In the course of my career, I have taken a lot of classes; defensive classes, competition classes, tactical classes; a lot of classes at a lot of places. I have never experienced anything like the NRA Women’s Wilderness Escape. I have never seen so many people changed by one week, and I have never walked a way from an event with such a renewed sense of purpose.
Each year, at the beautiful NRA Whittington Center in Raton, N.M., women meet for a week of life-altering fun. The program itself runs over the course of a week, from Sunday to Sunday, and cycles through a series of day long classes: Archery, Shotgun, Rifle, Pistol, Muzzle Loading, with Saturday devoted to long range shooting, Henry Rifles, and a mock hunt.
The goal of the program is to introduce women to the world of firearms in an environment that is not just safe, but fun and motivating. At least, I hope that was their goal, because that is exactly what they accomplished. At the end of the week we had built strong friendships and the energy and excitement surrounding the shooting sports was impossible to ignore.
When we arrived, the group of about 30 women was divided up into a series of smaller groups, with about six members a piece. Each of these groups rotated through the five different stations, spending one day at each.
My first day on the range consisted of an archery class. My previous archery experience was very similar to the rest of the group: I had done some at camp, went out once with my friend, and really only managed to shoot arrows at the ground. It wasn’t like shotgun, rifle, or pistol where I was coming into the week with more experience than most of my counterparts.
The bows they set us up with were the Genesis bows. The instructor explained that this bow was comparable to a .22 pistol or rifle, in that the 10- to 20-pound draw made it easy to shoot and eliminated the need for let-off, allowing a flexible draw length that stretched from 15 to 30 inches so that anyone could shoot one of these bows. Long story short, it was a better starting point than most of the bows we used at Girl Scout camp.
After walking us through safety and stance, handing out arm guards to those that wanted them, they started us off shooting the bows at only 5 yards, exactly where I would have chosen to start someone who was shooting a .22 pistol for the first time. Not only were the instructors enthusiastic, but they also had us hitting the target in no time!
After a day of shooting targets and figuring out what we were doing, our group of six divided up into two groups to shoot at 3D targets. This was a great opportunity for us to learn something about hunting with a bow, to practice different shots, and to test our own abilities at different distances.
At the end of the day, I was so excited about archery that I went back to the Shotgun Café, the one location on premises where we had access to wi-fi, and started shopping for bows.
Hitting the shotgun range was an intimidating experience for me. My original introduction to firearms was on the Skeet range, and I used to be pretty decent, once posting a score of 21 out of 25, but that skill had long since dwindled. I have the tenancy to overthink things, which is the one thing you cannot do when trying to break clays: see the bird; shoot the bird.
The morning started out with some classroom time, where we were introduced to different types of shotguns, the different actions, stance, and how to hold the long guns. Next, we stepped outside to be sized to different shotguns. They had a variety of length of pulls available, sized out in shorter guns, medium sized guns, and guns with long stocks. Most will be surprised to hear that a majority of the women in my group, myself included, ended up using the guns with the longest length of pull.
While most groups started their shooting up on the Five Stand range, the high winds that day kept us down on the Skeet and Trap fields in the morning. We divided into two groups; three instructors and three students on the Skeet field, three instructors and three students on the Trap field. The one-on-one attention meant I was able to regain my confidence with the shotgun and was breaking birds again in no time at all.
In the afternoon, after another classroom session where we learned about chokes and different ammunition types, we headed up to the Five Stand range and the fun really began. Five Stand is set up so that there are five stands and a variety of birds that are shot out over the stands. For us, that meant we could choose the birds we wanted to shoot at based on how we were performing. Again with one-on-one instruction, we began breaking clays. By the end of the day, the ground was littered with broken clay and empty hulls.
After our regular morning classroom time on the rifle range, being educated about different firearms, stance, and trigger control we were set loose on targets with some very small Remington .22s. We started off just shooting groups, getting used to the gun and the trigger pull. By mid-morning we had been moved off our static targets and onto some steel swingers.
If you’ve never spent time plinking at little steel swingers with a .22 rifle you haven’t actually lived. There is something thrilling and hilarious about it, even though it’s not the most difficult shooting feat. It was grins all around after cleaning guns and heading to lunch.
After lunch we were thrown for yet another loop, and even though I had heard the rumors from groups who had spent a day earlier in the week on the rifle range I didn’t believe it until I saw it, we were shooting FNH’s PS90. For those not familiar, the bullpup PS90 shoots FNH’s proprietary 5.7x28mm round out of a top loading magazine that rotates the rounds to fit 50 side-by-side down the top of the gun. Brass is ejected out of the bottom of the firearm where most people would expect the magazine to be loaded. They have almost no recoil and they look like they’re out of a science fiction show, probably because they are.
