October 28, 2020
By Michael Venutolo-Mantovani
I pressed my palms together, which steadied the gun, trained the center sight on the middle of the target and squeezed the trigger. It was the first bullet I had ever fired.
The smell of spent casing and burnt superhot gunpowder mere inches from my nose, the violent crack of the muzzle and the plume of dirt that shot skyward as my round buried itself into the mound behind the paper target I was putting holes through all came sharply into focus.
“Let it fly,” one of the Green Berets told me with a laugh, instructing me to empty the gun’s source of feed (its “magazine” or “clip” in tough-guy movie terms).
The bullets tore through the center of the target one after the other, and the Green Beret told me I was a natural — possibly bullshitting me, possibly not. After all, he had positioned me only 5 meters from the target.
I dropped the source of feed, checked the chamber for any unspent rounds and reholstered the weapon.
The Glock would be the first of many guns I would shoot that day on a planned excursion with two of the most highly trained soldiers on Earth — Green Berets, Special Operators, Pipe Hitters — to teach me, a man who has never so much as handled a gun, how to shoot a variety of combat-grade firearms. There would be handguns (a soldier’s last resort in combat). There would be semiautomatic rifles (a soldier’s first choice in combat). There would be long guns (a soldier’s “sniper rifle” in combat).
There would be hundreds upon hundreds of spent rounds.
I’m not anti-gun. Never have been. I grew up in the heart of the Pine Barrens along a section of the Jersey Shore where shooting is a part of life. In high school, the first day of deer-hunting season was an excused absence for over half of our student body, and just about everyone I knew owned and regularly handled guns.
Yet for some reason, I’ve never as much as considered shooting a gun. Their mere presence — ubiquitous in my youth as they were — has always made me feel uneasy. The fact that their sole directive is the penetration and irreversible damage of organ and flesh, that their endgame is destruction and that they’re instruments of war is what kept me from ever having joined any of my myriad gun-toting friends on their hunting trips or their shooting days.
I’ve always known all the tropes — that guns are tools like any other; that with training, safekeeping and regular practice, guns are perfectly safe. And, of course, thanks to our unflappable Constitution, our ability to own and operate firearms is intrinsic to our very being as Americans.
And while these are all things I agree with to varying extents, none of them have ever persuaded me to handle a gun.
I’m not anti-gun. I’m anti-me-shooting-guns.
However, fate has a way of changing things. Two years ago, I scored a gig helping copy edit SOFLETE’s website.
SOFLETE describes itself as a “human performance company” that is geared toward current and former Special Operators — Green Berets, Navy SEALs and MARSOC Marine Raiders. A website, app and an international community, SOFLETE provides special ops-inspired fitness regimens, plenty of military culture-themed fashion and fitness gear, as well as motivational content.
Their motto, “Die Living,” adorns everything they make, imploring the members of their community to push themselves to their very limits. Of course, any regular Joe can become a part of the SOFLETE community, provided they’re OK with a healthy dose of physical ass-kicking.
My main contact would be Doug Kiesewetter, their chief content officer and Green Beret.
Kiesewetter is a native Texan whose Lone Star drawl sometimes peeks out from behind a more refined and less regional-adopted dialect. He’s affable and a quick talker, often following a stream of consciousness from one subject to another, only to suddenly revisit an idea he’d mentioned in passing an hour earlier. He’s been in the military for 15 years, all of them spent in the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, and has served four combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Kiesewetter began filling my inbox with essay drafts by SOFLETE contributors about wingsuit flights through the Swiss alps; solo backcountry hunting excursions; nutritional, emotional and mental health. All meant to get the most out of every single day spent on the right side of the dirt.
Soon, my Instagram feed was filling up with images of Kiesewetter and his SOFLETE cohorts, often touting the most tricked-out, aftermarket-addled guns I’d ever seen. There were videos of the group’s hog hunts and of soldiers darting through shooting ranges in competition. The steady plink plink plink of bullets hitting steel targets served as a sonic reminder of just how good these men are at what they do.
Yet despite all the GI Joe shit, I still had no desire to handle a gun. It wasn’t until I thought it might make for a good story that I even considered it.
I thought of the fact that some of my new friends and colleagues are some of the most expert weapons handlers on Earth. I thought that having a pair of Green Berets show me how to shoot guns would be like having Michael Jordan teaching me the midrange jump shot. The best in the world showing me how to do what they do best.
I texted Kiesewetter: “Any interest in teaching me how to shoot? It’s for a story.”
“Dude. F**k yes.”
I arrived at the SOFLETE offices at 0900 (Kiesewetter’s parlance, not mine) to find Brian Hueske waiting for me. Hueske is SOFLETE’s in-house photographer and videographer, and, like Kiesewetter, a Green Beret and veteran of several combat campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Jordan and Lebanon. Born and raised in Fort Worth, Hueske’s accent has been lost to time, perhaps by design.
