Shooting Party

by Susan Orlean
The New Yorker
September 29, 1999

When I went to Scotland for a friend's wedding last summer, I didn't plan on firing a gun. Getting into a fistfight, maybe; hurling insults about badly dressed bridesmaids, of course; but I didn't expect to shoot or get shot at. The wedding was taking place in a medieval castle in a speck of a village called Biggar. There was not a lot to do in Biggar, but the caretaker of the castle had skeet-shooting gear, and the male guests announced that before the rehearsal dinner they were going to give it a go. The women were advised to knit or shop or something. I don't know if any of us women actually wanted to join them, but we didn't want to be left out, so we insisted on coming along.

We were not outfitted like an Edwardian shooting party. One woman was in a denim minidress with red-white-and-blue platform shoes. Another was wearing pedal pushers and wobbly pumps. I was in something lightweight and and was tripping around in rubber flip-flops. The caretaker must have been horrified by the sight of us. He had small dark eyes and a tragic manner and was wearing a proper field jacket with suede patches in the right places. He handled his gun with a wary tenderness, as if it were a baby alligator; it was about the size of one, with a double barrel and a thick wooden stock. None of us had ever done this before. We were gunless, gun-fearing city people, writers and filmmakers and art historians -- sissies, in fact, who cringed when the caretaker raised the shotgun, wordlessly indicating that it was time to begin. He muttered a few instructions, then held out the gun, waiting. No one stepped up. After a moment, we turned on the bridegroom and shoved him forward.

It was just one of those things -- dumb luck, probably -- but the bridegroom had perfect aim, and he exploded the clay pigeon into a million pieces. The caretaker nodded and released another pigeon, and again the groom hit the target. It was inspiring. We all crowded up to take our turns. The guest in platform shoes went next, and missed by a mile. An usher in Ray Bans winged a few. One bridesmaid had perfect form but a hot finger on the trigger. Finally, it was my turn. I hadn't expected to like the feel of the gun, but I did: it was warm and smooth and knee-bucklingly heavy, with two triggers that were set so far apart that they might have been fitted for a giant's handspan. The caretaker sized me up and then spoke quietly. "You want to hold it as tight against your shoulder as you can," he said. "It has a very powerful recoil."
I squeezed the gun against my body.
"Tighter," he said.
"That's as tight as I can get it."
"A little tighter."

I have never been kicked by a mule, so I can only imagine that it would feel a little like the gun slamming into me after I fired. My teeth rattled, and my head rang like a school bell. I was hysterically excited, as breathless and thrilled as if I'd just robbed a bank. Having missed, I begged for another shot. The caretaker released another pigeon, and I followed it, my arm aching from the weight of the gun and the shock of the recoil. I missed again, but I was close. The second recoil was just as bad as the first. I shot again and again and again, sending not a single clay pigeon to its reward, but each time getting closer. Me! Firing a double-barrelled shotgun! And I couldn't stop! The caretaker was egging me on, murmuring that if I had a gun that fit me properly I'd be hitting everything.

I didn't stop until the groom pointed out that we were being charged about a pound sterling per shot, and that at the rate I was going he wouldn't be able to afford a honeymoon. Shooting enchanted me; this is my sport, I thought. I wondered where in Manhattan I could go to fire a gun. The next morning -- the day of the wedding -- I woke up nearly unable to lift my arm. The bruise extended from my armpit to my elbow, and it was black and green and a deep imperial purple. I was wearing a sleeveless dress, as all the women in the wedding were, and they were all bruised to varying colors, depending on how enthusiastic they'd been about the sport. We considered covering our injuries with undereye concealer, but there was not enough to go around. Fortunately, single-malt Scotch was available in huge quantities, and by the end of the night we were showing off our bruises like tattoos.

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