SISTERS IN ARMS
As a child growing up in Beaumont, Sue King figured all women could shoot. Her mother could. So could her grandmother.
It wasn’t until she added dating to a menu of sports that included hunting and fishing that King realized not everyone thought a woman’s place was taking aim down the barrel of a shotgun.
“I dated men who were shocked, but usually only once,” she said.
For the most part, though, it was men who were her shooting companions: her grandfather, her father and eventually her husband, Jerry King. At gun clubs, shooting ranges, competitions and hunts, she was surrounded by men.
“Thirty years ago, I was lucky if there was a ladies room and if it was clean,” said King, now 66. “Now when you go to a gun club, you are more apt to have to stand in line.”
The growth in the number of women in the duck blind, at the shooting range or in the ladies room line at the gun club is a legacy of King’s and a small handful of proponents nationally who have promoted shooting sports among women for at least the past two decades.
Often these women are nudged into the sport by the men in their lives. But many are turning o one another for instruction and camaraderie in a field where men still outnumber women.
“With the ladies, they would clap for you or say, ‘Yeah” or “Wow” or “What a shot,’ that kind of stuff,” said Suzanne Mason, a 54-year-old newcomer to shooting who first picked up a gun to take up her husband’s hobby. “I guess you would call it positive reinforcement.”
Of 76 board members of the National Rifle Association, King is one of 11 women.
Though the NRA has long had shooting programs for women, the association officially launched a recreational instructional shooting clinic program called Women on Target in 2000. From 13 clinics and 500 participants nationally, the program has grown to more than 200 clinics and 5,600 women in 2005, said Mary Sue Faulkner, director of the NRA’s community service programs division.
“Many people say the young are the future of the sport and, of course, they are,” Faulkner said. “But women are also the future of the sport in the sense that they are the ones who also can change the face of the sport.”
In Houston, Barbara Garney has spent three years adding female faces to the sport.
For Garney, interest in shotguns started in 1988, when her soon to be husband, Jim Maxey, asked whether she would prefer a shotgun or diamond earrings as a gift.
“I thought, ‘I’m marrying a sportsman, so maybe I’d better take the shotgun,’” Garney said.
A few lessons and a bird hunting experience with Maxey and his friends left bruises on her shoulder for the recoil of the gun and no desire to continue. The gun was left to gather dust in a closet.
About five years later, Garney signed up for a weekend workshop for women through the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. The instructor, a women, explained that Garney’s discomfort came from using a gun that did not fit properly for a woman’s reach – a common pitfall for women using shotguns given to them by husbands or boyfriends, Garney said.
“She said, ‘It’s just like a bra – you wouldn’t wear a bra that didn’t fit,’” Garney recalled.
“She gave us the ladies’ point of view. That made me think, ‘You know what, I bet I can do this’.”
So she did.
She had her gun adjusted to fit her. And she took lessons and has been “shooting ever since,” Garney, 62, said.
Her favorite event is called sporting clays, often dubbed the golf game of shooting. Now Garney shoots a 12-gauge shotgun adorned with purple chokes to match her canvas gun case and, sometimes her nail polish.
She likes the concentration required of shooting. She likes the feeling of success when she breaks the clay targets.
For the past 3 years, Garney has lured women into the sport by way of a nearly annual Ladies Charity Shoot at the American Shooting Centers. The event’s traditions goes back to 1988 when King put together the area’s first charity shoot for women. The shoot became known as the “Mother Shoot”, King said, since it was always held on Mother’s Day weekend and became the pattern for other women’s charity shoots around the country.
At the shoot, held May 13 this year, the main event for 42 participants was sporting clays.
For Suzanne Mason, it was her first taste of competition.
Pushing a green gun cart that resembles a jogging stroller for a baby, Mason joined 17-year old Stephanie Croatt and Kitty Haynes, 55, as they traveled through a series of stations set up on a course. At each station, they shot at a series of clay targets as they flew across the sky in varying patterns.
Unlike Mason, Croatt knew her way around. She participated in the event two years ago and has competed in youth outdoor competitions through Fort Bend County 4-H groups.
Croatt was inspired to join 4-H by an older brother, she said. She went to help start the Fort Bend 4-H Field and Stream Club. Through these associations, Croatt practices firing shotguns nearly weekly with 10 others. She attends B.F. Terry High School in Rosenberg, where response to her hobby usually covers a range of surprise.
As a rule, it’s the other girls who give her the hardest time about her hobby, she said.
“The guys are surprised, but the are like, ‘cool, where do you shoot?’” Croatt said.
By the en of the charity shoot, Croatt had hit 37 of 50 targets.
Though Mason had participated in one of Garney’s clinics leading up to the charity shoot, she only seriously started practicing in February.
Her goal at the shoot was to “not embarrass” herself, and as she made her way through the various stations, she did anything but embarrass herself.
At the final of 10 stations, Mason stepped up to the lattice-wood phone-booth like box and congratulated Croatt for hitting four out of six clay “birds”.
As she settled in, Hayes suggested she ask for a demonstration of how the orange disc-shaped targets fly above the trees.
“What you can do is point your left arm up and follow the target,” Haynes advised.
When ready, Mason called out “pull” and the trapper, Paul Bernard, hit a hand-held button and a disc flew from the right.
Mason missed both.
“Awww,” she said, turning to face her audience.
“Shoot the first one a little bit sooner, and the second one, get under it,” Haynes offered.
“Under it,” Mason repeated and she turned around and settled her shotgun up to her shoulder.
“Pull,” she called.
She hit both.
“Way to go”, Bernard cheered.
On her third try, Mason hit one and missed one.
As she stepped out of the booth, she took a long, deep breath: Competition over, and she’d hit nearly half of the targets, 24 out of 50.
“Now I have the first one under by belt,” she said.