The Accidental Leadslinger
On a lark I decide to learn how to shoot. Then, I had to figure out how to make that happen...
My background with guns
I did not grow up with guns. I was never interested in guns. Frankly, they kinda scared me. Never mind that I had been a Los Angeles County prosecutor assigned to Compton for almost a decade. My jurors never knew. They never knew as I fired off questions on ballistics analysis to the firearms expert on the witness stand that I really had no practical experience firing these weapons.
My home defense system was a schutzhund-trained German Shepherd and my wicked swing with a golf club or bat, with my kitchen knife as backup. As you can see, I needed a little more thought into that plan.
So why now?
Maybe it was the news hype about gun control that made me curious. I had just stopped working, so maybe I was searching for a pastime comparable to that high-focused engagement from my DA days. Maybe it was the helplessness and terror I felt one day witnessing a road rage incident, realizing that my young son and I would be collateral victims before the cops could even be called. Maybe it was the death of my German Shepherd that same summer. Maybe it was all of the above that brought learning how to shoot to the forefront of my mind.
At any rate, I did not have anyone to take me out and teach me. As a newly-turned stay at home mom, all my friends worked. My husband is one of the few firefighters who has zero interest in guns. So, I had to find my own instruction.
The Maytag of Shooting Classes
Like any other reasonable human being, I turned to Google for “beginner shooter classes.” A slew of options popped up. The National Rifle Association (NRA) popped up first. I looked at it like a Maytag washing machine at Home Depot. You know how all those washing machines look alike… but then you figure Maytag is an established name in washing machines so they must have the basics down pat? That’s how I felt about NRA classes.
The instruction portion of their website turned out to be a bit of a morass to figure out. To save you an hour or two of wading, here’s what it boils down to:
There two sites: www.nrainstructors.org (“instructors site”) and training.nra.org (“training site”.)
training.nra.org gives general – and I mean general – blurbs on the different areas of training classes but won’t link you up to a name, time, and address.
www.nrainstructors.org site will find you a specific date, location, and instructor for a particular firearm you want to learn, e.g. pistol, rifle, shotgun, etc.
Once on the “www.nrainstructors.org” site, ignore anything with “instructor” or “coach” in the title.
That leaves you with “FIRST” or “Basic” classes:
· The FIRST classes (“Firearm Instruction, Responsibility, and Safety Training”) assume you already purchased a handgun and want training on that specific gun. The safety mantras are still hammered into you but the firearm training is more abbreviated to your specific needs.
· The “Basic” classes are for those who don’t have a gun of their own yet. There’s one for each type of firearm: pistol, rifle, shotgun, etc. It also teaches firearm safety and shooting basics. With the BASIC course you have the option of taking the multiple choice Firearm Safety Certificate exam at the end for an additional test fee. It’s not difficult. The instructor readies you for the test as he teaches. You’ll need that Certificate to purchase a firearm down the road.
What to Expect: The Classroom
The instructors are regular people with day jobs who teach on the side as certified NRA instructors. Since they all use the same NRA Powerpoints and methodology, you get a McDonald’s-style to teaching. The content will be consistent regardless of class or instructor. The classroom will usually be at the range.
You learn the basics of how a gun works and its terminology - or rather straighten out the incorrect jargon you've been using all these years. They also really stress firearm safety and what that looks like. You may be a terrible shot, but you’ll still garner respect if you can handle that gun with proper safety.
If you’re a woman, don’t be reluctant to walk into a class with men. They’re beginners, too. I had a mixed class for my Basic rifle class. It was a small group of four and in no time we were all joking and chatting. The only other lady turned out to be a scientist about to embark on a long research trip to the Arctic Circle. Before anyone was allowed to step foot on the boat, they had to learn how to handle and shoot a rifle. This was for the simple fact that there were a lot of hungry polar bears waiting for them once they stepped foot in the Arctic. There’s no way to outrun one, so you had to learn how to shoot one. We were all pretty eager to learn that day, but she was the most attentive. And probably the most motivated.
