By Jenny Neyman
A bullet doesn’t care whose finger pulls the trigger, even if the gun manufacturer may not have designed the trigger guard and grip to accommodate inch-long, French-manicured fingernails.
Likewise, firearms instructors at the Snowshoe Gun Club shooting range in Kenai on a recent Saturday afternoon didn’t much care that all their students were women.
It’s not that they didn’t notice. That fact would be hard to miss. Aside from the obvious examples of gender were all the little details throughout the day — pausing to remove a hoop earring that otherwise would get smashed between a shotgun and the shooter’s face, scheduling around kid-shuttling duties, searching for stocks cut down enough to fit comfortably in petite arm spans. And the range sounded a little different, too. There were the same old cracks of guns firing and metallic thunks of bullets blasting targets, but the resulting whoops of success were decidedly higher pitched.
It’s more that gender was irrelevant. The instructors didn’t think their pupils being females made them any less able to learn to shoot, and shoot well, than guys. If anything, an all-women group was a little bit easier to instruct than men.
“The women listen better, to be honest,” said Jay Sjogren, a firearms instructor at the Kenai Police Department. “Most women, at least a high percentage, don’t come out here with a preconceived idea of how they’re going to do it. They don’t have that machoism about them that a guy might.”
Even brand-new students, women who have never even held, much less fired, a gun before, are a welcome challenge. They have no bad habits to break and they are completely open to instruction, Sjogren said, without getting defensive about something their dad may have once showed them, or an idea they got from watching movies or TV shows.
“Just learning to do it right from the get-go. It lends the ability to learn properly to shoot well,” Sjogren said.
That’s exactly what the women were there for — not to be treated differently because of their gender — but to be taught without it mattering.
“I want it to be second nature. I think the more knowledge you have the more apt your safety becomes,” said Brenda Ahlberg, of Soldotna. “I’ve come out here a couple Sundays when the guys are out here and I do I feel like I’m just another shooter, not a woman. I think that was the ultimate goal from the very start. I just want to learn. I want to be told, ‘You’re doing that wrong because you’re not being a safe shooter, I don’t care what your gender is.’”
Ahlberg is one of about 60 women participating in Women on Target, a firearms instruction program for
women funded and supported by the Women of the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International, the Snowshoe Gun Club and Wilderness Way. It started with two introductory courses held in the spring and early summer, where students learned about different types of firearms and how they work, all with a hefty emphasis on firearms safety, and had a chance to try shooting a few varieties of pistols, rifles and shotguns. The third course, held Aug. 6, was a full day of shooting, practicing for accuracy and speed on the pistol range, distance and precision with rifles, and aim and quick reflexes with shotguns on the trap and skeet ranges.
“The main focus of this is being confident and being safe,” said Ted Spraker, one of the instructors and co-organizer of the program, with his wife, Elaina. “We’re trying to teach people muzzle control, how to use guns safely and just to be comfortable around guns. A lot of people are afraid of them, but then they shoot a little bit and then understand it’s just a tool.”
The volunteer instructors are all accomplished firearms experts — Stu Goldstien on trap; Bobby Cox on skeet; Darrell Aleckson, Steve Meyer and Jay Sjogren on pistols; and Ted Spraker on rifles and anywhere else he’s needed.
“This coaching staff that we have? Oh my, they are top-notch,” Elaina said. “The most rewarding thing about this program is after every clinic the women are just thankful because nobody’s really taken the time to teach them. And husbands and dads sometimes aren’t the best teachers.”
Elaina jokes that she’s out to mint “pistol-packing mamas,” and is well on her way to doing so, since many of the women participating are discovering just how addictively fun shooting sports can be.
“It’s like opening a bag of potato chips, you can’t stop at one,” she said. “If I haven’t shot for a while I start itching to get out there.”
Even the women taking the course more from a sense of obligation than interest were finding themselves having more fun than they thought they would.
“I hit it? I hit it!” announced Lynne Carter, of Soldotna, after dusting a clay pigeon on the trap range.
