Home on the Range

By Susan Harvey

As a writer, I do a lot of research, most of it surfing online or interviewing experts. Recently, I did hands-on research for a mystery I’m writing and, even though I faced it with dread and anxiety, I actually had fun and boosted my self-confidence by learning a new skill. I learned to shoot. That’s right, this non-violent, tree-hugging, animal lover somehow found the courage to visit a shooting range.

After four weeks on my TO DO list, learning about guns was one of my top priorities, right up there with having a mammogram and scheduling a root canal. I had done all the online research possible; now I needed hands-on experience. I needed to know what it felt like to hold and fire a gun. When I finally mustered enough courage to visit a shooting range, I pulled into the parking lot and took several deep breaths. Just do it, I told myself. This is an information-gathering task. I got out of the car and walked toward the camouflage-painted double front doors of Coastal Sports, LLC in Murrells Inlet. Would I have to buy a gun to practice shooting? Did they even sell guns here? I had never been up close and personal with a gun.

By the time I crossed the parking lot and reached the door, I was into the Lamaze breathing technique, which still serves me well after…humm, well, let’s just say after several years, when I go into panic mode. I jerked the door open and entered the brightly lit room. My breath caught as I took in the guns lining the walls, filling display cases.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long for service. The shop owner, Will Abbott, came right over to me. I explained that I wanted to learn to shoot, and I needed advice on which gun would be best for me. When he asked me what I intended to do with the gun, I was speechless. Why had I not anticipated this question? I couldn’t tell him the truth about writing a book; that seemed so…, well, so personal, and he would probably laugh at me. I couldn’t tell him I wanted to shoot someone, and since I wanted to use a gun a female detective could carry concealed in a purse, I couldn’t tell him I wanted to hunt with it. Self-defense escaped me. I decided to tell him the truth, and finally my mouth and brain worked together again.

He didn’t laugh at me but actually seemed excited about the book and was helpful in telling me about guns carried by female law-enforcement professionals. I learned about semi-automatic handguns as well as revolvers, and that females are the fastest growing segment of gun purchasers. I handled several different guns, and Abbott suggested I come back to practice the next evening when the range offered half-price range time for women. I could rent all equipment I would need, including the gun.

The next afternoon, I shut down my computer early and prepared for my first lesson. Hmm, what to wear to a shooting lesson? I opted for knit shorts with an oversized tee and athletic shoes. I wanted to be comfortable and have full range of arm motion.

I drove to the range, parked, and crossed the macadam lot quickly today, excited about being back. Just outside the door, I stopped to cross myself and ask for blessing and protection, for me and everyone inside, because I am not what anyone would call a sports-oriented person. I opened the door and walked tall and straight to the counter as though I knew exactly what I was doing. The men seemed surprised to see me again.

The first thing I had to do was choose a gun for practice. The Range Master, Mitch Jones, helped me select a Beretta NEOS, 22-caliber semi-automatic that fires ten rounds per magazine. This gun is relatively lightweight, has minimal recoil, and inexpensive bullets. After Jones reviewed the safety procedures with me, he asked me to fill out a form giving my name, address, age. AGE? Why did he need to know my age? Okay, so he could not rent the gun to a minor, but why not ask if the customer is 21 or older? I filled in thirty-nine on the age line. If you don’t ask customers to be specific as to why they want to purchase an assault rifle, don’t ask me to be specific about my age. Besides, everyone knows women stop aging at 39. Right?

Jones gave me a brief lesson on gun operation and safety and asked me to answer YES or NO to questions about my gun experience. No, I had never used this type of gun before. Yes, I had been advised about how to use it. No, I had no formal gun-safety training. Yes, I understood the instructions and safety. And, yes, pigs can fly.

After the forms were completed, and I had signed away my first-born and donned eye and ear protection, we headed to the indoor range in the back of the building, Jones transporting my rental Beretta tucked in the back waistband of his jeans and wearing his own gun holstered at the hip. The range was a cross between the Bat Cave and a very small bowling alley. It was dark and gray, all concrete and cement blocks with five long, narrow lanes. The shooters, separated by bullet-resistant partitions similar to office cubicles, stood at the front of the lanes.

Jones placed my gun and two boxes of ammunition on the black plastic tray that spanned the distance across the front of my space. The target was a poster-size piece of paper with five bulls-eye targets, each about the size of a large hand. He attached my target to the clips on the pulley that would deliver it to the chosen distance, anywhere from in-my-face to seventy-five feet. Jones flipped a switch and the target sped away to fifteen feet. He turned another switch and spotlights illuminated the target. My heart pounded, my palms sweated, and a wave of nausea crept into my throat when Jones declared the range live.

A man two cubicles away fired a round. I jumped and screamed. This was not like watching a movie. This was loud. Deafening. Even with ear protection.

“Sorry. I wasn’t prepared for the sound,” I told Jones. After he extricated himself from my grasp, he politely asked me if I was taking any kind of medication.

“Celebrex,” I answered. Even though I am only 39. “I have early-onset arthritis.”

“I mean nerve medication,” he said.

I assured him I did not take nerve medication. But I could certainly use some.

Jones loaded ten bullets into the magazine, inserted it into the receiver, and placed the gun in my hand, wrapping my right hand around the grip with my index finger extended straight out along the barrel. He wrapped my left hand over my right, left thumb over right thumb, and I extended my arms out in front of me. By this time, I had forgotten about the Lamaze breathing technique; I was hyperventilating and so nervous I could hardly see the target much less focus on it. My body was stiff, and my outstretched arms ached under the weight of the gun. Two shooters were firing rounds nonstop at their respective targets; fortunately, I had stopped jumping and screaming after the first five minutes of fire.

Jones asked me to engage the safety, eject the magazine, lay the gun on the tray, and then prepare the gun for use again on my own. With trembling, sweaty hands, I did it. When my hands were properly placed and my arms extended, Jones told me to fire the gun.

I started to protest that I didn’t know how to aim.

“Just point at the target and fire,” he said.

And I did.

A small hole appeared above and to the left of target no. 2. I rested the gun barrel on the tray, hands still wrapped around the grip.

“You can relax now,” Jones said. “You fired a gun, and the world didn’t end.”

Holy cow, I fired a gun, and I even hit the target. Okay, this wasn’t too bad after all.

For the next hour, I fumbled the bullets as I filled the magazine. I fired high and to the left on almost every shot. I unloaded 100 rounds into the five targets. When I finished, I was exhausted and sweaty with tired arms, weak hands and a stiff neck.

I was also exhilarated with the same high I get from a good workout. I faced a fear and conquered it, had fun doing research, and made new friends, all for less than the price of a movie and popcorn. As I left the building, my internal voice shouted, “I did it!” I knew I would return here again and again until I felt at home on the range.

About this writer

  • Susan Harvey Susan Harvey is a humor writer who teaches college English. She lives in Murrells Inlet, and in her spare time enjoys cooking and reading mysteries.

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