Thursday, August 9, 2007

August Event - Night Shoot

This is the first of what will hopefully be a long series of Utah Polite Society event reports.

This month's event was a little different than our usual monthly shoot. Rather than getting together Saturday morning and shooting in daylight, we started our event Saturday evening and gave people a chance to practice at night.

While the event wasn’t schedule to start until 8pm, some of us met out there at 12:30 to get things set up. This event had some of the most elaborate “scenery” for the scenarios that we’ve ever had, in part because we had a lot more time available to set up (see the scenario descriptions below for exactly what we spent all afternoon setting up).

The Polite Society ran a night shoot a couple of years ago, more than forty people showed up (in contrast, our monthly shoots only get about a dozen people at most, unless we’re holding a new shooter class). That was evidently pretty unmanageable, so this time we decided to limit the shoot to 25 people in order to keep things at a more reasonable level. When the e-mail announcing the shoot went out, people could reserve slots by RSVPing, and the list filled up pretty quick. Some of those who reserved slots had to drop out, or just plain didn’t show up, so there were some extra spots available on a first-come first-serve basis. We ended up with a group of around 20 people.

In order to keep track of where everybody was in the dark, we passed out glow in the dark necklaces and wristbands (generally attached to hats or earmuffs rather than wrists).

Flashlight Techniques Demonstration
While it was still somewhat light out, everyone lined up for some demonstration of flashlight techniques. We went through the Harries, Rogers (sometimes called the Surefire technique), FBI, and neck index techniques. After explaining and demonstrating each one, everyone had a chance to pull out their weapon and try it in dry practice. We also talked a little about flashlight techniques with long guns (unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to do any carbine or shotgun stuff during the shoot). This gave everybody some idea of what they should be doing (some of them hadn’t ever shot with a flashlight before).

Muzzle Flash Testing
As it was now well and truly dark, some of us walked over to the other range to test the muzzle flash on our carry and practice ammo. We had 8 or 10 people interested in doing this, so we got to see a fair number of different rounds. Each person announced the type of round before they shot it, so the rest of us could compare the flashes of different ammo. Carry ammo generally had much less muzzle flash than the practice stuff people would be shooting tonight. The variation in muzzle flash between the different carry rounds was pretty broad too. Even within the same brand, the flash varied a lot between the type of round, caliber and bullet weight. I was surprised that barrel length didn’t seem to have much impact (we got to see the same ammo fired through a Glock 27 and a G22, and I couldn’t really tell any difference). The carry ammo with the biggest flash was .40 Cor-Bon JHPs. I think the smallest flash was probably my .45 Cor-Bon DPX, but since firing it gives a different perspective from observing, it’s a little difficult for me to be definitive.

Flashlight Technique Practice
The Polite Society runs two different types of stages during our shoots: skills drills and scenarios. Skills drills are choreographed events that are intended to focus on a specific skill. Scenarios are much more open-ended, “here’s the situation, solve the problem” type exercises. Tonight we had two of each. The first skills drill was intended to get people used to using the flashlight technique. This is more of a square range type drill than we usually run, with four people shooting simultaneously. Each participant started off using the Harries technique to neutralize their left-hand target, then stepped behind a barricade and used it to neutralize their right-hand target. After each bout of shooting, the went up to examine their targets to see how they did. Then they repeated the cycle using the Rogers, FBI, and neck index techniques and did it once more with the technique of their choice. Finally, they taped everything up for the next person.
Unfortunately, I didn’t actually get a chance to try this drill because I was too busy during the muzzle flash testing and getting the stage I was going to run ready. I kind of felt the lack of it when I was shooting later (particularly doing the other skills drill) because my flashlight techniques were pretty rusty.

What’s My Number?
The second skills drill is one we’ve done before during daylight called, “What’s My Number?” This drill has five targets, numbered one through five, in a sort of rough pentagon formation. The participant walks a triangular path between three markers. There’s a barrel in the middle of the triangle for cover. The RO calls out a couple of numbers, and the shooter has to draw and neutralize those targets. We let the shooter have their flashlight out while walking (both so they didn’t have to quick draw both the flashlight and the gun and so they could see where the markers were).
Since I’ve done this drill both in daylight and at night, this allows a good comparison between the two. Shooting while managing a flashlight in the other hand is pretty difficult. My group sizes were a lot bigger at night than they are during the day (in fact, I’m pretty sure a fair number of my shots didn’t even hit targets at 3-7 yard ranges in this drill). I’m a big advocate of one-handed shooting practice, but when I shoot with one hand, my other hand is usually hanging at my side or stuck in my pocket or something. When using a flashlight, you not only have to manage the gun one-handed, you also have to divide your attention between the flashlight and the gun. To compensate for this, I ended up shooting considerably more than usual (and even in daylight I’m not exactly conservative when it comes to ammo expenditure ammo). I neutralized four of the five targets in this drill, but some of them were pretty ugly (a bunch of peripheral hits, rather than good COM shots).

