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February 18, 2004

A Good Group

goodgroup.jpgAs you can see, this target is full of holes. I have painted an upside down smile in the midsection of a virtual man. It's an interesting feeling.

Today is the first time that I fired a real gun. Doc and I have been promising to go shooting for over a year, today we finally went. This is what it's like.

The joint is in Torrance in one of those generic 90s looking business parks. There's a simple steel barred door with at least two dozen stickers on the glass one behind it: Glock, H&K, S&W and various ammo and gun supply manufacturers. Most notable is the big frayed paper sign saying that it's illegal to carry a loaded weapon into the facility. It's grey and rainy today, we step out of Doc's 4WD and head into the joint.

Doc had his backup .38 revolver, but for some unexplained reason, he had no ID on him at all. So he left it in the car and decided this would be all me. The buzz cut kid in the military green puffy jacket pointed us to the glass case of rentals - mostly Glocks. There were .45s, 9mms pistols and some revolvers on the lower shelves. Even though there were a number of interesting looking revolvers and one monstrerous one straight out of Dirty Harry, I was pretty sure I wanted a nice .45. I picked out a Glock 21, a full sized .45 caliber automatic pistol.

They guy took my California drivers licence, charged me 32 bucks and handed me a box of 50 rounds, several targets, some safety goggles and headphones. I signed in on a log, as did Doc and we headed to the range.

The range was behind a wall with large windows. The door was over on the right. There was already a man in one of the 14 lanes. We headed down to stall nubmer 7. I've done this a dozen times in video games and seen it who knows how many times on TV cop dramas. The motor on our target clothesline wasn't working so there wasn't a whole lot of automatic clickety precision in that. We just reached up and pulled the oily cables by hand.

Since Doc is an officer, I'm getting the running commentary the whole time. Assume the barrel is always hot (even though the gun was handed to me in the 'slide lock' position. ) Finger on the body and never inside the trigger area until you're ready to shoot. I'm so glad that I had him to tell me this stuff. So my barrel is down range on the flat tray in front of me, the target is rubber banded to the clothesline thingy and we push it out 15 yards.

Most gun battles happen within 15 yards. That's friggin' scary. That's you at one end of the hallway in your house and another guy popping caps at you from the other end. I'm not freaking out when I hear this, but it is not lost on me.

I feel kinda stupid with the fat headphones on. Doc is half shouting at me and I want to take it off for the same reason I think bike helmets for kids are for dainty people. As I'm stuffing these big fat ball rounds into the 10 round cartridge, a boom comes from the first lane. The other guy started shooting and I half jump out of my skin. This with the headphones on. Damn! Granted, there must be some kind of echo in this joint but suddenly my nerves start going jangly.

I think there's something wrong with my clip. You can't simply push the bullets straight down into it. Doc goes back to the counter and the guy explains. We get the technique, but the spring in this cartridge is murder. When you get to the 7th bullet, you squeeze all the blood out of your thumbs just to get the 8th one in. So the whole time I'm there, I have this strange twitchy feeling in my fingers from the exertion of loading up the clip. We only loaded it up to the max of 10 once.

The gun is laying on the tray in front of me, barrel down range, handle out. So I can grip it with my right hand laying my index finger on the body of the gun. I turn it over and with my left hand, slam the cartridge in. The slide slams into place and it's now ready to shoot. I blade myself, left foot forward, right foot back. My right hand grips the gun and my right arm is straight, my left hand cups my right hand giving dynamic pressure back so that there is tension between my hands both of which control the weapon. I close my left eye and line the white dot on the tip of the barrel inside the slot on the back of the slide. There is no safety on the gun, I squeeze. BOOM!

The first thing I notice about the first time I fired this gun was not the noise, nor the recoil, but the smell. I squeeze off several more and the sensation is very much like having a good sized firecracker go off in your hand, only with slightly more control. These are nothing more and nothing less than explosions. You have all this discipline at your disposal, but the damned thing just explodes in your hand.

I can't see where the bullets are going. I can tell that I'm hitting the target, but for all the precise control I am consciously exerting on this machine, it is reliably unpredictable. When I fire, it bucks up and punches back slightly and then in a fraction of a second it's over. Here's a good way to envision the feeling. Open up your right hand, palm forward as if you were a snob observing the perfection of your nails. Don't extend your arm completely, bend it at the elbow. Now pick a target across the room and line it up just over your middle finger. Eyeball it. OK, hold steady. Now ball up your left fist and punch your right palm. Your fingers jerk and then are suddenly still and your target is somewhere up down right or left of where your right fingers are now. Do it 20 times, and you'll understand the frustration of shooting. You can't predict anything except that if something get hits by the bullet, it's finished.

Granted, I'm using the .45. This is about as big as handguns get. It goes boom, whereas .22s and 9mms pop. I load up the clip the second and third time having observed the patterns I have punched in the target. This is work. That damned spring is too tight and I'm not hitting dead center. Suddenly shooting the big gun doesn't seem like so much fun but I am getting the hang of slamming the cartidge home. My hands are getting tired and I can tell that I'm gripping everything too tightly. I force myself to relax and I start popping good groups. Bam Bam Bam right across the torso. I know it only takes one hit. This time the bad guy doesn't get away.

For the last 14 or so rounds, I take the man down and put up the bullseye target. I wheel it out to the very end and end up popping it 4 out of 14 times from the kneeling postion. I'm tired. I'm exhilirated. I'm wiser than before.

What have I learned?

