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On the last Sunday of July 1998, I finally got to try what I've been not-so-secretly lusting to do ever since I started potting targets more than a year ago: tactical pistol shooting.
My wife Cathy and I had recently become members of the Lower Providence Rod & Gun Club, a flourishing establishment in Audubon, PA which we selected precisely because it holds regular tactical shoots on its big outdoor range.
Cathy and I and my trusty Colt .45 automatic and my brand new fancy leather tactical holster hauled over there on that fine sunny morning to see what we could see. The first thing we saw was a range officer telling me to get on up to the clubhouse and have myself safety-checked.
LPR&GC shoots under IPSCC (International Practical Shooting Confederation) rules. These require every would-be competitor to be checked out for safe gun-handling and briefed on the range rules. This took about half an hour, because these people are just as careful as they should be.
There I was initiated into the mysteries of ``Load and make ready...'' ``Fire!'' ``Show clear!'' and the other rituals designed to ensure that holes only get blown in things that are supposed to get perforated. I walked away with a little white IPSCC card certifying me reasonably safe to play with.
Meanwhile, back at the range, the shooters were getting off to the kind of late start you half expect if you're talking about organizing thirty or so contestants. I got back as they were finishing forming into squads, one for each firing stage.
The outdoor course had three stages, to be taken in any order. The first one opposite my squad consisted mainly of `poppers', steel silhouette targets on hinged bases. About a dozen of them, arranged roughly like a set of bowling pins in reverse (point to the rear). Above the right and left ends of the set, two cardboard silhouette targets. Range about thirty feet.
Firing instructions for this stage: take out all targets, freestyle (means you can choose any order, and use whatever grip and stance you like). To take out a cardboard target, two hits. To take out a popper, knock it over. The instructions also included one mandatory reload; means that at least once you have to stop and change magazines, a time-consuming operation. And that matters, because the stage is timed, and taking more seconds lowers your score.
While waiting my turn I chatted with the other people in my squad. I wasn't shy about this being my first time, and other shooters responded with a lot of helpful advice. One showed me a trick called a ``stripper magazine''; you insert it, rack your slide to chamber a round, drop the slide, drop out the stripper, and then load another mag. That's one more round you can fire before first reload.
Another thing I was told is: develop a plan. Look at the targets, think about how to attack them efficiently, consider when you'll reload. So I did. Cardboard targets first; reload. Shoot the center popper first, work my way out to either side. I was ready. By the time the RO (range officer) put the shooter before me in the firing box and sang out ``Raymond! On deck!'' I was eager. Then I was up, with the RO calling out ``Load and make ready!'' by my right ear. I loaded and holstered my gun, safety on, and reached gently for the still place inside myself that every martial artist knows.
Then it was ``Fire!'' and I was in motion. Left cardboard; one, two. Right cardboard; one, two. Somewhere far away there was sunlight and explosions and seconds ticking away, but I was settling into the groove; no time, no space, just the act. A split second of worry as I lined up my on the rearmost popper; the cardboard silhouettes were old friends from the range, but I'd never shot one of these steel things before. What if I missed? What if it didn't fall over?
But my bullet flew true. Poppers clang when you hit them; the sound of somebody knocking over a row of poppers quickly can be almost musical. The sound of that first one falling was certainly music to my ears. I made quick work of its neighbors and the rest of the V-shaped back row. The four smaller poppers in the front row gave me a little more trouble; I missed twice.
Then it was over and I stood there blinking as the RO intoned ``If you're finished shooting, eject, unload and show clear.'' Total objective time no more than ten or twelve seconds. Could have been a year from the inside.
Nobody looked at me funny or said anything, so I figured I'd done OK. I watched people reset poppers and tape over my bullet holes. One of the ROs had me sign my score sheet. I wandered around a bit, reloaded my mags, and helped reset poppers for the next couple of shooters. It was turning into a bright, hot day. My .45 felt comfortable on my hip.
In fact, I found that the sight of three dozen people wearing pistols and casually socializing was curiously bracing. It said more clearly than words ever could: ``We are adults. We trust ourselves and each other and take ultimate responsibility for our actions. We are armed, we know each other fit to be armed, and we are proud to be so fit.''
I thought then of the historian J. A. Pocock's description of the beliefs of the Founding Fathers of the U.S: ``The bearing of arms is the essential medium through which the individual asserts both his social power and his participation in politics as a responsible moral being...'' and I felt a flash of pity for the all the frightened, self-disarmed people who have never understood the full truth of that. And more than a flash of loathing for the would-be gun-banners who would rape away their chance to ever learn.
Indeed, as Robert Heinlein famously observed, an armed society is a polite society. The gun owners at this match were far from being the strutting, truculent rednecks of media myth. To the contrary: I observed, as I generally have at gun shows and ranges, a kind of bone-deep good manners and degree of mutual respect that is all too rare elsewhere -- the sort of quiet civility and open-handedness that used to be called ``good breeding''.
The second stage was the tricky one. Twelve targets, only four visible from the starting box, the rest hidden by an S-shaped passage constructed of scrims on stakes. Two cardboards to my far right, two poppers in front of me, the maze entrance between them. I took the cardboard targets first, then started on the poppers.
