Front Sight Firearms Training Institute

Location: near Pahrump, Nevada
Course Type: 2-Day Defensive Handgun
Range Master: Dustin Ciaccio
Course date: September 19–20, 2011
Website: frontsight.com

Introduction

Front Sight Firearms Training Institute is a weapons resort in southern Nevada. What's a weapons resort? Think about other resorts that feature golf or tennis or any other activity, and then imagine a resort where you go primarily to learn to shoot better. With classes and ranges dedicated to handguns, rifles, shotguns, and machine guns, Front Sight offers just about everything that just about any civilian, law enforcement officer, or member of the military needs to become proficient with a gun. Front Sight offers other specialty courses, too, as well as information to help guide you in the best practices for using a gun for self-protection, whether at home or in public. (Front Sight also offers classes to help you obtain a CCW permit for concealed carry.)

The future of Front Sight?
The future of Front Sight?

I attempted to register on-line for the course by myself, but had to call Front Sight because the information on its site did not seem to have the course I wanted. It turned out that the course does exist, but the website refers to it in an odd way, so I wasn't finding it. At any rate, the person who answered the phone at Front Sight was very helpful -- despite himself stumbling briefly over the same issue I was having with the website. The Front Sight website has no search feature, so

After sending in my registration (actually, I purchased a membership that includes the 2-Day Defensive Handgun course) and payment, Front Sight informed me that there was an additional charge of $50 for a background check. I found this galling. It’s not the money, and it’s not the fact that there’s a background check: It’s that it’s mandatory but you don’t find out about it until after Front Sight has your money. What if Front Sight had informed me that I could not attend because of the background check? What membership privileges do you get when you can’t take advantage of any membership privileges? Apparently there were no issues with the background check, so I was in.

During my stay in the Pahrump area, I stayed at the Saddle West Hotel and Casino, mostly due to the fact that it seemed to have a tie-in with Front Sight. I would encourage anyone else contemplating the Saddle West Hotel and Casino to look elsewhere for accommodations. If you have an RV or trailer, there is a nice-looking campground adjacent to the compound that cannot be beat for access.

Preparation

After signing up, you begin to receive a torrent of e-mails from Front Sight. Some are worthwhile, others -- not so much. Front Sight founder Dr. Ignatius Piazza is nothing if not a dedicated self-promoter (almost to the point of seeming to be some sort of scam artist), and giving Front Sight you e-mail address and/or phone number instantly gains you a new best friend.

Front Sight's website contains pages of information ostensibly designed to get you prepared for your visit, but the information is voluminous. I found the presentation a bit confusing, forcing my wife and I to read and re-read the material to ensure that I had taken all the necessary steps prior to attending.

The extraneous, confusing, and misleading information is off-putting in itself, and also serves to hide important information. For example, the material refers to having a vest for practicing concealed carry. It turns out that this isn't needed for the two-day course I took, and in fact I was instructed not to wear the vest I brought. On the other hand, I almost missed the section about the electronic hearing protection. Yeah, I know it’s right there, but I have a bunch of passive hearing protection that’s served me for years, so as I was sifting through all the information I mentally checked off hearing protection as something I already had.

I also failed to find any simple listing of what would be needed at each step of the course, such as how much ammo for each day, daily schedule, etc. I don’t understand why the paper handout that showed the daily schedule couldn’t be on-line, and why it couldn’t include a concise listing of mandatory and suggested items to have.

To give a final example, I had no idea how far I would be parking from the range and/or other facilities. More about this in a minute.

One piece of information they do make clear is that in the desert, you have to pay close attention to the weather. Spring and Fall are going to be the best times, while Winter can be quite cold and Summer plenty hot. Plan and dress accordingly.

The course

Arriving at Front Sight

The Front Sight facility is remote, but the roads are paved and in good condition right up to the front gate. Once inside the gate, the driving and parking areas are large, well groomed with gravel, and amenable to everything from low-slung sports cars to the biggest recreational vehicles.

Front Sight advises you to arrive early on the first day, to allow time for sign-in and weapons inspection. This turned out to be unnecessary, as real early-birds just have to wait in line outside the gate until it opens or stand around inside waiting for the first lecture. The check-in process is quick and easy, taking next to no time.

