Take a Newbie Shooting. Part 2
By Barry B. Snell
Once you arrive at the range, get all your gear unpacked, and you’re on the firing line and almost ready to go, it’s a good idea to stop and take a moment to go over the safety rules again. Your newbie is going to be nervous, and if any time has passed since your initial session, trust me, they’re going to need a refresher. If there are others at the range shooting, it’d be wise to step back to an area where you can have a conversation without hearing protection, and where your newbie isn’t distracted by the noise and the uncertainty running through their minds.
While making this pause to review the rules of gun safety, it’s smart to go over some basic emergency procedures too. Write down the address of the range you’re at so they can call 911 and get first responders to you, should something bad happen. Show them where your first aid kit is (you do have a first aid kit in your range gear, right?). Give them a plan of action just in case. If you expect them to make the call to 911 if you’re injured, tell them that. If they need to go to the front of the property and unlock the gate to let the ambulance in, tell them that. Tell them anything they’ll need to do in case of an emergency, because after the fact is not the time to figure it out.
And just as important before loading the first gun, ask them if they have questions and stress that at any time they can stop what they’re doing and ask more questions as well. There’s going to be lots of things running through their minds, so give them the chance to ask in case they’re too shy or nervous to speak up on their own.
Now it’s time to shoot!
Aside from safety, the most important thing about a person’s first time shooting is to make sure they have fun. If they don’t have fun, they won’t want to shoot again. So your job is to set your newbie up for success. Fortunately, there’s a lot of ways to do that, and all of them combined will keep your new shooter in the hobby.
First, make sure you’ve got eye protection and ear protection. In fact, it might be good if you have ear plugs and ear muffs. Muzzleblast can be scary, or at least be disturbing enough to cause a lot of flinch if someone isn’t used to it. Doubling up on the ear pro is a good way to mitigate the negative effects. Also, make sure they’re putting the ear plugs in properly; you might have to show them how to get them down in the ear canal where they belong.
Proper clothing is another consideration too. A baseball hat and a high-necked shirt will help prevent brass burns. While the hot brass dance can be amusing to watch, we want their first range experience to be pain free.
As for the guns themselves, start a new shooter off on something relatively small, lightweight, and low recoiling. .22 LR pistols and rifles are perfect for this job. Whatever you do, don’t try to introduce someone to our hobby with a 12 gauge or a .300 Win Mag. That may be how grandpa taught you and you turned out just fine, but have some courtesy and don’t set your newbie up for failure.
A full sized 9mm handgun or an AR-15 chambered in .223 Rem are adequate substitutes if no .22s are available, but have some common sense too: If your pupil is super jumpy and nervous an AR isn’t going to be the right call, so wait until you can borrow a little .22 from a friend.
If you have multiple guns in easy shooting calibers, bring a variety for your newbie to try out. Ergonomics isn’t the main consideration here, but everybody’s hands are different. If a new shooter has small or large hands for example, the grip size, grip angle, and so forth, will all make a big difference for them. Furthermore, some guns are just easier to shoot than others. Triggers are different, sights will come on target more naturally for some, and the ease of operation can vary widely. People don’t need to be gun experts to instinctively understand what seems to work best for them, so if you have different gun options, take them.
Optics or irons? That’s an old question. Either way will obviously work, but if the goal is to set your newbie up for success, then I think a red dot edges out scopes and irons, if you have the option. Red dots are intuitive, require only a few seconds of explanation, and your new shooter will be hitting the target in no time with ease.
Yes, learning to shoot with iron sights is important if you want to achieve any fair level of skill. But if a red dot optic is available, use it so they’re hitting targets fast. You can come back to the irons once your newbie has gotten safe, comfortable, and reasonably competent in basic firearms operation. Remember: The main goal here is to get your pupil to succeed and have a good time so they want to go shooting again, not turn them into the next Annie Oakley.
Use large, colorful targets. Leave the photo targets of Osama bin Laden or some bad guy with a knife at home. The “shoot-n-see” type targets are nice since the holes show up easily. Reactive targets can be a winner too, as movement and sound is always fun. As for distance to the target, keep the targets pretty close, even if you’re shooting a rifle. For handguns, just a few yards out is fine; rifle targets you might want to move out to 10 or 15 yards so they don’t get chewed up by muzzleblast. Don’t shoot steel this close though, but the plastic targets will be fine.
With all these considerations made, just let your newbie load up and shoot while making sure they’re being safe. Don’t worry about making too many corrections right now, and save the critiques for major things like fixing goofy stances, getting a secure grip so the gun isn’t flopping around, and stuff like that. Continued discussion about sight alignment and trigger manipulation will probably be necessary from time to time, but honestly, if they’re anywhere on the target consider just standing back and letting them have fun. As I’ve said before, there’ll be time enough for helping them become sharpshooters later. Remember: Focus on fun!
There’s nothing like a good day of shooting, but for a newbie, fatigue can be an issue. This isn’t a question of physical exhaustion, but of mental fatigue. A person’s first time shooting will give them a lot of sensory input that they might not be able to sort out at first. Their mind will be racing trying to remember the dozen things they’re supposed to do all at the same time. The loud noise and the recoil will be distractions. And all of this on top of the trepidation and fear of being unsafe they no doubt had going into it.
With this in mind, you probably don’t want to let this first range session go more than 30 minutes or an hour, tops, unless your newbie is just having a ball and is full of excitement to keep going. Use some good judgement here, but keep an eye on targets and safety. When a new shooter starts to fatigue, the shooting will get sloppier, and they’ll probably be more apt to commit safety violations. If that happens, wrap it up right away.
Once the shooting session is over, talk about the experience with them as you pack up. Be open to questions; encourage their curiosity and interest. Ask them some questions too. Ask their general impressions. Ask what the best part was, and the worst. Ask if they can identify any strengths or weaknesses, even this early on. Even a new shooter is smart enough to know, for example, if the sights were bouncing wildly. So talk to them about that, ask what they think they were doing wrong and what they think they could improve to change it. Stuff like that. You don’t want them to be passive spectators to their own experiences, so get them engaged.
At the close of every first time shooter’s inaugural shoot, I always scoop up some of their brass and hand it to them. People like souvenirs, and it’s something that will hopefully remind them of a good time when they see it sitting on their desk or table at home. I have several friends and former students who still have the brass I gave them from their first time. I know it sounds silly, but it’s a simple thing you can do to add just a little extra goodness to the experience.