He got his first permit to carry a pistol when he was a college student in South Dakota in 1993. “I wanted to buy a gun, but there was the waiting period,” he explained. “But the clerk told me that, if I had a carry permit, I didn’t have to wait. So I went to the county sheriff in Brookings and he gave me one on the spot. I think it cost twenty-five dollars. But, I was totally unequipped to be carrying a gun at that time.”
Nielsen began to shoot when he could spare the time and money. “I started shooting fifty or a hundred rounds at a time,” he said, “because that was what I could afford. As I got more income, I could afford to shoot more.” As his interest and income grew, so did his collection of handguns and assault-type rifles. “At one time, I had a couple of dozen firearms—pistols, memorabilia items, AKs and AR-15s. I started doing competitions, and won some. But I’ve sold quite a few of those guns now. I took a course that emphasized tactics and training and I realized, instead of buying every gun under the sun, now I want to know how to use them.” Now, he said, “I’m investing in training and mindset.”
This “mindset” probably distinguishes Nielsen from the typical Bill’s customer. If you go to the range during any open shooting time, you’ll see a different type of shooter. There are the ones who buy a few boxes of ammo, rent a large caliber gun with a high capacity magazine, and buy the targets that picture either Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. Often they fire the gun as fast as they can. The target ends up looking like a sieve, with evenly spaced holes all over it from the hundred or so wild shots. Entropy has a way of evening out the pattern of destruction. It’s not really shooting. It’s more like shooting off fireworks. I was shooting one Saturday afternoon when a bachelor party came in—five guys, one fully automatic AK-47, and several cases of ammo. Osama didn’t stand a chance.
Along side are the target shooters. They use traditional circular bull’s-eye targets, take their time, and put most shots in the center. It’s not defensive shooting. It’s target shooting, and it’s a sport. In many ways, it’s not that different from seeing how many free throws in a row you can hit on your driveway basketball hoop.
Tactical firearm shooting is something else. That’s what Nielsen and several instructors at Bill’s do. When Nielsen is not training himself, he teaches. Like most of Bill’s instructors, he does it on a volunteer basis. Most of Bill’s instructors do it because they like it, and like the people with whom they do it.
Nielsen believes in passing on his knowledge. He conducts classes in defensive use of firearms at Bill’s a couple of times a week. His classroom demeanor is jovial, yet completely serious about safety, procedure, and learning how to defend yourself with a handgun. After a one-and-a-half-hour lecture about what we’re going to do, and exactly how we’re going to do it, we hit the range for an hour and a half of shooting.
There are four students in this class, and three instructors other than Mike. I draw Anthony Budniak as my personal shepherd. Budniak is 6’6” with a full flaming-red beard and heavily tattooed forearms. The large 1911 model .45 on his hip looks like a toy squirt gun against his massive frame. When he’s not training novice shooters, he’s a white-shirt, suit-and-tie-wearing bond trader. “I have to wear long sleeves to work,” he admitted.
The procedures followed in the class are, while not quite military, probably as close as you can come without alienating the customer. You are told when you can load and unload your gun. You are told precisely how to load and clear the gun. You are told exactly how to stand in relation to the gun and exactly how to position your hand when racking the slide to load a round into the chamber. (Budniak reminded me not to pass my hand in front of the muzzle.) You fire only when the drill is explained thoroughly, all questions are answered, all guns are holstered, and the starting whistle is blown. After the firing drill is completed, you holster the gun again only on command. And then, only on command, do you pick up any empty magazines you may have ejected onto the floor.
The drills simulate combat situations, and become progressively more difficult—and fun—as the evening progresses. The first target of the evening is a simple paper target that displays five eight-inch bull’s-eyes.
The first drill was a simple draw-and-fire one shot at target number one. You are expected to do this in less than 2.5 seconds. It’s not as easy as it seems. When you are under pressure, and doing this for the first time in your life, you can get the shot off quickly, but the bullet’s destination is problematic. When I take my time, and am under no pressure, I can put round after round in a four-inch area. When there are five other people shooting, the whistle is blowing, and a timer is beeping, I can’t hit a damn thing. Only after I slow down, take a breath, and actually take a fraction of a second to aim, do I start hitting the bull’s-eye. By the tenth shot, I can do it consistently. We move on to every imaginable variation—single shots at multiple bull’s-eyes, shooting with the weak hand, and “double taps”—two quick shots in succession.
Double taps are hard. My first shots are on target, but God knows where the second one is going—but it’s usually high and to the right because that’s where the muzzle goes after the first shot. At this point, Nielsen stops us and demonstrates. Both his shots go right into the center of the bull’s-eye. Damn him.
After fifty rounds, there are holes all over my target; a few have found their way into the bull’s-eyes. Strangely, I am shooting better with my left hand than right, undoubtedly because I am taking more time. The guy next to me, who has been to several of these classes, has only one shot outside of a bull’s-eye. He assures me I’ll get better after another few classes. He’s right.
By my third defensive class, I have had three different instructors and I am getting better. We’re now doing different drills, including shooting man-shaped targets. One drill starts with us right up against the target. The exercise is to shove the target away from you, take one quick step back, draw, and fire two shots from the hip with the gun barely clearing the holster and tilting the muzzle up quickly to put the two shots into the target’s chest. After practicing it about ten times without actually drawing, I’m ready. I punch the cardboard, step back as I’m drawing, and put two shots into the target’s groin. I laugh sheepishly. The instructor assures me that this degree of marksmanship won’t score very high in the class competition, but nevertheless will get the point across to the assailant. We all laugh.
After this drill, we practice another. It’s called “El Presidente.” The idea is that you have to protect the president from multiple attackers. The drill involves three man-sized targets. You have to put two shots in the chest and one in the head of each of the three targets in under ten seconds, including a reload. (We shoot the head in case the attackers are wearing body armor.) By my third time, I can do it in 8.3 seconds, and all my head shots go right between the eyes. My overall score for the night was eighty-two percent of my shots in the “kill zone.” I’m competing tonight against Budniak, who is shooting instead of instructing, and Daniel, who sports two exotic handguns and a T-shirt which impugns the courage of the French. Budniak and Daniel are both quite a bit better than I.