After parking, the temptation for the first-timer is to have everything perfect before leaving the parking area for sign-in and weapons inspection. Not only does this make the check-in process more stressful than it needs to be, but the walk from the parking area to the check-in area is negligible. I wish I had left my stuff in the car while signing in. Then I could have asked what I needed to bring to the weapons inspection desk, and gone back to the car for my range bag. Even so, the check-in process was a breeze. As it turned out, it was the most difficult aspect of acclimating to the Front Sight operation.

I would estimate that, of the people attending all the various Front Sight activities while I was there, roughly 20 percent of the students were female.

Course itinerary
Day one
6:30-8:00 Sign-in and weapons inspection
8:00-8:30 Classroom lecture
8:30-12:30 Range activities
12:30-1:30 Lunch (includes DVD presentation: The Front Sight Story)
1:30-2:00 Classroom lecture: Code of Mental Awareness and Combat Mindset
2:00-5:00 Range activities
5:15-6:00 Classroom lecture: Moral and Ethical Decisions Associated with the Use of Deadly Force
Day two
8:00-12:30 Range activities
12:30-1:30 Lunch
1:30-2:15 Classroom lecture: Problems 2 and 3; Criminal and Civil Liability
2:15-5:00 Range activities
5:15-6:00 Classroom lecture: Tactical Movement

Front Sight facilities

The physical plant at Front Sight is breathtaking. I'd watched the Front Sight Challenge videos on-line, so I was expecting something pretty special, but seeing it in person was even more impressive, and exceeded my expectations. More than one person commented that this is where they should film History Channel's Top Shot. From a distance, almost all you can see a huge tangle of wood and ropes that looks to be a torture maze for advanced SWAT-type activities, which if nothing else speaks to the Front Sight's commitment to providing soup-to-nuts training for a wide range of weapons and tactics.

Once you get through the gate, you next see a bunch of converted shipping containers, buildings, and other items that imply a large and possible self-sufficient infrastructure. The main classroom is a huge clear-span building with the pro shop at the far end, while CCW classes take place in a separate structure. Behind the main classroom (viewed from the parking area) is the multi-part Range 1, comprised of smaller handgun ranges.

The main ranges are laid out out around the property, surrounded by high, well-built, well-maintained earthen berms. Compared to these, the berms at my local gun club look puny. The pistol ranges seem about three times longer than necessary, each with a covered area at the mouth of the range where students sit on folding chairs.

Our pistol range had yardage markings at 3, 5, 7, 10, and 15 yards from the targets. The targets are turnable, but the 2-Day course does not take advantage of that functionality.

Knowing the value of water in the desert, I brought plenty of my own, but Front Sight provides ample cool drinking water. There is also a bathroom building with running water and flush toilets, which could get crowded during breaks, but never to the point where people were lined up outside waiting to get in. Front Sight also has a bunch of chemical toilets in reserve.

There were other specialty ranges as well, including at least one fun house range (configured with two lines that could be used simultaneously), and other smaller ranges that appeared to be available for training with cover, such as cars, temporary structures, etc.

I did not check out the rifle ranges, but they seemed to use the same berms and basic layout as the longer pistol ranges.

The pro shop does not sell guns, but it does sell ammo, belts, holsters, T-shirts, hearing protection, magazines … smaller items. You can also arrange with the pro shop to rent a weapon if you don't have one. Prices are sky high, but there are numerous stories on the Internet about students not being able to manage the weapon they brought, and Front Sight providing a weapon so they could complete the course, which seems absurding generous. I resisted at first, but after struggling with the free holster I received with the weapon I brought, I broke down and rented an Uncle Mike's Kydex Paddle Holster for the rest of the course. It was great to have the option, and it really was a huge improvement over the original equipment holster I brought with me.

The Front Sight approach

Many years ago, I attended a two-day defensive handgun class put on by Chuck Taylor (yes, the Chuck Taylor of the American Small Arms Academy). I came away tremendously impressed both by Chuck and by his simple, straightforward approach to combat handgunning. I was therefore a bit apprehensive that Front Sight might deprecate the skills and techniques I had used for the last couple decades, requiring me to unlearn and then relearn weapons handling the Front Sight way.

