True Competence Is Demonstrated, Not Spoken

False bravado is often confused with true competence. Somewhere in between is something which might be defined as unconscious incompetence, a state in which someone believes that they are competent when in fact they are not. I’ve learned to recognize the differences pretty quickly due to some of the experiences I’ve had and people I’ve encountered.

The platoon-sized unit of Marines I was assigned to put band-aids on was composed mostly of guys who had been in line (infantry) companies during Operation Phantom Fury – the second push through Fallujah in November of 2004 in which 54 Americans were killed and 425 wounded in a 9-day period. Total coalition casualties reached 107 killed and 613 wounded by the end of the operation. The guys in my platoon who had fought in that battle were short-timers with just enough time left on their contracts for part of one deployment, so the Marine Corps sent them back for a second or third trip. Almost all of them were from one battalion – 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, or 3/5.

I could have used any of the 3/5 or 2/4 Marines in my platoon to describe the word competence - for example, this corporal, who was and is a friend of mine. He is the epitome of a consummate professional.

Naturally, as a junior Corpsman straight out of the training pipeline, I idolized pretty much every one of my Marines. I really looked up to those who were combat veterans, but anyone who had been in a day longer than I was someone I respected.

One of the Marines was especially boastful – and in a platoon of Marines, that’s saying something. I’ll call him Country. He was especially critical of anyone who hadn’t deployed before or hadn’t been in combat. Among other things, he ridiculed me when I tried to teach things to the platoon. He wasn’t an infantry Marine, but an NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) specialist. He’d told everyone that as part of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines during Phantom Fury, he had been put in an infantry squad and seen plenty of fighting, because the battalion had no need for him at headquarters (the other NBC specialist in the platoon didn’t have any such experience, but I liked him more because he wasn’t a dick). He saw himself as a gunfighter, for lack of a better term.

Another of the Marines – Kirsch – was comparatively quiet. He’d been in a line company with some of the other 3/5 Marines, but had told me that he hadn’t seen much fighting. He was a happy-go-lucky guy that I became friends with. We butted heads from time to time, but got along pretty well overall. Considering that he was the turret gunner in my Humvee, that was a good thing. On base or when we had downtime while visiting outposts, OPs and FOBs, he joked around a lot. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that he was kind of scatterbrained (sorry dude).

Hooray, sandstorm. Only Kirsch, another Marine, and I stayed outside for this...

But in the turret, on roads where IED attacks occurred daily, his behavior changed as if a switch had been flipped. I wasn’t cognizant of it at the time, but I felt safe largely due to his presence in the turret. He knew what to look for and he looked for it. He knew how to use his M4 carbine, M9 pistol, and the mounted M2 heavy machine gun. He knew how to work as part of a team, how to take orders, when to take charge. He knew how to use the radio, how to drive the humvee, how to change an IED-shredded tire or attach tow straps to a disabled vehicle. He listened when I taught medical classes, and was ready to help me do my job if necessary.

Terrorists are scared of this man.

I mention this incident only because of its relevance to the topic and the behavior of these two Marines. Our unit was at the main administrative area for the city of Fallujah when a number of crew served weapons and rifles opened up on some of the Marines on post. I don’t exactly recall what happened, but I was closest of anyone to the trucks and the quickest to react, so I ended up being first in a turret. Kirsch was close behind me. The engagement was pretty short and I couldn’t positively identify where the shots were coming from. I wasn’t about to open up with a .50 caliber machine gun on an apartment building occupied by civilians, so I did not fire the weapon. When I looked around afterwards, I’m pretty sure I saw Country coming out of the main building where we had all been at the beginning. In contrast, Kirsch was right there with me, along with our driver.

A short time later, a Marine from 3/1 moved into a hooch across from one used by some members of my platoon. Conversation between him and the 3/5 Marines naturally moved to the one Marine we had from 3/1 – Country. To our initial surprise, he said that Country had never been part of an infantry squad during Phantom Fury – that he had spent the entire engagement at battalion headquarters. Naturally, a sort of come-to-Jesus moment occurred shortly thereafter for Country. It was handled quietly by the NCOs, but his behavior changed dramatically after that day.

