Friday, January 27, 2012

Lesson From Gun Camp

Last week, I wrote a teaser blog about some firearms training I was to receive while pulling duty as a VIP guest of 5.11 Tactical at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas.  First a few words about the SHOT Show: Holy Cow!  You have to see this thing to understand the size.  It takes up the ENTIRE Sands Convention Center, occupying all three floors.  Every conceivable manufacturer of any firearm is there, and while they cannot sell to individuals from the floor, you are perfectly welcome to handle any weapon you want, up to and including dry firing it.  (The Las Vegas Police Department checked every single one of the thousands of firearms there to verify that the firing pins had been removed.)  Never held an M4 or a Glock or a 1911?  You can play with them.  Ditto the Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle, the M2 "Ma Deuce" .50 cal machine gun and a Dillon Gun.  It's the mother of all gun research opportunities, and EVERYONE I spoke to was more than willing to chat about their products.  What I found most stunning was the number of firearms makers that I'd never heard of.

Last Thursday, I met Jeffery Deaver in the lobby of our hotel at 6:45 a.m.  We were driven a half hour out into the desert to a shooting range that looked like it covered twenty or thirty acres.  We were driven way to the back of the facility, where I realized for the first time that Jeff and I would be the only students for the entire day.

Our instructor was Steve Tarani.  Look him up.  Yeah, he's qualified.  And he's very, very funny, in that zero-bullshit kind of way.  After an extensive safety briefing, we were issued our .40 caliber Glocks, holsters and three mags of ammunition.  (A million thanks to Barry, who made sure that we always had a 12-round mag ready to go so that our pouches were never dry.)  Jeff drew a thigh rig holster, while my holster rode on my belt.  As an aside, the 5.11 Tactical pants we wore were specifically designed with an extra belt loop that keeps a belt holster from moving around.  I like that kind of attention to details.

For the next three hours, we shot hundreds of rounds of ammunition, first while standing still, but then while moving and turning.  Finally, we were shooting from the driver's and passenger's seats of an SUV (a late model Acura that did not belong to either student).  The day ended with a quick-draw contest and an NSR (non-standard response) drill that involves  shooting everything in the mag at short range, as quickly as possible while still hitting center of mass on the target.  As Steve made clear from the very beginning, this was a tactical shooting class, not a marksmanship class (although I did pretty well in that department, too.)

Lesson One: Tactical shooting is only a distant cousin of target shooting.  Until this lesson, my range training had consisted of picking a weapon up from a table, taking my time and concentrating on placing shots in the center ring.  I'd never drawn a pistol from a holster and just that much movement changes the game.  Throw in multiple points of impact on the target (we'd be instructed, for example, to put two in the chest, one in the pelvis and one in the forehead--not the jaw, though) and now you've got more to think about and more to do.  By the time you're pivoting and turning and throwing open the car door while drawing your weapon without ever pointing it at your own leg or anywhere near your partner, it's tough to get your rounds downrange to the target.  And very, very fun.

Lesson Two: My grip was AFU.  This one's hard to describe without specific pictures, but my hands didn't have enough contact with the gun.  I was also using an out-of-date and out-of-favor shooting stance called the Weaver Stance, in which my support side leg (my left, since I'm right-handed) was slightly forward.  I've never been entirely comfortable with that stance.  In my new Isosceles Stance (or "Tony Chin" stance), I square off at the bad guy with my toes, knees and chin touching the same vertical plane--Toe-Knee-Chin.  Tony Chin.  Get it?

Lesson Three: It's disconcerting how much of one's own body can become a target when drawing a weapon.  Think about your free hand, for example.  Given that one of Steve's Four Golden Rules is that the muzzle never cover anything that you don't want to completely destroy, that free support hand needs to be anchored somewhere when the pistol is coming out of the holster.  I learned to place it on my chest, where not only is it out of harm's way, but it's also ready to do its job in supporting the shooting hand.

Lesson Four: I was a "booger flipper," Steve's term for one who lets one's finger off the trigger after every shot.  If you watch what that looks like, booger flipping really does come to mind.  I learned in the early part of the class to hold the trigger all the way to the back of the trigger guard after the first shot, and then let it up only to the reset click to prepare for the next shot.  It takes far less pull, and increases accuracy by a lot.  After a few hundred rounds, it was second nature.

Lesson Five: It's stressful as hell to run out of ammo in the middle of a drill.  Running out when the target is shooting back must be really unnerving.  Steve taught us to drop the spent mag and slap in the new one while never taking our eyes off the target.  Truth be told, this was my hardest lesson to learn.  My thumbs are too short to reach the mag release without shifting my grip.  I sorta got the hang of it in the end, but it's really hard not to look.  After a couple dozen tactical reloads in which we let the spent mags just drop to the ground, we even changed it up to replace a partially-spent mag with a full one, in which case we needed to put the old mag back into the pouch after reloading while still staying on the target.

