Straight Shooters

Female gun enthusiasts in Fort Worth

| photography by Alex LepeWhen I Googled “Women Shooting Guns,” the first 10 hits were videos of women looking like idiots. One was titled Best of Funny Girls Shooting Guns Fails-Compilation 2014, another Top 11 Videos of Girls Shooting Guns That They Shouldn’t Be. A petite blond shoots a shotgun, and the kickback knocks her over. Her cheek is nowhere near the stock, and the butt of the gun is 2 inches away from her sternum. Ouch. Then the men recording the scene from their phone cameras start laughing and text appears, “Why Women Shouldn’t Use Guns.” It is disgusting that the women are all holding the guns incorrectly, and their boyfriends are purposefully not correcting their stance for humor’s sake. There is a way to lean into a shotgun and nestle the butt into your shoulder that would make a 95-pound girl not even flinch. These guys watch them drop to their knees and fall onto their backs and laugh. Sadly, most of the girls nervously laugh with them.

Which is exactly why Sandra Watts started teaching women and men alike how to shoot a gun at Fort Worth’s Alpine Gun Range. Her husband manages the shooting range, and she’s lived out there for years watching women make fools of themselves while the boyfriends got a kick out of it - pun intended. She had to put a stop to it.

Watts, whose business name is “Shootin’ Pretty,” is the first and only instructor at Alpine. She has taught there for three years. A self-proclaimed tomboy, Watts shot her whole life with her father and brother. She may not like the color pink and prefers not to bedazzle her numerous guns in rhinestones and flowers (some do by the way), but this 30-something tan and cute brunette has eyelash extensions and a splash of glamour. Her hair is in a spunky high ponytail, and to stay comfortable in the Texas heat, she wears running shoes, wind shorts and a loose T-shirt on the range. She teaches pistol, shotgun and rifle and has more than 300 lessons under her belt just since January.

Her goal was to show women how they can be a powerful shot as well, but she was surprised at how many men requested lessons from her, too. Their wives and girlfriends would come home shooting like a pro, and they wanted to keep up.

“People in this industry love to see new shooters. It isn’t a man’s world anymore,” Watts said. “I was pleasantly shocked at how many male shooters were coming to me.”

On weekends she sees hundreds of shooters and said half are women, and some even bring their children. It is a family affair. Shoot Smart gun range has a program for little shooters, ages 8-17. Started and run by a woman, CEO Roxanne Laney, Shoot Smart offers many programs for women — Handguns and Heels, Refined at the Range and Take Your Daughter to the Range. These are programs for women and taught by women, so they would never feel judged or laughed at.

But Watts said women are strong shooters because they tend to have more patience. It could only take one lesson for them to get past their insecurities around guns and men.

“Women are steady. Women draw strength from their hips. It is natural for them. They do it automatically. Men focus on upper body strength and don’t pay attention to their base. Women do. If you take somebody who has never shot before, they are going to have a natural base,” Watts said. “We give birth, and we know where we carry our weight.”

She said the size of a woman doesn’t matter. Her control of a gun is in her stance. A “dainty” woman can shoot just as strongly as a 300-pound, 6-foot, 5-inch man. Countless women are gold medalist winners in the summer Olympics shooting events. Kim Rhodes became the first American ever to win Olympic medals in five consecutive games of an individual sport — shooting. In summer of 2012, she shot 99 clay pigeons out of 100, a world record. 

But still, women like Watts working the gun range have had to prove themselves. Guys have grown to love her because she is a great instructor and very patient. And some don’t feel intimidated by a woman instructor.

Women have a long history of shooting in the old Western frontier of Fort Worth. In the late 1800s, The Fort Worth Morning Register reported Annie Oakley came to town with Buffalo Bill and wowed 11,000 people in a street parade with her gun skills.

“Miss Annie Oakley, celebrated shot, who illustrated her dexterity in the use of firearms,” the paper reported.

The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth inducted Oakley in 1984. Born in 1860, “she became an international legend in her own lifetime based on her shooting skills,” according to the Cowgirl Museum’s website. “In 1885 she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show as the only female performer. She traveled the globe as the World’s Champion Markswoman, hosting shooting clinics and performing onstage.”

She was an anomaly. Most women her age were learning to sew and cook. While her sisters played with dolls, Oakley was outside shooting small game and loving every minute of it. But because women of her time weren’t supposed to be good shooters, attempts like organizing a regiment of women sharpshooters in World War I was ignored.