My pistol class was one of the NRA’s “Women on Target” classes. It's the NRA's attempt to encourage more women shooters, who are traditionally better shooters than men but still vastly underrepresented in the industry. The general content was the same as my Basic rifle class. The only difference was the female-only classmates and that Smith & Wesson gave us all a “bag of swag” which included a pair of ear muff protection and matching safety glasses with their logo on it. Who doesn't like free gifts?
What to Expect: The Range
Shooting on the range was the exciting part (of course.) You just have to first finish about four hours of classroom time, which is not as tedious as it sounds.
The range feels very uncomfortable to a beginner. You don’t know the lingo, what the etiquette is, and you don’t want to be in anyone’s way. It reminded me of my jurors who tried to get out of jury duty and didn’t want to be in that unfamiliar courtroom. They were out of their element. By the time 12 were picked and we were a couple days into the trial, they walked through that courtroom like they owned the place. There were even new friendships that budded among them and I would often see them exchange numbers to hang out after the case was over. So when you first walk into a range you don’t know and feel totally out of place with all those strange faces, just understand that’s completely normal. It will only get easier.
The instructor will start you with a .22 caliber handgun, because it’s the smallest caliber of ammunition you can have in a mid-sized handgun. This is to give you the softest recoil possible, which is the muzzle kicking upwards and backwards in your hand. It’s also a way to set up your confidence. You’ll be aiming at a paper target about 7 yards out, the closest you can have it. Those first few blasts will feel violent in your hand, but remember… it won’t flip backwards and hit you in the head.
They’ll show you how to stand and place your feet, how to grip the gun, and how to aim. You'll start correctly with your stance. As you shoot, though, you will unwittingly slouch backwards into another posture entirely . It just takes practice to build up that muscle memory.
The grip controls the recoil. If you don’t control the recoil, you’ll wonder why your shots don’t land where you aimed. Plus, your gun may even “jam” or malfunction from all that kinetic energy whipping around in your hand, that’s not otherwise absorbed in your grip and arms. I learned that the hard way. I also learned that “jam” is not the proper verbiage. I have yet to break that habit.
Set yourself up, take your time, relax, breathe, and squeeze the trigger. If your stance and grip are set up correctly, that recoil and muzzle blast are under your control. All you’re left to worry about is where to aim.
Reset your stance, etc. if needed. Don't blast through all your ammo in a giant hurry. Trust me, it will be suuuper tempting. But each shot at this early stage is to start building that muscle memory. Otherwise it's like speed-whacking golf balls at the driving range. You just wasted a bunch of opportunities to perfect your grip and form.
These instructors were my first real intro to “gun people” other than law enforcement. I’ll be honest. All I knew about gun enthusiasts were whatever wacko stereotypes that cable TV portrayed. I braced myself. But these instructors were so…normal.
You may find a friend or family member to teach you. It’s a matter of personal preference. For me, there’s something about an arms-length relationship with the instructor that makes me pay more attention and take the lesson seriously.
There are other private instructors who don’t use the NRA banner. It’s hard to tell who’s good and who isn’t when they all have nifty looking websites. And how do you know if that class is necessarily suited for your abilities? Or needs? I tried a particular private instructor recently, in a small group lesson that I’ll write a review on later. What a teacher! He improved my abilities by a thousand percent, no exaggeration. He was also able to show me how I perform under pressure, which is good to know if you’re ever in a true-life shooting.
Where to Next?
Those first couple lessons in the rifle and pistol surprised me. Shooting is not an aggressive act at all. It's all about self- control and focus. Control that recoil. Control your adrenaline. Calm your mind. Focus and shut everything else out.
I also learned firearm safety was an ever-present vigilance. It’s like a parent with a child. Unless and until your child is safe at school or asleep in bed, you can’t really relax. A gun is the same way. Until that thing is secured and locked away, you’re always going to be vigilant about making sure it’s secure.
So now what? Where do you go after the lesson? Do you practice? How do you practice? What do I practice? More lessons? For me, my first post-lesson visit to the range was comedy. But for that visit, however, I would not have taken things as far as I did and I can’t wait to share what happened next.
Let me know where you took your first lesson! I’d love to hear from you.