I heard the first popper clang, but it didn't go down. Again; clang. Again: clang. Somebody was saying ``Stop him'' and I heard the RO call ``Halt!''. Jerked out of my concentration, I flinched a bit. The RO said ``You didn't do anything wrong. We've got a range malfunction.''
Turned out the popper I was shooting at hadn't been reset properly. The ROs went to fix it and I went to the back of the line and waited for another go. One of the guys in my squad gave me a tube of sweat suppressor that he said would keep my hands dry and help my grip. Another one advised me to wear a hat next time in case my .45's ejector dropped some hot brass on my head, but the sun was showing me a better reason. I was beginning to regret not bringing sunblock.
Cathy, sensibly sitting in the shade at the back end of the range, sent me a grin and a thumbs-up. I began to think I'd have to get her interested in this game so she wouldn't mind hauling off to more matches with me. There were only two other women in the squads, one a tall leggy pony-tailed blonde straight out of a country-western song and the other a middle-aged woman in glasses who looked like somebody's aunt and was helping the ROs score. They were both very good -- careful shots, not as fast on the trigger as the best men but dead-on accurate.
I got my second go about twenty minutes later. Turn right; cardboard, one, two; cardboard, one, two; face front and line up the poppers. This time the left popper went down with a clang, first shot. So did the right popper -- and it was attached to a pull cord that activated the fifth target. That one was sitting on a pivot with a pendulum below it; it swung into visibility from behind the left-hand passage wall, then swung out again with a period of a second and a half or so.
This called for exact timing. I lined up my sights, waited for it to start swinging out, fired, let it swing back, let it start swinging out again, and gave it a second bullet. Two hits. Then it was time to reload and charge into the maze, with the RO at my heels warning me not to ``break 180'' -- that is, never let the muzzle of my gun swing any wider than parallel to the firing line. Doing so is an instant ``DQ'' or match disqualification. Safety again; if you break 180 and have an accidental discharge you could pot a bystander, which would be bad.
Two corners of the maze were firing positions, revealing several targets each. All cardboard; I don't think I missed at all, but at two bullets each I had to reload twice. Fumbled the second one a bit but recovered. The most fun was another swinger, and two targets on a seesaw arm that alternately popped up and down from behind a wall.
Afterwards a scorer told me I had done quite well on the front targets. Behind me I heard somebody say ``I wish I could do eight that fast!'', which made me feel pretty good. I guess there's something to be said for earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do before you pick up a pistol.
For the third stage my squad shagged on up to the clubhouse and the indoor range. This one was timed fire at short range, with two new wrinkles -- no-shoot targets and hard-cover targets.
No-shoots are shaped just like the ordinary cardboard silhouettes, but they're white instead of unbleached-cardboard brown. They represent innocent bystanders in your combat/crimefighting scenario. Typically, your no-shoots are deployed right next to or overlapping good targets. You pop them, you lose points.
A hard-cover target has black zones off the right and left edges. Hits in the black zones don't count; only the unpainted stripe down the center is good for a score.
The third stage was three targets: two in front and paired with overlapping no-shoots, one to the rear with hard-cover zones. I didn't ask, but the story line was clear -- three bad guys, the front two with hostages, the back guy semi-concealed or wearing a flak jacket. The challenge: two hits on each (without popping the no-shoots), reload, and do it again.
I fluffed it. Had to be reminded to reload and fire the second six shots, and hit the edge of the right-hand no-shoot once. Ah well. Put it down to inexperience. I saw really competent shooters eat this scenario like candy, competing for the fastest time rather than simply solving the shooting problem....which backs up criminologist Gary Kleck's statistic in Point Blank: Guns and Violence In America about armed civilians being five times less likely to pop an innocent bystander than the police. We're simply better shots. Enough of us, anyway. :-).
The fourth, back down at the outdoor range stage went better...even though I was getting pretty seriously broiled at this point, arms turning red and the top of my head starting to throb. I hung out in the shade with Cathy while awaiting my turn.
This stage had two shooting boxes, about twelve feet apart. From the starting one, on the right, you'd see four no-shoots flanked by two barrels. Behind the right-hand barrel, half-hidden, a brown target; staggered between the no-shoots, three more. Then you'd run left to the second box and, hey presto, from the different angle four new targets would appear behind the left-hand barrel and between the no-shoots.
Freestyle, two hits each. The first four went well, all clean hits with no wasted shots. Second four not so good; I fumbled my reload again and somehow managed to miss the left-hand barrel target. A lot of fun, though.
The whole shooting match was a lot of fun, pretty close to being the best time I've ever had with my clothes on. So much so that Cathy picked up on it watching me. We're going to get her something like a Glock .40 and a tac holster so she can play in next month's match instead of just spectating.
By the time we drove home I was sunburned, tired, and blissfully happy. I didn't know my score, and five days later I still don't; the results needed to be crunched through somebody's computer and mailed out, and they're probably somewhere in the bowels of the postal system as I write. But my score doesn't matter.
I was there. I had a great time. I met my own expectations; scored clean hits, didn't miss a lot, didn't let the pressure rattle me too badly. And I'll be back next month. I may not be very good at this game yet -- but I will be.
P.S.: I came in second to last, which I guess counts as a tactical victory. And Cathy thought it looked like enough fun that we've gotten her her own Glock .40 and a tac holster...
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