Bang! Bang! Clang! Bang! Clang! (Pete you are losing it. You already wrote that blog post.) But this was different. Sunday morning I sat watching the two gentlemen in front of me attempt to knock down a rack of six steel plates poised about 30 feet or so away. The 8″ plates looked tantalizingly large and, after shooting the PSA Challenge back in April, this would be a snap! At least, that was my thought as I sat and watched. The shooters struggled to knock down the plates. Still, I was sure that I would do better than them. Heck, I may even have one of the better times from my Senior division!
I was at the Keystone State Ballistic Challenge held at the Topton Fish and Game Association in Mertztown, PA. The Keystone State Ballistic Challenge (henceforth referred to as the GSSF shoot) is, in fact, part of the Glock Shooting Sports Foundation (GSSF) event circuit. These events are sponsored and promoted by the Austrian gun manufacturer and have their own set of rules. The most basic of these is, not surprisingly, that one must shoot a Glock pistol to compete. Aside from that, the rules are very friendly and welcoming to all shooters: new, old, competitive, non-competitive . . . me.
This was only my second organized pistol target event. I’ve spent a lifetime shooting trap, skeet, and sporting clays, and and even longer lifetime shooting all manner of archery tournaments. I am pretty competent at closer distances with a handgun but the skill required for most pistol matches always seemed intimidating. Despite what Hollywood presents in the movies, shooting a handgun accurately is really, really hard. The GSSF is an inviting, encouraging format so I decided to break down and throw my hat in the ring. Why not?
When I decided to sign up, the first thing I did was read the entire rule set. There was the matter of figuring which divisions I would shoot and just understanding a) how to not get disqualified for a safety violation b) how the darn thing worked. Happily, GSSF provides one of the easiest-to-understand and most helpful rulesets I’ve ever read for anything. Not only are the divisions, rules, and prizes clearly explained, but the way the shoot is run and what the participant needs to do are explained in crystal clear detail. Between reading the GSSF document and viewing the abundant YouTube videos, I felt pretty prepared when I set out on the long drive to Mertztown. Okay, it really isn’t long. It’s only about a 1/2 hour from my house. Still, it felt like the start of a new adventure.
The GSSF rules and virtually all of the YouTube videos and on-line discussions I’d referenced mentioned Saturday is the most popular day to shoot. Not wanting to be overwhelmed or have long waits, I chose Sunday which turned out to be wise. Apparently they had around 300 participants Saturday. I don’t know what Sunday’s number was but it seemed far less. The weather was to be warm and more humid but no rain. I arrived at the club about 15 minutes prior to registration opening at 9:00, bought a raffle ticket from the local boy scout troop, and chatted it up with others waiting for registration to open.
The GSSF specifies that offering a warm-up shoot is done at the discretion of the host club. Apparently Topton F&G offered this as one of the “Glock M” ranges was “hot” while we waited for registration. I briefly considered a warm-up. “Pshaw! I’m ready!”
Having registered online, the check-in process was simple. I told them I was a new shooter and was given a quick explanation on what I needed to do. I listened attentively because that is always a good idea, but heard nothing that the rules and videos hadn’t explained. I signed a waiver, and got a set of labels that would affix to my scorecards throughout the day. I would be shooting “Civilian Amateur” with my Glock 17 and “Glock MOS” with my Glock 48 and Holosun 507K. The check in was quick and easy. I grabbed my range bag and folding chair and headed out to sign in at the three stages that make up a GSSF match.
Whenever I go to these things or anything new be it a shoot of some sort, a triathlon, or a foot race, I always check out what others do and how they setup. It’s amazing what one can learn from those more experienced. It seems all the cool kids use either a folding wagon or a jogging stroller to load up their stuff and move station to station. The really cool kids have beach umbrellas that attach to their wagons for long waits in the sun. While this was a pretty good idea, happily we did not have especially long waits for this event.
I can’t explain how the shoot worked any better than the GSSF rule book but for the purposes of this story, there are three stages to a match. After check in, you go to each one and put down your name, number from you label (like a runner’s bib number), and the time you are checking in at that stage. You bop around to all three stages and repeat. When you are ready to shoot a stage you go back and put an X next to your name. Then you wait. The X means “I’m here, my magazines are loaded up, and I’m ready to shoot please”.
