Cindy Bonham, 28, aims a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson with trembling hands. She cocks the hammer at eye level.

"Ready on the line!" calls the range director.

She shuts her right eye. Her lips tighten.

"Commence firing!"

Five loud cracks explode from Bonham's revolver. The first bullet punctures the bottom of the paper target. The next four shred holes around the bull's-eye.

"Heart shots," pronounces range officer Mitchell Ota.

"All five would have counted in a real-life situation," says Barry Bonham, 29, admiring his wife's target.

"I'll put it on the front door when you're away," Cindy Bonham says, reaching for her husband's hand.

She thus completed the final session of a course to teach women handgun safety and self-defense, sponsored by the Montgomery Women's Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, a nonprofit conservation organization. Three two-hour classroom sessions were conducted at the league's Rockville Chapter House last week by five National Rifle Association-certified instructors. The instruction covered safety, self-defense and laws governing gun use and ownership, and was followed by individual shooting instruction for each woman at the league's pistol range last weekend.

The program was introduced by Kym Roby, 25, president of the women's chapter, after she learned of similar classes formed in Atlanta and Los Angeles in response to a dramatic increase in the number of handguns registered by women in those cities. Roby and Stewart Maida, 65, the chief instructor, believe the program to be the only one of its kind in Maryland.

"As long as women are going to own handguns, they should have the opportunity to learn the proper handling," Roby said. "Men can join all kinds of gun clubs, but women don't have access to that training and education. There is definitely a need for this type of program. I think it could develop into something very big."

Roby said she originally expected an enrollment of only 15 women, but the response to announcements in local newspapers was overwhelming. Attendance at last week's class was limited to 50 women because of space. There is already a waiting list for a second session, tentatively scheduled for May 10-12, 15 and 16. Roby estimated that at least half the women in the class own or have access to handguns.

The only charge is a dollar to cover the cost of ammunition, targets and printed material.

State police spokesman Dan McCarthy said there are now more than a million legally registered handguns in Maryland, and probably at least another one million are unregistered. That translates to nearly one handgun for every two of the state's 4.2 million residents. McCarthy said some of the guns may have been purchased by collectors, but most appear to have been bought by residents fearful of becoming crime victims.

The state police do not record how many of the handgun owners are women, but Sgt. Norman M. Pepersack, commander of the Firearms License Section of the state police, said Maryland firearms dealers report a substantial increase in the number of women buying handguns in the last year.

Cindy Bonham keeps a loaded .38 caliber revolver in her Derwood home when her husband is away.

"I hear so much about crime on the news," says Bonham, pushing her brown bangs off her forehead. "I know the police can't always get there on time and I can't just say, 'Wait a minute,' if someone is breaking into the house. I don't think I'd have second thoughts about shooting an intruder."

Sheila Ward, 34, has a loaded pistol taped to the headboard of her bed. She is separated from her husband and lives alone with her two children in Rockville. Two months ago, she said, she spotted a prowler trying to climb through her window. She called the police, but the prowler had fled by the time they arrived. She said he was back the next night, pacing back and forth across the street, looking up at her window.

Ward joined the class to learn to use the .38 revolver a friend has given her for protection.

"As soon as I got my gun I called the Montgomery County Police and the state police looking for an instruction program," Ward said, setting her knitting needles on her lap. "There was nothing. When I heard about this program I called right away. Since I have a gun, I may as well learn how to use it safely."

On Wednesday night, David T. Savage, 52, a certified Maryland hunter safety instructor, concluded the classroom sessions with a 30-minute segment on firearm home safety.

"How you handle your firearm in your own home must ultimately be decided by you," said Savage, pacing slowly toward a large moose head protruding from the wall, "but I can't recommend strongly enough that you keep your firearm locked up and your ammunition locked up separately.

"The best line of defense," Savage said, "is the (telephone emergency) number 911 and a lock on every door in the house. It's the best precaution against accidents. And that's that."

Ward is not worried about her son, 11, and daughter, 6, living around a loaded weapon. "My children have grown up around guns: my son hunts with my husband on the Eastern Shore, and they have both shot rifles. I think that like drinking, a gun is more of a curiosity, more of a temptation, if it is strictly forbidden or hidden from children."

Gini Kennedy, 26, lives in Poolesville with her husband and daughter. Before last Sunday she had never held a gun. On the range she fired a .38 special and a .45 semi-automatic.

"I had been dreading this shooting for a long time," Kennedy said after checking her target. "I've always been afraid of guns, but I feel a lot more confident now that I've shot."

"We taught them the consequences of firing a gun, as well as how to fire it," Savage said, watching the women leave the range on the final day of shooting. "We wanted them to be aware that even if you fire a handgun in self-defense, you're in all kinds of trouble."

"You know," Savage added, after a reflective pause, "it's a cruel world, a vicious world." The instructor described the fear a woman might experience when she is home alone and hears a strange sound--when "the heartbeat starts going" and she grabs her handgun to protect herself from what she believes to be an intruder.

"These ladies better know one thing," Savage said. "They can't pull that bullet back."