It's Raymond Chandler's fault. While less bloody-minded young women spent the small hours swooning over Robin Ellis in Poldark or cleaving to the corseted heroines of Victoria Holt and Georgette Heyer, my dad's dogeared copy of Farewell My Lovely nestled, like a passport to a forbidden land, at my bedside.

After that first encounter with the snapbrim hat, Four Roses whiskey swigged from the bottle and the potent bulge of the Colt .45, came the movies and a fantasy life dreamed in glorious, dangerous black and white. Clare Trevor as Chandler's Mrs Grayle, who wore her peroxide like a portent, the fatally blonde Lana Turner as the bitch in heat of The Postman Always Rings Twice and a steely-eyed, mink-clad Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear.

What I loved (and still love) about those wisecracking dames was that unlike their contemporary gun-toting counterparts, Cagney and Lacey, Julia Roberts (pumping bullets into her abusive husband in Sleeping with the Enemy) Miranda Richardson (killing her caddish lover in Dance With a Stranger), even, though it's heresy to say it, Susan Sarandon (shooting a would-be rapist in Thelma and Louise), they didn't need an excuse that might stand up in a courtroom to be quick on the draw and mean as hell.

That's how I found myself at the Mayfair Gun Club. Despite its glossy-sounding name, a less salubrious setting for my first foray into a world whose cultural paraphernalia has long belonged to men is hard to imagine. Tucked away in a railway arch in deepest Bermondsey, it consists of little more than two rooms - one equipped with two cheap sofas and a coffee machine; the other a glass-panelled corridor filled with chairs that serves as the training room. Leave the mink at home.

Shoot first, ask questions later, Peter, my trainer, advises. Lesson number one: the real thing is nothing like the movies. No sissy pearl-handled pistols here, but a Western-style, Smith & Wesson .38 revolver with a six-inch barrel. It must weigh about 5lbs; you grip it with both hands, but still it shakes as you point it, arms extended, straight in front of you. Peter runs through the safety procedure. He is at pains to point out that the club's 300 members (30 of them women, mostly wives and husbands of existing members) are in it for the sport, rather than an outlet for aggression. Shooting, he insists, is a discipline that requires skill and concentration. A few weeks ago the Mayfair was raided at gunpoint and about 50 of its weapons stolen. Peter is understandably nervous that the club should not attract the wrong kind of attention.

The next surprise comes when, explaining that most people have one eye stronger than the other, and that the weaker eye should be closed when aiming, Peter glances briefly at me and at Kayte, our photographer, and announces that my vision is left-aligned, and Kayte's is right-aligned. Spooky. How can he tell? 'Years of practice, he replies, gnomically. As I raise the gun, line the sights and take aim, obediently closing my right eye, I discover he is right. Trying it the other way round, I would miss the target.

Downstairs at the firing range, Peter takes out a box of live ammunition. 'Full metal jackets, he explains, pointing to the copper tip of the bullets.

As I load, Kayte glances up at the circular targets, positioned about five metres away. 'Oh, don't you have those cut-outs that look like real people? she asks disappointed. I know what she means. All those rapists, the wolf-whistling builders, the Tube gropers, the beery bullies that intimidate with a single red-eyed leer, that you might imaginatively dispatch to a matriarchal purgatory.

But you have to concentrate. Think of nothing but keeping the gun steady and the sights levelled. After what seems an age, struggling both with the physical task at hand, and a frisson of fear and power rippling through my body, I'm ready to fire. I squeeze the trigger (there's no click to let you know the bullet has been released).

Then a flash, a bang that's shockingly loud even through the ear-defenders, but, surprisingly, no kick back. I had missed the bullseye. Two shots later, I hit it. Then twice more.

Giggling nervously, unsure quite what to make of this strange tension

hell, it's really not that hard. You really could kill someone with this thing - I reload. 'Right, this time, I want you to hit the bullseye with each shot, Peter instructs. Bang. Bullseye. After five more shots the paper target is in tatters. I'd done it, and for a moment I felt trigger-happy; anything you can do, I can do better. Or at least as well. That, Peter tells me, is one reason why the club is anxious to attract more women members. Shooting, he says, is a sport in which both sexes can compete equally. And, he might have added, a .38 is a great leveller.

As we left, I pondered this. Yes, I'd love to do it again; I can see that to shoot a moving target at 100 yards takes real skill. However, I'm glad I don't live in the United States. At least here you know that using a fistful of blue steel to unleash your aggression is unlikely to get you or anybody else killed. Try it at least once. Your fantasies will never be the same again.

Helen Birch

The Mayfair Gun Club, 94 Druid Street, SE1 (071-252 1118). Mon-Fri noon-10pm; Sat & Sun 11am-3pm. Membership: men pounds 240 pa; women pounds 150 pa. Ammunition and gun hire extra. Introductory session, pounds 30.