In general, this was not the case. The Front Sight approach clearly uses Chuck Taylor's (and Jeff Cooper's?) groundbreaking techniques as a foundation for its classes. However, the Front Sight system seems to have added complexity to Taylor's stripped-down system, making it too complex, in my opinion. There are too many similar-but-different moves that are context sensitive, as opposed to fewer simple moves that work in more than one context. To give an example, when handling a 1911, Taylor taught to have the safety on at the ready, taking it off when raising it to fire. The Front Sight method is to have the safety off at the ready position when presenting, but to have the safety on after lowering the weapon after action. The multiplication of techniques is good for Front Sight, because the student feels compelled to return again (and again?) to master the confusion, but I am unconvinced of the efficaciousness of requiring complex actions in high-stress situations. Certainly everyone knows by now that fine motor control disappears in stressful situations; if you can’t accomplish your task using relatively gross motor functions, you’re going to finish second in the gunfight. Front Sight also teaches two different presentations (AKA drawing the gun from your holster), compared to Taylor's one presentation, and Front Sight discourages magazine checks and changes when the weapon is holstered, which was (is?) taught and encouraged by Taylor.

Front Sight employees have a dress code, which makes it easy to pick them out. Different segments even have different outfits, so that pro shop workers are immediately distinguishable from range instructors, and so on. Range instructors wear black Front Sight hats, gray long-sleeve pressed shirts, black nine-pocket pants, and an Uncle Mike's polymer-reinforced Instructor's Belt, in addition to whatever boots, holster, and mag holders they prefer. The staff's paramilitary appearance seems matched by their professionalism, attention to detail, and close working relationships with other staff members, but there is no drill sargeant mentality here. Without exception, each Front Sight employee was attentive, considerate, and patient with students.

One thing I expected, given Front Sight's seemingly relentless self-promotion in other areas, was constant pressure to upsell students on other Front Sight courses. Instead, there was one mention at the end of the second day. In one way this was a relief, but I can't help but wonder if Front Sight isn't missing out by not letting people know about — for example — the CCW course, which seems a natural after training someone up to properly handle a handgun.

Classroom lectures

As you can see from the itinerary above, Front Sight offers a good mix of classroom time and range time. Classroom lectures covered a variety of topics, including the mental/psychological aspects of self-defense with a firearm, and tactical movement. The main classroom is configured a bit oddly; it's a long rectangle with the stage and podium in the center of one of the short sides. This has the benefit of physically separating the stage from the entrance on one end and the pro shop on the other, but it also means that there is a lot of seating area that's not terrible close to the stage. There is plenty of seating directly in front of the stage, though, and separating the rows of seats are tables you can use to put your stuff, take notes, or eat your lunch.

The classroom lectures combined all the 2-Day, 4-Day, and CCW students into the same room, so interaction with the presenter was extremely limited. There were several points where I would have questioned the presenter's information, given the opportunity, but doing so was just too cumbersome given the size of the group and the time constraints.

Range activities

The first session of the first day out on the range is the worst, because you're amped up about being on the range, the targets are set up, you've got all your equipment, and you're ready to start shooting. Of course, there are staff introductions (each student puts a piece of tape on the back of his shirt with his name on it), safety precautions, and other groundwork that must be laid before Front Sight allows the line to go hot. The more eager you are, the longer this takes. In my case, it took about fourteen hours longer than an eternity. As with any successful enterprise of this size, consistency is the key, and Range Officer Ciaccio referred to his course sheets early and often to make certain to cover everything.

Once we did get to the range (which was before noon the first day, contrary to my anxiety that it was never going to happen), half the class got on the firing line, and the other half stood behind them in the time-honored buddy system. Those on the firing line were doing their best to follow instructions, while the buddy behind them watched for egregious safety violations, gun-handling issues, and made certain that the person on the firing line was keeping up with the instructor. With roughly 40 students in our class, this kept the firing line at a manageable width, and allowed those in back to learn by turning them into mini-instructors. This arrangement also allowed Ciaccio's assistant range instructors to float along the line, helping out where needed.

