I'm either getting too old, or too soft, for this game.
I had seven new students in my "Introduction to USPSA" class this month. Five of them enrolled in the ARPC Monthly Match this weekend, and two of them DQ'd.
One was DQ'd because he came onto a stage where he was suppose to start with his pistol on a table, and he drew his pistol and placed it in the starting position before the Range Officer gave him the "Make Ready" command. (In fact, the RO wasn't even looking at the next shooter ... he was still talking to the Last shooter.)
This is the second time I've seen this happen in the past year; the previous time, it wasn't the shooter's first match. Obviously, I haven't been training my students as assiduously as they deserve. I'm not beating myself up too bad about this, though, because they have all learned the range commands. It's just that most people spend a lot of time on the range in a more 'relaxed' environment. You know how it is ... you have two or three (or more) people on the range, they all put their pistols on the counter without the supervision of a Range Officer or a Safety Officer, and they have trained themselves to accept this as a normal condition.
Breaking old bad habits which experienced shooters have learned is almost impossible. They are highly motivated, because they want to learn Practical Shooting competitive skills .... but the biggest problem is not what they don't know, but what they don't KNOW that they don't know (to paraphrase Dick Cheney).
And if I don't see these Bad Habits during the class, there's not much I can do to break them of their unsafe attitude regarding one specific situation. The best thing I can do is to include the admonition to "DO NOT DRAW YOUR PISTOL UNTIL TOLD TO DO SO" .... which is already included in training the students to do ONLY what the Range Officer tells them to do, when and how he/she tells them to do so.
In this kind of situation, it's a blessing that the Certification Procedure requires each student to complete a match 'safely'. Except .. the example which I witnessed last Spring involved a shooter who had already completed a safe match; but he had never been presented with this particular challenge.
In the match, I wasn't the RO .. but I had just shot the stage and was moving back to the Squad Area when the Range Officer (he wasn't certified, but the most experienced non-certified member of the squad) said "Oh oh ... what's this?". I looked around, saw the pistol on the table, and said: "Match DQ". It's pretty obvious when you see a gun out of its holster and the last shooter hasn't even cleared the range!
The other New Shooter DQ this weekend involved a shooter who was in the middle of a stage, moving laterally, reloading and experiencing a 'failure to feed' situation. He was trying to do four things at once (move laterally, reload, keep the muzzle pointed downrange, and clear a 'jam') and under the pressure of competition on the FIRST stage of his FIRST match .... didn't take his finger off the trigger when the reloaded magazine didn't feed the first round smoothly.
In this case, I was the Range Officer. I saw that the competitor was getting confused in his initial attempt at multi-tasking with a loaded pistol, but I wasn't in a position to see CLEARLY whether his finger was on the trigger ... or merely resting on the trigger guard. During lateral movements, it's especially important that the Range Officer be well ahead of the competitor, but it's difficult to move with your head cranked around far enough to keep an eye on the gun. I shouted "FINGER! FINGER!" as a warning to the competitor that he may be verging on a violation of the safety rules (keep your finger off the trigger while moving, loading, reloading, or clearing a malfunction). And I moved faster, so I could position myself where I could clearly see the exact positioning of his trigger finger.
Two steps later (an eternity in IPSC time) I saw him rack the slide, and his finger was not only inside the trigger guard but actually on the trigger.
I shouted "STOP!", but he was so jazzed up on Adrenaline that he merely looked quizzically at me, and continued to move (and turn the corner to the end of the lateral vision barrier) without stopping.
I shouted "STOP! STOP! STOP!" and continued to shout at him until he realized that he needed to do what he had been trained to in the class: Stop, point his firearm safely downrange, take his finger off the trigger and wait for further instructions from the Range Officer.
Those instructions were, of course:
Unload and Show Clear.This was followed by the announcement that he was DisQualified for unsafe gun handling/finger on the trigger when moving/reloading/clearing a malfunction (all at the same time .. but he HAD kept the muzzle pointed safely downrange). We got him back to the squad area and instructed him in the procedure necessary for him to initiating processing of a DQ: sign all of his unused score sheets and mark them as DQ, then turn them into the stats shack. I marked the time and wrote DQ on the score sheet for that stage, and signed it. And patted him on the shoulder, said "bad break, Pal", and encouraged him to stay for a while because he could learn much from watching other shooters.
If Clear, Hammer Down and Holster.
