Range at Austin
courtesy therangeaustin.com

By The Rookie,

I took my first firearms class about a year ago. I’d long had an interest in guns and 2A issues and had thought about giving things a try but somehow, I had never gotten around to “taking the plunge” before now. I guess what was different this time is that my curiosity had peaked.

I’d watched dozens of videos from Hickock45 and other YouTubers and was itching to try shooting for myself. And, frankly, I felt that if I was going to support the Second Amendment, I ought to have at least a little practical experience with firearms. So, after a quick search online, I found a gun range near me that offered an introductory handgun course and signed up.

I showed up at class bright and early on a chilly Saturday morning, eager to get started. I figured this would be a heck of a lot of fun and wondered what awesome gun I’d get to shoot. Never having fired a handgun before, I really had no idea what would be the “right” choice. But I was sure it would go well in any case.

Well…pretty sure, anyway. I started to harbor a bit of doubt in the back of my mind about how well I would shoot because of my lack of good hand-eye coordination. To put it plainly, I’m a klutz. Not just clumsy, but a real bull-in-a-china-shop type. I can’t dribble a basketball, can’t skip rope without tangling myself into a cat’s cradle, and so on.

It was a constant source of frustration in my younger days in everything from trying out for high school sports to my Godzilla-like dance moves on the prom dance floor. Still, I was here, and was determined to give it a go. I pushed back my concerns and headed into the classroom for the first portion of the course.

The classroom portion of the course went well. I quickly absorbed the Four Rules, the basics of stance and proper grip, and so on. The instructor then asked us what handgun we wanted to use for the rest of the classroom portion, and on the range.

One woman had brought her brand new Smith & Wesson M&P Shield. The other three folks in the class all opted for GLOCK 19’s. I still had no idea what to choose.

After speaking with me and asking what I hoped to learn, the instructor suggested I give the GLOCK 23 in .40 S&W a try. “Okay, sounds good,” I thought. After a few loading and dry-firing exercises, and each of us determining our dominant eye, we headed over to the indoor range.

I could write an extended play-by-play about the range portion of the course, and spend hours trying to put the best spin on it. In fact, I did write both of those things before settling on this final form. The short version is, I didn’t do very well. At all.

With the first shot, I realized that shooting a handgun wasn’t quite as easy as it looked on YouTube. I wasn’t expecting the level of noise, nor especially the level of recoil. It felt like the muzzle jumped half a foot when I squeezed the GLOCK’s trigger. As you might imagine, my first shots were all over the paper.

The instructor gave me some feedback on where to adjust, as well as pointers on my grip and stance. It helped, but I still struggled throughout the session. Where the other members of the class began to zero in with most every shot after a couple of rounds, I simply could not seem to find my stride. I would make a solid hit, and then have three in a row that were off the silhouette. It seemed completely random and nothing I tried seemed to help.

By the final round, to say I was frustrated would be an understatement. I was flinching badly and held the G23 with a death grip, determined to somehow make the pistol do what I wanted it to do.

As you might expect, I posted the worst shooting round of the day. Not just for me, but the entire class. The lowest point was when I scored a head shot on my target. I mean, we’re talking a perfect, right-between-the-eyes, zombie-killing headshot. Which would have been great…except I was aiming for the breadbasket.

We finished up the course with a review back in the classroom. The instructor gave each of us an individual assessment and commented where we improved and where we needed to focus. I remember thinking he was going to be hard-pressed to find something good to say to me. He was actually quite supportive, though as I suspected, he was searching for the right words.

He suggested that maybe trying something in 9mm next time instead would work better for me. I played along, keeping a positive tone as the class finally came to an end. In truth, though, all I wanted to do was get the heck out of there.

I’ve figured it was a good idea to check my “macho” at the range door, but even so, I was embarrassed and my pride was hurt. I headed home from the range with my proverbial tail between my legs, ready to write off the experience as just another one of those things I’d tried, but maybe wasn’t cut out to do.

I left it at that for about a month. Work and the holidays coming up took up most of my time. Still, I stewed about my poor performance in the class. I’m as stubborn as I am clumsy and have never been one to back away from a challenge. More to the point, I realized that for all the difficulty I had had, I liked shooting.