The students in my group ranged from people with unwanted ingrained habits, to people who had been through the class before (some more than once), to people who seemed never to have fired a weapon.

The range officer and assistant instructors demonstrate each technique exhaustively before allowing the students to practice it for themselves.

Front Sight achieves range control through a series of commands designed to control virtually every move the students are to make. Combining this, the assistant range instructors, and the buddy standing behind the person on the firing line, Front Sight achieves fairly good control of the firing line. Part of that control demands that anything dropped on the ground (typically magazines) stays there until the range officer permits you to pick it up. Front Sight advises you to leave live ammo on the ground no matter what, both so you're not holding up the class picking it up as well as keeping you from running dirty and/or damaged ammo through your gun. If you're wondering why there would ever be ammo on the ground, it's because some of the malfunction drills require ejecting a live round, although there were numerous cases where people simply lost control of ammo and down it went.

One excellent thing Front Sight does is to bring in additional range assistants for segments that require a higher degree of supervision. Whether by telepathy, mind control, or simply preternatural staff coordination, these supplemental instructors seemed to appear out of nowhere at just the right time. It was very impressive.

Among the standard fare at Front Sight is the use of the Weaver stance, correct weapon grip, correct trigger control, manipulating the weapon controls, checking for a round in the chamber, checking the amount of ammo in the magazine, presenting the weapon from a holster, delivering a controlled pair of shots to the center of mass (upper torso), delivering a follow-up shot to the center of the head when needed, various reloading scenarios, and various previously-mentioned malfunction drills.

Front Sight also heavily promotes dry practice drills as a safe and inexpensive way to develop and maintain firearms skills.

Full course notes are available from the pro shop, along with an extensive manual on dry practice drills. If you have a life membership to Front Sight, you get 40 percent off on these manuals, and other items from the pro shop.

Lunch

The Front Sight literature makes it sound as if you have to bring any food you need during your stay, but the situation is better than this. There was a food trailer on the premises where you could buy items as needed, or place orders for meals to be delivered for lunch. I brought a box lunch from the hotel, and it seemed comparable to the food others were getting from the on-site service. There are also snack and drink vending machines in the main classroom, along with even more water, coffee machines, and (I think) hot chocolate and hot tea.

We ate lunch in the main classroom, where it was nice to get some shade and air conditioning. The most impressive thing about lunch, though, was the screening of The Front Sight Story during the first day's lunch break. In it, Front Sight founder Piazza makes a well-reasoned, eloquent, and persuasive enunciation of the importance of gun ownership. The video below is not the one they show, but it does give a tiny hint at how insanely great The Front Sight Story is.

Winding up

On the way out the door, Front Sight gives each student a questionnaire soliciting feedback about his experience. I spent a fair amount of time filling it out (raising the points in this review along with some others), but the response was what seemed to be a generic thank-you e-mail. Not certain what to make of that, as it's nice to be asked, but the bare-bones response left me feeling as if my feedback had gone directly into the bit bucket. Maybe I need a thicker skin.

Be that as it may, my trip to Front Sight has reignited my interest in shooting sports. Since returning home, I've been much more active at my local range. Combining my revamped handgun skills with more range time should result in better and more consistent accuracy.

Pros and Cons

I've tried to mention above where I thought Front Sight does a great job, and in general the Front Sight operation is tremendously impressive. On top of that, I want to thank Instructor Mark Koop for allowing me to shoot a few rounds through his Glock 17. For most persons (such as myself), getting to shoot a weapon you don’t own is a rare event, which means that often you must purchase a weapon to know if it’s really going to work for you. His weapon that day also had a 3.5-pound connector, which was a revelation. Thanks again, Mark!

