When former President Bill Clinton left the White House prior to the inauguration of incoming President George W. Bush, the staff played a joke by removing the letter W from all the keyboards in the building. Being the second George Bush to serve as President, Mr. Bush was often just referred to as “W”. I considered the removal of the letter “W” as I picked up 7 empty magazines from the table and walked away with only a glance at the white steel target still standing.
You might ask what is there to hate about the letter W? It’s a fair question. After all the letter W is responsible for some pretty awesome words. Without W there would be no whipped cream, wages, warmth, women, or Wawa. On an unrelated note, I just noticed that “women” without the w is “omen”. Interesting. Life would kind of stink without W. So why the hate? Before I get to that answer we need to rewind to the beginning of a new adventure.
I had registered for the PSA Shootout at the Palmyra Sportsman’s Association in Palmyra, PA. I would be shooting with my friend Ed and new found friend Matt. Both are far more experienced pistol shooters than I but Ed had proposed the idea some time ago and I had jumped in with both feet. I had spent the past few weeks since signing up, getting out to the range whenever I could to burn some powder. Given the state of current ammunition supplies and prices this had been no small investment. Fortunately, I had plenty of range ammo on the shelf from pre-pandemic/civil unrest days to see me through and spent plenty of time at least making sure I could hit a target if I took my time. (That’s a big IF . . stay tuned.)
If you clicked on the flyer above, the format of the PSA Shootout is fairly self-explanatory. If you didn’t, the gist of it is, there are six stages with 25-30 reactive steel targets on each. Essentially, you shoot each piece of steel which falls in some way, shape, or form. Some pieces are big and easy to hit (or make you feel really foolish when you miss) while others are much smaller requiring more precision. A video is easier and I’d love to embed one here but WordPress says that costs $180.00 to do that these days. Since I spent all my money on ammunition how about a link instead? This video does a great job of showing how the event works. Despite the video publisher’s note that it’s his first time at the event, he looks like a pretty good shooter.
Ed picked me up early, and we made our way to Matt’s house before going on to Palmyra. At one point, Matt commented about the shocks being bad in Ed’s car but I suspect the suspension may have been struggling under the weight of a couple thousand rounds of ammunition in addition to various and sundry other gear needed for the day.
At the club, we checked in and got a goodie bag with a hat, shirt, and some miscellaneous gun cleaning products. We had signed up to shoot two rounds. We would shoot “stock auto” in the morning and then “open auto” in the afternoon. Stock auto basically means the shooter is using a semi-automatic pistol that is strictly the way it came from the manufacturer with no after-market parts, or extra sights. The open division allows for the same type of guns but basically all bets are off. You can use after-market parts to make the trigger smoother and more accurate, add-ons to the grips, red dot sights or other non-factory accoutrements. Shooters that regularly compete at these type of events will build what is referred to as a “race gun” that they personalize to try to get their best speed and accuracy. (Note the bolded “and”.)
After check in, I spent some time loading magazines while Ed and Matt relaxed. The experienced duo had done their initial magazine loads at home. (Actually I think Ed made his kid do it.) I knelt on the ground by the car and loaded up. Lesson #1 learned.
Around 8:45, the event organizer gathered us up for a welcome message, rules explanation, and safety briefing. The competition rules were fairly straightforward and I’d already gotten the lowdown on range officer instructions from Ed and Matt but listened intently just the same. It’s always good to pay attention when firearm safety is being discussed. The rules were fairly simple. The shooter could take as many magazines to the line as they wanted but each magazine was limited to ten rounds. At each stage there would be a magazine loading table where participants could refill when finished shooting. No guns were permitted at the magazine loading table. Period. There were also gun handling tables where one could work on their firearm if need be. No live ammunition was permitted at the gun handling table.
Our squad consisted of eight or ten shooters and we would begin on stage five. This was quite fortuitous for me and the other new shooter on the squad because it was, by far, the easiest stage on the course. It made for a great place to warm up and to get the nerves calmed down. My name was fairly far down in the shooting order so at no time during the day would I have to lead off on any stage and I could watch and see how more experienced shooters did things.
We had two range officers/scorers who would stay with our squad throughout each stage. They asked if we had any new shooters and two of us threw our hands up. They made sure neither of us were at the top of the shooting order.
