Todd's Review of Frontsight

I took advantage of Frontsight's 'Millionaire Patriot' offer in the fall of 2009 (full disclosure - the above link and banner are 'affiliate' links, I'll make money if you click through and sign up).

It was a smokin' deal, five days of Defensive Handgun / Concealed Weapons Permit training for $1,200, and they throw in a desirable (to me, anyway) gun worth about $500 to boot.

What's it like?

Well let me start by saying that Dr. Ignatius Piazza, the man behind Front Sight, is a marketing machine. If you're a thinking person (I like to think I am), the approach that Dr. Piazza takes looks a lot like multi-level marketing (MLM), where each person is responsible (and rewarded) for recruiting other members. With this page, I become part of that system.... Dr. Piazza also states that his purpose is nothing less than changing he image of gun ownership in America. This dove-tails neatly into the MLM aspect, as it causes each of us in this "silent minority" to question our silence. Perhaps the cause of gun ownership / 2nd amendment rights in America is better served if I talk openly about it and not hide it from my co-workers / friends / family. Dr. Piazza talks about taking the struggle to the "opinion makers", and this seems like a pretty sound strategy to me.

Pahrump, NV due West of Las Vegas, about 90 minutes by road. I did a "three phase" Nevada trip, driving down from Seattle via Yakima and Twin Falls, ID. A very pleasant two day drive, and I diverted through the Silver State Classic route in my Volkswagen R32. During my first phase in Vegas, I stayed in "Element Las Vegas Summerlin by Westin" in Western Vegas. Nice place, new, cheap via one of those hotwire-type deals. My first phase was dominated by taking my R32 to the track in Pahrump, to Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch. I sought reservations in Pahrump for that phase, but got shut out. I had a blast with the SoCal R32 boys.

2nd phase - I picked up Mrs. Peach at the Las Vegas airport, and we checked in to the Bellagio, one of Vegas's finest resorts on the strip, and highly recommended to me by folks who enjoy Vegas. Unfortunately, we find that we are not among them.... Vegas is one of those things that you need to experience once to figure out if it's for you or not. Suffice it to say, our most enjoyable time in Vegas was driving around, getting the hell out, seeing the sights.

3rd phase - put Mrs. Peach back on the plane, and drive back to Pahrump. Check in at the Best Western - Pahrump Station (which I learned by comparing notes with other classmates might be the best deal / best kept place in Pahrump; ask for the Frontsight rate), and head out to Front Sight the following morning. Pahrump itself is not much of a destination (in my opinion). I say this not to be unkind to the town and its denizens, but to guide you if you were thinking of taking a spouse along. Mrs. Peach (good sport that she is) often tries to plan a vacation where I'm off "doing my thing", and she's camped in a nice hotel room with a view, working on a sewing project, maybe making side trips to fabric / quilt stores to refresh her stash. Pahrump is not one of those places....

If Pahrump hotels are sold out, be careful about your search for 'close by'. I almost fell for an inexpensive room near "Mt. Charleston" that one of the aggregator sites (Hotwire?) suggested. It as listed as something like "23 miles" away. That's 23 miles as the crow flies, but almost a *two hour* drive to go around the mountain.

Grueling Schedule

Another reason Frontsight / Pahrump is not a couple's destination (if your spouse is not attending courses also) is the grueling schedule. Most days are "report at 0800" and "knock off around 1800". Some days start earlier (registration, extra instructor attention if you want it), and some days end later (optional evening lectures, night shoots). Couple this with the fact that Frontsight is at least 30 minutes from *anywhere* (30 from Pahrump, 90 from Vegas) and you have very full days. Even if the wife wants to drop you off and have the car to herself, she'll still be a ways from anywhere with not much to do.

The marketers at Frontsight like to tout the fullness of the schedule, and I have to begrudgingly agree: since I'm paying for the training, it would probably hack me off if the goal was to knock off by 1430, like a typical corporate diversity seminar. Having said that, I know I had to resist the urge to roll my eyes when instructors would ask me if I "Worked on my dry fire drills" overnight; there just doesn't seem enough time in the day to do the coursework / drive time / sleep / eat / do anything else!

