Green Beret Responds to Report: ‘Half of Today’s Army Recruits Have Never Held A Gun’

Authors Clay Martin Columns Military This Week

Army drill sergeants stand over recruits during a live-fire marksmanship training course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in August. (Photo: AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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.

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  • Peter Hibbard September 25, 2016, 1:20 pm

    This is the problem faced by Union Generals at the start of the Civil War. As a result, they formed the NRA as a means of training people in the safe use of firearms. The CMP was formed to put guns in the hands of trained citizens. It would appear that we have learned little from history, so we are doomed to repeat it. The military may have to increase the amount of time spent on firearms training. As a nation, we will have to decide if we want a civilian military, or a professional military, with the risk of a coup. We we see the day when recruits refuse to touch an evil gun? The direction society is moving would suggest that this is a possibility. Both progressives and conservatives are trying to paint a picture in black & white, while reality is in full color. Until we start to talk about reasonable solutions, we face a future based on a simple perceived solution to a very complex problem. Neither extreme has all the answers and it is past time reasonable people found a middle ground. For example, do we need universal background checks? The FBI told Congress (Nov 2011) that the NICS database was so incomplete that as many as 85% of those prohibited from owning guns were not on the list. Courts are not mandated to report convictions to the NICS database, fir either felons or mentally ill. This should be mandatory. Let’s all agree that if felons should not have guns, dealers should know who they are. To me, this is common sense. Bans on certain guns based on cosmetics are not. This is a starting point that will make a difference. So why is this not even on the radar?

  • J.M. Clark September 24, 2016, 11:03 pm

    The same statistics are true of federal law enforcement trainees. Trainees are no longer career minded LEOs moving into the federal arena, but new college grad hires in pursuit of a career, with no law enforcement or firearms experience and no sense of mission. The cost of basic firearms training has tripled as has the wash-out rate. Results – lowered criterion.
    They are easy to spot, placed on a civilian range, they can’t adapt to local rules or procedural differences. How they were taught is the only way they function, Sucks in a fluid firefight.

    That is all,
    Out here.

  • Philip Salley September 24, 2016, 12:42 pm

    In my view a major unintended consequence of the all volunteer military that replaced the universal military training act is that a major portion of the male population now enters adulthood without any real parenting. With the UMT every able bodied male at least experienced some basic training (including some real parenting) that included basic firearm safety and qualification. In my 28 year military career there were a few “old soldiers” that repeatedly experienced great difficulty with periodic re-qualification, so yes there is a some natural talent involved. However, I believe shooting skill evolves in most part through attitude and desire though physical limitations are certainly at play. I received a Stevens Favorite for my 9th birthday, and a Marlin 39A at my 12th. My first shot was fired from a single shot 16 gauge sometime before the Stevens Favorite, which felled a nice fat fox squirrel. I have coached youngsters that initially were actually terrified of a firearm to the point it required gentle coaching to get them to a point of actually pulling a trigger dry fire or live fire. Once over that hurdle when it sank in that the shooter is in control not the firearm things usually progressed well. In scouting, I never experience a parent that objected to exposing their scout to basic firearm training, for the most part they were encouraging. That may simply be a factor unique to Scouting parents as opposed to a universal population. As to female shooter, put a loaded gun in my wife’s hand and she will drill holes in any target center, flip the steel, etc. She is not trained for any other aspect of firearm handling up to and including racking the pistol slide, and professes no desire to do so, though she is a good RO at local matches. Go figure. Thus based on this one example the ladies can darned well shoot. The German Army found that out in spades during the battle of Stalingrad.

  • Sarge September 24, 2016, 2:18 am

    I was raised on a farm. I started shooting, with my dads help holding the gun, at age 5. I began hunting, first just going with my dad and later with my own gun at 6. I got my first 22 rifle as a Christmas present at 8, the next year I got a shotgun. I had my first hand gun at 14. My first full auto weapon, an MP 40, at 16 from a WW2 vet friend that had brought it back. Back in the early 50s no one knew that full autos were supposed to be registered. By the time the 1968 amnesty came to be (At that time I was in Special Forces) I owned 7 or 8 full autos – which I promptly registered.
    I have taught firearms marksmanship and safety since I was in college. Back in those days a lot of the guys either owned or had access to firearms because they lived on the farm.
    Modern day America is predominately a nation of city dwellers who have never had anything to do with firearms and have had no way to learn because their parents also never had any exposure to firearms – except what they saw in the movies, which teaches a lot of Bad things about firearms handling/use!!!
    Hopefully we will be rid of a lot of the Anti-gun AH types in washington with the election in November. IF not our country is in a world of hurt!!!

