A few weeks after reading about the shooting range in our local paper and deciding we were up for trying something new, we finally had a chance to take a drive over to check the place out. The clerk behind the counter looked like she might have celebrated her eighteenth birthday a few days earlier.

“We read about you in the paper,” I told her, expecting her to react with a little cheer to this news of her employer’s celebrity. But she was unimpressed.

“Really,” she said, with a period rather than a question mark. “And what can I do for you.” Another period.

“We’d like to rent a handgun and do some target shooting,” I said, trying to keep up the enthusiasm level. “Don’t know much about either of those. Hoping you can help?” It was a statement, but I made it a question to balance the punctuation deficit.

“Either of you ever shot before?”

“Long guns,” I said. “Years ago.”

“Never,” my wife said.

“Okay. A revolver then, simpler than a pistol.” The clerk walked to the far end of the counter, stepped around, and looked at the shelves in a tall, heavy safe open to the sales floor. “Looks like we’ve only got a .22 here. There’s a bunch of people back there with the other ones.”

She gestured vaguely toward the opposite end of the store. I guessed that back there must be the actual firing range.

Lifting a shiny silver revolver with a six-inch barrel out of the safe, she carried it over to us in a cupped, upturned palm. “Okay, ready?” she asks. “Here’s how we do this.”

With a press of her thumb and tap of an index finger, the gun’s cylinder popped out and to the left. “Here’s where the bullets go,” the clerk said, pointing to the holes (chambers) in the cylinder. “This is an eight-shot Taurus; you get eight instead of the usual five or six because the rounds are so small. Taurus is a decent gun, especially for beginners. Fill these chambers, snap the cylinder back in, click it into place like this.”

Snapping and clicking followed, then re-popping of the cylinder. “When you transport the gun, just hook your finger through the frame, here.” The clerk demonstrated. “This way you also know for sure that the gun won’t fire.”

Re-snapping, re-clicking. “When you’re ready, give it a good two-handed grip, like this, with your feet apart. You’ll find a stance that feels right. Aim by bringing the front sight in line with the rear sight”—pointing to each, she suddenly reminded me of an airline flight attendant doing a pre-flight demo.

“And then you know what the trigger does. If a round fails to fire, just keep shooting because the cylinder will move to the next round. Then when you’re sure all eight shots have come around, point the gun away from you, always downrange, open the cylinder, and use the ejector”—she pointed to a rod in front of the cylinder —“to push out the spent casings. You’ll see some baskets back there for the empty brass.”

My wife and I nodded along at various cues, checking with each other through expressions whether we were getting all of this, confirming to each other that we were not.

“And that’s really about all there is to it,” the clerk said, re-popping the cylinder. “Now I only need to get some info from each of you.”

We had just concluded 140 seconds of shooting instruction.

The clerk slid a clipboard across the counter in front of us, and we provided signatures and sign-in times in the appropriately marked boxes on the sheet.

“There’s a box of hearing protection just inside that door,” the clerk said, gesturing back there again, “and a box of safety glasses. Here are six clips for your targets; you can each grab a dozen targets back there, too. How long do you plan to be shooting?”

My wife and I looked at each other. This had not been discussed.

“An hour?” my wife suggested.

The clerk nodded. “Then this should probably do you.” She turned to grab a green box that said Thunderbolt from the counter behind her, and pushed 500 rounds of .22LR (long rifle) ammunition toward us.

“Thirty bucks for the ammo. Have fun,” she said.

I frowned. “That’s it?”

She managed a smile, finally. “Yep, that’s it. You’re on lane number four.”

“Back there?”

“Back there.”

I felt very strongly that someone should be giving us a guided walking tour of the place, given that my wife and I had admitted a complete lack of familiarity with any of this stuff. Along with the fact that we were about to shoot, you know, guns.

The clerk looked at us impassively.

“Thank you,” my wife said, scooping up the opened revolver and hooking her finger through its frame. She was visibly nervous. I grabbed the box of ammo and the plastic target clips and turned to head back there.

EAR AND EYE PROTECTION TO BE WORN AT ALL TIMES PAST THIS POINT, said a worn 8 × 11 printout in 60-point bold type, its four corners stuck to the door with yellowed tape. I gave the handle a turn and we stepped into a long hallway with a faded Astroturf floor and walls that had last seen fresh yellow paint some time back in the 1980s. A beat-up cardboard box filled with ear protection sat in the corner next to another box filled with plastic safety glasses. Next to that was a plastic table with half a dozen different types of paper targets on it, including a photo of Osama Bin Laden with a bulls-eye pattern drawn over his face.

We put on our protective gear and pinched a small stack of basic targets with red circles at the center of black and tan concentric rings. Osama could wait until we actually knew what we were doing.

FIREARMS TO BE POINTED DOWNRANGE AT ALL TIMES, said another wrinkled printout above the target table. An identical sign was posted on the wall halfway down the hall, and one more on the door that, we could tell by the popping sounds getting steadily louder as we approach, led to the firing range itself. To accompany the popping, the air began to fill with the heavy scent of gunpowder.

