WILTON — Fourteen people, each carrying a handgun, arrived at the Wilton Fish and Game Association on a recent Saturday morning.

A few were apprehensive of the weapon they carried and some were well-rehearsed in how to handle a firearm. Most, like Carol Lehto of North Anson, fell between the two extremes.

“This is a new handgun for me,” Lehto said. “I wanted to have a safe environment to become familiar with it and practice shooting it.”

The environment Lehto referred to was a basic handgun training course offered by the association and taught by Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr.

“The No. 1 reason we do this course is to make people feel more comfortable with their weapon,” Nichols said. “With Maine being a concealed-carry state, there are a lot of folks carrying and there are a lot of unsafe acts.”

Students are required to bring an unloaded handgun in a holster.

Most students arrived with 9mm or .45-caliber semi-automatic pistols. Some had revolvers, which Nichols said are easiest to learn how to use.

A few, like myself, carried a .380 handgun, a compact semi-automatic that falls on the lower end of what Nichols recommends for ease of use and self-defense. By the end of the course, those with a .380 knew why it was not a pistol preferred by the sheriff.

Students were also required to bring 50 rounds of ammunition to practice on the firing range.

It took me two trips to the store to procure the necessary rounds. Unfamiliar with the handgun or the type of ammunition I needed, I balked at the variety offered on my first trip.

“I don’t know what I am doing, but I need to buy 50 rounds for a .380,” I told the salesman.

“Maybe if you don’t know what you are doing, you shouldn’t be purchasing ammo,” he said.

Indignant, I left, assuming a male shopping for ammunition would have been treated differently. After replaying the interaction with co-workers, I realized perhaps the statement was more of a reaction to today’s world than my gender.

I sought the advice of people more familiar with ammunition and returned to the store confident in asking for exactly what I needed for the course: .380 training rounds.

Nichols opened the class by saying, “We’ve had hundreds of students come through here. I’ve had people come in here shaking and holding a box with their pistol still inside and I’ve had people who were completely comfortable with a firearm. By the time this course is over, you will know how to safely operate your firearm.”

Nichols moved the class through a series of repetitive drills with empty firearms – establishing a grip on our guns with our fingers outside the trigger, come to the ready or drawing our weapons, presenting them and taking aim at a make-believe target, and then dropping the magazine and showing an empty weapon.

“The point is to make the weapon system a part of your body and build muscle memory,” he said.

Nichols recommended practicing the drills regularly, including dry firing. If ever presented with a situation in which a weapon were needed, the regular practice would ensure familiarity with it.

After more than two hours of getting to know our empty pistols, the class was ready to move to the firing range. I was nervous about firing the gun in front of others.

“The last thing we want to do is intimidate anyone or make them feel uncomfortable. We want you to succeed,” Nichols said.

We lined up in front of our targets, loaded our magazines and moved through the same drills we worked through all morning.

Finger outside the trigger. Establish a grip. Come to ready. Present. Only now, we fired our weapons.

The first few pulls of the trigger were nerve-racking. By the time I figured out how much pressure to use on the trigger of my .380, the inevitable happened. My gun jammed.

As is typical with a .380, weak magazine springs caused the jam. Those of us with this type of pistol spent more time unjamming our guns than we did firing them.

“You may find the weapon you brought today is not the weapon for you,” Nichols told me. “You want a good, serviceable firearm that will shoot every time.”

He was right. By the end of the course, I was comfortable and confident in handling, firing and even unjamming my weapon. But the .380 is not the weapon I want to have to rely on if I ever need it.

The course is offered once a month throughout the winter at the Wilton Fish and Game Association. The number of students allowed per course is limited and sessions fill up fast.

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