Sunday, September 07, 2008

John and Yawn

I was filming the 2008 Croc Match last weekend when Mac walked up and said (soto voce') "I want to talk to you.

He has done this to me before, Mac has. The last 'major' time, he smooth-talked me into running for Competition Director for the Columbia Cascade Section. I said yes then, and I found it to be a very rewarding experience but ... it was very difficult.

Imagine, then, my relief when all he wanted was for me to take over the "Introduction to USPSA" class at ARPC, scheduled for the next Saturday. (Yesterday.) I've done this 3 or four times and enjoyed it, so it was easy to say yes. Especially when he mentioned that he hadn't any students signed up.

During the week, I decided that I could use the range-time for practice, so I emailed a member of my first Intro class, Yawn, and asked if he wanted to go practice with me next Saturday and, oh yes, there's an Intro class scheduled so in the unlikely event that a student actually appears, we'll have to do some instructions. "Hey, it's an opportunity to give back to the sport and besides, it might be fun" I said.

Yawn (real name: Jan, but pronounced 'Yawn') eagerly accepted my invitation and pledged to meet me at the range at 1pm on Saturday. Mission accomplished, as President Bush would say (slightly before actual completion of the mission, but who's counting?)

Saturday came, and I had an errand to run so I didn't actually get to the range until 1:05pm. I walked into Matlock's "Defensive Pistol" class in bay 1 and asked him if any students had showed up for the Intro to USPSA class.

"Well, yes" Matlock said. "But I didn't see an instructor, so I sent him home. Sorry."

Then one of Matlock's students mentioned that they guy in question was seen walking toward Bay 5, where my class was scheduled, so I checked it out. There I found Yawn chatting with a man who turned out to be the student. The class was on, and I hadn't lost a student.

This made my day, because I am loath to lose a potential USPSA competitor.

We introduced ourselves. The student was an ARPC member, his name was John, and not only had he Brought A Pistol for training, but he had actually downloaded, and completed, the on-line workbook developed by Mac to prepare students for the class.

A bit of confusion ensued. I don't have keys for the North Range clubhouse, or for the Equipment Locker there (staplers, timers, tape, targets) or for the Prop Room (target stands, 'sticks' to hold the targets, steel targets, etc.).

Everybody who had keys to props and supplies was engrossed in training their own classes, so Yawn, John and I spent the first hour talking about the priorities, (Safety, then rules, then practices and procedures, then fun) of USPSA competition.

As we went through the classroom segment of the course, I discovered that John didn't bring a holster, or magazine carriers. His belt was a Navy-type web belt which I'm sure that anyone who has experience with the Military recognizes as a 1" belt of woven canvas with a sliding brass buckle; adequate to hold your pants up, but not to hold a holster and magazine carriers ... none of which John had, anyway.

About that time we managed to get a set of keys to the Club House and Props Locker, so we could set up most of a standard set of props for training:
  • Three IPSC (cardboard) targets
  • a Pepper Popper and stand
  • a U.S. Popper and stand
  • Three targets stands
  • Six sticks to hold the popper
  • Timer
  • Stapler
  • Masking tape (to tape holes in the cardboard targets)

Since John had neither a holster or magazine carriers, we started out trying to run him through elementary scenarios by starting him with his Glock 23 at 'low ready'. Yawn had a couple of double-stack magazine carriers which would hold John's 13-round magazines, of which he had two. I contributed a Bianchi belt which was wide enough and rigid enough to hold he magazine carriers. So John wasn't entirely without resources, even though he didn't have the inner belt which would attach his equipment to the belt-loops of his trousers.

However, after a couple of runs, it became clear that we weren't providing a realistic training scenario.

"John" I said, "This isn't working for you. The most important parts of this training is to show you how the range commands work, and how you can safely draw from the holster and safely return your pistol to the holster. Also, without that part of the training, the Range Commands just don't make any sense."

Fortunately, I had brought The Beloved Kimber, some magazine carriers and magazines, and a couple hundred rounds of ammunition. We loaded the Bianchi belt with appropriate gear, and introduced him to the 1911.

Unfortunately, John had never shot a pistol with a manual safety, so we spent a lot of time teaching him how to engage and dis-engage a manual safety. This didn't help him to learn how to shoot HIS pistol in competition, but at least it introduced him to some concepts which may have led to a better understanding of why the USPSA competition rules are so complex. Basically, it may have helped him to realize that the USPSA rules of competition must include all equipment designs even though they may not be directly applicable to the pistol he intends to use for future competition.

One thing that was difficult to learn was the way to load a magazine.

We taught him to place reload magazines 'bullet forward' in the magazine carrier, and how to use his fore-finger to guide the magazine into the grip magazine cavity. Because John had never had to reload from a belt-mounted magazine carrier, he had somehow got into the habit of reversing the magazine prior to a reload. As a result, the magazine was often presented to the pistol upside down: magazine baseplate (and basepad) first, bullets facing backwards. This was very confusing to John, and always frustrating. But he never failed to recognize his error, and correct it immediatelyl.