The Range Is Clear.
Which is the same thing I said to the man who drew his pistol without RO supervision, an hour later.
The thing is ... I think I'm beginning to take this personally.
I HATE to DQ shooters. More, I hate especially to DQ NEW shooters. Ultimately, I hate to DQ New Shooters who were learning "Introduction to USPSA" in the class I was teaching only one week earlier!
That's a severe Bummer, Man. I am disappointed that they didn't have a good First Match Experience, and disappointed because I'm pretty sure I let them down.
Not only did I not teach them well enough, but I didn't spot their deficiencies and correct them in the class.
Well ... actually, I did spot some of them.
One of the students could NOT learn to keep his finger off the trigger when he did the "Unload And Show Clear" thingie. A military veteran, he had generally good gun-handling skills, but nobody had ever taught him the extreme safety requirements of IPSC competition. I class-DQ'd him on five of the seven exercises for the same thing, and I finally said that I wanted him to squad with me at the match. And I made a BIG point of announcing to the entire class (including his daughter, who was also in the class) that YOU HAVE DQ'D .. AGAIN!
[After the match, I talked to his daughter -- who had also taken the Introduction to USPSA class last weekend, and was witness to his continued embarrassment on each event of his Training DQ --- and she told me that he was so self-conscious about DQing in the match that he spent the entire match with his trigger finger pointed up in the air every time he wasn't actually engaging a target. Embarrassing? Absolutely. Effective? Entirely!]
Shame and embarrassment are powerful teaching tools. If you have a student who has some serious bad habits from previous experiences, the only way to correct them in a two-hour live fire exercise is to make that student afraid to ... do whatever "unsafe act" he is doing,
I have them for one hour of discussion, and two hours of "Live Fire" exercises. Start slow, with extremely simple exercises. Accelerate the complexity of the exercises, until the folks seem to experience difficulties ... then address the reasons for the confusion; that's when the learning experience starts to pay off for the people who want to compete so badly that they'll give up a Saturday Afternoon to go to the range and listed to an antiquated also-ran rant and run them ragged fro three hours.
Okay, so except for all the bloviating, that's not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
So, why all the Angst?
I think my problem here is a matter of two issues.
First, I've made a major investment in these folks. Not only have I assured them that they can do this, but I've also assured them that this sport is so closely monitored that is safe for ever person ... man, woman and child .. who is sufficiently mature that their judgment and ability to take direction precludes conscious violation of the safety rules. And, in the few situations when those rules are violated "accidentally", the Range Office is RIGHT THERE enforcing them.
In other words, if there's an unsafe person on the range .. we will remove them.
What we don't say is: "Sometimes that Unsafe Person is you!"
Here's where that "ANGST" thingie comes into play:
The thing is ... it has been my experience that some of the finest people I've ever met, I met on the shooting range. I'm not sure whether it's because we have similar attitudes and priorities, or because I spend most of my time socializing at pistol matches. Maybe it's just me.
But I know that I have an investment in the people that I train for competition, and every time I hear myself shout STOP STOP STOP! UNLOAD AND SHOW CLEAR! *(etc.)*, ... underneath that stern "Drill Sergeant" exterior, there's a failed trainer saying "dammit, I didn't train them as well as I should have!"
I don't mind it much when I shoot a match poorly ... well, I've become accustomed to that and my expectations aren't so high that I'm easily disappointed by my performance.
But I really hate to do a bad job of training people who have such a strong desire to "try something new, something really out-of-the-box".
My great fear is that they will be so turned off by their bad first experience that they will give up the sport entirely, out of sheer disappointment.
Let's Look At The Numbers!
So I thought for two days whether I should even write this article. Who wants to read about Geek Angst, for crying out loud? Geez, I don't even want to WRITE it .. why would you want to read it?
Then I got out my training records, and started doing The Geek Thing: crunching numbers.
Since January 1, 2011, I've had about 90 people go though the course. (This ignores July, when I take my vacation ... I don't know who I've not recorded.)
Of those 90 people, between 20% and 25% of the attendees NEVER SHOW UP FOR THEIR CERTIFICATION MATCH! I don't why. Maybe they think they want to compete, until they get a taste of it through the class and decide it isn't really something that interests them. Maybe they just want to learn some gunhandling skills that they can't get anywhere else at the low low price of FREE! And maybe they figure out how much this new sport is going to cost them, and they decide they just can't afford it. *(I know that I can't afford it ... and I've been doing it 'anyway' since 1983 ... which probably tells more about me than I want to have generally known.)*
Of those remaining people, about 10% do NOT safely complete their first match. They have a choice of either just ... giving up, or coming back next month.