True competence can only be demonstrated under true pressure. Some talk endlessly about how good they are, how much skill and experience they have, how learning new things isn’t important – but when it comes down to it, they fail to live up to their bluster in the real world. Country moved on to another (private) environment where men carry guns, and I wonder if he learned his lesson permanently, or if he kept telling tall tales. The takeaway for me was a life lesson on how to recognize hot air for what it is.

Gemstones & Bullets

I have been collecting precious stones since I was about 10 years old. I have a sizable collection, and although I have never been a fan of brilliant cut stones (or diamonds, for that matter – I’ll never buy a cut diamond), I found a few in my collection that matched up pretty well with some jacketed hollow point bullets I recently fired out of various guns underwater.

Clockwise from top left, blue topaz in .45 HST 230gr, African sapphire in 9mm HST 147gr, tsavorite in .40 HST 165gr, peridot in 9mm HST 147gr, pink sapphire in .38 Special 110gr DPX.

Stop Freaking Out About Carry Ammo

I guess this thought has been at the back of my mind for a while, I just hadn’t voiced it.

I recommend a number of different types of ammo for carry because 1) supply levels vary and 2) most modern defensive handgun loads from major manufacturers are really quite good and compare pretty well with one another. Segue to pretty photos…

Yesterday I shot some HST in .40 and .45 underwater. The photos are pretty cool.

230gr HST from a 1911

I’m totally not done with this, by the way.

.40 165gr and .45 230gr loaded ammo and expanded projectiles

As pretty as this stuff is to look at, it is also painful – I have plenty of scars from being sliced and poked by metal objects, but holding those bullets in my hand almost made me shiver. I would definitely not want to get shot by any of that stuff (duh).

Really, though, I would not want to get shot by any of the modern hollowpoint designs (duh). Although there’s a sort of evil beauty in an expanded HST, I don’t think they’d give me any more of an edge over a “less pretty” bullet that performed in a similar manner. And so, while I do carry with HST most of the time, that’s mostly because I’ve found HST easier than other types of quality handgun ammo. I also have mags loaded with Winchester Ranger T and Federal Tactical Bonded and Speer Gold Dot. My J frame is loaded with Federal Gold Medal Match wadcutters.

Yes, there are minor differences when it comes to penetration and expansion and performance through some barriers. The details truly do not concern me. I don’t feel any safer with one type over another. They all function in my handguns. They all shoot decently well in terms of accuracy and precision. By the way, I use projectile weights on the medium to heavy end of the scale for a given caliber – 124 and 147 for 9mm, 165 and 180 for .40, and 230gr for .45.

There are two main things to look for when it comes to defensive ammo, and they’re exactly the same as what to look for in hunting ammo – projectile design/construction and sectional density. Assuming that the projectile is impacting the target within its designed performance window, and that it is impacting in the right spot, little else matters. All of the modern hollowpoint designs have good construction, and heavier bullets for a given caliber mean higher sectional densities.

So stop freaking out about carry ammo. There are many things that will matter more in a self defense shooting than whether you were carrying P9HST3 or P40HST. Buy a lot of whatever you can find, make sure it works in your gun, and don’t let it sit in mags too long (say, don’t go past six months).

Have a nice day.

GunsAmerica Is Confused About Safeties And Also Guns In General

I was checking out GearScout and saw this article about a review on GunsAmerica’s blog. Here are some interesting quotes from the GA review:

“The drop safety itself is a revelation of sorts and should make a lot of people jump up and down screaming “YES! FINALLY!” Few companies have dared put a manual safety on their striker pistols and this is the first in a gun that can compete with the big boys.”

“ The FNS is the first gun from a high end manufacturer that breaks this mold and boldly admits that many of us would rather have a manual safety on our double action guns.”

This is a bit puzzling. Not only are drop safeties standard on practically all modern handguns, but the safety which the author means to refer to has actually been available on other striker fired pistols including the Springfield XD (ym”sh) and the Smith & Wesson M&P. They’re also available without manual safeties, which is how I prefer my striker fired handguns.

“In a duty situation, your gun may be drawn and pointed several times a week, you may be tackled or have things thrown at you, all while pointing your loaded firearm at someone, there is nothing like the confidence of a manual safety to protect you from shooting someone unintentionally.”

