In the early hours of Nov. 27, a day that animal rights demonstrators dubbed "Fur-Free Friday," an unknown assailant declared open season on fur retailers in the Washington area.

That night, shots believed to have been fired from a pellet gun, air rifle or hunting slingshot punched holes through windows at five stores along Wisconsin Avenue in lower Montgomery County and in downtown Washington, retailers reported to county and District police.

Fur stores that were hit were Gartenhaus and Furs by Yianni in Bethesda, Saks-Jandel in Chevy Chase, and Miller's Furs and Rosendorf-Evans in downtown Washington.

The stores have since tightened security, and the owners are "pretty upset, and they're likely to put pressure on through the chambers of commerce to get more police action," said Rick Parsons, executive director of the Fur Retailers Information Council, a Washington-based association set up by retailers and manufacturers a year ago to combat anti-fur sentiment.

Some time after 5 p.m. on the same day, the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally one of the heaviest shopping days of the year, shots were fired at Fred's Fur Vault in Bethesda, a branch of a national chain that had been singled out for attack several times in the previous year. The Fur Vault was open for business at the time -- as it was on Dec. 5 when still another window was shot out, store manager Charles Faddis said. No one was injured and no arrests have been made in any of the incidents, police said.

Red paint also was splashed Nov. 27 at both the Fur Vault -- whose representatives told the Justice Department that they have had to make $50,000 in repairs in more than a year -- and at the Hecht Co. Metro Center store, where about 30 demonstrators from an organization called Trans-Species Unlimited protested the sale of furs.

Animal rights activists say they are mystified by the incidents here, and that to their knowledge, no one has claimed responsibility for them, even anonymously.

While fur stores have been the targets of demonstrations and paint splashers in a number of cities, the Washington area is the only one where shots have been fired, said Thomas G. Riley, a veteran Washington public relations man who has been hired by the $2 billion-a-year fur industry to help combat anti-fur sentiment.

As the fur-selling season swings into high gear, animal activists and fur industry spokesmen agree on one thing: A public relations war over the wearing of furs -- cited for trimming sales in Europe in recent years -- now is becoming well entrenched in the United States.

"Fur is a big issue" now among animal activists, said Ingrid Newkirk, director of the largest of the rights groups, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "As people are becoming more aware of the suffering of animals used in the food industry and certainly in the cosmetic industry, it becomes increasingly offensive to see people flaunting a nonessential item that causes a great deal of suffering for animals."

The fur industry, which says that sales are steadily rising, not dropping, nonetheless has organized for battle. Riley said the fur information council, whose members account for about 80 percent of fur sales, has sought the assistance of federal authorities.

He also acknowledged that the fur information council has told outdoor advertising companies that they might risk lawsuits if anti-fur advertisements "slander or get into defamation of character of fur owners."