Guns themselves are a lot simpler than they seem when all you hear about them is talk. Shooting is a lot more difficult than it appears - there are very real and very serious skills involved. The ritualization of handling and dealing with guns which sounds like fanaticism when discussed is not fanaticism. It's a necessary discipline for a machine whose proper use involves chance. I hope I never have to use one for real. If you think the drama of 'Put That Gun Down' is overstated on film or TV, believe me you really don't know. If it ever comes to a 'him or me' situation - hell, I don't even want to think about it.

If you have an emotional or political position about guns, my recommendation is to shutup and go shoot one. Do it out of curiousity, never out of necessity or spite or anything like that. Do it on a nice sunny day. Find a cop or somebody who knows guns well to take you.

I'll be back.

Posted by mbowen at February 18, 2004 01:08 PM

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I think a lot of the anti-gun people have never taken the time to actually fire a weapon. It's definitely an eye (and ear) opening experience.

It makes you realize exactly how silly all the action movies are with people leaping and running while shooting.

My buddy Martin and I would go rent various guns at the range and have a good time plinking targets. The only scary moment was the time we were there when a guy with a 44 magnum started shooting. That gun is so powerful that you can feel the concussion wave as it fires, pressing on you.

Posted by: Michael at February 18, 2004 03:03 PM

"If you have an emotional or political position about guns, my recommendation is to shutup and go shoot one. Do it out of curiousity, never out of necessity or spite or anything like that. Do it on a nice sunny day. Find a cop or somebody who knows guns well to take you."

Very true statement. I have never owned or handled any type of gun. My step-old man was the type that had a baseball bat under the bed when that was enough. Now, Bigmomma was from the country and kept a shotgun under the bed (BTW, it was right there under her bed in full site to us kids and we never,ever thought of touching it. I don't think she ever told us not to, but as with things back in the 70's, we didn't shoot our friends and we didn't bust our head open falling off our bikes or skateboards) Is my step-old man's Louisville still enough? I don't know. But I ain't taken any chances. The wife and I don't have kids yet and live in a pretty secure place but when we have a house, I will have a gun. I don't count on my kids being as smart as I was at 10, so it'll be locked up, but it'll be ready for any knuckleheads.

Posted by: walter at February 18, 2004 04:23 PM

I had a Vietnam vet teach me on an outdoor range with a .357 Magnum. First shot, put it in the X in the bullseye. He called me "Mr. X" after that. After a few shots, I couldn't hit the target because I was pulling my hand up in anticipation of the recoil.

He said don't worry about it: The first shot is the only one that counts. That's the only one you'll get off when there's trouble.

I've worked on the recoil thing since then; I find the .45 easier shooting than either anything Magnum or a 9 mm. Don't know why, but a .45 feels perfect.

Posted by: IB Bill at February 18, 2004 04:44 PM

Nice essay about the experience. I knew most of the gun ranges in Ventura County, but their names escape me now. I went to the one in Simi Valley once and spent about 20 minutes methodically shredding a target with a Glock 9mm - never really got too closse to the bullseye, though, and confirmed my belief that anything that allows you to press a button and obliterate something hundreds of yards downrange should be heavily regulated.

Posted by: mack at February 18, 2004 06:07 PM

Make sure you try different types of pistols. They all shoot and feel different.

A glock is a plastic framed pistol. I bet the perceived recoil you felt would have been different if you had shot an all steel framed .45.

You said "It goes boom, whereas .22s and 9mms pop." I guarantee you can find some 9mms that pass more of the recoil back into your hand than a .45. It all as to do with the size, style and mass of the pistol.

I'm glad you enjoyed your experience. As the other posters mentioned, a lot of anti-gun folks have never shot or even held a firearm.

On a business trip once, a buddy and I went to a range. When people found out about this, they were horrified. More than one person's first question was "What keeps people there from just shooting each other?"
how about some common sense folks.


Posted by: Andy at February 20, 2004 08:24 AM

Yeah, even though it was a big bang and I got this feeling of unpredictability, there was never an issue of control. Doc was saying 'smooth' about the Glocks. I do want to try the compact model as well. That should be a blast. I'm almost afraid of the revolvers, but I'm going to have to try those too. What I really wanted to try was both the S&W .45 which I heard was the nicest and a Desert Eagle 50 cal which is a monster.

I think it also says quite a bit about silencers. I can see, given the noise of a big gun, how muffling that can really mess with accuracy.

Doc said that 9mms also tend to have a lot more muzzle flash than the G21 I was shooting.

Posted by: Cobb at February 20, 2004 12:37 PM

Apologies for the shameless plug:

You think a .45 is bad... you should try shooting a DE .50 caliber hand cannon:

A day at the range

A similar experience to yours, but I'd grown up around guns, so the perspective is different.

Good post though. Try rifles too, I like them a lot better than pistols. *TONS* more control IMO.

Posted by: Scott at February 23, 2004 06:38 AM

You said "I'm almost afraid of the revolvers, but I'm going to have to try those too."

Oh you shouldn't be. Revolvers are fantastic. Get a large frame .357 revolver and load it with .38 Special ammo and it will be one of the most mild shooting pistols out there.

Also, a lot of people thing the triggers on Smith and Wesson or Ruger revolvers are much nicer than on the average auto pistol.

Of course you could go to the other extreme as well. Rent a snub nose revolver and load with .357 Magnum. That will get your attention.

Posted by: Andy at February 26, 2004 09:26 AM