I got to watch most of the squad shoot ahead of me including Ed and Matt both of whom made things look very easy. Finally, my turn arose. I was calmer than I thought I would be. This was partially due to the fairly easy presentation and size of targets on this stage but there were still a few butterflies flitting about in my belly. The range officer was very helpful. Knowing I was new, he took the time to explain how things worked and provided some helpful tips on setting up my magazines on the table for quick access and ease of insertion into the gun. The commands were simple. Prior to shooting, the range officer would say “Shooter may load and make ready”. This is where you actually put a magazine in the gun, chamber a round and may take the time to get a bit of a sight picture on the targets (finger off the trigger). When ready, you put the muzzle of the gun on the table. The next command “Shooter ready?” to which you nod or respond verbally. At that point the officer has a little timer gizmo he holds up next to your head. Remember you are wearing hearing protection and there is a lot of range noise. The timer is activated with a BEEP. You might think your time starts there but it really doesn’t until you take the first shot. The timing device is smart enough to “listen” for that shot. As Matt explained, if the beep goes off and you aren’t comfortable or something is wrong with your gun, you take your time and fix it. The time doesn’t start until you take the first shot. Then it’s game on! In case I forgot to mention it or it was missed in the flyer linked earlier, scoring is accomplished by tracking who shoots the targets the fastest. Your cumulative score is kept throughout each stage.
Once the shooter begins shooting, they continue to do so until all the targets are knocked down, they are out of ammo, or 90 seconds has ticked by. A total gun failure also ends the stage. When finished shooting, the range officer asks the shooter to “show clear” which means dropping the magazine from the gun, ejecting whatever round might be in the chamber and showing the officer an open gun with an empty chamber. (Again, assuming the use of a semi-automatic pistol. One may also use a revolver but would show an open, empty cylinder.) Then the officer will say “Close the slide and drop the hammer”. At this point the shooter releases the slide and decocks the gun by pulling the trigger. “Case the firearm”. The shooter places the firearm in whatever case or holster they are using to transport the gun between stages. The range officer then shows the score keeper the time on the timer which gets recorded on you scoresheet for the stage. Simple enough? This all goes a lot quicker than it sounds especially with the fast shooters.
With the range officer’s helpful tips and instruction done, there was nothing to do but “make ready” and start shooting. For the morning round, I had chosen my Glock 17. The 17 is an iconic firearm and the gun that made Glock a household name. It is a full-sized duty handgun used by hundreds of thousands of police officers around the world. The 17 is on it’s fifth generation and makes an excellent all-around pistol. I loaded up my first magazine, racked the slide, got a sight picture on the first target, took a deep breath, and placed the muzzle on the table. “Shooter ready?” I nodded. BEEP!
I raised the gun, got a sight picture on the fist target, and yanked the trigger. My practice and training had gone out the window but still there was a loud CLANG as the jacketed bullet struck steel and the target slid down the post. I hit it! Internally I was jubilant but there was more work to do. BANG! CLANG! BANG! CLANG! BANG! CLANG!
Okay, if I’m being honest here I believe it went something more like BANG! CLANG! BANG! BANG! CLANG! BANG! CLANG! BANG! BANG! (expletive) BANG! CLANG! It was also not all that fast which was fine. But, as mentioned, it was a fairly easy stage and I ultimately managed to knock all the targets down in reasonable time and even had full magazines left over.
As I walked back toward the magazine loading table to prepare for the next stage, Ed approached and said “Nice job. How was it?”. FUN! Indeed shooting at and hitting reactive steel targets is pretty darned fun. It made the hours of shooting paper well worthwhile. We still had five more stages to go before lunchtime and then we would do it all again. I was looking forward to the rest of the day.
Stage six upped the difficulty only slightly. There was a row of what I’ll describe as giant ice cream cones that looked ludicrously easy to hit, but once through those, there were two racks of tall, skinny targets with a larger sweet spot in the center. These would require a bit more focus to hit and knockdown. The right-most ice cream cone had been troublesome and required a couple hits to fall. It was within the range officer’s authority to call these dead meaning the shooter didn’t have to shoot it again. When I approached the table he said “That one should fall better now. Just hit it high”. I laughed knowing that, frankly, I was just hoping to hit it at all let alone in a specific part of its anatomy.
After building a bit of confidence on stage 5, this stage went better than I expected, and with less nerves, and was even more fun. I discovered the skinny targets weren’t as hard to hit as they looked assuming I took my time and made a good, accurate shot. (A skill that would rapidly decrease as we made our way through the stages for “stock”.) Once again, I finished with magazines to spare.
Before we move on to stage one . . . the dreaded W, it is worth discussing how the targets get reset between shooters. Once the shooter’s firearm is cased, the range officer gives the “All clear” command and the members of the squad not shooting or not imminently about to shoot go down and reset them. It takes only a few moments. After the last shooter has shot for the stage, we bust out the Kilz and give each target a quick coat of white paint for the next squad.
