Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Great Moments in Parenting II

We're sitting around the table at Dudley's, a cajun restaurant in Longview. Me, Marci and the kids, along with Marci's mother, Marci's sister Kylee and her son Caidin, and the Marci's grandmother.

Ross has returned from an overnight stay with his friend who lives out in the country and is creeping the rest of us out with his tales of giant yellow-and-white banana spiders out in the fields.

"Ross," I say, noting the looks of veiled horror around the table. "This is not appropriate talk for the table."

"Okay." But within a few minutes, it became clear that the giant spiders was his only conversational gambit, and again he started up with, "We found this big spider and--"

Eating at a cajun restaurant, it's best to just enjoy the food, IMO, and not consider its provenance. Conversation regarding spiders interferes with the willing suspension of disbelief.

I give him the firm, "ROSS." Follow it up with a stern look. He turns back to his chicken strips. Finally after a couple of minutes, he leans over to Marci and says:

"Do you think I could talk about them if I called them 'arachnids'?"

Monday, August 21, 2006

Great Moments in Parenting

Some of the best times of being a parent are when you're trying not to laugh, but just can't help yourself.

For instance, one wonderful afternoon this past spring, Madeline, our then-first-grade daughter had just painted the planets for her solar system model. Seeing as the day was nice and she and Marci had been out on the back porch anyway, we had lunch outdoors.

Seated around the table, the educator in me saw a teachable moment to review some scientific facts. I began to quiz the kids about the planets.

"Starting from the closest to the sun and moving out, can you name the planets? What's the first planet?"

"Venus!" responded Maddie.

"No, close. It's the hottest and smallest of the planets." Confused looks, no answers. "It's Mercury. What's the second planet from the sun?"

"I know this one," says Maddie. "Venus."

"Right!" I respond. "Now, what's the third planet from the sun?"

"Jupiter?" she ventures. "Nope," I respond.

"Mars?" she asks. "Nope." Seeing that she's flailing, I throw her a line.

"Give you a hint, you're sitting on it right now." A moment of pensive silence follows.

"Uranus?" offered Ross.

I don't know if they knew why Mom and Dad caught each others' eye shortly before exploding into laughter, and we did not explain why we found it impossible to not laugh.

What A Wife

It appears that the blog is rapidly devolving into a shotgun site, so to speak, but I have to brag on my lovely wife, who is not only smokin' hot and unbelievably organized, but has also decided that she wants to learn to shoot Sporting Clays.

Marci is a good pistol shot considering the relatively poor quality of instruction (mine) and the few times she's been to the range. She says it's the steady hands of an old-school graphic designer, but I think there's also a certain amount of innate ability there. After listening to me rave about Sporting Clays, she's decided that this is what she wants to try for a husband-wife sport, and I'm pleased beyond words.

Sporting Clays is in many ways a lot like golf, in that if you begin and learn bad habits you'll spend a lot of time unlearning the things that "feel right" but are actually wrong, so this past weekend we headed off to Prairie Creek Sporting Clays in nearby Gladewater, a Sporting Clays course and the home of Steve Brown. Steve is a Level III NSCA-certified instructor, the highest level of certification in Sporting Clays. He's so dedicated to teaching that he, a right-handed and right-eye dominant man, shot left handed for a year to be able to understand what it's like to shoot cross-dominant (when your dominant eye and dominant hand are opposite) and to be a better instructor. There's not a lot of people that would intentionally handicap themselves that way once they've reached the apex of their sport, but he did it to be a better teacher, something I can respect.

Marci is left-hand and left-eye dominant, so that's not going to be her problem. To be honest, after talking with Steve for an hour Saturday morning, Marci is even more enthusiastic about our upcoming actual lesson with guns and everything this coming Friday. Steve has a lot of empirical experience, and has inferred a lot about neurophysiology and how your brain works while shooting. In wingshooting instruction there are two schools, for lack of better descriptors the "instinctual" school and the "computational" school. Strong adherents of each school find no validity in the other and there are sometimes heated debates about the "proper" method of instruction, but Steve's experience and discussions with investigators at MIT who delve into visual processing may be the Grand Unified Theory of Wingshooting.

What was fascinating in hearing him discuss the debate and the underlying visual-neural processes was that he was explaining both my own shooting experience and my experience in sports in general. Apparently, it depends on what part of your visual receptors you're paying more attention to, the fovea (sharp central vision) or the periphery (the rest). Steve says the image in the fovea, the narrow cone of central sharpest vision is processed virtually instantaneously, and that the information from that perception is available immediately to your subconscious motor control. When you're tracking an object with this sharp, central vision there is no conscious calculation involved in shooting it, my experience of this kind of shooting is that it "feels" mentally like you're reaching out with your hand to slap down the target rather than consciously firing the shotgun.

