Ted Deeds lies in bed in the dark, an orange blanket pulled up to his chin. His gun rests on the night table beside him. His ammunition is tucked in his belt.

"Start," a voice says.

Deeds flings off the covers and reaches for his Browning Hi-Power. A security officer, he knows how to load in the dark. In an instant he is at the door, firing. Light fractures the darkness. The cardboard intruder takes one in the chest.

"It's reality when you're up there," Deeds says 32.75 seconds later, when his round is through. "It's not a game. It's real. The rush is just as intense as if it was real. When you come off, your hands are shaking. Look."

His gaze is steady but his hands are not. He is wearing cutoffs and goggles and "ears" to mute the roar of exploding muzzles. His belt buckle says "The Right to Keep and Bear Arms." His T-shirt says "Gun Control Is Being Able to Hit Your Target."

The targets this summer afternoon at the Gilbert Small Arms Range in Lorton have heads and shoulders and kill zones. They are supposed to look like people. That's why it's called practical shooting, the fastest growing handgun sport in America. The aim is to kill.

On Tuesday the U.S. Senate voted to ease federal gun control laws, after rejecting a proposal by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to retain the ban on interstate sales of handguns but to repeal it for rifles and other weapons used for sporting purposes. "The biggest thing the antigunners say is there is no sporting purpose for handguns," says Brian Wardell, assistant manager of the Gilbert Small Arms Range. "A person who says that obviously has never seen anything like this."

The motto of the International Practical Shooters Confederation is "Diligentia-Vis-Celeritas," "accuracy-power-speed." The goal, according to a practical pistol course book, is "realistic probability."

There are standardized courses of fire like "Quick and Dirty," "The Flying M" and "El Presidente." There are courses with evocative names like "Sunday in El Salvador," "Colombian Courier" and "McDonald's Lobby," invented long before the 1984 massacre in San Ysidro, Calif. There are courses based on real-life events like "The Cirillo Drill," based on a New York City stakeout, and "Dozier," based on the kidnaping of Brig. Gen. James L. Dozier by the Red Brigades in Italy in 1981.

"Let's face it, it's people-type targets and hostages -- it's supposed to set up real-life situations," says Gary Baker, a credit manager from Edgewood, Md. "Would I, John Q. Public, run and get a gun and do something? I don't know that I would. I like the competition. Since school, I just sit here going to pot."

He glances at his waist, which has expanded considerably since his days as an offensive lineman in college. "I've never done anything that pumps you up like this," Baker says. "It's like playing war or army as a kid, but using real guns and bullets . . . Everyone wants to be a fireman or an astronaut or a policeman. It's a way of acting out a fantasy."

They come for the sport, for the rush, for the practice: policemen and security officers, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, marines and middle-aged men. They all like to shoot. Some need to be able to. Others just like the smell of gunpowder. The allure isn't hard to understand -- it hangs in the air, a tantalizing elixir of cordite and sweat and power. Eyes blaze long after the shooting stops.

"A lot of people say we teach people to kill," says Ray Chapman, who won the first championship in 1975. "We teach them how to stay alive. We train people to take care of the problem before it gets out of hand.

"If you want to take it as a game, you can take it as a game. Also, you can develop usable skills. The way the world is going, it could happen to you like the people sitting over in Beirut."

There are world championships and national championships and local competitions, like the monthly matches at the Gilbert Small Arms Range. The National Rifle Association sponsors action shooting matches, in which there is less movement and the targets are shaped like tombstones. Its Bianchi Cup championship offers $160,000 in prize money, including a $15,000 first prize and a $1,250 prize for the top woman. Rob Leatham of Arizona is the U.S. World and Bianchi Cup champion. Jo Anne Hall, a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, is the U.S. women's champion.

The International Practical Shooters Confederation was founded in 1976. As of this spring there were chapters in 22 countries, including Belgium, Austria, Australia, Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, South Africa, Spain, Israel, Costa Rica and Singapore.

"There are approximately 10,000 active competitors who compete four to five times a year in IPSC-style matches," says Dave Stanford, president of the United States Practical Shooters Association and regional director of IPSC in the United States. "There may be 80,000 to 100,000 shooters in the United States who have at one time or another tried IPSC-style shooting."

Charlie and Emily Jones of Springfield, Va., are newcomers to the sport. They are in their fifties and Charlie is retired. They joined IPSC and were serious enough about it to fly to California for a two-day training course.

"The four children are out of the house, so we can have a gun now," Emily says. "For protection we always had a baseball bat."

