By Sarah Clark
On my 43rd birthday I asked for a unique gift. Not that I really wanted it but I felt like I really needed it. I asked my husband to hire someone to train me to shoot guns. I wanted the whole kit and caboodle about how different guns work, how to handle them and how to use them. I did request that my husband not be my teacher. I wanted a third party who would assume I knew nothing and would hold me to a higher standard without favoring me. My husband was very surprised at my request but excited to fulfill it.
I grew up in a household without guns. I did not hunt and I never had any interest in guns. My husband, on the other hand, came from a southern, gun loving family. He and his dad hunted and they strongly supported the NRA and their constitutional right to have a gun. Over the years I slowly began to see the value of owning a gun for hunting, sport and self-defense. My husband continues to collect guns and enjoys shooting them when he is not practicing medicine. I am also aware of how the government is eroding our 2nd Amendment rights and I see society changing into a more violent one. I watch how mobs of people act on Black Friday when they trample each other just to save money on electronics. What would these people do when they were unemployed, broke and hungry? I think there is a lot of truth in the quote, “We are only one meal away from a revolution.” As I pondered these thoughts and considered that I lived out in the country on 42 acres with 5 kids and a husband who is rarely home, I decided it was time to educate myself. I want to be able not only know how to use a gun, but be comfortable with it and shoot it well. What purpose did it serve to have a gun safe filled with guns and ammo and not have a single clue on how to use them? Am I really interested in guns? No. Do I anticipate finding myself a new hobby? No. I view this like learning to swim—it is one of those things in life you just have to know how to do it.
I assumed that my birthday gift would be a few lessons at the local gun club/shooting range with a hired instructor. When I asked my husband for my gift he immediately grabbed his computer and said, “I know just the place.” For years he had been reading about a place near Las Vegas, Nevada, called Front Sight. For 14 years Front Sight specialized in teaching and training people to use firearms. With in a few weeks he had registered me for a 2-day defensive handgun course and a 2-day practical rifle course. He booked my airfare, rented me a car, made my hotel reservation and that was the beginning of my adventure.
On Thursday I arrived at a cheesy casino hotel in the middle of the desert. I am 50 miles west of Las Vegas and there is NOTHING out here. This town is mostly fast food and Wal-Mart. The hotel buffet is too greasy for my taste so I guess it’s going to be a Subway week. I went to Wal-Mart to pack my lunch for my first day tomorrow. I do not have refrigerator so I grabbed some raw veggies, hummus, granola bar, water and apples. I kept them in my car since it will be in the 40’s tonight.
I arrived at Front sight at 7:00 a.m. and followed hubby’s instructions to go to the pro shot and get magazines and a holder for the magazines for the gun that I brought with me. I needed to use one of their belts since my Brighton studded belt wouldn’t work to hold the cartridge that held the magazines. I also learned that wrap around sunglasses and a brimmed hat were required on the range to deflect empty shells and shot that may hit me. As the day progressed my wardrobe deteriorated—more on that later.
Instead of renting a gun at Front Sight my hubby sent me with a Walther 380 semi automatic. I had no clue how to use it but he told me not to worry that they would show my how. After getting all of my gear I went to register, was assigned to range #6, had my guns inspected and then went into a huge room for a general assembly.
I would guess there were about 150 people in there and maybe 15 were women. Most looked like men aged 50+. Some wore their camouflage hunting clothes; lots of polar fleece and almost all of them wore cargo pants. I realized later that cargo pants are a wise choice because they have lots of pockets, which hold lots of ammo. There were a variety of people: young, old, grandpas, fathers, and even a dozen kids. Front Sight has a kid’s program. The women did not look like me but then again they probably looked at me and assumed that I was backwoods looking, too. Over the next few days I found people to be kind and cordial but most people kept to themselves. People were focused on what they were doing and there was very little sharing of personal information and backgrounds.
I sat down to read and sign liability paperwork. At 8:00 the first speaker begin by ingraining the 4 most important rules of the course: 1) Treat all guns as if they are loaded. 2) Never let your muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. 3) Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. 4) Be sure of your target and what is in line with it. He also taught us how to “Dry Practice” which means how to practice using your gun without ammo in it. We had to agree to a list of rules on how to perform a dry practice and not hold Front Sight liable if we made dangerous mistakes.
