Making New Shooters

Making New Shooters


My Kansas neighbor Chuck Herbel has what he calls a cabin on his Timber Trails Ranch. I guess that's a good word for "small lodge." We use it during deer and turkey seasons, and he has some people who come during the summer to fish.

The last couple of years, he's hosted several Kansas concealed carry classes, so it wasn't altogether out of the blue when he phoned, gave me a date in August and asked if I could be there to help out with some folks who just wanted to do some shooting and maybe get some light instruction. Sure, I was in, and so was Steve Trainer, who, like Chuck, retired from a long career with the Wichita Police Department.


The group turned out to be interesting, comprising six women, five of whom were old friends who were more or less in our age group, and one much younger lady. Only two of the six had ever done any shooting, but this was their concept of a fun getaway weekend with the girls. Hopefully we all know this, but women, so long excluded by us of the "good old boys club," are the fastest-growing segment of virtually all the shooting sports.


We spend a lot of time figuring out how to recruit youngsters, and in many areas we're having success, but here's the reality: In our increasingly urban society, it is difficult to involve youngsters from nonshooting and nonhunting families. Barriers include mobility, parental controls and concerns, lack of equipment, and lack of places to shoot. Grown-up women may not have the equipment (yet), but they can make up their own minds, and, as almost everyone who has tried it can attest, shooting is fun.

Getting the proper sight picture through a scope isn't easy the first time. Charlene Vanburkleo started the day trying to shoot right handed, but the team learned that she was left-eye dominant. Once she shifted to the left shoulder, she had the most bullets in the center of the target.

Let me be clear: We are not in the shooting school business. This would be more what we called in the military "fam fire," or familiarization fire. It's focused on fun, with only enough instruction to keep it all safe and promote good technique. We started on a hot August morning with a safety brief on the pistol range. This must have worked because never once did we see a gun barrel waving the wrong direction. That's a cool thing about women starting to shoot. They listen, have few preconceived notions and have no bad habits that need to be broken.

Steve Trainer did some very basic handgun instruction, and we started to shoot. Annette Carson, one of the two women who had some shooting experience, had her SIG Sauer 9mm; the other experienced shooter, young Malissa Letterman, had a SIG Sauer Mosquito in .22LR. Wendy Wayman-Weir brought a Ruger 50th Anniversary .22 inherited from her dad, which she had never fired.

A couple of the ladies tried 9mms and .38s later in the day, but mostly we stuck with the .22s. My Ruger Mark III 22/45 got a real workout. Remember, most of these women had never even held a handgun. Shooting one is plenty hard enough without dealing with recoil and muzzle blast.

We kept the targets large, as in FBI silhouettes, and the ranges short. I was genuinely amazed at how well all the shooters did. We started with dry fire, working on positions and trigger control. When we went live, no one had trouble keeping all shots on the silhouette. Malissa Letterman was a ringer; she was scary good. All the ladies could not only keep a full magazine in the silhouette, every single one of them achieved multiple hits on a 3-inch orange bull we put in the center.

We won't talk about Letterman anymore (she knew what she was doing), but the four women who had never before touched a handgun — Wendy Wayman-Weir, Marie Elder, Carolyn Gerstenkorn and Charlene Vanburkleo — all had their share of bullseyes. In part I think this is because Steve Trainer's last name is very apt, and he's a helluva handgunner. This was also a very relaxed, informal setting; these women were with their friends and not in a male-dominated (and pressurized) situation like it can be at shooting ranges.

Everybody loves shooting an AR, especially the Smith & Wesson M&P15 VTAC. That's Wendy Wayman-Weir on the trigger. Using these type of rifles means that a group will go through a whole case of ammo in a short amount of time.

We broke for lunch in the (blessedly air-conditioned) cabin, then moved on to some very informal rifle shooting, which was even more unfamiliar to the women. The first step, of course, was to get them to figure out how to see through a scope. We started with my old Marlin .17 HMR.

Charlene Vanburkleo is right-handed, but we quickly figured out she was left-eye dominant. She switched to the left shoulder, and her groups were pretty darned good. Punching paper is fun, but it's even more fun to shoot something that will react, so after firing a couple of 100-yard groups, we had a row of water bottles set at about 60 yards. Amazingly, no one missed a single bottle.

We moved up to ARs, a Smith & Wesson VTAC and a Ruger SR-556. Chuck and I had talked about this. These women had heard all about the "evil AR," but they'd never seen one up close, let alone fired one. I spent just a couple of minutes explaining what an AR really is and that, despite the unfortunate acronym that goes back to Armalite, it is not an "assault rifle."

Of course, I already knew the secret: Everybody who shoots an AR for the first time gets a huge kick out of it. The particular word that women, especially of my generation, often use is "empowering." They are doing something that, when they were young, they were convinced was just a "guy thing." Suddenly, they discover that they actually can do it, too; they can hit targets and blow up water bottles. It doesn't hurt, and it's fun.

We didn't have much time, just a very full Saturday and a little bit of Sunday morning, and of course Chuck and his wife, Ruth, had to do one of their major barbecues Saturday night. What we wanted was for our fam fire to include handgun, rifle and shotgun, so we barely managed time for the final event.

We hauled out the clay target machine and set it for a relatively simple outgoing target. None of the ladies had ever fired a shotgun at a flying target, so I was a bit nervous. Everybody had done very well so far, but our real goal was simply to make all this a positive experience, and shotgunning for the first time can be frustrating. You have to break one target before you can ever break another. Understand, too, that we weren't all young folks; we had a couple of vision issues and one major cross-eye-domination problem.

Malissa Letterman had the most shooting experience, and her targets showed it. She used her own SIG Sauer .22 semiauto and shot it well.

We used a Beretta 20-gauge semiauto with PAST recoil shields. All were concerned about the shotgun's recoil, but none of the ladies felt it. There were no bruises. As for the shooting, I should have given them much more credit. All missed their first targets, at least partly from fear that the shotgun would hurt.

Within a maximum of three or four shots, however, everybody but one broke a target. Our one holdout had a bad back and only fired a couple of shots. Carolyn Gerstenkorn was our star pupil here. Once she figured it out, she couldn't miss '¦ and didn't.

All in all, Chuck, Steve and I had a great time and felt we'd done a good thing, not only for a few individuals but for the shooting sports. All the ladies told us they'd had a good time and would like to come back, and we feel they meant it.

I don't think there was any anti-gun sentiment from this group, and I have a feeling several of them will be shopping for their own firearms and then really learning how to use them effectively. Making new shooters isn't all that hard; all it takes is a good day, a bit of ammo and total lack of pressure. The message remains simple: Shooting is fun, and it's equally fun for all of us.

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