Charlie has been interested in shooting ever since he was a tank gunner in the Army. "It's the macho smell of gunpowder," he says. "No. Just kidding."

"Friends think you're weird, but they think we're weird anyway," she says.

"They get a funny look on their face," Charlie says. "They say, 'Gee, if you shoot so well, there'll be a dead person on the floor.' "

"If there's a dead person on the floor," Emily says, "there's a good reason." It began as a publicity stunt. Jeff Cooper, the self-described founder of the discipline, organized a match in 1956 to attract customers to his ski lodge in Big Bear, Calif. He was a marine, a conventional shooter until he began working out with the FBI agents at Quantico, where he first saw the possibilities of practical, combat-style shooting. "It's a world-wide martial art," he says. "It's a way of keeping yourself alive."

Cooper and his friends had grown tired of conventional pistol competitions -- bull's-eye and silhouette and bowling-pin shooting. Accuracy was no longer enough of a challenge. They wanted to know who was the fastest gun on the range. "In the early '50s there were a lot of TV programs like 'Cheyenne' and 'Sugarfoot' where guys were gunfighters," Ray Chapman says. "People started emulating that on the range. They started going out and practicing fast draw."

But that didn't tell them who was the fastest and most accurate shot. Cooper began experimenting with different techniques that would tax their ability to shoot and to move, to react under the stress of simulated reality. Since then the sport has grown, diverged. Over the years the schism between those who come to play and those who come to perfect deadly skills has deepened.

"It simulates reality like Hollywood, with props," says Dave Stanford, a former SWAT sergeant and training instructor. "This is an illusion and everyone should know it is an illusion. As a course of fire, it's designed to be fun . . . It has martial arts roots, but it is a far cry from what would take place in a real-life scenario."

"The issue of realism versus gamesmanship is always present," Cooper says. "The purpose is realism, but the gamesmanship hones the skills necessary to build self-confidence."

Disdaining the specially designed guns being used by top competitors because they are not "streetable," Cooper has split from IPSC. He says ego has trivialized the sport. He now teaches self-defense to civilians and law enforcement personnel at The Gunsite Ranch in Arizona. "Our product is peace of mind," he says.

Police departments and law enforcement agencies around the country have begun to adopt IPSC-style training courses and techniques such as the rollover prone and speed kneeling. The FBI Academy at Quantico has adapted some IPSC methods for its training program, although it stops short of endorsing them. "The FBI Academy changed its style of shooting based on things we've learned from IPSC," says Bill Rogers, a former FBI special agent who introduced IPSC methods at a seminar there 2 1/2 years ago.

Dave Stanford says he has received more than 200 inquiries from police departments since January. Frank Repass, the rangemaster at the Orlando, Fla., police department who designed its IPSC-style training course, says 40 to 50 police departments in central Florida have adopted IPSC methods. The advantages over traditional police training techniques -- static drills with no time pressure and standstill targets -- are obvious.

John Kirk, a Fairfax County police officer, began competing in IPSC matches last winter. Three years ago he was involved in his second shooting. He says he was lucky to survive. The perpetrator pulled a gun and fired. Kirk hit him with his last shot. "I hate to say it, but I didn't do a very good job," he says. "If he hadn't been high, I would have been killed. I felt I needed to practice under stress to become better.

"This is everything I was looking for." It is a sunny Sunday afternoon. Inside the Gilbert Small Arms Range it is dark but for the eerie red glow from the exit sign. Twenty-eight competitors mill around the adjacent showroom, waiting for their weapons to be calibrated and debating the merits of .9 mm Berettas versus Colt .45s. Their palms sweat as they read the mimeographed instructions:

Stage 1: A Night at the Opera

You're staying with aunt Martha (the opera singer) for the weekend. This is bad enough in itself, but she will not have a loaded gun in the house so you keep yours unloaded in the nightstand next to your bed. You wake up from dreaming of Pavarotti being skewered and realize that it wasn't a dream, it is aunt Martha screaming.

On the start signal: Load your weapon, turn on the light and head for the source of the disturbance. Each target must be engaged with at least two rounds except the stop plate which must be engaged last.

Stage 2: Bus Station Blow-Out.

You're waiting for a friend at the bus station and just as you start to tie your shoe, Bus 66 from Miami arrives. You look up to see that the passengers are none other than Pedro and the psychotic killers from the Mariel Boatlift Co. enroute to St. Elizabeths. Only one problem, the guards are dead and the psychos have the guns. On the start signal: Draw, knock down all Pepper Poppers and engage all paper targets with two rounds each. The steel plate on the left starts a moving target, the one on the right stops the time.

