Learning the art of mastering a hot Uzi: Kevin Pilley participates in a submachine-gun seminar in the Nevada desert intended to improve 'self-defence skills'

By Kevin Pilley
Financial Times (Europe)
October 9, 2000

Ignatius Piazza, a 40-year-old former chiropractor, was welcoming us to his free one-day, submachine-gun seminar. He was telling us of a terrifying personal experience when his family home in California was strafed during a drive-by incident.

"I was just an average gun enthusiast with no military or law enforcement experience. One day a group of anti-socials drove through our quiet neighbourhood and blasted away at everything that represented the fruits of a decent work ethic," he said.

"I was struck by a sudden and tremendously frightening realisation. I was incompetent to defend my life and those of my loved ones. I became every gun shop’s best friend. I'd buy two of everything."

Although he had owned firearms and fired them regularly at the range, he had never been taught the skills required to use a gun when it was needed most. After several years of training and thousands of hours of practice, he became only the second person to be awarded the coveted Four Weapons Combat Master certificate.

There were 15 of us at Front Sight, Piazza’s vision in the desert. We were in a large tented hangar in the Nevada desert near Pahrump, 45 miles from Las Vegas.

Since opening on a disused military base in Bakersfield in 1996,Front Sight has taught 3,500 students. Work on Front Sight in Nevada began in 1998 — that state allows private citizens to train with submachine-guns. California doesn't.

It is a $25,000,000 project that culminates next year in the opening of a550-acre gated community featuring a private airstrip, school, housing, 13 gun ranges, a five-story Swat storm tower and "live-fire" tactical simulators which will reproduce potentially lethal encounters.

The main road will be named Second Amendment Drive, referring to right to bear arms, and there will be a residential gunsmith and armoury as well as the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute, which has already been offering courses in lethal weaponry for three years.

As we walked to the range, which has been excavated from the scrubland, Walt told me why he was there: "I just want to be prepared. Self-defence situations are getting more common. You never know. Home invasions are a part of life," he said.

Walt had his name stuck on to the back of his hat and the front of hisshirt. He was a first-time student and, like all of us, had signed a liability waiver and provided a character witness before joining the course.

"If you own a gun, you have a responsibility to know how to handle it properly," said Jesse, walking beside us. He had a name tag, too.

"Knowing how to use a gun right might mean the difference between living and dying. I just want to improve my self-defence skill levels, I guess. The world isn't getting any safer."

Our instructors were waiting. Dressed in grey shirts, cargo pants, combat boots and wrap-around sunglasses, there were five of them. Front Sight has 80supervisors on call and allocates one to every four students.

For the first hour, seated under canvas, we listened to our teachers as they described the design features and capabilities of the Israeli Uzi, reputed to be the most widely distributed sub-machine-gun in the western world.

Their philosophy is that guns don't kill people, people do. We were taught to recognize and respond to basic range commands and observe basic range etiquette. Safety is paramount. "Do not let your muzzle cover anything that you are not willing to destroy," said ex-marine Dick Sullivan.

Our guns remained unloaded all morning. But our Uzis would be hot by lunchtime, when the live ammunition was loaded.

We were shown how to grip the weapon, how to load and reload and how tostand at a 30-degree angle to the line of fire, bent at the waist, our elbows pulled in and our cheeks resting on the stock. We learned how to lean into the target and to cushion the recoil of full automatic fire. We learned how to setup for optimal accuracy.

The Front Sight curriculum includes "real world techniques" and "street proven skills". Topics include "Combat mind set" and "The principles of tactics — concealment and cover, the element of surprise, movement and noise discipline".

At last, it was time for the real thing. The target was five yards away. We aimed at the thoracic cavity on the human silhouette paper target, pressed the trigger and released.

By the afternoon, the line had moved back to 20 yards and by the end of the day everyone had shot 300 rounds. The desert floor was littered with spent brass cartridges.

Front Sight membership packages range from $8,500 to $275,000. "This is going to be the Pebble Beach of firearms training," Piazza said, referring to the California golf course that is a frequent venue for major tournaments.

He added: "Although we are always looking for investors, our free submachine-gun courses are not a time-share presentation. At the end, you get a chance to buy a membership as well as a take-home target. There is no obligation.

"Although I would prefer that when they do get home people don't stick their targets up on their office walls."

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