At Home on the Range.

Part three of our trilogy!  Return of the Jedi!  Or rather, A Trip to the Gun Range.  No fear; it will be just as epic.

Previously, we’ve covered basic gun anatomy and gun safety.  Now it’s time to discuss what to expect when you’re expecting a trip to the range.  I have not been to many ranges, but I go to the one nearest my house often.  Also, my SigO used to work there, and since he is a technical consultant on this blog, I think we have come up with some good tips for you:

1.  Bring a photo ID.  This is especially true if you want to rent a gun, but even if you have your own it’s likely that the range employees are going to want to see some identification and possibly photocopy it for their records.  They’re not trying to infringe on your privacy.  They’re trying to cover all their bases, should something go awry while you are at their facility.

2.  Bring a positive attitude and a willingness to learn.  This ensures that, in addition to trying something new and cool, you have a solid chance of having a good time too.

3.  Take a lesson, even if you are with a friend who has shot before.  If the range doesn’t require you to take a lesson before you shoot, do it anyway.  More knowledge is more better.  You can always glean something from watching someone else shoot.  Taking a lesson will also set you up to be in good standing at the range, if you decide you want to return. You can demonstrate that you’re safe and positive, as well as get to know some of the employees. It’s a good way to build relationships at a place you may want to visit very frequently.

4. Read, understand, and obey all of the range safety rules and procedures. And expect that several attentive people will remind you of these rules frequently. Typically, you’ll get an overview of the range rules and policies when you sign in and at least one range safety officer (RSO) will remind you again during an interaction with them. Don’t worry, though. This attention doesn’t indicate that you’re in a world of immediate danger or that they think YOU are mentally deficient in any way. Just be aware that the RSO spends most of his days watching oblivious people ignore the rules and policies and has learned to expect that most people will ignore these rules, often to their detriment or the detriment of important structural parts of the building (ie, floor, ceiling, walls, etc.)

5. Expect a rush of adrenaline.  I have been shooting regularly for about a year, and firing a gun still gets my heart beating fast.  I imagine this never really goes away, because it’s part of what makes guns rad (duh).  It’s not scary fight-or-flight adrenaline.  It’s more like roller coaster adrenaline.  Like in a Busch Gardens meets Call of Duty kind of way.

6. Don’t let anyone talk you into shooting a tiny gun just because you’re a girl and they think you can’t handle something larger. If your choice is to shoot either a Ruger LC9 or a Beretta 92Fs, choose the heavier and larger Beretta. Small guns can be very awkward to grip and their light weight won’t absorb very much recoil. Both of those guns mentioned are 9mm, which is a reasonably mild caliber for beginners to shoot. By the same token, don’t shoot something huge and unmanageable out of the gate, just to prove a point.  I very much like the Ruger Mark III.  It’s a .22 caliber target pistol that is made of metal, and has practically zero recoil.  It’s a very good way to get used to shooting a gun or to work on your fundamentals as you progress.  Here’s a good analogy for picking out a gun: if you’re riding your bike, and you hit a pot-hole the size of a fist, it will probably jostle you pretty bad. But if you hit that same pot-hole in a Cadillac, you won’t even notice it. The size of the pot-hole is the caliber of the cartridge and your vehicle is what you choose to shoot it out of. For your first time out, pick a full sized gun, with a full sized grip. There’ll be more real-estate for you to get some solid contact on the gun, and the mass of the full sized gun will mellow out much of the recoil. This will contribute significantly to a more enjoyable first-time shooting experience.

7.  Try to focus on the experience.  You’re going to have do some things before you can fire the gun, like fill out paper work and sit through a lesson.  You might interact with some people who aren’t to your liking.  Or the actual physical  environment might make you uncomfortable.  It’s very loud, a little smoky, a little dirty, either way to hot or way too cold… ok, so it’s like a night club, but with significantly fewer hot jams and scantily-clad ladies.  The point is, it’s not really about any of those things.  Its about the moment when you are in front of your target, in your stance, squeezing back the trigger.  That’s what you’ll remember and why you’ll keep going back.  So just focus on that, and let that other stuff be the funny little background details that round out your story.

So, I hope you guys have enjoyed these last three posts, and that they’ve given you some insight into the world of guns and shooting.  If anyone wants to learn more, go shooting sometime, or has tips or tricks I haven’t mentioned, please leave a comment!

Safety, Mindfulness and Chris Costa Being a Maniac

Alright, so now we know what the parts are and what they do.  If you ever plan on picking a gun up, however, you need to know how to handle it safely.  Did you catch that last word?  SAFELY.  Gun people love this word with all of their big, sweet hearts.  And with good reason.  Gun safety is a big part of the culture and etiquette of shooting, and it’s also just good, practical common sense to use care and caution when handling something that is potentially dangerous. Let’s be clear on that last point. Firearms are potentially dangerous, not automatically dangerous.    The gun isn’t going to just jump up and shoot you in the hand if you try to pick it up.  Guns are like cars; they’re just machines that do what you tell them to do.  (SkyNet, notwithstanding).  If you are mindful and cautious, you will have no problem shooting and handling a gun safely.  The NRA has three basic rules, which I like and everyone else seems to like, so we can start there.