  • stellerseaeagle September 23, 2016, 10:30 pm

    Almost none of the recruits in the British Army have ever held a gun, yet it is considered by many to be the best army in the world. Their recruitment standards are very high and their marksmanship training is second to none.

  • Phil Viavattine September 23, 2016, 9:25 pm

    I was 17 when I enlisted in the USMC and had never had a firearm in my hand let alone shoot one. Our Drill Instructors did not teach us how to shoot our Primary Marksmanship Instructor did most of the teaching and we had other Marines that were coaches for us on the line. I fired expert with the M-14 and later after Vietnam I was a rifle and pistol coach at the Basic School in Quantico. I had never qualified with the 1911A1 .45 and had to go to the range to see if I could qualify. I fired Sharpshooter without instructions or practice. I just applied all that I learned from my rifle Qualifications to my pistol qualifications. I later had two careers in Law Enforcement of which one was as a Firearms instructor. If they had no experience with a firearm they are easier to teach because that have not learned any bad habits. If the US Army is truly concerned about this then they should start looking at their marksmanship program and who is teaching these recruits. A Drill Sgt. Is for teaching drill and discipline not marksmanship. Keep in mind boot camp has one real purpose and that is to prepare you for a Military life it does not teach you what your job will be in the Army, Navy, AF or Marine Corps. Who ever came up with this must really been despite for an article.

    • stellerseaeagle September 24, 2016, 9:27 am


  • Steve G September 23, 2016, 4:05 pm

    Another good one Clay. Keep up the good work.

  • loupgarous September 23, 2016, 2:06 pm

    If the Associated Press writer really was surprised enough that drill instructors are finding more and more recruits have never handled or fired a firearm, he ought to have followed the train of thinking. The National Rifle Association is the only Congressionally-chartered organization created to make sure America has trained marksmen in the event of a war. As a former assistant Scoutmaster, I was always happy that we had NRA members among the other Scouters in our troops who were able and willing to help train our Scouts in responsible, safe marksmanship. My son (who was KIA in Iraq) was among the men who went to Basic Training having had that foundation in gun safety and handling.

    But we were swimming against the national tide. Our all-knowing mass media pushes politicians on us who want to destroy our right to keep and bear arms, and toward that end have spared no effort to demonize the NRA and legal, safe gun owners, while our President has made it a project to pardon as many felons found guilty of violating the existing gun control law forbidding them to possess a firearm.

    C.S. Lewis saw the end of the Democratic Party’s agenda, because it was no different than the Labour Party’s agenda in Great Britain:
    “You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
    Our mass media are busy indoctrinating our youth not to be who, when the drums of war are clearly audible, they say we’ll need. Only now are journalists discovering our “gun culture” is precisely what allows them to speak out against our “gun culture.”

    • Aardvark September 23, 2016, 7:11 pm

      Very well said sir! I thank your son and your family for their great sacrifice in service of our country. I pray that we can help turn around our fellow citizens misguided views, and restore America to what it was intended to be.

  • ATheoK September 23, 2016, 2:04 pm

    From the AP article:
    “Staff Sgt. Harry Lichtenberger, overseeing safety at the “live fire” range, said those new to guns often become the Army’s best shooters.”

    Staff Sgt. Lichtenberger did not say many, most, or all! He used a term that basically, it is not uncommon for a noob to learn how to shoot well.
    Only the AP wrote up to make it sound like that is the source of the Army’s best shooters.

    We all know that is not true.

    I confess that one day while I was at a public range, an National Guard instructor showed up with three recruits who he began instructing on shooting the M16.
    They were shooting individually, single action, with frequent stares down a spotting scope.
    I could see though my rifle scope that the targets (2 very large bulls) were untouched.
    I couldn’t resist. Just before my cousin and I switched to shooting revolvers, I twisted my .270 ever so slightly and put a hole just outside of the x ring in one of the targets.

    From their actions I figured out that their spotting scope wasn’t good enough, or focused well enough, to resolve the hole in the target.
    It wasn’t until all four went down while the range was cold, that they spotted the bullet hole.
    All three trainees started to squabble about which one of them succeeded in hitting the target, once.

    Meanwhile, the instructor was no fool. He was standing there giving the rest of us the hairy eyeball, as he knew damn well that the hole wasn’t a .223. After awhile, he gave up trying to ferret us bad people out, though he did look amused in a gruff sort of way.

    The three trainees kept the solo perforated target and shortly thereafter left with the instructor. None of them apparently learned to shoot during their couple of hours at the range.
    Frankly, it didn’t appear that the instructor was very good at teaching newbies.

