August 29, 2004

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves

A friend called me up last night and asked if I'd like to go shooting. Guns are a serious hobby of his--he used to do target-shooting competitively. We'd talked on a number of occasions about going out to the shooting range one weekend so that I could see what it was like, and this afternoon we did.

A digression: I do not own a gun. I do not plan to own a gun. Practically speaking, I do not need a gun, and I need another expensive hobby like I need...well, you know. But I'm a firm supporter of your right to own one, should you choose to.

We arrived at the range at about two o'clock, and signed release forms. My friend paid the range fees, and bought me a pair of cheap earplugs--whenever the range is "live and hot" you have to wear eye and hearing protection, and believe me it was welcome.

An outdoor shooting range consist mostly of a large patch of dirt with targets and target stands at various distances; there's a double row of benches along one side. You stand at the forward bench while shooting; it is a serious breach of range safety rules to have a loaded gun anywhere but at the forward bench. Meanwhile, most of your stuff sits on the back bench. You can do anything with a gun that you need to at the back bench, except load it and fire it.

Because this was my first trip to a shooting range, the emphasis was on gun safety and range etiquette. It develops that with regard to gun safety, there are four basic rules:

First, do not pick up a gun without checking whether it is loaded and chambered--and if you don't know how to check, don't pick it up.

Second, do not put your finger on or near the trigger unless you are ready to fire the weapon.

Third, do not point a gun at anything you are unwilling to shoot at. Corollary: always be able to identify your target.

Fourth, always be aware of what's around your target, that is, be aware of what you'll hit if you miss.

Consequently, the first step was to introduce me to the first gun I'd be firing, a Smith & Wesson 22-caliber double-action target pistol--a genuine six-shooter. My friend showed me how to open it, and verify that it was unloaded, and then how to carry it to the forward bench. It works like this: when you're working with a gun at the back bench, it must be pointing either straight up, or backwards, i.e., away from the shooters. When carrying it to the forward bench, you must carry it pointing straight up with the action open, so that anyone nearby can clearly see that it is not loaded. When you get to the forward bench, you can point it straight up, or forward, i.e., out into the range itself.

We had to wait for a cease-fire to hang my targets. Naturally, you can't walk out into the range while people are shooting, so every so often the range safety officers call a cease-fire. When cease-fire is called, you must stop shooting immediately, and unload your gun. Then you must place your gun on the bench, action open, and step back behind the safety line. At this point, you may not approach the forward bench or touch anything on it until the cease-fire ends and the range goes "live and hot" once again. If you do, you'll have a guy with a loud-speaker yelling at you. And if you make a habit of it, you'll be required to leave.

After everyone's behind the safety line, a range safety officer walks along the forward benches and verifies that all of the guns are unloaded. Then, and only then, you are allowed to walk out into the range to set or retrieve your targets. My friend set mine up (two pistol-shooting targets stapled to a large sheet of cardboard) on a stand about 25 feet from the forward bench.

And then we waited patiently until the cease-fire ended.

May I just say that I found all of these safety precautions inexpressibly comforting? We observed them strictly, and consequently were not yelled at, unlike a number of other fellows, including one bozo who was caught walking down the firing line with a loaded shotgun. At least he was pointing it straight up, in approved fashion.

If it seems like it was quite a long time before I actually got to fire a gun, well, it was. But none of the time was wasted.

It turns out that almost everything you've ever read about learning to fire a handgun or rifle (Shane excepted, sorry Deb) is true. You need to be relaxed; you need to hold the gun firmly; you must pull the trigger gently but firmly, without jerking it; you mustn't be afraid of the recoil (not that there's much recoil with a 22 pistol). There's more to it than that, particularly in the way you hold the gun, but being relaxed and not jerking the trigger will take you a long way. As a result, I apparently did fairly well for a beginner.

After the Smith & Wesson, my friend had me shoot three semi-automatic pistols: a 22-caliber pistol with a scope (I did the best with that one), a nine-millimeter, and a 40-caliber. As always, I began by learning how to open the action on each weapon and make sure it was unloaded before I did anything else.

