First-Time Shooters, Female Shooters, and a Birthday Shooter

by Zach Billings on October 18, 2011

Manchester Firing LineAbout a week ago, my good friend Andrew turned 23. A week prior to his birthday, our friend and mentor, Tim, and I decided to come up with a surprise birthday event of some kind for Andrew. We decided right off the bat to do it the week after his birthday so he wouldn’t realize what was what it was for, but we were stuck on what to do. Tim suggested hosting a party at his rather nice house, to which Andrew could bring any and all friend he wanted. I thought the idea sounded good, but it wasn’t personal enough and I also didn’t know how many friends Andrew could get out to western MA for a party. After 15 minutes brain storming, firearms popped into my mind. Andrew, Tim, and I have been talking a great deal about firearms lately because we are all planning on taking the required classes and applying for a firearms license soon. I suggested that we take Andrew shooting at Manchester Firing Line.

At first Tim was worried about the price, but I suggested we bring Tim’s wife and one of our friends, Brittany so as to spread out the cost of renting guns. I priced out a selection of guns for us to try and it came in at less than $200 per person (a cheap day of shooting). We settled on shooting the weekend after Andrew’s birthday and set about hatching a plan to keep him completely surprised. The obvious start was to blindfold Andrew for the drive up to the range, and I also decided I would pick up Brittany at a ‘mystery location’ and she wouldn’t talk the whole way up so Andrew would have no idea who was in the car. During the two weeks prior to shooting we informed Andrew that he had to keep his whole Saturday clear of plans and told him things like ‘bring your passport,’ and ‘make sure you wear boots.’ I even said, “Hey wool insulates when wet, right? Do you have a wool sweater you could wear?” This combined with many other requests eventually led to Andrew thinking we were going to Canada for some kind of outdoor adventure that would involve some kind of harassing Andrew. It never even crossed his mind that we might be giving him a birthday present. Needless to say he was completely surprised when we took off his blindfold at the range.

Andrew had been shooting with me once, but is well versed with the fundamentals of firearm use from my teachings and our extensive experience with airsoft replicas. Tim and Erin on the other hand had never fired a gun and Brittany had just put a couple rounds through a .22 rifle. The plan was for me to act as instructor and teach everyone the basics of shooting a gun.

First we started with a Beretta semi-automatic .22 pistol. I was hoping for a gun with a slightly more typical grip style for the sake of honing fundamentals, but was informed this was the range’s most reliable .22. We got 40 rounds for each person and I started by shooting 10 myself so everyone could see and hear the gun in action. Next I brought Erin up to the line, as I knew she had the smallest understanding of guns and would therefore likely need to most instruction. I first taught her how to load the junky .22 magazine (all .22s have junk mags). Next I taught her how to properly grip the pistol with a modern self-defense grip, thumbs towards the target. I explained what the parts of the gun were and which controls did what. It needed a great deal of repetition because Erin clearly had zero comfort behind a gun. As we got to firing, I noticed Erin’s shots all pulling very low and to the left. I’ve experienced this before with a new shooter and used an old trick that’s worked before. I took the gun from her, with two rounds left and unloaded it. I cleared the breach and removed the bullets from the magazine. I then put the mag in the gun and racked it, knowing she would not realize what I’d done. I placed the gun down on the bench and instructed Erin to pick it up, aim carefully, and squeeze the trigger slowly when she’s ready to fire. As I suspected, when the gun went click, the muzzle dropped nearly a full centimeter. Erin was anticipating the recoil and pulling her shots low. I explained how to correct this and her last two shots were much improved. Everyone in the group shot their first 10 rounds and I gave the same instruction to Tim and Brittany. We then all shot our remaining 30 rounds in one go each so everyone could get used to proper grip, function, loading, operation, and aiming with the pistol. All the while I stood over everyone’s shoulder and helped them correct any mistakes.

