They don't call Florida the Gunshine State for nothing. There's no way to know for sure how many Floridians own a firearm, although the state leads the nation in active concealed weapons permits. But forget the Stand Your Ground laws and well-stocked bug-out bags; shooting is in the blood here, from using muzzleloaders for target practice to bowfishing for gators. Being able to put lead on a bull's-eye is just the beginning when it comes to Florida's passion for projectiles. Here are a few places in the area that hone shooting skills you might like to try out " you won't need a license, you can rent weapons if you don't have any and most of these places allow kids as young as you're willing to bring with you. We know you may have your favorite hangouts, but these joints are more concerned with you having fun more than worrying about the inevitable zombie apocalypse.
No matter how good you may be with a pistol in a 25-yard stall, there's always room for improvement. That's why learning your way around a firearm in a survival situation may be just what you're looking for.
Whether it's firing cover to cover with your rifle or laying out strategies for defending your home with a shotgun, Florida Firearms Academy (13317 W Hillsborough Ave., Tampa; (813) 221-3473; ffatampa.com) is willing to teach you.
The shop and range, which opened in May, is focused on education and training, managing partner Fritz Casper said. That's why beyond a basic NRA first steps course, FFA offers classes on advanced practical techniques, concealed carry and familiarity with firearms. Each class costs somewhere in the $70-$80 range.
"The beauty of these things is we can tailor it per person," he said. "What we're trying to do is build muscle memory, to make technique an automatic response." That's important in a state with more than 900,000 active concealed carry permits - and where only 1 in 10 of those permit holders practices shooting regularly, Casper says.
He said he helped open the school because of a lack of NRA-certified training in the region, and hopes to bring in new shooters and build their skills from the ground up. That's why all the Academy's classes are designed to be taught in succession. A newbie can take a basic training course, move up to a practical course to, say, learn to draw from a holster, then move on to concealed carry and home defense or tactical classes. The shop has an indoor range that nonmembers can shoot at for $12 for a handgun and $14 for rifle and pistol. If you don't have your own, more than 90 weapons are available for $10 apiece or $25 for more than one. The selection includes shotguns and automatic rifles, too.
"We're open to everybody. The bulk of our market is new shooters - people who walk in off the street and say, 'I've never done this before, I'd like to try this.' We want to work with the new shooters and train them in the correct way. Then there's less of a stigma attached" to gun ownership, he said.
Other places to check into include Shooting Sports (7811 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 933-3000; shootingsportstampa.com), where you can look into courses for beginners, novices and advanced shooters. There's also Aegis Tactical (5103 Lena Road, Lakewood Ranch; (941) 306-3714; aegis-tactical.com), where law enforcement instructors put on courses for defensive shooting, advanced tactical scenarios and private training.
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Trap and skeet
Want a little more challenge than staring down range at a paper target? Maybe you should try hitting something on the move.
Sport shooting with a shotgun has been a popular pastime since the 18th century or so, with plenty of variations - sporting clays, five-stand shooting and wobble trap among them - but trap and skeet are the most familiar to novices.
Put in its most basic terms, trap shooting is firing at disk targets thrown away from a shooter on a range, while skeet has the targets thrown horizontally across a range. The shooter uses either a single- or double-barreled shotgun to fire at these targets in succession, firing from one of five positions arranged in a line providing different perspectives. Shooters fire from each of these five positions in a typical 25-shot round. Both are disciplines requiring trigger control, keen eyesight and the discipline to maintain technique.
But where can you learn that technique? That's where Marvin Spinks and Bonnie Chamberlin come in.
Spinks and Chamberlin are certified Olympic level coaches at Skyway Trap and Skeet Club (3200 74th Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 526-8993; skywaytrapandskeetclub.com), where curious sorts can try their hand with a lesson for $50. For that price, you can get an hour or so of both classroom and range instruction to learn mounting techniques, decipher whether you are right- or left-eyed and be shown how firing a shotgun is different from a rifle or pistol. You then are provided with either a 12- or 20-gauge shotgun (or a .410 if you're of much smaller stature) and see if you can put the exceedingly patient instructors' guidance to good use overlooking Sawgrass Lake.
While Spinks and Chamberlin train youth and adult teams at the club, newbies are welcome.
"We have more new people come here than any other club I've ever been to," Spinks said. ''It's just new, young people all the time. If they never come back, they've at least been exposed to it. They don't have a fear of it."