You Light Up My Life
I was the RO on this scenario, and I think it’s probably one of the most challenging ones we’ve done. The backstory is that you were driving along a country road, had a flat tire and stop to change it. Just as you finish tightening the last lugnut, a car pulls up behind you with the headlights on and a voice demands your keys, wallet, etc. We used a mockup car made out of PVC and cloth, to represent your car (which is the only available piece of cover/concealment). The shooter started out crouched down on the left-front side of the car (where the tire would be if this were a real car). Downrange, we had a pair of floodlights mounted on a 2x4, simulating the headlights of the BGs car. This is what made the scenario so tricky. The lights provide a really strong backlighting. Any targets in front of the lights were clearly visible, but without a flashlight it was almost impossible to see if the target had a threat indicator on it, particularly if it had a dark t-shirt (all our targets in scenarios wear t-shirts and hats so the shooter can’t see their hits or the scoring zones). We randomize the target locations and the threat indicators (in this scenario we had 2-3 threat indicators on four targets, so there was always at least one no-shoot). Among other things, this was a good test of whether the participants flashlights were good enough, since you needed a pretty bright light to see the target in the face of all this backlighting, especially at the longer ranges. People with Surefires and similar high-quality lights did pretty well, shooters with brand-x stuff didn’t.
Since I ROed this scenario for most of the night, I got to see a lot of people run through it, and some things really stood out. Almost everyone ran around the front of the car as soon as the scenario began, usually waiting to draw until they had cover (since cover was close, and drawing wasn’t really useful until they had the flashlight out, this is probably the best choice).

There were a lot of failures to neutralize targets. A lot of peripheral hits rather than good center of mass ones. Some people, including people I know to be fairly good shooters, even managed to fire 2-4 shots at targets within 5 yards without hitting the target at all. Accuracy was definitely reduced by the strong backlighting and the need to manage a flashlight. In particular, some people were consistently pulling to one side or the other (usually left), probably because using the Harries or Rogers method was affecting their grip.

Most people exposed themselves from cover for fairly long periods of time, much longer than they probably would using daylight. Trying to manage a flashlight while shooting affects speed as well as accuracy. This is even worse, because they were usually using the flashlight while leaning out, and a flashlight is going to be a bullet magnet in this situation. I ended up yelling, “BANG! BANG! BANG!” whenever someone was leaning out from cover using the flashlight to try to make the point that they were attracting incoming rounds doing that.

One guy dropped his flashlight while reloading and spend a long time looking for it. During this time he was quite distracted and would have been very vulnerable if he were facing a live adversary rather than static targets.

One big problem quite a few people seemed to have was getting too high when using the car for cover. When explaining the scenario to them, I generally mentioned that in real life it would probably be a bad idea to try to shoot through the windshield at a BG behind the car, both because hollowpoints sometimes break up when going through laminated glass and because glass can significantly deflect the trajectory of bullet. However, that doesn’t make the windshield bulletproof, and exposing yourself above the hood makes you vulnerable to incoming fire. Part of this may be the relatively sharp and uncomfortable gravel of the range encouraged people to crouch rather than kneel, but in RL, when the bullets are flying, you definitely want to get down as low as possible behind a relatively short piece of cover/concealment like a car.

