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Novice gets firearms primer at women's wilderness event

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Friday, Oct. 15, 2010

NEW ALEXANDRIA -- Chara (Brubaker) Thomas was initially skeptical when her husband offered to send her on a nine-day wilderness excursion that would train her to shoot firearms.

Though Thomas had grown up around brothers and uncles who handled guns and hunted, she herself had little to no experience with firearms.

But, the more she thought about it, the more she came to believe that knowing how to shoot wouldn't be a bad skill to have, so she took her husband up on his offer. Now, after completing the National Rifle Association's Women's Wilderness Escape, Sept. 23 through Oct. 1 in New Mexico, she has absolutely no regrets.

"It was a very positive experience," Thomas said. "I learned about firearms, learned that you can be safe with them and still enjoy them. It's not all about hunting and killing animals."

Thomas, 39, has always been a lover of the outdoors. When she and her husband, Rick, first met, they went hiking on their first date.

Thomas has never hunted wild game, and she remarked that after attending the conference, she's not sure she'd ever want to.

"There's so much you can do with shooting," she said, including competitions and target shoots. Shooting firearms doesn't necessarily have to involve hunting, she noted.

Thomas heard about the Wilderness Escape through her husband, whose father had signed him up to be a lifetime NRA member. When he received an e-mail from the NRA about the excursion, he approached his wife about it, asking if she'd like to go.

"He offered to send me as a combined birthday/anniversary gift," she recalled. "Shooting is something Rick has always encouraged me to do. It's a good skill to have."

The Women's Wilderness Escape was held at the NRA's Whittington Center, a 33,000-acre shooting complex in Raton, N.M.

Thomas decided to fly out a few days early, giving her time to see some of the sights New Mexico has to offer.

She spent some time in Santa Fe, browsing the various market wares on sale there. "The jewelry there -- it's mind-boggling!" she said. "It's a very artsy town."

She drove from there to Raton in time to register and receive her room and group assignments for the Wilderness Escape.

The Whittington Center is home to a large number of competitive shooting events and features what is called "competitive housing," where contenders stay in dormitory-like rooms. It was there that Thomas and the 89 other female participants stayed during the firearms adventure.

"It was an extraordinary group of women," with participants from all over the United States, Thomas said.

Participants were assigned to one of five groups, or "tribes," and Thomas was part of the Comanche tribe. The tribes rotated through all of the available shooting and archery activities.

"It was really concentrated," she said of the skill shooting taught at the Wilderness Escape. "It got me over a lot of my fears with handling guns. Everything was safety-oriented, and there's a comfort in that, in that routine. That was very reassuring."

A number of volunteer instructors were on hand for each firing exercise. Thomas said many came from a military, government or police background, while others were competitive shooters.

"The instructors wanted you to have a good time, but they wanted you to succeed, too," she said.

On the first day, Thomas took part in a morning session on pistols and revolvers before switching to a semiautomatic pistol in the afternoon. Participants first learned the inner workings of these firearms and were given a thorough rundown on safety procedures before they were allowed to begin firing exercises.

"We took all the firearms we used apart and learned how to clean them and reassemble them," Thomas said.

Standing side by side, the women were taught how to load the firearms, sight their targets, and then began aiming shots at those targets.

On her second day, Thomas took to the rifle range. She handled a .22-caliber bolt action firearm with scope and also fired an FN PS90 semiautomatic 57 carbine, a sporting rifle designed for civilian shooters.

The rifle was familiar to Thomas, who noted it is a favorite firearm for many hunters. She enjoyed the rifle exercises because the women could choose to fire while lying on the ground or seated; sandbags stacked in front of them served as a rest for the rifle barrel.

"That was nice," she said. "It was peaceful just to sit there on the wide-open range and concentrate."

The steel targets used in the rifle exercises each had four dangling targets. Once a target was hit, it would flip up, and once all four targets were flipped up, hitting another spot at the top would flip all the targets back down.

On the third day, Thomas' group used shot guns to hit moving clay targets.

