What’s shooting like?

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This is a story of what shooting is like for me, and how it differs from the stereotypes. Now the plural of anecdote is not data -- but lies of omission, are lies. The media loves to bombard us with selective anecdotes about how guns ruined lives, but almost never about the many, many millions of times a year more, where they are just used for hobby or sport. This is just some of those.

The Range

I drive into the shooting range which is usually an indoor industrial building -- though sometimes is an outdoor range as well.

The first thing I note while driving in is usually the cars in the parking lot -- you know, Mercedes, BMW's, Lexus, MiniVans, Cadilacs, some trucks, and the usual assortment of cars one would expect in any suburban mall parking-lot. A cross section of Americans that include all types of people. (I happen to usually go to suburban ranges). This always makes me want to shake my head and chuckle -- the stereotype of shooters is often of some redneck rural hicks in pickups (with gun racks), or loony paramilitary survivalists in cammo-jeeps -- and if that's all their is in your area, that's likely what you'll see at the range. But you usually see all the cars of the subculture you're driving in. So in the Bay Area, I see things like Tesla's, Bentley's and Porsche's than I see jacked up El Camino's, or other hick-mobiles.

Shooting ranges are often very social places, and I've talked to many people and met many people in them -- more than at a Gym or other sporting activities. Doctors, Lawyers, Computer-geeks, Socker-Moms, and people of almost every career imaginable. People have a common interest and are usually very nice to each other. Quite in contrast to how they're portrayed by the media. But the media/publics misrepresentation (persecution by the ignorant), gives them a bond -- so they are more willing to see each other as compatriots, joke, and empathize, in the way that persecute minorities often feel a bond or camaraderie.

If you comment or ask questions about the gun someone is shooting, or which style of shooting they enjoy, they are usually more than happy to talk about it, or let you try out their gun and so on. Imagine commenting on a strangers car at a mall, and having them show all it's little features to you and letting you take it out for a test drive. It is a very nice feeling seeing people be that friendly and social. Again, the irony is contrasting this reality with the perceptions and stereotypes. And again in all things there are certainly a few extreme people or types that the media portrays as the "average shooter" -- but they are not significantly more common at gun ranges than at some other events.

Target Pistol

I usually get my target and lane assignment. I put on my eye's and ear's (glasses and hearing protection) and go to my lane. I put my target on the motorized wire-guide and send it out to about 10 - 15 yards for my pistol. I select one of my guns. I shoot a few standard sidearms of police and military: a Baretta, Glock, Sig 1911 -- each has different safety features, sights, and shooting characteristics, so I like to mix it up.

Pistols are much harder to shoot well than rifles, and so I find them more challenging.

Another thing is that larger-caliber or higher power is harder to shoot than low power. I shoot mid power (9mm and .45 cal). Some like the hand-canons (magnums), others prefer economy calibers and compactness (.22 or .380). The more high powered the round the more "kick" there is, then the more kick there is -- and the easier it is to break concentration or get people doing bad habits (which makes them miss their target).

Non-shooters don't realize how hard a skill shooting well is. It's easy to use a gun to shoot "good enough". Anyone can pop rounds at a target and could hit a human being at 20 feet (at least a few times in a magazine). Point and pull the trigger. I felt confident with my ability to defend myself with a gun at the age of 15 (when I got my first pellet pistol). But there's always room to get better.

Killing people and defense is not the intent of most target shooting anymore than modern archery is about sieging the castle -- the way you shoot target (and techniques) isn't even the same way that you would shoot for defense. Target shooting is more about discipline and improving ones self through a skill.

That is why I did Martial Arts as well. I could adequately defend myself before I took Martial Arts -- after 12 months I could probably handle 99% of the situations that would have come up (or people that would have attacked). So the next 20 years or so, it was not about "becoming some bad ass" like some people naively think -- it is just about challenging yourself, staying in shape, growing, learning, camaraderie, teaching and so on. It is really sad that some people think it is about hurting people or even about power (over others). Think how cynical and ignorant they have to be, to believe that hate/power would motivate someone to practice for decades to be better at it. If it has anything to do with power it is over ones' self. I think people's attitudes towards others, and assumptions about things they don't understand, can truly reflect their core beliefs -- and I am sad because many people who don't shoot (and have never shot) are tragically cynical and paranoid about their common man, and think they do it, to harm others, instead of empowering themselves or about protecting others.

