HANCOCK, Maine — As the day of my participation in an Ellsworth Police Department firearm training crept closer, I started to have doubts.
Firearms are immense pieces of human ingenuity, with the power to end or destroy a life in an instant. Fear may be an overreaction to that awesome power, but proper respect for that power is called for.
Mostly, I began to worry I would miss the target completely. A born-and-bred Mainer who can’t hit a target from 10 yards away? I’d be a laughingstock. I made Officer Kelvin Mote, the firearms instructor for the EPD, promise not to laugh.
SPOILER ALERT: I actually did pretty well. I hit the target 42 of 49 times, firing from three, five, seven, 10 and 25 yards away.
That seems good, but I had some advantages that officers don’t have. I was given ample time to draw, sight, fire and holster, unburdened by time limits. Officers sometimes have to draw, squeeze off three on-target rounds and holster within two seconds. Yikes.
I also had the constant guidance from Mote, who’s also a tactics and firearms instructor for the U.S. Army. He stood by me and offered pointers on stance, sight alignment and trigger squeeze. “Get a nice tight grip, but not too tight,” he said. Later, while I’m shooting from behind a makeshift wall, “This simulates cover, so act like it will protect you from fire.”
Police officers in Maine must undergo firearm qualifications annually, with pistols, rifles and shotguns. In Ellsworth, Mote — a genial guy with a trace of a Southern accent — runs the program and submits paperwork testifying that his officers qualified under the rules set forth by the Police Academy.
To pass the handgun test, officers must hit the target 40 out of 50 times, at varying distances and positions (standing, kneeling and lying on their stomachs), all within set time limits.
My firearm training took place Thursday, around 9 a.m., at the police training range in Hancock. Spent bullet casings litter the ground there, and white lines are painted on the range to mark the distances from which the officers and I will be firing. Targets sanctioned for FBI use are set up down range.
Mote asks me if I’ve ever fired a gun before. I say yes, but it’s been a while. I’m nervous, and tell him so. He says that’s normal, but also tells me how much fun I’ll have. He gives me a quick briefing in handgun safety, and we’re off.
Mote describes the departments new handguns — Glock Model 22 .40-caliber pistols — as “nice guns,” and I quickly learn why. As I fire from the closer ranges, it doesn’t kick nearly as much as I’m expecting. I’m feeling pretty jacked and awesome, until I’m 25 yards from the target and told to shoot from a prone position.
Suddenly, lying on my stomach, I can barely control the gun. It kicks higher and harder as I struggle to figure out how to brace while lying down. I can barely control the cannon I’m feebly trying to contain. I had similar results shooting a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle from 100 yards away, even with the aid of a holographic scope.
Shooting on the range engages all your senses. Eyes are obvious. Touch, too, as you work out how hard you need to squeeze the trigger to pop off a round. The sound of the rifle as it goes off near my face is the closest I’ve ever heard to deafening.
The smell of gunpowder catches me by surprise as I lay on my stomach and shoot the rifle at a target 100 yards away. It’s nearly shrunken to the size of a pea in my field of vision.
And I swear I tasted adrenaline during the walking drill. Mote walks with me as I approach the target from ten feet away. As I get closer, he screams. “Threat! Threat! Threat!” in my ear. That’s my cue to “verbalize.” I’ve gotta talk like a cop.
I took my cue from Officers Chad Wilmot and Andrew Weatherbee, who completed the qualification course before me. They yelled “Drop the weapon!” so I did too. From the real officers, this was a booming command. I’m pretty sure from me it sounded like a desperate plea.
But there’s no time to intellectualize intimidation. I’ve barely finished begging the perp to drop his weapon when Mote screams in my ear, “GUN! GUN! GUN!” I squeeze off three rounds in the target’s chest. This exercise is meant to show how quickly a situation can move out of control. My heart pounding through my chest made me feel like it had worked.
I don’t undergo the full training regime, but Mote has Wilmot and Weatherbee demonstrate a few other procedures. The first is called a “competition tree.” Six rotating targets attached to a single steel pole are arranged three on each side. Each officer’s goal is to get all the targets on the other officer’s side while he or she is trying to do the same.
Another drill replicates a hostage situation. A black dummy represents a hostage, with only a small white target, next to the black dummy’s head, representing the target. The scoundrel is using the hostage for cover, and the officer’s got to hit the target without wounding the hostage.
Officer Weatherbee takes aim, and shoots wide several times before hitting his mark. I’d just seen this guy shoot a near-perfect 50, but this is a different beast.
“This isn’t Hollywood,” Mote says. “It’s hard. When Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon 1 through 42 draws his weapon and hits the target from the other side of the room in one shot? That doesn’t happen.”
It’s a common refrain from Mote, who repeatedly tells us that this isn’t like the movies, where cops and crooks alike can hit baseball-size targets while whizzing 55 mph or more on a freeway.
“I want people to know just how difficult this is, how much training is involved,” he said in our Wednesday interview. “You can’t just pick up one of these guns and run the course if you’re not a trained marksman.”
Though no Ellsworth officer has had to discharge his weapon while on duty in at least 15 years, unless you count occasionally dispatching injured animals, Mote said the average Glock is still fired 600-800 times a year in training.
It’s all so that if the real situation comes, the officers can protect themselves and the public, he said. After all, just because no cop has had to fire a weapon in the heat of the moment in more than a decade, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen today. Or tomorrow.
“I want my officers to be trained properly and adequately if that day comes,” Mote said.
Luckily, if that day comes, they’ll have much more training than me.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.