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The Gentleman’s Guide to Shooting a Gun (for the First Time)

Kempt’s in-house Constitutional scholar and beard expert Dan McCarthy told us he wanted to go shoot a lot of guns. Who were we to argue?

In the never-ending quest to become a well-rounded man, there are a number of skills you need—changing a flat tire, mastering the bow tie, the secrets of the perfect quiche, riflery. In that spirit, when the opportunity arose to lose my firearm-discharging virginity, I cracked a few knuckles, did some light stretching and plunged right in.

The result: a couple of hours spent in a Second Amendment funhouse in Manchester, New Hampshire, presented here as an easily referenced and by no means comprehensive Gentleman’s Guide to Shooting a Gun. Think of it as something to keep in mind should the zombie Armageddon ever happen, and you find yourself suddenly thrust into the hero role. With a loaded AK-47 in your hands.

Tip 1: Find a guy like this to supervise you.

If your personal history with firearms is limited to pump-action Super Soakers or the occasional BB gun, you’ll want to have an expert around. So I turned to someone who over the years has exposed (and often subjected) me to various expressions of wanton violence: E-4 (P) Specialist Michael McCarthy (US Army, Ret.), a hulking 6′ 5″, 325-pound harbinger of adolescent charley horses, decorated military marksman—and my older brother.

“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

Tip 2: Get into the spirit of things.

There’s an immediate thrill accompanying the first time you prepare yourself for a whooping good time with real guns. Mine hit the moment we were inside the shooting range, a concrete fortress not far from the Manchester International Airport. There were... lots of guns. Everything from vintage bazookas to Uzis, .50-caliber monsters, rocket launchers and a ferocious-looking Gatling gun, outfitted with a ribbon of ammo and a scope that seemed designed for wiping out enemies on the moon.

“Excuse me, where are the guns?”

“Oh, there they are.”

When you arrive at a firing range, you might find yourself swelling up with jingoistic braggadocio. Before me, spread out across two rented lanes, was a ridiculous arsenal of firepower. Most of which hailed from my brother’s personal collection save for two rentals of my own choosing: an AK-47 and a Thompson “tommy gun” (more on that in a moment).

“Let’s shoot some fucking guns,” I said, loudly.

Our neighbors-in-arms glared, giving me the same uneasiness I always feel when getting a hot shave from an irate barber. I decided to keep my thoughts to myself. Pissing off a room full of armed gun fanatics is probably unwise.

Tip 3: Tackle the practical stuff.

I was told to get a feel for each weapon, note the pull/force each trigger required and familiarize myself with proper safety-switch and bullet-loading know-how (depending on the weapon, that last part can take a few minutes). I was given a few obvious gun-safety reminders (like “Don’t point it at anyone”), and as chambers were loaded and clips palm-slapped into place, I started getting excited.

Tip 4: Crawl before you go full-auto.

Like a kid on training wheels, I started with what was described to me as a “kiddie gun”: a Smith & Wesson .22-caliber revolver. I loaded it, took the safety off, closed one eye and squeezed off a very live round. First shot: bull’s-eye. Second shot: same. (Really.) The next four: wild as all hell. I’m a pretty decent shot, I thought, maybe with a bit of an “I don’t see what all the fuss is about” attitude. My brother made sure to point out I was using his wife’s gun.

TIP 5: Don’t be afraid to try every gun at your disposal.

My beginner’s luck marksmanship did bolster my confidence, though, so I moved right on to the whole lot, starting with my next sidearm: a black 9 mm SWAT-style semiautomatic pistol. Surprisingly strong kick. Look-match: SWAT specialist, or Liam Neeson Taken-style personal security specialist.

Next was a .45-caliber Springfield XD. Kick: stronger, deeper and with each shot you see a halo of fire. Look-match: high-price assassin in a dashing suit.

Next up: a .38 Special. Brushed steel, smooth and dynamic like a new Jaguar. It required a stronger pull on the trigger, and fired with a bright pop. The longer pull is by design, though. As a concealed weapon that can be easily accessed, it lacks a hair trigger ensuring you don’t accidentally blow your bollocks off when going for it. Kick: like an angry mule. Look-match: Raymond Chandler–esque gumshoe.

Moving along, I was handed the gun my brother legally carries concealed on his hip in the great state of New Hampshire (even when buying bacon at the supermarket): the .357 snub-nosed Magnum. A real beast of a weapon. It was a police snub-nosed service model that slipped into the hand as if crafted from a toy-maker’s mold. Hair trigger, close to the base, requiring but a whisper to fire, with hollow-point ammo unloading with the sound and fury of an Argos-smiting thunderclap sent by Zeus. Kick: unnervingly hearty. Look-match: anyone okay with turning someone’s head into a canoe.

With the handguns tackled, the rifles were next. The first: a Smith & Wesson M&P .22 rifle, with scope and front-grip bi-pod stabilizer. Kick: surprisingly light, almost sweet, like a powerful video game gun on heavy vibrate. Sight POV makes you almost instinctually rapid-fire on your target (which in my case was a zombie Paris Hilton). Look-match: military commando, seasoned bank robber.

“This is for The Simple Life.”

The tommy gun was next. Weapon of choice for Prohibition-era gangsters, their federal agent foils and Nazi-hunting US forces during WWII, it employed a vertical clip instead of the trademark circular one. Definitely my favorite of the day. Fairly loud, and in full-automatic mode it was surprisingly easy to control. Kick: bursts and pops like a compressor-fueled jackhammer going to town on soft concrete. Look-match: John Dillinger.

Finally—the AK-47. Tattered and well used, it was just as loud and powerful as it was rumored to be. Kick: bold and furious. On full auto it’s like trying to restrain an uncoiling python after three double-espressos. Look-match: guerrilla warrior, C. Thomas Howell in (the real) Red Dawn.

Unlike in the movies, eventually the bullets run out. Mine did just after our time on the range followed suit (which really flies when exercising one’s patriotic right to bear arms).

We packed up, paid the tab and left. Over beers and chili at a downtown Irish pub—something about shooting guns really leaves you craving strong ale and barroom banter—I noted that another three or four hours of shooting would have been no problem.

Perennially last-kid-picked in boyhood sports, my respectable natural talent for marksmanship felt like it counteracted every chin-up test I’d failed in gym class. Each time I plugged the target right where I was aiming for, I probably got a little blast of dopamine only released when striking an ancient nerve. The kind that are probably left over from essential hunter instincts developed by our early ancestors (besides “Saber-toothed tigers are not for petting”).

The Takeaway

If you ever need a refresher on why our epochal dominance as the earth’s apex predator numero uno has survived the ages, just go squeeze off a few rounds from a .357.