Front Sight Submachinegun School
by Stuart L. Wayne
In May of 1999 I had the opportunity to attend Front Sight Firearms Training Institute's one day submachinegun class. The course, day one of their 4-day subgun course, is a promotional device to expose gun owners to Front Sight's training program and their new Nevada facility (of which more later). Promoted through various gun-friendly organizations, I got my invitation from Jews For the Preservation of Firearm Ownership, as apparently did the bulk of my class. The biggest contingent was from California, but we had folks from all over--Hawaii, the Florida keys, Massachusetts, two Michiganders (including me), and many in between--28 to 30 in all. There was a broad spectrum represented including three women, one a little lady (5 feet tall, if that) from Texas whose total previous firearm experience had been taking the Texas CCW course. She loved the subgun course, describing it in words like "empowering!" and "fulfilling!" (Front Sight may have created a monster there.) Student ages ranged from barely legal to barely breathing.
My own big day started early with a scenic drive from Las Vegas to Front Sight's new facility, 40-odd miles west into the desert mountains. Once there, coffee, fruit and muffins accompanied the registration and ritual signing-of-the-release-of-liability. We were briefed on the day's activities by Brad Ackman, the senior instructor and operations manager.
Front Sight's founder, Dr. Ignatius Piazza, then spoke about some of the basic concepts of Front Sight training and about the gun we were to shoot, the Cobray M-11 9mm submachine gun with Sionics noise suppressor. (Cobray SMG with similar but smaller Viper suppressor pictured below.)
Dr. Piazza (referred to as "Naish" sometimes, but usually as Dr. Piazza) explained the lineage of these weapons from the Ingram through the MAC 10 to the Cobray. He particularly pointed out their crudity, as a gun designed to arm large numbers of rebels or patriots (a matter of chronology or point of view) at minimum cost. The basic gun is stamped sheet metal, not much bigger than and shaped like a Glock 17. Its rear sight is a small hole drilled through a tab on the back surface of the receiver; the front sight is a small piece stamped out of the top surface and bent up. The collapsible wire stock has been modified by Front Sight so that it still collapses, but the small pivoting portion at the very rear has been welded into the "in-use" position. The Sionics noise suppressor was not that effective with the supersonic ammunition that we used, but served other more valuable purposes. It added leverage for the support hand, mass to diminish recoil and without it the barrel is so short that it would be easy for a beginner to get his or her support hand in the way of the bullets!
So why use such cheap guns rather than, say, the infinitely sexier MP5s (pictured at right)? Cost and availability--Front Sight bought 100 of the Cobrays at 1/5 the cost of the fancier subguns! As plans for the future Nevada facility and its armory have developed, I understand that Naish has purchased similar quantities of many popular subguns, so that students now have a choice of which to use in these classes.
By 9:30 we were on the range. Another tent, this one with an open wall facing the range, was provided for class seating. It also contained food and plenty of liquids - ice water, Gatorade, canned pop--since there was a real concern for our maintaining hydration in the desert sun. While one relay was shooting, the other had the opportunity to sip a little liquid, and the bagels, cream cheese and fruit carried us through until 3PM without the need for a lunch break. Also provided were safety glasses with side shields, ear plugs, caps and sunblock for those who came unequipped. Everything about this course was well-provided for and well thought out. Two 5 gallon pails filled with 9mm ammo proved a good indicator of the fun to come! Range activity started out slowly of necessity, a series of lecture, demonstration and practice exercises in the manual of arms - the appropriate, safe sequence for manipulating the Cobray's controls when handling, loading, shooting and unloading. Shooting stance and the three Ready positions we would be using were covered, and the range commands were explained. All firing was to be from the shoulder, and burst control would be practiced. We then commenced to sight alignment, sight picture and dry fire exercises using all of the above elements. With one instructor or every two to three students, everyone received close attention and problems were instantly corrected. This was no "Drop and give me 20" boot camp - the instructors were helpful, tactful and in good humor at all times.
