By Lyn Bates,
I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Woman after woman was shooting several action shooting stages, which involved drawing a 9mm S&W M&P from a holster, shooting at cardboard targets and falling steel plates, moving confidently from one vantage point to another, reloading, and shooting some more. Most of them, until three days prior, had never touched a gun!
Yet here they were, doing really well, getting good hits, their coaches occasionally making suggestions but seldom needing to make safety reminders. Coming off the line after shooting—broad smiles, cheers and high 5s abounded. These women were really having fun.
An organization called Babes with Bullets held one of their 3-day handgun camps in early August at my home range, Harvard Sportsman’s Club, in Harvard, MA. These camps introduce women to firearms via the action shooting sports and an all-female staff. The Babes’ camps description said that in less than three days, attendees would be able to draw from a holster, shoot and move, shoot moving and falling targets.
“How the heck can they do that?” I wondered, so I watched closely to find out.
Who and what are The Babes with Bullets?
A decade ago a couple of women who were legendary in action shooting, Kay Miculek (yes, the supremely accomplished-in-her-own-right wife of the legendary shooter Jerry Miculek) and Lisa Munson, encountered Deb Ferns at a match. Deb Ferns was a woman who had shot for the first time on her 45th birthday. Lisa encouraged Deb to take a weekend training session with Kay, a class that Deb describes as “life-changing,” and Deb convinced Kay and Lisa to take their program on the road under the name “Babes with Bullets.”
Eleven years and more than 4,000 students later, Babes with Bullets is a resounding success.
Kay, Deb and Lisa added some other stars to their teaching roster. Even if you don’t follow the action shooting sports closely, you might have heard of some of these women: Lena Miculek (Kay and Jerry’s daughter, rapidly making a name of her own in competition), Athena Lee, Maggie Reese and Sheila Brey. If you watched Season 2 of Top Shot, you saw two of them. Among them they hold more than 30 national or international shooting titles in every kind of shooting matches. Six of those amazing women taught at the camp I attended. Most novices are introduced to guns like this: They take a 4- or 8-hour NRA class, or they go to a range with a gun owner. They learn some basics about gun function, gun safety, ammunition and so on. They shoot a few rounds with a .22 or a .38 revolver, and go home. Over the next months, they get back to the range once if at all, and might or might not try a larger caliber. They shoot only at bullseye paper targets, at a single distance, standing in one spot, not using a holster. That’s a reasonable intro to firearms—but is it fun? They might like shooting, but do they love it? Are they proficient with a gun or just a beginner? Do they have the camaraderie of other people sharing this experience? Are they confident in their skills? Do they realize a competition might actually be fun?
What makes the Babes program different from the other “typical introduction” described above?
It is focused on action sport shooting, not on getting a license, not on learning a million details about many kinds of guns, not on indoor target shooting, not on revolvers, not on bullseye target shooting. And, it is for women, taught by women! It lasts a big three days. Any new shooter can feel overwhelmed at the end of their first day, and that’s where many of them leave a traditional class, never to return. Babes has many more hours to teach, encourage and build skills.
It mixes absolute novices with experienced shooters, to the benefit of both. Sometimes the experienced shoot first, newbies watching, to show how and what to do and to reduce “freshman anxiety.” Sometimes the groups shoot separately. It emphasizes fun, camaraderie and female bonding. Shared meals and lodgings help, but fun is built into many of the activities. It is a camping experience, not just a shooting school.
The night before camp starts, women check in and are measured for belts and hand grip size. Having a belt that fits and a gun that fits from the get-go is one of the reasons students do so well.
A guiding principle of the Babes instructional format is that, on the line, every student is closely coached. Each instructor covers only one or two students, so feedback, positive and constructive, can be delivered immediately. This is essential to fast progress, skill-building and confidence building.
Some excellent competitors can’t teach. Some excellent teachers can’t compete. It is rare to find one person with both skills, and even more rare to find an organization filled with such people. Babes and Bullets is that rare organization.
What is “action sport shooting?”
Action sport shooting involves moving dynamically, drawing a handgun from a holster, and shooting at many cardboard and metal targets. Time taken, as well as the placement of hits, determines the score. A match includes a number of stages, each stage in a shooting pit with a different setup of targets. Many local gun clubs host these kinds of matches indoors or outdoors, and there are regional and national competitions as well. The disciplines include the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA), and the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC), whose American affiliate is the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA). 3 gun matches (handgun, rifle, shotgun) also fall in the action sport category.