The other way that you can hit a target is with brute-force computation, and in my experience this is not as natural-feeling as the "reach out and slap" experience. The peripheral vision is not processed in real time, and can induce a delay of up to 2/10th of a second, meaning that you are typically behind on a flying target. When this happens, my "inner" Fire Control Director will observe a bird in flight and give me a big shrug of the conceptual shoulders as to the time and place to shoot. That is never a good feeling, and results in a "lost bird" (miss) often as not. It's like my left brain gives up on the computations and I'm on my own.

What's really interesting to me is that I have experienced precisely the same thing on the golf course. The best golf shots I hit are practically out-of-body experiences, I have to disconnect or distract the computational parts of my brain, and my inner subconscious golfer, who actually knows how to make the shot, is able to direct my motion to the desired outcome. When I stand over a golf ball and find myself thinking intensely about what I have to do with this particular shot, more often than not I don't achieve the desired result.

Something else that Steve mentioned also resonated well, that the subconscious does not respond directly to words or mathematical equations or higher-order descriptors of language. You can't speak directly to your subconscious, it understands metaphors and feelings better than words. In practice, you can tell yourself (as I do, often, on the golf course) to "slow down" or "follow through" without any apparent effect. But visualizing molases slowly pouring out of a jar on a cold morning will get the idea of "slow" across to your subconscious systems.

This is a problem for me in particular, Steve said, because I rely so much on the logical and computational parts of my psyche. If I didn't have ready access to them, I wouldn't have my current job and wouldn't have stuck through an extra four years of schooling and residency. My fallback defense for a challenging situation is to try to think harder, because that works for most everything else I do. In a sports or physical performance situation, that is probably the wrong thing to do, because conscious interference will actually degrade performance. He said that there is a place for thinking in Sporting Clays, but that place is before you begin shooting, not when the shotgun is on your shoulder and the bird is in the air. I have to believe that this concept will help me with golf, as well. "Swing thoughts" are to be considered before the swing, and should be more of the allegorical and metaphorical variety, rather than brute force commands with physiologic monitoring in near-real time. Basically, think before you act, then act without thinking.

It was a fascinating conversation, you generally don't expect to hear about neurophysiology and visual processing when you go to talk to a fella from East Texas about shooting a shotgun. Marci and I are both looking forward to Friday and bustin' some birds.

As far as the shotgun selection goes, Steve said that left-handed folks shoot right-eject semi-auto shotguns without difficulty all the time, and that about 60% of his female clients shot semiautos, with the other 40% shooting over-unders. When talking about the relative merits of both, he got as far as "The over-under is much easier to clean, if that's important to you," before Marci and I shared a knowing look. Neat freak wife = over-under shotgun. He also told the story of his own wife, who started with a custom 28-gauge and came in third in her first tournament. Someone told her, "You shot really well, if you used a 20-gauge you probably would have done better." So she got a 20-gauge, practiced, and came in second at the next tournament, at which some helpful soul said, "You probably would have won if you had used a 12-gauge." Needless to say, in Steve's personal and expensive experience, he felt Marci should use a 12-gauge with reduced-recoil loads to begin with. He has a beater Beretta AL391 with a ladies-length stock for her, and I imagine she'll start with a semi-auto on Friday. I also imagine there is a Beretta Silver-something over-under in her future.

I don't know why, but there's just something inherently cool about a beautiful, intelligent woman who can blast things with a shotgun, and asks you to take her to the range. Pics and a report this weekend!

Friday, August 18, 2006

The New (S)hotness

Note: I promised more than a whole war ago to review my Benelli Nova Tactical pump-action shotgun, and before the last war I wrote a whole article with pictures and everything only to have a Blogger service outing wipe out the whole thing before I could save it. And since I had promised that review next, I have to write this before I get anything else out, so here it is.

If there's anything that convinced me of the need for personal protection, it was the breakdown in social order that followed Hurricane Katrina. Now, New Orleans was never highly-regarded for social order, probably part of its appeal, but there's something about portable firepower that has a way of convincing ne'er-do-wells that things are actually better with the cops around. Cops have rules. Homeowners, eh, not so much.

When it comes to firepower, one definition is "the relative capacity for delivering fire on a target". In firearms literature, this is usually some combination of rapidity of fire combined with the impact of fire on the target, with some debate about slower & heavier vs. faster & smaller. One thing that is relatively not debated is the apex of short-range defensive weapons available to civilians: concealed-carry concerns aside, the winner is always the shotgun.

