This Is What Girls' Night Out Looks Like — At A Shooting Range

It's late on a Wednesday afternoon at a shooting range about 10 miles outside of Austin. Cracks of gunfire cut through the dry, hot August air.

"Try not to hold your shotgun too long and overthink," an instructor cautions. "Now, go ahead and get a box of shells and pick your station."

One shooter dips her hand into a box of pink shot shells on the ground. Another grabs ammunition from a tan crossbody purse borrowed from her daughter. A few shotguns are unzipped from their cases. Many of the stations throughout the range are filled with men. But here, all the shooters — and instructors — are women.

They're part of an outing organized by A Girl & A Gun Women's Shooting League, a club with chapters across the country. Each month, the women meet for "Girl's Night Out" events at trap and skeet clubs and indoor ranges. First, they shoot and get instruction and tips on improving safety and skill. Then they go drink margaritas.

“It’s just really nice to be with a bunch of girls that enjoy the things you do," Maria Mathis, a 23-year-old college student, says.

Tonight, the women are preparing for a sporting clays game called "Five Stand." The aim — to hit clay discs launched into the sky — might sound simple. But the game is notoriously difficult. The clays whir through the air from different angles. From afar, they look like dark, flattened, mini footballs. And they're moving fast. The perspective of the shooter changes each round.

Shooting instructor Renee Blaine offers guidance: Don't load your gun until it's your turn to shoot. Keep the chamber empty and muzzle up as you rotate between stations. And pay attention to fellow shooters' hits — and misses — to inform your own aim.

“If you’re not shooting, you’re watching," she tells the group.

Shooting has long been seen as a male-dominated sport, but these women aren't alone in their passion for firearms. While the number of gun-owning households nationwide has dropped to a historic low, surveys have shown an increase in gun ownership by women over the past decade.

And although defense is still the number one reason women buy guns, according to a 2014 report from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, shooting activities are increasing in popularity with the group as well.

Ahead, the members of Austin's A Girl & A Gun chapter share their stories.
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Photographed by Ben Sklar.
Celeste Castro, 33, grew up around family that liked to hunt and go to the range. But it wasn't until recently that she decided to buy a gun and really learn about shooting herself.

During her first class at a range, she hit two clays in two hours.

"It was enough to get a taste of the excitement and tell myself, 'Oh, I want to be better at this. I’m capable of doing it.' That’s the addiction," she says.
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Photographed by Ben Sklar.
A Girl & A Gun got its start seven years ago, as a casual ladies night out at a shooting range. In the years since, it's grown to include more than 5,000 members across 46 states. And organizers say they're seeing more young women join the ranks.

"Women in general are the fastest-growing demographic of gun owners; however, there has also been an upswing in participation among millennials," Robyn Sandoval, executive director of A Girl & A Gun, told Refinery29 via email. "They want to be empowered and self-reliant to take charge of their own safety. They also are comfortable participating in activities that have been traditionally male-dominated."
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Photographed by Ben Sklar.
Industry statistics also show an increase in women in shooting sports. An estimated 5.5 million women in the United States engaged in target shooting in 2015, according to the National Sporting Goods Association's Annual Sports Participation Reports. That's nearly a 57% increase from 10 years prior.
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Photographed by Ben Sklar.
Growing up in California, Clare Ryan didn't have much exposure to firearms.

"Nobody I knew had a gun. People are just kind of scared of them," she says.

But she had a nagging interest in trying sport shooting. And in it, she found a new passion. She's considering competing.

“I really liked baseball as a kid and I think it’s kind of similar because they’re both very [based in] hand-eye coordination, and they’re both very fun," she says. "You have that feeling once you hit the baseball, once you hit the target, you’re hooked.”
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Photographed by Ben Sklar.
Tina Maldonado, who leads the group's Austin-area chapter, got involved in AG&AG within six months of its creation.

As an NRA-certified instructor and range safety officer, she emphasizes safety above all else.

"I’ve been shooting my entire life. I grew up shooting rifles and shotguns primarily. I didn’t really get into handguns until about six years ago, and I wanted to do everything properly and safely," she says.
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Photographed by Ben Sklar.
Maria Mathis, a feminist studies major at a private college in Texas, says most of her classmates are opposed to guns. But she sees firearm ownership as a feminist act.

"You take agency for yourself, you take responsibility for your own life, your own safety. You’re not relying on someone else, you’re not relying on police officers, you’re not relying on a husband, you’re not relying on a boyfriend," she explains. "It’s an individual thing. That is a big, big part of it for me.”
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Photographed by Ben Sklar.
Alie Drouilhet, 37, is a proud gun owner who learned to shoot as a young girl.

While she said she doesn't have a problem telling people she likes guns, she sometimes worries about the stigma or backlash, even in Texas.

"I think people are scared of what they don't know," she says. "It’s just like anything else. All they ever hear about when they hear about guns is bad."
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Photographed by Ben Sklar.
Many of the women bring multiple guns — occasionally at the request of other members. Sometimes, women even send emails ahead of meet-ups asking if anyone has a specific make or model they want to try.
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Stacey Moses' interest in shooting sports picked up after she met her husband, who is a coach with decades of experience in the firearms industry. The couple has since opened their own gun shop, with a focus on serving female customers.

“I was getting into shooting and there was a stigma and it was really hard to go to certain gun shops to get treated fairly as a woman," she explains. "I wanted a place where women could go [and] feel very comfortable, just learning about firearms.”
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Photographed by Ben Sklar.
Moses, 34, is now training for shooting competitions.

“You actually become more comfortable in everyday carry and defense because it gives you better muscle memory, your ability to be safe and be aware of your surroundings," she says.
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Photographed by Ben Sklar.
Maldonado says she has seen Austin's chapter of A Girl & A Gun and her own firearm instruction and safety business, Pistols, Petals & Pearls, grow in popularity among young women. She thinks the trend is partially due to concerns about security and personal safety.

"The last couple of years, as things have happened around the world, I’m starting to see younger and younger women coming out," she says.
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Photographed by Ben Sklar.
More than 60% of female firearm owners surveyed as part of the NSSF's Women Gun Owners Report said they frequently participate in shooting activities, such as visits to a gun range. A third of respondents hit the range at least once a month.
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"I used to be the girl with 99 guys doing the sporting clay stuff, and a lot of time there were the ladies, or the significant others, just standing there with a look on their faces like, 'Dang that looks like fun,'" says Renee Blaine, an instructor who helps members with form and safety. "They didn't really have an avenue for how to start, or where to start."

Blaine, who owns the shooting school Austin Hot Shots, hopes AG&AG can be that avenue for a new generation of women.

"This is my crack," she says with a smile.