Fifty rounds later: mastering handgun safety

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Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols leads Josette Billian of Wilton through a series of drills during a basic handgun training course at Wilton Fish and Game Association on Saturday, Oct. 20. (Dee Menear/Franklin Journal)

WILTON — On a recent Saturday morning fourteen people, each carrying a handgun, arrived at the Wilton Fish and Game Association.

A few people in the group were apprehensive of the weapon they carried and some were well-rehearsed in how to handle a firearm. Most, like Carol Lehto of North Anson, fell in between the two extremes.

“This is a new handgun for me,” said Lehto, “I wanted to have a safe environment to become familiar with it and practice shooting it.”

Carol Lehto has the target sighted during a pistol safety course at Wilton Fish and Game Association. (Dee Menear/Franklin Journal)

The environment Lehto referred to was a basic handgun training course offered by the association and taught by Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr.

“The number one reason we do this course is to make people feel more comfortable with their weapon. With Maine being a concealed-carry state, there are a lot of folks carrying and there are a lot of unsafe acts,” said Nichols.

In order to participate in the course, students were required to bring an unloaded handgun in a holster.

Most students arrived with 9MM or .45 caliber semi-automatic pistols. Some had revolvers, which Nichols said were easiest to learn how to use.

A few, like myself, carried a 380 – a compact semi-automatic handgun that falls on the lower end of what Nichols’ recommends for ease of use and self-defense. By the end of the course, those with a 380 knew why it was not a pistol preferred by the sheriff.

Students were also required to bring 50 rounds of ammunition to practice with on the firing range.

It took me two trips to the store to procure the necessary rounds. Unfamiliar with the handgun or ammunition needed, I balked at the variety offered on my first trip.

Steve Bracy fires at a target during a pistol safety course at Wilton Fish and Game Association. (Dee Menear/Franklin Journal)

“I don’t know what I am doing but I need to buy 50 rounds for a 380,” I admitted to the salesman.

“Maybe if you don’t know what you are doing, you shouldn’t be purchasing ammo,” he told me.

Indignant, I left assuming a male shopping for ammunition would have been treated differently. After replaying the interaction with co-workers, I realized perhaps the statement was more of a reaction to today’s world than my gender.

I sought the advice of people more familiar with ammunition and returned to the store confident in asking for exactly what I needed for the course: 380 training rounds.

Nichols opened the class by saying, “We’ve had hundreds of students come through here. I’ve had people come in here shaking and holding a box with their pistol still inside and I’ve had people who were completely comfortable with a firearm. By the time this course is over, you will know how to safely operate your firearm.”

Nichols moved the class through a series of repetitive drills with our firearms empty – establishing a grip on our firearms with our fingers outside the trigger, come to the ready 0r drawing our weapons, presenting them and taking aim at a make-believe target, and then dropping the magazine and showing an empty weapon.

“The point is to make the weapon system a part of your body and build muscle memory,” he said.

Nichols recommended practicing the drills regularly, including dry firing. If ever presented with a situation where a weapon was needed, the regular practice would ensure familiarity with the weapon.

“Practice is valuable training in getting you used to your firearm,” said Nichols.

After more than two hours of getting to know our unloaded pistols, the class was ready to move to the firing range. Admittedly, I was nervous about firing the gun in front of others.

“The last thing we want to do is intimidate anyone or make them feel uncomfortable. We want you to succeed,” said Nichols.

We lined up in front of our targets, loaded our magazines and moved through the same drills we worked through all morning.

Finger outside the trigger. Establish a grip. Come to ready. Present. Only now, we fired our weapons.

The first few pulls of the trigger were nerve-racking. By the time I figured out how much pressure to use on the trigger of my 380, the inevitable happened. My gun jammed.

As is typical with a 380, weak magazine springs caused the jam. Those of us with this type of pistol spent more time unjamming our guns than we did firing them.

“You may find the weapon you brought today is not the weapon for you,” Nichols told me. “You want a good serviceable firearm that will shoot every time.”

He was right. By the end of the course, I was comfortable and confident in handling, firing and even unjamming my weapon. But the 380 is not the weapon I want to have to rely on if I ever need to.

The course is offered once a month throughout the winter at the Wilton Fish and Game Association. The number of students allowed per course is limited and sessions fill up fast. The next available course will be held on Feb. 23. Pre-registration and pre-payment of a $20 fee are required. To register call 778-3690 or email Borthwick@myfairpoint.net

dmenear@thefranklinjournal.com

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