Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Target Acquisition

Target Acquisition is the location, detection, and identification of a target in sufficient detail to permit the effective employment of lethal and non-lethal means.

It takes more than a good eye, it takes a combination of vision, resolve and strength.  I know that when I first starting shooting rifles, I could do a pretty good grouping for those first few rounds, then it went south.  That was simply a matter of muscle strength. I got a couple of five pound weights, holding one out where a support hand would be, one where my  grip would be. At  home each morning, I'd pull them up, like I was pulling the rifle up quickly to target and hold 30 seconds or so, drop, rest, hold, repeat, 80's music  sounding out a rhythm on the stereo.
"Hammer Time!"

But it's seeing what you are doing that's the most important element of target acquisition, not just maintaining it.

When I was a child, we'd take a vacation every year to the Oregon Coast, renting a small cottage with a view of the beach. Coming down a steep hillside into Cannon Beach, the station wagon dissolving into damp grey light, streams of fog pouring over the road to lie like barely congealed oil, we kids would have all eyes glued to the front windshield.  It was always a contest to see who first could spot the water and call it out.
There it is!  We'll pull ourselves up in the seat seeing that ocean as if for the first time. You've never seen small children so focused, so concentrated. It was something our parents taught us early on.  There is fun, and there is play, but there are times, that for your safety, you need to be able to sit still and truly look.

Eighteen years later, I'm in the left seat of a transport, shooting down the barrel of an instrument approach into a tight runway in the mountains.  We have enough fuel to give it just one try and then go to our alternate airport.  But thanks to a weather system  that didn't bother to read the accu-hunch forecast, there were some serious thunderstorms drifting in that moat between us and our only other option.  We needed to get into this airport,  now, this once. If we blew it, we'd not get a second shot.

There is no range concentration that can match that of pilots that have just one shot at getting in to land or face a dire horizon. If you're lucky, you can pick up the tease of the approach lights and stay in the clouds til you're a hundred or so feet from the ground. But if you break out of that ragged overcast at that point, rain splatting on the windshield like a thousand guppies, doing 130 miles an hour, you'd better have your target in clear view or your day is not going to go well.

As the shotguns and Daisy's of my youth gave way in my middle years to pistols and AR's and a cranky Mauser or two, the ability to see and quickly lock on to a target became more of a priority. Things like humidity and breath suddenly become issues, safety glasses fogging up and things like foliage becoming more than shade when hunting from a blind.  Even eyewear was an issue.  I wear contacts, deciding to get rid of glasses that could be used for vision as well as setting ants on fire.  There's no fogging, and although my vision isn't as "crisp" as glasses when I'm tired, I have the peripheral vision to see the target coming into view if it's a moving one.  As nearsighted as I am now, a Beluga whale could sneak up on me from the side if I wear glasses.
Be sure of your target and what is behind it.  Wise words, especially with distance.  How often do we hear of someone accidentally shot and killed while hunting because someone mistook them for a moose.  Frankly if some someone mistook me for a moose, I'd be visiting Weight Watchers after I wrapped their firearm around their ears.  But it happens , first a sound, a rustle of brush, and some muttonhead fires, not waiting to notice that his target is sporting a Cabelas hat, not a full rack.

It is so easy to just react without a true target (patience grasshopper). I've sat in more than one blind, feet freezing, stomach growling, just waiting for it.  You can hear everything,  the retreating darkness, the smell of first light, the delineation of leaves, the Morse code of squirrels chattering their warnings. But you can't really see. Then the forest emerges into smooth, bright shapes, light and shadow and movement, and your eyes can only scan, looking with that tense, unmoving sobriety that is a blind man listening.  If you are lucky you will see it, a flash of fur, a mass of bone that is more fight than surrender.  You make sure it is all there, all four dimensions, solidity, mass, a shape that could be no other than an animal, and something else.  Not hesitation, not fear, but pure and intent assurance as you draw up your weapon.


If you don't CLEARLY know what your target is, keep your finger off the trigger.  If you do, and ONLY when you do, use the front sight of the gun as a guide to aim.   If you are after multiple bogies (i.e. kevlar vested doves) leave your front sight as soon as your next target approaches and as the gun approaches it, sight again and pull the trigger.  Always know where your front sight is.  It will tell you almost anything you could want to know about a shot.  If you're new to shooting, just practice watching the sight, no targets.  When you get used to seeing the sight in recoil, move onto paper. If the shot needs to be dead center precise, the sight needs to be clear. 

I know many people that can shoot faster than their sight picture and do so with the accuracy needed to stop a human target in most situations.  But that involves the instinct of practice and an intimacy with their weapon that someone that takes that firearm out of the nightstand drawer a couple of times a year is not going to have.
Unless you are being mugged by a 18 inch tall paper squirrel, your target is going to be moving.  Remember, as far as triggers- mechanical things all happen at the same speed for each given piece of machinery.  You need to learn to act upon what your eyes tell you.  Like anything else with shooting, that requires practice and concentration.
Practice close up. Practice at a distance. If you have never shot long range, you won't ever forget it, a moment whispered and dreamt about, laid out flat in front of you. In that fleeting moment, you will hold your breath in the presence of power. You count that pulse between heartbeat and breath, compelled into an aesthetic deliberation you don't quite understand but fully desire, faced for the first time in your living history with something proportionate with your capacity for awe.

Target acquisition is when what you have been waiting for comes from an enormous distance. It sometimes comes directly, sometimes coming as if by magic from no where when you least expect it, giving you a clear view after long  dark, days of solitary combat.

My weapons are at rest and dinner is simmering on the stove.  Coming up the long road, the sunlight streaming off of it like shining wind, is an SUV, its form and windows giving no hint of what it brings. 

Abby gives a gentle "woof", recognizing the sound and what it means before human ears can even hear its echo. We look up through the light, beyond the drive, beyond the wasted years in which we looked, but never really did see.

We stand in the drive as the vehicle comes into view, bringing up an arm in greeting, in that moment between heartbeat and breath.