This is rare for a Saturday, but most weekends I’m not so conflicted about what to wear while I make the husband breakfast. Today, however, wasn’t your average Saturday. General Defensive Handgun, my training for the weekend, starts at 8am sharp and I have no idea what to wear.
Trying to balance tactical and sartorial needs is more difficult than it sounds. I know from experience that the range will be freezing, and the classroom warm. The class overview calls for draws from concealment, tactical reloads, and shooting while moving. Does that call for a nice open-front flannel or a pull-over fleece?
If only I had Archer’s tactical turtleneck, or, brilliantly, ‘the Tackleneck.’ (editor’s note: watch this now).
I settle on a tasteful black ski fleece. It’s a pullover, but fairly thin so I can tuck it in if need be. Also it matches nicely with my custom-molded holster and a belt-attached magazine holder. It occurs to me that I have a whole new world of accessories to consider. My weekend seminar, General Defensive Handgun Training, is being conducted by the Insights Training Center – the same outfit I used for my Basic Handgun class. This two-day class is decidedly more advanced than my first, but probably still not advanced by secret agent standards. It wasn’t without a few key prerequisites.
First, all students are required to have a concealed carry permit. As I wrote a couple of months ago after getting my carry permit, this bar isn’t set as high as you might think. Second, it required the aforementioned new gear. It’s like going back to school except mother isn’t here to force my brother and me onto the front lawn for the traditional photo. Third, and finally, I also need to bring along 600 rounds of ammunition. That’s not quite enough to film a Scarface re-enactment, but it’s close.
Upon arrival I find the classroom split into two groups; the basic class on the left and my more advanced class on the right. Our first instructor, Dave, welcomes us warmly; handing out release forms as others file in. At this point it’s clear I’m not the only one who labored over his outfit selection. Dave is wearing what can only be described as the Eddie Bauer Desert Storm Fall line. Initially I find his outfit out of season; wearing desert gear in February is a fashion fail. Only later does it dawn on me that I’m in Bellevue. And Dave’s head-to-toe in beige. This cannot be an accident (tip of the hat to Dave).
While the remaining seats filled up, I turn my attention to the paper work at hand. I only need to fill out one of the forms as I’m already a member at West Coast Armory – the private gun range hosting class. However, I do need to sign the mother of all legal waivers or, as I like to call it, the Mad Lib of Death. More than your standard TLDR, initial, and sign, the Mad Lib of Death reads *something* like this.
“I understand that guns are designed to (write “kill”) _________ people and that my participation in this class may result in my (write “death”) ___________.”
Naturally I find this terribly amusing and fire off a quick text to Dan. The very instant I hit send it occurs to me that this is not the type of text you send to your hand-wringing husband. My subsequent texts sing the praises of the professionalism of the staff and the quality of the facility. Hopefully, I’d just made my only mistake of the day. If only that were true.
After we finish our forms, Dave walks us through a reminder on the universal firearms handling rules. While I’ve heard a number of times I always pay laser attention during the safety bits. The rules are:
- All guns are always loaded
- Never point a gun at anything you are not willing to shoot
- Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target
- Be sure of you target and what is behind and beyond your target
When Dave wraps up the intro class departs and we’re handed off to the advanced class instructor, John Holschen. John taught much of my basics class as well, but failed to elaborate extensively on his background. He’s no slouch. He’s a Green Beret and former special weapons sergeant with experience in Afghanistan. He now teaches and does private corporate security. Also, he has two black belts. At this point I decide to not critique John’s fashion choices. I can only assume his cargo pants are Tom Ford.
We start the day reviewing what’s called ‘the integrated act of firing’ which consists of stance, grip, aiming, trigger press, and follow through. Our overarching goal, John informs us, is the rapid delivery of multiple accurate shots. John’s a stickler for mechanics. He’s here to try to break bad habits early as, in his words, “practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.”
Never one to shy from in-class participation, I ask my first question inquiring about the merits of the isosceles stance vs. the Weaver stance – the principal two stances used by law enforcement and competitive shooters. I prefer the Weaver, but know just enough to know I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. While the Weaver is more comfortable for some (namely me), and arguably standing in a bladed fashion leaves less center mass for your opponent to shoot at, it’s not recommended by the pros. At least not by John.
John and his assistants back this up with data. No one has won the national tactical competition using the weaver stance for over 15 years. Also, the Weaver leaves your blind side more exposed as you favor one side; inherently limiting the other. I decide to go with John on this one. He has data and a Green Beret. I selected my Ruger primarily as I thought it felt good in my hand and looked pretty. Advantage John.