One: always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.  At first, I thought this meant always keep it pointed down, but sometimes down isn’t the safest direction.  What if you are upstairs and there are people on the floor below you?  You need to be alert and aware of where other people are around you, all the time.  I hope it goes without saying, but it’s also just terribly inconsiderate to ever point a gun at anyone, even if you both know it’s not loaded.  And in my house, anything that looks like a gun gets treated like a gun, including replica guns or training guns.  When you’re trying to form good habits, why not reinforce them by practicing whenever you can?

Which leads us to rule number two:  keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire the gun.  And I mean, ready, ready.  Like, gun pointed at the target, sights lined up, stance and posture correct, ready to pull the trigger, ready.  I know you’re thinking, “DUH” right now, and I don’t blame you, but it’s actually harder than it sounds to not put your finger on the trigger when you pick up a gun.  They are designed to be ergonomic, like a cordless drill.  When you first pick a gun up, your index finger tends to automatically find that trigger.  Again, this is where being mindful and aware comes into play.  You are trying to form safe habits, so remind yourself every time you pick up a gun, “Finger off the trigger”.

Additionally, if you are in the habit of practicing these first two safety rules, when an unexpected situation arises, you are much less likely to injure yourself or someone around you.  Guns jam from time to time.  I tend to do this thing when I am excited to shoot where I don’t push the rounds all the way into position in the magazine.  Good news– this does not make the gun explode in my hand in a giant fireball of death, maiming myself and all around me.  It just prevents the rounds from feeding properly which causes the gun to jam.  In these situations, it’s very important to keep the gun pointed in a safe direction, and your finger off the trigger while you diagnose the problem and clear the malfunction.

Isn’t safety swell?

Last, but not least, we have rule number three: keep the gun unloaded until you’re ready to use it.  I found this one to be particularly important at the range.  As in, when you are getting ready to go to the range, make sure your gun is unloaded, without a magazine in the well and the slide is locked back so you, or anyone else, can verify visually that it is unloaded.  The cartridges don’t go into the magazine, and the magazine doesn’t go in the gun until you are out on the range, because that’s when you are really ready to use the gun.  I was very confused about this whole ritual at first, but now it makes sense to me.  It’s a good way to make sure everyone knows that everyone else is being safe.  And it reinforces safe habits.  In my experience, people will hand you a gun only after they have released the magazine, inspected it to confirm that it is empty, and locked the slide back to confirm that there isn’t a live round in the chamber.  When I hand the gun back, I do the same.  It might seem foolish and redundant, but why not?  Wouldn’t you rather be safely redundant, than carelessly injured?

The key here, and one of my favorite things about shooting, is mindfulness.  I know it sounds really new-agey, and I’m sure there are people in the gun community who wouldn’t get down with my phrasing, but I think we can all agree that gun use should be a whole mind, whole body experience.  You can’t zone out when you are firing a gun.  You can’t be thinking about whether or not you TiVoed Biggest Loser or how your butt looks in the jeans your wearing.  You can’t slouch or try to look cool.  You have to stand up straight, lean forward, keep your arms out straight, tense some muscles, relax others, notice your breathing and concentrate entirely on what you are doing.  You don’t have to be Steven Seagal or Chris Costa to have a good time at the gun range.  An open mind, willingness to learn, and a commitment to staying focused in the moment are really the best things you can bring to the range. The nice thing is, if you’re keeping your mind in the game and practicing safe habits, chances are, your accuracy will improve as well.

Are you new here?

In the next three posts, I want to take a little time to go over some basic things about guns and shooting, so hopefully we’re all on the same page going forward and no one is reading this blog like, “What the f is a slide?  Like at the ball pit at Chuckie Cheese?”. First, a disclaimer– I’m definitely not an expert on guns.  I’m more of an enthusiast, so I’m also hoping that these posts might spark some discussions in which I can learn some new things too.  For our purposes, or what I envision them to be at this stage of the game, the basics entail a brief summary of the parts of a gun (don’t worry! I made a drawing!), safety rules and what to expect the first time you go to the range.

In this post I’m going to talk about the basic parts of a gun and a little bit on what the important ones do.  Also, behold this diagram I drew just for you!

This is meant to be more of a generic gun, but it definitely has a little 1911 vibe.  What can I say?  I’m partial.  The parts and placement will vary between makes and models of hand guns, but I figured at least when someone busts out the phrase, “slide lock lever” you’ll have some idea what they are talking about. And actually, the slide lock lever is a good place to start when talking about the parts of a gun because it’s going to be one of the first and most important controls you need to use on the gun.  That’s because the top part of the gun, labeled “Slide” is the biggest moving part on the gun.  It moves back, and then forward into it’s original position every time you fire the gun.  That’s called the action.  You can manually operate the slide by placing your hand over the rear sights, grabbing the slide serrations (those little grippy-looking slanted lines), and pulling towards your body.  You then lock it into it’s open position by engaging the slide lock lever.  Usually this is done when you are inspecting the chamber in order to clear a malfunction or to confirm that the gun isn’t loaded.  We can get more into safety and clearing malfunctions in the next post.