Aug. 6 was only Carter’s second time shooting. She took the course as a matter of safety. She and her husband, Wayne, have a cabin in the Caribou Hills. She wants to take their kids out to camp while her husband’s off at his North Slope job, but didn’t feel comfortable being solely responsible for bear protection.
“He gives me (a gun) every time we go to the cabin and says, ‘Here are the six shots you need. This will kill a bear. Aim and shoot,’ so I had a little bit of practice with it, but I didn’t like it at all,” Carter said. “I just decided it was time to get over it. My kids are growing up learning to shoot guns, so I think it’s time Mom learned, too.”
Her aim for the Women on Target class was simply to gain knowledge and be more comfortable shooting.
“I never expected to walk away from this and feel good about it. I just expected to be able to function and be able to protect my family if the time ever came that I needed to. It was something I had to challenge myself to do. I wanted to get beyond the fear of it,” Carter said.
She came to the program having to face down a physical discomfort with firearms — being not fond of the big kick of her husband’s .45 — but also with a general view of guns that needed to be re-calibrated.
“I grew up a city girl on the East Coast and then moved up here. The only people who had guns over there were the police and bad guys. That was always my upbringing, so it was very different when I moved up here,” Carter said.
Though she’s lived in Alaska for 21 years now and married an “Alaskan guy” — a hunter, commercial fisherman and Slope worker — she found she still had some residual distaste for firearms to get over. Figuring that knowledge is power, Carter said the Women on Target class sounded like a good way to conquer her hesitation, or at least come to grips with it. Turns out she did more than that.
“It’s been good. It’s enjoyable. I walked away going, ‘Wow, that wasn’t bad,’” Carter said. “It’s educational, not the way my husband would have taught me, which is just the Alaskan, ‘Aim at that and shoot.’ Not the mechanics behind it and the reasons behind it and the patience behind it. I think that is probably what I’ve enjoyed most.”
Standing on the trap range Aug. 6, with her shotgun breech split open over the crook of her turquoise jacket-clad elbow, she laughed in amazement at her well-placed shot.
Real ducks will have to watch out, shotgun instructor Stu Goldstien told her as she planted the gun into the pocket of her shoulder, snugged her cheek onto the stock and sighted down the barrel, before blasting another clay disc out of the sky.
Not likely, she said. Just knowing she could do this for real — as in really shoot, at something real — if she needed to, is enough for her.
“I’m not a hunter,” she said, still holding onto vestiges of her city-girl roots. “That means you have to clean whatever you kill, and that’s not really my thing. Some things I can’t get beyond. When you bring meat into the house, it has to look like it came from the store.”
Johna Beech, executive director of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce, is participating in Women on Target just
for the sake of brushing up her skills.
“It never hurts to have a refresher course and be comfortable. Especially up here where there are so many people that have guns,” Beech said. “At this point it’s just to have the knowledge, but if at some point we get the girls together to go skeet shooting, that would be fun.”
Beech is one of the exceptions in the program, someone who already has firearms experience. But she said Women on Target is miles away from her earlier experiences.
“I originally learned how to shoot guns with my dad and through the years with a bunch of guy friends and boyfriends and all that kind of stuff. It was
always a, ‘Here’s the biggest gun with the biggest amount of ammo, let’s see if you don’t fall on your ass’ kind of thing. And it wasn’t about technique, it was about blasting stuff,” she said.
In the all-women program, there’s no sense of having to man up, tough it out, walk it off or otherwise admit to any weakness.
“Especially when I was the only girl, I was afraid to ask questions. I was afraid to speak up because I didn’t want to be considered a girl. When you’re rolling with the guys you kind of have to suck it up. Whereas here it’s OK to ask questions, or to say, ‘Yeah, I’m not so comfortable,’” Beech said. “The pressure’s off. It’s a lot more nurturing, I guess. They’re very supportive and they want us to do good and feel comfortable and that’s awesome.”
Had the atmosphere been more competitive, Beech may not have been as willing to let Goldstien talk her into taking some shots on the trap range.
