The author takes aim with a Springfield Armory 1911 Range Officer in 9mm.

I grew up and live in the suburban New York City area, and didn’t learn to shoot a handgun until later in life. Once I tried it, though, I loved it. Whether you want to shoot recreationally, target shoot, or learn to defend yourself, shooting is a heck of a lot of fun—and an empowering activity for women.

Still, I wish I’d had a girlfriend who could have helped guide me through those beginning stages. Because I had to learn things the hard way, I have some words of wisdom for any woman who’s picking up a gun for the first time, or just thinking of giving it a try:

1. Size matters…

Calibers, frame sizes, and ammunition type all play important parts in learning to shoot. But with so many pistols on the market, how does a girl know what’s good to learn with?

In the old Western movies, women were often portrayed as shooting either a tiny Derringer or a Clint Eastwood-style .45 caliber. If you’ve never shot before, and someone hands you either of those, run. Neither is appropriate for a first time shooter. You’ll likely shoot one round and decide shooting isn’t for you.

What you need as a beginner is a nice .22 pistol. They’re inexpensive, fun to shoot, and the recoil is barely noticeable. I always recommend that beginners learn on a .22 and don’t move up to a higher caliber until they’re ready. You want your first shooting experience to be safe and fun, and with a .22 it will be. Learn the basics of shooting with that first, there’s plenty of time for the higher caliber pistols as you progress.

My Browning Buck Mark Camper is lightweight, inexpensive, shoots like a dream, and is downright comfortable in my hand. There are many .22s on the market, so handle as many of them as you can in a gun shop until you find one that feels right.

2 …but age doesn’t.

Shooting is fun at any age. I learned later in life, and I’ve taught clinics where the ladies ages ranged from 18 to 77. Their smiles were equally huge and they all learned to shoot in a fun, safe manner.

3. Consider joining a club or group.

I joined a local “sportsman’s club” shortly after I received my pistol license, assuming there would be other women members. There weren’t. The women that came to the club dinners were the wives of the members. My first year there, I think I was considered something of a novelty. The guys who took the time to get to know me figured out fast that I was competent with a firearm. The guys who didn’t just assumed I was someone’s wife (which I am, but he wasn’t a club member at the time).

My club has a rule: All members have to be an NRA Certified Range Safety Officer. I’ve had more than one guy stop me and say something like “Um, excuse me, you need an RSO to shoot here, and I can’t stay with you.” To which I’ve replied, “Thank you, it’s a good thing I am one.”

For the most part, the guys at my club have been some of the most helpful people I’ve met. They’re awesome instructors, and they’re just all-around nice guys. But know that some men won’t take you seriously until you prove yourself. Don’t let them get you down, because having a place you can shoot whenever you want is a great benefit while you’re learning. Having competent shooters around that you get to know can help you learn quickly and will keep you shooting consistently and safely. My club now offers a mentor program: volunteers who will happily meet and help new shooters at the range whenever it’s convenient. While you can just show up at a public range and shoot, having a buddy makes it so much more enjoyable and educational.

And, if you join a group of like-minded shooting women, you’ll make friends for a lifetime. These days, there are numerous women-only shooting groups. Chapters of The Well-Armed Woman, Diva Wow (Women Outdoors Worldwide) and A Girl and a Gun are popping up across the country. A quick Internet search can connect you with competent female instructors in your area.

The NRA also holds female-only Women on Target clinics all across the country, which I teach a few times a year. It’s an inexpensive, safe and fun way to see if shooting is for you.

4. Be patient.

You’re not going to walk into a clinic having never shot before and walk out a sniper. It takes time and training.

Working with an experienced instructor right from the beginning can help you get on the right track and keep you totally safe while learning. Set goals for yourself, read all you can, and practice, practice, practice! This is one sport where you’ll never stop learning. Even on days when you can’t get to the range, there are plenty of exercises and dry fire training you can do safely at home that will help the next time you’re on the range.

5. Don’t fear the recoil.

Sometimes people (men) may assume that because you’re a lady, you can’t handle the recoil of some of the larger calibers. A lot of factors come in to play when you’re talking about recoil. First, you shouldn’t be starting with a .45, remember? Second, your grip and your stance play an important part of how your body handles the recoil of your firearm. Working with an experienced instructor can help you overcome issues you may have with recoil. Calibers are also a personal choice, you won’t know until you literally give each of them a shot.

Doerr shoots long guns as well as handguns. Here she tries out a Walther G36 chambered in .22LR.

6. Some advice you get may not be the best.

You’ve heard the old saying about opinions, and it’s true. Being a woman, you’re going to come across some men who may mean well, but are uninformed. I was told by more than one man that women should only shoot a revolver—the theory being we’re not strong enough to rack the slide on a semi-automatic!

True, revolvers are mechanically simpler firearms, and are sometimes a great choice—I own one—but they’re not your only choice. I’m a semi-auto kind of gal, because I like having 10 rounds available (you can have more than 10 if you don’t live in a state with magazine limits, as I do). The trigger pull is lighter than that of a revolver, and the slimmer silhouette suits me better.

If racking the slide on a semiautomatic is a problem for you, there are many hand-strengthening exercises that will help. You can also simply add grip tape to your slide so you can get a better grasp of it.

Do the research, figure out what you want, and don’t let someone try to persuade you otherwise.

7. You may be ignored at the store.

I’ve had more than one bad experience while standing at a gun counter waiting for help. I’ve been completely ignored. I’ve been asked if I “needed any help picking out something for my husband.” I’ve also been talked down to. These were all very big mistakes on the part of the salesman, and all of them were “re-educated” as to their shortcomings.

It happens, and when it does, it’s better to address the situation head-on in a polite but firm manner instead of making a snarky comment. You’re the customer; you have every right to ask for a manager and explain the situation, or just walk out and shop elsewhere where you will be treated as an equal. I’ve done both and now have great relationships with the gun stores I buy from. They’re used to selling to men, sometimes they just don’t understand that you’re the customer. Deal with it and move on.

8. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

You may need help with what ammunition you should use, or which stance or grip might be best. Don’t be afraid to reach out, but find someone knowledgeable whom you trust—a great instructor, someone you’ve shot with before, or a salesman you like—and ask what you want to know. They want you to succeed, they want you to be safe, and they really do want you to enjoy the same sport they do!

That said, I’d avoid online firearm forums where anonymous people claiming to be experts may dish out some bad and even unsafe advice, possibly from the depths of their mom’s basement.

Learning to shoot isn’t something that you can conquer with one lesson, one clinic, or one box of ammunition. It takes good instruction, time and lots of practice. You can do it—and you’ll love it!

Annette Doerr is a writer, businesswoman, equestrian, NRA Certified Pistol Instructor and Range Safety Officer. The married mother of two lives in the suburban New York City area.