Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Tactical Handgun Skills, Level 1

Continuing my unhealthy obsession with firearms, I took a "Tactical Handgun Skills" course tonight. In the gun world, the word "tactical" is used much like the word "enterprise" is used in the IT world: every vendor or service provider attaches the word to their product/service, so it really doesn't mean much. Some wags spell it as "tacticool." But, despite the name, it was a fun class.

The class was a follow-up to the "Advanced Handgun Skills" class I took a couple of weeks ago. For the most part, the drills were simply more advanced versions of the drills from that class: drawing from a holster, and shooting rapidly at one or more targets.

There were a couple of new wrinkles. One was the "speed reload:" a technique for quickly putting a fresh magazine into a semi-automatic pistol when it runs out of ammo. I've read about this, and practiced a bit at home, but having an instructor really helped refine my technique. We were told to use it whenever we ran dry during the exercises, so we got plenty of practice.

The other new thing was clearing stoppages. A "stoppage" is the failure of your gun to keep firing, due to a jam or other malfunction. In a semi-automatic pistol, every time you pull the trigger, the round should fire, the empty brass case should be ejected, the hammer/firing-pin should be re-cocked, and a fresh round should be fed into the chamber, readying the gun to fire again. Unfortunately, sometimes not all of these events happen as they should, and Murphy's Law suggests that stoppages are most likely to happen in the middle of a firefight, so knowing how to quickly fix the problem is important.

There are basically two drills for clearing stoppages. If you're lucky, a "tap-rack" will solve the problem: you slap the bottom of the magazine to ensure it is seated properly, then rack the slide to eject whatever is in the chamber and feed a fresh round. This is often taught as "tap-rack-bang," meaning that you pull the trigger after racking the slide, but the instructor noted that people who are taught like this often fire after clearing the stoppage even though firing is no longer warranted. He teaches the technique as "tap-rack-ready," meaning that after racking the slide, you prepare to fire but don't actually do so without assessing the situation.

If you are very unlucky, you get a "double feed malfunction," which means that the gun has tried to feed a new round into a chamber that already has a round in it. This jams the gun pretty good, and it takes a few seconds to clear it. It's best to find some hard cover if this happens during a real-world situation.

To drill on clearing stoppages, the instructor loaded our magazines with a combination of good rounds and empty expended brass cartridges. He'd tell us to fire, and if an empty cartridge went into the chamber, we'd have a stoppage and we'd need to deal with it. It was an interesting drill.

The stoppage drills reminded me a bit of the emergency procedures I learned as a pilot. You have to diagnose the problem, apply a standard set of reactions, then evaluate the result. However, unlike with flying, in a gunfight you wouldn't have time to consult a checklist.

There were only two students in the class, so we went through our 150 rounds in two hours instead of the three hours that it takes with a full class. I'm looking forward to the "Tactical Handgun Skills, Level 2" course that should be offered in a few months.

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