After spending some time familiarizing ourselves with these rifles, we started a fun little game: two rows of steel plates were set up numbered one through six with two wingers on each side, totaling 16 steel plates. Shooters were set up in front of plates one, three, and five, and a command would be called out such as “rear left, front, rear right,” at which point the shooter would have to engage the back-row plate directly to their left, the closest plate straight in front of them, and the back-row plate directly to their right. It was a great exercise that allowed shooters to shoot a little more quickly, still encouraged them to be accurate, and added the element of having to think about what they were shooting at.
At the end of the day, similar to the day before, we were required to clean the firearms we had used. This meant the attendees were able to take apart the PS90 and see how the unique little gun really works.
The morning we started the pistol class I was positively giddy. Word on the street was that at the end of the day we were going to be able to shoot a mock practical pistol course. This was my event; it’s what I do.
After a while in the classroom covering the different type of firearms, different actions, stance and grip, and spending some time behind dummy guns we hit the range with a set of Smith & Wesson 617 revolver in .22 Long Rifle. We were set to the task of shooting groups. Not my event, not what I do.
As the group settled in and became more comfortable with the guns, groups began to shrink. By the time we headed to lunch many of the women were feeling more confident, although there was still some trepidation about the 9mm semi-autos we would be shooting in the afternoon.
The FNX-9s that we were using can be set up as double action/single action, where a decocker allows the shooter to carry in double action and the first shot fired is in double action. Instead, we were allowed to turn it onto “safe” instead of using the decocker, and shoot the gun only in single action mode. We started out shooting groups on the targets, but moved quickly to the dueling tree where we were paired up side-by-side to see how quickly we could flip steel plates from one side to the other. This is where my confidence started to come back when I easily went one-for-one down the plate rack.
The next event was the mock practical pistol stage I had been waiting for all week, and it was sneaky. For the rest of the ladies, who had never so much as seen a USPSA stage before, there were three obvious stopping points and one target that could be easily missed if you didn’t come up on the target in the right direction. I chose to shoot last and use only two stopping points, engaging one of the targets close to, but not past, the 180-degree line. It was a fun little course to run, but the best part was watching the other women run it.
If you’ve never shot a practical pistol course of fire, it can be intimidating. If you’ve shot a practical pistol course of fire, it can be a lot of fun. The smiles on the ladies’ faces at the end of the day were amazing to me. Everyone seemed to be having so much fun, and I remembered exactly what I love so much about the sport.
It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of the competition circuit, but to get out on the range, to shoot your best, and to have fun – at the end of the day that’s what it’s really all about.
Friday: Muzzleloading and Black Powder
The morning of our muzzleloading class dawned and we spent the first bit of the day talking about history and how the firearms have evolved. Most of learning how to load them, however, happened on the range.
I am not the most coordinated person, and my mind likes to go in five directions at once, so it took me a while to really get down the details. The steps themselves were easy: measure the powder, pour it into the barrel, place a patch and a ball on top of the barrel, use the stick to tap it in. That’s very basic, and ignores a lot of the steps that were put in place for the sake of safety, the ones I kept forgetting.
Luckily, the NRA Women’s Wilderness Escape is not a place where safety precautions get ignored, and one of the instructors was there to patiently remind me every time I was about to do something I shouldn’t be doing. Or not do something I should be doing.
After lunch, we switched from powder to Pyrodex, and I much preferred that. Rather than measuring and pouring the powder, we simply dropped pellets in, and then we place a 295-grain bullet with a plastic “skirt” on the top of the muzzle and tapped it into the barrel. There was less to spill, and soon I had the routine down.
By the end of the day, even I was happily loading and shooting the firearm, hitting targets out past 300 yards and having a great time changing the powder charges and inquiring how it would affect the round’s trajectory.
NRA Whittington Center
The NRA Whittington Center was founded in 1973 and currently plays host to many competitive, education, and recreational activities across a variety of shooting disciplines, including: Hunter’s pistol silhouette, practical pistol, black powder, high power and small bore rifle, skeet, trap and five stand.
The NRA Whittington Center also houses the Frank Brownell Museum of the Southwest. They also host the NRA Whittington Center Library, with a wealth of books and reference material on firearms, hunting, gunsmithing, history and more. There is also a large ammunition collection in this library, with hundreds of labeled rounds from throughout history.
The NRA Whittington Center is a beautiful property, and a popular venue for guided and unguided hunts. Antelope, elk, bear, and turkey all live and thrive in the high New Mexico desert. For those who are just there to shoot, this provides plenty of wildlife viewing and beautiful scenery every day.
Find Out More About the NRA Women’s Wilderness Escape at women.nra.org.
To Find Out More About Any of these Disciplines, Find an NRA Certified Instructor in Your Area at nrainstructors.org.
By Shelley Rae. Originally published in the December 2013 issue of GunUp the Magazine.