Seeing as the shotgun is a smoothbore weapon as at home in the 18th century as the 21st, this would seem to be counter-intuitive. Part of the reason for the utility of the shotgun is the inherent flexibility in choice of projectile. Shotguns can shoot birdshot (tiny pellets), buckshot (multiple large pellets between .17 and .36 caliber), and slugs (one single large ball of lead or copper). You can hunt anything from dove to bear with a shotgun, and have a reasonable chance of success. In addition to the metallic projectiles, there is bizarre variety of other projectiles that can be loaded into a 12-gauge barrel that is .729 inches in diameter, from beanbags to little darts (flechettes) to illuminating rounds to bags of metallic poweder designed to blow a lock apart without killing anyone on the other side. The shotgun survives in part due to its flexibility.

But the original claim was in regard to short-range firepower, and a bit of math is due here. The fastest pistol shooter in the world is Jerry Miculek of Bossier City, Lousiana. Mr. Miculek can fire eight .356-diameter .38 Special rounds in one second, and cover the group with the palm of his (large) hand at ten feet. He's a freak, and he's the best. Heckler & Koch's famous MP-5 submachine gun is a 9mm weapon reknown for reliability and controllability in full-auto fire. A trained operator can fire 13 9mm (.356 diameter) rounds in one second, and most likely hit his target with nearly all of them.

By comparison, a single round of 12-gauge 000 buck fires eight .36-caliber balls in one trigger pull. Assuming you can rack the slide and pull the trigger in one second (not difficult at all), a shotgun user can get 16 projectiles on target faster than any other hand-held means. With proper motivation, three shots a second are possible for a total of 24 aimed projectiles per second. And if you shoot a slug, the impact is appreciably greater, with a 429-grain (one ounce) lead slug moving out at 1600 fps or greater. By comparison a .44 Magnum fires a 240-grain bullet at roughly the same speed. The impact is significantly more powerful at short range than all but the heaviest big-game rifles. In short, a shotgun has 100% more firepower than the fastest pistol shooter in the world, at least 20% more than a fully-automatic submachinegun, and you can buy them with nothing more than a Form 4473. Ain't this a great country?

So the 12-gauge shotgun owns the flexibility and firepower titles. And a further feather in its cap is the fact that shotguns are less likely to be dangerous at long ranges in case you miss. The round projectiles of a shotgun lose energy in the air much easier than aerodynamic bullets, even for strictly defensive purposes you must be sure of your backstop up to 3 miles beyond your target with a rifle like an AR-15 or AK-47, and even pistols pack a punch at long range. Using a weapon defensively, a major goal is to not shoot through walls and injure noncombatants, and to not cause injuries to those uninvolved. Shotgun shot in the BB range (.17-caliber) is not predicted to penetrate a wall with lethal force, and is not expected to be even injurious beyond 80 yards or so. It can be disconcerting to have birdshot fall on you on the Sporting Clays course, but it's unlikely to hurt you. Properly used, a shotgun will hurt what needs hurting and protect what needs protecting.

And as far as the pump-action, it's reliable and simple and requires less cleaning than a semi-automatic weapon. It's relatively insensitive to ammo choices and won't balk at light or heavy loads. Plus, the distinctive sound of a pump-action shotgun being loaded has a cachet and deterrent effect all its own.

When it comes to buying a pump, there are numerous options from Winchester/FN, Remington, Mossberg, Maverick and a variety of foreign makers as well as specialty manufacturers like Wilson Combat's Scattergun Technologies division. Making a personal defense shotgun generally involves obtaining a shotgun with a shortened barrel, to allow for maneuverability in enclosed spaces. Different sights may be selected and an extended magazine added to increase the number of rounds carried, a small magazine capacity being one of the drawbacks of a shotgun. I considered the FN Tactical Police model, and the Mossberg 590 series, but they're both a little more than I wanted to spend. Instead of buying a Remington 870 or a Maverick 88 and doing all of this work myself, I went with the Benelli Nova Tactical.

Ordered from the factory, it comes with a legal 18.5" improved cylinder barrel and "ghost-ring" sights well-suited for fast and accurate target acquisition. The Nova came out in the 1990s, and has been proven over time to be a reliable and simple design. The forend and stock are plastic to reduce weight and signs of wear, with a plastic receiver holding a metal insert for strength. The unitary stock prevents adding a pistol grip or folding stock, two things that other than the Knoxx CompStock I find to be unnecessary.

Being unable to leave well-enough alone, I added a Weaver rail to accept a secondary sight like an EOTech or Aimpoint, and a magazine extension tube from TacStar. Benelli has unaccountably stopped selling magazine extensions to civilians, and rather than paying $150 for one on E-Bay I went with the TacStar aftermarket one for $50 and also added a "sidesaddle" shell carrier on the left side of the receiver that holds four extra rounds for faster reloads or flexibility in load selection. The pump action allows me to switch quickly between slug and buckshot depending on the range to the threat. I can put a slug on target to about 50 yards or so, which is a relatively long shot for buckshot and gives me -- again -- flexibility.