"It's just a matter of practice. When you get your magazine carriers and holster, you need to practice this at home" we said. Then we gave him the basics of dry-fire at home:

  • Make sure that your magazines and pistol are unloaded before you start practicing.
  • Make sure that there is NO ammunition in the same room.
  • If anything interrupts your practice, check again to insure that there is no ammunition loaded or available.
  • Always choose a safe backstop (eg: a brick wall) as the aiming point for dry-fire or reloading practice.
  • Safety first. Always.

We tried to watch for a consistent grip. John hasn't yet had sufficient shooting experience to realize that he had to grip the pistol the same way every time. We tried a variety of grips, including strong-thumb-over-weak-thumb, weak-thumb-over-strong-thumb. We didn't try to teach him to rid the safety, because he was expecting to compete with a no-manual-safety Glock. Mostly, we were attempting to show the advantages and disadvantages of the alternatives. John never did settle on the best way to shoot.

We also noticed that he was putting his trigger finger as far as possible into the trigger guard. He was pulling the trigger with the part of his finger between the first and second joints.We strongly suggested that he put the pad of his finger tip on the trigger, and practice pulling the trigger straight back toward his dominant eye. (We didn't have time to test for eye-dominance.)

John had used his Glock before, and was comfortable with it. But the 1911 was very confusing, due to the manual safety. Yawn was very supportive: "My safe-action pistol is easy to learn, but any time I have to use a pistol with a manual safety I have to say to myself: 'Whoa! This is weird! I need to spend some time thinking about the extra things I have to do."

Eventually, we managed to work through the points on safe reloads, movement with pistol (not firing on the move), engaging steel targets vs engaging cardboard targets, and the range commands.

To finish out the lesson, we went back to his Glock and had him engage the same targets in the same Course Of Fire without the holster, just to accustom him to the usual practices using a pistol with which he was accustomed.

The training session lasted 3 hours, instead of the usual 2 hours which was scheduled. It has been my experience, now repeated three times, that it is impossible to give a thorough training session to a student who is not familiar with his pistol (or who has not the equipment to work with holster and magazine-carrier exercises) in under three hours.

Further observations:

  • Even students who have observed USPSA matches may not realize that training and competiton will require a legal holster, at least two magazine carriers, at least two (preferably three) magazines, and a rudimentary understanding of how to reload the pistol they have.
  • Many students don't understand how their pistol works. This includes controls (magazine release, manual safety if present.)
  • Basic gun-handling skills, especially those involving range safety, are commonly lacking.
  • The concept of consistent grip, trigger control, and how these factors affect point of impact are often poorly understood ... if even identified.
Again, and as has been mentioned in previous articles on the subject of Training for USPSA competition, I find myself spending more time on basic gun-handling skills than on actual skills relating to USPSA competition.

I believe that any "Introduction to USPSA competition" should be prefaced by "Introduction to Gun Handling Skills" classes. Yesterday, I spent three hours teaching a class which was short on Competition skills, but predominated by Basic Gun Handling skills. This is no reflection on the student, John. Instead, it indicates a need for more basic training.

I will be lobbying for this kind of training before the "Intro to USPSA"class at ARPC in the future.
UPDATE: 15-SEP-2008

I talked with Mac last weekend. Mac is the "Executive Director" at ARPC. He is also the Director of Practical Shooting. (That is, he runs the IPSC/USPSA matches, designs the stages, sees to the stages being set up before the match and tearing them down, arranges for Statisticians, and generally runs the whole show. Including the "Introduction to USPSA" class.)

We agreed that USPSA competition is a significant challenge, and that people who sign up for the class should already be familiar with their handguns, and should have a certain level of gun-handling skills.

ARPC already has an all-day "NRA Basic Pistol" class which teaches these skills.

And since Mac is the man who answers the phone when people call to sign up for a class, he has an opportunity to question each applicant before he permits them to sign up for the USPSA class.

In the future, he will determine the experience level of USPSA class candidates, and direct to the NRA Basic Pistol those callers who cannot convince him that they are experientially qualified for the USPSA class.

This helps in four ways:
  1. People who aren't familiar with their pistols, or basic skills, will be trained before they enter competition;
  2. Valuable INTRO TO USPSA class time will not be spent teaching basic skills, which can result in important USPSA lessons being skipped (hasn't happened yet, but it could);
  3. If qualified people are not available for a given monthly class, it may be canceled;
  4. The instructor (that would be me) who shows up at the range for practice, need not scurry around looking for keys to the prop room and the supply cabinet at the lat minute, when an unscheduled student presents himself/herself.
Also, an important fifth helpful result is that the instructor (that will still be me) will not be unpleasantly surprised when students do unsafe things.

I tire quickly at seeing a supposedly unloaded pistol pointed at my belly.

This is a good and workable solution which many USPSA certification instructors may find disconcerting. I recommend it.
It has the Geek Seal of Approval.

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