The move from stage six to stage one was either a bit of a walk or an ATV ride. Ed and I elected to walk but we did let the ATV carry our ammunition-laden range bags for us. Ed looked at me and said “I think the next one is the fabulous W”. Except he didn’t use the word “fabulous”. Indeed, as we made our way up the hill and across the grounds we saw the ATV pull up in front of the infamous W. I’d heard about the W multiple times from Ed and already didn’t have a good feeling. It turned out the not-so-good feeling was accurate. I totally let the W get into my head.
The photo may not do this stage justice and it really isn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be but of the six stages it was definitely the hardest. The round targets were probably around 9″ and the smaller squares probably about 6″. From the shooter’s perspective, the outermost targets required some fairly precise shooting.
I watched as the shooters before me were unphased and mowed down all the targets. One after another they completed their round. Suddenly it was my turn.
Each stage requires a bit of strategy in deciding what order to shoot the targets. After watching others, I decided for the W to just work my way left to right which meant shooting one of the most distant and hardest targets first. “Shooter ready?” Not really but I nodded anyway. BEEP!
I don’t remember the exact sequence of events but I managed to knock down the first 2-3 targets with several shots and then got to one of the small squares on the left arm of the W. I shot at it repeatedly yet it stood untouched, mocking me from afar. I reloaded and shot at it again. It was impervious. I had no idea where I was hitting or what I was doing. I finally moved on and began shooting and occasionally hitting other targets but I had lost all form and any semblance of good shooting technique. I also became conscious of shooting just about as fast as I could pull the trigger. Empty magazines fell from my gun at a faster rate than steel targets fell. I had come to the table with seven magazines or 70 rounds of ammunition. As I loaded the last magazine, I knew I had to shoot well at the remaining handful of targets to knock them down. I didn’t. As the last round was sent harmlessly into the hillside beyond still upright steel, I looked at the range officer and said “Oh well. That’s it”.
Honestly, I didn’t really feel all that bad about my shooting. This was definitely a learning experience and I had no expectation of my performance. In fact, I had fully expected to walk away from most stages out of ammo or out of time with steel still standing. The fact that there was one or two targets left on the hardest stage of the course didn’t really phase me all that much. I’d come to shoot and shoot I did. In fact, just on that stage I got to spend more time shooting then some of the fastest shooters did the whole round! I like getting my money’s worth. Still, I’m glad we didn’t start on the W. If we had I may have asked Ed for the keys and sat quietly in the car the rest of the day waiting to go home.
I got advice from Ed and Matt the best of which was SLOW DOWN. I had shot the two prior stages rather methodically but the W had shattered my mindset. I spent the last three stages of the stock auto trying to regroup. I slowed myself down and did much better on stages two and three, but had a bit of a meltdown on what should have been an easy stage four. After shooting well on stage three and thinking stage four look fairly easy I had asked Ed to grab some video. As you can tell, I wound up shooting way too fast again. Please be kind and don’t add too many ROFL emojis in the comments.
Stage four was our end stage for the “stock” round of our day. We went back to the car to drop stuff off and resupply our range bags. My plan was to switch to a different gun for “open auto” in the afternoon. I had decided to shoot my Glock 48 which sports a Holosun red dot sight. I’ve found I shoot it much better than the open iron sights of my other pistols. The main difference is that the Glock 48 is a little shorter than the the Glock 17 and is also a single stack magazine meaning the gun is slimmer and has about half of the loaded capacity of the Glock 17. The Glock 48 is designed to have a capacity of 10 rounds to be in accordance with a lot of states that have magazine restrictions. I have found it to be a great firearm for daily carry and a fun and accurate gun to shoot at the range.
Knowing I was planning on shooting the 48, I removed all the magazines for the 17 and loaded up my single stack magazines. Many Glock magazines are interchangeable between models but a fat, double stack magazine will not fit in a slim, single stack grip. A theory I would put to the test later on.
Once we had our range bags ready to go for the afternoon round, we made our way down to the pavilion for some lunch. I was pretty hungry and a bowl of chili hit the spot. When we were finishing up our last shooting stages, the sun had come out, and it had gotten warm. As we ate, I suddenly noticed an unpredicted rain had started. Between the downpour and my less than stellar shooting on the last stage, I began wishing I had only signed up for the morning and had driven myself. But I was here and had no way home aside from a very long walk so decided I might as well persevere. I also worried that I only had 6 magazines for my Glock 48. Granted, despite carrying more than that to the table in the morning, I’d only run out on the W. Before we even began the round, I conceded that if I don’t get all the targets at the W it’s no big deal. Let the games begin.