Things that could have been made clearer

  • I wish that Front Sight had made it clear that the handgun is a reactive defensive weapon. A handgun is not for threatening someone so he'll do what you want: When you pull it out, it’s time to get serious. It’s not to be used as seen on TV, as the weapon of choice for raids by law enforcement officers who may or may not be accompanied by a SWAT unit.
  • Front Sight ties Condition Orange (from its Code of Mental Awareness and Combat Mindset) to intent. However, Condition Orange is also useful when there is no intent on the part of others. If the driver of an oncoming vehicle doesn’t realize he’s crossed the center line and is headed in your direction, he certainly doesn’t intend to injury you or even get into a collision, but you still have to react appropriately to avoid injury or death. I personally also think that when you're in Condition Orange, you should be looking to get out of the vicinity and/or find cover, but these options are not covered in any depth at Front Sight.
  • Front Sight recommends writing and mailing a letter to yourself on completion of the class outlining your thinking on the use of lethal force to stop an attack. However, it seems to me that doing so might increase your liability later. If in October 2012 I put down a bad guy to save myself or others, what stops the prosecution from telling the jury that I have obviously been planning to do just this for at least a year, since taking a Front Sight class in September of 2011? I can imagine the cross-examination going something like this:
    Q: When did you make the decision to shoot the victim?
    A: When he pointed a gun in my wife's direction.
    Q: Really? Haven’t you been prepared to shoot him or someone … anyone, actually … since taking a gun course at Front Sight? Haven’t you just been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to pull your weapon and gun down another human being? Didn’t you even write yourself a letter a year ago attempting to justify in advance the shoot-out you were seeking?
  • I wish Front Sight had made it more clear that the best gunfight is often the one you don’t have.
  • I wish the Front Sight introductory package had included information about gun laws in Nevada. Those of us from out of state (and perhaps Nevada citizens who are not familiar that state’s gun laws) would benefit from learning what the gun-owner can do in Nevada.
  • The sign-in and weapons check procedures could have been better described in the literature.

Things that could have been done better

  • Firing line control became sketchy by the second day, mostly as a result of the disparities in skill sets among students. It seems that with two 2-Day courses running at the same time, Front Sight could have merged the better students from each course into one class and merged the struggling students from each course into another separate class with good effect. The mixture of slower and faster students on the firing line many times also gave rise to what I thought was the bizarre situation where some more accomplished class members had to hold the ready position for more than a minute before returning the weapon to the holster, while staff were helping other, less-accomplished class members fire their shots.
  • In theory, it seems that you could execute each move perfectly merely by listening to the range officer, and following each command when given. In practice, having 39+ others on or behind the line creates enough distractions that even if you could internalize each range command (so that hearing the command meant you immediately could act upon it), there are times when you can't hear a command over the crosstalk, or one of the assistant instructors is giving you personal attention, or you're having difficulty with our equipment, or things just plain get out of sync. I personally felt there were way too many commands, and this made it difficult to develop a smooth and seamless technique while still following the commands as issued. For example, Front Sight teaches a five-step method for presenting the weapon from a holster. The goal is to flow from the clear position (hands at your sides with the gun in the holster), to the ready position (gun indexed properly in hand, pointed down range at a 45-degree angle, ready for action) without pause, delay, fumble, or extraneous motion). Acquiring the initial grip on the gun while it is still in the holster is somewhat a separate motion, but from that point on, once you more or less master the presentation having to wait for the range officer's command introduces unwanted stopping points in the procedure. If you combine the steps into a nice flow, you risk reaching the ready position way ahead of the verbal commands. On a live-fire drill, this means that you're ready to rock 'n' roll when the next command is given ... only, because you've reached the ready position early, you're expecting the next command to be to engage and fire. Several times I found myself ready to go, and on hearing the next command almost engaged the target before I realized that the range officer's verbal command was for a step I'd already completed.
  • Front Sight doesn’t teach removing the perp’s weapon as part of the after-action process. In fact, the one lecturer advised not to disarm the perp, and to stand there close to the downed perp. Yikes on both counts.
  • Front Sight doesn't teach you to engage targets based on proximity, at least, not in the two-day class.
  • I found Front Sight's nomenclature confusing. I realize that any discipline worthy of the name is going to have its own terminology, but people coming into this new discipline then have to learn not only the discipline but the nomenclature, too. Front Sight staff obviously knows the nomenclature front and back, but there is so much of it that I and other students often became confused in the process of attempting to perform the physical actions required while processing verbose and sometimes unclear lingo from the staff. The worst case of this is when the person running the range told us that we were about to run a drill, and then barked three or four commands before issuing the actual command to start the drill. Several times, I saw other students react to the pre-drill orders, anticipating the actual go order. I might have done this myself as well, as I know that I sometimes flinched in reaction to one or more of the pre-drill orders before fully parsing the order and figuring out that it wasn’t the order to start the drill.
  • As instruction progressed, chatter on the line grew. By the end of the second day, there was so much chatter on the line that at several times I had to ask either the person next to me, a staff member, or the range master to repeat the last instruction.
  • I don’t think Range Officer Ciaccio ever did this, but by the end of the second day other staff members who were running the range sometimes became so engaged in other conversations (or something) that they failed to give clear instruction to those on the firing line. For example, at one point, a staff member apparently thought that he had given the command to reholster when in fact he had not. However, after giving the command to assume the ready position and perform a tactical reload, he talked non-stop (with another staff member, I believe), and his next command was to present from the holster.
  • If I remember correctly, Chuck Taylor acknowledged the contributions of others to the development of his method, despite the fact that he and Jeff Cooper weren’t exactly best buddies at the time (an impression I had picked up from other sources). At Front Sight, I never heard the name Chuck Taylor, Jeff Cooper, Massad Ayoob, or anyone else not associated with Front Sight. Part of the strength of the argument for civilian ownership of guns goes back to the history of the Second Amendment. Part of the strength of presenting the Front Sight method could be, in my opinion, harkening back to Front Sight’s predecessors in the art and science of combat and defensive handgunning.
  • It was almost impossible to move after firing the controlled pair, due to crowding on the firing line.

