Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dropping the Hammer and Punching Paper

While renovating my home office, I came across this paper target, dating back probably about 3-4 years ago when I went to the Boston Gun Range (which used to be out in Worcester, an hour's drive away from Boston, but I digress). As best as I can recall, I was firing a CZ-75 at this target from 25 feet.

Note that this is a half-size silhouette, so the "effective" distance would be 50 feet if this was a man-sized target. The cluster of shots on the left marked "JC" were made by a friend; the rest are mine. I can cover all the shots center mass, except for the low 4 o'clock flier and the two at 11 o'clock in the 5x zone, with my hand. All the shots to the head I can cover easily with my palm. I think it's not too bad after 15 years of soft city living, never having fired that particular model of pistol before in my life. A few weeks of regular practice and I could have probably shrunk that grouping by half. Living in Boston I don't have regular access to a range anymore, and even when the BGR was open I only went perhaps once or twice a year, so every visit was an exercise in shaking the rust off the trigger finger and learning to relax into a proper sight picture again.

I've been handling guns for over 25 years; my father has been a hunter, firearms safety instructor, guide, and all-around outdoorsman all his life, and when you grow up in Alaska and Maine, guns are as common as iPhones here in Boston. I don't know exactly how old I was when I first shot a firearm, but I left central AK when I was 8, and before that age my dad had cut down the stock on a .22 rifle so it would fit me better (we still have the rifle, with the rest of the stock reattached).

Since then, I've handled a wide variety of pistols, everything from Dan Wesson and S&W .357 magnums to pearl-handled .32 Colts, from Ruger MK IIs to Glock 19s to customized M1911A1 .45 automatics, and plenty of other models in between. I've shot shells in pump 12-gauges down to break-open .410s, and handled all sorts of bolt-action, single-shot, and semi-auto rifles, from .22s to an antique .38-55 lever action, from a Mini-14 to an AR-15 to a semi-auto AK-47.

During all that time I've shot with Maine State Police members (one of them a member of their Tac Team), US Customs, several local law enforcement officers from various places, and even a retired USMC Colonel who had been on the Corps' Pistol and Rifle Championship Teams (even at 70, he shot his custom .45 auto better than I ever could or will, and was "very disappointed" in his tiny little groupings).

With only one exception, my interaction with "shooting professionals" has been nothing but pleasant. I was never chastised for how I handled a firearm, or made to feel awkward or uncomfortable. I have no doubt that as a civilian I was given a hairy eyeball or two the first time I broke trigger in front of of a lawman, but it was always done with respect and a friendly nod.

The single instance where I felt otherwise was at the Sig Sauer training facility in Exeter, NH. I went with three other people because they have a good catalog of firearms training sessions, from basic gun safety to all manner of tactical shooting scenarios. We were all going because the Sig Sauer facility will give a certification that meets the Massachusetts standards needed to get a Firearms Identification Card, the first step on the long road to handgun ownership in this state. The basic class was eight hours, and cost each of us almost three hundred dollars.

I'm not going to belabor the whole experience point-by-point, but it was extremely disappointing. There was ~2 hours of "This is a gun. There are many different types of guns...", followed by an hour of "This is how you stick your finger in the breech to make sure there's not a bullet in there (which is fine, except we never do this in class, we just watch the instructors do it) and other handling safety guidelines. On top of that there were several hours of discussing various laws and regulations relating to gun ownership and transportation, as well as laws pertaining to self-defense and the legal ramifications of using a firearm in self-defense. All of that, while interesting, isn't really what we were there for - we signed up for a class to certify us in firearm safety and handling.

But wait, when do we get to the handling? Each of us had a "red gun" (realistic plastic training model) in front of us, which we were not allowed to handle at any point during the ~ six hours we were in the classroom, as we "hadn't been shown the right way to handle a firearm yet". In fact, we never picked up the red gun; not when we were being shown (and only shown) how to handle a firearm, or at any point while in class. I never laid a finger on my red gun the whole time I was there.

The only time we handled an actual firearm was the last hour of the day. We went into the indoor range, where each of us was issued a Sig 9mm auto appropriate for our hands and build (I believe mine was a Sig 239). We were informed by the more senior of the two instructors that he had a Tazer, and if we got out of line, he wouldn't hesitate to use it. That's right - paying customers were informed they would be Tazered if they "got out of line". This guy was a diminutive, Napoleonic, former law enforcement officer and retired LEO firearms instructor, and once we were on the range, he must have been having Full Metal Jacket flashbacks, because he was always right up behind you, mouth to your ear, riding your butt about everything you did and how if you did that thing again, you're done here, mister!.

