The Cornered Cat

Her hands were shaking and her breathing ragged, rapid. Her voice came out half-an-octave above her usual pitch. I stood next to her, spoke calming words. She fired her first shot and burst into tears.

Was this woman working through some deep trauma? Maybe, maybe not. She had definitely experienced an intense adrenaline dump, which sometimes includes unexpected tears. I helped her set the gun down safely, then asked gently if she wanted to continue. She did, so I watched her place another round in the magazine and load the gun. Eventually, her physical responses settled down. The target looked good when we were done.

At the end of the class, she came up and asked, “What was that all about?” Taking care not to assume anything, I asked if she had brought some emotional baggage with her to class. Had something bad happened in her background, something related to crime or guns? It had not. She had never handled a gun before, but she hadn’t consciously been afraid of them either. That’s why she was puzzled.

Just a physical reaction, then. It happens sometimes. I explained that she had felt a normal, though somewhat uncommon, variant of adrenal response. Most people have a physical reaction to firing a powerful handgun for the first time. Some feel that response in unexpected ways: they feel sick to their stomachs, or their eyes start to water, or their voices wobble. Often their hands shake. All of these things are simple physical reactions to adrenaline. Human bodies produce adrenaline in response to a new experience. These physical responses don’t mean anything is wrong. They simply mean, that’s how your personal body reacts to that type of stimulus.

She wanted to know if it would happen again the next time she went to the range. Probably not, I told her. Most people seem to feel the most extreme response the first time they shoot. After that, they feel a slightly lower adrenal response every time, because it’s no longer a new sensation. She could safely visit the range again, confident that her reaction to gunfire would be less overwhelming the next time out.

In fact, I told her, there’s something surprising about target shooting. Although the first trip to the range often causes a strong adrenaline rush, that changes over time. Experienced shooters usually find that shooting helps them calm their nerves and find their center in the same way yoga or other types of meditation can do.

But that’s a different story.

11 Responses to Tears

  1. larryarnold says:

    Taking care not to assume anything,

    Good on you. I get students with some hair-curling reasons to want to learn self-defense.

    Or not. I had a young lady (30-something, grew up in Chicago, moved to Texas to get away from Chicago) in my last concealed carry class. During the “Public Contact with Law Enforcement” session she got volunteered to confront a badguy. She did an excellent job of “Stop or I’ll shoot!” then burst into giggles. She said that what she really felt like doing was throw the prop gun at the target and run.

    I handled it much the way you did. We have to be prepared for such, particularly with new shooters and those new to self-sufficiency.

    • Kathy Jackson says:

      Ohhhh, giggles are another thing entirely. Sounds like you handled that one well.

      She said that what she really felt like doing was throw the prop gun at the target and run.

      Ha! That’s almost certainly the product of too much television. Hint for those playing along at home: a gun isn’t like a disposable razor. You can actually reload it and use it again… 😉


      Giggles are another not-uncommon reaction to the adrenaline dump, like tears. Weird thing is, sometimes the most fear-filled students end up giggling & looking like they’re not paying attention at all. You see these types with jerky, sudden movements. They’re the ones who fire that first shot, then immediately yank the gun down to point at their toes, and have a high-pitched weird laugh when you correct the muzzle direction. It looks almost like they’re playing around or don’t care about the dangerous weapon in their hand, but that’s not what’s going on. It’s fear.

      It’s easy to lose patience with a student like that. Once you realize that sometimes that’s just another face of adrenaline, and means fear is in the driver’s seat, it’s a little easier to deal with in a constructive way. Usually just speak calmly and slowly, bring them back to a less stressful place. Harsh corrections just make them move faster and giggle harder.

      Just a flip side of the same basic phenomenon.

  2. Wyld_Goose says:

    I don’t believe a reaction like this (without baggage being involved) is any different for guys or gals. Even as a guy not being raised around a father who showed me how to shoot as a young’n, learning from a friend at age 30+, the emotional realization that you are hold life and death in your hands (and it’s so much lighter then you figured it would be)can be very powerful. I would surmise that this is exactly the correct feeling to have when holding such a weapon and firing it for the first time. It self proves that you are good person with the correct moral compass to have an instinctual reaction to having the power of life and death in your hands.

    This would be a good encouragement to someone overwhelmed by this emotion, that they are feeling it because of goodness within them. Then of coarse, just like you did, encourage them to “get back on the horse”.

    You do a great job. I have learned more from your site than anywhere else. It can be as difficult for a 30+ guy to enter the ‘good ol boys’ gun range, and ask honest, elementary questions when they are looking at you with the “didn’t your daddy teach you this stuff?” looks.

    • Kathy Jackson says:


      Thanks for the kind words. I think you’d be surprised how many other new guys are on the range feeling the same way about other people’s reactions to their questions. You’re definitely not alone in the adult learning process.

  3. Ce says:

    I have gotten that “tears” adrenaline rush before. I did it during my first CCW class. Then got upset with myself for doing it which only made it worse. It was the pressure of being watched and graded. I passed with flying colors and it hasn’t happened again – but I know it is in me so whenever I’m confronted with a stressful situation I try to slow down and take some deep breaths. Doesn’t always work – but does help.

  4. dehavik says:

    I grew up fully inundated with the “guns are evil” culture, complete with hoplophobia (the fear that a gun has a life of its own and can go off at any time). My patient, gun-loving, LEO husband waited 16 years before I came to him and asked to learn more.(That’s a tip, men. Write it down.)
    My first time at the range with my new .22 Ruger LCR was traumatic. Our lane was right next to a guy with a .45 handgun, and every time his gun went off, I jumped a mile. Those blasts went through me with a horrible shock wave and I was crying in the fetal position (still standing up, if you can picture that) before my husband asked the rangeman to move us to another room.
    After I settled down, I was able to shoot. The power (of a .22, that’s right) surprised me, but I shot 287/300 on a silhouette, and that gave me the confidence to return every week. Each time, my stomach clenched less and less and now I’ve shot several calibers without a flinch.
    Tactical breathing (thanks, Lt. Grossman) is a lifesaver. Remembering WHY we’re learning to shoot can help propel us past the fear. It’s worth it.

  5. says:

    Great story, Kathy – thanks! Chris Kyle in his book wrote about getting hooked up to a heart rate monitor while they put him in a combat simulator and when bad guys started shooting at him, his heart rate and blood pressure actually plummeted. So years of intense training and actual combat actually calmed him down. The human experience is a fascinating one.

  6. topcat says:

    Well,I’m glad I read this, since I’m going to the range for the first time on Saturday. I was wondering how it will feel and how I will react the first time I fire a gun. I’ve held one before but not fired it. This post helps me to be ready for, well, just about anything!

    • Kathy Jackson says:


      Most people have a blast from the very beginning. 🙂 By *far* the most common reaction from a new shooter firing her first shot is a huge, huge smile and sometimes a belly laugh. It’s one of the coolest things about teaching people how to shoot!

      • topcat says:

        I DID have a blast and I can’t wait to go again. I didn’t feel any sense of extreme emotion one way or another. It wasn’t scary or nerve wracking the way I thought it would be. Love it!

  7. Gunstart says:

    Thanks for this story Kathy. It is so helpful for us who teach people to be aware of these types of responses, and how to react to them.

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