He’d be joining us for the morning to shoot photos and help Kiesewetter teach the world’s most inexperienced shooter how to hit a head-sized target at 100 yards.
SOFLETE HQ sits at the back of a secluded industrial park in semi-rural Hillsborough, North Carolina. Outside, it’s an unassuming steel building with little to differentiate it from the rest of the park. Inside, however, is a temple to testosterone-laden dude stuff.
A massive fitness rig bisects the office, with black-steel pullup bars and weight sets. Barbells and dumbbells were everywhere. There are rowing machines, SkiErgs and racks of heavy medicine balls. A vintage Soviet machine gun and a captured ISIS flag hang from one wall while an unloaded sniper rifle sits prone on the floor between two rows of desks where the staff works. There are axe-throwing targets and ultra-high-end mountain bikes.
SOFLETE’s logo, a skull and crossbones against a black-spade background, adorns nearly everything. For a certain type of adventure-adjacent person, SOFLETE HQ is the ultimate man cave.
In the days leading up to our outing, Kiesewetter and I had traded texts and emails about what I might want to shoot.
“A variety of things,” I told him, not knowing any sort of protocol for proper terminology. “Handguns. Long-range stuff. Machine gunny things? Are those even a thing?”
Kiesewetter pulled up to SOFLETE HQ a few minutes before 0900. Hueske and I climbed into his truck to find a smattering of weapons piled in the back seat like a quiver of baseball bats, nary a gun case in sight. In less able hands, there would be no way I was getting in a truck with stacks of frightening-looking guns wantonly tossed into the back seat. In their able hands, my concerns were assuaged.
As we carved through rural Orange County’s tree-lined backroads, the pair talked — as many military personnel do — in verbal shorthand that I could barely understand. Every sentence or thought contained something that was abbreviated or coded.
There was talk of “earpro” and “eyepro” (hearing and eye protection), CAG guys (the Army’s elite Delta Force unit), COs and NCOs, which apparently are two very different things, TICs (“Troops in Contact,” which is military talk for a firefight) and dozens of other acronyms, pseudonyms and other-nyms that I could either not make out entirely or jot into my notes fast enough.
Both men talk with candor about their combat experiences (a lot of it), about the combatants they’ve killed (too many to count, not that either has ever had any interest in a running tally) and how early TICs affected their then-young psyches. They mention with shocking ease the friends who were killed in action, no doubt some amalgam of defense mechanism and a long-honed acceptance of their own mortality.
In The Classroom
I was most nervous when we were idle.
The Green Berets stood before me, explaining the arc of a bullet, the veracity and effectiveness of different calibers of ammunition, and what exactly “stopping power” means.
As Kiesewetter rattled through the elements of shooting, Hueske strapped the heavy holster belt around my waist. He handed me a Glock — the first gun we’d be shooting — as if I’d handled a gun before. I checked the chamber as I had been instructed and holstered the gun, nervous that, despite being free of ammunition, it might, by some tragic miracle, go off and send a round into my foot.
The weight of the pistol, tugging my belt groundward, caused me to consider my situation most.
“There’s a gun on my hip,” I thought. “It’s loaded and I have no idea what exactly that means.”
I tried my best to focus on the instruction and, as the morning wore on, often forgot the weapon was attached to my hip. Occasionally, I’d catch a glimpse of my own shadow in the dusty dirt of the shooting range, the unmistakable silhouette of a sidearm hanging off of me.
It was then that I was immediately reminded that a fully loaded Glock 9mm was sitting holstered on my right hip, waiting for me to pull it into my “working space” — the area in front of my shoulders and face where I could, as the Green Berets promised, reload while both keeping my eyes on the “enemy” and keeping my arms and hands close to an active shooting position. Seconds matter in a firefight, I was told, where efficiency of movement and situational awareness could be the difference between life and death.
Still, I’d never had a gun on my hip before, and the very weight of it made me uneasy.
The shooting provided no time for consideration or introspection, no time for nerves or for fear to creep into my head, as there were far too many things I was ordered to focus on, per the Green Berets.
Maintain a good shooting stance. Lean into your weapon. Keep your outer elbow straight and push your palms together. Position your thumbs along the slide. Focus with your dominant eye.
I pulled the Glock from the safety of its holster and aimed it at the target. I was only 5 meters from the big black circle, trying desperately to maintain a balance of all of the instructions.
After we spent a hundred or so rounds of handgun ammunition, we moved on to short rifles, known in Kiesewetter and Hueske’s community as “carbines.”
Nearly a dozen of them lay in a row on a picnic table and, just like the Glock, the rifles were tricked out with custom magazines, scopes and SOFLETE-branded skull-and-spade grips.
