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Outer Limits: A Day on the Range

Shooting can be a safe and fun way to spend an afternoon - if you follow the rules

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002

HUDSON -- The first time I cradled the pistol, I made my first safety mistake.

I put my finger on the trigger.

Jim Fioranielli, owner and operator of the B&B Gun Shop and indoor shooting range, handed me the Glock 17 9 mm semi-automatic pistol the way he would to any customer: unloaded, empty magazine ejected, slide cocked back revealing no round in the chamber, and with the barrel pointing away.

Before handing me the weapon, Fioranielli demonstrated how to hold any firearm I wasn't about to fire; with my trigger finger, my right index finger, laying flat against the side of the trigger guard.

So I should have known better when I first grabbed the gun. But I did it anyway.

"The first thing (people) do is they want to pick it up, and when they pick it up, their finger is on the trigger," Fioranielli said.

It was just the first safety lesson Times photographer Brendan Fitterer and I would learn. If we were going to enjoy our day at the gun range, we had to learn to handle these weapons safely.

* * *

Despite a predisposed male fascination with firearms, it would be hard to find more of a novice on the gun range than me.

But on Tuesday, Fitterer and I were going to spend the day at the gun range, learning how to handle, load and shoot a variety of firearms. And Fioranielli was going to teach us.

Born in New York City, Fioranielli was a U.S. Marine sniper in Vietnam, a 10-year veteran of the Smithtown Parks Police Department in Suffolk County, N.Y., and has been a firearms dealer in Pasco County since 1980.

Safety is paramount in his shop. Fioranielli and son T.J., 18, always handle firearms unloaded. Semi-automatic pistols must have the clip ejected and slide pulled back, so no bullet can be seen in the chamber. For revolvers, the cylinder must be empty, open and to the side. Never point a firearm at anyone. "Don't aim it at anything you don't want to destroy," Fioranielli said.

Fioranielli showed us the safety features on the Glock 17. Eye and ear protection is a must on the gun range, where firearms are finally loaded and where we must exercise the most caution.

Fioranielli's pet peeves are the know-it-alls and the careless, like those who ignore the "no loaded firearms permitted" sign.

"There's a lot of people with carry-permits I wish I could just take away and rip up," Fioranielli said. "They do silly, inexcusable things."

* * *

After our safety lecture, Fioranielli showed us how to fire the pistol. I aped his firing stance as best I could, my outstretched right hand holding the firearm, my left hand wrapped tightly around it.

To aim the Glock 17, I had to make sure the sight, the barrel and my eye were aligned.

"Just relax, take a few deep breaths, aim, and in between the last breath, pull the trigger," Fioranielli said.

So I did. Wow.

* * *

At first, I was awed by the responsibility. Now I was in awe of the power of the weapon. The Glock 17 was a smooth, easy-to-handle weapon, and the recoil was very slight. I barely noticed the fiery muzzle blast or the sound of the ejected, spent cartridge hitting the floor.

My first shot was true, hitting the red circle in the center of the target several yards away. It was hard to believe I made that neat little hole in the paper target; as hard to imagine as the damage that bullet could cause.

I had eight bullets in the clip, and as I slowly squeezed off the rest, my aim worsened. It was a common theme. My first shot was always my best. Later on, I realized I was closing my eyes as I squeezed the trigger.

It was all in my head, Fioranielli explained."If you relax with it, have a firm grip, you won't have that problem if you concentrate on lining up the sight," he said. "You don't worry about the pistol pulling."

Then it was Fitterer's turn, and since he was experienced with firearms, his aim and technique were much better. We took turns firing the Glock 17, and it turns out the hardest part was loading the magazine, learning how to slide in those 9 mm slugs rear-end first. Fioranielli laughed at my feeble attempts to load the magazine.

He asked us what we would like to try next. Fitterer knew instantly: Heckler & Koch's MP5 submachine gun, a staple of law enforcement special-response teams and military special-operations troops.

We had to learn the MP5's safety features, how to eject the magazine and clear the action, and understand the single-fire, three-shot and auto-fire settings.