Next I selected a SIG 228 9mm and a Glock 23 (.40cal). I had decided we would just go up through the calibers so everyone could acclimate to the increasing recoil. We started with the SIG. Although it is a compact model, the SIG is much heavier and clunkier than my preferred pistols, the Glocks. The slide release is very heavy, even for such a wide release button, the magazine release is small and a little slow to activate, and the trigger is not as predictable as that of a Glock. Erin was first to the line again, after I demoed the pistol and gave a group tutorial on its functions (I’ve shot a few SIGs before and I’m familiar despite not being a big fan). Erin had a hard time manipulating the gun. First there was the extremely hard mag spring which made her nearly incapable of loading the mag with 10 9mm bullets. Next she found it tough to get the right grip on the vague frame of the pistol. Finally once she had adjusted to how to hold the gun, she needed two thumbs to push down the tough slide release. Not exactly a gun made for the novice. Once shooting, Erin and Brittany displayed the same symptom. Their hands were shaking tremendously from the adrenaline and nerves and it was leading to woefully inaccurate shooting. With both of them I had to stop them and remind them to calm down a take a breath. Interestingly, neither of them realized they were shaking so much. By the end of the 20 rounds per person with the SIG, Tim was adjusting well and Erin and Brittany had begun to at least stabilize.

Moving on to the Glock 23, I knew Erin and Brittany might have more trouble shooting but less trouble with the gun itself. The .40 S&W bullet is notorious for a recoil impulse that can be difficult to manage, as it is a mixture of the 9mm’s upward muzzle snap, and the .45ACP’s rearward push. Personally the Glock 23 is my all-time favorite pistol to shoot. I like the compact-type frame with Glocks and have grown quite comfortable with the highly-effective .40cal round. I ran through my first mag, loaded to 10 rounds, slowly, returning the gun to a self-defense-style rest position after each shot, then bringing the gun on line and snapping reflex shots. The second mag, I blazed through, demonstrating the Glock 23 to be a pistol I’m very comfortable with. Erin was up next and she immediately took note of how much more comfortable the Glock was and how much easier it was to manipulate. Her grip was much better on the Glock and, unlike the previous two guns, she was able to return to a good grip without guidance after reloading her magazine. Everyone but Andrew preferred the Glock to the SIG, but the .40S&W round definitely took its toll on everyone’s accuracy but Tim’s.

One thing that I found very interesting was Andrew’s opinion on the Glock. I’ve actually never seen someone like a Glock less than another gun, who has shot one a number of times and started pistol shooting on a Glock. During my first time taking Andrew shooting, he used 3 or 4 different Glocks and did not use a SIG. On his birthday, however, Andrew shot well with the SIG and just couldn’t click with the Glock 23.

Proving that it wasn’t unique to the .40, Andrew didn’t shoot any better groupings with the two subsequent Glocks. I had chosen to stick with Glocks for the most powerful rounds so the new shooters could experience the change in recoil without using a new platform. I returned the SIG and the Glock 23 and rented the Glocks 20 and 21. The G21 features a full sized frame (compared to the compact frame of the G23) and is chambered in the infamous .45ACP bullet. Personally I have always found the .45 to be the easiest to shoot in terms of managing recoil. This proved to be true for the novice shooters in a very obvious way. At this point Tim, Erin, and Brittany were all feeling fairly comfortable with the functionality of the guns and I was just keeping a loose eye on everyone’s technique. First up after myself was Erin, who shot much better with the Glock 21 than any of the previous guns. Like everyone else, she preferred the full sized frame to the compact frame (a notion that I don’t share) and her groupings were much better. Brittany was rather amazing with the Glock 21 when her turn came around. I’ve never seen a novice shooter shoot so rapidly, while grouping so well. On her second mag, Brittany fired her last 7 or 8 rounds at a rate of about 1 per second and managed a group less than 6 inches at 25ft. Tim had a similar experience with the .45 and was able to group a whole mag in the head of the silhouette target, firing with reasonable frequency.

After the Glock 21, came the G20. The Glock 20 is chambered in the very powerful 10mm Auto, which is essentially a .40cal bullet in a case with a much larger powder charge. Where as the .45ACP produces somewhere around 675J of energy, the 10mm Auto produces over 1000J. It generates a much larger report and overpressure wave, along with a large, white muzzle flash. The recoil of the 10mm is similar in type to the .40S&W, but significantly more powerful, making the 10mm very difficult to handle for even an experienced shooter.