Once you have the slide locked back, you’re going to want to drop the magazine out of the gun.  Either you want to see that it’s empty to make sure its safe to handle, or you want to put amo in it.  Most guns have a little magazine release button on the side of the frame.  It’s usually not any fancier than my drawing makes it look.  You just push that little button and the magazine drops out the bottom of the grip.  You can catch it  or let it hit the ground.  Magazines are pretty hearty little things and you won’t break it by dropping it.

So the rounds go in the magazine, which is spring loaded.  It took me a little practice to load up magazines and I’m still not like zombie-apocalypse-fast, but I can manage.  The trick is to use the first cartridge to press down the spring in the magazine and then use every successive one to push down the round before it.  Some magazines are double stack which means the rounds load in kind of left, right, left, right, zig-zag.  Some magazines are single stack, so all the rounds are just sit right on top of each other.  Either way the loading principle is the same. After it’s loaded, the magazine goes back in the bottom of the grip the same way you took it out, with the bullets facing forward.  It probably won’t really go in any other way, but if you can remember that the bullets face the business end of the gun, there will be significantly less fumbling.

While we are on the subject of ammunition, a brief vocabulary overview: “cartridge” or “round” refers to the whole live piece of ammunition, whereas bullet really just refers to the top portion which is the actual projectile the flies out of the barrel of the gun and towards the target (hopefully).  A shell is the bottom part of the cartridge and what gets ejected out of the side of the gun after each shot.  It is the spent vessel that formerly held the charge (gun powder) that propelled the bullet out of the barrel.

A good thing to mention at this point is, if you lock the slide back, and then put a loaded magazine in the gun, when you release the slide, the action will strip the top round out of the magazine and place it into the chamber.  This means your gun is now loaded and ready to fire.  A couple of different mechanisms can come in to play now, depending on what you want to do, and what kind of gun you have.  In my drawing you see a hammer at the back of the gun.  This is part of the system that strikes the back of the round and causes the powder to ignite. If the hammer is back, as in my drawing, towards the back strap of the pistol, the gun is ready to fire or cocked.  If it is down, against the back of the slide, the gun is de-cocked. On guns that are single action only, like a 1911, de-cocked means that you can’t fire the gun.  Other guns are what’s called double action.  This means that when the hammer is down, you can still fire the gun, but the trigger pull is heavier as a result of it both cocking and firing the gun in one motion.  A third set-up is called double/single action and that’s because they can be fired both ways, cocked or de-cocked.  Some people like to carry guns that are double action or double/single because the heavy trigger pull of double action makes accidental discharge much less likely.

A lot of guns with external hammers also have a safety switch.  I didn’t include it on my drawing because they all look very different and are located differently depending on model and manufacturer, but mostly they are intuitive.  On many guns, if the hammer is down, you can’t engage the safety because the gun is not ready to fire.  When the hammer is cocked and the safety is on, the gun is “cocked and locked”, which is a popular way to carry a gun with an external hammer.  On some guns you won’t see a hammer on the back, and that’s because they use a slightly different mechanism to strike the primer on the cartridge.  These guns may or may not have a safety, and it’s perfectly acceptable to ask when handling a new firearm where the safety is or any of the controls, for that matter.

You won’t always see a beaver tail on the back of the gun either.  A beaver tail is a feature on some guns that extends the back strap up in a wide curved paddle shape that protects your tender hand meats from getting tore up when the slide slams home.  If you have a choice between shooting a gun with a beaver tail or one without, choose with.  I have  pinched the ever loving bejeezus out of my hand a couple of times and it is largely unpleasant.  It also bears mentioning that you want to make sure you are holding the gun properly, like not in the path of the slide, so you don’t do worse than pinch yourself.   That slide moves with a tremendous amount of force and it cares not at all for your frail little flesh sack.  Ask an experienced shooter or gun range employee to show you an appropriate grip for the pistol you are shooting.

In fact, ask experienced shooters and range employees a lot of questions.  Watch YouTube videos.  Read instructional material, like the NRA literature.  Then, go to the range and take a lesson.  Some things you can learn on your own, but a lot of what you need to know about safely and effectively firing a pistol, you should learn from a person in real life.  You will eventually develop your own preferences about stance and grip and gun type, but I wrote this post so that when you go to the range and someone says, “Here is the safety on this gun and here is your mag release” , you don’t have to give them the WTF stare.  However, this is only the teensiest, tiniest tip of the iceberg.  There is so much more, young Padawan.  I hope you’re as excited as I am to delve into the sea of knowledge.

For next week, bring your game face and your safety pants.