Amazingly, the MP5 was smoother than the smaller, less-powerful Glock 17, even when I was firing three-shot bursts that tore huge holes into the target.

"It's the stock," Fioranielli said. "It's easier to shoot when you can place it against your shoulder."

Next, we tried out the Colt AR M-16 Commando 9 mm assault rifle. Of course, we had to learn the safety features before we ripped into what was left of our targets.

It felt even more powerful, but not as powerful as the Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum I tried out next. I couldn't believe how big the cartridges were as I loaded them.

"That's a monster," Fioranielli said.

And how. I felt I could barely control the firearm as I squeezed the trigger, which didn't feel comfortable. It blew the biggest holes of all into the target, and when I kept my eyes open while firing a round, the blast looked just as Fioranielli described it: "A flamethrower."

My favorite, though, was the Glock 35 .40 caliber. It had more kick than the Glock 17 but handled just as smoothly despite the increased power. And I didn't mind the recoil -- after handling the .44 Magnum, that is.

But I was tired of getting whipped by Fitterer, whose target had neat clumps of holes in and around the red circle. The holes on my target were scattered.

So with just three bullets left in the Glock 35, I finally managed to grasp all of Fioranielli's instructions and squeeze off three neat holes in the red circle. That, or else I just got mad at the target.

"Sometimes that helps," he said.

Then we settled our bill. What, you think you can shoot these kinds of weapons and this much ammunition for free? Fitterer yearned to go back inside and purchase his own Glock, the lone firearm he can afford.

Days later, I called Fioranielli and asked him how we did.

"Not bad at all," he said. "Very well, in fact. Better than some so-called professionals. You'd be surprised what risks ex-military, ex-police officers take. They almost hurt themselves sometimes."

Not bad, huh? I wonder how much better I'll be next time.

Universal Firearm Rules

LEARN THE CHARACTERISTICS OF YOUR GUN: Know every aspect of the firearm. Never assume that knowledge of the safety features of one firearm guarantees familiarity with another. Read the owner's manual, and quiz the sales clerk or previous owner.

TREAT EVERY FIREARM AS IF IT IS LOADED: Never relax your guard. Develop good habits by handling every weapon as though it is loaded, because it may be. Removing the magazine from a semi-automatic pistol does not guarantee it is unloaded.

ALWAYS POINT THE MUZZLE IN A SAFE DIRECTION: Keep the muzzle pointed where it will do the least damage, usually the floor. Point the firearm away from people, as though it might go off accidentally.

KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER: Grasping the trigger of a loaded firearm before you are prepared to fire it could result in an accidental discharge if you stumble, fall, run into someone or are startled.

NEVER RELY ON A MECHANICAL SAFETY: Any mechanical device, like the safety on a gun, can fail. A safety is no substitute for safe handling practices.

KEEP GUN UNLOADED AND ACTION OPEN UNTIL READY TO SHOOT: On semi-automatics, that means ejecting the magazine and locking the slide back so that the chamber is visible. On revolvers, it means swinging open the cylinder and letting it hang outside the firearm.

KNOW YOUR TARGET AND WHAT'S BEYOND IT: Be aware of what lies near and beyond the target. If you are unsure of what you will strike, don't shoot. Do not shoot if the bullet's path will pass through populated areas. Be aware of surfaces that can cause bullets to ricochet.

-Source: Americans for Gun Safety Foundation.

Local Ranges

B&B GUN SHOP AND INDOOR SHOOTING RANGE: 8635 New York Ave., Hudson; (727) 862-6179.

DADE CITY ROD AND GUN CLUB: 35445 State Road 52, Dade City; (352) 521-3165.

HERNANDO SPORTSMAN'S CLUB: 10745 Commercial Way, Spring Hill; (352) 597-9931.

SILVER DOLLAR SHOOTERS CLUB: 12609 Silver Dollar Dr., Odessa; (813) 920-3231.

TAMPA BAY SPORTING CLAYS: 10514 Ehren Cutoff, Land O'Lakes; (813) 995-9282.

-- Compiled by Jamal Thalji.

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