I wanted to try it again, and I wanted to get good at it. So, I consulted the internet and a few friends for advice, and around Christmas time I came to the decision that I would need to start over from the absolute beginning and go with something chambered in the much more tame .22LR.

I immediately began searching online for my first pistol. After a good deal of searching, including reading several TTAG reviews, I settled on the Walther PPQ M2 in .22LR. I liked that it was the same size as its centerfire brothers and had the same controls. I thought those qualities would make it a better trainer than some of the other .22 versions of popular handguns I’d considered.

I also hoped that by the time I had practiced enough for a handgun in a “real” caliber and was ready to sell off the PPQ, those qualities might also get me a little more trade-in value for it, to boot.

I was a bit like a kid on Christmas day when I bought my pistol from a local FFL. I spent that evening taking it apart and putting it back together, going over every detail of the gun and feeling good about the Walther. I loved the mirror polish on the feed ramp. I loved the crisp trigger and comfortable grip. What a great little gun! I couldn’t wait to see what it could do on the range.

The next day, I headed out to the gun range where I’d taken my class, my PPQ and a box of CCI Mini-Mags in tow. I went early, and had the range to myself, which was good. I was still a bit nervous and wanted to be alone in case I stunk up the range again with my lousy shooting.

I put my target out to about five yards, loaded the pistol and took aim. Pop! I hit just a little to the right, but not too bad. Adjusted my aim a bit and squeezed again. Pop! Dead center in the bullseye. Woo-hoo! Several more shots, all pretty good. Maybe I wasn’t completely hopeless after all. Let’s load another magazine and find out. And another mag. And another. And…hey, did I really fire all 100 rounds already? Aw man, that was fun!

And so it went for a time. A couple of times a week, I’d bring my .22 to the range and practice, practice, practice. The PPQ proved to be an excellent tool for learning. The light recoil and report made it easier to focus on the fundamentals, as well as slowly unlearning some bad habits like my tendency to flinch reflexively.

About the only thing I couldn’t count on the PPQ to help me with were malfunction drills, as the excellent little pistol simply refused to hang up or fail to feed in any way even after hundreds of rounds. It was going to make a nice pistol for someone after I traded it. After each trip, I looked forward to cleaning the pistol almost as much as I enjoyed shooting it (I love the smell of Ballistol in morning. It smells of victory! And a little like licorice).

Now, if this were a Hollywood movie, this would be the part where I tell everyone how I soon became an expert marksman in all manner of firearms, hitting gongs at 80 yards with Terminator-like efficiency and a grandfatherly chuckle. All while telling you “life is good.”

The truth is, though, the learning curve was still there, and maybe it remained a bit steeper for me than for most. I began renting firearms at the range, mostly in 9mm, with a few in .380s mixed in. Some days I improved, some days I thought I would never become a decent shooter. I would go back and forth between trying something in centerfire and going back to my .22 after a crappy day with a 9mm or .380.

Still, I found myself enjoying each range trip no matter how I did. Every trip was an opportunity. Rentals gave me the chance to learn about a new firearm and how it worked. A good round of shooting was cause for celebration (there’s nothing quite like the feeling the first time you shoot a ragged hole group at seven yards), a mistake was a lesson in what to do right next time (there’s a lot of learnin’ in a little slide bite). And slowly, my skills did improve.

I was changing as a shooter, and not just in terms of accuracy. I didn’t really notice it at first, but things that used to take conscious thought became instinctive. I remember how awkward that GLOCK 23 felt in my hands that first day at the range, how I fumbled to get the right grip. Now I tended to adjust to the “sweet spot” on a pistol without event thinking about it, with the gun resting in my palm almost as if it were an extension of my own hand.

I found myself changing in other ways, too. I began looking at all things firearm-related in a new light. Not just the big issues, like gun control, but even small, everyday things. I remember watching a Youtube video a few years back – I think it was a Nutnfancy clip – where the host talked about a particularly inexpensive firearm being a good “truck gun.” At the time, I wondered what the hell a truck gun was, and considered the idea kind of dumb.

