My grandfather, who spent many hours making me a good shot with a rifle, would not let me fire his shotguns. "Too much for a girl to handle," he said. Considering his shotguns, maybe he was right.

Made in the early 1900s, they were monstrously heavy and cumbersome, with hammers over each barrel that had to be cocked by hand and a kick that could knock my brother across the farmhouse porch.

I go to thinking about that last week at the Winchester Public Shooting Center in Glen Arden, banging away at clay targets with a double-barrel shotgun.

Unlike my grandfather, the Winchester firearms company actively promotes target shooting with a shotgun as a sport for women, children and the elderly as well as for robust males. Winchester operates the center for the Maryland-National Capitol Park & Planning Commission.

"Size is really no impediment to shooting," center instructor Joe Ahern said recently. "If you can hold a shotgun comfortably, you can shoot and the guns come in small sizes."

They come in four common sizes -- 12-, 20- and 28-gauge and .410 bore. The numbers refer to barrel size, but the larger the number, the smaller the barrel and therefore the gun. All modern shotguns are lighter and easier to handle than my grandfather's old ruffians. Joe said children often start with a .410 and women with 20-gauge.

"We are seeing more and more women coming out and getting into the sport, he added, "not just with their husbands or boyfriends, but on their own."

There are a lot of reasons for taking up clay-target shooting, but the best one is that it's just plain fun -- anticipating the flying target, tracking it with eye, body and gun and finally smashing it with lead shot.

"People love to see those target break," Joe said. "You can say to yourself, I did everything right, mind and body together, and broke it."

The targets -- four-inch clay discs -- used in skeet and trap are thrown mechanically at about 60 mph. To hit one, your whole mind and body have to be involved in the shot. Yet it's surprisingly eary to learn, and expertise comes with practice.

The center offers instruction in both games. Trap is the older, going back at least to 1750 when live birds were released from cages on the cry of "Pull." The call "Pull" is still used, but now the clay "birds" are thrown by the launcher at various angles, randomly, away from the stationary shooter.

In skeet, the trajectory of the target is always the same, but the shooter moves from station to station around a semicircular field. Skeet was invented in the United States about 1920. The name -- an old Scandinavian word meaning to shoot -- was selected through a contest.

Both games were developed to keep hunting skills sharp, but many trap and skeet shooters -- about half, according to Joe -- never fire anything but clay targets.

I'd gotten there because of an invitation to go bird-hunting in the fall. "Of course, you'll have to learn to use a shotgun," the hunter had said, "but you won't have any problem." Remembering my grandfather's monsters, I was not as sure as he was; but her was right, mostly.

I actually fired a shotgun for the first time in my life on a hot July day, one a remote farm in Virginia. The hunter provided the 12-gauge pump shotgun, a hand target-launcher and a box of clay targets that looked, close up, like Frisbees.

Before I fired, the hunter had me lift the gun into place against my shoulder pocket over and over. Shotguns were developed for moving targets, and that's still their main use; smooth gun-handling is a must. By practicing the gun mount time and again, my teacher said, it would become automatic, freeing my mental computer to concentrate on tracking the target.

On that first shot, I closed my eyes involvuntarily and tensed my body for a blow. It never came. The recoil was so light that I was surprised, and said so. "Just be sure to set the butt firmly against your shoulder," the hunter warned.

I missed the first few shots trying to aim the shotgun like a rifle. "Don't aim it, point it," he said patiently. "You've got a two- to three-foot shot pattern to work with, and it only takes one pellet to break the target."

Another miss. "You shot behind it," he said. "That's the most common miss in shooting. You have to keep swinging the barrel evern after you shoot."

That was the hardest thing to do. That and keeping both eyes open. Finally, I hit one but couldn't reconstruct how it was done. I remembered nothing but seeing the target.

We took turns shooting and throwing targets, and I drew confidence watching him smash one after another. Then I hit three in a row, twice. I noticed my arm beginning to shake as I lifted the gun, but called for another target anyway and fired.

The pain shot through my arm as if it had been hit by a rock. Too late, I realized I had gotten too tired to get the gun in place and the recoil planted a sharp bruise in the shape of the gun butt on the soft flesh of my upper arm. We called it a day.

