The first gun Tara Poremba ever fired was an M-16 military rifle. She was only 18, a Marine Corps newbie nervously making her way through boot camp.
Wielding that weapon came naturally.
"I think I was more surprised at seeing what I was able to do with minimal training," says the Beverly neighborhood native and Mother McAuley High School grad. "It just gave me this drive: 'I want to get better and I want to be the best.' "
Now, nearly two decades later, the 36-year-old Chicago police officer (K9 unit, based in Homan Square) and former police academy firearms instructor is the Annie Oakley of Chicago: an expert marksman and the first woman in Chicago Police Department history to earn the title of "Top Gun" in her graduating class. She's garnered state and national awards, too. Her husband, Jim, also is a cop, as were her great-grandfather and uncle.
Recently, and perhaps not surprisingly, television came calling. Poremba has been appearing as one of several highly skilled competitors (chosen from a field of 50 auditioned finalists) on the History Channel's "Top Shot." It's a kind of "Survivor"-with-ammo reality show on which participants are divided into two teams (red and blue) and compete for a $100,000 grand prize. So far, five of the original 16 have been eliminated.
Because "Top Shot" requires contestants to use a disparate array of weapons on a variety of targets, a pistol specialist such as Poremba -- who favors an Illinois-made Rock River 1911 .45-caliber -- must quickly adapt her skills to a Tokarev SVT-40 rifle or a modern crossbow.
Poremba's next episode (five remain) airs Sunday. And it might be her last. Or it might not. Per History Channel orders, she can't say.
"I learned so much about myself from being out there," Poremba says of a secretive monthlong stint spent shooting (the camera kind) and shooting in northern California from March through early April. "I learned my personal strengths and my weaknesses, being detached from home for that long."
And, she adds, "I surprised myself with some of the challenges."
Although Poremba shot competitively for the first time in 1993, while still in the Marines, it wasn't until she joined the police force and became a firearms instructor that competition began in earnest. After some nudging from shooting hobbyist colleagues, she decided to give it a try.
"Honestly, without their push, I don't think I would have been brave enough to go out and get the guns and go to a match and walk in there by myself and know what I was doing," she says.
That was eight or nine years ago, and her skills have improved dramatically since then.
Earlier this week, she traveled to Camp Perry in Ohio for the venerable National Rifle & Pistol Championships -- described on the National Rifle Association's Web site as the "World Series of the Shooting Sports." And, as usual, she was in the gender minority. Only 38 of 779 registrants were women. That's one more than last year and the same as in 2008.
From personal observation, though, Poremba thinks more and more female shooters are locking and loading. Some are dazzlingly good.
"If you saw them on the street you would think they're models," she says, "and they're competitive shooters and they kick all the boys' butts."
Poremba is no exception.
But blasting stationary targets in a controlled environment is entirely different from patrolling Chicago's mean streets, where a heat-packing perp could be lurking around the corner.
"People used to joke around about me: 'If I get involved in something, I want Tara to have my back,' " Poremba says. "And I said, 'Hey, I can shoot the heck out of some paper. But under stress and in a real-life situation ... I'm not saying that I wouldn't be able to perform, but it's apples and oranges."