First Impressions

The 30 minute drive from Pahrump (crossing the county line twice) brings you to the Frontsight compound. Paved roads right up to the fence, then gravel once you're on site. One of the first things you pass once inside the gate is the elevated water trailer. Its importance soon becomes apparent, as it quickly becomes obvious that Frontsight has no running water (in 2009). The cynical side of me kept rewinding through the advertising hype, "We have doubled (our business) every year for 13 straight years", We're offering luxury home sites, We're building a destination resort, etc. How the hell are they doing all of that with outhouses? Right then and there, part of me was glad that I was going to get my money's worth that weekend (hopefully) and not have my money tied to some future promise of fulfillment. I should carefully state (I am the son of a lawyer) that I didn't see anything that amounted to false advertising, it just surprised me how humble / purposeful the place was. There was none of the glitz / sizzle that I was expecting based on their grand plans for the future. Many of the scenes from the promotional videos use the adobe range walls as backdrop. Those range walls are essentially "false fronts" serving as safety walls. They look like real buildings in the video, but they're free-standing walls. There was one only one permanent building (main classroom / pro shop) that I saw on site in fall 2009. April 2011 update: according to an email update, Frontsight just unveiled bathrooms!

Your first brush with the staff comes at the safety inspection. For the most part, the staff fit into a very narrow mold of folk: they command respect like a Marine D.I., but they've been to charm school. I will speculate (and I'm just speculating here) that the first two commandments for instructors / staff at frontsight are probably "nobody gets hurt" and "nobody goes home crying because the instructor yelled at them". Balancing the two is probably a herculean task, as you gotta yell a little to ensure a safe range.

I should maybe pause here to give my background with firearms. I have (prior to this) pretty much zero formal instruction. I earned a Pro-Marksman and Marksman badge with a .22 rifle when I was maybe 10 years old at Y-camp. Besides that, I did not grow up in a house that had guns. I had several friends in my youth that had firearms experience, and they taught me the rudiments. I've had a (Washington State) concealed weapons permit for about fifteen years. I have carried concealed in my free time most of that time. I probably shoot (on average) 300 rounds of pistol ammo a year prior to this training. Not as much as I should, but enough to keep the guns working and me more or less on target. I shot a little "social / competitive" league back in the '90's, and I definitely saw where repetition / light instruction could improve on the basics.

The safety inspection at Frontsight can be a little off-putting, but I understand it. They're checking three major areas:

  • Is your ammo factory spec? - they have in their FAQs that they've had significant problems with reloads
  • Is your gun sound? - I have no idea what constitutes a failure here
  • Do you have a properly fitted holster? - must be capable of concealement (strong side hip) and one hand re-holsterable

    Throughout your time at Frontsight, it is stressed that the *only* time a student handles his/her weapon is while on an active range, at the direction of a range master. The safety inspection is part of that drill. You walk up to a stranger, and he/she goes through your bag, pulls your pistol off your hip / reinserts it, asks questions. You never touch your gun. It's not exactly TSA, but it gets your attention.

    In their promotional videos, Frontsight likes to talk about how they encourage folks to walk around the site with weapons on their hips. They are emphatically not loaded, unless that person is on staff. Again, I understand, but it's the image behind the image.

    First morning coursework is a little dry and "legal-eze". Frontsight has to dot the I's and cross the T's to absolve themselves (as best they can) of liablility. It is interesting to look around (I think there were 500 students there the weekend I was in attendance) and try to "pigeon-hole" folks. I think there were three seniors with walkers, a bunch of "couples", (maybe one-fourth of the handgun class atendees were women, probably half as couples) and probably 20 law enforcement types (based on later "raised hands") there.

    To the Range

    From the classroom, it's out to the range. First day range work is painfully slow. It helps to understand that Frontsight (in the two day / four day defensive handgun class) is setting out to train from the "I've never touched a gun before" level. There's actually a few anecdotes in the coursework / script about how those folks are "more trainable" than schlubs like me who have developed bad habits for fifteen years. I believe it, but it makes for a slow start.

    All of the ranges at Frontsight are surrounded by either 12 foot earthen berms or concrete block / adobe walls. It was interesting to me that one could be on the range receiving instruction (no ear protection) while the next range over was firing. Having said that, I think electronic earmuffs should be a requirement. They greatly aid hearing the formal (instructor) and informal (coach / buddy) instruction. While firing is going on on *your* range, ear protection is required, but there's a fair amount of interaction happening too.

    One of the things that I did not really "connect" with at first is the buddy system. They like to do a 'Relay 1' and 'Relay 2' rotation at the firing line, with the members of one observing / coaching the others as they go through the lesson and training. This is done one-on-one. This works well if you came to the class with a buddy. If you did not, they'll pair you up with a stranger. During the first day and a half, I found I was an 'odd man', there weren't an even number of folks there. So I guess I missed the benefit of the amateur 'coaching', but I gained extra range time. Whenever we were doing a lesson where I felt I hadn't scored to the best of my ability, I simply went up twice and did it again. About mid-way through the second day, I got paired with a guy whose wife had opted out of some of the instruction (I think she had the flu). This was a little odd, trying to pick up on this coaching relationship partway through. And then on the fourth day, the wife returned, and I was on my own again.

