© 2014 Grant Cunningham Click to email me!

How fundamentals help you adapt to the unfamiliar, or: An adventure in rifle shooting.

This last weekend I dropped in on a rifle class being taught by my longtime friend Georges Rahbani. It was the afternoon of the second day of the class -- and a wet, windy day it was! It poured most of the time and the wind gusts hit nearly 30 mph. Welcome to fall in Oregon!

Georges runs a qualification course at the end of his classes and asked if I'd like to shoot it with him. I didn't bring a rifle with me, but one of the students loaned me his AR-15. As things would turn out, it became an adventure in adapting to an unfamiliar gun (especially since it had been at least a year since I'd shot an AR-15!)

To start, this rifle had an ambidextrous safety and one of those 'ergonomic' grips. That grip places the hand further from the trigger (and safety), and with my short fingers made it more difficult to reach the safety when the command to fire came. What's more, the right-side safety paddle hit the base of my trigger finger which necessitated placing my trigger finger above the safety on that side, similar to the way a left-hander manipulates the safety on a non-modified AR-15. My first shot from the gun was a bit late as fumbled to get the safety off.

The sight was a Trijicon Reflex with a chevron reticle and polarizing lens. I've never used that particular optic, and every time I slung the rifle the polarizer's adjustment ring would rotate out of position and the scope would go dark. Whenever I brought the gun up to fire I had to quickly rotate the polarizer just to be able to see through the scope!

Despite the equipment issues I was doing pretty well. This is a course I've shot before and can often shoot it 'clean' with my rifle, but this time I was a couple of points down. That is, until we moved back to the 50 yard mark.

There are 15 rounds for score shot at that distance from 3 different shooting positions: squat, sitting, and prone. The target was a standard IDPA silhouette, and at that distance experience has proven that I can quickly put every one of those 15 rounds into the 'A' circle. I was confident that I'd at least tie Georges.

Imagine my shock when we went up to the targets and those 15 rounds were just above the circle in the 'B' (or 'minus one') zone! At 50 yards I don't miss my target by 5 inches, even with iron sights. I turned to the gun's owner and said (or maybe I screamed) "where is this thing sighted??"

As it turns out, he'd sighted the Trijicon to be dead-on at very close range. According to the ballistics calculator, that makes it about 4.5 inches high at 50 yards. Combine that with a difference in sight offset, and it explained why my shots went out of the 'A' zone.

Sighting his rifle for the range which at which he is most likely to need to use it (he lives in a suburban neighborhood) is a prudent choice; I, however, zero my guns at a longer distance, because in the rural area where I live longer shots are the norm. I have to deal with predators of both the 2- and 4-legged variety, and so I may have to shoot anywhere from my living room to across a field. I've shot so much that at the shorter ranges I automatically compensate for the sight offset, while at the longer ranges it's "point of aim, point of impact". Our context of use is different, and so our guns are different. My mistake was not taking that into account when I grabbed his gun!

Shooting an unfamiliar gun with unknown ammunition and not asking the owner about important things like how he sighted it in is a sure recipe for a disaster. Still, despite the handicap every single one of my rounds landed on the torso of the target. That's because I have a good grounding in the fundamentals of shooting a rifle, and I've shot enough that I understand my own balance of speed and precision at any likely distance. Had I not developed those skills ahead of time, it's likely my performance would have been substantially worse.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Humor in a desert of seriousness.

I had several things about which I wanted to write, but frankly I just can't muster the enthusiasm today. Some of them involve idiots outside our ranks who want to restrict our freedoms, while a couple more involve idiots inside our ranks who want to argue because they want to argue.

Instead I've decided to look at the lighter side of shooting. Presenting, for your edification and amusement, a couple of satiric YouTube videos which are so close to reality that some are apparently finding it difficult to discern the difference. First is the "Most Tactical AR-15 EVER!:

But wait, there's more! He's also done the "Most Tactical Loadout EVER!”, where he captures on video -- for the first time -- the super-sekrit Gecko45 reload using crossed, duct-taped magazines.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Defensive training. iPhone. What's the connection?

Yesterday Apple announced a new iPhone, and with it an advanced software to add voice control to that phone. (“Siri”? Who names these things?)

Almost immediately the blogs and tech sites were abuzz with inevitable comparisons to the competition, complete with tables breaking down the products feature by feature.

