When the gun debate started to heat up last year after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., I was confused.
I didn't know the first thing about guns, so when people started talking about things like seven- or 10-bullet magazines, semi-automatic or non semi-automatic guns, even rifles versus shotguns, I had no idea what they were talking about.
It's probably strange that for someone who has spent about 23 of my 30 years in the Adirondacks, I have had very little experience with guns. The way statisticians talk about the area, you'd think we were all born with a gun in each hand.
Jessica Collier takes aim with a 20-gauge, pump-action shotgun during her first session of shooting a gun.
(Photo — Joe Orefice)
But the only gun I've ever shot (besides Duck Hunt when I was a kid and that sweet hunting video game at Grizle T's) was a BB gun. My friend Mike and I went through a phase in high school where we would shoot the heads off his mother's flowers from his bedroom window after school. (Sorry, Diane.)
I've always been a little nervous around real guns. When I found out my father had been keeping a gun in a closet or attic when I was maybe 10 or 12, I was anxious about it and had to pretend it wasn't there.
But my curiosity about shooting guns has grown over the years, and I've thought a few times over the last few years about how I'd like to try it out. Plus, I don't like being so totally in the dark about any topic that's regularly making headlines.
So when one of my co-workers said we should run a story that's a first-person account of someone shooting for the first time, I figured it was a good time to give it a try.
I mentioned the idea to my friend Joe Orefice, and he told me he would take me shooting at his farm. I had been planning on setting something up with the local fish and game club, but this sounded like a better idea, since I know Joe is a great teacher. I've covered him working with students at Paul Smith's College, and he's the advisor to the college's fish and game club. So I agreed and set up a date for it, which happened to be Easter Sunday.
I rounded up another friend who was in the same boat as me. Kate Glenn had never shot a gun before, and she's big on homesteading, so she wanted to learn to shoot because she thinks it will be a good skill to have when owning animals.
Kate and I were both coming from Easter brunch, so we showed up at Joe's that day in dresses, but we at least had boots to change into as we tromped around his farm.
Joe asked us what we wanted to shoot. We looked at each other and shrugged. Neither of us had any idea even what to ask for. So Joe, being the teacher that he is, started explaining things to us.
He brought four guns onto his porch, explaining that two of them were rifles and two were shotguns. The rifles shoot bullets, while the shotguns shoot from a cartridge packed with bunch of little metal pellets.
We figured it would be a good idea to try all of them, to be able to compare and contrast, so we brought them all up to our makeshift shooting range - an empty part of Joe's fields, a little way from his cow pen. Joe set up a can on a stick for us to shoot at maybe 40 feet away (or not, I'm terrible with estimating distances).
Kate and I were apprehensive about just picking up and carrying the guns, so Joe had to show us safe ways to do it: a hand on the butt and the barrel of the gun or resting the butt in our hand and the barrel against our shoulder.
Kate volunteered to go first, but she seemed nervous as she stepped up to try it out.
"There's a lot of, like, anti-gun sentiment I'm working through right now, inherited by my parents - my liberal, hippie parents," Kate said.
Joe made us put on big, noise-canceling ear protection, and he had Kate put on plastic safety glasses. I was wearing my own glasses, so I was given a pass on the eye protection. The eye protection was in case a bullet blows up in the chamber of a gun, which Joe said can happen in certain circumstances, like when the wrong size cartridge is loaded into a gun's chamber.
He showed us how to load a .22-caliber bullet cartridge into a small Winchester rifle, Joe's first gun that he has had since his early teens. He made sure the safety was on, opened the "action" (that's where the action happens, he said), dropped the cartridge in, and pulled the action back to pop the bullet into the barrel of the gun.
"Now it's live," Joe said.
Next, he showed us how to turn off the safety. When the safety is off on that gun, it shows red paint. "Red is dead" is the catchy saying Joe taught us to remember which setting was which. Catchy safety sayings get kind of morbid when you're dealing with guns, I guess.
Even with the safety still on, Joe said it's important to never put a finger on the trigger until you're ready to shoot. He had to remind us of that several times, because when you are holding a gun, your finger gravitates to the trigger without even thinking about it.
When a gun was live, Joe made sure we never pointed it at anyone. That's another thing that's important to be conscious of, he said, because a lot of accidents happen when someone is getting ready to shoot and someone speaks to them, so they turn around to answer, turning the gun on the person as well. We also weren't allowed to stand anywhere in front of the person shooting.
Pulling the trigger
Kate and I were apprehensive to start, so we asked Joe to shoot a few rounds to show us what to expect. He shot some rounds from the Winchester, and then a few from his 12-gauge, double-barrel shotgun.
Joe showed us how the information about the gun's caliber is always stamped on the barrel, like the 12-gauge, which has a 3-inch chamber, so it can shoot up to a 3-inch round.