    The ranges all have a sun-shaded lecture area and a firing line that's about 20 targets wide. If you're lucky and get one of the designated pistol ranges near the classroom, the range is no more than fifteen meters deep. If you get one of the rifle ranges, you'll have to march a long ways from the lecture area to the firing line each time...

    The targets are for the most part Frontsight proprietary; large thoracic cavities and smaller ocular cavities. Here's where Dr. Piazza leverage his medical training to do research on the effectiveness of hits and registers his opinions on the "fight stopping" probability of a hit in these regions.

    The target carriers are motorized, and after the first day we did some "target on / target off" type training. This eventually becomes part of the test on the fourth day, where you're required to register so many hits in so many seconds to get a passing grade.

    Staff / Attitudes on the Range

    On my range, we had a single Range Master (who MC'd most of the instruction) and at least two helpers at all times. We had some rotation on the helpers; at least one had his 'day job' intrude and had to leave.

    If you've spent any time at a range / gun store, you've no doubt run into "attitude", more or less. One of the most recognized ones is, "If your pistol caliber doesn't start with a '4', you're a weenie / not worthy of my time." FWIW, I scored my "promotion gun" as a Springfield XD in .45 ACP, but chose not to shoot with it during the course for two simple reasons:

    I got a faint whiff of attitude off of the Range Master as we discussed my HKP7. He predicted (rightly, as it happened) that I would have a hell of a time on malfunction drills (the HKP7 does not lend itself to locking the slide back to clear a jam in a hurry). One of his helpers (who was shooting a new custom .45) later made his apologies, thought my HKP7 was a great gun, etc. I thought it was interesting to try to place these guys on the spectrum of "gun guys" with attitudes / opinions. We're all human, and it's hard to get the opinions out of instruction (it's probably healthy, actually). On the flip side, there was a woman I sat next to who had a bob-hammer five shot .38 (Ruger SP-101? not sure) as 'her gun' for the course. She was relatively new to firearms, and did not score well with this short-barreled DAO beast. They offered to give here a no charge rental Glock 19 or something, but she "stuck to her gun" (a new purchase, I think). They did not try to brow beat her, they just patiently offered her additonal (no time pressure, for the most part) instruction off to one side. The attitude here was very success oriented, give her space to improve, etc.

    For those of you who don't know me well, I should probably give you a quick sketch: I am a 6 foot 6 inch, 250 pound guy with a beard. I tan well in the desert. Add a turban, and I'm definitely on a TSA watch list. I got asked pretty much every time to stand up in class as the 'bad guy', the reason you might want to walk around armed. So it's against that backdrop that I get a little guff about shooting with a wimpy weapon...

    Having said all that, every single one of the staff I interacted with on the range was professional, courteous, and had had everyone's safety as a prime concern. It seemed a little over the top to have to get a range master to help me swap one unloaded weapon (in my hip holster, but gritted up and in need of cleaning) for another identical unloaded weapon out of my range bag, but I understand the protocols. They don't really have a need to trust me, but I have a need to trust them to ensure my safety among 40-odd students.

    Lunch, Lectures

    Basic Range Equipment -some discussion on eyes, ears, clothing I used on the range. What works.

    More Range Work

    I think on the second day, we finally progressed to drawing a loaded weapon from the holster, ready to fire. We still weren't walking around with loaded weapons; we'd hit the firing line, "present to the ready" our unloaded weapon, then proceed to load and reholster them. Only then would we do shooting drills where we would draw a loaded weapon and fire at targets. I think the whole time prior to this, the range staff is watching closely for folks who "don't get it", who are handling weapons unsafely. Only when they convinced themselves that we've all learned up to that level do they allow us to proceed.

    This is where the emphasis on speed began to creep in. Most drills had us shooting two rounds (a 'controlled pair', as opposed to a 'double tap') into the thoracic cavity of the targets. A typical drill might have us repeat that four times, for eight shots on target. The goal was to have those eight shots be about a "hand span" grouping. If you were shooting tighter groups than that, you were encouraged to 'speed up'.