I pay particular attention to the aiming section as it seems counter intuitive. Proper aiming is all about forming a ‘sight picture.’ What’s interesting about this (to me anyway) it that you should actually close your non dominant eye when you shoot and focus on your dominant eye on your furthest sight and not your target. That’s right – a proper sight picture calls for a closed eye and a blurry view of your target – depth of field and focus is a funny thing.
While it sounds like a recipe for collateral damage, it actually makes sense. Closing your non dominant eye enables you to achieve better focus. And while you might think that having one eye closed is terrible for your peripheral vision, particularly in a fire fight, when focusing on a narrow target it really doesn’t matter if you have one eye open or two. Your peripheral vision is crap when precisely focused – down to 18-24%. What I didn’t know at the time is that I would have this demonstrated to me clearly on day two. For accuracy, your focal point should be the sight and not the target. I make a mental note to test this later.
After learning about stance and sight picture it was time to review follow-through. Initially I have a tough time envisioning what a proper follow-through is – it’s not like we’re swinging golf clubs. It turns out I wasn’t thinking tactically enough. I didn’t know the 90/10 rule. The 90/10 rule holds that each shot should be immediately followed by 90% of the action required for the next shot. The final 10% represents where the trigger ‘breaks’ and the shot is fired. While this is difficult initially it gets easier as you get to know your trigger’s break point. And if you’re thinking that this might result in an accidental shot you’re right – it does. Hopefully your decision to fire your first shot was a good one.
Finally it’s time to hit the range. We gather up our weapons and jackets and make our way. Looking around it’s clear to me that I am the least armed of anyone in our group or at least the one with the fewest accessories. My range bag (Italian designed – Beretta and not Gucci) is lunch-pail size. It can hold two compact handguns, 3-5 magazines, 200 rounds of ammunition, my headphones, and protective eyewear.
My classmates have appreciably larger options. Many are carrying bags that can accommodate three times the capacity of mine; others have hard cases on wheels with collapse-able handles – like a roller bag you might take through the airport…if you’re an evil lackey in Die Hard II.
Inside the range we do a round of introductions while writing our names on masking tape for our fronts and backs. I quietly hope this is for easy personal instruction and not body identification. I scan the room. We’re not standing on plastic.
Before walking in I’d already surveilled up my classmates, practicing my secret agent deduction skills by imagining their respective bios and backgrounds. Like Vesper sizing up Bond, I was excited to test my reads. Not surprisingly, the Indian guy with the .357 Sig Sauer and Hugo Boss jeans works for Microsoft. $100 says he drives a 3-Series or a Q5. The soccer dad wearing jeans and white New Balance sneakers works for Boeing. Two more points. There is also a lone woman who works for a private investigator, and a gentleman who works at a Nissan Dealership that gets robbed “all the time.” The rest of the group has a mix of technical or more blue collar backgrounds.
In addition to our names and basic backgrounds each student shares their firearm du jour. Most appear to be shooting 9 millimeter Glock 19s. The Glock 19 is popular for good reason. It’s practical, accurate, and well made. Also, it has the style of a Toyota Camry. I smugly enjoy my refined aesthetic. When my turn comes around I share my firearm of choice, the Ruger SR9c, and let everyone know that I’m researching a book on how to become a secret agent. I decide to share this info as a way to pilot book interest. After all these are prospective book buyers and should be right smack in my target audience. I get some raised eyebrows and murmurs of amusement. Perhaps these people are more like me than I thought! Then I cast my eyes toward the Ben Roethlisberger lookalike who introduces himself next. Upon close inspection, Ben has “Evil Dead” tattooed in very thick letters across his knuckles. This does not seem like a good choice. I’m reasonably confident we share different world views.
The range is set with targets suspended on twine at the end of the range (this detail becomes important on day two). There are six targets per sheet lined up in two columns. John instructs us to bring our firearms up to a line on the floor and load them. At no point are we to remove a magazine from our firearm while behind the line. We get prepped and loaded then, as instructed, count off going down the line. I’m lucky 7 which I take as a good sign. The odd numbers are up first, the evens step back. So, I’m up first.
