Hugging my knees with one hand, I grasped my older sister for protection with the other. The light on the kitchen table, which was 40 watts dim, created long, scary shadows across the kitchen wall. Beyond the table, two windows stood like dark holes that hid unknown monsters. We huddled together as close as mother’s straight back wooden kitchen chairs would let us. Our eyes were transfixed on the small box sitting on the high shelf. Standing on the chair and stretching just as far as she could, my sisters was able to reach the box. She turned its magic knob. A low crackle of static greeted us.
A trumpet flourish began, “Dump… Dedump … Dedump Dedump de da …”
A muffled voice reached across the air waves and the imagination of children all over the country, “Hi Yo Silver! Away.”
“With his faithful Indian companion Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains, led the fight for law and order in the early west. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The Lone Ranger rides again!” Away we went on an imaginary horse with the speed of light, companions with that masked rider of long ago.
By the time I was three, TV had replaced radio. The Lone Ranger now rode across the screen. He was joined in our living room by Marshal Mat Dillon who began each story standing on Dodge City’s Boot Hill, the place bad people ended up. Big Brother Bob Emery and Howdy Doody taught us to toast President Eisenhower. “I Remember Mama,” reinforced family values. The Space Cadets and Jet Jackson raced across the sky to save the world. Lassie and Rin Tin Tin saved their masters, every week. Sky King fought bad guys from the air, and Roy Rogers with Dale Evans did the same from horseback. Most of all, Hopalong Cassidy rode tall in the saddle, defending the weak and defeating the bad guys.
Each episode was a morality play. Good was good, bad was bad. Good people who stood up to bad people eventually won. I never envisioned myself as the helpless heroine, or the mindless side kick. I always saw myself on the white horse. My first guns were just like Hoppy’s, excepting of course, mine only fired caps. They were chromed with fake engraving and white plastic grips with a black plastic stag head. To carry them I had a black and white leather, double rig gun belt decorated with chrome disks and leather thongs. My friends and I had a ton of fun acting out the stories we had seen on TV.
Around the time I left grammar school, I wanted a BB gun but my parents disapproved. “BB guns are not toys to be played with,” mother would say. I was allowed to have an air gun that made a popping noise. It did not fire anything, or at least it was not suppose to fire anything. Sandwich bread wrappers were made from wax paper back then. My brother discovered that if you wadded a small piece of bread wrapper into the muzzle of our pop guns, the compressed air would cause the wrapper to travel about twenty feet. All summer long, as dusk fell, my brother, cousins, friends and I would troop out to the huge lawn across the street from grandma’s house. There, the bread wrapper wars went into full swing. Hiding in the shadows, armed with bread wrapper corks, we played a variation of tag combined with hide and seek. We had a great time. No one ever gave a thought to the fact that the other buildings bordering that wonderful lawn was the police station.
My mother and father always visited antique shops when we went up country. Dad was an illustrator. He would look for old photographs or props to use for his paintings. My interest in the old west had expanded to the American Civil War, then the American Revolution. Ultimately, I developed a great love for history. When I was about thirteen Dad let me buy an antique shotgun on one of those trips. It was probably made about 1830. I spent hours cleaning it and researching its history. What things that gun must have seen! It had been made by hand in Birmingham, England for the Colonial trade. It had crossed the ocean in a sailing ship and then helped the first settlers support their families with food.
That Christmas brought an unexpected prize. It was a J.C. Higgins, bolt action, .22 caliber, rifle with a chromed bolt, a five round magazine, and a pistol grip stock. It was beautiful. With the gun came safety instructions which I had to learn. Dad tested me to make sure I understood them. He showed my brother and I how the bullet would go through a thick plank of wood. This was not like TV. I realized how fake TV’s portrayal of guns had been. Although the gun was mine, I could only put the bolt in the gun with Dad’s permission. He kept the ammunition. I loved to shoot but there was never enough time to do as much shooting as I wanted to do.
While a freshman in college, I discovered that the athletic department sponsored a rifle and pistol team. “Boy,” I thought, “That is what I would like to do.” “Boy” was the right word. There were no girls on the team. I could shoot with the boys using the equipment none of the men wanted. Girls, however, were not allowed on any collegiate marksmanship teams. The coach was a good man. Once the boys realized I really did want to shoot, everyone was very nice. I would go to the range between classes, draw my rifle and learn the art of self control. Each time I practiced, the drill was the same; shooting jacket on, target run down range, sling adjusted, scope positioned, body position set and checked. I would load the first round. The drill continued. My mind focused on concentric rings of target, front sight, rear sight. The world collapsed into a tunnel focused on a set of rings. My breathing slowed. My eyes became fixed. My breathing stopped as I gradually applied pressure with my finger, slowly back . .back..back – BANG!