    As new topics were introduced, the confusion level starts to creep up. The staff does a nice job of periodically going back to basics and drilling that as well. I myself had a moment of confusion after a new topic was introduced (I forget what the new topic was). My HK P7 failed to fire, and I went through two cycles of "Type 1 Malfunction" clearance before I sheepishly raised my weak hand and asked for help. The instructor ('Moon') came over and examined my weapon. Moon had laryngytis that week, and most of our interactions were either in whispers or semi-mime gestures. After a few seconds of messing with my gun, he gave his verdict: I was failing to squeeze the front strap sufficiently to take it off safe (he held the weapon up and mimed the 'big squeeze'). This is a 'feature' peculiar to the HK P7; it requires about 12 pounds of force on the front strap to 'squeeze cock' it. This is an extremely basic mistake for this weapon, and it embarrassed me (personally, it's not like the class / staff gathered around pointing and laughing). I share it here as an anecdote of "learning from a firehose" and having to keep it all straight.

    Malfunction Drills - the drills for Type 1, Type 2, Type 3 malfunctions deserve their own page.

    Time Pressure

    The time pressure keeps mounting throughout the course, with the expectation that you'll be able to make all your hits / clear all your malfunctions within accepted norms of elapsed time. I think that by the end of two days, we had been taught all the basic moves. This allows those taking a two day class to take their exams and leave. We did not have a mix of two day and four day students on my range.

    Photo Realistic Targets

    On the third day, they introduced photo realistic targets, where the target represented a real image of someone pointing a weapon at you. I found this to be notably chilling. I found myself naturally losing about 6-8" of height from my usual firing stance. It just seemed normal to make yourself a smaller target. I was surprised that the staff discouraged this, correcting my posture. I figure there's at least two possibilities at work here:

    We did not, on the ranges, use these photo realistic targets on motorized target carriers as "shoot / no shoot" decisions, something that surprised me a bit. I suppose it's just way too complicated to pull that off on an open range with 20 stations. It would have to wait for the shoothouse.

    Doorway Clearance - Discussion of clearing doors.

    The Shoothouse - Discussion of the live fire shoothouse.

    Steel Reactive Targets, One-on-One Competition

    Towards the end of the course, they bring out steel reactive targets and set them up in a side-by-side competition mode. This was my first experience with them. A steel reactive target is made out of heavy plate steel. It's made to be shot at, and non-armor piercing handgun rounds won't damage it. They're designed so that a solid 'hit' will either swing the target around a pivot point or cause it to fall over, fall off a ledge, some form of obvious reaction. Of course the definition of 'solid hit' varies a little between a 115g 9mm round and a 230g .45 round, but I'm not complaining. This is probably a valid case of art imitating life, where shot placement with a lower energy round is much more critical than it is with a more powerful round.

    Unfortunately in my case, I followed Keanu Reaves' advice to "shoot the hostage" and knocked myself out of the match early. The names for the matches are drawn at random. It so happened that I was drawn first, along with a guy I'd been chatting with (though not my coach / buddy). We both "shot the hostage" by accident, and both DQ'd.

    Freed up early to just watch and enjoy (oh wait, losers also have to help reset the targets), I watched some remarkable shooting. At one point, a father and son competed against each other (at random). They were very well matched, and as I recall it was a 'photo finish' for time elapsed. Careful inspection of the targets revealed that the father had faulted ("nicking" the hostage), so the son advanced. He ended up being the top shooter for the event, earning a special prize. I believe he also went on to "distinguished graduate" status. This was not his first time at frontsight.

    Night Shoot - Discussion of shooting at night.

    Final Exam, 4 Day Course

    The final exam tests all the skills you learned on the shooting range. I improved over the time I spent there, but I did not achieve a "graduating" score on the final exam. I had a little bit of trouble at max range for precision shooting. This probably means I'm still relying on point shooting too much, or that I should have made an effort to "drill, baby drill" during the evenings.

    My real failings were in the malfunction drills. A type 3 malfunction is just devilishly difficult to clear on my gun. Consider me a fan of the "New York Reload". If I had achieved "graduation" on the firing line exclusive of the malfunction drills, I'd be happy.

    CCW Course (1 day)

    This was an impressive display of administrative skill. In addition to the instructor (who more or less simultaneously taught the CCW laws of three states; Utah, Florida and Nevada) there were multiple fingerprint techs, a photographer, notaries public, and enough support staff to crank through it all in a morning.

    The written exam (Utah?) was not too difficult, particularly since you're taking it within an hour of covering the material.

    The shooting exam felt like a joke compared to the four days of prior training and examination. The target was the classic man-sized silhouette with the black oval "ten ring" super-imposed on it. I've forgotten the specifics, but it was something like, "From five yards shoot fifteen rounds, no time limit. Step back to seven yards, shoot fifteen more rounds, no time limit." The result is a ragged fist-sized hole entirely in the ten ring. I suppose if one wanted to really exercise the "no time limit" rule, we could be very deliberate and reduce the size of the group down to two inches or so, but it still felt like the shooting should be somewhat realistic (e.g. quicker).