Every time I have been trained to draw a pistol with a manual safety, I have been taught to remove the safety before bringing the firearm on target. This training worked well for me in real life. I would question the competence and quality of training of anyone who absolutely needed a manual safety in order to not negligently shoot someone.

“If until now, you have stayed away from striker pistols for duty use due to the risk of accidental discharge, the manual safety on the FNS truly gives you the best of both worlds. There are other guns out there that have this feature, but they are not in the same class as the FNS.”

Apparently the author feels that the XD and M&P aren’t in the same class as the FNS, although in his (exceptionally polite) comments on the GearScout blog, he said that the XDM is “probably the most accurate handgun on the market.” I am having difficulty reconciling these two statements. What makes the FNS “not in the same class” as the XD or M&P? The author fails to support his rather bold statement.

Here is a photo of me shooting an FNS at Media Day.

I am not a fan of the XD in any major way. I do not like Smith & Wesson as a company. I do like FN handguns, and I have had a significant amount of trigger time with the FNP/FNX/FNS platforms. However, I fail to see how shooting 250 rounds through an FNS in an afternoon, as the author did, gives him the authority to say that it is in a higher class than something like the M&P. The Smith & Wesson product is not a newcomer to the market and has been poked and prodded from many angles since its introduction, to include at least four or five people shooting 250 rounds through it.

Nothing in the review indicated to me that the FNS is in a different class than competing striker fired handguns. And, frankly, nothing in the review indicated to me that the author knows how to properly use a handgun in a “duty situation,” or that he is familiar with proper firearms terminology. His only response to the GearScout article was to write incredibly insightful things like “why don’t you pull your head out of your ass” and “you are just a parrot repeating marketing materials and misinformation.” Well, if by “marketing materials,” the author means “proper terminology for firearm components,” then he would be correct. For once.

GearScout’s initial conclusion about this review was solid.

Aerial Photos of Space Shuttle Endeavour’s Last Flight

Yesterday I took some photos of Endeavour’s last flight while getting some left seat time in a Cessna 180.

Not the Space Shuttle. Still fun to fly.

Endeavour was on its way to being a museum piece in Southern California and flew over Tucson at an altitude of 1,500 feet at the request of Captain Mark Kelly to honor his wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Captain Kelly flew the shuttle on its last mission in 2011. The specially modified 747 used to carry the shuttles is called, unsurprisingly, the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. This particular aircraft is N905NA, a former American Airlines 747-100.

I’ll show the photos as well as describe how I took them and some other thoughts – feel free to just look at the photos if that’s your thing.

Like this.

At about 8000 feet above the ground (to clear class C airspace with some room to maneuver) while talking to Tucson Approach, it was harder than I thought to spot a 747 with a space shuttle on its back. I had shot a few test frames of the city to make sure I had the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture at appropriate settings, and also to test focus – I was using a 200mm manual focus lens with my Pentax K-5. Although the camera still told me when I was “focused” with the manual lens, it was hard to hold the camera steady on a moving target.

I initially spotted the 747 as it passed near downtown Tucson. My first shots didn’t capture the aircraft perfectly, so I went to a slightly higher ISO and a faster shutter speed. I also tweaked aperture slightly.

It was easier to get good shots from the flat side window than the curved plexiglas windshield, so we paralleled the 747 as it flew north along Interstate 10. Needless to say, a 747 is faster than a Cessna 180 (even in a fairly steep descent), so I didn’t have a whole lot of time to mess with camera settings or check the way my photos looked. I did check one photo to make sure that I wasn’t getting everything horribly wrong, then fired away in short bursts. Even shooting RAW+JPEG, I was able to take a ton of shots and never hit the buffer (I love my K-01 for video, but the K-5 is better for still images).

Although I was focused on taking pictures at the time, I later thought about how much I would miss having America dominate the world in terms of missions to space.

As soon as the SCA pilots started climbing out, we had little chance of keeping up with them. We watched the 747 and shuttle disappear into the distance and continued on with the rest of our flight.

Most things do not excite me, but seeing a Space Shuttle on the occasion of its very last flight through the air is something I am very glad I was able to see. At some point, I’ll go visit Endeavor at its museum and take some close up photos.

What (Blank) Should I Buy, Updated

Not the most exciting post I’ve ever made, but here’s an update to my February 2012 post regarding which items I would buy in various categories.