“Call your shots!” the voice in my mind shouted. “Where did it go???” was the silent answer. Where did it go? It looked like a good shot to me. After a while I could fire ten rounds and get one hole with an irregular shape. With each session at the range, all the stress of school would disappear.
One day Coach made the observation that even though I could not shoot in collegiate matches, if I could get enough girls together, we could form an all girls team and shoot in the NRA postal matches. I tacked notices on the dormitory walls and within a week we had a girls team with more members than the boys had. We had a great time.
After graduating from college, I tried to join a gun club but found none would have me. “You can come with your boy friend or husband,” I was told. I did not want to be someone’s guest or a second class citizen. I wanted to belong on my own.
It took a while, but I found a club that not only let me become a member, but encouraged me to join their pistol team. My revolver was not accurate enough for match shooting so I bought a target pistol. Team members gave me hours of their own time to teach me how to master the handgun. At first I was annoyed because I could not get a steady sight picture as I had been able to do with a rifle. A seasoned shooter let me in on a secret. No one can get a steady sight picture with a hand gun. The trick is to keep the sights lined up and learn to shoot as you wobbled across the target. The team practiced on Tuesday nights and shot matches on Thursday. We all helped each other. The object was to keep bettering your own score. Everyone, no matter how poor a shot they were, fired in the match. New shooters did not have to worry about dragging the team score down because only the top five scores were used as the team score. The other scores were discarded. After shooting, the team would all go out to eat and talk about the scores we should have shot.
Very few women were shooting back then. Women were expected to not know anything about guns. Sometimes when we were at matches, a member of the other team would make that assumption about me. One day I had been practicing with a 45LC long barreled, revolver. For some reason I tucked the unloaded gun in my belt for a few minutes. My jacket just covered the gun’s grip so that it was not visible. A gentleman who was new to the club came in and started telling me I should get a small .25 Cal. semi-auto. He thought that it would be a good gun for a woman to shoot. He did not know much about guns or me. I was polite and let him go on for some time. My fellow team mates said nothing but turned away so as to not show their grinning faces. When he got through, I said, “Well, I don’t know. I think the .25 is a little under powered. This is my favorite gun,” I explained drawing forth my big “hawg leg,” cowboy revolver. It was a much bigger gun than I would ever carry, but I implied that it was a customary accessory to my ensemble. The look on the gentleman’s face was priceless
After I joined the Massachusetts National Guard, I hunted up their high power rifle team. I spent most of the first day at their range “helping” with targets and watching the men shoot. They said they only had a limited amount of equipment. It was unlikely that there would be enough for me. Shortly before the team practice was to end, they let me shoot ten rounds off hand with an M14. I was disappointed with the score. It was only an 89 with 3x. I apologized saying that I had not shot a high power rifle before but I was sure I could do better. They were satisfied and issued me team equipment on the spot. I made some wonderful friends on that team. The high power matches were all over the east coast and usually lasted two days. We traveled a lot. Frequently we spent Saturday nights in a motel or military housing. Sometimes we camped out on the firing ranges. Security of the guns was always a concern, especially if we had to stay over night. The target rifles could not be left unattended in a hotel room nor could they be disassembled because it would affect their accuracy. We tried to kept them with us or in a designated vehicle when we went to a restaurant or if we went out in the evening after the match. We worked hard, but we had some good times.
There have been many positive changes since I started shooting. More women are involved with the shooting sports. Some have won major competitions. There is even a magazine dedicated to women gun owners. I no longer have trouble getting waited on in local sporting goods stores. I walk in and the clerk says, “Hi Karen.”
On the down side, we have become a much more paranoid society. Today my bread wrapper wars would have landed me in juvenile court even though I was not bothering anyone. Many colleges have canceled their shooting programs. The “shoot’em up” Westerns are considered too violent today even though the Lone Ranger is said to have never killed anyone on TV and those long ago TV heroes were models of good grammar and etiquette. Those programs have been replaced by programs that extol infidelity, selfishness, rude police officers and anti-heroes that “Die Hard” with a vengeance.
When people ask me why I like guns, I tell them there are three reasons.
1. I enjoy the history associated with firearms.
2. I enjoy the mental discipline of a sport which, if done correctly, leaves me totally relaxed.
3. In a world that is sometimes hostile to women, being able to own a gun gives me a feeling of security that is liberating.
I think my interest in guns started with Hopalong Cassidy. I now enjoy shooting just about any type of gun. I must admit, however, that my High Standard .22, my Ruger .45, my TC Hawkin .45, and my M1A, although they may not be thought to be politically correct by some people, are some of my favorite things.
This article was reprinted from Women&Guns, Copyright © Karen MacNutt