Target shooting a gun can be very much like Zen and the Art of Archery (Kyu-Do). I lift the gun, and have to just "do" lots of things

  1. Grip the gun firm (but not too firm), and making sure you grip is "correct" is a skill -- the grip has to be the same every time. The whole thing reminds me of golf (the consistency, grip and follow-though).
  2. Follow all the safety rules about which way the gun pointed at all time, and of course proper trigger discipline (never, ever, put your finger on the trigger, before you're ready to fire).
  3. Hold the gun up and push forward with my right hand, pull back with the left, with the gun extended -- this firm isometric pressure steadies the weapon.
  4. Breath control -- you don't hold your breath, you breathe normally (or resistance on exhale), and many try to focus on even their heartbeat and timing when the shoot relative to that.
  5. There is a lot of concentration on the sights let the ramps line up, and focus my eye on the front sight -- let the background line up on the center of the target. Hold it on target and gently place the finger on the trigger -- again the same exact way as every time before.
  6. Make sure my stance and posture is correct (whether Weaver or Isosceles stance), right amount of bend, relaxing and tension.
  7. When the site is lined up, just hold it, and wait for the timing to be correct. The pressure on the trigger will cross critical mass at the right time (since no one is perfectly steady this has to be when the site sort of gently drifts into the perfect place) -- and BLAM! A gentle jerk and a loud noise (muffled by the ear-protection), and the gun gently torques back and forward (slide on a spring) and it is back lined up on target again.
  8. You keep holding the gun on target and can't even look at the results of that shot (that far-near focus changing all the time will strain your eye). I just wait until the time is correct again -- and BLAM!

I usually shoot 5 or 6 rounds per target, and use a target that has 5 different bullseye's on it. After 5 rounds I usually take a break and see how I shot that set -- but usually I can just tell by feel. I shoot a semiautomatic pistol and each magazine holds 15 rounds (so is now against the law, unless you're grandfathered in) -- but by having large capacity, I can load less often, and focus on what I care about (which is shooting, not reloading).

Now much of that is reflex. So you both let it happen, and try to focus on all of the details (to make sure you're doing it right). This target shooting requires massive concentration -- and yet you are thinking of nothing ([Mushin|https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mushin_(mental_state)]: no-mind). Yet, while the mind is calm, and you are thinking of everything, the process becomes automatic and peaceful. Zen meditation can be hard to explain and sounds like mumbo-jumbo. But this is like many other Martial Arts and forms -- you go through a process, doing everything in your mind, and focusing on every detail -- yet everything has been done so many times that it is automatic and completely emptying. You are caught in the moment, and lose all stresses or worry about anything but the task you are doing. Learn a skill, do it well.

Pulling the trigger and the follow-through are the key -- you don't jerk the trigger, and you can't let yourself anticipate the recoil (and push on the gun). If you expect the gun to go off, then you do things that mess with the alignment of the shot at that instant. So your shots (and the shots going off in the lanes next to you) make it much more distracting, and help you learn how to really go deep inward and meditate on the processes. Not only that, holding a gun (which weighs a couple lbs.) at the end of your arms reach makes them tired, and the isometric pressure to steady the gun makes it worse. All the while you are standing with your legs apart (and bent) to steady yourself (like a martial arts posture), and you are leaning slightly forward (which works the back). And you arm position has to be the exact same, and so on. After a few series of 5 shots, the body can become very sore or uncomfortable -- which again means that you must go inward (and on nothing) in order to shoot well. It can be far more physical and mental than people think.

And it gets better (more challenging), if you're trained in combat shooting -- which is a different (and faster). How to draw the weapon properly (safely), paying attention to the weapons sightline at all times in the draw, how smooth and relaxed you are. Disengaging safeties, as you do it -- as they say in driving and shooting, Slow Is Smooth…Smooth Is Fast. And so on.