As we prepare for our first drill John reminds us about our stance and proper draw. Our dominant hand goes to the firearm with our trigger finger along the slide. I’m one of the only lefties (literally and likely politically) so right off I feel special. Our opposite hand is firmly pressed against our chests with our fingers pointed to 8:00 in preparation for the two-handed clasp. This creates a very fluid and efficient movement as we draw our weapons high, nearly hand to armpit, rotate the barrel forward, and then bring it toward our center line where we can clasp the gun with both hands in the ready position. From here we are told to align our barrels with our dominant eye and thrust the weapon forward just short of locking your elbows. While the movement looks quite mechanical when broken down into steps there’s a clear method at work here. It’s efficient, supports proper mechanics, and it doesn’t favor one side.
For our first exercise we take our aim on a specified target and fire with the goal of being 90% ready for our next shot. With each shot I get a better sense for where my trigger breaks. John alternates yelling 90 and 10 over and over again as I go through several rounds. While the other group shoots those of us behind the line are encouraged to steadily top off our spare magazines. At this point I’m wishing I had a third magazine so I could load less frequently. There’s always more gear to be had.
For our second drill we concentrate on shooting multiple targets. Before doing so with live rounds we remove our magazines, clear any cartridges from the chamber, and practice dry-firing. Dry-firing is common practice for those who want to hone their skills when not on the range. I suspect it’s also a sure fire method to get me thrown out of the house. For our dry fire exercise we are instructed to shoot (well pull the trigger) then immediately paint a new sight picture on the second target; letting the movement of the recoil help propel us toward the new target. The faster you can lay down multiple accurate shots the better; every millisecond counts.
After doing this several times it was time for live fire. On instruction I draw my weapon, focus on the initial target and fire. I try to let the motion set off by the recoil initiate my movement toward the second target. I pull for what I think is 90% and find I pull a few percent too far and fire again. It’s not unexpected, particularly when trying to chain together multiple pieces of new information, but at least my shot is on target. During the various drills the assistant instructions come by with advice. More than once I’m reminder of my trigger finger position and have my stance optimized.
Each group cycles through several rounds before we move onto multiple shots in one fell swoop. John barks commands over and over again as we cycle through the targets. At this point in the afternoon the class is really picking up steam. We’re practicing more and moving through far more rounds in the process. Initially i thought the 600 round requirement was overkill, but as class continues our rate of depletion is accelerating.
Before we know it we’re back in the class for another lecture. By this point it’s clear that John’s a bit of a story teller. This is fine as he’s clearly seen his share of action and it works well with his simultaneously gruff and good-natured teaching style. I start a game of ‘unnamed government agency’ bingo in the early afternoon; tracking each mention when John references a colleague. Of note he does this as a matter of course, without a hint or irony or disdain. I think he really does have many friends who work for unnamed government agencies. I can empathize. For a time I was a fan of the artist formerly known as Prince. It’s basically the same thing.
John’s talk for the afternoon centers on weapon caliber and stopping power. As new guys, we eat this stuff up. New guys love to talk about gear and John is peppered with ‘what if’ questions that even I eventually tire of. Debating the merits of a 9mm vs. a 357 in stopping a meth head from killing your entire family is suddenly a plausible scenario. When we start talking about wound channels and ballistic gelatin diagnostics it starts to get a bit gruesome. The last time I heard mention of ballistic gelatin we were eating Jell-O salad with fruit cocktail, cottage cheese, and mini marshmallows at a family reunion. It also could stop a bullet.
For our last range session of the day we work on laying down multiple shots on multiple targets. By now we’re trying to apply multiple lessons from class including the integrated act of firing, proper draw technique, the 90/10 rule, and using tracing patters to link together targets. John barks out three random digits, referencing the numbered targets, while we follow along with a hail of bullets (well a trio anyway).
By this time I’m feeling cocky as many of my shots are falling nicely on target. I even get a nice “All right Alex, that’s what I’m talking about!” from John’s assistant instructor. The fact the he looks a bit like a love-child of Pharrell Williams and Jay-Z makes it even cooler. I briefly beam with pride before dropping a magazine on the floor during a reload. Damn.
Our final half hour wraps up back in the class room. John has homework for us. My mind races – what on earth could we have for homework? More pressing is the matter of tonight’s dinner party. Who has time for homework? John hands out a training manual used for armed security guards; all of whom are licensed by the state. We’ve got 10 pages to read before tomorrow’s test. I immediately file a mental note that I’ll get up early to do my reading; something I’m sure to regret when the alarm goes off.
We’re dismissed from class at just past 6:00. I make my way toward my car removing my firearm from my holster and placing it in my bag. I’m encouraged by the first day and look forward to what tomorrow’s class has in store. Having such world-class instruction makes all the difference in the world. I’m impressed.
(You can read about day two of my Defensive Handgun Training here)