Hundreds of Prince William County youths who are preparing to take to the woods when this year's hunting season opens Nov. 19 are taking a special course designed to teach them gun safety and hunting etiquette.

For the second time this year, youths ages 12 to 15 interested in hunting and first-time hunters of all ages are flocking to a 10-hour Virginia Hunter Education course offered by the Dale City Recreation Center. Similar courses are also scheduled through Nov. 10 at other locations in Prince William County and throughout Northern Virginia, said Mary Pope of the Dale City Recreation Center.

"What's the first thing you should do when you pick up a gun?" instructor Greg Surrena asked a full classroom of hopeful hunters at the center last weekend.

"Check to make sure the safety is on," said one youth. "Make sure it's not loaded?" asked another.

A 12-year-old Woodbridge boy got the right answer. "Make sure the gun is not pointed at anybody else," he said.

"We are here to try to prevent hunting accidents and to familiarize you with hunting rules," Surrena told the class. Last year, he told the class, there were 1,100 babies drowned in five-gallon buckets, 1,000 people killed by lightning and 1,000 kids killed in non-vehicle bicycle accidents.

"But last year there were only three firearms deaths from hunting accidents, so people must be learning and that's why this class is important," he said.

The hunter education program was offered by the center as part of a statewide mandate requiring instruction for young hunters before they can be licensed. The program was split into three- to 3 1/2-hour lessons and included a written examination.

Students cannot graduate from the course without passing the test, said Surrena, educational coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' Eastern Prince William County division.

"We have about 16 classes each fall and we are getting sometimes 50 to 100 students in each," said Surrena, who has taught similar courses to about 8,000 students in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Surrena was assisted in the course by a battery of experts, including gunsmith Jimmy Street, who presented an in-depth lesson on different types of guns, as well as gun safety, care and maintenance.

Hunting history was taught by Robert Miles, a first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation instructor; Danny Breeden taught a section on measuring weapons calibers and bullet trajectory; and Fairfax Rod and Gun Club member Tom Muddiman, who built his own .50-caliber black powder rifle, spoke about hunting with ball-loading weapons.

The favorite lesson seemed to be Street's, which included demonstrations on real guns and information on the correct way to load, unload, clean and maintain shotguns, rifles and handguns.

Street's speech was peppered with warnings for the young hunters to always be cautious when handling weapons. He also admonished the hunters to be courteous and obey the law.

"Before you go on someone's land to hunt, always go and ask the owner and get written permission to hunt on the land," Street said. "And when you leave make sure you clean the place up. If you leave {litter}, animals can end up eating it and getting sick. Plus, it will make the owner feel comfortable about welcoming you back."

Rippon Middle School student Mike Koontz listened intently during the course. He was a little nervous on the first day about the test, but was determined to make his father, Brent, happy by completing the course.

"Everybody in my family has passed the test and can hunt, so I have to, too," said Mike, 12. "I already know most of the things they are talking about because I have gone hunting with my father. I know what I'm doing, but I want to pass so I can hunt on my own, without just helping my father."

Woodbridge resident Dean Dunwody, 29, said he took the class to catch up on changes in hunting rules and regulations. The video postproduction technician and former Navy photographer said the most important thing he learned during the course was information about shotgun gauges.

"This is a way of keeping abreast of what's happening in the sports community," he said.

Fairfax resident Ken Johnson said he came to the class to prepare for the day when he can hunt deer with his father and older brother.

"My dad is a big hunter," said Ken, 11. "I want to hunt deer because they are a little bit bigger target than some other animals."

State law requires that hunters wear blaze-orange clothing to cut down on accidental shooting of hunters.

Treat every gun as if it were loaded.

Always point the muzzle in a safe direction and never point a firearm at any target you don't want to fire at.

Be sure of your target and beyond -- don't fire at a target until you ascertain that it is game and that you have a clear background.

Respect the hunting ground by obeying posted rules and cleaning up after yourself.

Keep your hunting license with you at all times when hunting, and if hunting on private property, get written permission from the owner.

Never consume alcohol while hunting.

Obey limits on game while hunting.