On a good set, I can put 5 rounds into something the size of a quarter at 10-15 yards, and occasionally manage a single jagged hole. But I can't do it for long -- after about 25 rounds, it starts to get hard to keep everything perfect and groupings start to open up. And my eyes seem to tire easily and aren't as good at long range (I know it is my eyes, because if I use a laser sight or scope I can nail the target). But the challenge of longer range just means that I have things to work on. I can move out to 20 or 25 yards, and learn to shoot more rounds well.

In frequency, I've altered between a few times a week, to going a few years between range visits. Probably 5-10 times a year is average. But if you have friends that shoot, or join clubs, it's easy to go far more often than that, and make it a weekly hobby.

Types of shooting

Of course just because I like to go for target shooting doesn't mean everyone does. And there are many ways to shoot that aren't as "deep" and mental. Usually, after I've done my target sets -- and just can't shoot those ultra-tight groupings any more, I do a little of some other type of shooting just to "come down" or unwind (though I'm already relaxed, I just have to come out of concentration).

Some people shoot for fun/defense. Which is putting a silhouette out at 10 to 20 feet, and doing things like rapid fire. Guns jump some when you shoot them, so firing quickly into the same area is not easy. There is a thrill to the power of the gun, and it jerking in your hand -- and so trying quick aiming, and firing off a quick set. This is like the pleasure of driving fast and cornering or accelerating hard in a car. Neophytes think it's about hitting the gas and brakes hard, and turning as sharp as the car allows -- anyone with training knows it's more nuanced (and about conservation of momentum and smooth). But there's a pleasure of pushing the tool and pushing yourself.

Some people get so into the fun (or defense) aspects of shooting that they like to shoot tactical (competition or not). This may start from a holster and require many other things. Some places have targets that rotate into view or not -- or popup. Usually these are highly supervised for safety. One range I visited has "courses" and you shoot around objects, over objects, shoot from under a table, from cover (beside a wall), or through a hole, and so on. Then they make you shoot right handed, left handed, and both -- and all this is highly supervised for safety, and is monitored for time and score and can be quite a rush. And some have moving targets -- and many issues with good/bad target selection and site-lines (you can't hit one target, or you might hit the good target behind it), requiring more situational awareness. And then moving targets get brought in -- which is even more to do. You can keep getting better for years doing this stuff.

I went to a range in San Diego (Escondido) that had this giant projected video image on it (a self-healing rubberized screen), that allowed you to basically play video games with a real gun. They had "drug wars" or "western", had targets that would popup numbers, and you had to shoot them out in sequence (ascending or descending order) or have moving targets bouncing around the screen. It had training scenarios about when to shoot (like police training) and so on. It was a blast. All that fast reaction energy was fun, and I did pretty good, but I came out of there a little tense and jittery -- sort of the opposite of the calm after my more meditative target shooting. And it goes through rounds like mad -- I shot 150 rounds in 20 minutes and my gun was very hot. A super arcade game.

Another type of shooting is trap, skeet or sporting clays shooting (using a shotgun to hit these flying clay frisbees, flung about in different directions). I've done that quite a few times, and enjoyed it. There seems to be more women in clay shooting than some of the more combat oriented kinds, but that's changing.

While there are a lot more women that shoot than the stereotypes would lead people to believe, I am sort of surprised that there still aren't more. There are lots of women who take up guns as self defense, and learn the basics. But it seems like while there's slightly fewer women that shoot regularly, the ones that do, really focus on it and seem to take pleasure in beating all the men.