The next speaker presented a 45 min presentation on “The Five Levels of Competence.” I found it very interesting and the speaker was articulate and entertaining. The speaker drove home the point that so many gun owners think they are competent when, in reality, they never sharpen their skills or improve on their gun handling. It is important to be trained and ready with strong skills because in a bad situation you will only sink to your lowest level of training. You will not rise to anything. Because of the stress and adrenalin you will only perform at 50% of your best ability. I was thinking, ‘OMG I am a dead woman.” But that is why I am here—to learn and to not be ignorant. I told myself to just breathe and be patient. I was conscious that I needed to learn. I had to start somewhere and that is why I am here.
When we were dismissed to our ranges I walked to mine and saw 38 people with 5 instructors. We sat in chairs underneath a steel canopy facing the shooting range. There were big berms on all three sides to catch stray bullets. It was very cold, in the 30’s with the wind blowing so hard. Looking around everyone was underdressed and did not expect the weather to be so miserable. I just shivered for the next 3 hours.
The instructor demonstrated all sorts of safety procedures and then showed us the basics like removing the gun from the holster and getting prepared for the “ready position.”
He was very good at teaching and was careful to repeat himself but since I had absolutely no knowledge whatsoever about anything, including the gun I had, I was very quickly confused. To make it more confusing I had to decode the lingo—like “brass” “strip” & “rack”. As the instructor taught he would say, “And if you have a 1911 then you will do this…” or “And if you have a Glock you will do this first…” or “Everyone with a double action will need to remember…” I sat there thinking, “OMG, What do I have? What is the name of my gun? Is it a single or double action? What is double action anyway?” It was a foreign language that I was swept up in with no translation to guide me. Feeling so confused I was way too embarrassed to ask my questions. My husband told that this was all going to be explained to me. Why do they assume I know all this? Why use gun terminology and not define it? How can I stand up and repeat the demos when I do not even know how to hold a gun? I must be in the wrong class. Where is the VERY beginner class? Not the I-already-have-a-foundation-about-guns-class!
After about 30 minutes of instruction they put us into two lines, one behind the other. The person in front or behind you was your partner. When I was on the firing line, then my partner became my coach. The coach was responsible for making sure the person on the firing line did everything correctly. My partner was a 60-year-old man who had been shooting for years and so I felt like an idiot “coaching him.” When it came time to coach me the man was not familiar with my gun. He called an instructor over, who had to call another instructor over to see how to load and unload my gun. Well, unbeknownst to me I have this gun that has to be cocked and then decocked by pulling the trigger with the safety on! If the safety is not on then there will be a big problem—probably not a great gun for a ground zero beginner like me. Then my holster was not connected to my belt loops but rather clipped onto my pants so when I tried to remove my gun from the holster the whole holster came off. It continued downhill from there. I was secretly cursing my hubby for sending me with such a complicated gun. What was he thinking? Certainly this cannot be so complicated, right?
As the morning progressed I felt like I was falling more and more behind as the group plowed forward. I was trying so hard to concentrate on manipulating my gun and translating the lingo while enduring the freezing cold that I was ready to quit when lunch rolled around. Before going to lunch one of the instructors approached me and asked if I would rather rent a Glock 17 (9 mm caliber) from the pro shop. He thought that if I had a more common gun I would learn the foundations faster without getting so confused on the order of operating the 380. I agreed and he said he would take care of the rental.
Before eating lunch I went to the pro shop to buy warmth. Warmth was an $89 brown jacket with Front Sight logo on it. It looks like a bomber jacket but it’s not leather. Heard it was going to rain tomorrow so I needed something water proof. Certainly not my style of jacket but function overrides fashion in this circumstance.
At 1:00 I listened to a classroom lecture, “Code of Mental Awareness and Combat Mindset.” Another excellent talk on always being aware of your surroundings and not staying in code white, which means you are unaware and unprepared for any threat. The color-coding the speaker talked about is much like security codes in travel: White, yellow, orange, red & black. Black being the line in the sand is crossed and your survival depends on your trained response. Everything at Front Sight is about self -defense and stopping a threat. It is never about being aggressive and killing people. Death may result from a gunshot but it was ONLY fired to protect another life.