After perusing the three stages and their layouts, I decided to start my day with the stage called “5 To Glock”. (I know it’s a corny name. I didn’t invent it.) This stage, while probably the hardest since it is a bit longer, was also the one to create the least humiliation for a nervous, new shooter since there wasn’t any steel to hit or reactive targets that required attention. (Nobody watching would know how poorly I did or didn’t do.) Because different facilities have different length ranges available, GSSF provides several options for the host club for setting up “5 to Glock” with distances possibly extending out to 75 feet. To that end, I had practiced shooting that far to make sure I could get my rounds mostly in the scoring area of the targets. The Topton club used one of the alternatives that went out to about 60 feet.
Did you notice I said I’d practiced? Actually, I shoot my pistols quite a bit both with live ammunition at the range and at home using a laser dry fire trainer. No, I’m not a paranoid old right-winger awaiting the zombie apocalypse. I just enjoy shooting my guns and want to shoot them reasonably well. Prior to last spring’s attempt at an organized shoot, I’d read Albert League’s “The Perfect Pistol Shot” to try to learn and build a good foundation for solid pistol shooting. In principle, the techniques described by Mr. League are very effective and, when implemented, shrunk my groups at the range considerably. That is, when I’m at the range, with nobody around, in controlled slow-fire. More later.
Before I get to the actual shooting, one change I made to my weaponry since the PSA Challenge in April was to swap out the Ameriglo night sight on my Glock 17. The sight uses a trijicon capsule to be more visible in low light and uses a neon ring for daylight visibility. The whole shebang is encapsulated in a somewhat blocky metal rectangle. I suppose for a duty gun for a police officer (a younger police officer with younger eyes) these sights are probably fine. For a 56 year old hobbyist, that front sight looked like a blurry square. When shooting a pistol, the most important fundamental after safety is to focus on the front sight. That is really hard to do with the front sight is totally out of focus. So a few weeks ago, I changed out the Ameriglo sights for a fiber optic target sight from Dawson Precision. I can’t say enough about what a dramatic improvement this was.
What time is it? It’s “5 to Glock”. The stage is pretty simple. There are five targets that the shooter shoots two times each. The targets are 30″ cardboard targets and are either the proprietary GSSF targets or a similar NRA target. The shooter shoots three strings (so thirty shots total) before the round is scored. Scoring is simple and time based. The score keeper has a shot timer that times from your first to last shot and then time is added based on where you hit the target. As an example, if it took you 10 seconds to shoot each string, your total shooting time would be 30 seconds and then you go down range with the range officer and score keeper and examine the targets. A center hit adds 0 seconds, the next ring 1 second, then 3 seconds, a miss adds 10 seconds. Even at 60 feet, it’s pretty impossible to miss a 19″x30″ target right?
The shooting procedures, once my turn was up, were pretty straightforward and similar to the PSA Shootout. There is no drawing from a holster at GSSF and no movement. Unlike PSA there isn’t event mid-string reloading. You stand in front of a table with your magazines spread out and listen to the range officer. He or she will tell you when to uncase your gun, when to load, etc. You can get your sight picture, load up, and when you hear the beep, start shooting. Just aim and shoot.
Not to toot my horn as some sort of hero, but you’d think someone who can calmly draw down on a big buck with a bow, or who has faced down a grizzly bear to kill a bull elk, or who has survived the maelstrom that is the Ironman swim wouldn’t be nervous about shooting a few rounds at some cardboard. For whatever reason, the butterflies fluttered away in my stomach and the sight on the front of my Glock 17 seemed to dance all over landing everywhere but between the rear notches. I yanked the trigger sending rounds through virgin parts of cardboard carefully preserving the 0 ring for those that followed. Fundamentals were gone. Albert League would be so disappointed.
When I was done flinging bullets harmlessly at cardboard, we went downrange to tally my score and tape and cover holes. I felt a little sorry for the timekeeper. I think it was probably the most math they had to do all day. Happily the kids taping holes had an easy job.
At each GSSF stage, you can shoot up to four division consecutively. More if those waiting don’t mind. After scoring my first round, it was time to move on to my Glock 48 to shoot the MOS division. (MOS stands for Modular Optic System if you were wondering and it means you have some sort of optical sight on your gun.) I’d like to say my nerves calmed enough for me to do better but my 48 requires much patience on the trigger. I don’t think the trigger is worse than my 17 but the gun is much slimmer and I think one’s finger tends to wrap and drag more when under duress and that menacing-looking cardboard certainly seemed to have me under duress. 30 more rounds went down range, most without causing serious harm to the center of the cardboard.