The gun itself was $371, the Weaver rail plus installation was $105, the mag extension was $50 and the shell carrier $30, for an all-up cost of $556 or so, tax and shipping included. Compared to the Scattergun Technology offerings, which start at a grand or more, this seems to be a rather cost-effective system. The Nova is one of the few shotguns, especially in this price range, to allow use of 3-1/2 inch 12-gauge shells for shooting at geese and, I guess, tanks and APCs. I don't plan to use these, the standard 2-3/4" shells work fine and with the magazine extension I can carry seven in the tube and one in the chamber, for a total of 8 shots. Added to the four on the sidesaddle, that's an even dozen 12-gauge rounds on or in the gun, enough to deal with nearly any eventuality. Empty and with the stated modifications, it weighs 7.6 lbs and handles well. Pumps can be stiff from the factory, this one is not. The ghost-ring sights are adjustable if need be, and work very well for aiming. The trigger is smooth and doesn't have much in the way of creep or overtravel, at least in my opinion. It's not glass-rod smooth, but this isn't a target rifle.

So it looks intimidating as heck, particularly when being held by someone as big as me, but how does it shoot? The Wife and I took a trip to the lovely East Texas Rifle and Pistol Club for some shooting. As I had never before fired slugs or buckshot, I went to Academy and loaded up on Remington Express (i.e., inexpensive) 1 oz. slugs and No. 4 buckshot (.24-caliber), tossed in some IPSC targets of roughly humanoid shape and drove the few miles to the club.

East Texas Rifle & Pistol Club, one of the five ranges

Having recently fired a couple hundred rounds of #7 1/2 shot at the ACU Sporting Clays event (where our team took third without practicing, have I mentioned that?), I had some recent memory of what recoil in a gas-operated semiautomatic shotgun is like, and this brings me to the other drawback of shotguns. They do not repeal Newton's Laws, if you're throwing a lot downrange, it will throw a lot back at you. Standard slugs have considerable recoil, more than my brother's .308 and more than I have fired previously in a shoulder-mounted weapon. Not enough to make me flinch, but enough to make me know that something powerful just happened. The short barrel (9.5 inches shorter than my Beretta AL391) and light weight (8-9 lbs loaded) of this shotgun are no help in this regard. If the Nova had the ability to add aftermarket stocks I would probably go with the Knoxx Compstock as I have seen this recommended in many publications. As it is, I will probably shoot my Remington Express for practice and carry Remington Reduced-Recoil Slugs. Why get beat up? Benelli also offers a mercury weight system in the stock to add another 13 ounces, but I have heard varying reports on the effectiveness of this addition.


And after: As you can see from the target, fired standing offhand at 25 yards, it's accurate enough for combat purposes and leaves BIG holes, the diameter of my index finger. Any of those hits is going to be instantly incapacitating and most likely lethal.

I fired two rounds each of #4 buckshot at 10 and 15 yards. A pic of me in action:

Shot doesn't spread as much as you'd think, but sometimes more than you want. The rule of thumb is that it spreads one inch a yard, so even at close ranges you still have to aim a shotgun. It's easier to aim with two hands, though, so it works out pretty well compared to a pistol. The larger holes are where the plastic wad that holds the shot in the barrel punched the paper.

Ten yards:

Fifteen yards:

That's 27 .24-caliber pellets per shot, moving out at about 1200fps. This is like you and your 26 best friends firing one shot from one of those cheesy little Raven .25 ACP pistols all at the same target at the same time. Lots of little holes do make a mess. At 15 yards, nearly all pellets stay within the average torso size.

A final note about the sights. Ghost ring sights employ an interesting physiologic ability most people do without thinking. One of the tricks most humans do well is centering something within a circle, in this case the circle is the rear sight that will "ghost out" or become blurry. The thing to be centered is the front post, in this case a nice bright white dot. This works even for people who have age-related nearsightedness, which I do not but will, assuming I live long enough. It's a fast and easy way to get sights on target, and missing with a shotgun doesn't help anybody. The sight picture looks something like this:

In summary, the Benelli Nova Tactical is a relatively inexpensive personal defense weapon. The Nova line has earned a reputation for reliability, and as it has been said that "There are two things you never want to hear around a firearm: a bang when there should be a click, and a click when there should be a bang," the Nova has at least the latter covered. For defensive purposes, it's about ideal for a house gun with appropriate ammo (typically BB shot). And I emphasize defensive purposes, because your ability to hit reliably beyond 75 yards will likely be limited. A rifle can do that, but if it's more than 75 yards from you, it raises a question as to whether or not it's self-defense. If I had to add anything else, I would add a flashlight of some sort for low-light conditions. Particularly for home defense, it's important to know WHAT you're shooting at and WHAT'S BEHIND your target, and sometimes all it takes is the Lithium-Powered Light Of Truth And Justice to make people reconsider their choice of actions.