Lastly there is traditional hunting, which is usually just going out in the woods and becoming one with nature. If you can't blend in, and really enjoy the outdoors, and just relax and wait, then you probably won't get much. Hunting is often about waiting and observing nature -- becoming it. Hours of waiting in the wild, with very few shots fired. 1-shot, 1-kill. Wild animals have eyes, ears, and noses that are so superior to our own, that they really have far more of an advantage than non-hunters think. So a lot of hunting is about patience and belonging. But I got to be such a good shot hunting as a kid (and I did it so much), and I've lost so much patience as an adult, that it lost a lot of interest for me. So I don't hunt any more. People ignorant with it, think it's about the killing -- but 6 hours of the experience is the preamble, 6 seconds is the actual shooting, and the rest is in preparation and cleanup, and providing something (trophy, meal, etc).

I also think it is far more humane to let animals raise themselves in the wild, and take them out with one clean kill, rather than raising them as animal-prisoners in little pens, never knowing freedom, and then just slaughtering them without them having the slightest chance. The hypocrisy of some people complaining about the inhumanity of hunting, when they are buying the nice pre-cleaned chicken or cow-burgers from a grocery store, never ceases to amaze me. Sure most humans don't have to hunt -- but it is a lot better (healthier) alternative than just buying your packaged food from the store!

My wife is vegetarian, and I have been for long stretches of time -- and I eat low-meat now. Usually some meat with lunch, or an occasional side of bacon with breakfast, but mostly vegetarian for dinner. I used to enjoy ordering Bacon-Guacamole Garden-Burgers just to confuse waitresses. Personally, I think everyone should have to go out and hunt, kill, slaughter and clean, at least one of every type of meat that they eat. Then they can truly learn to appreciate what the animal contributes to their meal. And of course people should have to work on a farm, and hunt in the wild for a meal, to decide which of those two is more humane. Society have fewer hypocrites and be more tolerant of outdoorsman, if more learned to understand the quiet pleasures of fishing or hunting without being so judgemental.


In many places, if you admit that you like to shoot occasionally, you have people look at you like you are some crazed fringe-lunatic disgruntled postal-worker, ready to snap. The saddest part is their opinions usually come from the position of extreme ignorance, bigotry or fear of the unknown. Many people have been programmed (brainwashed) by misinformation for most of their lives -- and they are so happy in their false constructs that some don't even want to consider the truth. Challenging this can often doesn't make friends. It is normal in society to attack that which is different and to stereotype and rudely caricaturize, but we should just not tolerate it quietly.

The way to fight ignorance is through education. It is OK to not like guns or shooting -- but to have an educated opinion, people should experience guns and shooting for themselves before they attack.

It is really interesting seeing people change who experience shooting for the first time. If people go out and are taught proper gun safety and how to shoot, they usually have fun and learn that it is easier to shoot than they thought (and it is much harder than they thought to shoot really well). There is a rush and a power in the tool -- but it is not crazed or angry or anything like they might have thought, it is more like the rush and responsibility in using other dangerous tools -- like driving a car or riding a motorcycle.

I've seen antigun people change their views 180 degrees in a single experience just by actually replacing their ignorance with knowledge and trying a gun. I've seen many more refuse to try it, for fear that the education will change them. And it will. But sometimes change is good. The facts are, there are very few antigun people who are experienced with guns.

Shooting/Shooters are similar to other Martial Artists: instead of gun crazed brick-breaking lunatics that want to harm and destroy -- most are the folks that just want to improve themselves, and maybe if things turn bad, have the ability to protect, defend and help others. While the negative stereotypes mostly come from people with chips on their shoulder just looking for an opportunity to prove themselves (or tell others what to do). But gung ho fanatics don't last long in Martial Arts or shooting -- others don't like being around them, and they don't find the satisfaction of being a bully in an environment that demands safety and respect.

So most Martial Artists (including shooters), that I've known, are far more responsible, and calmer, than the average. That's why they practice something that requires control, responsibility and discipline. The more experienced they become, usually the more in control, calm and more responsible they become.

There were some studies that showed that kids that learned how to shoot or were given a gun by their parents were 10 times less likely to be involved in a gun crime (and like 4 times more likely to avoid any crime). This makes sense because shooters and Martial Artist know there are consequences to their actions that they've been forced to think about that (and that affects them accordingly). It is the people that aren't trained that are more dangerous (to themselves and others).

Written: 1999.07.11
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