Oh well. Stage one was done and there were no do-overs so time to move on to “Glock M”. Like “5 to Glock”, the GSSF provides several options for clubs to setup “Glock M”. On this stage, participants face 4 cardboard targets, and one steel target. The cardboard are each shot twice (much like “5 to Glock”) and the competitor must hit the steel plate once. Again, 3 strings are shot. This time, the shooter may load up to 11 rounds and may attempt to hit the steel with any remaining rounds if unsuccessful the first time. (So 3 total shots to hit the steel.) While hitting steel with a jacketed bullet results in a satisfying CLANG, the range officer will still call out hit once the shooter successfully pings the steel so they know it counted. Scoring works the same. The shooters score is their total time for the 3 strings, seconds added based on where their rounds hit the cardboard targets (0 seconds, 1 second, 3 seconds, 10 seconds) and then hit or miss for the steel. If they didn’t hit the steel target at all 10 seconds are added to the time. There is no penalty for hitting the steel on your second or third try.
Before discussing my performance on “Glock M” I want to give kudos to both the GSSF and the folks running the Keystone Ballistic Challenge. Both were extremely helpful, extremely friendly, and really welcoming to a new shooter. There was no time during the day that I didn’t feel welcome. The range officers and time keepers went out of their way to patiently explain anything I needed to know. Some of that information was repetitive from the reading I’d done ahead of time, but I listened intently as they took the time to explain the flow and especially any safety guidelines. Other shooters I talked to were also welcoming and helpful. I would encourage anyone out there that owns or can borrow a Glock pistol to join in and give this format a go.
I can say I did myself proud on Glock M. I was much more relaxed and remembered Albert’s tips for shooting well. I relaxed my grip, focused on the front sight (or red dot in MOS), and patiently pressed the trigger for each shot. Aside from using two shots on the steel on one string, I shot the stage almost perfectly. For six strings, I gained only one second on misses. It felt pretty good to hear the range officer give me a sincere “great shooting” as I packed up my stuff to head on to the last stage.
The last stage for me was “Glock the Plates”. I was truly looking forward to what should be a really fun stage. Knocking down reactive steel targets is incredibly fun and satisfying and the plates looked like a hoot! After “Glock M” my confidence soared. I had expended a couple boxes of ammo just days ago shooting at an 8″ target at “Glock the Plates” distances and had no trouble putting a small group on target with both guns. This should be easy peasy and fun.
After completing “Glock M” I decided to take my time reloading magazines, and chatting with other shooters. I grabbed a snack from my car (about that wagon) and spent a few minutes talking with the on-site Glock Armorer (gun repair guy). What I should have done, was quickly reloaded my magazines and hustled over to “Glock the Plates”.
When I arrived at my last stage, I “X’d” my name in the book, handed my last set of scorecard stickers to the young man squadding people and was directed to the far-right station. (There were three setups for “Glock the Plates” with only two in use at the time.) I setup my chair and sat down to wait. There was an older gentleman with a cane but pretty steady hand shooting and shooting pretty well. Slowly and patiently he knocked the plates down. I think he shot two or three different divisions. It went fairly quickly though because the range officer just had to pull a rope to reset the plates between strings. After he was done, there were two young men whom I’d sort of followed around all day. We chatted while we waited our turns. This was their first GSSF event too. It turns out they were from New Jersey. I thought they should get a time bonus just for the fact that they were brave enough to continue to try to be law abiding gun owners in New Jersey.
They were sort of shooting together. Only one can shoot a time but they were shooting multiple divisions and were alternating so I sat and smugly watched as they almost never were able to knock down all six plates. I was the expert steel knocker-downer, and I had practiced specifically for this stage. I almost felt sorry for them.
Finally, I was up. As with the other stages I would shoot my Glock 17 first. By now, I had become a bit more organized in laying out my magazines and preparing. The range officer told me I could get a sight picture if I wanted. I closed the action and put that beautiful red fiber optic in the middle of the left-most plate. The plate looked like a trash can lid. “You may load and make ready.” Again, you could load 11 rounds at a time. I grabbed a specially marked magazine pre-loaded with 11 rounds, stuffed it in the gun and chambered a round. I set my feet, got my stance, and nodded when asked “Shooter Ready?”. BEEP.