Lesson Six:  If you own a gun, you really need to practice this stuff.  In just three hours--and about 200 bucks in ammo (Thank you again, 5.11 Tactical!)--so many of the tiny details became second nature.  Even the simple act of reholstering has its complex parts.  In Steve's class, after the threat is cleared, you sweep left, sweep right, then return to low-ready before you put that support hand back on your chest to get it out of the way, and then slide the weapon back into the holster.  We did that every single time we reholstered, even if we hadn't fired a shot, and by the end of the training, doing things otherwise would have just felt wrong.

As I write this, I realize how long the post is, and how few of the lessons learned I can actually document here.  My big take away was this: As a guy who's always liked guns and has played with them a lot over the years, I in fact knew nothing.  Now, after this experience, I'm fully aware of the fact that I still know way too little, and that much of what I did learn will disappear from my muscle memory in just a day or two.  I need to find a range that will let me move and shoot.

The world is full of five-day classes on this stuff, and I'm seriously thinking about taking one.  How about a Killzone field trip for a week at Sleep-Away Gun Camp?  That could be fun.


  1. Sounds like a lot of fun John. I had two other friends down there as well, both gun pros, and even those who do this stuff for a living say they always learn something new at these.

    I always relish the idea of an opportunity to spend a few hundred bucks on ammo for a few hours of range heaven. If you guys wanna do an AK Shooters Vacation my buddy Joe Kim can set up a tactical course that will blow your mind.

  2. John, thanks so much for this, particularly Lesson Three, since I never know what to do with my pesky right hand. As for Lesson Two, I was taught to shoot utilizing the Isosceles Stance and passed it down to my wife, sons, and younger daughter when I taught them how to shoot. It quickly becomes second nature. Anyway, thanks for sharing.

  3. Can the Girls come? Can the Girls come?

    Can the Girls have a separate day?

    I vote for Girl's Day at Gun Camp.

  4. Amazing stuff.

    David Mamet also written about how little range shooting has to do with tactical shooting (based on his work with Eric Haney, former SFOD, for The Unit). Of course, it was just a throwaway line in an essay about action movies. This is much more detailed, and fun to read too!

  5. Thanks for this, John. My books aren't gun intensive, but they do sometimes using them in tactical situations. I'm going to hang onto this for future reference.

  6. What a cool experience. I've never handled a gun but have always wanted to learn. But it's definitely something I would never do without the help of professionals.

    RE: Changing a mag--it always looks so easy on TV! 8-)

  7. John, Thanks for a fascinating post. I haven't shot a gun of any kind since firearms training in the service, but like a lot of men (Hey, I'm from Texas), I'd love to experience what you did. If gun camp ever materializes, count me in.
    PS--When I "qualified" with the .45, the Sergeant said, "Doc, if you're ever in trouble, throw the #$$@ thing at them."

  8. I have a friend who was an LAPD shooting instructor, and the other day on the range he told me I was letting my finger off the trigger each I know what to call myself. Thanks a lot, Gilstrap.

  9. I'm with Paula on Girl's Camp.

    Last October I went to the Tulsa Gun Show, the biggest of its kind in the midwest. I went specifically to get an autograph of one of the guests, but since I had to pay my fee, I cruised around and had some fun and was wowed by the quantity and quality of weapondry. When the zom-poc erupts, I am heading to Tulsa . . .

    I found the dealers (at least in Tulsa) weren't as free and easy with their chatting when the subject is an unaccompanied woman. I finally found a guy who had taught his wife and daughters and learned quite a bit.

    One of my 2012 goals is to pass the test for a concealed carry permit. I'm aiming for this summer. Your experience just blew me away. I'm not even in the same zip code as being ready for that, but . . . dang . . . it sounds like you had a blast and that Digger will be even better equipped in the next installment.


  10. Good for you, JG.

    I think every high school should have gun safety courses (we did in my town). I think every man and woman should know how a gun works and how to handle them safely. I think every human being has the God given right to defend themselves and their families and other innocents from threat of bodily harm or death be that with a gun, baseball bat, or any other handy tool. I think anybody who doesn't want the means to defend themselves, etc... has the right not to own a gun and depend on the police or those who do.

    It's no secret here that I have owned guns and know how to use them. It is great when someone has the privilege of learning from a trained professional. Last year I had the pleasure of allowing at least 30 people learn to shoot on my property using my guns. None of them should be a danger to anyone but a predator.

  11. Yes, know about the guns you write about. And there actually is a safety for a Glock that can be retrofitted.

  12. Sleep away camp! Can I bring my teddy bear?