Finally after what seemed an eternity but really wasn't more than an hour or so we were given magazines and allowed to load them! The 30 round plastic magazines were only loaded to 25 rounds because they tended to swell and malfunction when fully packed. A number of thumb-savers were provided, but I was too dumb to make them work, so I loaded every mag by brute force. The first live-fire exercise was in semi-auto mode. We fired for group size from seven yards into the thoracic cavity of the target. The targets were all plain silhouette-style with the thoracic cavity and the cranial-ocular area each marked with a thin outline. The exercise wasn't at all difficult for an experienced shooter--I think it was more a warm-up to shooting the gun and maybe to flag the really inexperienced student so they could get special attention. Seven yards was to be the greatest distance fired all day, the rationale being that this was the kind of use for which these guns were designed, and their crude sighting equipment wasn't really good for much greater distance anyway.
From there we went to the three yard line and finally got the command to switch from SEMI to SMG mode--we were about to become freedom fighters! From here on, everything but the final stage was to be fired in trigger-controlled 2 or 3 round bursts. We fired groups to the thoracic cavity from 3, 5 and 7 yards and repeated these exercises from each of the ready positions. We learned about after-fire drills, in which we returned to the Ready position, did a Quick-Check (fast turn of the head each way to detect other aggressors), a Final Check (slow careful check of the target to insure that he/she is completely unable to continue the fight) and a Scan (a slow pivot of the entire body at the Ready position, checking for any further possibility of hidden aggressors anywhere). Each of these were added on to every following exercise, to be initiated without command, just as the safety check procedures were.
Once we learned to check our opponent after shooting, we progressed to Failure-to-Stop drills and learned the value of the cranial-ocular shot. This technique was presented as a slightly less hurried, more carefully executed burst to the head designed to take out those opponents that--whether through body armor, drugs or just meanness--don't succumb to a 3-shot 9mm burst centered in the thoracic cavity. From that point on, at any time after the immediate conclusion of a firing exercise until the Ready position after completion of the after-drill, the command "HEAD!" meant that a cranial-ocular burst must be fired immediately.
By now, the Cobrays were starting to feel like old friends--maybe not as graceful as my favorite over-and-under shotgun, but still not bad. The next series of exercises were for speed. The concept of tradeoff between speed and accuracy was presented with the idea that a group just covered by a handspan would do the job if located in the thoracic cavity. The more quickly it could be delivered, the better the chance of not taking return fire. To prompt us to pick up the pace, some of the instructors joined us on the line, armed only with holstered cocked-and-locked pistols. At the Fire command, they would draw and fire along with us - remember that we were at the Ready position with the safety off and so had the subguns half mounted already. They beat us to the shot, at least in the beginning. By the time we finished repeating this exercise, we were right up there with the instructors, and the sound of fifteen subguns barking almost instantly at the command to fire was a real joy to hear!
Our final exercise of the day was a kind of graduation event. For the first time, we would fire an entire 25 round magazine with one trigger pull, not for any tactical purpose, but to better envision the forces and control issues involved. One of the instructors demonstrated first. He had a dinner bet with the others that he could keep every round within the thoracic cavity. Although he shot a fine group for the job, it was a bit low and three rounds fell just below the diaphragm line--he lost. We then each tried it once on a used and patched target for the feel and once again on a virgin target - this last was to be our "graduation certificate". Although I had a more open group than the instructor, I also dropped just three shots (pictured at right). Naish Piazza looked over my shoulder and said "Nice work, Stu." I felt empowered--I felt fulfilled.
The class had been fun and I had learned. It was even exciting at points, like when the gun to the left of me pitched a hot 9mm case down the back of my t-shirt! I broke discipline for the only time when that happened, reflexively reaching down my shirt to retrieve the brass with my support hand while holding the gun downrange with my firing hand. An instructor's hand instantly slapped onto my barrel, and I was reminded NOT to take my hand off that gun for anything until the gun is cleared! What I did is safe for a non-automatic gun, but a full-auto gun accidentally running away would result in the rest of my magazine spraying over the backstop or even onto the shooting line. I was wrong, of course, but the burn was still there on my shoulder days later--that little sucker was hot!
My only other claim to notoriety came when I tried to lock back the Cobray's bolt after one exercise and discovered the charging handle had sheared off while I was shooting. When I showed this to an instructor, the gun was just whisked away and replaced with another. I couldn't help but notice that my gun wasn't the only one with problems--there was a nice little pile of tagged Cobrays at the end of the line when we finished. Well, Naish did say they were cheap.