    Part of the reason the three states of Florida, Nevada and Utah are chosen for instruction is that together they have remarkable reciprocity; something like 37 state coverage. When I was reviewing the course materials prior to attending class, I found that I had no need to complete the Nevada coursework, as the Utah CCW would "get me" Nevada for free. I noted that Nevada has a requirement that they'll only license you for the actual model gun you took the test with (except "a revolver is a revolver"). Not planning on taking the Nevada exam, I left my Walther PPK/S in the hotel room with the rest of my stuff.

    Unfortunately for me, the Nevada law had changed in the prior months, and they elected to no longer honor Utah's permit. Not having my Walther handy, I qualified with my HKP7 and a Sig Sauer P226 I had in my bag just in case my HKP7 didn't work out in the class. It is *highly* unlikely that I'll ever carry my Sig Sauer in Nevada again, so this was something of a waste.

    Oh yeah, the second gun is shot using the same "raggedy hole" target the first gun used, so it really is a pretty meaningless test.

    Fifth Day - Additional Instruction - CQB, Point Blank Shooting

    We had a different instructor on the fifth day, and of course we had a different lesson plan. In the first four days, our "after action drills" were primarily:

    In the first four days, the "scan area for threat" was pretty much directed 45 degrees left and right, from your feet to the horizon. This is apparently the limit of safe instruction when you have twice as many people on the range (including buddy / coach) as you have target positions.

    With less crowding on the range, we worked on a full 360 scan, working in quadrants. This felt a whole lot more realistic, and hopefully will remind us to really, "Look behind you, dummy!" after any bad encounter. Among other things, it reminded me to discuss with my wife that when I say, "Watch my back.." that she understands exactly what I mean. She's no fool.

    We also discussed the "Sul" as an alternative to the "Low Ready" position. Sul is Portuguese for "South". It's a peculiar way of holding a gun with both hands near your belly, pointed down (south) at a point about a foot in front of your feet. If you've trained for it, it's every bit as quick to convert to "on target" as the low ready, particularly for a handgun. It has the added advantage (at least to gun folk) of being recognized as the product of some professional training, and it just *might* get you an extra benefit of the doubt from civilian and LEO as they come upon you armed. (I don't want to overstate this, as it was made pretty clear in the lectures that it's entirely likely a LEO will still want you face down in handcuffs with his knee on your back.)

    After four days of emphasis on "front" we did on the fifth day do a few drills at contact range with no sight picture whatsoever. If you're one step away from your assailant, the last thing you want to do is stick the gun in between you and dare him to grab it. We drilled on drawing straight up from the holster, rotate muzzle forward, and then firing with the gun in contact with our lower rib cage. It's surprisingly easy to put a controlled pair into the thoracic cavity that way, particularly if you've drilled it a little.

    This invoked the following thoughtful exchange between the instructor and a couple of my reasonably well-endowed female classmates:

    Traveling with Ammo

    Quite a few folks travel to Frontsight by flying in and out of Las Vegas. I drove down from the Seattle area. Ammunition can be a tricky thing to fly with, particularly with today's weight limits and extra charges for baggage. It can be done, but some people arrange to buy the 1,000 rounds of ammo required for the five day class from Frontsight, reserving it before they get here.

    I ran into one guy on the fifth day who asked me (seeing my HKP7 on my hip) if I shot 9mm. "Yes, of course," said I. He and two other members of his family had shipped 3,000 rounds of 9mm FMJ to the FedEx office on sort of a "will call" basis, then flown in and picked it up. Like most of us, they had each shot about 700 rounds, and thus had about 900 rounds between them that they did not want to deal with at the airport or shipping. I had cash (and a car) and we struck a nice deal with me buying up all his remaining ammo.

    Others who had purchased from Frontsight had smaller amounts of ammo to "unload", but I didn't get around to any of them. Frontsight publishes a "no returns" policy on ammo, but maybe they bend it a little, I'm not sure.

    As a parting shot, the staff at Frontsight highly recommended taking a shower and changing your clothes before heading to the airport. It seems that after a day or more in the desert going through hundreds of rounds of ammo, you're highly likely to attract the attention of the "sniffers" (both chemical and canine) in the airport. Avoid the hassles that you can.

    I am banging out this frontsight review as a stream of consciousness (January, 2010). As I get the meat out there, I'll come back and reorganize / chapter it or something.

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