I found it amusing that they all had one line that said 'voice control', with a simple "YES" or checkmark on each product. Some of the more adventurous would take pains to point out that the competition had 'voice control' for some time, and Apple was just catching up. What they failed to take into account was the relative sophistication and integration of the feature on all the products; love 'em or hate 'em, Apple's new voice assistant goes well beyond the simple "call Bill at work" kinds of control that phones have had for years. The software anticipates and evaluates natural language requests in a way that hasn't yet been done on a consumer device, and interacts with the phone's functions in a wider way than we're accustomed to.

(My best friend was the founder of a software company which did pioneering work in the field of computer control via voice recognition. Even he's impressed with how far Apple was able to push this technology, and he's about as jaded an expert in that field as you could ever find. He’s also one of the best shooting instructors I know, which gives me the perfect segue into this article’s actual topic!)

My point is not to sell phones - personally, I don't derive my self-worth from what I buy or what you don't buy - but rather to point out the folly of making bullet point comparisons. If you just looked at the bullet point of voice control and saw the checkmark, you wouldn't come away understanding the vastly different ways in which that feature has been implemented.

This goes well beyond phones, as lots of people do the same thing when they take defensive shooting classes. I call them "checklist students" - people who make decisions as to what school or class they'll attend by looking over a list of topics being covered. I've actually talked to people who have chosen one class over another because of the number of topics covered, without understanding the depth of the instruction or the unique approach of the instructor.

I've also seen students request refunds from instructors when the simple number of things they learned wasn't the same as in other classes they've attended, even though the student made no effort to understand or become competent in those things that were taught. The checklist is in control, not their desire to learn nor their appreciation of their own skill development.

There are instructors out there who will throw a million different topics into a class and give the students perhaps a couple of minutes with each, then dash on to the next item on the agenda. There are other instructors who cover a fraction of those topics but cover them thoroughly, giving students time and opportunity to really start to develop some proficiency. Unfortunately, the former tend to be the more successful - checklists, it would seem, sell classes as well as phones, cameras, cars, and just about everything else.

If you buy a phone via a checklist, the worst that happens is that you don't have the functionality of another phone. You can always get another. When it comes to your skill development, particularly the ability to successfully defend your own life, the stakes are a little higher. Make your training decisions based not on an ambitious list of topics, but on an understanding of what, how and why your instructor does what he/she does.

Leave the checklists to those who would rather brag than learn.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Someone is talking about me. Oh, wait, it's me!

Over at the Personal Defense Network,
they've put up a profile of yours truly. Based on an interview I did recently, it covers my views on teaching and the state of the training business. Hope you enjoy it!

-=[ Grant ]=-

Yet another reason I don't watch reality TV.

I spent this weekend assisting at a defensive rifle class with Georges Rahbani, and sometime during the weekend thought of a great article for today.

Then I forgot what it was.

My usual habit is to carry, in the left pocket of my shirt, a small pad and a mechanical pencil. When I have an idea I jot it down, thus preserving it for a time when I can make use of it. That's assuming, of course, that I remember to look at the thing!

The weather was pretty warm this weekend (about 90 degrees) and we were in the sun for most of the two days. I'd shed my normal pocketed button-front shirt for a more comfortable short sleeved Henley. My pad and pencil, of course, was in the regular shirt and when the aforementioned great idea struck, I was without a means to record it. Thus this morning's rambling version of "my dog ate my homework!"

Luckily Chris over at
The Anarchangel posted something worthy of commentary. Go read it, then come back for a little discussion.

I tuned in for the first episode of Top Shot, recognized it as yet another overblown social manipulation festival common to reality television, and promptly turned it off. My spare time is quite limited and I have to make hard decisions about what I do with it. Even with guns and shooting Top Shot didn't make my cut, so I didn't know what transpired until Chris filled me in.

Those who live in landlocked states probably have no concept of just what the United States Coast Guard does. Here in Oregon, where Coast Guard helicopters and rescue crews are a common sight, we have a deep appreciation for the sacrifices those men and women make. Despite being ridiculed (or even worse, ignored) they go out and do their job to the best of their ability every day of the week.

Those in the other services are only in danger when they've been activated and deployed, and their tours of deployment are limited in duration (a good thing, do not misunderstand.) The USCG is always on deployment, whether doing rescue work, interdicting smugglers, or protecting our Navy's operations in foreign ports. (That's right - when the U.S. Navy needs help, they call the Coast Guard!) When I was growing up it was widely said that you were more likely to be killed in the Coast Guard in peacetime than in the infantry during wartime. While that may not be literally true, it serves to illustrate the tough job USCG does.

