Out at St. Wendel Athletic Club, near Evansville, Ind., on an evening last summer, women with their ears plugged with cotton shouted "Pull!"

Clay disks, 4 1/2 inches in diameter, exploded into the air. Following with the sights of their Winchesters and Beretta 303s, the women fired and shattered the disks.When it comes to a relaxing sport, some women are setting aside golf and tennis and finding themselves at home on the range. The shooting range, that is.

"It's a very versatile sport," said Debi Cates, 48, of Wadesville, Ind., whose husband, Dave, kept score and fired the targets as the five women "shot a squad" (firing five times each on five posts).

"I go out to improve my score," said Cates.

She's done pretty well. With her Beretta 303 shotgun, she's the only one of the women who has had a "straight" (a straight means "killing" 25 clay pigeons with 25 shots.).

Cates, a licensed practical nurse, says recreational shooting relaxes her. She became interested after watching her husband.

"He's been my No. 1 supporter for the three years I've been shooting," she said.

Cates said women are interested in the sport because "guns are getting better. They're not as intimidating." Nationally, more women are trying recreational target shooting, according to Shari LeGate, executive director of the Women's Shooting Sports Foundation, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Between 1990 and 1997, women's participation in sporting clays soared by 112 percent, LeGate said. Statistics show that 5 million women participate in shooting sports each year.

A recent Roper-Starch poll found that 47.2 million women would accept an invitation to go target shooting if asked.

"The secret is out," LeGate said. "Shooting is loads of fun. More and more women are going out to target shoot recreationally on weekends, just like they'd go out to play golf or tennis."

Women "found out they can do well in this male-oriented sport," LeGate said. "They found out about it when it became a visible Olympic sport and the 1992 Olympic gold medal was won by Launi Meili."

LeGate, 44, said it all started for her on a Saturday afternoon in 1984 when she watched Robert Stock take the Olympic gold medal.

"Shooting sports are not about knocking over a 300-pound linebacker," she said. "They're not about brute strength. Because of that, they're ideal for women. What they are about is technique, style and fitness."

Patti Hilton, 42, settled down at the St. Wendel Athletic Club with her trusty Winchester to develop that technique, style and fitness three years ago.

Trap shooting is more popular than skeet shooting in some areas, said Harold Bowers, manager of the Evansville Gun Club, who said about 10 percent of his customers are women.

In trap shooting, much like in pigeon hunting, the clay pigeon can explode in any direction, at any angle.

In skeet shooting, patterned after quail hunting, the clay disk has a predetermined flight path, at a 27-degree angle. Shooters move to different positions.

Trap shooting calls for a longer barrel because it requires a shot of 30 to 35 yards. The skeet-shooting barrel can be shorter, for an approximate 20-yard shot, Bowers said.

"We didn't think it would be so popular out here in the country," said Hilton, a Poseyville, Ind., resident, "but it sure is."

It definitely is with 52-year-old Pat Stroud of St. Wendel, Ind., who discovered shooting only a year ago. She kills the clay birds like a pro with her Beretta 303, which she dubs "a good ladies' gun because it gives you very little kick."

"I like being outdoors," said Stroud, whose husband, a retired policeman, doesn't shoot. "I enjoy the big outside, and the people we shoot with here are wonderful."

But shooting is a family thing for the Cateses. Not only do Cates and her husband shoot, but they also are joined by their 18-year-old daughter, Amanda, who goes after clay birds with her Winchester.

"I kind of think if we get our youth more aware of gun safety, there might be less trouble these days," Amanda's mother said.

Another young shooter with the group is 17-year-old Stephanie Hooe of Wadesville, who recently shot 275 shells in one day at a state trap-shooting meet. In high school she was on the school shooting team coached by Bowers, for whom she now works at the Evansville Gun Club.

Many women agree that safety is always a concern when new shooters are around.