Our afternoon squad was much larger than our morning squad and was made up of different folks. The squads can be mixed with members shooting whatever division they signed up for. Some, like us, were shooting “open auto”, others one of the revolver classes, and still others shooting the PCC (pistol caliber carbine) division which looked especially fun. A pistol caliber carbine is a short rifle that shoots a pistol caliber (like 9mm). These guns had no magazine restriction for the event and were wielded by some pretty good shooters. It was fun watching them knock targets down just as fast as they could pull the trigger.
Once again I found myself toward the end of the shooting order which was perfectly fine with me. I wasn’t really interested in leading off on any stage. I occupied the early part of the wait by heading down range to reset targets. Otherwise I hung out under whatever shelter was available to keep out of the drizzle.
For the afternoon, our squad started on stage four. It was the one we finished the morning on where the wheels came off any sort of accuracy for me at the end. But I was feeling better about the open division. I have found if I put the red dot on my 48 on a target and make a good shot, I generally hit it. Nonetheless I went into my first turn with a bit of trepidation envisioning not hitting a single target. Bang! Clang! I was pleasantly surprised at the magic of the red dot. Unlike stock where I never felt completely comfortable with my aim, my confidence in my 48 and Holosun grew quickly. Put the dot on white steel and press the trigger. Bang! Clang! Down it goes. The couple times I missed I caught myself jerking the trigger a bit. I don’t know if the trigger on the 48 is not as good as my Glock 17 or if it is because the slim grip makes it feel different but I have a bad habit of occasionally getting impatient and jerking the trigger back which makes me shoot very low.
The middle of stage four was especially fun. It was three rows of targets all one behind the other. It was merely a matter of getting in the center and continuing to make good shots and you could knock down a lot of targets in a hurry. The more experienced shooters would shoot the big middle target first then move to one of the other rows while it fell. I wasn’t shooting fast enough to worry about it and enjoyed making a little music as the progressively smaller targets all had a different clang to them.
This is going to get boring and repetitive if we go back through all six stages. (It may already be boring and repetitive and you may have returned to YouTube to watch cat videos by now.) For the sake of brevity, we’ll buzz through the highlights of my afternoon shooting “Open Auto” here. We may even include some lowlights.
Aside from shooting much, much, much better with the red dot, there was a funny moment on stage six when I realized at the beginning of my round just how slowly the giant ice cream cones fall. I think I was so preoccupied with trying to just hit things in stock that I didn’t realize how slow they moved. I shot the first big cone and saw the round strike it dead center through the Holosun. CLANG! My brain didn’t process that it was beginning to fall so I shot it again. It definitely fell after that. Once I realized that, I did a better job of listening for the clang. It was extra fun when you realized you could get two targets falling at the same time but that is the sort of behavior that leads to one shooting a bit too fast for one’s britches.
Of course, after stage six came the dreaded W. I suggested to Ed that I might just forfeit and save the ammo. He said “Just take your time and shoot one target at a time. Just shoot targets”. Very sound advice. Matt had provided some good advice over lunch as well when he said “Don’t get stuck on a target. If you don’t hit it, move on and come back later”. This seemed especially wise to me. But then I watched him fling several rounds at the same stubborn square that had stumped me in the morning and had a bit of a laugh.
For the “open” round, I had a new strategy. Instead of starting with the farthest target, I decided to start with the big circle at the base of the W closest to me then work my way to the end. That way I could start out with a confidence booster and work from there. The strategy was a winner. Additionally, I didn’t shoot at the same target twice. If I missed a distant one, I moved on and possibly shot an easier one to get my confidence back before returning to knock down the straggler. I had about 75% of the W targets knocked down and the slide on my 48 locked open indicating time for a reload. I ejected the empty, and grabbed a new magazine from the table and stuffed it into . . . why won’t it go in? I wiggled it, twisted, to heck with it! I set it aside and grabbed a different magazine and it slipped right in. Happily I went on to finish off the remaining targets in the W and still had rounds left in the gun. I was overjoyed! I picked up my magazines including the stubborn one and made my way to the magazine loading table. Ed joined me and asked what was up with the magazine. I replied that I didn’t know and began examining it. It didn’t take long. There on the side, in silver sharpie was the number 17. Somehow I’d left one loaded magazine from the morning in my bag and had inadvertently grabbed it. Amazingly, I had approached the W with my smallest magazine count of the day and won! I put the erroneous magazine in a separate pocket in my bag so I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Sometime during the afternoon the rain stopped. With the W behind us we enjoyed the last three stages, loaded up in Ed’s car and headed home. The suspension didn’t bottom out on the way home. I know I brought home a lot less ammo than I took but I had a whole year to stock back up and get a bit more practice with those open sights. Or maybe buy a pistol caliber carbine. For sure I’ll be back in Palmyra next year.