It felt unnatural, but I gripped the pistol as instructed, pointing it toward the target but close to my chest rather than extended forward. My elbows pressed slightly against my rib cage. I took my two shots -- BANG! BANG! -- and was glad to see both hit inside the "kill zone" of high center body mass on the paper silhouette a few feet away.
Like the other dozen or so other women attending the ladies pistol class at the Irwin Sportsmen's Club in Westmoreland County, I had just learned a useful new skill.
If an intruder breaks into your house and you must defend yourself in the confined space of rooms and hallways, aiming the gun in the usual way -- arms outstretched -- is a good way to lose the fight, said instructor John Reed as he mimicked aiming around a doorway with his pistol leading the way.
"There you go, you just lost your firearm and if he has a crowbar, you probably have two broken wrists," said Reed, a 64-year-old Irwin resident certified by the National Rifle Association to teach pistol courses, before demonstrating the closely held aim just a few inches from his chest. "This way, it's BANG, and he has no chance to get that gun. It's safe, it's under control and he has no chance to take it."
The ladies' pistol class in Irwin, held the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month from April through August for $5 a session, was the eighth session of a 10-part annual course that breaks the NRA's eight-hour Basic Pistol course into smaller, and potentially more easily learned lessons, while also giving women a chance to learn the skills together.
Topics begin with subjects as basic as the parts of a pistol, how to safely pick up and handle a gun and what range commands mean. They progress in complexity over time to issues such as how to carry a concealed weapon and how to use a gun for self-defense in the home. After learning each session's lesson, ladies can practice with their own guns or with pistols provided by the sportsmen's club.
Student Donna Ceol, 59, has taken the course twice before and says she now feels safe and competent with firearms after starting with no knowledge at all about guns.
"I didn't shoot at all before, and I was afraid of guns," said Ceol, of Claridge, Westmoreland County. "Now I can shoot pretty much anything."
Long the domain of men, shooting sports have seen a surge in participation from women in recent years, with women making up the fastest-growing segment of the hunting and shooting communities, according to a study called Women in the Outdoors 2012 compiled by Southwick Associates, a market research firm specializing in fish and wildlife economics and statistics.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 13 percent of all women in the U.S personally owned a gun in 2005. By 2011, that number had risen to 23 percent, or approximately 15 to 20 million women, according to the Gallup Crime poll. Gun ownership as a whole has reached an all-time high with 47 percent of Americans reporting they had a gun in their households, according to Gallup.
That increase, at least from what Reed has heard from his female students, is driven largely by fear of crime. Drugs are pushing crime, he said, and women can be seen as easy marks for someone looking to rob them, or worse. His classes have grown from six women attending the classes, when they were first offered in 2009, to approximately 60 women now, he said.
"Women don't want to be used as targets anymore," he said. "They want to be able to protect themselves and their families."
Crime in her neighborhood prompted Jean Skomra, 67, to start attending the pistol class, where she has gotten a chance to try different guns as she considers getting one of her own for self-defense. To understand why many women are learning to shoot, all you have to do is listen to the news, where reports of murders and break-ins are all too common, she said.
"Even though I live in a nice neighborhood, my car got broken into," said Skomra, who said she has been squeezing a rubber ball to strengthen her grip and help improve her shooting skills. "I think the way things are with the economy, if you listen, things have changed and it's not good."
In the class earlier this month, instructors trained their female students in self-defense tactics and mind set, from remaining aware of their surroundings to feeling confident in their right to shoot someone in their home if the women feel they are in danger of bodily harm.
If someone breaks in, get to a safe spot, call 911, stay on the phone with the police and prepare to defend yourselves with your firearm, instructors told the women. And don't wait until something bad happens to begin working through what to do in an emergency, they said.
"You're not going to have time to practice that when the critical time starts," said NRA-certified instructor Joyce Lichtenfels, of North Huntingdon. "So practice it now so you're ready when that critical time comes."
At home, make sure the gun is unloaded and safe, and practice holding it and moving it, instructors told the students. At the range, Reed said, practice shooting one-handed and shooting one-handed with your non-dominant hand, as the dominant hand might be occupied -- protecting a child or grandchild, holding a flashlight, or wounded.
And in general, work through drills with family members, acting out what to do in an emergency -- including in the middle of the night, in the dark -- until everyone knows what to do and can be trusted to carry out the plan even in times of extreme stress, he said.
All that practice helps take away the panic that can paralyze someone who hasn't trained in self-defense, and make her more likely to be a victim, Reed said.
"Having a gunfight in your house is the last thing you want. Having a gunfight anywhere is the last thing you want," he said. "But if there's a threat, we want you to have the ability and the skills and the focus to stop the threat."
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or firstname.lastname@example.org.