Sunday, August 14, 2005

Gunsite Basic Carbine Course

In a previous post I wrote about the General Rifle Course I attended at Gunsite Academy. I was also able to score a seat at the Basic Carbine course, or “223,” in December 2004. Thanks to the generosity of the school’s management and ownership (and several ammunition manufacturers) a few tuition-free courses have been made available to veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. And thanks to the generosity of my wife, the airfare and room and board were made available to me.

One might ask why I would want to go through the course after having returned from Iraq, the barn door being closed on the horse, so to speak. In the first place, I knew what Gunsite had to offer and was eager to add on to what I reckoned would be a rich experience. Also, in my particular job in the Marines I don’t have ready access to the enhanced marksmanship training being conducted for deploying units. Finally, I reasoned that one day I would be going back overseas and I ought to get good training on the cheap while it was available.

The 223 was just like the 270 in that it was efficiently organized, well taught and challenging. It was completely different from the 270 in that the students were all military. Every service was represented except the Navy. There were active duty and reservists, enlisted and officer. Some came out on their own dime; some were on various forms of funded temporary duty. Many carried weapons issued by their units’ armories-- which is a strong statement on how far and wide the practical shooting gospel has been spread. Most of them were fresh out of Iraq or Afghanistan or getting ready to go.

The instructors were standard Gunsite: high quality, wide backgrounds. The rangemaster was a retired Army reserve officer and current Denver PD lieutenant. The second was a retired Air Force pararescue operator. The third was an active duty Marine on leave.

Just like in the 270, things start quickly. We showed up, registered, got whatever gear we needed-- in my case, a borrowed Bushmaster carbine from the armory, as the Marine Corps was singularly unhelpful in providing me one-- and got down to business. After about an hour of classroom work, it was off to the range.

Once on the range, you get your gear on, you get your ammo squared away and you start training. When the rangemaster calls for the first relay to get up on the line, you’re wasting everyone’s time if you’re not ready. I suppose it helped that he had a military class, full of people used to taking orders and doing things quickly. As the class progressed we got faster and faster with preparing for each session, and more and more comfortable with being on a “hot range.”

The hot range is one of the most welcome recent developments in the military. Places like Gunsite pioneered it, but it took years (and a lot of work) for it to filter into regular units. The hot range runs like this: instructors and shooters carry loaded, ready weapons at all times, on and off the firing line. Safety rules are briefed, and then safety becomes an integral part of proper weapons handling rather than a separate issue. Big Boy Rules apply. Not for amateurs or raw trainees, it requires a developed level of discipline. It is absolutely the best way to run a range if you want to prepare people for a gunfight. (By way of comparison, in my experience pre-9/11 ranges in the Marine Corps were pretty static affairs, not particularly realistic and very strictly controlled. All of the Marines in my class joked that what we did in the 223 as a matter of course would have gotten us thrown off any “old” Marine Corps range.)

In the 270, students carry full-bore rifles, i.e in the 30-caliber range, and dress for comfort. In the 223 we carried 5.56mm carbines and back-up handguns. We carried web gear and wore uniforms, the way we would wear them in the field. The course gave us the chance to try new gear and new ways to stow it. In another refreshing departure from active duty orthodoxy, we were encouraged to work out how best to carry our weapons, how best arrange the magazines, and figure out what else we might need to do to stay in the fight and win the fight.

Over the course of the week each of us fired close to a thousand rounds. That’s a lot of ammo, far more than I ever shot on any military range. Every shot was a little lesson in itself. Apply the fundamentals and your shot strikes home; forget the basics and it’s a miss. And like the 270, we shot on steel as well as paper. It's a stark contrast between the KLANGG! of a .308 hit on steel and the TINK! of a 5.56 hit, and serves to drive home the reminder that you're firing a carbine and not a rifle.

All Gunsite courses stress the achievement of first-round decisive hits, within the working parameters of the weapon. The working range of the carbine is much shorter than that of the full-bore rifle, thus the Basic Carbine Course emphasizes engagement of targets from arm’s distance out to 100 meters or so. Yes, we shot at 200 and even 300, but the bulk of the work is 100 meters and in. That’s where recent experience tells us we will be fighting, and that’s where the 5.56mm cartridge is most effective. The Basic Carbine Course teaches you to hit with deliberate shots and multiple rounds in rapid succession. You get quicker and more accurate as you go, and more importantly you learn to strike the right balance of speed and accuracy.

One of the most important things taught in the 223 is the transition from carbine to pistol. This is harder than it sounds, and like anything deceptively simple there’s a trick to it. We learned not only how to get the carbine out of the way and go for the pistol, but a little about when to do it. That’s something I have never been taught anywhere else.

We learned the best uses of the standard firing positions-- prone, kneeling, sitting, offhand-- as well as some interesting variations. We even tried out a pair of contortionist positions, one face down and one face up, which are used to leverage the merest scrap of cover, like a curb or the low remnants of a ruined block wall. I don’t see how I’d be using either one often, but it was good to try them out and see just how effective they can be.

We know that marksmanship, the mechanics of operating the weapon and placing a round on target, is but one of the three elements of the Combat Triad, along with gunhandling and mindset. The great strength of the 223 is in the constant integration of gunhandling skills into the shooting problems. The safe but effective handling of the weapon is a primary teaching point. So is ammo management: when to reload and how. Where is the next magazine coming from? And the one after that? What do you do with the empties? Where should you keep the loose ammo to fill your magazines, and what’s the fastest way to load them? This relates also to the carbine/pistol transition: if the carbine goes dry should you reload or just go for the pistol? The 223 Course gets you thinking about these issues you don’t usually have a chance to address.
A fringe benefit of the 223, especially a veterans’ class, is in picking the brains of your fellow students. Our class was large, and divided into two sections. One was entirely made up of Army SF National Guardsmen-- a most interesting group of people. And ours was loaded with recent veterans of more conventional units. The bottom line is that you will meet people who have done it for real, and are usually quite willing to share their lessons learned. What’s the best holster? How well does the ACOG hold up? Would you recommend this or that set of pouches? What do you recommend for a first aid kit? One of your fellow students probably has the answers.

The culminating event of the 223 is the shoot-off. Each student shoots against a few other students, by pairs in turn, in a contest of speed and accuracy. Our contest was, like the carbine/pistol transition, deceptively simple. Two students come up on the line, and on a signal engage a pair of steel targets at 100 meters. The task is to score a hit in the offhand position, then drop to the ground and engage again, using the position of your choice and changing magazines while changing positions. The fastest time with two hits wins. Simple! Not quite. It’s fun to see how good you are under a little pressure, and the results were instructive. It turns out that, true to the adage, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. The shoot-off was won by a Marine sergeant firing a stock M16A4 with iron sights. Some were faster then he was, and some were more accurate. But none was as fast, as accurate and as smooth as he was.

I found the Gunsite Basic Carbine Course to be well worth my time and money. I was lucky enough to be able to attend at a cut rate, but if the truth be told I’d go back again for the full fee. The quality of the facilities and instruction is superb. The course teaches you things you would be hard pressed to learn elsewhere, and it makes you think about things that might very well save your life.


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