Editor’s note: This column is a response to an Associated Press article entitled, “Half of Today’s Army Recruits Have Never Held a Gun,” which begins with the following paragraph, “As gun ownership drops among young Americans and the Army trains a generation more accustomed to blasting out emojis on cellphones than taking aim at targets, drill sergeants are confronting a new challenge: More than half of raw recruits have never held, let alone fired, a weapon.”
A travesty in the making if you ask me, and a sign of the times for certain. A nation of people unfamiliar with arms is a soft nation, and none of this bodes well for the military charged with protecting our way of life. I hear often, and even referenced in this article, the following lie,“It is easier to train someone that has never shot a weapon before, and they are often our best shooters.” The particular Drill Sergeant quoted by the AP in the article is a former Cavalry Scout, which is a combat arms MOS. I find his opinion shocking, so allow me to retort.
As someone who has trained over a thousand SOF guys and dozens of civilians, I would always rather have someone who has shot before. Preferably a lot. If a noob shows up to a class, I can teach them many things in an afternoon. One thing I cannot teach is familiarity with a weapon to the point where he is completely comfortable in using one. This develops over time, through many hours spent on the range. Now, I can teach the basics of gun safety, but it is always a lot better if someone else has beat that into them. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you cannot teach everything in one sitting. If someone is already safe with a gun, and familiar enough they aren’t scared of the damn thing, we can get on to the part about putting a bullet where they want it, preferably quickly. Also, in my experience, anyone that has started down the path of marksmanship with even a tiny bit of self-awareness will adapt to new techniques or revised fundamentals faster than someone totally new. Someone totally new is generally amazed that gun goes bang when you pull the trigger.
Is there a learning curve when you are changing the way you do something, like pulling the trigger? Yes. But it is not as steep as one might think. When I was learning a new method of trigger control from Len Baxley (Texas Defensive Shooting Academy), I did get slower for a brief period of time while I adapted to the new method. But even in low gear, I was still faster and more accurate than students that had just picked up a gun, by a non-trivial margin. And the same was true of everyone on my instructor crew. If you are self-taught on the gun, you may have some bad habits. But unless you are a complete chucklehead, once a good instructor points out what they are and how to fix them, you will still be ahead of someone starting from scratch. The important point there is good instructor. A goober instructor that doesn’t really understand shooting will prefer the uninitiated, he probably only knows one way. (And so the audience knows, every time I write “uninitiated”, I say it to myself in a Bane voice. “…but we are initiated, aren’t we Bruce? Members of the League of Shadows!”)
How about from a historical perspective? How is that nation of nancy boys (and girls) that don’t already know how to shoot going to hold up? Not worth a damn it turns out. Before the NRA got so deep into the political arena, it is worth noting that it was founded to address the abysmal marksmanship displayed by the Union soldiers in the Civil War. The first elected president of the NRA, Union Army Civil War General Ambrose Burnside, once said, “Out of ten soldiers who are perfect in drill and the manual of arms, only one knows the purpose of the sights on his gun or can hit the broad side of a barn.” The NRA, from day one, was built to provide a well of marksmen, already trained in case an army was needed on the fly. A Union soldier was much more likely than his Confederate brother to have grown up in a city, not shooting. It is a bold statement that Veteran Union officers saw this as such a detriment they founded a national organization to fix it.
How about the Great War, WW II? Let’s not gloss over the fact that the United States was woefully unprepared at the beginning, especially in terms of equipment. Soldiers were often taught aerial gunner with nothing more than broomsticks painted black. Even Mother Corps, with its tradition of riflemen, was teaching an abbreviated basic training with wooden guns. I don’t mean Springfields with a wooden stock either. I mean fake guns, carved out of wood! I don’t know that any troops ever went to combat without having shot a real gun, but I know that firearms training was severely lacking at several points throughout our history. I cannot imagine the horror of approaching my first battle on the Eastern Front or South Pacific, knowing full well I didn’t really know how to shoot.
On the subject of history, how about some of this nation’s greatest heroes? Alvin York got a couple of medals in WW I (including the MOH), you may have heard of him. He grew up hunting and competing in turkey shoots. His prior familiarity with weapons didn’t seem to give him any bad habits — unless you count killing German soldiers a “bad habit.” Carlos Hathcock, a legendary sniper of the Marine Corps in Vietnam. He started hunting at young age to help feed his impoverished family. Hathcock was the National Champion at Camp Perry, and a scourge of the Vietcong in combat. Hathcock’s previous experience with firearms didn’t mar his ability to perform on the battlefield. On the contrary, it made him more lethal.
I grew up shooting, and most of the guys I knew in the military that were good with a gun grew up shooting. I shot the Browning 22 I got for my 11th birthday just last week. Are there exceptions? Of course. There are always a few outliers around. I am sure that on occasion at basic training, a kid that has never picked up a rifle does win the highest score. But I assure you it doesn’t happen every time. Besides, being the best at the U.S. Army basic qualification is like winning at drivers ed. It’s a mickey mouse test, and it doesn’t mean you can shoot any more than you can win the Indy 500. The AP article feels more to me like a statement that we don’t need a nation of riflemen or a tradition of gun ownership. I strongly disagree. We never know what the next threat will be, but it is imperative we are prepared. If half the raw material we are getting now doesn’t know which end a bullet comes out of a gun, we are in deep doo-doo should we need a World War sized army again.
About the author (in his own words): I served in two branches of service, the USMC and the Army. In Mother Corps, I was in the infantry, a Scout/ Sniper, and a Recon Marine. I spent my last year on the all-expenses-paid-cruise-ship USS Nassau, culminating with the invasion of Iraq.
In the Army, I was a Green Beret, with most of my career spent in 3rd Special Forces Group. I was an Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) Communications SGT, Intelligence SGT, and finally Team SGT. I was in a Direct Action unit, and I spent time on both the assault and sniper sides of the house. My last assignment I taught Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat and Low Visibility Operator for 3 years. I retired in 2013.
In addition to blasting peoples’ faces off, I have shot a lot of paper/steel as a competitor. I have shot most of the major 3 Gun matches on the circuit, and currently hold a Master Rating in USPSA production. I don’t shoot IDPA because they don’t make a fishing vest in Barrel Chested Freedom Fighter size. When I’m not writing for GunsAmerica, I teach gunfighting through my company Off The Reservation, and occasionally run my mouth via Facebook.