I went back to may range after lunch and the rented gun was not there. After asking and having to explain my situation I was told to go back to the pro shop and pick up the gun, ammo and magazines. So now I was missing the afternoon instruction and feeling like I was so far behind the 8 ball that I should just leave. When I walked in the pro shop I was near tears. My frustration was so high I had to fight back the urge to cry. In the pro shop I chocked out under my breath, “This really sucks!” and the woman in there heard me and asked me about it. I poured out my whole list of frustrations and how I was so overwhelmed, confused and lost. I told her, “No one here understands that I have no clue about a gun. I don’t know what kind of gun I have. I don’t know how to hold it. I don’t know ANYTHING! I can’t make sense out of the lingo, the instruction or anything!” She said, “Honey just calm down and I will take care of it. “ She radioed an instructor at my range, and said, “I have a young lady here in the pro shop who needs one on one attention when she returns with her gun. Will you please work with her?” They agreed.
When I arrived back at the range one of the instructors immediately took me aside and slowly started to explain everything, step by step. The range master, Jeff, was so kind and helpful and after about an hour it all began to make sense. I could hold the gun, check the chamber, load it, shoot from the holster, and fix three kinds of malfunctions. I was getting very comfortable with the gun and understood how it worked. Around 4:00 instructor Paul said to me in a surprising tone, “You are really starting to get the hang of this.” I thought to myself, “Well I am not a dumb ass, sir. I just needed you to simply and slowly explain it to me, knowing I had no foundation.” I bit my tongue and nodded in agreement.
The afternoon went much better. My spirits were back up. We spent the next three hours doing a lot of shooting and going over and over different scenarios. I learned about centering on the thoracic cavity and shooting at the optic cavity if shots to the thoracic cavity did not stop the pursuer. I learned after action drills, which meant after shooting a few shots that I would need to move out of the line of fire and look around me. The range master set up gun malfunctions and I had to clear my gun and be able to get back into the battle. While all of this continued the instructors were walking around correcting small mistakes. This is when I realized that I did have ONE advantage over most of these people. Because I was so brand new to shooting I did not have any bad habits to overcome. I only knew what they taught me and I was doing pretty well
At 5:00 I was not finished until I attended another lecture called, “Moral & Ethical Decisions Associated with the Use of Deadly Force.” Another excellent talk that left me with two concepts to take home: 1) If its not worth killing or dying for, it is not worth fighting for. 2) If you must think about whether or not you should shoot, you probably should not shoot. My mind was heavy with information and psychological thoughts. It reinforced the idea that Front Sight about teaching responsible gun use and making wise choices about what I shoot.
I left there at 6:00p.m. I was so exhausted. My arms were sore, my face was wind burned, my body was an icicle and I literally collapsed on my bed. I forced my body up to trek to Wal-Mart to buy leggings to wear under my pants and socks to double up on my feet. I ate at Subway and then went back to my hotel and collapsed into bed and fell asleep.
Woke up at 5:00 a.m and I found a little piece of heaven by locating the local Starbucks and bypassing the hotel greasy breakfast buffet. When I arrived at Front sight I went to the pro shop to buy a hat and, the wonderful lady who came to my rescue yesterday gave me her gloves to borrow for the day. They were perfect gloves for shooting. (It was too late in the season to find winter gloves anywhere in town.) So I go to my range wearing a logo knit cap with a billed hat over the top of it, protective glasses, a big logo jacket, two pair of pants, two pair of socks and a pair of gloves. Not pretty but warm enough to endure the rain and wind.
I was on the range at 8:00, reviewed what I had learned yesterday and by 10:00 a.m. I was actually enjoying myself. I was getting confident in what I was doing and I discovered I liked to shoot. I just wanted to stand there and shoot and shoot and shoot. Shooting has an addictive quality to it. Once I start shooting every shot is a challenge and I just want to keep meeting the next challenge The gun procedures were becoming more rote and demonstrations and instructions weren’t such an effort to understand. Wow, I can really do this and be somewhat good at it! My shots to the thoracic cavity were very good, at least I thought so considering I never shot a gun before. I really thought that I would never be able to hit the target anywhere much less the correct area.