Dead and dying clay pigeons litter the 47-acre site as I trudge round the West London shooting grounds. Founded in 1901, it isn't a club, more a place to learn to shoot, improve your technique or to try a new gun for size - the ground has links with all the Mayfair gunsmiths. The recreational shooting is mostly represented by that nice little earner Corporate Entertainment, in which mass firings are followed by a bunfight in the marquee. Readers will note the all-important helicopter landing facilities.

In theory, you don't need any kit. Guns and ammunition can be supplied for the beginner along with puffers and shoulder guards. But I haven't really come dressed for the part and look like a Bateman cartoon - 'The lady who wore Moschino to the shoot'. The earrings were daft enough but the black patent ballet pumps were a really serious mistake.

'You'll be going out with Roddy,' barks Major Blosse-Lynch, the school's director. My instructor is very sweet and extremely patient but his instructions are on the sketchy side. When pressed, he finally gives some advice on which bits of the body to move when tracking a target: 'Think of yourself as a tank turret'. Willco. Roddy first teaches me to load and hold the gun then positions me in front of a whitewashed wall to see how straight I can shoot. Straight enough, it seems. We progress to a moving target and it all begins to go horribly wrong.

A clay pigeon's life is not a happy one, but word had gone round the coop that a novice was on the range. The relief was palpable. But there is no escape. Any clay pigeon that survives unscathed will eventually be recaptured and used again. Thousands are slaughtered annually. A stroll round the estate reveals a large pile of something that looks like orange berries. This turns out to be 15 years' worth of spent cartridges. Are cartridges made from recyclable plastic? Nobody knows. It seems the pile is more of a trophy than a recycling initiative.

This is tougher than pistol shooting, which is easy to learn - it's hard to beat the smug glow that comes with immediate results. I'm not exactly Dead-eye Dick - I can't see the big letter on the sight chart without serious optometric assistance - but give me a .38 or a .44 and I seldom miss. The Magnum might bruise your thumb but a target sheet with its bullseye shot away bestows a stupid but oddly satisfying feeling of empowerment. Shotguns are harder: the gun's heavy and the target doesn't keep still.

The fine, almost picturesque, drizzle had lent Middlesex the flavour of a Caledonian grouse moor, but it had swelled to a steady downpour by the time we went off to shoot the rabbits. Rabbits? Can't we leave Flopsy and Mopsy out of this? Not real rabbits. Roddy reassures. Grounded clay pigeons propelled across the grass like low-flying frisbees. I hit precisely one.

In fact I miss two thirds of the time. But I find it hard to care. Go pistol shooting and you know you won't ever really have a gun, much less point it at anybody. Pistol shooting is just you, your unresolved aggressions and a harmless scrap of A3. Pick up a shotgun and for all the talk of clay pigeons you know that you are being trained to hit a living target. The idea that I was being schooled in the killing of warm-blooded creatures put a bit of a dampener on some already fairly moist proceedings. Like most carnivores, I prefer my meat shrink-wrapped.

Anyway, my shoulder hurts. The rain worsens. I shatter a few more innocent slabs of pitch. Every two shots I pause to re-load. This, I like. I feel like Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter. Get off my land. But otherwise the unfamiliar feel of gun and Husky make me feel like I'm in a Burberry catalogue. This is part of the trouble. It's an image problem.

Pistol-shooting is pure fantasy. The handgun is not part of an Englishwoman's everyday experience and merely to hold one transports you instantly to a monochrome Warner Brothers world of fast-talking dames shooting from the hip. Unless you've got a big Annie Oakley fixation, a woman holding a shotgun has none of those resonances. The images it conjures up are those of the Barboured battleaxe who can kill, pluck and draw a pheasant without turning a hair. Not an image I've ever aspired to.

Yet 10 per cent of West London's clientele is female. What sort of female? 'All sorts' says Roddy, firmly. Sloanes? 'There is an element of that certainly.' Some are happy to stick to clay birds but the majority tend to have their eye on the feathered variety. And ultimately that makes the shotgun a social weapon: you can't shoot clay pigeons by yourself, much less grouse. A pistol, however, can be fired alone on the range.

It hurts to write this. A shotgun gives quite a kick to your right shoulder. But don't let me put you off. You might like it. Make steady progress and you could still enjoy the best part of the shooting season. I note from my Smythson's diary that partridges are in big trouble from 1 September: they have nothing to fear from me.

Louise Levene

West London Shooting School, West End Road, Northolt, Middx. 081 845 1377. Lessons: single person pounds 52 per hour. Six lessons pounds 260 (men, plus cartridges and clays), pounds 312 (women: including cartridges and clays). Season tickets available.

(Photographs omitted)