About two months ago, I ran across a similar video and immediately thought, “Well yeah, you don’t want to keep a really expensive firearm in your car or your tackle box where it’s gonna get all beat up or maybe stolen. Jeez!” I paused a moment later, thinking just how much my thinking had changed. There were no two ways about it: I had become a Person of the Gun.

I still have the PPQ .22 (Sell that sweet little shooter? What’re you, nuts? Besides, I ah, have three holsters for it already…). I’ve since added a 9mm and a .38 Special to my collection and applied for my C&R license. I shoot regularly at my range, and continue to enjoy renting firearms of all types and calibers…even that mean ol’ .40 S&W.

I’m never going to be the next Jerry Miculek, but that’s okay. I’ve become part of something pretty special, something that is both a hobby and a way of life. I hope to bring others into the fold as I continue on my journey, if not as an instructor, then perhaps as an example to others who might be reluctant or doubtful of their own abilities.

It’s a cliché, but if I can do it, anyone can. You just have to give it a try, and if need be, try again. And again.

21 COMMENTS

  1. My wife started with a S&W .22 pistol, and after a few months worked up to a 9mm. She still can’t handle larger calibers, but at 5’3″ and 105 pounds, that’s understandable. She doesn’t practice as much as I’d like her too, however. That’s on me; I need to bolster her enthusiasm.

    • I told my fiancé I’d rather she hit the bad guy with 12 out of 16 .22LR, than miss him with a 9mm/.357/.44.

      It’s still way way way better than a stick.

  2. One of the worst parts of being new is finding a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Deciphering the truth from all the bs (and there is a lot of bs).

    Doing more reading and listening will take you far. So will patients. You do NOT have to spend a ton of money (although you could). There is no best anything. What there is there are varying degrees of what is better for you, your needs, your wallet, your desires, and what is available.

    If you buy a gun and then later decide you don’t like it then you can sell it. Your not locked into anything.

    Then there is talking to family, friends, or other house hold members. Safety is paramount. Enjoy your stuff but do it safely and responsibly. Learn the laws where you are. Learn the US Constitution.

  3. Your article relates to me so well back when I started shooting 12 years ago. I was a somewhat natural good shot with rifles for me pistols were always a struggle. The flinch, oh the Flinch!! Practice and practice in practice and keep challenging yourself.

    Don’t ever sell your 22 either! I shoot my buckmark more than any other gun I own. Cheap to shoot and fun!

  4. Welcome to the club. I was fortunate to dive into the gun world prior to COVID 19. The wife and I had discussed getting a handgun for a few years. I’m not quite as young now and wanted to be able to protect us.

    Before I bought anything I researched all the laws, requirements, type of guns, ammo and all the other stuff you need as well. Then I went out and bought a semi-auto rifle and a 9MM. First thing I did was strip them down and learn the workings of each firearm. Cleaned and oiled, practiced loading the magazines.

    Then we went out with some other family members who had experience and went target shooting at a large abandoned quarry. I understand the nervousness from the first outing. All went well. After several trips target shooting, more firearm purchases, more cleaning supplies, scopes, red dots, ammo, a safe, more ammo, more firearms I became more confident and a better shooter.

    Now I hit the indoor range on a regular basis and still do outdoor shooting. The muscle memory is there now and I actually like the larger caliber pistols as they are more of a challenge to master. What started out as a form of protection has now become a hobby and a collection. I wish I had done it years ago, but it is never too late.

  5. Geez your “instructor” handed you a glock 23?!? Jagoff…I had no instuctor. Hadn’t shot in mebbe 45 years and that was 22’s. I wached a bunch of YouTube 10 years ago too. Bought a 38 snubbie which sucked. Got a 9mm which I loved. I’m some kind of “expert” to our new gun owner friends. My advice? Never vote Dim. Or RINO. Keep yer powder dry.

    • All good advice.

      I knew a guy that had a good collection and let me shoot several of his handguns when I was figuring to buy one, and the experience of firing a Glock 23 scratched that gun *and* the .40 S&W cartridge off my list. And that was after I had already been into shooting for a while (just not pistols).

      A compact .40 is a terrible gun to start a total newbie on. It’s a lucky thing that this particular rookie was able to separate the bad experience of an unfriendly gun/cartridge combo from the inherently awesome experience that shooting can be.