At 3:30 match director Brian Wardell calls the competitors inside for their first glimpse of the courses of fire. This is a semisurprise match. In a surprise match competitors don't see the course until they step up to the line of fire. Wardell explains the rules. He says the matches operate under IPSC regulations (he expects the range to receive its IPSC sanction this month) and the Comstock scoring system. Targets have A, B, C, D zones -- A is the kill zone -- worth a decreasing number of points. The score is the total number of points divided by the time it takes to complete the course.

For a few minutes the range is quiet. Competitors count their bullets. Adrenaline flows. It is the natural consequence of live ammunition. "This is adult," says Bruce Barr of Silver Spring. "You can't be a John McEnroe. You have live ammunition. You're actually trying to control a firearm."

He is an electrical technician. His voice is mild. "I'm not macho," he says. "I cry at sad movies."

On the firing line, he is transformed. "Think of the most anxiety-ridden performance you've ever given," he says, trying to explain. "Spice that with a little 'Gee, I hope I don't screw up,' and spice that with 'I hate these targets and I'm going to punch holes in them.' It makes your heart beat really fast . . . It's a cheap high almost. You really do get pumped up."

"Adrenaline is good," Gary Baker says. "The secret of this is to control it."

Jeff Patton, a wiry blond man from Middle River, Md., steps up to the line of the "Bus Station Blow-Out." He wears a T-shirt that says "Cynicism Is My Life."

"Do it simple," a friend says as Patton leans over, pretending to tie his shoe. Ten yards downrange is a plywood barricade with cardboard and steel silhouettes -- "psychos" and "passengers" -- deployed behind it. A direct hit to one of the four steel targets causes two cardboard figures to spring up in its place. A steel plate on the left activates a moving target that passes in front of "no shoots" -- figures with white slashes across their chests.

"You're going to have to go for the head," Barr says, watching. "You're going to have to go for the mover first."

Patton checks his gun and plots his strategy, trying to remember the fundamentals. Smooth draw, lock on the front site, squeeze the trigger.

"There's a lot of self-imposed stress here," says Dave Smith, the Maryland section IPSC coordinator. "Presumably, somebody who is going to use a handgun probably wouldn't have a chance to get excited and plan ahead. Here you can sit around for an hour watching everybody else."

Jill Snyder is a 23-year-old criminal investigator for the D.C. public defender's agency. She started shooting in college. "When I lived in the sorority, I used to have to lock the door when I cleaned my gun," she says. "They'd walk in and scream."

She once wore a cap with a gun emblem to an office gathering. "They said, 'This is a joke, right?' It was a Florida hat. So they got this redneck impression. I think they look down on it."

Patton has been interested in guns since he was a little boy. "My father let me shoot, but he was strictly antigun," he says. "He wouldn't keep one in the house. They were scared of them."

He never shared his family's fear. Like many of the others gathered at the Gilbert Small Arms Range, he says he feels safe in the company of those who know how to handle a gun. Still, he isn't quite sure how to explain the attraction. "Maybe it cleans your system out," he says. "It's a very solo thing. There's no room for error."

He shrugs. "They say the only difference between a man and a boy is the price of his toys."

The afternoon grows long. The air thickens. Guns fire and jam. Patton's Beretta betrays him as he sits on Aunt Martha's bed trying to load it in the dark. Jill Snyder drops her ammunition and inadvertently sweeps the range with her unloaded gun. Bill Carter catches his feet in the bedcovers as he heads for Aunt Martha's hall.

There is danger even in simulation. Patton says he has been nicked by bullets ricocheting off steel targets. But "if there was a way to get 'em to shoot back," Wardell laughs, "I guess we'd try it."

Finally Dave Smith steps up to shoot his round. He is one of the best shooters in the area, quick and smooth and sure. He completes the first stage in 15 1/2 seconds and the second in 18, the winning scores.

"I quit," a competitor says. "Time to fall on your sword."

Smith says he feels "no more sense of power" with his gun in his hand "than holding a golf club or a tennis racket."

But what of those who are emboldened by this game, who become convinced they would be as proficient at home as they are in Aunt Martha's guest room?

"They're leading themselves down the primrose path," says Preston Howland, a Coast Guard pilot from Camden, N.C. "That can be dangerous."

There is, after all, a fine line between fantasy and reality. Bullets have been crossing it with impunity all day long.

"You just don't go blasting like the movies do, like Rambo does," Howland says, clicking on his safety. "If Aunt Martha screams, I'm going to slide down the halls and keep behind cover. That's after I call for help. I'm not going to go running door to door. That's a good way to get shot."