An American boy’s rite of passage is often marked by the watershed gift of a shotgun once owned by his father or grandfather. In the case of 16-year-old Paulena Prager, though, that defining moment arrived for the young woman when she received a shotgun owned by her mother.
By Irwin Greenstein, Shotgun Life
Paulena’s story tells of the growing number of girls entering the shotgun sports. For people born and raised in rural America, the act of a mother passing along a shotgun to her daughter is probably more commonplace than the Prager women, whose primary residence is New York City.
Paulena and her mother, Joanne, represent a growing movement of female gun ownership among American women hunters and clays shooters.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation supplied data that measured a 36.4 percent hike in all target-shooting disciplines between 2006 and 2011 by girls aged seven to seventeen. That growth dovetailed with a 2009 study by the NSSF showed that gun-store owners reported a 73 percent rise in female customers, the trend surging with a commensurate 28.5 percent increase in firearms bought by women specifically for hunting.
Meanwhile, the National Sporting Clays Association saw membership by women grow 14.6 percent between 2007 and 2011. The NSCA said that ladies consistently shoot over one-million registered targets annually and make up five to six percent of the total registered targets.
Many girls enter the shotgun sports through programs conducted by organizations such as the Scholastic Clay Target Program, the NRA, 4-H, the NSCA-NSSA or youth clinics routinely held at the local skeet and trap clubs. Paulena, who now shoots competitively, was introduced to sporting clays through her mother some five years ago.
For the past few years the Prager family has commuted between dual residences, with about 75 percent of the time spent in Manhattan and the balance on a farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. As it turned out, their farm is a short drive from the Pintail Point sporting clays course in Queenstown, where international championship shooter and instructor, Gary Phillips gives lessons.
The sporting clays initiation of Joanne and Paulena started in 2007, when Paul Prager contacted Gary to enquire about shotgunning lessons for his family. His wife Joanne subsequently arrived at Pintail Point with two of their four young children, Gus and Paulena. Gary had rented a 20-gauge semi-auto shotgun from the club house and took them straight-away to the wobble-trap stand. After a few rounds, the family was hooked on the sport. Joanne, Gus and Paulena fell into a routine of lessons with Gary whenever they lived in Maryland.
Joanne enjoyed the lack of ambiguity in the sport, she explained. You either hit the target or not based on real-time calculations of lead, timing and speed. Sporting clays seemed to tap into the arithmetical part of her mind that she used as a personal banker in New York before electing to become a full-time mother of four.
Moreover, Joanne appreciated sporting clays because there was a “mind-body connection that transcends gender.”
For a couple of New Yorkers, time spent with Gary at Pintail Point satisfied a facet of their lives that was entirely new to Joanne and Paulena.
“I can’t think of a better alternative culture to living in the city,” Joanne confided.
“Sporting clays is my favorite thing,” Paulena said. “When I tell my friends in New York about it, they think it’s fascinating, especially some of the boys in the class.”
Joanne and Paulena started on the path typical of many new shotgun shooters. Their lessons were initially taken on shotguns rented from the club. Gary’s next step upped the ante. As a Krieghoff-sponsored competitive sporting-clays champion, he had easy access to a stock with an adjustable comb for his 12-gauge Krieghoff K-80 Gold Bavaria Royale. The new stock let him fit the gun to Joanne for ongoing lessons. Before long, she bought an identical gun for herself.
Joanne’s lessons with Gary were falling into a routine and Paulena typically accompanied her mother to Pintail Point. As Joanne made progress, Paulena grew increasingly interested in the sport. She had been shooting the rented 20-gauge Beretta semi-autos, but eventually reached the threshold where she needed her own gun. They opted for a 20-gauge Krieghoff K-20. In terms of weight and performance the K-20 seemed like a logical choice for Paulena. Gary explained that she shot the K-20 so well and so quickly, he suggested she move up to Joanne’s K-80.
Initially, Paulena was reluctant – fearing the higher recoil of a 12 gauge. But Gary prevailed and Paulena took up her mother’s 12-gauge K-80. The move from the 7½-pound K-20 to the 8¾-pound K-80 turned in surprising results: Paulena’s performance dramatically improved with the heavier gun fit for a taller woman; and the felt recoil was actually lower. Everything began to click for the tenth grader when she stepped into the station armed with her mother’s Krieghoff.
“She smoked the targets with that K-80,” Gary said.
Paulena’s progress continued with the K-80 despite the trips back to New York where she attended private school – proving a very serious student.
“I love school and I enjoy all my subjects, Latin, physics and especially math, history and writing,” she said.
While she carved out time for sporting clays in her hectic schedule, she remained devoted to playing competitive squash. Still, sporting clays tapped into her desire to compete and a personal feeling of achievement.
“Sporting clays gives you a sense of success, that you’ve figured out the targets,” Paulena explained. “It’s all on you, even when you lose. You can’t get that intense individual satisfaction from a team sport.”
By 2010, Gary suggested that Paulena shoot competitive sporting clays. It was during that first year of competition she traveled with Gary and Joanne to three tournaments where she shot the K-80. Entering a new culture, Paulena began to appreciate the difference compared with competitive squash.
“I can play squash in the city, but since a lot of kids and their parents see it as a college acceptance sport it can be overly competitive at times,” Paulena observed. “The atmosphere isn’t customarily as social and easy-going as at clays tournaments.”
As a newcomer to sporting clays matches, Joanne expressed similar sentiments.
“There’s a very American, kind of a patriotic atmosphere at these tournaments,” she said. “The code of behavior is elevated and uplifting. I found the people to be truly authentic.”
Approximately one year after Paulena entered her first tournament, Gary believed she was ready for the Maryland State Open held in September at Schrader’s Outdoors in Henderson, Maryland. Ranked as a D Class shooter by National Sporting Clays Association, Paulena racked up an impressive score of 70, making her runner up in the Ladies division and champion in the Sub-Junior division. Her performance with the K-80 earned a free trip to the 2011 NSCA Nationals – held at National Shooting Complex in San Antonio, Texas from Tuesday, October 25th through Sunday, October 30th.
Paulena’s entry into the Nationals tested her mettle. The event called for 300 targets over the five-day shoot. But she opted to finish her classes during the week in Manhattan and then fly to Texas to cram the entire 300-bird tournament into the remaining two days of the weekend. She completed her Ladies Sub-Junior prerequisite with a 67 percent average shooting the Krieghoff K-80.
“There were people from all over the country at the Nationals and I was extremely nervous,” Paulena said of shooting in the squads.
But veteran participants at the Nationals helped Paulena by welcoming her into their groups and providing overall support.
Watching the shotgunning community pitch in to help the young girl was a revelation for Joanne.
“When you see all these kind people with such high morals, it opens your eyes,” she said. “It’s been a joy to share this experience with Paulena. It’s been very gratifying.”
In May 2012, Paulena competed in the Northeast Regional Championship & National FITASC Championship at M&M Hunting Preserve and Sporting Clays in Pennsville, New Jersey where she won C Class. Paulena also made the 2012 Maryland All-State team.
Paulena is gearing up for the 2012 U.S. Open Sporting Clays Championship held at the Caribou Gun Club, July 16 – 22 in Le Suer, Minnesota.
Gary has high expectations for her there.
“You’d never know how inexperienced she was in tournaments,” he said. “I’ve shot with many people over the years and she’s an absolute pleasure to shoot with.”
As her mother, Joanne has a different perspective on Paulena’s commitment to sporting clays.
“I just want to see Paulena be her personal best,” Joanne said. “Her success is my triumph.”
Irwin Greenstein is the Publisher of Shotgun Life. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.