FORT BENNING, Ga. (Aug. 24, 2009) -- Every summer at Camp Perry, Ohio, prior to the National Rifle and Pistol Trophy Matches, Soldiers from the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit take time out of their own training to pass their knowledge and shooting skills on to the next generation of American shooters.
The Small Arms Firing School was instituted in 1918 by the Department of Defense and is conducted by the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit. The school is held so the military can teach the efficient application of the fundamentals of marksmanship, said Sgt. 1st Class Jason St. John, USAMU. His team is assisted by members of the Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Army Reserve and National Guard.
The concept sprang up so that civilians would have familiarity with the weapon and could make a smooth transition from civilian to Soldier if the nation's security situation became unstable. More than 1,000 eager-to-learn shooters took part in this year's class.
"We are teaching civilians so that in a time of war, with the knowledge that they have and if it's a real bad deal, then they can help out the military," said Sgt. 1st Class Lance Dement, USAMU. "But they are also going to become competitive shooters. We're going to show them what is right and stress to them the basics of shooting."
The day starts with classroom instruction and covers everything from the functioning of the weapon to proper positioning. The instructors are among the best in the field, as evident at the pistol class, where 2009 National Pistol Champion Sgt. 1st Class James Henderson of the USAMU was among the lead instructors.
After a few hours in the classroom, the students make the short trek to the range and get a feel for the weapon in dry-fire simulation. There are two students per military instructor.
Upon their return from lunch, students load live rounds into the chamber and shoot, some for the very first time. The USAMU provides M-16A2 rifles for the students to use and installs a block to deny the use of the "burst" or automatic function on the rifle.
The school ends with a sanctioned Excellence in Competition match where shooters are afforded the opportunity to earn four points toward their distinguished badge.
The school was tweaked this year and broken into a basic and an advanced class. The basic class was tailored for those who have never shot a pistol or rifle, said St. John. They were given an introduction to the military small-arms and an inclusion to what a shooting competition encompasses.
"The advanced class was a clinic for middle-of-the-road to top-of-the line competitive shooters and covered mental management training, preparing for a competition, and basically what it's going to take to get to that next level," said St. John.
Splitting the class into two and enabling the instructors to teach in relation to a shooter's experience instead of a general audience seemed to be a success as apparent by the large number in attendance.
"It's the first time we've done this and I think it's the way to go," Dement said. "In previous years we had around 400 students or less (for the rifle class) and now we're close to 700. With the price of ammo going up, the cost of fuel, the economy the way it is, and people are still coming -- that's a good thing. They are the future of the sport."
All walks of life took part in the class-men, women and children. The students ranged in age from 11 to 70, St. John said. State junior shooting teams showed up, families planned their family vacations around the trip to Perry, and others flew a very far distance to learn from the best military in the world.
"I've been looking forward to this for some time," said Stewart George, who made his way all the way from Belrose, Australia, with three others to take part in the school. "A friend of mine heard about the school and we wanted to learn from the best, so here we are. I've done some Army Reserve time and shot a rifle, but not an M-16A2."
The class enables the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit to connect with America. The dedication, professionalism and expertise the Soldiers demonstrate to the students instill positive impressions of the Army that may help prospective candidates in their decision to enter the Army, officials said.
"It's such a great thing," said Jim Davis, Hamilton, Ind. "This is the best place in the country, maybe the world, to learn about shooting and everything that goes with it."
Davis took his son and three other children from the Dekalb County 4-H Club to the rifle class, stressing to them how valuable the instruction is to them now and down the road.
"I still remember when I came to this school as a teenager," he said. "I tell my kid that this is something that you'll always remember."
(Michael Molinaro serves as the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit public affairs officer.)