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A Day Well Spent at the Shooting Range

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Joe Heeger steadies his shotgun at his hip (his hip!) and barks, “Pull!” In an instant, a puck-sized sporting clay is blown to orange smithereens. “Pull!” One after the next, the clays fall victim to Heeger’s uncanny aim. This guy is The Rifleman.

After that impressive display, I nervously steer my black Silverado through the state-run Ommelanden shooting range near New Castle in search of my formerly manly self. If only I could be a man’s man like Heeger. No doubt that a mastery of firearms is weighted heavily on the manliness scale.

But I haven’t fired a gun since I was 15—that was 35 years ago. The only target—wild game or otherwise—I’ve taken aim at since has been through the lens of a camera.

Today, with the help of a few experts, I plan to rediscover my status as a manly man—a fella as ruthless and deadly as Clint Eastwood’s Wild West bounty hunter, as handsome and rugged as Indiana Jones, and as cunning and slick as the swashbuckling Robin Hood (not the “Men in Tights” version).

This adventure will begin with a bow and arrow. I’ve secretly wanted to send an arrow skyward since watching “The Hunger Games,” but I haven’t raised a bow since high school gym class. Today, my instructor is Hannah Stradley of Townsend, a range officer at Ommelanden. 

I’ve found the ideal mentor. The accomplished Stradley has competed in archery since she attended a camp in third grade. Passionate about the sport, she totes an assortment of bows, including one like Viggo Mortensen’s in “The Lord of the Rings” films.

Don’t tell anyone, but Hannah Stradley is Katniss Everdeen.

After a thorough safety lesson and a few tips, Stradley hands me a bow. I miss my first shot wide right from 35 yards. The second shot soars high, causing my brother, Mark, a Delaware hunter safety education coordinator, to cackle like an overgrown hen.

My third shot is a charm. The point sinks into the target with a solid thump. Katniss seems pleased. The man is on the comeback trail.

At the rifle and pistol range, Randy Waters, a longtime assistant range master who has participated in shooting sports since he was 5, schools me in the ways of firearm safety before handing me eye protection and earplugs.

Waters hangs a target and runs it to about 20 feet away. My 9-millimeter is locked and loaded. I squeeze off five rounds that rip through various circles on the target. The kick of the weapon—especially the explosion—is powerful. I don’t want to embarrass myself, so I choke down my “Tim the Tool Man” grunt.

The first shot of my second round strikes the outer edge of the bull’s-eye. I fire again, and figure I missed everything, until Heeger shouts, “His second shot went right through the first hole!”

Lucky shot or not, my work is done here.

On to the skeet range, where I feel most at home. My trusty shotgun pulverizes the first few clays. Heeger, a former professional and still avid sports shooter, smiles with approval.

I’m so full of machismo, I’ll probably go out and buy a set of spurs and a Stetson. I also think I’ll legally change my name to Clint.

As I thank the gang, I climb back into my trusty Silverado and point her toward the setting sun.

My brother leaves me with a parting shot: “You know,” he whispers through a grin, “we had you shooting from the easiest position out here.”

That’s OK, punk. The man is back.

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