{November 3, 2012}   Taking Aim

When it comes to bull’s-eyes, I’m definitely more of a Target shopper than I am a target shooter. My dad, brothers and husband are hunters, so I’ve been around guns most of my life. But I have limited experience with firearms.

The first time I fired a gun many years ago, it was my older brother’s pistol (a Ruger MK II single-action semi-automatic pistol chambered in .22 Long Rifle, he tells me. Like I know what that means.) I aimed at a target in our backyard, which backs up to a huge hill bordering a quarry. With my first shot, I hit the center of the target and stopped right there. Why mess with perfection?

As a reporter for my college newspaper, I was assigned to write an article about students in Army ROTC training at Fort McCoy. While reporting and taking photos for the story, I was allowed to shoot an M-16 semi-automatic rifle from a prone position on the shooting range. Before I fired the rifle, I was handed a helmet that was a bit too large for me and didn’t fit securely. When I got in position and pulled the trigger, the helmet jiggled down a little bit with each shot until it covered my eyes completely and I couldn’t see the target. Definitely not the way to practice target shooting.

When I recently had the opportunity to practice shooting a handgun at a range, I took it. I’d planned to go with my husband, but we weren’t able to coordinate our schedules, so I asked my dad to be my date. He has a .357 revolver, but was concerned that it might be more gun than a beginner could handle. So a friend lent us a 9mm semi-automatic. Nine millimeter is the most common caliber of pistol and has relatively little recoil, so it seemed like a good place to start.

We were also joined by my dad’s sister Sue, who was visiting from Utah, and her .380 semi-automatic. The three of us headed to Brew City Shooter’s Supply in Milwaukee one morning to spend a little time at the range.

We took along our own eye and ear protection, but purchased ammunition and targets there. After signing in, we were led to the range where we put on our safety glasses and hearing protection ear muffs. While we attached our targets and got set up, I couldn’t help but jump each time a gun fired. As I gradually became accustomed to the sound, I merely flinched each time a shot rang out.

After watching shell casings fly here and there as Dad and Sue fired a few rounds, I became more comfortable with the noise and activity. But I was still cautious about shooting a gun. I don’t treat shooting firearms lightly and understand the importance of safety at all times. There are several basic rules that must be followed:

1) Always treat a firearm as if it is loaded, even if you know it is not.

2) Only point a gun in the direction of the target (down range) and only when you are sure no one is down range.

3) Know what is behind your target before shooting.

4) Do not put your finger on the trigger until the gun is aimed at the target and you are ready to shoot.

My dad has been shooting guns for more than half a century, so it comes naturally to him. When the basics are so ingrained, it can make it a challenge to teach a beginner like me, especially in an atmosphere where hearing protection makes it difficult to communicate.

That’s when Sue offered to help. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. She’s serious about her firearms and last year graduated from Front Sight Firearms Training Institute in Pahrump, Nevada. (If any information I share in this post is wrong, she’s not to blame. It was difficult to hear on the range, so I may have missed or misinterpreted her instructions or bungled my follow-up research.)

We started with the 9mm CZ 75. First, Sue demonstrated the proper hand grip. Then it was up to me to load the magazine. I did so gingerly, using little force. Sue explained that guns are manufactured for rough use.  You need to snap the magazine into place, not move it delicately.

Next, it was time to rack the slide—the term used for pulling the slide back along the barrel to move a bullet in the chamber. It looked a lot easier than it was. I didn’t feel like I had a good grip on the slide the first time and didn’t think I had pulled it back all the way. So when I slid it back a second time, I unknowingly tried to chamber a second bullet. Seeing a bullet half-ejected from the top of the gun, I knew something wasn’t right and immediately set the gun down. Yikes! I was already in over my head.

My dad emptied the gun for me, and Sue demonstrated a better hand position to move the slide. That helped and I chambered a bullet.

Now it was time to use the correct grip and aim at the target. Sue explained how to use the gun’s sights: position the gun so the sight nearest you (the rear sight) is in between the “V” of the sight at the tip of the gun (the front sight.) Once you’ve done that, keep the front sight in focus and aim it at the target below the area you want to hit.

At this point, I was nearing information and sensory overload. I was trying to remember how to properly grip the gun, how to position my arms, how to use the sights correctly, how to stand, when to move my finger to the trigger, how to squeeze the trigger…eek!

I took a deep breath, exhaled and pulled the trigger. I hit the target! I took eight more shots and all of them hit the target, two in the black center. Whew. I guess I could do this!

Then Sue invited me to fire her Ruger .380. This gun felt much smaller in my hand, so I had to adjust my grip accordingly.  When I was ready to fire, I started to pull the trigger, but I felt like I was squeezing forever! I stopped after several seconds because I thought I was doing something wrong. Sue reassured me that it took a lot more pressure to fire the .380 than the 9mm. She was right.

Even firing it a second time, it was a challenge to not close my eyes as I continued to s-q-u-e-e-z-e the trigger. I felt the kick in my hand more than anywhere else. Out of six rounds, I missed the target completely 3 times and hit it 3 times, one of which was a bull’s-eye. Kind of erratic.

When my dad offered me his Smith & Wesson .357 revolver, my first thought was “no way.”  Sue wasn’t sure I should try it either. But thinking I’d likely not get another chance, I bit the bullet.

First, his .357 is a revolver, not a pistol like the two guns I’d just fired, so it has a revolving cylinder to hold the bullets instead of a magazine. (Think Dirty Harry, though his weapon was a Smith & Wesson Model 29 chambered with .44 magnum bullets).

Second, it’s bigger, heavier and more intimidating than the semi-automatic pistols. But it actually was more comfortable for me to grip and aim. My dad warned me that it has a hair trigger; once the hammer is cocked, it takes nothing to squeeze off a shot. But that, too, made it easier for me to shoot (and I had no urge to close my eyes). I’d expected to feel quite a kick in my shoulder from the recoil, but it didn’t bother me a bit.

Lastly, his .357 has a laser pointer, which projects a dot of red light on the target. Besides making me feel like I was in a movie, it improved my accuracy immensely since I wasn’t relying on my hit-or-miss skills at using the sights. (If you’re serious about target shooting, you should learn how to properly use sights and not rely on a laser.) Out of six shots, one was a bull’s-eye, four were in the center black area and the sixth was just a quarter-inch or so outside. Not bad for a beginner, although I admit the laser makes it feel a little like cheating.

We had plenty more ammunition if the three of us had wanted to practice more, but for me, adrenalin had run its course. I’m not sure where this experience will lead me. Will I branch out into rifles, shotguns or muskets? Will I join my husband on his deer-hunting trips? Will I allow my 8-year-old to get the BB gun he covets? Only time will tell.

Want to learn more about my 47 and fearless project? Read my first post.


et cetera