  • loupgarous September 23, 2016, 1:47 pm

    Grew up in a house with a gun rack, complete with guns. Knew where they were, when to use them, when not.
    What strikes me as a deadly irony is that the Associated Press spends so much time carrying water for gun control advocates, yet finds it newsworthy that in an America whose mass media marginalize and deride those civilians who use guns for sporting purposes, how few Americans have picked up a gun or fired one. They don’t even have the good grace to admit they helped this happen.

  • BRASS September 23, 2016, 1:17 pm

    One of Americas great strengths in WWI and previous wars were the number of hunters who had developed marksmanship skills and basic firearms handling and shooting skills as part of hunting to feed their families. Even in northern states with large cities there were large numbers of hunters, often with some field craft to go along with their gun skills.
    Today we have two generations of young men and women whose life experience doesn’t extend far beyond school, video games, cell phones and social media. The outdoors is a mystery to them, they have few if any survival sense and have no mechanical aptitude.
    Kids who spend most of their teenage years in their bedroom have little to offer our nation. This is why we have the problems on todays college campuses with fear of exposure to dissenting views and language, demands for safe spaces and the other nonsense that goes with them.
    Sports participation, group activities like scouting programs, hunting, fishing and camping type activities at least provide exposure to physical activity, a little rough and tumble activity to condition, skills and senses outside of electronic devices, self dependence, discipline and the confidence that comes from participating while surviving a few bumps and bruises.
    We’re becoming a nation of cupcakes. USMC legend General Lewis B “Chesty” Puller wisely said: “Our Country won’t go on forever, if we stay soft as we are now. There won’t be any AMERICA because some foreign soldier will invade us and take our women and breed a hardier race!”
    It seems America has reached that point. A few minutes spent watching Russian military training videos gives an idea of the difference between what our potential adversaries are doing to prepare and what America is doing, — outside of Marines and special forces. Russian SPETZNAZ forces filmed training by an American film crew taken with permission to Russia by American former special forces tier one operator Larry Vickers shows them actually shooting each other at close range and having to not only survive but win in close quarters — hand to hand — battle after that. They are wearing a vest but any shot let alone by the full power weapons they were using – HURTS LIKE HELL – at almost arms reach distances and would be enough to take most of the fight before they could react to the immediate assault that takes place.
    Would USA trainers ever be allowed or even want to do that? Hell No! Watching what Chinese, South Korean, Thai and others do also highlights some very serious training they know is needed not only to survive but to prevail against the brutality and nothing is out of bounds tactics of our Islamic jihadist enemy. America needs to toughen up and American parents need to get their kids out of the bedrooms, away from the TV and electronic devices and into the world.

  • :Larry Richardson September 23, 2016, 11:32 am

    I saw this beginning 38 years ago. I was a battaliion commander in Germany. When giving the welcome and initial indoctrination for new recruits, I discovered a new attitude. There was still a Soviet Union and it was the threat to Western Europe. As I gave the part about emergency evacuation of non combatants thru France, to the English Channel, several of the soldiers told me they would be among the non combatants. They continued on to say that they only joined the Army for the GI Bill and were told by the recruiter that they would never have to fire a weapon! I watched as the Army degraded, much was due to Congress. When I headed up Special Forces R&D, during an era when we knew Saddam Hussein intended to invate Kuwait, Congress cancelled the funding for our language training in Arabic and Afghani languages. That’s when I decided that this was not the Army I joined, and I had spent nine years in Special Forces as both an NCO and officer. Thanks for the article.

    • Norman Lutter September 23, 2016, 1:02 pm

      Thank you for your service. I went through basic and AIT at Ft. Jackson in `64-`65 as an Army Reservist. I am concerned that “as you stated” there are too many folks joining the service ranks to get their education paid for (or partially). I am into my 70’s so do not follow a lot of this but it used to be that the “bad actors in our society” were given the opportunity to serve in the military rather that serving time through the judicial system. Don’t know if that is still being practiced, but always felt that was not the kind of guy I wanted protecting my back should I have ever been activated. Side note: The mid `60’s army training was harsh but made men out of kid’s.
      Again thank you for your service.

  • Travis September 23, 2016, 10:16 am

    I wonder if Admiral Yamamoto would have invaded the US in today? Is the US still the sleeping giant? I have to wonder.