Fast forward nearly a century. Gun sales started to decrease in the 1980s and top gun makers looked to market their products to women, hearing rumor of the growing number of female gun enthusiasts. One launched the magazine Women and Guns, and Smith & Wesson came out with its LadySmith handgun. Images of beautiful blond women in business suits holding a .22 pistol or riding horseback pointing their pistol at an enemy, like a scene from a Western movie, painted the covers. I’m sure you remember the same happening with cigars a few years later in fall 1996 when Demi Moore was spotted on the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine — women all over were lighting up after that. As a mass communications college instructor for nearly six years lecturing on media effects theories, I can comfortably say magazines encourage and start sweeping trends.

Texas women have shot guns on their ranches and farms forever, but it wasn’t commonplace for a city girl to pick up a shotgun and spray clay pigeons for fun on the weekends or moments after leaving her high-powered job until the last decade or so. NRA has even caught on, providing guided-hunting trips, wilderness escapes and shooting clinics. Women-only shooting clubs like A Girl and a Gun and DIVAs-Women Outdoors Worldwide (WOW) have thousands of members worldwide and keep gaining ground. Sometimes these women organize extravagant hunting trips to Africa or to hunt mule deer in Scotland. At night they may sit around a bonfire drinking the finest wine or dark liquor. On one such night, one of the DIVA-WOW founders told me they all burned their bras in the bonfire, laughing wildly.

Over the years, it has become a family affair too. Watts’ sweetheart since she was 15 taught her how to shoot because it was something fun they could do together. A popular “staycation” in the Fort Worth area is to take the whole family to Rough Creek Lodge & Resort in Iredell or Greystone Castle in Mingus to shoot a variety of birds, deer or antelope.

Some women have found love on the gun range. Just ask Fort Worth 3-Gun match winner Jessica Spurgeon. Her father asked her to shoot one day a year ago. She never realized how difficult it could be, and that challenge made her into a gun addict. Then she met her now boyfriend, the shooting range owner. She now lives on the gun range and shoots nearly every weekend when this gorgeous businesswoman isn’t working 50 hours a week in downtown Fort Worth.

Spurgeon has a Tiffany Blue AR-15, and sponsors now send her gear in her favorite color to match her AR-15. She loves shooting because it is a challenge and a way to spend time with her father. When she competes in matches, she is the only woman.

“I shoot mostly with men. I have never shot a match with a woman,” Spurgeon said.

Another Fort Worthian, Emily Ferchill, grew up loving the outdoors. She has fond memories spending summers at her grandfather’s cabin in Cheyenne, Wyo. So when two years ago, she met her now husband and avid hunter, Beau Ferchill, she was up for learning the sport. Her proud husband posts pictures on Facebook of the petite bombshell beauty holding a prize deer or a dove in her knee-high snake boots, hot pink pants and a dark green Columbia shirt. Rest assured that the animal is never wasted. They cook and eat the meat and donate what they don’t use.

“There needs to be a respect for the animal. You don’t just shoot to kill the animal. Use it. Donate the meat to charity,” Emily said.

Going out to her husband’s family ranch on the weekends is a relaxing break from her full-time job as an underwriter and making tiring commutes daily to Arlington in rush hour traffic. Her mother-in-law has loaned Emily her Browning Over and Under “Citori” shotgun, which she shot as a young woman too. Emily even has her concealed handgun license and carries a Glock for protection.

Cassie Shockley, the customer programs manager and shooting instructor, is in charge of “anything fun” at Shoot Smart, including all of the women-only shooting events. Shockley got into shooting shotguns competitively in high school and college.

“There is nothing more fulfilling than helping a woman get over their fear,” Shockley said.

So a few of my girlfriends decided to meet Shockley, an adorable brunette wearing cherry red lipstick, at Shoot Smart and get a lesson on how to load and shoot a .22 pistol. We dominated. After a one-hour lesson on gun safety, the gun’s parts, how to load, aim, hold and get the stance perfectly strong, we hit the bulls-eye over and over. My two friends are the most petite women I know, and they were naturally strong shooters. They didn’t flinch or fall over when they pulled the trigger. Even better, we laughed and even felt maybe a tad more powerful. Maybe next time we head out to the gun range or ranch with our spouses, they won’t need to load the gun for us. Nor do they have to shoot the clay pigeon over our heads and pretend we hit it. We can do it. And that was a good feeling.

(left to right) Kristen Slaughter, Sandra Watts, Emily Ferchill, Jessica Spurgeon