In an initial sporting clay activity, the women fired at targets launched at various angles in a series of five stations.

"It would come from wherever you'd want it to," Thomas said of the targets. "It's not easy to shoot a moving target, but it's fun."

The second shotgun activity was American trap and skeet shooting, where the clay pigeons were launched on a straight trajectory.

On the fourth day, the women received archery instruction, firing at a variety of targets ranging from small squares to the more traditional bullseye.

The fifth day was devoted to black powder shooting, an activity that had many of the participants and instructors energized. The women used two different rifles -- a .50-caliber in-line with scope and a .50-caliber sidelock.

"To me, that was the most organic of them all," Thomas said of the firing exercises. "It wasn't just putting a bullet in the chamber and firing it."

The exercise involved measuring loose black powder, pouring it into a rifle, patching it, then taking a ball and tapping it into the chamber. A ram rod is used to tamp down the powder and ammunition before closing up the rifle and firing it.

"Black powder was messy," Thomas said, noting the rifle had to be taken apart and cleaned after every five shots in order to prevent build-up.

The targets used in black powder shooting were a mix of balloons and steel targets, positioned at close and far ranges.

As the women became more proficient at target shooting, they were given more difficult exercises, such as moving and firing.

During the last four days of the seminar, the women were again split into groups and tested on some more intricate and high-powered firearms. The guns included a long-range rifle (what some may call a sniper rifle) and an FN MK48, an automatic firearm that is essentially a machine gun.

With the long-range rifle, the women were instructed to fire at knock-over steel targets set at distances beginning at 100 yards. The final target, in the shape of a white buffalo, was set at a distance of 1,123 yards.

Thomas learned something interesting about herself on the Wilderness Escape -- she's a left-eye dominant shooter but is right-handed, an odd combination for shooters.

Because she closes her right eye, leaving the left open, it was determined that she was left-eye dominant and would use only her left eye to sight down a scope. But, because she is right-handed, it often left her in an awkward position when trying to hold and aim her firearms.

"Archery is the only one where you shot with both eyes open," Thomas noted of the firing exercises.

During the retreat, the women were offered various classes in areas such as self-defense and survival skills.

The survival skills course was particularly interesting, Thomas said, providing life-saving tips while also demonstrating some amazing feats with everyday items.

For instance, Thomas learned that Doritos are highly flammable and can be used as kindling for a fire.

The woman teaching the class also started a fire inside of a snowball using an artificially-made snowball and calcium carbide as the fuel base.

"She poured beer on top of it, and it burned," after it was lit, Thomas said. "It was pretty neat."

Thomas also learned to create a heat deflector that could be used to light a fire by rubbing a piece of chocolate repeatedly in a circular motion on the bottom of an aluminum pop can.

"If you rub it on the bottom, it gets shiny like a mirror," she explained. "You can use it to catch and deflect the sun's heat and start a fire."

During one exercise, the women were split into small groups and given a bag of supplies with which they were supposed to light a fire.

The bag did include matches, but Thomas didn't want to take the easy way out.

"That wasn't the point of the exercise," she remarked.

She discovered her son's Boy Scout involvement came in handy for her in this particular instance when she found a ball of steel wool and a nine-volt battery in the bag. Using a trick she learned in Scouting, she touched the battery to the steel wool, and it easily caught fire.

When the nine days came to an end, Thomas came away secure in the knowledge that she could now handle firearms safely, and she was assured in her ability to hit a target.

"I certainly have more confidence when it comes to firing a gun," she said. "It's still a gun, it's still a firearm, but I learned to treat it safely."

Though she was sad to leave her new female friends behind, Thomas was glad to return home to her husband and two children, Brennan, 8, and Lauren, 3.

"I didn't realize how much I needed it," Thomas said of her excursion. "I feel so much more refreshed and focused."

Thomas said she'd like to do more shooting, whether it be target practice or range shooting.

"It was an experience of a lifetime," she said. "I would tell any woman to do it."



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