  • Frank Mancuso September 23, 2016, 9:53 am

    In 1966 I never shot a gun either, went to the range, shot M14, received SAEMR Ribbon, perfect score, and today at 69 years young I have been competing in rifle for many years at 200 to 600 yards, win 60%

  • Wayne Cook September 23, 2016, 9:15 am

    Agreeing with the author, some middle and high schools have begun gun safety and marksmanship progams sponsored by parents and local vendors. Having surived life under two communist dictators, I wholeheartedly back his statements. A nation without marksmanship is a people awaiting a holdup.

  • Mr. Sparkles September 23, 2016, 8:11 am

    I suspect the reason the original article quoted that particular drill sergeant is that it supported it’s agenda, not that it was particularly profound. I also suspect that the reason for the statement was that the drill sergeant was supporting his country and its armed services and was making the point that sometimes, even in something like basic use of a firearm, breaking bad habits is necessary before instilling good ones. I assure you that the number of “marksman” in the military is not overrun with those that did not touch a gun prior to enlistment. The true marksman were those young men and women who grew up in an environment that exposed them to the proficient and safe use of firearms.

  • Kevin Etter September 23, 2016, 8:09 am

    I couldn’t agree more! I hear instructors say all the time….”my best shooters are usually new shooters who I can train the way I want.” Uh, I’ve never had a noob out shoot me in ANY class I’ve attended. And BTW, these guys who say “my wife who’s never shot usually outshoots me….are they just being kind or do they really suck that bad? My wife does pretty well but please!

    • Alan September 23, 2016, 10:11 am

      Wow! So sexism still exists in the shooting ranks, eh?
      Are you at ALL familiar with the many Ladies of the Shooting sports out there?
      Bet dollars to donuts there are quite a few ladies out there that could outshoot you any day of the week.
      In any Shooting Discipline you care to name.
      I know, I’ve trained a few of them.

      • Tommy Barrios September 23, 2016, 12:17 pm

        That maybe true in very rare instances, but I know that there very few women or men who can outshoot me, because I have proved it over and over during my 65 years of existence!
        Some people like musicians have natural ability and I have trained women and men who have that natural ability and where drilling the center of targets at any range within 100 yards on the first day!
        I have also been scared to death by nervous Nellies who freaked out on the firing line!
        Women for the most part unless they have been acclimated to shooting, generally don’t take to shooting very well because of the noise and recoil at first and have to be gently coached along!
        I have taken noobs, both men and women, and turned them into practical shooters, it can be done with the right amount of patience and proper instruction!
        Precision shooting though, like a talented musician, is something totally different and requires natural ability along with hours of practice!

  • Steve 75th September 23, 2016, 7:35 am

    I find it ironic that an SF guy complains about making combatants from raw recruits!

  • Trent DeRoc September 23, 2016, 4:35 am

    I always enjoy Clay Martin’s articles, not just for the relevant information content and the approachable casual style, but also because I too am familiar with the difficulty of finding things in “Barrel-chested freedom fighter” size. Being a 5’5″ man with a 5′ 10″ man’s torso isn’t very common.

  • Winston September 23, 2016, 4:09 am

    Too bad the CSA sharpshooters didn’t pick off thousands more of the invader northern terrorists.

    • jimbo September 23, 2016, 8:55 am

      If at first you don’t secede …

  • DRAINO September 22, 2016, 10:25 am

    IF ONLY more Americans would remember our history….study our history…..they would realize WHY and HOW our country was founded. And maybe….just maybe they would realize the need for EVERYONE to have these skills and how important it is to our future as a country. Shooting skills teach more than just how to shoot a rifle. Those who have learned them know what I speak of….I won’t preach to the choir. But OUR country DOES need to get back to basics…..breathing, trigger control, and focus on the front sight……speaking somewhat metaphorically. Great article!

  • Nicks87 September 20, 2016, 12:12 pm

    “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 felt the same thing. It seems to me that the national media outlets are trying to condition people into believing this nonsense. Great response Clay and thank you for your service.

    • clay martin September 21, 2016, 1:20 pm

      Thanks brother. It was a privilege.

    • Irideapalehorse September 23, 2016, 8:25 am

      I agree 100% anyone with a modicum of sense can see this is a thinly veiled attempt to put down gun ownership as Neanderthal. I take comfort in the fact the reverse is true, gun ownership and especially female ownership is up. As a former LEO and soldier prior experience and basic weapon handling is very helpful. What I do find is people who haven’t used a weapon previously begin to see them in a different light. They start to enjoy shooting as a sport.

  • Becky September 20, 2016, 10:20 am

    Great writing Clay! The Bane quote and the real purpose of the NRA as seen by its founders…good stuff.

    • clay martin September 20, 2016, 11:07 am

      Thanks Becky.

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