Then he showed Kate how to shoot the .22. He made her stand with her legs far apart to give her a wide base. Then he had her rest the butt of the gun against her shoulder so it could brace against any kickback from the gun.
She tentatively turned off the safety, then she pulled the trigger.
Joe told her she didn't hit the target, but Kate didn't care. She said she had achieved her goal, which was to get the bullet out of the gun.
She said she was surprised that she couldn't see the bullet as it shot across the field. Joe said that it's going about 2,000 feet per second, so it wouldn't really be visible to the naked eye.
After that, I stepped up to the plate. Joe had to remind me again to point the gun where I wanted to shoot (not at his head).
It felt weird resting the gun on the right spot on my shoulder because any time I have pretended to shoot a gun in the past, I had tucked it under my armpit instead. But I got it in position and braced myself for a big bang. I switched off the safety, put my finger on the trigger, and pulled it back.
The little rifle went "pop." It barely moved.
"You got it," Joe said, noting that I had hit the can across the field.
Kate and I cheered, and I was so distracted that I forgot to immediately put the safety back on. Joe had to remind me.
"It doesn't feel like a lot," I told them. "I was expecting a little more."
Trying other guns
I wanted more. Joe let me load five bullets into the rifle and shoot them all in a row. As I shot each bullet from the gun, the action expelled from the side of the gun the small cartridge holding the bullet and it sprung the next bullet into the chamber. That makes it a semi-automatic.
Joe noted that it's a good idea to keep track of the number of bullets you load into the gun, since you don't want to leave an extra one in the chamber at the end.
After that, we shot a 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun, a 20-gauge pump-action shotgun and a huge bolt-action rifle.
The pump-action shotgun was a little stronger than the .22. Kate sighed after she shot it and said, "Kate needs a moment." Then she pumped it and shot again.
"You kind of feel like a badass when you do that," she said. "This is a little therapeutic."
I tried it and yelled "Woo!" as I shot. Joe said I hit the can both times.
"Nice shot," Joe said. "You're a good shot, Jess."
I said that shot smelled more like gunpowder, and the kickback was more like what I was expecting.
We tried the double-barrel shotgun, which I liked the look of because it loads by unhinging the barrel from the body of the gun. It reminded me of the typical guns you would see Elmer Fudd loading in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
It had two triggers, one for each barrel. We tried shooting from both barrels, which was fun. The kickback from that gun was a little more than the other two, and I kept getting the triggers mixed up, but it was fun to shoot.
Joe's bolt-action rifle was a bit much for both of us. It was stainless steel with a fancy scope on top, what Joe uses for deer (and woodchuck) hunting.
"This thing is loud," Joe warned us.
He said not to put our faces too close to the scope, because it will kick back and cut us in the face. He had us sit down to shoot that gun so we would be more stable. This gun didn't have a recoil pack, Joe said, so it kicks more than the other guns we were using.
My weak arms had a hard time holding the rifle up. I didn't like that. It made me feel like I wasn't in control. Joe said he will sometimes brace his arm with the strap attached to that gun to steady it.
I also kept losing my aim while looking at the can across the field and trying to find it in the scope.
I was scared of the huge kickback, so I kept pulling my head too far back from the gun. Joe told me I need to lean into it.
After we tried each of the guns, Kate took off to help her mom with Easter dinner, and Joe gave me a chance to try them again. I tried out the semi-automatic feature of the small rifle again a few times, then I tried shooting from both barrels of the double-barrel shotgun. Then I landed on the pump-action shotgun, which I decided was by far my favorite. Kate was right; there's something badass about that pump action.
Then Joe asked me if I wanted to try shooting some skeet. He found some of the clay disks in his garage and brought them out. He showed me how he can throw one in the air then shoot it himself.
Then he threw a few for me. The first one I hit. I totally missed the second one, but then I realized there was another cartridge loaded in the gun, and before I knew what I was doing, I pumped and shot again, striking the disc and blowing it up in the air. Joe said it looked totally instinctual. It was. If I had thought about it for more than a split second, I would have messed it up and missed by a mile.
I shot a few more, missing a few times and having some good hits. I "dusted" one of the skeet, which means the whole thing blew up into dust rather than just breaking apart into different pieces and falling to the ground.
No purchase yet
After we finished up, I headed to Kate's for Easter dinner. I was still running on a little adrenaline and told everyone how cool it was to try shooting for the first time.
I asked Kate what she thought of the experience. She was a little more practical about it than I was. She said it was interesting, and she'll probably get a gun in the future to use to put down farm animals and that type of thing.
Other people asked me after hearing about my experience if I am going to rush out and buy some firearms. No, I don't think I will. I don't need to own one. But Joe told me I can come out again and try shooting skeet once summer rolls around. I told him I would definitely plan on doing that.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.