Since I’d seen about fifteen people run the scenario before Harold Green came over and spelled me as RO so I could run the scenarios, I had a pretty big advantage going in. I ended up running the scenario a little differently than most of the previous people. Among other things, I scrambled around the front of the car on hands and knees, which was faster than getting up and running. I tried to stay very low when I was in cover (a particular challenge since I’m 6’5”. I also looked underneath the car to try to see where the target stands were set up before I popped out from cover (in RL, I might try for some ankle shots, but I didn’t want to shoot up our target stands). The biggest difference was probably how I used my flashlight. This scenario is a classic situation where a flashlight is need for target identification rather than illumination. All the targets were clearly visible in the glare of the headlights, you just couldn’t see enough detail to decide whether they were a threat or not. Rather than spending a lot of time leaning out with my light on, I rolled out from behind cover with the light to establish which targets were threats, then rolled out again to shoot them. This did mean popping out twice from the same place, but it significantly reduced my total exposure time. I think it also increased my accuracy, because I wasn’t trying to aim both the flashlight and the gun at the same time. In one case, I actually put the flashlight down after doing target ID so I could shoot two-handed (big boost in accuracy). Part of the reason I was able to do this is that I was mostly point shooting (the night sights probably helped too). I can certainly imagine that regular sights would pretty much disappear against a heavily backlit target like that unless (and perhaps even if) you illuminated it with a good flashlight). I used my Surefire 6P with the Cree LED module, and it was more than up to the task of illuminating the target, even with the strong backlighting.

Most people seemed fairly impressed by the mockup car (gratifying considering how much work I put into it). It did get shot up a bit in a couple of places, which I expected. It’s going to take a little bit of patching before the next time we use it. Surprisingly the headlights didn’t get shot up at all. Before people ran the scenario I explained that shooting the headlights might be useful a real fight, but to try not to do it intentionally since we only had a limited supply of replacements. I was definitely expecting them to get shot by accident though. It was actually the cord, rather than the headlights themselves, that got shot up. We were up and running after a couple of minutes and some work with a leatherman and electrical tape though.

Up in the Night
Our second scenario was another that we’d run in daylight before. The shooter starts out in bed with their gun and ammo on the nightstand. They wake up to find intruders in their home and have to retrieve their gun and engage the intruders. If anything, the scenery for this scenario was even more impressive than the car. In addition to a wooden platform for the bed and a stool for the nightstand, we built a wall about 10 feet high and 23 feet long with a door in the middle of it. The wall was just cardboard stapled over wood framing, but it was still pretty impressive (the other two walls of the room were represented by the orange plastic netting they use at some construction sites.

Since I only came over to this scenario at the very end, I didn’t get to see very many people run it. Robin Hood was the RO and did a good job setting up a variety of situations within the bounds of the scenario, varying how many targets there were in the room with you and how many were outside. Some of the targets had no threat indicators, indicating they were family members. In one case, all of the targets were family members, and when they shooter got to the other room he found his ‘kids’ apologizing for breaking the lamp. He managed not to shoot them, and got to run it again with threats. In one case, Robin Hood started the scenario off by tipping a target onto the shooter on the bed.

Usually the start signal for the scenario was either a lound noise (the RO yelling out, “BOOM, CRASH!”) or the BGs talking to each other. When I ran it, however, the starting signal was just, “You wake up and a chill runs up your spine.” I looked around and there were no targets in the bedroom area of the stage. I got up retrieved my gun, light, and ammo and yelled out, “If anybody’s out there, I’ve got a gun!” The RO responded with some dialog between the BGs, so I got up next to the door and flung it open. It was set up with a target stand leaning against the door, so it fell inward to the ground when I flung it open. I shot one of the BGs on the other side of the door. The RO said that the BG on the ground was still moving so I put a couple of rounds into him too (catching some backsplatter off the gravel). Then I worked the door and shot the other two threats on the other side of the door (avoiding shooting the non-threat target, though I did ask him what the hell he was doing there since I live alone).

While I didn’t get to observe this stage anywhere near as much as the other, the one mistake I did notice was that a lot of people failed to retrieve their extra magazines from the nightstand (I did this, though I managed to remember and go back and get them before I opened the door). This brings up an interesting question, what would you do with your extra mags if you were awakened by a home invasion in the middle of the night. I pocketed mine, since I figured I wouldn’t be wearing my mag carriers in the middle of the night, but I don’t usually sleep in anything with pockets either. This may be the best argument for using a rifle for home defense, with a 30 round magazine, there’s a lot less need for a reload.

Lessons Learned
The number one lesson in all of this for me is that shooting at night is hard. It requires good one-handed shooting skills, but it goes beyond that, since you’re trying to coordinate both hands at the same time as you’re shooting. It’s certainly doable, at least if you can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time, but it will degrade your shooting and make things take longer, both of which can get you killed in a gunfight.