He suggested that I might need a lighter gun, and that next time we should go to a skeet range "so you can begin to groove in on the target.

A couple of days later he called with "the ideal setup," a learn-to-shoot class at the Winchester Public Shooting Center in Prince George's County. "It's three Thursday nights in a row, and they have a variety of gun sizes you can try. I might go along to see if I can break some bad habits," he added.

We arrive just as the class was beginning. The center is one of 30 built by Winchester in the 1960s, in cooperation with public park authorities, to encourage shotgun sports. According to manager Ron Rozanski, about 250,000 people have learned to shoot in the centers nationwide and more than 600 have learned at his center in the last year alone.

Rozanski has eight instructors and can accommodate up to 60 people per class; they're given every month except August and cost $30 ($15 during the fall special) for ammunition, instruction and the use of the guns. At the end of the course, Rozanski also offers an additional, free class on how to reload you own shells, to cut the cost of ammunition.

Our class of 14, including two women and two boys, was small even for summer, Rozanski said. The first evening included a lecture, two film strips and some shooting time. The second and third nights were spent almost entirely on the practice fields.

The primary message in Rozanski's lecture was safe shotgun handling. According to Rozanski and instructor Joe Ahern, shotgun target-shooting is a very safe sport; though there have been some accidents, Joe said, "There has never been a fatality in organized skeet shooting and half a billion rounds a year are fired."

The hunter and I and four other students were assigned to Joe for the shooting sessions. After watching the film strips about the advantages of joining an organized league, I had begun to wonder how useful target-shooting would really be for hunting. Also how well I'd do under formal instruction, which sometimes locks my mind.

Joe talked about some of the differences between target-shooting and hunting, but pointed out that the fundamentals of gunhandling and shooting are the same for both. Joe is a hunter himself, or was until he got into trap shooting for sport nearly two years ago. Since then, he hasn't done a lot of hunting.

At my turn to shoot, Joe checked my stance and gun position and suggested I practice following the target with the barrel once before shooting. They clay disc flew a lot faster than the ones we'd thrown by hand, but Joe assured me "you'll break it." I hit three out of four shots but, again, could not remember what I'd done, just the target.

The class ended and a couple of us stayed on to shoot a practice round of skeet. That's 25 shells each. Joe stayed with us.

I was using a double-barrel shotgun, with one barrel over the other. The hunter decided to try to 28-gauge, which has a smaller shot pattern and makes the game more challenging.

We started at station one, and I missed seven shots in a row. Sometimes I'd forget to keep swinging for the follow-through; other times I'd close one eye. No matter what, I could not get a single one of those more than 500 pellets per shell to hit that four-inch Frisbee.

"You're trying too hard," Joe observed. "Relax a minute and we'll go to another station." In the meantime, my friend hit several and missed a couple.

We moved to station three, where Joe warned us that the barrel should lead the target so much "you don't believe you could possibly hit it." The hunter went first and missed all his shots. My confidence drained totally away.

I missed the first shot from three, way behind."Lift your arm a little more," Joe said very quietly, "and lean a little more forward. Get set up and don't think about anything but the target."

"Pull," I called. The mechanical launcher responded with a thwack. Blam! Hit. A real dead-on hit.

By the end of the practice, Joe had us shooting doubles -- shooting at two targets launched simultaneously in a crossing pattern. The first time, I didn't even see one of the targets; the next time, one hit and one miss, and the third time, both were smashed.

It was more fun than winning at Space Invaders. Maybe it's the noise, and the little bit of smoke, and the smell of gunpowder as well as the physical rerality. It sure beat outshooting the boy next door with a .22: He always got mad and sulked.

"Some days you're hot and you hit everything," Ron Rozanski commented. "Other times, you can't even hit the easy ones." As a truth that keeps the game interesting, it seemed irrelevant at the time.

I felt superbly giddy leaving the field that night, looking forward to the next lesson and the next time I'd have the shotgun in my hands and the target crossing overhead.

If my grandfather could see me now. . . .'