Clay target shooting, like most demanding sports, is unforgiving when attention is not devoted to essential details. For instance, a deep biceps muscle bruise could indicate trouble handling recoil. At least it did for me.

While first watching shooters atomize one orange disk after another at the Prince George's County Trap and Skeet Center in Glenn Dale, efficiency seemed to be the norm. The disk rocketed into the air, there was the crack of a shotgun explosion and then bits of clay fell to the ground.

Partway through a 25-piece box of shells, I realized effectiveness was out of reach. The act of firing a shotgun at a moving target involved micro-adjustments unforeseen by a beginner. Plus, my arm hurt. No matter how tightly I pressed the gun's stock, the recoil came back like a mallet.

Nevertheless, I was determined to squeeze off the rest of the shells in the box. At one of the stations in the sporting clay range, I climbed a set of stairs, pushed two Winchester AAs into the 12-gauge shotgun, and waited. Field attendant Pat Wiles, standing at the target-throw machine below the lattice-frame landing, also waited. He'd propel the clays when I gave the word, which was the one detail I knew about the sport when I arrived earlier in the day: "Pull!"

The orange saucer floated into view between two rows of trees. It planed off, dipped, and after the gun's concussion it split into pieces. There was no time to let up. Wiles sent another clay--this time higher and far to the left--that disappeared intact into shaded undergrowth. I broke open the action of the gun, popped out the spent casings amid traces of smoke, and considered lessons.

"If you come in here and have no idea" how to shoot, assistant manager Chen Sun said, "we'll get you set up. . . . Almost every day a couple people come in who heard about it and wanted to do it."

For someone who connected about every dozen shots, the 175-acre public range--the larger of two public courses in the Washington area--is an appropriate place to learn. Run by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the center has facilities and instruction for several disciplines: sporting clays, American trap and skeet, International trap and skeet and five-stand (a combination of clays, trap and skeet). There is a learn-to-shoot program and instruction for all levels of expertise.

The center is very user-friendly. You can be out of your car, through the clubhouse and on one of the ranges within minutes. You don't need to own a gun--there are rentals and ammunition for sale, as well as mandatory ear plugs and protective eye-wear.

"It's really a thrill when you get the target," said painter and photographer Caroline Baker, of Middleburg, Va., who had spent part of a day shooting skeet (targets moving across your line of vision), trap (targets moving away) and sporting clays (a replication of hunting, with targets thrown and rolled in a 22-stage wooded course). "The shattering of it. You succeed in something. It's a positive reinforcement. Picking up a paint brush or camera or gun . . . it's all the same anyway. Different tools to achieve a particular goal."

Built by gun manufacturer Winchester on county land in the mid-1970s, the center is located at the end of a curving lane of blacktop hemmed in by a thick growth of trees. It ran into financial trouble, however, and was taken over by the county about a decade ago. It has expanded ever since. The club is the second-largest consumer of clay targets in the United States, behind Wolf Creek in Atlanta.

Sun, who began working at the center eight years ago as a field attendant, said sporting clays has eclipsed trap and skeet as the most popular discipline. Of the 150 to 200 people who visit the club on a busy weekend day, 130 will move through the forested course either on foot or by golf cart, a sharp rise from the 40 or 50 who did so on a smaller course earlier this decade.

The shooters are "all different races, ages, professions," Sun said. "Politicians, blue-collar, white-collar. One thing when you go out there . . . no matter what you do, you're on the same level."

Perhaps. But a certain intensity separates the potshots from the good shots.

The center is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. There is night shooting under a row of lights at the trap and skeet ranges. Distractions can be left behind regardless of schedule--and weather.

Silver Spring's Pat Dwyer recalled one winter day when he was one of about 50 people who worked on their gun mounts and swing as they tracked clay trajectories during a snow storm. You have to bear down, even when wind whips your face. "Minute angles and milliseconds make the difference between a hit and a miss," he said.

My box of shells emptied, the afterimage of that target splitting in midair remained with me as I neared the clubhouse. I wanted to tell Wiles how gratifying it felt--despite the arm-ache from recoil--to hit after repeated misfires, but he already knew.

"It definitely is a stress reliever," he said.

Questions? Comments? Do you know of a special place in the outdoors? We'd like to hear about it. Get in touch with John Mullen by writing him at: The Outsider c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C., 20071. Or e-mail him at mullenj@washpost.com

HOW TO GET THERE:

* From the Beltway take Route 450 East and then make a left onto Route 193 (Greenbelt Road). Continue until Good Luck Road, then take a right. The center's entrance is on the left about a half mile in. For information on schedules, lessons and leagues call 301-577-7178.

* Also, the center will host the Happy Pineapples Lobster Open on Aug. 6-8. The event will feature four guns, doubles and preliminaries and will have a minimum of $7,500 in cash and merchandise prizes. For information and preregistration call Irv Chanin at 516-367-3116.

CAPTION: Chen Sun, assistant manager of the Prince George's County Trap and Skeet Center, helps 14-year-old Nikolos Crosse. Several types of shooting are available at the 175-acre public range.