The last time I ever shot anything, it was an MP5 submachine gun. (Long story.) (The story is that I used to be SWAT.) (No, that’s not true.) I pressed the trigger, halfheartedly, just once, and after four bullets instantly shot through the target paper some 30 yards away, I decided that was enough. I felt that additional shots would only increase the chance of rogue, ricochet bullets, even though my instructor had drawn me two diagrams explaining that wasn’t possible—the second only after I, panicking, told him the first was “unconvincing.”
I’m not sure how often ricochet happens in real life, but if movies and crime procedurals are any indication, it happens just constantly. This is a problem area with firearms, mostly, but it’s also true that anything can become a ricocheting projectile if you throw it: rocks, pens, paper clips, bouncy balls, Flubber.
It is the word ricochet—so misleadingly fun and flashy, like “sashay”—I’m thinking of when I pull into the parking lot of Average Joes Archery. Ricocheting, piercing, steel-tipped arrows. Me, knocked off my feet, eyes widening as I pull an arrow from my gut. My own blood drips on my face (adding insult to injury), and I cry a desperate “Noooo!” Fortunately, though I do not know it yet, I will emerge from the shooting range uninjured. Almost completely.
WE ARRIVE IN THE late afternoon, and for a few minutes, my friend Rylee and I stand around in the pro shop, looking lost. Though there are four or so employees working and wandering about, nobody seems to notice us come in. This is more my fault than theirs. “Are you going to talk to anyone?” Rylee asks. “Uhh, well ... I think they’ll see us eventually.” I don’t know why I’m hesitant, except that I can’t come up with an introductory line that sounds neither ridiculous nor threatening coming from my mouth. What is the confident and appropriate way to ask to use someone else’s weapons? “Hello, I would like to shoot a crossbow. Please.” “How many bows and arrows will you give me?” These, I’m afraid, are not things a sane person would say.
When I finally speak (“Hi, um...”), a woman tells us that Joe (he of self-proclaimed mediocrity) will be right with us. In the meantime, we look around the shop. There are camouflage jackets and pants, arm guards, arrows, strappy and shiny devices I cannot identify, and, of course, bows—including the seemingly inevitable “For Her” variety of sporting equipment, a hot pink bow. (Looking up pink bows just now, I find an article containing this actual sentence: “For some women, archery sports can be a bit overwhelming.” Ah, the true source of my concerns: estrogen.)
When Joe greets us, he asks if we’ve ever shot before—I say “yes, in middle-school gym,” and Rylee says “no.” These are, effectively, the same answers. Then Joe gives us a test to determine our dominant eyes; though we are each right-handed, each of us is also left-eye-dominant. Privately, she and I decide this means that we are unusually brilliant, but I think this is actually kind of common.
Before we get started, I ask Joe for a tour of the facility, because he mentions something about “3-D animal targets” that hunters use, and that sounds like something I would like to see. We walk back behind the wall of targets to find what looks like a historically inaccurate natural museum display: there are trees and rocks, deer, mountain lions and moose, but there is also a dinosaur, a three-foot-long mosquito, and a baboon. Each of the animals has a removable, hole-riddled “vital shot” area—this is what archers aim for, and what Joe pays to replace when it becomes too damaged. (Purchasing a full animal costs $300-750.) If only humans worked this way, I think, but then I guess that’s probably what Dr. Frankenstein said, too.
For our rental (a very reasonable $33.20 gets two people a two-hour equipment rental, range time, and, charmingly, from a veritable wealth of choices, a can of pop), Joe offers us a choice of three bows, but the clear leader is the Genesis bow, which is light and easy to use for beginners. Joe heads into the back for our bows. Much to his credit, the ones he brings us are not pink, but bright green and camouflage.
Joe gives us a rundown of the rules, which are about as straightforward as you’d expect: Don’t walk in front of or behind a person wielding a bow. Don’t walk (or run) around the range while people are wielding bows. Don’t shoot at things that are not targets. After completing the list, and giving us a brief demonstration of how to hold the bow and shoot arrows, Rylee and I are free to begin.
The first arrow I shoot hits the cork-like board two feet above my target, and Rylee’s clears the wall entirely, sailing back in the direction of that poor, confused baboon. Joe helps us make a few adjustments to our stance, and on our second tries, we both hit paper—mine in the actual target, Rylee’s inches away. Rylee usually beats me in everything, so I’m thrilled. “I guess I’m just better than you,” I say. Joe says, “Now, you’re just starting, this isn’t a competition,” but I say, “Yes, it is.”
I’ll regret that, soon.
AFTER A MIRACULOUS ROUND of near-bull’s-eyes, I completely lose it. I hit Rylee’s target more than I hit my own. Though I seem to be starting each shot with the same stance and the same aim, I am wildly inconsistent. I get frustrated, which makes me get worse. I grudgingly set up to take another shot, and the string snaps hard against my inner right elbow. “Oh, FUHHH ... shoot!” I say, looking around at the handful of little boys who have joined Rylee and I since we got here.
It turns out that this is called “string bite,” and it won’t happen with a Genesis unless you hold your arms incorrectly. As far as athletics are concerned, attention to detail is not my strong suit. After adjusting my arms and releasing another truly terrible shot, I realize another little detail I’ve been neglecting: the need to stand still throughout the arrow’s release. I have been getting bored with my arrows—starting to bend down for the next one before the first one’s complete release. This is the comforting, defeatist attitude of someone who is bad at sports: there’s nothing I can do to fix the point I’m on, but maybe the next one will somehow be better.
I adjust, again. When I follow through, the difference is enormous: my next five arrows all fall within the navy target, two in the bull’s eye itself. The thwap of an arrow piercing the paper is such a singular, pleasing sound.
I get better, and then, as tends to happen with me, I get much worse. Rylee beats me in the end, but the difference in our scores is not important, and I don’t really want to talk about it. It’s just like Joe said: it’s not a competition. I am not bloody when I leave, and isn’t that, really, a major victory in itself?
Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.