By Chris B.
A friend of mine named Fran recently passed away. In addition to being a friend, she was one of my first students. Her daughter and son-in-law had recently deployed. She was a petite lady who found herself living alone in the country. She knew I was a pistol instructor and asked me to show her how to use her Smith and Wesson SW380 pistol to defend herself. She broached the subject by talking about the apprehension she had of being by herself in a rural area. I think she also wanted to give me the opportunity to teach . . .
I had recently gone through the process of obtaining various certifications in basic pistol instruction as well as instruction in personal defense. We had been speaking about this one day when she asked if I would teach her. She may have sensed the desire I had to have a student. I don’t know. I do know I’m grateful she asked. Working with her was an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Fran was different than most of the people who have asked me to help them with shooting or planning for their personal defense. For starters, she was a she. She was also smaller and older than any other student I have had. Also unlike so many people I had worked with in the past, she showed up with a specific pistol with which we had to work. Most of the time when people had approached me, it was to help them find the right pistol for them and go from there. Fran had the SW380 and that was what we were going to have to work with.
Fran taught me more about teaching than all the classes I had taken to that point. She taught me that your student is going to dictate what and how you teach more than any preconceived playbook. She didn’t feel comfortable leaving the pistol loaded and she had limited upper body strength. We talked about this. I was concerned about her ability to get the pistol loaded under stress. I told her that I could teach her how to operate the pistol and shoot it accurately, but I recommended that we leave the pistol loaded and ready for her to use if need be. She heard me out, but said she would rather leave it unloaded.
This left me in a bit of a conundrum at first. I would have preferred that she had a different pistol. I would have preferred that she had more upper body strength. And I would have preferred that she’d leave the pistol loaded. But none of this really mattered. Fran had specific needs and wants. I couldn’t make her do what I wanted nor would I want to. I would rather have her approach the situation on her terms.
She had the same needs anyone did who would want to defend themselves. Accomplishing the tasks to suit those needs would be different than for most people, but that was ultimately irrelevant. We started with the basic principles of firearms safety. Then we moved onto solving the problem of getting the pistol from unloaded to loaded. For this we focused on what she could do as opposed to what she couldn’t.
She couldn’t hold the pistol at arm’s length and then rack the slide. She could, however, bring the pistol in close to her body, pushing forward with her strong hand and pulling the slide backward with her support hand. I found some .380 snap caps and we went to work. With a little practice and coaching she could pick the pistol up from its storage space and chamber the snap caps. Thirty minutes of repetitions allowed us to focus on muzzle discipline during the process as well as keeping her finger off the trigger.
After we got comfortable getting the pistol into battery, we focused on the front sight and trigger press. Normally, I would have taken a new shooter to the range and started them shooting. A few things led me away from that with Fran. First, ammo was scarce and .380 was even scarcer. So while we looked around for ammo, dry fire was the next best thing. Second, while she was willing, Fran seemed a little apprehensive about actually shooting the pistol. We talked about practicing via dry fire before we hit the range. She liked the idea.
Working with Fran was enjoyable because she trusted me and had an open mind. Sometimes when I have talked to people about dry fire, they simply dismissed the idea. I have found that you can get the fundamentals down when there is not the concern about recoil or loud noises. It can make the first trip to the range more enjoyable and productive. I had an IDPA target, and I put a pink dot on it to help her find center mass. We talked about how to sight the pistol. While the Smith pistol did not have the biggest front sight, she was able to find it and focus on it. Then we worked on trigger press. She was surprised how much the pistol could move when pressing the trigger. She also was surprised how easy it was for her to minimize that movement by changing the way the thought about pressing the trigger.
After we had the loading and the shooting down, we worked on putting them together. She was going to keep the pistol with a full magazine and an empty chamber. With the magazine full of snap caps and the chamber empty, we placed the pistol in its storage area. Then we had a target set up across the room. She would go from accessing, to chambering, to sighting, to pressing the trigger. After each trigger press she got to the point where she would naturally require her sight picture without me having to coach her on it. At the end of each sequence, she would put the pistol back and start over again until we had emptied all the snap caps from the magazine by racking the slide to reset the trigger. We would take breaks afterwards because she would get tired. We did this on a few different days while we were waiting for the ammo to come.
Finally the ammo arrived. We set up a day to go to the range. That morning, we practiced our dry fire drills one more time, and then off we went. She was lucky to live by a nice indoor range with a pleasant staff, so the environment was friendly and welcoming. I brought along some Peltor earmuffs anticipating that the more noise reduction we could get, the better. Once on the firing line, though she still winced when the other shooters fired. She looked a bit disconcerted. We went back up stairs and got some ear plugs to put under the ear muffs. This did the trick. Once back on the line, we put up a K5 23×25 target and put it at about three yards. I helped her load the magazine.
Before we got to the range we had discussed that she would act like she had a bad guy in front of her. She would pick up her pistol, get it ready, and then shoot. I told her she should shoot 2-3 rounds each time to get used to having to shoot multiple shots. We had talked about how it might be hard to tell if she had hit someone in real life and that she would have to keep putting the sights back on target and pressing the trigger until he stopped. With the pistol in front of her with a magazine seated, I smiled and gave her the thumbs up. She nodded with a determined look and went to work.
She only fired about 20 rounds that day. She got tired. However, she was responsible for chambering the pistol each time she put it into battery. And she made every shot count. I have included a picture of her handy work. I was quite proud of her. She not only put her shots in the right place, she did so with good muzzle discipline, good trigger control, and good follow through. She shot with a resolve that was impressive.
Right after Fran decided she needed to take a break from shooting, a man who was in the bay next to us stepped over to say hi. With a friendly grin, he said, “Nice shooting,” and nodded his head. He was looking up at me as he said this. I smiled back and told him, I had not been shooting. His gaze shifted down to Fran, who came up only to my mid chest. He looked a little puzzled, smiled, and then said, “Wow, great job.” Fran beamed with pride.
Afterwards, we went back to her house. I showed her how to clean the pistol. After that was complete, I loaded her magazine for her, and she put the pistol up and made it ready for use if need be. Sadly that was the first and the last time we would every go shooting. We tried to get back to the range a few more times, but life got in the way.
Not too long ago, I was rearranging ammunition cans. I stumbled upon a mostly full box of .380. Not owning a .380, I took a moment to stare at it. Then the memories came back to me. I pulled up the photo I you see above, and I was inspired to put pen to paper.
Aside from my mother, Fran was the sweetest lady I have known. I will always be grateful to her for letting me teach her how to shoot a pistol. I wanted to share this with whomever would read this as a way of remembering her. Also I am pretty sure there are some people out there with someone like Fran in their life.
The way I see it, all Fran really wanted was a little peace of mind. She lived alone in a world that she knew could be unkind and unsafe. She was willing to put in the work and take responsibility for defending herself. I felt honored that she made me part of that process. If you have someone in your life like Fran, I hope you take the time and effort necessary to help them take back a little bit of their freedom and independence. I promise you that it will be one of the most rewarding things you ever do.