Who were the 30 campers at this particular camp?
They were diverse in age. I thought the participants would be mostly youngish women, but, no, “middlish” and “oldish” women were well represented. Kay Miculek wasn’t the only grandmother. Most were absolute beginners when it came to guns, but several had attended camps or even competitions before. Why would they repeat? Because returning students are given some different activities on different ranges, and because of the camaraderie they found here. They were geographically diverse. They came to Massachusetts from as far south as Huntsville, Alabama and as far north as London, Ontario, and as far west as Xenia, Ohio. Most came either by themselves or with another woman. Several came at the behest of men who saw Babes on the Discovery Channel. One found mention of the breath control for shooting being compatible with yoga in a yoga magazine, and found Babes on her own.
Kerry Lawlere, a single mom with two kids from the Boston area, was a nervous newbie who came at the urging of a friend. She had never fired a gun before, and was very curious about what it would be like. Robbin Mosdossy is a Canadian woman who rather reluctantly attended her first camp 10 years ago. This year she brought her daughter, Natasha, along. I asked Natasha if she had finally given in to her mother’s pestering, or whether she really wanted to come. “Really wanted to come,” she said, having heard so much about the skill-building and fun. Dr. Laura Torres-Reyes is a physician who is also an Air Force Colonel in the Medical Service. She had no experience with guns before she joined the Air Force, so got some help from a friend before she had to qualify. She qualified at the top of her class! Feeding off that achievement, her brother-in-law, an IPSC shooter, suggested she try that competition. Laura did, and has made handgun and 3-gun competition her primary “hobby.” Laura had been to Babes camp about 6 times. Why so many?
“No matter how experienced you are, a return to the basics for a short time makes you a better shooter,” she says. She loves the socializing with the instructors and other women. A few husbands, boyfriends, or friends accompanied, but only a few. One such man was asked by another, “Does your wife have a license to carry?” He quickly answered, “No, she has a license TBA,” and proudly explained, “A license To Be Awesome!”
What happened at camp?
The first morning started with Kay Miculek doing the introduction about guns and safety. Thoroughly professional, but also as short as possible, and amusing. She described a gun’s magazine as the plate of food that feeds the rest of the gun, making it easy to understand why that part must be removed first. She made fun of her age (she’s a grandmother, after all) and her eyesight. Afterward one of the returning students said, “I thought I’d be bored, but not at all.”
That day started on the outdoor range started with Smith & Wesson M&P .22s from a table. Folks learned, or practiced loading magazines. Targets were IPSC/IDPA cardboard torso targets, in the usual stands. One instructor for each pair of students helped with the basics of stance, grip, sight alignment, sight picture and trigger control. The instructors pick up very quickly on who is new, who needs more help, who is ready to move on to 9mms and holsters, and who already has skills. The 30 students were gradually divided and subdivided, in different IPSC pits, into groups that respected their skill level, with appropriate coaching. Nobody is intimidated by the more experienced shooters, nobody is slowed down by novices.
The Outdoor Channel was making a documentary on Babes with Bullets, and was at this camp filming as much possible.
Smith & Wesson provided the equipment—a competition belt (inner belt with Velcro on the outside, outer belt with mating Velcro), 3 high-capacity magazines, a competition mag pouch, a Smith & Wesson M&P in 9mm and a Kydex competition holster. By the end of the first day, everyone is loading 9mm magazines, and drawing, shooting and reloading their 9mm from a holster. Some targets have acquired a “no shoot’” or other game feature. The steady creep from one target to a full scale action stage has begun. Beepers and range commands are becoming familiar.
Camp should be fun, and so this was. From an impromptu “Can you lick your elbow?” contest to the many, many stories shared during meals and after hours. Another advantage of mixing experienced shooters with beginners is that the former can add their own stories to the “campfire tales” women tell one another. A one-day class would not have an opportunity for this, but the multi-day format is perfect for sharing.
Discussions included topics such as “Where did you get those pants?” “That shirt?” “How do you stay comfortable in this heat?” What’s better than wiping sweaty palms on your pants before you shoot?”, (Wiping them in the dirt.) and, of course, “What is the best bra to wear shooting?” (There is no universally perfect bra—no surprise there!)