Shotgun sounds easier, to hear it described.
“Just react, don’t aim, it’s not a rifle. All you have to do it point and shoot,” Goldstien said. “Let your instinct take over.”
Whereas rifle is all about minute movements and much more exacting precision.
“It’s really strange, I can see my heart move the gun,” Ahlberg said on the rifle range, noticing how even the slightest movement can twitch the crosshairs in her scope.
“Yeah, you have to die momentarily to shoot — stop your heart, stop your breathing,” Ted Spraker told her.
But everyone has their strengths and their preferences in firearms, like anything else. Beech was much better at the precision aim of a rifle scope over the point-and-shoot of a shotgun. Or so she thought.
“I get too frustrated with shotgun. I like rifle better because you have control. With these (skeet and trap), they’re moving. With rifle it’s your own time on your terms. A little bit more Type A, control freakish, I guess,” she said.
Goldstien got her to give it a try and, most importantly, get over the mindset that she wasn’t going to succeed.
“Pull,” Beech called, followed with an immediate “I missed,” before she even pulled the trigger.
When she did shoot, a fraction of a second later, the fluorescent orange clay disc still disintegrated into a dusty rain of debris against the muskeggy field.
“After you said you missed it you hit it anyway. Wow, I’ve never had anybody call a miss and then break it. You’re talented,” Goldstien told her.
“I’m something,” Beech laughed. “I don’t know if talent is the right word.”
Experienced may be a better one. Comfortable. Knowledgeable. That’s what the Women on Target program is
all about. Ultimately, whether one turns into a hunter, buys a pistol for protection, joins Elaina’s Thursday-night women’s shooting group, or never handles a gun again, at least they’ve picked up a better understanding of them.
“It may be something they never come back to and visit again, but they’re familiar with guns and they’re not going to be scared of them,” Sjogren said. “When they hear all the negative things in the news or the general media about the bad things that happen with guns when the wrong people get a hold of them, they understand that the gun isn’t the mechanism to hurt people, it’s who is behind it.”
Elaina’s hope is the knowledge can be self-perpetuating. In a way, it already is. The Women on Target program came about as an outgrowth of the Teens on Target program, part of the 4-H Shooting Sports program, with help from 4-H coordinator Nancy Veal, and funding from the Friends of the NRA and Safari Club International.
The Sprakers started that program last year, running eight high-school girls through eight weeks of training followed by them going on an SCI educational moose hunt.
“We’re empty nesters, we’re retired, so this is great. We get to teach other people’s children and give them back to their parents,” Elaina said.
“One of the reasons Elaina and I are so involved in this is gun safety for kids,” Ted Spraker added. “And it’s not to make them hunters, per se, but kids are always going to be exposed to guns at some level. They go over to a buddy’s house and it’s, ‘Hey, look at my dad’s new handgun.’ All of a sudden someone winds up with a bullet in them.
“We always stress that there’s no such thing as a hunting accident. It takes a loaded gun, it takes a safety turned off, it takes a muzzle pointed at someone, it takes someone to initiate the trigger, to fire the gun. It’s bad choices, it’s negligence, it’s people just being careless, and that’s what gets kids shot.”
With the Teens on Target program being so well-received — another course is planned for the fall — mothers of those girls started asking if they could learn, too.
“The moms were going, ‘Hey, I want to do that,’” Elaina said. “These girls, we were so proud of them. They became excellent shots. It’s like anything — you train, you practice and you get better. And those eight women will go on and become mothers, most of them, and they can train their children to be safe and how to operate firearms, so we’ve done our jobs.”
Elaina said they plan to hold more Women on Target classes, as well. The previous classes have been filled just by word of mouth alone, and interest doesn’t appear to be waning.
“I hope they can continue the program because there’s so many women that I’ve heard that want to do it,” Beech said. “It never hurts to have knowledge. Knowledge is power and this is just empowering women.”
For more information on Teens on Target or Women on Target, contact Elaina Spraker at firstname.lastname@example.org.