    • Agree, he should have handed him the 19, which is the most natural shooting gun I ever picked up. Til I bought the 19x.

  6. Most of the new shooters I’ve taught were handed a single shot .22 bolt action rifle.
    Once I’ve seen they’re closing both eyes and yanking the death toggle properly I graduate them to .44Mag revolver 4inch barrel shooting 300gr bullets loaded to 1300fps.
    They soon realize why closing both eyes and yanking the death toggle was an important part of the training.

  7. Thanks all, for the many kind words and advice. This article is actually from 2017, my submission to a contest TTAG was running. I had that first, frustrating shooting class right before Thanksgiving 2016, IIRC.

    I’ve learned much since then, but I still consider myself a rookie in many respects. I’ve only just gotten into rifles, and have yet to get my first shotgun. The PPQ .22 is still in my collection, and still one of my favorite pistols. Especially these days, when it’s the only one I can afford to shoot. 🙂

    I’ve also become a fan of the .40 S&W too, at least in my PX4 fullsize. I don’t know what magic Beretta worked with the PX4, but it really tames the snap out of the .40. (180 gr Speer Gold Dots are my preferred load). Never did take a shine to that G23, though.

    • Though I have a personal fondness for the G23, that was one of the worst possible guns the guy could have given a beginner, and he should have known better. But the G23 isn’t as bad as some make it out to be once you are at a comfortable level with handguns in general. The PX4 is a soft shooter in general though, the rotating barrel action probably helps.

    • If you had bought a Walther P22 California instead of the PPQ you could have practiced clearing failure to feeds, failure to ejects, etc. (joke) I’ve enjoyed tinkering with my P22 so it is now 100% reliable as long as I stick with the recommended ammo.

      I do think there is something special about ergonomics of some of the Walthers. That unusual grip and a great trigger together really makes it easier to shoot fast with good accuracy.

  8. G23 is a horrible choice for a first time shooter. Great way to induce a flinch.

    Should have started with a .22 and worked up to 9mm.

  9. Parts of the Truth About Guns is ugly. In learning to shoot the ugly truth is that shooting accurately and consistently is simple, but hard. I’m not sure where I first saw that, I think it may have been made famous by Lt Col Cooper. It’s simple, align the sights on the target and pull the trigger. But it’s hard to keep the sights aligned while you pull the trigger and react to the recoil kick and the noise.

  10. Nice column.

    I never start new students with anything other than a .22 auto (a Ruger Mk II or a S&W). One woman came to class with her husband and he insisted that she shoot his .40S&W. She wad shaken after 3 shots. He insisted that she finish the mag—I said no. She came again by herself, she shot a .22, loved it, did well, and bought her own .22. Success!

    Oh, the only person who has a chance of being Jerry Miculek is his daughter, Lena. 😉

    • I am pretty certain even Jerry Miculek stands little chance of being Jerry Miculek.
      Watching some of his exploits caused me to stop making fun of some of the exploits in “Unintended Consequences”, thinking specifically of the 14-year-old shooting skeet with a .375 H&H Magnum.

  11. Many years ago when I first picked up a handgun (an old Charter Arms .38) I thought it would be like on TV, just point and shoot and hit what you’re aiming at. Many thousands of rounds later and over 20 handguns at this point, I’m pretty decent. But the best advice I ever got was “equal height, equal light,” and I found if you can manage that, you can usually get in the right area.
    Like when I was a kid and missed a turkey with the ol single shot, next time my dad was, “look straight down the barrel.” It was simple, but I nailed that turkey and as the great country singer John Anderson one told me, “There’s redemption in turkey huntin’.” I am on a helluva run without missing one in the field. Two already this year, have to say I’ve put on a clinic for the gobblers in 2021. Never called ’em in any better.

  12. You guys are so lucky to have easy access to Jeff Gonzales as an instructor in Austin. I just took a class of his at Sig in NH and he is fantastic.

  13. If you did so well with the Walther PPQ 22lr it is very similar to the 9mm version, I would have opted for that gun even if cost a few more dollars. A 22lr for training, and a PPQ 9mm for self defense, recreation etc. Just get plenty of ammo and extra mags.

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