I pulled the door open. To greet us, brass casings were flying everywhere. An elderly man stood at lane one, just inside the doorway, holding a .45 semi-auto pistol and going through some kind of rapid-fire drill. Blam blam blam blam blam blam blam… eject, reload… blam blam blam blam blam blam blam, and the spent casing from each round came flying out and behind the weapon in his hand, landing on my shoes.

We moved to our lane. The range room was small and dimly lit, maybe 25 feet wide and 100 long, with yard-marker signs hanging from the ceiling at 3, 7, 15, 20, and 25 yards. Spent brass casings of various caliber sizes covered the floor. Three brown wicker baskets marked BRASS sat against the wall behind the lanes, with not much brass in them. I stepped up to a small rubber-lined tray between two dividing panels at lane four and placed the box of .22 Thunderbolts on it while my wife followed with our rented gun, pointing at it and then at me to indicate that I’d be shooting first.

A mangled metal rectangle hung from a cable in front of me, the cable running the length of the range. A red light switch was mounted to the divider panel on my left. After studying this setup for a moment, I heard a whirring sound and saw the target clipped to lane six’s rectangle start to move backwards. The puzzle pieces come together, no thanks to a total lack of any posted instructions and the clerk’s failure to mention how anything back here worked.

Target, clip, rectangle; switch. Got it.

But how far away? One lane was shooting at 25 yards; I couldn’t even see that far without glasses. Another was at 15, and another at three. The other two were at seven. I sent my target back to roughly five yards, splitting the difference.

With my rented .22 now loaded, I snapped the cylinder closed, clicked it into place, and set up for my first shot. What had the clerk said out there about stance? Oh, yeah: you’ll find one. I stepped back to glance at the shooters on each side of me: feet pointed to the side, torso turned at the waist, both hands on the grip.

I took the same stance. Okay. Deep breaths, line up the sights, cock the hammer back, and—


The most pitiful little report came from the muzzle of the gun, this heavy steel machine with its 6” silver barrel. It was the sound that my cap pistols made when I was eight. The difference was that the gunpowder in this gun wasn’t just burnt paper. It was the real deal, and hanging so thick in the air that I already had a bitter metallic taste on my tongue that I’d realize later was the taste of lead.

The range had poor ventilation, and each time Quick-Draw McGraw over in lane one finished emptying his six magazines, a haze of smoke hung over the lane floors, rolling slowly from right to left before dissolving into the wall at lane six. But at this moment none of that mattered, nor did the little sound of my big gun, because a hole had appeared two inches to the right of the red center on my target with my first shot.

I turned to call my wife’s attention to this impressive feat. She gave me a thumbs-up and an encouraging smile. My next seven shots covered the full geography of the target circle, but they all landed, and I reloaded and put eight more holes around that circle. Already, the revolver was starting to feel right and comfortable in my hand, and I really didn’t want to give the next eight shots to my wife but chivalry prevailed. I popped the cylinder open, put the gun down on the rubber mat with its muzzle pointed downrange, and stepped back to let her take my place at the line. The other people in the room stayed in it but quickly begin to recede from my awareness, blending into the general landscape of pops and roars and spitting brass and lead and smoke.

Done reloading the chambers, my wife snapped the cylinder into place and took aim, with no kind of identifiable stance. I moved up next to her like a dance partner, helping to arrange her feet, hips, arms, hands, a delicate dance that required both of us to keep our fingers clear of the gun’s trigger. She struggled with the grip but finally figured out the puzzle of one thumb tucked down and the other resting across it, then re-took her aim. A moment later the big gun made its puny report, and the plastic clip holding our target to the rectangle went flying backwards. The target, freed of physical restraint, drifted lazily toward the floor like a big paper feather.

This explained why all of the rectangles in the room were so beat up.

My wife is a competitive soul by nature, and I knew this turn of events could go a couple of different ways. But when she turned to look at me, she was laughing. And nearly an hour later, as we took off our ear protection and eyewear with gunpowder-smudged fingers, 500 rounds and two more metal clips now distant shot-up memories, she said, “That was fun. I want to do it again. Can we?”

Over the next year and a half, we did. For a while we stayed with the .22 Taurus, but then switched to a compact .357/.38 Smith & Wesson that instantly put the much larger .22 to shame. The Smith with its four-inch barrel and its towering rounds (compared with the puny .22 shells) provided feedback and had presence; it pushed back while being controlled. Its cylinder held only five rounds, so it needed a lot more feeding, but that was just fine.

We became regulars. We budgeted for range time and gun rental. We alternated between .38 and .357 rounds. We stopped shooting plastic clips off the rectangle. We got used to the taste of lead and the crunch of brass beneath our shoes. The two minutes of training we received at our first visit to the range were the only training we ever got, but we were autodidacts of velocity and trajectory.

Firing a handgun became no more scary than hammering a nail.