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The First Time I Shot a Gun

When I decided that my next book would include a gun, I went to a firing range for the first time—and loved it

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(Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photo Shutterstock.)
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Wearing goggles and noise-blocking headphones, I followed him through the two airlock doors into a gun range that looked like a smaller, less-elaborate version of the ones you always see in TV and movie thrillers. There were no separations between the small tables where people were sitting, but again I felt private because there was only one other person firing, and there were half a dozen vacant positions between us. The target wasn’t human-shaped as I’d expected, since the facility’s connected to the local university and the Board of Trustees has forbidden those. It was a sheet of 8 1/2 x 11-inch beige paper with a black circle in its center that was only 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Hanging 4.5 meters away, it looked tiny.

The instructor patiently took me through the Ruger .22 pistol, repeating what we’d discussed before, showing me how to load the clip five bullets at a time, put the magazine in, push down on the slide stop, position the gun in my right hand aiming at the target, curl my right pinky, ring finger, and middle finger around the grip, and secure those with four fingers of my left hand holding the right steady. I had to make sure my index finger was along the barrel and my thumbs parallel to each other and down below the slide, which would pop out when the gun was empty. Last move: clicking down the safety with my right thumb.

I kept waiting for something, anything to feel weird. Instead, I was fascinated, attentive. When I was ready, I took my first shots. There was no recoil with this caliber of gun that I could feel, but the spent cartridges popping out the right side were odd, something my instructor explained would happen but still felt mildly peculiar.

“Have you done this before?” he asked.

I answered, “Never.”

“That’s a very good group.”

He pressed the button to bring the target sheet up to where we sat, and the shots were all inside the black circle, within an inch of each other. I moved the target back half a meter, and half a meter again as the session continued, and wasn’t quite as accurate further away, but still had surprisingly good grouping. Breathing correctly during firing wasn’t difficult for me, but remembering the right order of loading the gun was, which made me grateful for his suggesting only five bullets at a time. Repetition of the steps helped my middle-aged brain absorb the new information and helped my hands learn new skills.

On the way out, another instructor asked me what I’d thought of my session.

“I loved it!”

I left with plenty of data for my book, but also with something totally unexpected: a revelation for myself. I enjoyed target practice. I enjoyed holding a gun. It didn’t seem remotely foreign or bizarre. It felt natural. And I never once thought of my father and the gun pointed at him decades ago.


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phoebes says:

Interesting article, Lev. I was thinking about taking up target shooting out here in Santa Fe – I shot rifles in high school – but after Newtown, I’ve put it off. When will the next Nick Hoffman be published?

DickRoistacher says:

I have been a liberal Jewish shooter for 55 years and am a certified pistol instructor. I always ask my students how they felt the first time they held a loaded pistol. Not one has ever reported feeling increased aggression. The two most common responses were: 1. I don’t want to screw up, incur a safety violation, and get tossed off the range. 2. I want to do at least as well as my [boyfriendgirlfriend|spouse] in the next lane.

Thanks for asking. It’s not quite finished yet, but will have quite a finish when it is. :-)

I completely identify with no. 1.

It was #2 with me.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t.

I mentioned the need to know what if felt/smelled/sounded like to fire a gun for my writing; he made an appointment at a gun shop/firing range. Turned out to be a 3 hour concealed weapon permit class (don’t ask about the alarmingly simple process for obtaining one in Florida). I could have left without ever firing a gun, but the instructor let me spend time with an instructor. Hubster was there as well…and we also started with a Ruger .22. I outshot him–I think women do better because we don’t have to prove our ‘manlliness’. After that, I fired a variety of weapons to have a better feel for my characters, but I’ve never had a desire to own one. (And, for the record, it’s a magazine, NOT a clip–something else I learned in the pursuit of literary accuracy.)

For the record, Terry, the instructor called it a clip. I learned that people use them interchangeably, even gun folks, even if it’s technically incorrect.

To be perfectly Talmudic about it, the only weapon I know of that loads from a clip is the M-1 rifle. You pull back the bolt, push a metal clip containing eight rounds into the top and let the bolt come forward, stripping off the top round and chambering it. When the last of the eight rounds has been fired, the clip is ejected and discarded (not likely, since they don’t make them any more). John Garand’s original design loaded from a box magazine inserted from the bottom, but some mysterious Army bureaucrat changed things. (See all the great stuff you can learn by reading Tablet!)

Well, I never thought I’d be quoting the NRA, but here’s what their web site says about the question of clip vs. magazine:


A device for holding a group of cartridges. Semantic wars have been
fought over the word, with some insisting it is not a synonym for
“detachable magazine.” For 80 years, however, it has been so used by
manufacturers and the military. There is no argument that it can also
mean a separate device for holding and transferring a group of
cartridges to a fixed or detachable magazine or as a device inserted
with cartridges into the mechanism of a firearm becoming, in effect,
part of that mechanism.”

JeffreyME says:

I’m neutral on guns — I’ve never owned one, even though I have lived in “marginal” neighborhoods and backpacked deep into the wilderness on my own. But it seems to me that just because something feels “natural” or fun or provides an adrenalin rush does not translate into something good or positive. Lots of people feels great and have fun driving ATVs off road and tearing up entire ecosystems. Skydiving’s a blast, but you’d be surprised at the mortality rate for those who do it regularly.

I can see having a fun time taking target practice. But to treat such an event as an epiphany or revelation strikes me as being a bit full of one’s self. Perhaps your next piece should be on the life changing experience a Jew can have eating pork belly.

P.S. to Terry and Dick: I just interviewed a retired cop who is now a PI and owns three guns and he says he’s always called it a clip and so have all his cop buddies and friends who own guns, so perhaps the difference is partly regional. He said he would say “magazine” for a rifle, but never for a pistol.


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The First Time I Shot a Gun

When I decided that my next book would include a gun, I went to a firing range for the first time—and loved it

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