Like the guns that came before it, I started by shooting my rounds to demo the gun to everyone. As soon as I fired the first shot I heard everyone exclaim and talk amongst themselves behind me. Clearly they’d noticed the difference in power, just watching the Glock 20 fire. I’d shot the G20 once before and I’m a big fan. I definitely don’t have a good handle on controlling it yet but I don’t find it as hard to manage as most people do. Each person to shoot it had a reaction to the power, and Tim, Erin, and Brittany had the gun come loose in their hands on the first shot or two. Andrew fared a little better in terms of hanging on to the gun, but was just as thrown by the recoil.

The Glock 20 concluded our pistol shooting for the day, but I wanted everyone to get to try a shoulder-fired weapon before we left. When Tim and I planned the outing I had first thought everyone might like to try to automatic MP5, since Andrew likes it a lot and has only used it once. I got a chance to ask Andrew in a casual manor, which of the guns I’ve told him about shooting he’d like to try the most. He immediately responded with the FN SCAR-H. The SCAR is a competitor to the AR platform. The SCAR-L assault rifle fires the same .223 bullet as the AR-15 (M4 and M16) and the SCAR-H fires the .308. The .308 is found in the AR-110 and SR-25 (long range weapon systems based on the AR-15, and used for sniping applications). The .308 is also found in many hunting rifles, as well as military snipers such as the M24, M40, M700, and L96.

While everyone was finishing shooting the Glock 20, I walked out of the range to go rent the SCAR-H, which only became available on the civilian market about a year ago, and only became available at Manchester Firing Line in August of 2011. I’d fired it before during a previous outing to the range, and Andrew had been itching to get his hands on it since. As I walked back into the range with the rifle and 60 rounds of .308 ammo, Tim and Andrew’s eyes went wide. I sat down and set about loading my magazine. Erin and Brittany only wanted 5 rounds each since they were nervous about my reports of the rifle’s power. This meant Tim and I got 15 a piece and Andrew got a full 20 round magazine. I set about loading my 15 rounds as Brittany finished up on the Glock 20.

I stepped up to the lane and showed everyone the rifle. I extended the stock to full length for myself and showed everyone the basic operation. I then slapped in the mag, sent the target down range, and told everyone to gather behind me so they could feel the power of the rifle. I pressed the bolt release, dropping the rifle’s bolt with a satisfying, powerful-sounding clack. Dropping the bolt on the SCAR actually produces the same felt recoil as a .22 rifle and you can immediately tell how powerful it must be. I took aim with the rifle, through the very nice EO-Tech reflex sight, took the rifle off safe, and squeezed the trigger.

One of the interesting things about the SCAR-H is that it actually seems more powerful standing behind the shooter than if you’re actually shooting the gun. I fired the first round and heard a symphony of ‘holy shit’s and ‘oh my god’s behind me. The reason for this is two fold. First there’s the sound. The SCAR-H produces a much louder report than even that of the 10mm Glock and it stuns you for a second when you’ve not heard it before. The most impressive thing about the gun, when standing behind it, is the overpressure shock wave caused by the muzzle blast. A shock wave is created which thumps those standing behind the shooter harder than the most powerful 4th of July fireworks. This shock wave actually isn’t perceived by the shooter with something like a .308 rifle because they are usually distracted at the same instant by the recoil and muzzle flash.

I fired my first ten round with a smooth rhythm, before blasting away the last 5 at high speed. One of the nice things about the SCAR-H is that between it’s semi-automatic action and decent weight, the felt recoil is relatively little, making quick shooting controllable.

Next a very seriously nervous Erin walked up to the lane so I could give her a detailed rundown of the gun. I explained how to use it and especially the correct stance for such a large rifle. One thing I hadn’t expected, which was a problem for both Erin and Brittany, was their handling of the rifle’s weight and size. Neither one of them could support the rifle with one hand so they could insert the magazine and I ended up having to help support it. Once everyone had fired their first shot or two, they all found the same thing. It’s very easy to be very accurate with the SCAR-H, especially with the reflex-type EO-Tech sight. With little effort or pause between shots, everyone member of the group was able to shoot a reasonably tight grouping and everyone left the range on a high note from the SCAR.

I was personally satisfied at the end of the day by the fact that all the first time shooters were leaving having achieved at least a basic competency with pistols. Hopefully with a follow up at some point I can get everyone to a level where they can pick up any pistol and know what to do.

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