Most people DO come back. It seems that, if they care so strongly about competing, they're willing to do whatever it takes to improve their skills set and experience so they can compete safely.
I've seen people who wanted to get individual instruction. This is good for me; I'm retired, and I'm bored. Any excuse to spend an afternoon at the range is a GOOD thing for me, so I've been happy to meet them during the week for a refresher. *(And some folks can't make the First Saturday class, so we arrange our schedules so they get the class whenever we can. Not often, but maybe 3 or 4 times a year.)*
Also, there have been 5 or 6 people during the past 2 years who just couldn't wrap their mind around the concept of safe gun-handling skills. Some of them I have reluctantly progressed to the competition phase of the training ... one of them I DQ'd as an observer when I was filming him at a match and he pointed his muzzle at me during a reload! A couple of them I required to take extra training ... but after all that effort, they never showed up at a match.
But the people who DQ'd at their first match? Ten percent, and not ONE of them quit!
A couple asked to take the class over again. And they have competed safely every match since then. One was so determined, he went to the Dundee match as a "new shooter" and completed safely. He sent me a link to the scores to prove that he could do it!
And a couple of the people who I worried that they were "marginal' in their gun handling skills payed closer attention than I expected them to, and they have been competing regularly .. and safely ... ever since.
So, what's the point?
After all this worrying and feeling bad about DQing New Shooters, in the final analysis I realized that the people who really wanted to do this thing we do ... they will do it, whatever it takes.
And the people who don't really want to do it? They'll drop out. It's probably best for everybody when they do, because they aren't really committed to competing, and competing safely. Whether it's ego, or expense, or inconvenience .... it's a self-regulating system. Nothing I can do would make a difference to them.
I've been worried about discouraging people from enjoying the sport. My concern was that I might be driving people away. I'm not doing that when I DQ a new shooter.
What I AM doing is a careful, selective weeding. I try to get New Shooters in my squad, and I (and other experienced Range Officers) regulate them exactly the same way as more experienced competitors.
Either they can do this, or they cannot. They get all the chances they want, but they cannot accommodate the skill set needed to compete safely, they figure it out for themselves.
How does this look to other shooters?
I talked to the father of one of my students after that match. We discussed safety, gun-handling skills, and all the other fol-d-ral which are critical to running and gunning. We agreed that people who are new to this sport need to see that this is not only safe, but also that safety is aggressively enforced for the good of us all. We recruit families, couples, parent/child couples ... and we couldn't grow this sport unless we could demonstrate (and they can see) that safety is our primary concern.
We won't allow unsafe shooters to compete. Not in the long run, not for a match, not for ten seconds.
Sometimes I am the unsafe shooter. If I realize it, I don't compete that day. And the days when I don't realize I'm unsafe ... I'm confident that there is a Range Officer watching over me like the Angel of Safety and he or she will stop me, and make me stand down before I hurt myself, or someone else.
We have a "Belt and Suspenders" approach to safety. We tell you what NOT to do; we make rules which forbid unsafe actions; and at the first indication of a lapse of total concentration on safety ... we make you stop and bag your gun for the day.
IPSC competition is safer than High School Football.
We're going to keep it that way.
And I'm not going to beat myself up any more for DQing new shooters. They'll survive, or not. But we will all survive, every day.
PS: the following is a link to a YOUTUBE video about "Firearm Negligence". A little of it addresses what we generally consider "Negligent Discharges", which is what you get when someone has their finger on the trigger when they shouldn't ought to. And that's why we have the "FINGER FINGER!" rules. If you're trying to shoot at a target, you have to have your finger out of the trigger guard .. not just off the trigger.
The rest of it is a sad and sorry set of situations (alliterations deliberately incited) when someone who has NO idea what to expect is given a firearm which is more gun than they can handle. That's a really stupid thing to do to someone, especially to someone for whom the instigator supposedly cares about. Just ... consider this a good example of a bad example, and realize that this is exactly the sort of thing which turns a potentially safe and happy shooter into someone who hates guns and has only bad things to say about them!
Firearm Negligence - YouTube