This isn’t a Halloween post.
Everyone needs hobbies. Some people knit. Some people collect action figures. Lately, I’ve been spending time at the local shooting range.
Yep, I sometimes enjoy shooting guns. More than that, though, I like to know what I’m doing. This Saturday I took an all day class regarding handgun basics and marksmanship.
I’ve always had more than a passing curiosity with firearms. It went beyond the standard “turn every toy into guns” mentality that is part of the unspoken schoolyard curriculum of American male children. The overactive researcher in me wanted to know what was meant by “semi-automatic firearms” when it was mentioned on the news. I wanted to know why some are called “sub-machine-guns” vs. regular machine guns. I needed to understand what was going on, and par tof that research was that I needed to fire a gun.
I’d played paintball and laser tag and even fired a bb-gun, but the first gunpowder-and-lead gun I ever fired was in college as part of the ROTC-sponsored “turkey shoot.” We were handed a rifle and 10 .22 caliber bullets to fire at a paper turkey target about 6 inches across maybe 50 feet away. It didn’t go well. With no instruction and no frame of reference I was amazed I even hit the target. Later I won a grab-bag auction from the college radio station and it included a single firearm rental at a gun range nearby. I took my roommate Kevin and Julie and we rented a revolver and took turns. Again, without instruction it ended up just being very stressful and no fun. Fast forward a couple years and a couple jobs ago I worked near enough to a gun range near the San Jose Airport– I have since learned that noise permits are one of the reasons for this. I found a coupon online for “lunch special” range fees where you can pay for only a half-hour session in addition to firearm rental and ammunition. Seemed like a deal to me. Also, at the time, I had a bad amount of aggression with regards to work and it was probably theapeutic to me. In hindsight that was probably not the best way to work out my aggression, but hey, that’s life in the big city. I would go maybe twice a week and rent different firearms each time, and generally just had fun poking holes through paper. I got a new job in a different part of the bay area, and California laws changed in the interim and made it so all shooting range policies would no longer rent to individuals unless they were accompanied with a partner, owned their own firearm, or were otherwise vouched for. Somewhat disturbingly, this is for suicide prevention. My current job stationed me out near that firing range again — it looked mostly the same, but it had changed owners and was an extension of Reed’s Sport Shop in the Alum Rock area of San Jose. Lately that store closed, so now their only operation is Reed’s Indoor Range in Santa Clara. When I learned that the only way I could shoot would be to bring a partner or own my own firearm, it clicked back on that research system.
In California, you need to jump through a couple hoops to own a handgun. There is a written test, a firearm manipulation test, a 10 day waiting period, and a lot of stigma. I think by the measure of most Californians (or at least most urban ones) I’m a gun nut, but I am not a member of the NRA, I don’t have a gun rack, and I don’t like to do anything that makes people uncomfortable. Oh, and I tend not to vote Republican, but that’s another topic.
I do own a gun. For those curious, it’s a Glock model 19, 9mm ammunition. I did a lot of research for this. It’s very simple with respect to a lot of other handgun choices. I mainly bought it because it has a reputation as an extremely reliable weapon as shown by this article.
OK, so I had a gun, I could go to the range, I figured out what all the terms mean, but I still had no formal instruction. Guns are really extremely simple point and click interfaces. The bullet will always go in the direction of the gun at the point it leaves the barrel. Physics doesn’t get to act on the bullet much between you and the paper on a normal range– bullet drop due to gravity and the coriolis effect nonwithstanding. Note, this direction can (and often does) differ from the direction the gun was pointed when the trigger was pulled. The major reason for shots missing or being off the point of aim is not because the sights are necessarily misaligned or the gun is inaccurate. Shots miss because something is introducing the slightest bit of motion in the gun between when the bullet is triggered and when it leaves the barrel.
This was the major focus of the class I took. Our instructor was Louis Awerbuck, and he is very good. Since everyone had shot guns before we jumped past a lot of the basics regarding loading and unloading and safety and started focusing in on what problems people specifically had regarding marksmanship. In the class of 12, he dedicated a good amount of time to each person and individually coached when necessary and would point out information to the group when applicable. There were many drills at different ranges and one in particular was eye opening. After a fair amount of time shooting at standard paper silhouettes he stuck an empty water bottle up as a target and moved everyone back to twice the distance. We were lined up to individually take a single shot at the bottle. Almost without exception we all hit the bottle.
How is it we could hit a bottle presenting a target that’s maybe 3 inches across but when we were half the distance (10 feet away) we were shooting groups that were as much as a foot across? The answer is when we were shooting at the paper targets initially, we were shooting for the “center of mass” (which is a total misnomer) usually marked on the silhouettes in the middle of the chest — a target that is maybe an inch across. The stress level is higher to make a tinier target so there’s a lot of second guessing involved about when to fire, etc. The bottle is a wider target and so the mind works less which means less likelihood of introducing extra muscle motions to miss. Amazing. The lesson was to not strive for 100% accuracy, but go for 90%. Trying to outthink the gun is a foolish idea.
I really enjoyed being trained. Self teaching for me meant a lot of self reinforcement of bad habits. This was self evident when I took Julie shooting again recently. She had no preconceptions about how to miss, so her first shot at 15 feet was less than half an inch off the bullseye. Later shots would get worse, but her first run of shots were frighteningly accurate. The same thing that makes me research and figure things out hinders my progress in this respect.
I highly recommend firearm instruction, but not just any instruction. It has to be good stuff. A good instructor will not only teach you how to be safe, how to shoot well, and what the common pitfalls are; a good instructor will instill a sense of self awareness that validates why instruction is needed. I don’t claim to be a gunfighter by any stretch of the imagination. I know I can draw a gun from a holster to shoot a 4 inch group at distances between 7 and 15 feet and reload safely within a few seconds, but only with a LOT of constraints — I have to be carrying a gun in a holster, I have to have ammo in that gun, I have to be already facing the target, I have to be told when to draw my weapon, the target has to be made of 7-15 feet away and not moving… and made of paper. This barely is enough to prepare me for the coming zombie hordes… and don’t even get me started on the robot apocalypse.
Do I plan to take more firearm training? Yes. Do I plan to go to the range occasionally to keep my skills up? Yes. Am I open to sharing any and all information I have with anyone that asks? Yes. Is anyone interested in going out with me to shoot? (This is where you say “Yes!”)