Much of that is because the nature of their missions requires them to always be in harm's way. One of their primary duties is to protect lives in America's waters, and here in Oregon they do so constantly. The USCG's rescue swimmers and helicopter pilots are the best that can be found; until you've witnessed a Dolphin SAR helicopter hovering nearly motionless just feet away from a cliff face, in high winds and torrential rain, you have little appreciation for the skill of those crews. I don't know where one goes to recruit such people, but they must have ice water injected into their veins upon enlistment. They are amazing to watch, and when they appear on scene there is a very strong feeling of relief - even if you're not the subject of their attention.

So, to Caleb and all the other past and present members of the United States Coast Guard, and especially to those stationed here in Oregon, thank you. We appreciate your service, your sacrifice, and above all your professionalism.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Monday meanderings.

DRAW FAST, HOLSTER SLOW: Tam alerts us to a ND that happened at a Todd Green class. In his commendable reporting of the incident, Todd says "Never be in a rush to holster your pistol. We all know it, we say it, we teach it. Not all of us do it." So true.

As instructors it's easy for us to forget that reinforcement, and sometimes enforcement, are necessary parts of our job. Especially when we're dealing with "advanced" students, we tend to go easy on the reinforcement of fundamentals for fear that we'll be resented for belittling their ability or experience. We have to resist that tendency, and we need to do so consistently. When warranted, enforcement (up to and including ejection from class) has to happen.

The only instructor I've ever seen who is absolutely consistent in this regard is Georges Rahbani (
TBRIYNHO.) Even in his advanced rifle classes, which are invitation only and have stringent prerequisites, you will hear "safety on" and "finger in register" (index, if you prefer) commands at the end of a string of fire. He never wastes an opportunity for reinforcement at any level of training or ability.

When Georges encounters failures to heed commands or instruction, he has a way of bringing the point home to the student: he/she has to publicly deposit a dollar bill into a pot. (The students have a friendly shoot-off at the end of class to win the pot.) This has a non-confrontational, yet still very chastening, effect on both the offending person and the rest of the students; I've seen it work on countless occasions. I don't know where the idea comes from, but I'm giving Georges the credit.

THE PROBLEM WITH ELECTRONIC SCALES: I recently sat down to work up a new .308 load. I turned on my RCBS electronic scale, waited a couple of minutes, and starting weighing charges. Much to my surprise, the weight of the charges thrown by my powder measure increased each time! I'd forgotten that electronic scales need protracted warmup periods before accuracy and repeatability can be expected. After a half-hour of warmup, it settled down and gave correct readings. Word to the wise: keep your mechanical scales around to double check the electronic ones, or buy a set of check weights.

HERE COMES DA JUDGE: From The Unforgiving Minute comes this gem:

"The inexplicable success of the Taurus Judge still depresses the hell out of me. Taurus keeps cranking out new versions, each more grotesque, hideous and nonsensical than the last, and people KEEP BUYING THE GODDAMN THINGS. Just another sign that our culture is doomed, I suppose."

(The opinions of the contributor do not necessarily reflect the views of the Management of this blog. Then again, they just might.)

-=[ Grant ]=-

I almost forgot...

Last weekend I was assisting at a Defensive Shotgun course taught by Georges Rahbani (
"The Best Rifle Instructor You've Never Heard Of"). A couple of the participants were discussing a problem with a ParaOrdnance pistol when I walked up. "Well, it's not like you should be surprised", I said, "when the brand's name tells you everything you need to know."

They stared at me blankly.

"Para- is a prefix meaning 'similar to' or 'resembling' ", I continued. "So, Para-Ordnance means that it's only 'sort of a gun' ."

I'm here to tell you that some people are seriously humor impaired.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Be honest with yourself.

In college I minored in music performance. Being just out of high school (read: thoroughly stupid) I thought I was a hot musician, harboring dreams of becoming a professional trumpet player. Like so many other aspiring performers I really had no idea what the world of a professional musician actually entailed, but I was absolutely sure I had what it took.