After lunch I was reveling in shooting and the whole course. Too bad it was over today. Holding my certificate of completion I proudly I texted my husband and gave him the go ahead to buy me a handgun like the Glock. I was ready and willing to use it. I think he would have bought me China knowing I was happy and not AWOL at that point. He was so worried after my day one experience, that I would quit and be on the next flight home swearing off guns forever.
I have come to the conclusion that this experience is just like learning to scuba dive. Because the risks are life or death safety procedures are vital. You have to go over and over and over the procedures so it is unconscious, rote memory and rote muscle movement that is keeping you safe. Learning about guns is the same kind of training. Lots of emphasis put on safety and procedures so every time you use a gun you are safe and successful. I think I liked scuba diving more but shooting isn’t so bad either.
Showed back up at Front Sight bright and early this morning to find out that I made big mistake. The 2-day rifle course I planned to take today was offered LAST week. I was supposed to take that class first and then take the 2-day defensive handgun today. I had two choices. I could go home early OR sign up for another 2-day course. I decided to maximize my time here so I signed up for the shotgun course. I thought that I needed to know more about such a common gun that many hunting households own. Even though I was very disappointed not to learn about rifles I tried to stay positive. I went to the pro shop and rented a 20 gauge Mossberg 500 shot gun.
This time around I made my instructors very aware that I was a complete novice and to not assume that I knew anything. That helped my situation right away. I was feeling pretty good about everything until the range master taught about stance and position. If I do not hunch over enough, if I do not put part of the stock in the right hollow part of my shoulder, if I do not hold it right then I will bruise my shoulder and my face. Then we attempted the different ready positions and, oh my goodness, I was ready to quit. My arms and back were so sore. This was the only time in my life I regretted not doing the P90X. What in the world did I just sign up for? I was not excited and all of my confidence quickly eroded away. I am going to leave here looking like a battered wife. Then I was also warned about keeping my hat & eye protection on since shot was going to probably spray me. Not to worry, I was told, it doesn’t hurt. It feels like sand being thrown at you. Oh great! Another “perk” to this gun. Lucky me for getting this surprise class today and tomorrow. The morning was filled with instruction and dry practice and I would shoot in the afternoon.
At 1:30 there was a classroom lecture titled, “Problems 2 & 3: Criminal & Civil Liability. This was probably the best presentation of them all. It was so powerful and to the point. Problem 1 is defined as successfully defending yourself. If you fail to solve problem one then you will not have problems 2 & 3. Problem 2 is the Criminal Liability and Problem 3 is Civil Liability. The speaker was former law enforcement so he clearly laid out how to call 911 after shooting someone, how to cooperate with police, how to give a statement and what to expect from the police and an attorney. He went on to talk about how miserable a civil suit can be. In the end gun fighting is risky business. You risk everything and you don’t win anything. You only keep what you have. He left us with this reality, “As bad as problems 2 & 3 are it is never as bad as losing the fight. It is better to be the victor than the victim because life is better than death. My loved ones are counting on me.”
After lunch I walked to rifle range #2 to meet my fate with the dreaded shotgun. At first it wasn’t so bad but, before long I felt my arms, back and shoulder getting sore and tired. After the handgun course the shotgun was so big and bulky to handle. I was glad to understand how it works and have some experience with it but by 3:00 p.m. I really did not enjoy it. I have come to the conclusion that I want my own to handgun to shoot and master, rather than handle a shotgun. Yes, I know, I get better accuracy with a shotgun since I can just point it in the direction of a target and shoot. But it is just not for me. I am very interested in the rifle and I think I would like that.
Today’s new vocabulary words are: Slug, recoil, buck shot, bird shot, elevator, over penetrate, pump action, and “Put two in the tube.”
