Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Front Sight Four-day Handgun Course

I got home yesterday from a four-day handgun course at Front Sight in Pahrump, NV ( My brief review is: Excellent class, well worth the time, I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to improve their handgun skills.

This is a basic but thorough defensive handgun class. It's basic in that it doesn't try to cover much more than how to draw, shoot, after action and fix malfunctions. It's thorough in that it covers those topics in great depth, teaches you how to build the right muscle memory to do the tactically-correct things under stress and takes you a good way toward actually building that muscle memory, to the degree that most students can draw, aim and fire two aimed shots to center mass of a man-sized silhouette at five meters, all in under 1.5 seconds.

The class is appropriate for everyone from complete novices to experienced handgun shooters. Indeed a friend of mine who is an advanced defensive handgun instructor took it and found it interesting and useful. The class made me a better shooter, and I also picked up a lot of ideas from the way the instructors presented the material and the way they ran the range -- it was very well done and there were a lot of great ideas which will make me a better handgun instructor.

The course covers, safety, presentation, after action, reloading (tactical and emergency) and malfunction clearance (types 1, 2 and 3). It drills the students intensively in those skills, under time pressure to simulate combat stress and develop fluidity and speed. I'll cover each of these briefly, highlighting the areas in which Front Sight's approach differs from others.

Safety. Like any gun school that wants to stay in business Front Sight is very, very careful about safety. The rules are Cooper's normal four rules (I still think rule #1 is pointless and perhaps dangerous, but I didn't argue with them). They do differ by adding some extra and, I think, wise procedures. One important one is the "chamber-check mag-check" process, which they stress is always done as a unit. You never check the chamber without also checking the magazine, even when one or the other is unnecessary, and you always do them the same way and in the same order, because that way you'll never forget one of them when it is necessary. Another is that the "chamber-check mag-check" process must always be performed both before and after changing the state of the gun (loading or unloading), as well as after picking up and before putting a gun down or away.

Presentation. "Presentation" is the fancy (but common, in gun circles) word for drawing the gun from the holster and getting it either into a ready position or in position to shoot. Front Sight teaches a fairly standard five-count presentation. The five counts are:

  1. Acquire a shooting grip on the holstered gun. The support hand goes to the midsection at the same time. If the gun is concealed, the concealment needs to be cleared first. One tidbit I learned: if you're going for speed, focus on moving your support hand faster. It's a simpler motion, easier to speed up, and sympathetic response will move your gun hand faster, too. 
  2. Draw the gun from the holster, moving it straight up to just below the armpit, but leaving it pointed downward. The support hand stays on the midsection. 
  3. Rotate the muzzle up and forward. The support hand stays put. 
  4. Move the support hand to join the shooting hand on the gun. 
  5. Extend the gun outward into position. If moving into firing position, as the gun moves outward the trigger finger moves into the trigger guard and takes up the slack on the trigger. As it rises, the eyes find first the front sight post and then acquires an aligned sight picture. The sights should be aligned and on the target before the gun is fully extended. By the time the gun reaches full extension, all that remains to fire is to finish the trigger press. 
The above is just the bare bones, actually. There are a lot more details involved in making your presentation "perfect", and then a great deal of practice is required to make it smooth, at which point it will also be fast.

Shooting. Front Sight teaches a modified Weaver stance (aka Chapman stance) with the body bladed at 30° from the target, shooting side shoulder back, shooting arm straight, support arm bent. I'm more comfortable with the isoceles stance, so this was difficult for me at first. I could have insisted on my preferred stance, and they'd have been fine with it, but I decided to go along. It worked quite well after I got used to it, but I don't know that I'll stick with it. I need to spend some time experimenting. They also stress follow-through, including trapping the trigger to the rear (continuing the trigger press all the way back, even after the gun has gone off), and reaquiring the sight picture immediately. That's all quite obvious, but I hadn't realized that I have a tendency to skimp on followthrough when I know I'm not going to fire another shot. I'm mostly cured of that, I think.

Like all defensive (and offensive) shooting trainers everywhere, Front Sight teaches shooting to center mass, and specifically to the thoracic cavity (basically everything included inside the rib cage). They also teach shooting "controlled pairs", meaning two shots, followed by a pause to assess. Note that this isn't the same as a double tap, because they teach slowing down between the shots enough to reacquire the sight picture. Under the stress of the brief shoothouse exercise I found I fell back on double tapping. The instructor corrected me.