As with a lot of things, I’m sure that practice would really help. Unfortunately, finding a place to practice shooting in the dark is difficult. Most outdoor ranges close before it gets dark. The only reason we were able to do this shoot was we got special dispensation from the rangemaster. Considering that he lives in a house just down the hill, and was essentially giving up his good night’s sleep to let us shoot until about 1am, this was a fairly big sacrifice for Bob and I ought to say that we’re really grateful to him for that. The other option is to turn the lights off at an indoor range, which you really can’t do if you’re just renting a lane. If you can find a place that’s willing, it might be possible to rent the entire range and turn the lights off, but finding someplace that’ll let you do that may not be easy. Everyone ought to try shooting in the dark with a light at least once, if only to get some idea of how difficult it is. Practicing it regularly enough to get really good at it is a tall order though.

One thing I thought of that might help develop some of the skills for shooting at night would be to try shooting while holding a laser pointer pointed at the target in the off hand, particularly if you can find a laser pointer with a momentary tail switch (Surefire or someone ought to make something like this as a training aid). This seems like it’d help develop the ability to coordinate a flashlight and gun while shooting without having to find a dark place to shoot. Another option might be to just shoot with your flashlight during daylight, though that doesn’t provide as much feedback about where it’s pointing.

I really regret not being able to shoot the flashlight technique practice drill. Perhaps because I didn’t have any recent practice, I didn’t end up using any of the methods that were demonstrated and practiced. Instead I did most of my shooting in the reverse Harries position (light held in the left hand to the left of the pistol, rather than tucked underneath it to the right). This seemed to work relatively well for me, but if I’d been able to try out some of the other techniques in the drill one of them might have suited me better. In particular, when I was peeking out from behind the car, it might have been better to use the FBI method and hold the light up above the car while I peeked out to the side, rather than holding it near my head.

I’ve heard some debates, both on this board and in other places, about the usefulness of night sights. I’ve got a set of Trijicon night sights on my Glock and the only time I was really conscious of using them were during a pair of headshots that I took. I probably couldn’t have taken the headshots without them. The rest of my shooting was mostly done using “metal on meat” point shooting techniques. I may have also used the night sights as subconscious cues to help be get the gun lined up, but if I did, I didn’t notice them explicitly. My night sights are the three green dot type. I’ve heard some people saying that with three of the same color dot, it would be difficult to figure out which is the front sight, but I didn’t have a problem with that. Some of this may just be due to good muscle memory (I can point my gun with my eyes closed and the sights will be pretty well lined up when I open them). Ambient light conditions probably also helped. Both headshots were taken where there was enough light that I could see the outline of the gun well enough that it would have been difficult to confuse the front and back sights. In pitch black conditions, it might have been more difficult to tell the front sight apart, but unless you’re a cop who regularly searches darkened warehouses, a gunfight in truly pitch black conditions is pretty unlikely.

During some of our shoots, we’ll run a scenario using both live fire and force-on-force using airsoft. This gives shooters a chance to deal with the challenges of live, resisting opponents. Because of the large group, and the amount we were trying to cram in, we didn’t include any force on force stuff, but I think it would have been real instructive, particularly in the flat tire scenario, where a lot of people spent time hunkered down behind the car changing mags, scooting from one side to the other, or looking for a dropped flashlight. With real opponents, rather than paper targets, this would have been a great time to come up and dig them out from behind cover (particularly if there were two opponents who could have come up on both sides of the car). Fortunately, it should be a lot easier to find someplace to do airsoft stuff at night than it is to find someplace to shoot (somebody’s backyard, for instance), so we may be able to have a get-together sometime to try some flashlight force-on-force.

I’ve also got a few observations about the logistics of running a night shoot. For one thing, my surefire was a bit overpowered to use illuminating a score sheet, or other tasks like that. A lower power task light, particularly one that kept my hands free like a headlamp or an LED clipped to a hat, would have been useful. Keeping things organized in the dark was a bit of a challenge, particularly when it came to getting people where they were supposed to be. It would have been better to explain the rotation between the stages beforehand so people were a little better informed about what to do next after they finished shooting a stage. Finally, we usually do a walkthrough of each stage before we start shooting, but for some reason we didn’t do so tonight. That would have saved some time in explaining the scenario to each shooter. It also would have made my explanation more detailed and consistent (I forgot to mention not shooting the headlights and the perils of shooting through window glass to some shooters).

Well, that was our night shoot. It was both a fun experience and really instructive. I’d like to thank the other guys who helped set this up and run things. Aside from a few small bumps everything went smoothly despite having a fairly large group and doing it in the dark. The folks who came and shot with us seemed to really enjoy it.

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