I aimed at the first plate: BANG, CLANG! It fell out of sight. Same with the next two. This is fun and easy! Then the fourth plate didn’t budge. I emptied my magazine at the remaining 3 plates with no effect. I don’t really recall much of the sequence of events that followed but I didn’t get through a single one of the 4 strings of fire and successfully knock down all the plates.
I’d love to include a video here of someone doing “Glock the Plates” correctly but I’m still not willing to fork over $180 to WordPress to make that happen. I love you guys and gals but not enough to spend that much. A link will have to suffice. Click here to see how it should be done.
I have to admit to being very crestfallen and anxious as I switched over to shoot MOS. Ordinarily, I’d have great confidence in making the switch to the red dot sight featured on my Glock 48. At the PSA Shootout it was like magic and in Glock M I watched holes appear in the center of the cardboard where my red dot was hovering. Likewise, there was a satisfying CLANG in the middle of the steel target some 50 feet away each time I centered the dot. So the MOS round should go better.
Until it didn’t. I think the first 3 strings were actually my worst of the day. At one point, I seriously thought about putting my hand over the barrel to see if anything was coming out. I shot and the steel plates stood tall. I had no idea where rounds were going and was totally flustered on each string. I started guessing and doing some sort of Kentucky windage thinking my sight was no longer zeroed.
Finally, my last string arrived. I took a deep breath and stared at the plates for a few minutes. “Come on Pete. You know exactly what you are doing wrong.” And I did. I was rushing the shots, over-gripping the gun, and jerking the trigger. Slow down. Shoot properly.
Shooter ready? “Yes”. BEEP! BANG CLANG, BANG CLANG, BANG CLANG, BANG CLANG, BANG CLANG, BANG CLANG. Six shots. Six knocked down plates. Finally. My performance on the first 3 strings of MOS was abysmal but at least I was ending on a positive note.
Well, that was that. I collected my empty magazines, and shattered bits of my pride, packed up my bag and headed for the car. I was happy to have gotten my act together for that last string, but kicking myself pretty hard that I let the other 7 get away from me. That was supposed to be the really fun part of the day! Not the most frustrating.
On the short drive home, I spent some time in thoughtful retrospective.
- Would I do this shoot again?
- Absolutely! I plan to do it next year if it’s offered. Sadly, there aren’t any other GSSF matches all that close by. The next closest is out in Ohio.
- What could I have done better to prepare?
- More practice? No. I feel my range time was pretty sufficient. Especially at the current price fo ammunition.
- Shoot the damned warm-up! You’d think a guy that learned a long time ago to take advantage of practice and warm-up in any sort of event (shooting or otherwise) would have done so. I’m pretty certain I could have shaken some of the nerves out on the practice range instead of the first stage of the match.
- Maybe a different gun for MOS. This doesn’t solve everything, but at least for MOS my Glock 48 has a bit of a tedious trigger.
- Different/better training YES! Honestly, this is the big one. While the techniques taught in “The Perfect Pistol Shot” definitely work on the range in a relaxed environment, for me they fall apart in competition and probably (heaven forbid) a conflict where I need to use my firearm for more serious matters. Good technique is good technique but Mr. League’s teachings are somewhat contradictory to many other good shooters who preach a much firmer grip than the relaxed hands and loose thumbs specified in “The Perfect Pistol Shot”. I’ve never taken a formal lesson to learn to shoot pistols and, in fairness, never really did for other shooting disciplines either. But, as mentioned, shooting a pistol well is really hard. I’m going to set out almost immediately to better learn from an instructor the best way for me to shoot accurately.
As I thought through the day in my head, I came across a township fire police vehicle blocking the way home and routing me to a detour. As luck would have it, that detour took me right by my home range where I am a member. I couldn’t stop myself from hanging a target and taking a few shots. I had to know. I ran the target out to Glock the Plates distance and proceeded to knock the middle out of it so the problem wasn’t the guns. Go figure.
Note: If you decide you want to try one of these events, you do have to join the GSSF. The annual dues is something like $35 but comes with a bunch of perks including a certificate to buy a new Glock at a severe discount. I haven’t gotten that in the mail yet.