Skeet began with a bored hunter who found joy shooting down bottles thrown in the air. Now automatic machines fire clay targets for a shooter who may have no interest in hunting at all. The gun, though, is still polished wood and oiled steel in the hands of flesh and blood. It is still a gun, still a deadly weapon.

Get serious. Step over the line. Join the rolling thunder of guns at Bull Run Public Shooting Center in Northern Virginia. Follow your puller, the man assigned to you when you paid your $2.50 in the clubhouse, past the Shooters Only Beyond This Point" sign on the split-rail fence and across the grass to the left side of your range. The tower at this end of the concrete path that arcs across the range is called high house; the one at the right end is low house. Stacks of black-and-white clay targets, brittle five-inch Frisbee-shaped disks, hand over electric machines rumbling in darkness inside the towers.

Your puller whips his long black extension cord over grass and moves behind you with his little electric box and your score sheet. If you're serious, he's interested. If not, he's either bored or afraid of your gun. He is hoping you are at least serious about the rules, perhaps hoping you are at least a practiced hunter.

The serious at Bull Run compete in tournaments and carry guns made specially for skeet competition. A good 12-gauge skeet gun can run $1,000. It's heavier than a comparable hunting gun, made to take the beating of more use. Its barrels will have little or no choke.

Gene Davis Jr. is taking a break from the counter in the clubhouse and watching the action while he leans on the fence behind the ranges. A 21-year-old skeet bum, Davis says, "Skeet shooters are crazy. They'll shoot in blistering heat. They'll shoot in driving rain. They'll even shoot with snow up to their asses."

You step up to the square and place your left foot on the "1" on the concrete. You pull two shotgun shells out of one of the bulging front pockets of your shooting vest and push them into the open gun. You begin to focus on the business at hand, and no longer hear the guns on the other ranges, just the machine in the high house and the click of the locking mechanism as you close the gun.

Davis admits he's as crazy as the next man with a passion for skeet but knows he has no future behind that counter. Eventually he'll go back to school and learn biology. But he has time. Right now he's in the middle of something he finds lovely.

"Sometimes when you shoot at night," he says, "you can see the shot flying in the light. It's a flash of silver. Then it's gone.

"Skeet is a sport you either dislike or love. If you like it, it gets in your blood. You have to keep coming out and shooting. We have some old guys who can't shoot much anymore but they'll come out and spend whole days on the clubhouse porch, watching and talking about it."

You keep your foot on the "1" and point your toe toward the cent of the range. You ease your weight out over your bent left knee and try to feel the line the target will take. Your right leg is straight, a rigid brace behine the recoil of the gun. You lift the 12-gauge and place the stock firmly in your shoulder.

Davis is watching Bob Bradley shooting on the range in front of the clubhouse. Many shooters watch Bradley. He's one of the best skeet competitors in the area. Bradley shoots to win.

"Go to any tournament from Delaware to North Carolina and everyone will know who Bradley is," Davis says.

Bradley isn't impressive to look at when he's not actually shooting. His baggy pants and hasty movements between positions are awkward. His stance waiting for the target seems overdone, a caricature of the other shooters. But each time the target flies, Bradley performs a constricted but graceful ballet and the baked clay floats down as dust.

"Skeet is all a head game," Bradley says after two practice rounds. "Once you get the mechanics down, it's all a head game, just like any other game."

A computer systems management specialist, Bradley is off his game. Just back from several months in the Middle East, he's occasionally missing a shot.

You move only from the waist, the gun firmly locked in your grip, your shoulder, your cheek. The line of the upper barrel is an extension of your eye. You lean back and swing the gun along the path the target will fly, out the black porthole over you head in the high house and along what will seem a flat trajectory across the range, barely missing the low house. You lightly touch the trigger, place your thumb on the safety button, and breathe.

"Winning tournaments is what the game is all about," Bradley says. "But you have to break 100s or is isn't worth it."

A round of skeet is 25 shots while moving from position to position on the arc between the high house and the low house. A tournament shoot is four rounds, 100 shots. The top shooters don't miss any targets. With all but the best eliminated they continue to shoot, and the winner doesn't miss. For Bradley the real competition is in the final shoot-off.

Your gun is up, on the line. You see only a slice of sky. You hear nothing as your thumb presses the safety. You grunt, "Pull."

Bradley says he hates to practice. It's too difficult to get up the necessary concentration to knock down all the targets without the edge of competiition. The targets are flying between 50 and 60 miles an hour and the opportunity to hit them is only over a few yards.

The puller, a few steps behind you, taps a button on his box with his tumb. The target flies out the window.

Davis is worried about the 92 nuclear reactors now under construction in this county. The supply of lead is limited, and the reactors are using huge amounts of it for shielding, driving up the price of shot.

The only reason you have a chance to hit the target is that you know where it's going to appear and where it's going. You see and swing. You do not aim. You merely feel the process, do it by instinct. You look for a pre-visualized image becoming real, clear only in its totality, black taper of the barrel, glint of the bead at the end, not the target itself. but its movement against the swinging gun.

If it's right the fraction of a second stretches dreamlike and the final pull on the trigger obliterates the flying clay disk. You don't even hear the sound of the shot. n

Bull Run Center is one of six skeet ranges in the Washington area. The others are private clubs, expensive and with long waiting lists for membership. State-operated Bull Run provides shooting for less expense but with a round of skeet at $2.50 and a box of 25 shells at $4.50, shooters can spend grocery money at a rate of $14 an hour.

If you were off, the instant the target flew was only enough for you to twitch, startled. The target sailed away, curving reproachfully down the slope to the thicker grass. Your ears ring from the blast of the gun.

you repeat from the same position. This time the target will come from the waist-high window of the low house and fly up and past your left shoulder. This time the shot is even quicker; there is no lead involved -- you swing the muzzle of your gun over the target and squeeze the trigger when the movements coincide.

You open the gun and collect the spent shells. They go in the big back pocket of your shooting vest, to be reloaded some in-between evening for half the price of new. You load again.

Then doubles, high house and low house hiccuping simultaneously, your finer squeezing the trigger again for the second shot before the first is noted.

A wrought iron-and-glass light fixture hangs on a chain under the clubhouse porch roof. A pair of birds, flycatchers, have nested on top of the light for the past several years, oblivious to the rumble of the guns and the crowd passing below them. Their flight is as swift as that of the clay pigeons, but their passion is bugs.