Also try Silver Dollar Shooter's Club (17202 Target Way, Odessa; (813) 920-3231; silverdollartrap.com), which features gun rentals, teams and instruction, plus five-stand. For an even more outdoorsy feel, try Tampa Bay Sporting Clays (10514 Ehren Cut Off, Land O Lakes; (813) 929-6200; mytbsc.com), which features plenty of rental guns, classes and personal training, plus an archery range and a course for sporting clays, involving 16 shooting stations targets at several different angles, trajectories and patterns to simulate different types of game.
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Forget laser sights and MOLLE gear. Step back in time and try your hand at the steel with Stetsons and six-shooters with cowboy action shooting.
Action shooting is not just static firing at a target; it's a blend of technique and speed that requires the shooter to scoot and shoot in a proscribed set of movements - say, from cover, or crawling, at certain targets in a certain order. There are all sorts of versions of action shooting, with pistols and shotguns and rifles, but cowboy action is perhaps the most colorful, mostly because you get to pretend you're in the Wild West.
The Antelope Junction Rangers are Tampa Bay's club, and they practice at the Wyoming Antelope Club (3700 126th Ave N, Clearwater; (727) 736-3977; antelopejunctionrangers.com) every Friday, with one shooting event on a Saturday each month. Club members dress in Western attire and use pre-1900 weaponry - think single-action revolvers, lever-action rifles and pump-action or double-barreled shotguns, either originals or replicas - and take to the six-stage course to try to score the best hits in the best times. And if the costumes aren't enough to win you over, every shooter gets an alias to really take you out of the present day.
Club trainer Elizabeth Sontag, who goes by "May Eye Rider" at Rangers events, says even the greenest of greenhorns can come out to a Friday practice session to look over the goods.
"Anyone can come out to see if they like it," she said, noting the club does sell some equipment, but isn't looking to break the bank. A practice session is only $8 for non-members. "We take raw beginners. We don't have them fall in love with the most expensive firearm."
Practices are usually only four stages, and cowboy attire is recommended if you've been there before, although they loosen up the rules from July to September. Those pearl-snap Western shirts don't breathe so well in Florida's sweltering summers, you know.
If you're out of the area, check with other clubs that may be closer to you. The Doodle Hill Regulators (2403 21st Ave SE, Ruskin; (813) 986-2268; doodlehillregulators.com) practice at the Gun Craft Shooting Range in Gibsonton and the Hernando County Regulators (hernandosportsmanclub.com; (352) 686-1055) hone their skills at the Hernando Sportsmans Club in Brooksville.
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If all this seems a little too loud for your taste, you can always try the original marksman's tools: A bow and arrow. No earplugs necessary.
But chances are you may have even less experience with these tools than you may have with a gun. So where do you start? A good place is The Archery Shop (14520 N Florida Ave, Tampa; (813) 963-2222; tampaarcheryshop.com), where not only is there a service and repair shop for both traditional and compound bows, but an eight-lane, 20-yard indoor range. In fact, the crew of certified instructors will help fit you to the right bow and give you a free, one-hour lesson if you buy one.
But even if you don't purchase right away, employees are more than happy to help you decide by letting you shoot a few bolts to get the feel of it. Perhaps you will prefer a long bow, which is longer than other kinds of traditional bows, natch, or maybe you'll want to upgrade to a compound bow, which has a levering system with cams and pulleys that take much of the work out of drawing the bowstring. Then again, you and Walking Dead fans could always look into a crossbow, too. Prospective archers can rent time and equipment for $15 an hour.
This is especially useful for parents who aren't quite ready to let their kids fire guns, but want them to learn a new skill, particularly one gaining in popularity after a summer of movies like The Avengers, Brave and The Hunger Games.
"If they just want to rent bows, that's one thing," owner Heather Grizzaffe said, noting the store's Tuesday night special, when children shoot for free. "A lot of the kids we have in here, it's because their parents came in to learn and came back for their kids." But it's a pursuit not limited to the young. "I just had a lady in her 70s come in here," Grizzaffe added. "She shot at Gasparilla years ago and wanted to start again. She was pretty good."
If you don't want to drive up to the USF area, the shop has a mobile range built out of a semi-trailer. The store periodically sends the vehicle to parks in the area for tryout days. Call the store to find out when it will be back on the road.
A couple other archery locations include Britton's Archery Supplies and Range (1743 S Pinellas Ave., Tarpon Springs; (727) 934-7042), which also rents equipment for its range for $15. Venerable Pinellas institution Bill Jackson's (9501 U.S. 19 N, Pinellas Park; (727) 576-4169; billjacksons.com) offers an assortment of bows and crossbows in its gun shop, and offers archery instructions on Saturdays by appointment, with rental equipment available.