The second day saw more changes on the ranges, as they added one feature after another such as Pepper Popper falling steel plates, a Texas Star, and more no-shoots to move the scenarios closer to competition stages and yet introduce new skills one at a time. Everyone rotated though multiple ranges One group had targets that alternated close and far. Another group worked on a setup that was all about how to move (walking or running, camper’s choice) left to right or right to left and shoot. They then moved to a setup that was all about moving forward, shooting though “windows” and “doors.” Another group learned how to shoot the smallest target available, steel plates, and enjoyed that wonderful visual and auditory feedback when they were hit.
What really made this camp soar was the quality of the teaching and coaching. Time after time I saw coach after coach notice something subtle in what the student was doing, and offer a timely suggestion or correction on the spot.Positive feedback was also abundant. One student was praised for her “incredible focus” after having gun trouble, fixing it, and coming back on target as if the trouble never happened. Another coach was very careful to insist her shooter go with her to examine the 8 targets in the order she shot them, rather than starting with the last target as is usually done in these scenarios. The coach pointed out that the hits on the first two (not very good) targets were “You started out nervous here,” moving on the next two “You started to settle down here” and reaching the final targets “Look how great you were doing at the end.” That’s high-quality feedback.
Students also benefited from the coaches’ competition background. Lena explained that, “If you want to shoot fast to better your score, don’t try to pull the trigger faster. Learn to do everything that doesn’t involve pulling the trigger faster: drawing, running, reloading.”
On the last day, IPSC score sheets made an appearance. Every part of competition was now familiar, from the Safety Area where one holstered one’s gun, to what “Load and make ready” and “Shooter ready?” mean, to the beeper, the timer, shooting, moving, reloading, and the scoring and patching of targets. Lots of “2 alphas” were heard. “Alpa” is the highest scoring area on the target, so two hits there meant the shooter had maximum points on that target.
Campers finishing weren’t just happy, they were joyful!
What now for the campers?
Kerry Lawlere, the single mom, quickly found that she was good at this. “The best thing is the instructors. They figured out my strengths and weaknesses, and worked with both of them.” She will be shooting a lot more once the camp is over.
Elizabeth Keister, from Alabama, said Babes has made firearms a “huge passion” and “a very important part of my life.” She calls the Babes “a traveling sisterhood of support for women who shoot.” “A Traveling Sisterhood” I love that appellation! To Elizabeth, sport shooting and personal defense are equally important. She will soon have all the licenses and equipment she needs for both.
Everyone gets something different from this experience. One student, who I won’t identify, said that she had been abused as a child, usually found it difficult to socialize, but found support in the women at camp, and it was helping her to “come out of her shell.” Another said, “The hands-on coaching is amazing. I’ll take their voices home with me in my head.”
Let’s let Laura have the last word. She said, “I just want to reiterate what a great experience the Babes Camps are, and the importance of the explosive expansion of female shooters. It is such a supportive and generous community of women, who have bonded together to make a significant impact in the shooting sports industry. Just 10 years ago, the only resources I could find to help me start in the shooting sport were YouTube videos. I accidentally stumbled on the Babes with Bullets camps that were just getting started. Now, there has been such an exponential growth in women’s focused organizations, competitions, groups, magazines, websites, Facebook pages, etc.., that it is clear that women and guns are a serious economic, marketing force to be reckoned with! It is pioneers like Deb Ferns, founder of Babes with Bullets and Women’s Outdoor Media Association that have been a game changer (literally!)”
Some campers will go on to find places where they can shoot IPSC or IDPA matches. But the majority of women who will never compete will have a solid background and a positive attitude. They will be unafraid, confident, even eager for any other gun-related activity they might want to try.
Kay Miculek, the most decorated female in shooting sports in the world, is now at a point of apparent perfect balance in her life, dividing her time between teaching Babes camps and competing.
To see some of the Babes in action, see their website, their webisodes on the Outdoor Channel: www.outdoorchannel.com/babeswithbullets, and watch for their documentary. In addition to 10 handgun camps that move around the country every year, the Babes offer 3-gun camps and an annual Diamond event (an upscale dude ranch experience along with training).