It was now 3PM. After some closing remarks, we washed up and returned to the first tent, where pizza was waiting. From where they got Domino's delivery in the middle of the desert I'll never know! Course evaluation forms were filled out and we relaxed and ate. Dr. Piazza then told us we were free to go, but those interested in further courses or membership in the new Front Sight facility could stay and hear presentations about them. There was no pressure to do this and it wasn't until the class was over that it was brought up. I stayed for most of the presentations, both out of curiosity and to find out the real costs of continuing with Front Sight. The sales presentations were skillful and the potential benefits to the shooter/member seemed great. It was tempting, but I declined. Front Sight, Nevada is, after all, a long way from Michigan--at least for this retiree!
For those of you unaware of what Front Sight is attempting in the desert, it will be a huge, state-of-the-art shooting and instructional facility. Tied to its own little town--Front Sight, NV - a world class resort for shooters is projected! Front Sight owns 550 acres in the Nevada desert, about 40 miles west of Las Vegas and 18 miles east of Pahrump. Every kind of range imaginable is planned, from small 360 degree live-fire-safe enclosures to a combined 4200 foot airstrip/1000 yard rifle range (simultaneous use is not envisioned), from rappelling towers to a tunnel network. There will be townhouses to stay in, and 36 one-acre plots for individually owned homes. Gunsmithing, gun and accessory sales, an armory for storage of those firearms one wishes to leave on-site, and a host of other services to shooters will be available. In addition, Front Sight plans to move its entire instructional capability to the site and expand it into the best facility available for training individuals, military and police in any and all gun skills. That's the vision--and I've only been able to recall part of it here. Much, much more is envisioned.
Now to the reality. When I was there, construction plans were on schedule, but they were only in the infancy of the project. I understand that there have been delays since, but work progresses. At that time, A total of 55 acres had been graded into ranges and no trace of the future facility existed but the berms of those ranges. All land-use permits and approvals have been obtained, though, and construction continues. Regular classes in the same disciplines currently taught at Front Sight's Bakersfield, CA facility are now being taught at the Nevada ranges, as well as many new courses.
A sophisticated multi-level membership package has been developed, in which the higher the grade of membership you buy, the greater your savings will be on all the classes and services to be made available. The ultimate level of membership includes one of the one-acre home sites! If you attend one of the promotional subgun classes, and if you elect to stay to hear the sales pitch, AND IF YOU ARE PREPARED TO COMMIT TO A PURCHASE ON THE SPOT, you can get a great saving over the prices quoted in the literature, 1/3 off. Still, you are betting today's dollars that Dr. Piazza will make good on tomorrow's dream. He may very well--he seems a determined man with strong support. In fact, of the thirty-two Platinum memberships that include the 32 home sites, 27 were already sold before my visit.
The cheapest membership, at $7200* ($4800 if you buy while there for a promotional course) will get you unlimited free access to the two or four day Defensive Handgun, Practical Rifle and Tactical Shotgun courses. Nonmembers pay $500 for a 2 day and $900 for a 4 day course, so that is a considerable benefit if you are in a position to enjoy it. This membership level will additionally provide 10% savings on any other firearms courses, any products, locker rental in the armory and private range use. Further, you will receive six course certificates which you may sell or give away--each will allow someone else, who never attended a Front Sight course previously, to attend a 4 day Defensive Handgun, Tactical Shotgun or Practical Rifle course. Each certificate may be used for two people to attend a two day course instead. The certificates never expire. Other, less tangible, benefits also are listed in the sales literature. The certificates have a theoretical value of up to $6000, which could be considered a recoverable portion of the purchase cost if sold to friends or family, and the ability to take the free courses indefinitely can extend the return infinitely.
Membership prices go up in five stages, each with increasing benefits and discounts, to the Platinum membership I mentioned before. This one gives you unlimited free use of just about everything but Dr. Piazza's wife, free entry into any course offered, unlimited course certificates and, of course, the home site! If you want to go Platinum, though, you better get your $240,000 in to him quickly! After all, in 1999 there were only five left.
* Note: all prices were quoted in 1999--check with Front Sight for current rates, (800) 987-7719 or (www.frontsight.com)
(c)1999, Stuart L. Wayne, all rights reserved.