Nit picking

When asked about picking up dropped ammo, Range Officer Ciaccio’s answer implied that it was undesirable and unseemly (on par with picking up empty cases), the dropped ammo being problematic and potentially dangerous to use, and that the normal operation of the range dictated that the ammo remain on the ground until the annual range cleanup, at which time it would be discarded. This seemed odd, because there were no unfired rounds on the ground when we arrived the first day, and the unfired rounds from the first day were gone on our arrival the second day. In fact, unfired rounds seem to be picked up immediately by Front Sight staff as soon as students are out of sight at the end of the day. I find it difficult to believe that what potentially are hundreds of dollars worth of ammunition are painstakingly collected and then simply discarded every day. Again, it’s not the money as much as it is the principle: Either the ammo is valuable or it’s not. To imply that it’s trash and then mine it on the basis of finders keepers seems parsimonious at best.

Final thoughts

When I took Chuck Taylor’s course, he taught everything contained in the Front Sight 2-Day course; and apparently a bunch of stuff from its 4-Day course and advanced course(s); and he did it in two days in a wilderness area with no amenities; and he maintained complete control of the firing line; and he traveled to us. Therefore, I would rate Front Sight a seven out of ten.

However, Chuck Taylor no longer conducts classes of any kind. So, if you are serious about being able to defend yourself and/or others with a handgun, you need Front Sight training. Gun safety classes typically don't even touch on 95 percent of the information you need to know to use a handgun successfully. With Front Sight training, you will not only shoot better than just about everyone else you know, but you stand a good chance of shooting better than most law enforcement officers and members of the military. Additionally, you'll gain an appreciation of the social and legal aspects of using a handgun for self-defense, without having to learn them the hard way. If you're interested, contact me about a discount membership. I have access to discontinued and much-coveted all you can eat Diamond memberships for a tiny fraction of their original price. Although there are several good reasons to own one or more of these memberships, the basic reason is that you get to attend any Front Sight class whenever you want, as often as you want, for life. If you are at all interested in attending Front Sight even once, you absolutely will save a ton of money if you obtain one of these memberships through me.

Just as important as its ability to train the average civilian in self defense, is Front Sight's role as a staunch supporter and defender of our very right to self defense, as expressed in the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

I'm already planning to return to Front Sight as soon as possible for the four-day defensive handgun course, followed by the course to get my 30-state CCW certificate.

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