YEARS AGO, trap and skeet were considered vaguely aristocratic pastimes to be enjoyed only by the country club set. An early impression comes to mind: a 1930s photo of Gary Cooper taken at a skeet field. Coop, resplendent in Chesterfield jacket and two-tone wingtips, is cradling a highly engraved Parker double in his arms while an admiring Louise Brooks clone smiles toothily from the sidelines. Obviously, Uncle Joe didn't go in for this kind of thing!

But that's all changed. The Hollywood swells and starlets have been replaced by T-shirted college kids in scuffed Reeboks and by housewives in their mail-order cammies.

"These used to be elite sports," agrees Dorothy Werner, a public information officer for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, which operates the Bull Run Public Shooting Center in Fairfax County. "We get a really mixed bag now, though -- students, government workers, hunters, doctors . . . . "

What's the attraction? "This really is a challenge. It's very exciting and quick -- not dull at all," says Jeff George, a 19-year old Prince George's Community College student, "and it's a lot of fun to shoot with your friends."

George was visiting the Prince George's Public Shooting Center recently, accompanied by about a dozen fellow students who were "smoking" -- that is, totally demolishing -- flying clay pigeons at an impressive clip.Suburban Virginia and Marylandoffer one public trap and skeet range apiece, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Beltway. Both are well-run facilities in idyllic parkland settings, surrounded by stands of fragrant pines.

Earl Hodnett, who's in charge of Bull Run Regional Park, says it's not unusual to see deer grazing at the edge of a skeet field while spent pellets rain down around them.

Both shooting centers are open year-round for trap and skeet. For a really unusual experience, you might give night-time shooting a whirl. The centers are brightly illuminated at night, and it's definitely lots of fun.

Even if you've never fired a gun in your life, there's no problem. Everything you need can be rented on site, and experienced range personnel are there to help.

Both trap and skeet are played in rounds of 25 shots apiece, with "25 straight" being a perfect score. Both games require shotguns, smooth-bored weapons that fire hundreds of tiny lead pellets. Shotguns are described in terms of barrel diameter or "gauge," with 12-gauge (about 3/4") being far and away the most popular.

Trap and skeet targets, called clay pigeons, are immediately hurled into the air at the shooter's shouted command of "pull."

A basic game of trap is shot from five positions on a semi-circular field, with the shooter standing anywhere from 16 to 27 yards -- depending on one's skill -- behind a spring-loaded mechanical "trap." That device propels the orange or yellow painted clay pigeons (four-inch flying saucers, made of hardened pitch, actually) at a speed of about 60 miles per hour. In trap, all of the targets are rising and headed away from the shooter at various angles. Targets generally are broken at a longer range than in skeet.

Skeet is also shot on a semi-circular field, but from eight positions. Targets are thrown from so-called "high" and "low" houses at opposite sides of the field.

As the shooter changes positions, the relative angle of the targets varies from nearly straightaway to crossing at 90 degrees.

Two or four target "birds" are shot at each position, with a total of 25 targets usually shot in each round of trap or skeet.(At the end of a perfect round, the odd shell remaining is fired at the "low house bird" on Station 8.)

"Olympic" style trap or skeet, popular in Europe, is considered more challenging. Two shots may be fired at any given target with no penalty for not scoring with the first. But the targets travel faster (about 80 miles per hour), and they are launched with random delays of up to several seconds after the "pull" command is given, and the shooter may not raise his gun before the bird appears.

Olympic trap and skeet are offered only at the Prince George's center at this time.

Also popular in Europe are the games known as "sporting clays." These games are shot in meadow or woodland settings, with clay pigeons rising from concealed brush piles, from "duck" or "goose" towers nestled high among trees, or popping straight up from alongside the trail.

The games have imaginative names such as "quail walk," "springing teal," and "flushing pheasant," and are designed to simulate actual hunting conditions.

"These are big sports in England," says Dick Whiting, manager of the Prince George's County Shooting Center. "The Queen comes out for the events, and Prince Charles competes in them . . . . "

Whiting says he's just completed construction of a number ofsporting clays trails through woodlands on the grounds of the center, and they're now open. GOING FOR IT PRINCE GEORGE'S PUBLIC SHOOTING CENTER -- 10400 Good Luck Road, Glenn Dale. 301/577-1477.

The center is operated year-round by Beretta U.S.A. in conjunction with the Prince George's County division of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Hours are 5-10 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, 3-10 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. holidays.

Prices are $2.24 a round, plus tax, for trap and skeet and sporting clays events. That fee includes 25 clay pigeons and the use of the field and traps. Every fifth round is free. Shells sell for $4 to $5 per box of 25, depending on type. Beretta shotguns are rented at a daily rate of $2.50 per gun. Disposable plug-type ear protectors are on sale for a quarter.

There are nine skeet and nine trap fields, as well as two 15-trap "Olympic bunkers."

Beretta shotguns are offered for sale, along with all types of reloading equipment and components.Shooters may use their own guns and reloaded shells. Shotgun shooting only is permitted.

To get there: From the Beltway, take exit 22-A (marked Balto-Wash. Pkwy.). Take first exit off Parkway (marked Greenbelt Road-193). Proceed east on 193 for 2.1 miles, making a left on Good Luck Road. Proceed for 8/10 of a mile, making a left at the sign marked "Prince George's Sports Center." BULL RUN PUBLIC SHOOTING CENTER -- 5400 Ox Rd., Fairfax Station. Tel. 703-830-2344.

The center is operated year-round (except Christmas Day) by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Hours are from 2-9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday (3 to 9:30 effective July 1), and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends and holidays. There are four skeet fields and 13 trap fields.

Prices are $3 a round for trap and skeet, which includes 25 clay pigeons and the use of the field and traps.

Shells are $5.75 to $6.50 per box of 25, depending on type. Guns rent for $2 a day (pumps and automatics) or $4 for over-under doubles. Muff-type ear protectors are available for 50 cents a day.

Shotguns of any make can be ordered for purchase if the customer makes advance payment. The center also sells reloading supplies and components. Shooters may use their own guns and reloaded shells. Shotgun shooting only is permitted (an archery range also is available).

To get there: From the Beltway, take I-66 west to the Centreville-Manassas exit (13), proceeding south on Route 28 (toward Manassas) for about a half-mile. Turn right on Route 29, proceeding about three miles and making a left on Bull Run Road. Follow signs to Bull Run Regional Park and Shooting Center.

Bill Sautter last wrote for Weekend on dove hunting.