On the far eastern edge of Colorado Springs sits the Isaak Walton Gun Club. Normally, it's a low-key place, hidden well in the prevailing eastern Colorado landscape that combines rolling hills with prairie. Last Saturday, though, it was abuzz with activity as approximately 60 women milled about the grounds. The women, some from as far away as Steamboat Springs, were there for the Women's Shooting Sports Foundation's seventh annual Colorado Sports Festival. The two-day event included air rifle shotgun and handgun target-shooting competitions.
To a sheltered, urban person such as myself, the festival seemed intriguing, though I wasn't at all sure what to expect. The fact is, I'd never even seen a real gun until about seven years ago. That was also the first and last time I'd ever fired a gun. And it was in the back yard -- the woods -- of a friend of a friend's house, somewhere in the middle of Louisiana. We shot at cans and paper targets set up by the outhouse.
It was a powerful and overall positive experience; something I was not expecting. There's a certain gratification about holding that powerful of an object in your hands. And, when I hit the target for the first time, the noise equated to a huge shot of adrenaline. Nonetheless, I was in the middle of nowhere, standing next to an outhouse, shooting into the woods. The theme from Deliverance was stuck in my head that entire afternoon.
Those were the images that were running through my mind as I pulled into the parking lot of the festival. They dissipated quickly, however, as Sheri LeGate and her dog Trapper greeted my arrival.
LeGate, a petite woman with an endless amount of warm energy, is a two-time national champion in shotgun, a two-time World Cup medalist and a member of the US Shooting team. She is also the executive director of the Women's Shooting Sports Foundation, the group sponsoring the weekend's competitions.
The WSSF is a Springs-based, non-profit organization founded in 1993. Its purpose, according to LeGate, is multiple -- first, to provide a collective voice for female hunters and shooters worldwide; and second, to raise the level of involvement of women in the sports of hunting and target shooting, promoting awareness and education concerning firearms and conservation. "The biggest problem we face," said LeGate, "is that people just don't understand firearms. Uneducation (sic) of guns leads to not understanding guns."
If the WSSF's national membership of 5,000 is any indication, competitive shooting sports could quite possibly be the fastest-growing women's sports in this country. Last weekend's festival was just one of 70 such events that the WSSF holds across the country. It was also part of a larger, 30-event target-shooting competition.
And I now better understand the draw to the sport.
Not only does shooting make you feel powerful, but events like this one engender a sense of cameraderie as well. The atmosphere of the festival was welcoming and encouraging. It's a rare opportunity for a novice to stand next to a pro -- even a World Cup champion -- and receive advice or ask questions. And though we were in a giant field, things seemed cozy and intimate.
The first event of the morning was air rifle. Air rifle, I learned, differs from shotgun in that you are shooting at a stationary target. The paper bull's-eye targets for this competition were set at 10, 20 and 30 feet. Sometimes, the targets are as far out as 50 feet, but space constraints were an issue, as the pistol shooters were at the other end of the field.
Jean Foster, a silver medalist in this year's World Cup, was on hand to help those of us who were novices. After a thorough explanation of how to hold the gun, where not to point it and how to work the safety, I took my first shots. That old familiar hit of adrenaline ripped through me as I pulled the trigger and heard the slug hit the target. I hate to admit it, but it's a lot like the adrenaline rush you get from sex. (Like I said, I now have a better understanding of the attraction.)
There's not much recoil to the air rifle. In fact, it was pretty smooth. As Jean explained and I experienced, wind is a factor, and for an event that was scored on accuracy, this was a problem.
Luckily, over at the pistol competiton, the wind was not so much of a factor. For those of us who didn't bring our own guns, a semi-automatic, a .22 and a .38 were available for use. Participants had a chance to rotate through all three.
The targets for this event were set at 50 feet. Some were paper, some were metal. The metal were definitely more gratifying to hit -- not only did they fall over when hit, but the bullet made a cool sound upon impact. Those were the targets for the .38.
The pistol competition is scored for accuracy and time. In layman's terms, you have one minute with each gun to hit as many targets as possible.
USA Shooting team member Becki Snyder was on hand at this event to offer her expertise. A shooter since she was 12, she had lots of tips to offer on stance and grip. Using both hands, Becki said, provided more stability, though it was important to clasp the hands just right to avoid hurting any fingers.
The final event of the series was the shotgun, or sporting clays competition. Shotgun, according to most of the participants, is the biggest rush of them all. "You'll see, you'll love it," they told me.
By my side for this event was Lloyd Woodhouse, Olympic shotgun coach for the United States. The man has a passion for the sport, and he had sacrificed the first day of duck-hunting season to attend the festival.
It was from him that I learned more about stance and strength and, most importantly, that I was left-eyed. Being left-eyed is not good when it comes to shotgun if you are right-handed, he explained. When shooting a shotgun, you are literally resting your head on the handle of the gun to align with the target. Therefore, shooting right-handed and sighting with your left eye really skews your aim.
I shot left-handed and managed to peg nine out of the 12 clays. And they were right -- it provided the biggest rush. Though I was using one of the smaller shotguns, the thing still weighed 8 pounds and had quite the post-fire recoil. Dropping in the shell, snapping the gun shut, pulling the trigger, feeling the force propelling the bullet out of the gun, nailing the clay disk and reloading -- I would have smoked a cigarette if there was one available.
The day began at 10 a.m., with crisp temperatures and a haze. It was now almost 3 p.m. The sun was shining bright, the wind had calmed down, and the haze was gone. I had learned about and shot six different types of guns. Being at the festival seemed like a reasonable place to be on a Saturday afternoon. Shooting guns seemed like a reasonable activity. We were all there for different reasons, but I suspect we all came away with the same things: confidence, empowerment, gratification and a general spent feeling.
And never once did I hear the Deliverance theme, not even when I fired the shotgun.