In a semi-automatic a good bit of the recoil is taken up by the mechanism, so while the larger handguns bucked quite a bit it wasn't painful--surprising, the first time, but not painful. (On the other hand, neither was a 44 Magnum. A guy next to us was shooting one of those, and every time it went off I jumped.) I did tolerably well with all of these, although I kept "limp-wristing" the 40-caliber--you need to keep your arm stiff when you fire it, or your arm takes up some of the recoil. Since the gun uses the recoil to load the next round, that's a bad thing, and can cause the round to misfeed. That's not dangerous (unless someone's shooting at you) but it takes a moment to clear. Although, my friend said it might also be due to the cheap 40-caliber ammunition he'd brought with him.

After the handguns we took a break and walked up and down the line looking at what other folks were shooting. There were a couple of folks there with black-powder rifles--real muzzle-loaders. There's a special rule for them at cease-fire time, because the only way to quickly unload one is to fire it, and all guns must be unloaded during the cease-fire. So every time they called "Cease fire! Cease fire!" they followed it up "Black powder weapons, you may fire your load."

Next, my friend got out his 22-caliber target rifle, which has a scope. I like 22-caliber; there's very little recoil or noise. And instead of shooting at a target we moved down the firing line to a stretch where there are a bunch of steel silhouettes in two rows, at forty and fifty meters distance. My friend had explained how to a the scope with the target pistol earlier; now he showed me how to open and check the rifle (bolt-action with a five-round magazine) and how to "mount it", which is how you hold it to fire it. Firing it was much like firing the handguns--relax, hold it steady, and don't jerk the trigger. I was soon plinking away at the 50-meter silhouettes quite happily--and I do mean "plink", because that's exactly the noise they make when you hit them. And since they hang on a chain, they swing a little bit, too. It's a lot more fun than shooting at a paper target, except that you can't bring the silhouette home with you to show people.

Later on, my friend had me shoot a couple of rounds of bird-shot with his 12-gauge shotgun, just so that I'd know what it feels like to shoot a gun with some serious kick to it. After two shots, I called a halt to that (and at this point, I suspect, any readers who've shot a shotgun are laughing at me. Bird-shot is the lightest shotgun load; buckshot or (so help me!) solid slugs kick a great deal more. I wasn't that eager to bruise my shoulder.

After that we packed up the guns and went home.

So that was my trip to the shooting range. As I say, I don't intend to buy a gun; but it was definitely interesting, and well worth the time I spent at it. It's good to know what guns can do, and what they can't do.

Oh, about the title of this post: we didn't actually have anything to eat at the shooting range. So sue me.

Posted by Will Duquette at August 29, 2004 08:42 PM

Deb said:

I live in a house full of guns. Most of them are beautifully hand crafted British made black powder dating before 1820 although my son owns a rifle for rabbit hunting and there is a pistol locked in the garage for shooting critters. My husband is the son of a gun safety instructor and forced my daughter to take hunter safety when she turned 12 as a precaution. She had no interest in hunting per se since in our house we have a "you shoot it, you gut it out and clean it" rule We have a shooting range set up behind the garage that my son practices at before hunting season. All of thier lives they have been taught that guns are weapons, guns KILL things and you dont play with guns. Ever. Not even toy guns. Period.

What bothers me is that there are a lot of wingnuts out there who dont have the same philosophy. They're the ones I worry about. They're the reason I argue with the husband about gun control laws.

I'm glad you had a safe intro to the sport.

Will Duquette said:

Where you live, a gun is still a tool. It's a dangerous tool, rather like a table saw in that regard, but safe if you know how to handle it. For most of us, that simply isn't true. I've never lived anywhere where you could reasonably shoot critters on your own property--not with anything stronger than a BB gun, anyway. And all the people on TV make it look so easy....

For my part, though, I found that when faced with a loaded gun I had absolutely no trouble giving the gun my complete and full attention at all times. I concentrated so much I dreamed of loading and unloading handguns all night last night.