After I turned 70 and later retired from competitive shooting, I knew I needed to find ways to keep my body in shape and my mind sharp.
I cannot ignore the facts. I am getting old. I have turned 73 last Christmas. However, we all can take steps to try to stave off physical and mental deterioration. Learning something new is a great way to do this. It stimulates your brain, and, if the activity is physical, encourages you to stay in shape.
With that in mind, I started taking shotgun classes earlier last year.
I signed up for a shotgun class at the Women’s Leadership Forum Summit last September in San Antonio, Texas, and I wanted to gain practice ahead of time. Knowing the summit class was coming up motivated me to begin building my skills.
Now, you might think that because I was an 8-time Bianchi Cup women’s division champion, I would be a natural at shotgun shooting. That is not the case. Pistol shooting and shotgun shooting are apples to oranges.
I went from being an expert in one discipline to starting over as a novice in the other.
This did not bother me. After all, my goal for shooting shotguns is not to be a world-class shooter. I left my competition days behind when I retired after the 2018 Bianchi Cup. Rather, my aim is to challenge myself, and what better way to do that than starting an activity that I was not already good at doing?
I am not afraid to pursue an activity that is outside of my comfort zone. Not every skill you learn is something that would be on your preference list. For example, I don’t even like being in water, but I nonetheless learned to windsurf and waterski because I received the chance to learn those sports. I value opportunities and am loath to let one pass by. I believe every skill I learned throughout life helped me become a championship pistol shooter later on.
When I arrived at my first shotgun lesson at the Coyote Valley Sporting Clay gun range in Morgan Hill, California, I did not even know how to hold the shotgun. My instructor had me use a Browning 20-gauge over/under. It is a lighter shotgun that is good for my petite frame.
She showed me how to mount the gun, but I had trouble finding the pocket on my shoulder. It was an altogether different process from pistol shooting. Rather than holding the gun away from my body, I had to adjust to mounting it against me. I also had to adjust to having a hand on the underside of the barrel after decades of only shooting pistols and becoming comfortable having 2 hands on the grip. I have found difficulty on keeping my cheek on the handle of the shotgun. In short, my shotgun instructor told me to throw out everything I have learned from pistol shooting from the last 20-some years. I knew at that moment that this is going to be a challenging new sport for me to learn, but I was still interested in pursuing it for the time being, since I wanted to learn trap shoot since I was in my late 20s.
For the pistol competitions, I used optical sight. I focused on my sight and put it on the target. For shotgun shooting, you look beyond the barrel at the object – the clay pigeon. The trigger pull for the shotgun is also operated differently from pistol shooting as in Bianchi Cup type of shooting.
So shooting the shotgun in that first class, I felt like a toddler must feel when trying to take her first step.
Anyone who sees me when I am not on a gun range would never imagine I would be a shooter. However, I am comfortable on the range. I like practicing by myself. I did that for more than 20 years while competing at the Bianchi Cup. I gravitate toward individual sports. I am comfortable wearing jeans, a microfiber shirt and hiking boots and getting sweaty and grimy on the range.
So, although transitioning to shotgun shooting felt foreign to me, the shooting environment is a place I thrive. It was like being greeted by an old friend.
I have learned several sports in my life – horseback riding, windsurfing, waterskiing and snow skiing, among them – not because I am particularly athletic, but because I have a knack for persistence. I am a committed learner, and I am very goal-oriented.
After my first shotgun shooting class, I kept my son-in-law’s shotgun under my bed. I would pull it out during the day and practice my mounting technique and practice sighting on my target by looking at an object beyond the barrel.
I have not given up pistol shooting, either, even though I am retired from competitions. Sometimes I will do an interview where the reporter wants to see me shoot. I know skills are perishable, so I try to stay sharp by going to the gun range to shoot at soda cans from 40 yards. A soda can is about 4.75-inches tall and 2.5-inches wide. But at 40 yards, the soda can appears to be about ¼-inch tall. A taller soda can is about 6.5-inchs tall and 2.5-inchese wide, but at 40 yards away, it appears to be only 3/8-inch tall.
I fill the empty cans with water, and when I hit my target, the can explodes and jumps sometimes as high as 15-to-25 feet upwards when I hit the top end of the can after it falls down from the first shot. This creates a great visual effect that is useful if a reporter is there to watch me shoot my pistol. I use my competition handgun with an Aimpoint ACO 2MOA red dot. I shoot standing in an off-hand position.
So, what is my goal for shotgun shooting? I know if I keep at it, in a few years, I might be proficient enough to hit targets with some regularity.
One day when I was out on the shotgun range, I saw an 86-year-old man shooting with his son. This inspired me. It told me that shotgun shooting is something I can enjoy for many, many years. I do not have to become a championship competitor, like I was in pistol shooting. I have no intention of that.
It simply is nice to feel the satisfaction of seeing a clay pigeon explode when you hit your mark. By the time I am 80, I might be a pretty good shot with the shotgun.
Mostly, though, my goal is to keep learning and to keep challenging myself. When left unchallenged, untested and with no task at hand, I am not the top version of myself. Pushing the envelope and welcoming new challenges brings out the best in me, and it keeps my mind and body sharp at a time when I must focus on that.
Vera Koo is a first-generation Chinese American woman. She’s a wife and mother, author, entrepreneur and retired competition shooter. Along with Vera’s fantastic memoir and life story, "The Most Unlikely Champion," she writes her column, Vera Koo, at "Women’s Outdoor News." View all posts by Vera Koo