BY CLIFF GROMER
I'm not a gun nut, but I'm also not an antigun nut. Strip away the emotions, passions and politics surrounding sporting handguns and long guns and you simply have a machine made for throwing round balls or pointy bullets.
A lot of folks are afraid of guns and won't even go near one, let alone handle a firearm. Undeniably, guns can be lethal when not treated in a safe and sane manner, but they are not a coiled rattlesnake ready to deal instant death the moment you open a gun box. On the flip side are the people who are comfortable around guns--35 million Americans own handguns, primarily for recreation and self-protection. About 700,000 citizens join the ranks of gun owners every year.
While guns obviously are formidable defensive weapons in the hands of folks who know how to handle them, they also are a great form of recreation--for folks who know how to handle them. Education is the key. The basic principles of firearms safety boil down to good common sense. Handle all firearms as if they were loaded. Keep them pointed in a safe direction. Keep your finger out of the trigger guard until you're ready to fire. Make certain that the target and surrounding area are safe.
The first thing to do when handling any firearm is to point it in a safe direction and open the action to verify that it isn't loaded--and that includes putting your finger into the chamber as a backup to visual inspection.
Recently, four PM staffers, including myself and editor-in-chief Joe Oldham, spent a day target shooting at a range under the supervision of NRA-certified instructors. Among them was Walt Rauch, who is a former Secret Service agent and is often called on as a firearms expert witness in court cases. He is also the author of Real-World Survival! What Has Worked For Me.
We shot handguns ranging in caliber from .22 Short to .45 to the Smith & Wesson model 686 .357 Magnum shown in the lead photo. Included were three Olympic target pistols--a German-made Walther OSP circa mid-1960s, a French Unique DES-VO with a wraparound grip from about 1975, and a Russian IZH-35 that was designed in the 1950s. The latter model was made for slow-fire target shooting while the Walther and Unique are for rapid-fire competition. Know what? It was fun. A lot of fun. It's easy to see why shooters can be as passionate about their sport as golfers and fishermen are about theirs. We saw guys on the range who would continue shooting until their trigger finger virtually fell off, or until they ran out of light and bullets. It's that addictive.
Of course, you can enjoy shooting without having to go nuts over it. The best way to ease into the sport is to take a firearms safety course given by an NRA-certified instructor. There are some 40,000 such instructors in the country. You can choose from 11 different types of programs. They're all basic and some are geared to specific types of firearms--pistol, revolver, rifle and shotgun. There's also a course in personal protection, which teaches how to use a pistol in situations of self-defense (as a last resort). The overall goal of the programs is to train people to be safe and responsible gun owners. You learn how guns function and how to clean, store and, of course, shoot them.
Courses run from one to two days and include range time and basic marksmanship instruction. Everything you need is provided--a gun, ammo, and eye and ear protection. Just bring your brains and trigger finger.
Don't know squat about guns? Then the course to take is the one on home firearms safety. There's no hands-on shooting here, but you'll get an overview of all the guns out there and guidance in choosing a firearm that's right for you.
Course costs vary, but figure a ballpark of $50. You can locate an NRA-certified instructor near you by calling 703-267-1430. A recording asks for your name and address, and the NRA will then send you a list of six instructors keyed to your ZIP code. Hey, it doesn't hurt to give it a shot.
Three Olympic target pistols: Walther OSP (top), Unique DES-VO (center) and IZH-35. The Walther, which takes the clip in front of the trigger, and the Unique fire .22 Short rounds and are designed for rapid-fire competition. The IZH shoots .22LR and was made for slow-fire, bull's-eye target competition. PHOTO BY CLIFF GROMER