WAUKESHA, Wis. -- "Ah, pull," said Andrea Thomas of Pewaukee, her inflection somewhere between command and question.
The events that followed were devoid of ambiguity.
At her word, a clay pigeon sailed from the trap house like a small orange Frisbee against a gray sky.
A second later, Thomas raised a semiautomatic 12-gauge shotgun to her cheek and pointed its barrel toward the flying disc.
Before another second passed, she pulled the trigger and watched to her surprise and considerable delight as the target shattered.
"Beginner's luck," Thomas said, turning toward shooting instructor Jeff Guenther.
When you cross thresholds, you can expect new experiences. But rarely do so many "firsts" come in such rapid succession.
For Thomas, it was her first time at a shooting range, first time shooting a shotgun, first broken target.
After a celebratory high-five, Guenther helped Thomas load another shell and prepare for another attempt.
The pigeon flew, the gun sounded, the pigeon broke.
"Some beginner's luck," said Guenther, smiling and offering his congratulations before taking the shotgun. "Who's next?"
The occasion was a "First Shots" program hosted by the Waukesha Gun Club.
Designed and sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the program gives new or inactive shooters an opportunity to shoot in a safe, supportive and educational environment, said Sarah Morton, shooting development coordinator at NSSF's Newton, Conn., headquarters.
The program was originally designed for handguns but recently has broadened to include rifles and shotguns. The Waukesha event was strictly shotgun.
The event was primarily funded by NSSF, which coordinated the provision of shells, targets and advertising. Remington provided the shotgun shells and White Flyer provided the targets.
Waukesha Gun Club provided the facility, the shotguns and the teachers. The program was offered free to attendees.
About 12,000 students have attended First Shots clinics since the program's inception in 2007, Morton said.
"Our intent is to teach firearm safety and shooting fundamentals to first-time or lapsed shooters," Morton said. "The safe, supervised environment really helps take the fear of the unknown away and then get them coming back."
According to a study conducted by Responsive Management, 34.4 million Americans went target shooting in 2009.
For comparison, 28.6 million Americans golfed (a minimum of one round) in 2008, according to the National Golf Foundation.
The Responsive Management study included a wide spectrum of shooting activities at gun clubs and ranges, including hunters sighting in rifles, trap and skeet shooters and handgun owners practicing marksmanship.
Although the number -- about 15 percent of the nation's population -- is not insignificant, target shooters are a distinct minority in America.
And unlike golf, shooting carries a negative stigma in much of mainstream America.
A day at the range with responsible, friendly shooting instructors and gun owners can go a long way toward changing firearms-related perspectives and opinions.
"One of the biggest obstacles to shooting is having a facility close by," said Lowell Carl, club member and event coordinator. "I drove past here for years before I even knew what this place was about. Now I know what I was missing and I want to make sure others have the same opportunity."
Carl said the predominant reaction of first-time shooters at the club is: "Wow, this is fun, it's exciting, it's safe. Let's do it again."
According to the NSSF, more than half (56 percent for handgun, 53 percent for shotgun) of the program's participants are first-time shooters.
Nationally, about 45 percent of attendees are female.
The leading reasons for attending the programs are to learn skills for target shooting and personal protection, tied at 68 percent.
Forty-three percent have subsequently purchased shooting-related equipment.
And nearly all (93 percent for handgun, 86 percent for shotgun) participants said they are likely to continue shooting.
The First Shots program drew 103 attendees to Waukesha Gun Club over two days. The ages ranged from 11 to 65; half the attendees were female.
Two sessions were held on Saturday, two on Sunday; each session lasted about 2 1/2 hours.
Laura Mesrobian, 14, of Whitefish Bay attended. She brought her mother, Beth.
"I just wanted to learn to shoot a gun properly," Laura said. "There aren't too many places to do it."
By the time the Sunday session ended, Laura and her mother each broke her first clay pigeon. For Beth, it also was the first time she'd ever shot a gun.
How was the recoil?
"I didn't feel it," Beth said.
The sessions started in the clubhouse with presentations by shooting and safety instructors.
Attendees were lectured on the principles of gun safety, including: treat every gun as if it were loaded; always be certain of your target and what's beyond; always point the muzzle in a safe direction; and keep your finger out of the trigger guard until ready to shoot.
The club has not had a shooting accident, said Carl, and they intend to keep it that way.
Instructors then discussed shooting technique, including stance, gun mount and focus. Both eyes open is typically preferred, the students were told.
Attendees were then put through a brief exercise to determine their dominant eye. And they practiced mounting a gun.
"That's right, cheek right down on the stock," said Guenther, certified as a shooting instructor by the National Sporting Clays Association. "And get that butt right into the fleshy part of your shoulder."
In case anyone needed evidence that shooting is about as gender equal as any sport, club manager Karen Gerbensky interrupted the session with a brief announcement.
"Just wanted to let you know that Karen Stingle just shot 30 out of 30 and took first place," Gerbensky said.
The attendees then went outside in shifts to try the real thing.
The weather on this Sunday was less than ideal -- cool and drizzly. But the cozy confines of the club's new enclosed 5-stand structure provided cover from the elements.
Nerves were evident as several first-time shooters toed the line. In addition to the fear of failure, shooters often have anxiety about the pain of recoil.
"We're just going to lean a little bit forward, to balance the weight of the gun," coached Guenther. "And you tell me when you're ready."
The light-recoiling shotguns and loads used in the program were easy on shoulders.
And all of the attendees broke a pigeon by the time they left, including 11-year-old Zach Perez of Greenfield.
Zach, who later convinced his father, Eddie, to take him to hunter safety this year, also had this priceless comment: "That was better than a video game."
Each attendee was asked to fill out a survey form. If they are like most, they will want to keep shooting.
"If you hear the word gun, it's usually something bad on the front page," said Brad Patterson of Milwaukee, one of the helpers at the event. "You come here and you learn it's a tool, just like a hammer, and if used properly, it can be just as safe."
Patterson had invited the Perez family to the event.
"I'm hoping they not only learn how to shoot safely and responsibly, but they'll get an idea of the camaraderie of the sport," Patterson said. "It's a big part of many of our lives. Breaking targets is just the beginning."