I'll stop here and just remind you all that I'm 100% Safety First. I don't want to get gut-shot by some moron who can't handle their firearm safely, and I know it must be stressful to get a bunch of newbies up on the line with loaded guns in their hands. On the flip side, he was instructing about $8,000 worth of paying customers, not buzz-cutted raw recruits. I felt like I should be bellowing out "YES DRILL SERGEANT!!!" after everything he said.

And truth be told, I was more nervous, anxious, bumble-thumbed, and awkward there with him than I have ever been in over a quarter century of incident-free gun handling. Shooting with the Colonel, shooting with Maine State Police SWAT, shooting with US Customs - perfectly calm, cool, and collected. But there at the Sig Sauer training center, I was made so uncomfortable I felt like I was liable to drop the dang pistol. I even got yelled at for attempting to make my shooting accurate! "I DO NOT WANT YOU TO BE ACCURATE! I WANT YOU TO DO WHAT I TELL YOU TO DO WHEN I TELL YOU TO DO IT!".

The sad part is, the junior instructor was the exact opposite. He worked with both of the women I went with, one of whom had handled pistols before and another who had never fired a gun in her life. He was calm, cool, professional, and made them feel safe, confident, and reassured that they were doing the right thing. When one of them had difficulty with a stiff magazine spring and loading her rounds, he even gave her a hand and loaded it for her. He was only a part-time instructor, and told us he worked full-time in the factory assembling and testing the pistols, and was an amazingly pleasant and respectful individual to work with. It's a crying shame he has to work with that other blowhard.

At the end of the day, we all got our certifications. We were all safe, we all followed directions, and no one got Tazered. I did, however, feel utterly robbed of almost $300, and even if I have a chance, I'll never buy a Sig Sauer firearm because of that experience. Despite the fact that the Boston Gun Range was eventually closed down, they were always friendly, safety conscious, but once they worked with you and saw that you knew what you were doing, they wouldn't ride your behind every moment you were on the line.

Some time in early April, I hope to go up to New Hampshire again, and this time, try out The Firing Line. I'd like to give an Uzi a try, and I have a few friends who want to come along as well. If and when I go, I'll be sure to post a report.


Anonymous said...

I've had some similar experiences with gun manufactures. A lot of those guys are salesmen who actually know nothing about fire arms...I'm looking at you HK... Greed Knight, I mean, Reid Knight, had some pretty funny moments as well. I was pleasantly surprised when I went to the advanced armorers course for Glock pistols in Smyrna, Georgia. The instructors were professional and honest, not the door to door salesmen type that act as if their product is the only one that exists and everything else is crap.

Jack Badelaire said...

There wasn't really a "buy our guns" vibe, or "Glocks / H&Ks / Berettas are crap" vibe, but more of a "You'll learn X / Y / Z in our advanced tactical shooting for armchair vigilantes course, which costs a low low $500" vibe.

And like I said, the younger guy who worked on the factory line was a pleasure to deal with. It was the half-pint ex-LEO who was the dick. I hate to go all "You put too much foam on my cappuccino" on him, but that guy really needed a lesson on customer relations, because we were customers. If he hadn't been such a dick, I'd definitely have considered going back for a more advanced shooting class. Now? Not so much.

Indyguy said...

I know just what sort of gun instructor you are referring to. And to be fair, I've had similar instructors for a variety of activities. A similarly disappointing time for me occurred one time at summer camp when we had a session at the camp's facility for climbing, rappelling and other high off the ground activity. I remember a long (but necessary) safety lecture followed by demonstrations for a variety of fun looking activities. We asked what we could try and were flatly told nothing beyond climbing up and rappelling down. "What about the cable glide?" No!
The climbing wall should have been more fun however I remember that the instructors mostly directed the spotters to pull so hard on the safety ropes that all of us were essentially hauled up by our harnesses. I remember my hands moving from hold to hold trying to stay ahead of the constant UPWARD tug of the harness.
Rappelling down was similar in that we found ourselves in a controlled drop rather than timing our descent by managing our own ropes.
However, over at the camp rifle range it was a different story: The instructor and aides were thorough and serious without being overbearing. Safety and procedure for proper (and accurate!) shooting were stressed and coached, and everybody shot and we were praised for doing well or gently encouraged to adopt techniques to improve our shooting.
That said, as a fellow Bostonian I've always hankered to make the trip to NH for shooting some big guns at one of the ranges up there. Now I know one course to avoid.