One of my professors, an accomplished professional trombonist, made it his job to bring us post-adolescents into the real world. Shortly into my freshman term, he was talking with a few of the members of the trumpet section after class. The talk turned to the requirements of a "pro", and all of us were convinced we had the Right Stuff. Our prof had heard this kind of chatter before, and bet our first chair player that he didn't yet possess the bare minimum skills necessary for the job.

Trumpet players are usually narcissistic personalities, the kind who don't back down from a fight, and the kid said "you're on!"

The prof sighed and said simply "get out your horn. I want you to blow a perfect half-note G above the staff" (trumpet players in the audience will understand.) The kid smirked, dropped his case to the floor and pulled out his horn. "Wait a minute", said our teacher. "I said a perfect G. No warmup. Just one perfect note; in tune from start to end, solid attack, no slop or waviness, crisp decay. You have one and only one shot. Go."

I shouldn't have to tell you the kid failed - miserably. Then again, none of the rest of us would have done any better. We were clueless: none of us yet knew enough to understand how much we didn't yet know.

Fast forward a few decades, and the shooting range serves up the same lesson. Georges Rahbani, "
The Best Rifle Instructor You've Never Heard Of" , has a way of impressing on his students how they should assess their own abilities:

"You are only as good as you are, on demand."

What you can do right now, without warm up or sighting shots, without excuses or alibis, is the true measure of how good you are.

This is different from how most people gauge their ability. Most folks would take their rifle to the range on a nice sunny day, settle in comfortably at the bench, fire a bunch of rounds, then shoot a 1" group. They're so proud of that group they take the target home and hang it in their garage or office. "I'm hot stuff!", they'll think - after all, they have the target to prove it!

The next day at the range it's raining, they've had a fight with their spouse, can't get comfortable on the cold bench, and now their best group doesn't even break 3". "That's not me", they'll say to themselves, "I shoot one-inch groups!" The alibis flow like PBR at a fraternity house, and serve to obscure the fact that the 3" group wasn't the anomaly - the 1" group was. The larger one is the true indicator of their skill.

It's not what someone can do when everything is going their way that shows ability; it's what they can do under suboptimal conditions that does. If a person can't shoot until getting into just the right stance, with perfect foot placement and textbook body positioning, then that person still has a lot of work to do to master the fundamentals. (I've seen people who can shoot pretty well on a concrete pad, but go all to pieces on a gravel range. They can't get into their comfort zone.)

This is one thing if we're talking about plinking, but becomes another thing entirely when the subject turns to self defense. The other guy isn't going to wait for us to get into the perfect stance we learned from our guru; we need to be able to deliver rapid, multiple, properly placed shots from whatever position the situation dictates, under whatever conditions it hands us. That requires the courage to admit to ourselves that maybe - just maybe - we aren't quite as good as we think.

Right here, right now, no warmups, no excuses - how good are you?

-=[ Grant ]=-

Another rifle class; more lessons

This past weekend marked our last rifle class for the year. As often happens, we came away with our unusual (In this day and age) opinions about rifles and gear validated and vindicated.

Georges Rahbani, our chief instructor (and my vote for the best "urban rifle" teacher you've never heard of) has a saying: "thou shalt not hang sh*t on thy rifle!" His point is that adding geegaws to a basically sound firearm rarely improves shooter performance, and often results in lessened mechanical performance. The ever-popular "tactical latch" for the AR-15 is such an accessory, and the installation of one may pose an unforeseen risk.

For those who've never seen a "tac latch", it's a large appendage that replaces the standard latching lever found on the left side of the AR's charging handle. (I'm still not really sure of it's purpose, but all the "high speed, low drag" folks appear to have them on their rifles. The latch's large "wing" would, it seems to me, in fact increase drag and decrease speed - but hey, what do I know?)

In all fairness, it should be mentioned that there is one good use for the tac latch: to be able to operate the charging handle with a low-mounted scope, in the same way that a hammer extension performs on a lever-action rifle. Outside of that, however, they serve no useful purpose that I can discern.

If you're absolutely convinced that you really need this accessory, take a piece of friendly advice: DON'T install it on the stock aluminum charging handle! The increased leverage from the oversized latch causes fractures to develop around the charging handle's pivot pin; the "t" part of the handle can then snap off at inopportune times. Yes, I've seen it happen.

There is an all-steel charging charging handle available from Brownell's (and no doubt other fine retailers), and it is a far better choice for the installation of the tac latches. Do yourself a favor and spend the few extra dollars; it's worth it to avoid the problem.

-=[ Grant ]=-