If I set out to buy one of the following, this is what I would look for as of September 2012. Some things have great alternatives that aren’t listed and some things have great alternatives that are listed. Some things I’ve gotten for free and some things I haven’t. Some things might be more or less than you need. But if you ask me a general question about what (blank) to buy, this is probably what I’d recommend.

…a 5.56mm rifle – Colt SP6920.

…a .308/7.62×51 rifle – FNH USA SCAR-17S.

…a bolt action rifle – Tikka T3 Lite.

…a shotgun – Tie. Mossberg 500 or Remington 870. Doesn’t matter.

…a 22LR rifle – CZ 452 Scout (kids) or Marlin Papoose (all around).

…a handgun – Glock 19.

…a handgun for concealed carry – Kahr CM9.

…a holster – Praetor Defense or Looper Law Enforcement.

…a non-magnified optic – Aimpoint PRO.

…a fixed power optic for a semi auto rifle – Trijicon TA33/TA11 ACOG.

…a fixed power optic for a bolt action rifle – Bushnell Elite 3200 10X.

…a variable power optic – Anything German. Maybe a Vortex Viper or Razor if I didn’t want the German price tag.

…an AR-15 upgrade – Vltor A5.

…an AR-15 rail – Centurion C4.

…an AR-15 magazine – Lancer.

…a knife – Benchmade Griptilian.

…a watch – Casio Pathfinder. Or a Citizen Eco-Drive, if you need a watch for six months or less.

…a flashlight – Elzetta ZFL-M60.

…a flashlight for carry – Surefire E1B.

…rifle ammo for killing things – Federal Fusion or Speer Gold Dot. Barnes TSX/MRX/etc.

…handgun ammo for killing things – Federal HST. Winchester Ranger T/Ranger Bonded. Speer Gold Dot. Remington Golden Saber Bonded.

…shotgun ammo for killing things – Federal FliteControl buckshot or Federal slugs. Hornady Critical Defense buckshot. DDupleks Monolit slugs.

…practice ammo – any new lead or copper jacketed/plated factory ammo.

…a handgun .22LR conversion – anything made in the US or Europe that fits your pistol.

…a rifle .22LR conversion – anything made in the US.

Why I Don’t Care if Military or Police Use Certain Items

Look in any firearm magazine and you’ll see either advertisements or articles informing you that a certain military unit or police agency uses certain firearms or gear. There are two messages here – first, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you; second, they are way better than you, so their decision making processes are infallible and you’d be an idiot to pick anything else.

You should buy everything in this photo. Except for me. I'm not for sale. Unless you've got a Zonda, then we can talk.

The truth is that my needs are not the same as, say, DEVGRU’s needs. I don’t live on an oil platform, so my home defense AR doesn’t have a 10.5″ barrel. Similarly, I may not need boots that are perfect for OTB. Therefore, just because SEALs are using some product is not justification enough for me to rush out and buy it.

Furthermore, just because something is purchased by a certain branch or unit doesn’t mean that it actually gets used. The AIs in NSW armories, for example, are thought of as too heavy for the performance they offer and often sit unused (at least, this is what reliable sources tell me). Even in the regular USMC unit I was a part of, plenty of gear went unused or was deemed unsuitable for the tasks at hand. The reasons for this could vary from “The XO likes Gear 1 more than Gear 2″ to “Everyone who goes outside the wire agrees that thing is stupid and should never have gotten an NSN.”

That brings me to my next point – the selection process for one agency might be outstanding, but completely screwed up at another. Pistol manufacturers are thrilled to announce when the Maine State Police or the Omaha Police Department switch to their product, but I have no way of knowing whether those departments have a solid testing program and squared away individuals making decisions or not. There have been plenty of bad pistol purchases on behalf of police departments, such as the Indiana State Police’s (epileptic, not legal) Glock seizures and any department that has ever bought a Kimber. The M9 handgun trials were beyond insanely terribly horribly stupid, even though the Beretta is a great pistol and the “first loser” in that trial, the Sig, is also a very good handgun.

All this said, some products are never bought by anything but the most idiotic agencies because they really do suck. And there are some solid indicators when a wide variety of agencies adopt a platform. But these should never be the only or even the primary factor in your personal decision making process. I base my purchases on my real world needs, and I advise you to do the same.