SHOOTING: THERE is something strange about holding a real rifle for the first time, and looking through a telescopic sight at a distant target.
Of course I had done it many times before, but that was only in the childhood games of Star Wars with a plastic replica that made the right noises and little else.
On Sealand Military Ranges with the members of the Phoenix Shooters Association, the easy confidence of my youth when faced with hundreds of imaginary enemies faded away with the realisation this was the real deal I was slowly loading with bullets.
I had been invited to have a go with the PSA to find out more about shooting as a sport - in this case target shooting, although they also take aim at clay pigeons.
Founded in 1977, the PSA now has 78 members including seven ladies and 16 juniors from Wirral, Cheshire, Liverpool and North Wales and a variety of backgrounds including airline pilots, lawyers and police officers.
They shoot a mixture of full and small bore rifles, muzzle-loading revolvers and muskets - owned by the club or by members - and are approved by the Home Office and affiliated to the National Rifle Association.
On arrival at Sealand's A range I was met by the PSA's secretary Mary Eveleigh and her husband Mike, the treasurer.
From the moment we said hello, they drummed it into me that safety would be absolutely paramount when we reached the range, as it is every time the association meets, with Mike giving me an initial guide to ensuring I didn't endanger myself or anyone else.
Using an unloaded, bolt action Lee Enfield, he explained I should always keep the rifle pointed up when I was holding it, to ensure if it did go off it would not hit anything. Once on the range, he added that Mary would be acting as range marshal and controlling who would be shooting, again to keep it a safe environment.
If I heard a cry of 'stop, stop, stop', that was the emergency call to cease shooting immediately, put the gun down and step back. Otherwise, once on the range you shoot until you are out of ammunition, before moving back to the waiting area.
While the targets and the range itself were being prepared, Mike told me I would be having a go with a 357 under-lever rifle for my first attempt. With my guide beside me, I donned the compulsary ear protectors and safety glasses and headed for the business end of the range, where five people at a time were shooting at targets 100 yards away, with a sand bank below and behind the bulls-eyes to protect the team of target markers.
After loading the rifle, I lay down and brought the gun up to my shoulder before taking aim, with Mike's advice running through my mind.
"The key is to get as calm and comfortable as you can," he said. "Once you have brought the gun up and put it on the target, just breathing will make it go up and down, so you have to try to hold your breath, to help you remain as still as possible.
"When you are ready, you don't pull the trigger, you squeeze it very gently until the rifle goes off, when there will be a bang and a recoil. After you fire, wait before you have a look where the shot went - don't pop your head up straight away as that could cause you to miss the target."
Bearing all of this in mind I centred the crosshairs on the target and tried to block out everything around me until I felt ready to fire. I slowly squeezed the trigger like a learner driver searching for the bite on the clutch and it was almost a surprise when the gun fired. the recoil soft on my shoulder.
After a decent pause I looked down-range, only to find the marker telling me I had missed altogether. That was something I got used to on my first attempt as I failed to match the hawkeye-like accuracy I had managed in my youthful mind's eye.
My initial turn over, Mike and I tidied the range of the spent shell casings and moved away to allow someone else to fire.
While I waited for another vacancy to arise, I asked Mike about the public perception of shooting, which has been virtually rock bottom since the incidents at Hungerford and Dunblane and partly explained my unease, something he agreed with.
"Shooting has been thought of as evil ever since then, plain and simple, and that is difficult," he said. "At that time we lost a lot of members because people did not want to say I shoot guns for a hobby, but we simply see shooting as a misunder-stood and minority sport which we enjoy and try very hard to make it as safe as possible.
"I was a firearms licensing officer in the police and the regulations have been tightened up enormously. The lengths you have to go to to get a firearms certificate are amazing with the police checking everything about you thoroughly including medical and mental history, convictions and your family background."
He added shooting is not an aggressive sport, with a calm demeanor a key attribute for anyone wishing to try it.
"You have to be relaxed because if you grip the gun tightly and without that control, you won't hit anything. Unfortunately because of the safety aspect, we have to meet away from the public's gaze which means they don't know what we are about or what we do," Mike said.
"We have a real mix of backgrounds here and we are just people like anyone else - we're not monsters or maniacs as some people think."
Mike added the attraction lay in competing against yourself in the quest for the perfect score.
"That is virtually impossible, but it doesn't stop you trying to improve each time you shoot," he said. "I am also interested in the engineering of the guns and the bullets. Sometimes when the air is still and damp, you can occasionally see the vortex of the bullet and it rises and then drops down to the target."
I could appreciate competing against myself as on my next two attempts - with a .22 semi-automatic and a Remington 700 - I managed to not just hit the target, but group my shots in a satisfying bunch. I also fired a replica of a Napoleonic, muzzle loading rifle which fired with a huge bang and cloud of smoke and struggled to hit the sandbank 100 yards away with its round musket ball, but was great fun all the same as was the whole day.
At the end of the day I asked Mary how I had done.
"Safety wise I would give you 10 out of 10, because otherwise you wouldn't have been allowed to shoot," she said.
"For your shooting I would say that you are an eight out of 10, which is wonderful for a first-timer. That shows anyone can come along and have a go, and we welcome people to do just that so they can see what we are all about."
* To find out more about the Phoenix Shooters Association, visit their website, www.psa.bizhosting.com