However, they also teach the "failure to stop" shot, which is a carefully-aimed head shot (specifically to the cranio-ocular cavity, the region between eyebrows and bottom of the nose), to be used when the controlled pair to the thoracic cavity fails to stop, for example if the target is wearing body armor, or is drugged or just sufficiently determined to shrug off the body shots. During shooting drills, the instructor will occasionally yell "Head!", indicating the need for a failure to stop shot. They also teach designated head shots, for cases of hostage situations where the bad guy is mostly shielded behind a hostage.

They are quite clear throughout, though, that the goal of defensive shooting is to stop the attacker, not to kill, and point out that given rapid attention from a fully-equipped trauma center, a person who has received two shots to the thoracic cavity has a roughly 80% chance of survival -- and that's a good thing. I very much approved of the emphasis they put on this, and the way they were quick to step on any talk of shooting to kill. Of course, a head shot is almost invariably fatal, but those are presented as shots of last resort, to be used only when nothing else will do.

After Action. Front Sight teaches a pretty standard after-action process for after the final shot is fired, with lateral movement (to force the opponent to reacquire his sight picture and/or move to cover or concealment), followed by a quick check of the area for additional threats, then a more detailed study of the target to verify that the threat is ended, then a 360° scan to verify the situation really is safe before reholstering the gun. Of course, in the confines of a small range, opportunities for lateral movement are limited to a sidestep to left or right and the 360° scan is limited to a narrow wedge downrange. But within those limitations, the instructors are diligent about ensuring that everyone makes the after action drill a part of every shot sequence, to ingrain it.

They also constantly push to include a tactical reload as the last step of the after action drill. This just means replacing the partially-expended magazine in the gun with a full one, but retaining the partial in a pocket rather than dropping it to the ground. Of course they also teach how to do this smoothly and quickly. I am dramatically faster at loading a new magazine than I was before the class, and can do it in a single motion, from belt to gun, without looking and without lowering the gun from the firing position. And in a fraction of a second. It's a lot easier than I thought... and I already knew it was easy.

(Aside: anyone who thinks that limiting magazine size will significantly impede the ability of active shooters to carry out their rampage should get two minutes of training on how to reload and then spend 15 minutes practicing it.)

Malfunctions. Front Sight teaches and tests (timed!) clearing type 1, 2 and 3 malfunctions, which are failure to fire, failure to eject and failure to feed, respectively. They also incorporate tactical movement into the type 2 and 3 malfunction processes. Into the malfunction training they also add emergency reloads, which is reloading when your gun runs dry and the slide locks back on an empty chamber. This is quite similar to a tactical reload except that the empty magazine is allowed to fall to the ground, and it is not released to drop until the new magazine is already rising to be inserted, so that by the time the opponent has realized you're empty (from the falling magazine), you're no longer empty.

All four days of the course are long and tiring. In the process, you shoot approximately 600 rounds, which means you have to take advantage of any down time to reload magazines. In addition to the range training there are also lectures on firearm selection, combat attitude and mindset, what to do after a gunfight and more. Some of the lectures are sales pitches (SportEar and Legal Shield), but they seem like pretty good products.

The last day includes a fun steel shooting competition among the class members (my class had no winner because both of the finalists shot the hostage), and then the final skills test. The test is fairly difficult. In my class of 40, only eight students passed, plus one who got "distinguished graduate" marks. It requires shooting controlled pairs, under time pressure, from 5, 7, 10 and 15 meters, plus some untimed "failure to stop" head shots at 5 and 7 meters. Then there are a series of timed "designated head shots" at 5 and 7 meters. The times vary depending on distance and type of shot. All are doable, but not in any way generous. The 5 meter controlled pair time is 1.5 seconds, for example, and that includes clearing the cover garment out of the way, drawing, aiming and firing.

I passed, and was one point away from getting distinguished graduate. If any one of three bullets had struck a quarter inch higher on my designated head shots, I'd have made it with points to spare (I lost three points for each of those bullets). My group was tight, about 3/4" across, but low, so it straddled the lower boundary of the line delineating the cranio-ocular cavity. I think I'm yanking the last fraction of an inch on the trigger, pulling the gun down slightly just before it goes off.

Having passed that class, I'm now eligible to take the advanced class, but I think I'd prefer to go to the two-day skill builder class to further tune up my shooting -- and get to the distinguished graduate level. In actual fact, though I think the next class I take will probably be the four-day precision rifle class.

One thing is pretty clear, though, I will be going back. The facility is clean and extremely well-organized, the instructors are friendly, competent and focused on helping students get the most they can out of the class while having a good time and the curriculum is well-designed and well-structured. The days are long and tiring, but fun, and I learned a tremendous amount. I still think the owner, Ignatius Piazza, has a late night infomercial marketing style that is extremely off-putting, and I have serious concerns about whether or not they can continue operating the way they are at the prices I paid, but I have no reservations about the facility, staff or training.


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