LAST DAY! Going to finish out the experience with a full day of shotgun training. Had big tears in my eyes after shooting 10 rounds of slugs. Pain, pain and more pain– that is all it was. As if it wasn’t interesting and challenging enough, I had to lie on the ground and learn to shoot from the prone position. Good grief! As the morning seemed to drag on, my shoulder felt so tender and sore. I was just not enjoying this kind of gun. I think I kept mentally beat myself up for screwing up and missing the rifle course. Who enjoys shooting this kind of gun, anyway? I am going to leave the shotgun for the red necks and the S & M trailer park types.
I thought lunchtime would never come. It finally came and it went and then I was back on the range. I did lots more shooting and since I did not want to schlep heavy ammo home I had to shoot it all. I think after a few hours my shoulder just became numb to it all.
I did an interesting simulation where I walked down a canyon road and had to shoot at targets after I determined if they were a threat. Some targets were innocent by standers and some targets I had to look at and determine if they were threatening. I also had to do “after action” moves, which means going for cover & concealment to stay out of the line of fire after shooting. I did OK. I was very good at spotting the targets and staying out of the line of fire but my aim was not accurate fast enough. I had room for improvement but I was not a total failure. Again. I found it very hard to move around and find cover, reload and shoot with such a bulky, heavy gun. Then to shoot far away I had to use slug and those have a much more painful kick. I avoided using slug, when in reality, that was the only ammo that would have helped me in the situation.
After two more hours of shooting 100 rounds of birdshot, 30 of buckshot and 10 slugs, I got my shotgun certificate. My whole right side of my body was hurting and my arms were limp from exhaustion. It was over.
Although it was a big relief, there was a twang of I–just-got–through-this–and-now-I–have-to-leave-already feeling? I regretted not knowing about rifles and I can honestly say that I want to go back. It was not a Disney World or a European trip experience but it was very rewarding and very insightful. I am not longer a novice and it was a very uplifting feeling. To have the knowledge and the confidence about weapons is comforting and inspiring. I want to go home and practice. I want to improve and these courses were the perfect foundation to build on. Would I come back to Front Sight? Absolutely. Was it worth it? Every minute of it! Would I recommend it to others? Without a doubt. It was a very fulfilling, rewarding experience that wasn’t always fun but it was so valuable. I am so thankful and proud that I stuck it out and did this despite my initial disinterest.
As I reflect on the week there are commands that I instinctively will follow: “Ready, firing drill, load your weapon…”, “Chamber check, magazine check…” “Tactical reload,” “Emergency reload”, “Finger straight, down to the ready…” And I will always remember to do a chamber check before loading a gun, after loading a gun and unloading a gun. It is a consistent chamber check that prevents the often deadly negligent discharge we hear about in the news.
I heard many poignant and powerful stories that week that imprinted on my brain, as if I was part of the tragedy. The story of the ignorant schoolteacher who was able to take a gun away from boys on the playground, eject the magazine but did not know a round was in the chamber and handed it off to a little girl to hold. The girl fired the gun and was killed. Or the story about a young woman who knew that her boyfriend was going to hurt her and debated buying a gun The speaker telling the story was the one who encouraged her to buy a gun and learn to use it. She even signed up for a class, but all of her friends talked her into buying a whistle instead of a gun. She died blowing that whistle in a parking lot where she was stabbed 14 times. A whistle did nothing to protect her and when someone did call 911 it was too late to help her. These are stories that stay with a person. These same stories consistently choke the speaker up even though he has repeated them 2-3 times a week for years.
These stories of ignorance and tragedy put a strong desire in me to do better. It is not about being a Terminator or a Rambo; it is about being very informed and staying safe. I can only hope that if the situation arises and I am faced with a choice to shoot that 50% of my training will be enough to make me the victor and not the victim.
Going to Front Sight and learning how to shoot and handle a gun was one of the most significant things I have ever done. After returning home I went and purchased my first handgun, a Springfield XD 9 mm. My husband has put up targets and we shoot as often as we can, He is teaching me how to use a rifle and we are slowly working our way through his gun safe learning about each gun and then shooting it. It is so empowering to have this knowledge and I wish I could be the poster child for encouraging other women to learn to shoot. I never thought I would ever find a new hobby but I have and it is not only useful, and practical but fun and challenging. I have only chipped the tip of the iceberg in learning about guns and ammo but it is a good start and one that will carry me very far and be a step ahead in being prepared for self defense.