or, Shooting for the Gun-Shy
At the police academy, future officers are taught never to fire their guns at anything unless they want to kill it. Sure, in the movies Mel Gibson or Keanu Reeves will peg somebody in the leg or shoot out the bad guys' tires, but the actual men in blue know that once you fire your weapon, somebody is going to end up dead. Home protection? Please. In 1999, there were 824 accidental firearm deaths in the United States. Rustling up some food? These days, I'm sure most folks can keep their families fed without hunting. Guns are for killing--killing for sport or killing in anger, and neither is alright by me.
All the same, I recently shot a gun for the first time. I killed me some clay pigeons. Yup, I took shotgun in hand and blasted pieces of pottery to kingdom come. Well, not exactly--more like I fired in their general direction.
Maybe it was some urge to confront my fear and become empowered, a literal form of militant feminism. Maybe it was all the Lara Croft-type female action heroes running around kicking ass and whipping out firearms like it's no big deal that got me curious. Whatever the reason, I find myself setting out early one Saturday morning for the Pintail Point shooting range in Queenstown, just over the Bay Bridge on the Eastern Shore.
Even on an overcast day, Pintail Point is lovely. Horses, ducks, and swans dot the rolling lawns and sapphire-blue water. If not for the muffled popping sounds, I would have thought I was at a nature refuge rather than a shooting range. Besides sporting clays, the compound offers hunting, 700 acres of crops, a dairy farm, a charming Tudor-style bed and breakfast, fly fishing, and the Lady Pintail yacht. In this serene location, I'd have a chance to scratch this itch without "Dueling Banjos" constantly echoing in my head.
When I arrive, the clubhouse is hopping. A group lesson has just let out; along with the expected 30- to 60-year-old men, I see junior-high-aged girls and grannies in silly hats. There are locals and tourists, first-timers and people toting their own gear. In the middle of the hubbub stands Wes Russum, Pintail Point's sporting-clay manager, cutting a perfect ruddy-outdoorsman figure in his lightly padded shooting vest. For Russum, sporting clays is a family business; his wife, Stacey, and their teenage kids work here as well. There's no age limit to shoot at Pintail--nor, as far as I can tell, to work there.
"If you're old enough to see over the rails and hold a gun," Stacey Russum says, "you can shoot." Her children started shooting at the age of 8. Personally, if I had an 8-year-old, I wouldn't trust him or her with my Walkman, let alone a weapon. As the day wears on, however, I realize I am decidedly in the minority. For the folks at Pintail Point, guns are no big deal. Learning to shoot is a childhood rite of passage, like learning to ride a bike. Young teens work as guides, leading around middle-aged shooters, and no one bats an eye. When I ask basic questions about guns and shooting, people look at me as if I'd asked what letter comes after "L."
Shooting sporting clays is a lot like golf. You walk or drive a golf cart from station to station and if someone ahead of you is going slower, you can just play through. But instead of putting balls into little holes in the ground, you blast holes in what look, more or less, like small, neon-orange Frisbees.
Pintail's main course has 20 stations, each one sending the clays into the air--sometimes sloping across the target area, sometimes heading toward or away from you, sometimes even rolling on the ground. An average game consists of 50 targets, with each player shooting four to six at a station. A guide accompanies everyone around the course. Scoring is simple: One point per target, and whoever hits the most wins.
Wes Russum takes me out to my first station, which looks like a porch without a house attached, and starts going over the basics. First, there's the proper stance. I'm a righty, so I stand with my left leg in front, slightly bend my knees, and put my weight forward. Russum instructs me to move from the waist and to keep my feet stationary. So far so good; Russum compliments my ability to stand properly. It turns out to be one of only two things I do well. The other is loading the gun. I can drop the sunny yellow shell into the chamber and snap it in place like nobody's business. These are my fortes; it's just the firing that trips me up.
With earplugs firmly in place, I'm now ready to position the shotgun. It's a shiny black .20-gauge Beretta with slick wood, um, paneling. It's heavy, but not oppressively so. I'd imagined a shock would go through my system the moment a gun touched my skin, but I'm too busy learning the proper technique to think much about it.
Gun placement is key. Russum presses the butt of the gun between my shoulder and collarbone. I can tell right away that a man decided this was the best spot to rest a shotgun. On a man, it's a roomy expanse of fleshy muscle for the gun to kick back into; on a woman, it's narrow, and only slightly more fleshy than the bony bits surrounding it. If women had developed this sport, shooting from the hip wouldn't just be for cowboy movies.
My right hand goes on the trigger, my left under the barrel, with my pointer finger doing its thing. Pointing is apparently very important. "This isn't an aiming game," Russum tells me repeatedly. "It's a pointing game. You just point at what you want to hit and press the trigger." The target launches; you watch it arc into range, point at it, and fire. Sounds simple enough, something any fool could do. Not this fool.
I yell, "Pull!", but when I say it, it sounds more like, "Um, pull?" The orange disc comes flying out of the mechanical slingshot. I take a deep breath, wait until the clay seems in range, and fire. The shell comes whizzing out of the gun, seemingly intent on taking Russum's eye out, and the butt of the shotgun slams into my not-so-accommodating shoulder. That kickback is no joke. My shot is. Untouched, the target falls to the ground and breaks apart. Perhaps I frightened it to pieces.
It is strange, shooting a gun, but, frankly, anticlimactic. There is no sense of power or fear or awe. Eventually I hit a few targets, but I wouldn't have known it if someone hadn't told me. The targets don't explode into shards or drop with a satisfying thud. I thought maybe once I got better it would be more dramatic--but proving so would have required actually getting better.
As the day wears on I walk and shoot, occasionally connecting with discs flying every which way. After a while, my whole shoulder area--not just the spot where I'm placing the gun butt--is throbbing. Russum doubts I'll be able to complete the 50-target course, but I'm determined to prove him wrong and blast away through the pain. Report pairs--two targets going up, nearly one right after the other--are the most painful. You've just knocked the shit out of your shoulder firing at the first; the last thing you want to do is immediately repeat the experience. I tend to aim only at the first one; the second one I just try and endure. My success at hitting them is about equal.
Eventually, my resolve wavers. After 30 targets I trudge back to the clubhouse, battered, bruised, and exhausted. Remember when you were little and spent all day at a county fair riding the sad excuses for rides over and over again? That's what I felt like after spending a day shooting sporting clays. It was like a forced march of fun, an endurance test.
Had my attitude toward guns changed? Well, I still consider handguns instruments of evil. But now, shotguns basically seem like really heavy toys to me. I'm still not sure if I went shooting or just spent a day playing a particularly grueling game of Duck Hunt.
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