“This is an odd amalgam of guns,” Kiesewetter said as he loaded a matte-black SIG Sauer MPX. He handed me the gun, showing me how to operate the safety.
Again, they riddled me with information. How to stabilize the carbine by pressing the butt into my upper chest; how to hold the far end of the barrel rather than the front of the magazine well like they do in the movies; how to keep your nondominant eye open to increase field of view and maintain a sense of situational awareness; and how to adjust everything after a miss.
Again, I was nervous until the actual shooting started.
The recoil wasn’t nearly as bad as I had anticipated, perhaps due to my size and strength. At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and nearly 260 pounds, my foundational base is sturdy. Perhaps it was that these carbines have been engineered to reduce excess motion. Whatever it was, it allowed me to focus more on the points of performance that I was coached on.
The sound of these targets, small steel circles at 100 yards, was far more satisfying than the tear of paper that I had shot with the Glock. We cycled through several carbines, most all of which were different iterations of the controversial AR-15.
One was short-barreled and punishingly loud. Another had a suppressor (a “silencer” per Hollywood) and sounded almost like a BB gun when fired. To end the day, we moved on to the long-gun range.
In many ways, the long guns were the easiest to shoot. Propped up on tri- and bipods, there is little room for bodily influence. The sight doesn’t move in step with your breath the way it does with a carbine, and you can train the end of your muzzle on a target several hundred yards away with few external variables.
What does change when shooting at such a distance is the trajectory of the round. As a bullet travels over distance, it naturally loses energy. As it loses energy, it begins to arc downward toward the ground. The farther your target is, the more a shooter has to account for that loss of energy. Beyond 800 meters, the spin drift of a bullet needs to be considered. Beyond 1,000 meters, snipers begin to take the very curvature of the Earth into account when lining up their shots.
This is why sniper teams travel in pairs; one shooter, one spotter. The spotter, Hueske explained, is actually the better shooter of the pair, as they are the one considering geography, weather conditions and previous shot accuracy. It is their job to tell the shooter where to point his gun for a successful round (which, in no uncertain terms, means a shot in which someone ends up dead).
For our “sniper team,” Kiesewetter would spot me. He instructed me on how to position my body, how to use the small sandbags beneath the gun’s stock to adjust the height of the weapon and where to focus the crosshairs in the sight. As we were 500 yards from the target, he told me I’d have to aim high and left.
There was a calculation involving milliradians and an element called “stadia,” which are tiny reference lines dotting the reticle — the crosshairs, in layperson’s terms. I tried to pay attention for context, but I really was just listening to Kiesewetter’s instructions as best I could.
The rifle had a hair trigger, meaning the most minor tug of my finger sent the round flying downrange. The bang of the gunpowder’s ignition was violent, the recoil of the weapon pounded into my shoulder.
The steel torso-shaped target was far enough from us that the sound of the affirmative plink took a second to return to my shooting position.
Thanks to Kiesewetter’s equation and instruction, my very first shot was a perfect strike. Like Hueske said, the better shooter on a sniper team is the spotter.
As the spent rounds gathered at my feet and my temples throbbed from the combined forces of mechanical recoil, mental focus and the sheer volume of firing muzzles, I wondered if this day might uncover some forever-dormant passion in me. After all, I come from a place where shooting is a part of life. This stuff has got to be in my blood, at least a little bit.
But while each pull of the trigger was no doubt thrilling, little beyond the reverberation of my round heading downrange resonated inside of me.
I thought of my relationship, new as it may be, with guns. For me, the morning’s guns were tools of recreation, the vehicle for which I might write a story. At most, they could someday be something that I might consider to keep my home and my family safe (but really, I’ll probably just stick with my ADT system).
I will never have the kind of relationship with a weapon that the Green Berets have with theirs, as their very survival and that of their friends and fellow warriors is deeply interwoven with guns. That’s not to say that the only valid connection to a gun is through the trials of combat as much as it is a recognition of whatever future I may have with guns is nothing compared to what these men have seen, learned, survived and accomplished, rifles in hand, sidearms hanging off of their hips, bullets cracking the very air above their heads.
Again, and to lean into my basketball analogy, you can’t commiserate with Michael Jordan about championships if you’ve only played pickup games.
What intrigued me most was the vast knowledge the Green Berets had on the subjects of guns and shooting.
There’s a science to all of this. It’s not just pointing and “squeezing” the trigger as the movies so tell us. There is physics and geometry, there is a code of conduct and there are rules of the range. There are a thousand tiny elements of a shot that all must align to equal a successful round.
Like two professors in a lecture hall reeking of gunpowder, Kiesewetter and Hueske laid more information on me than I knew what to do with, and they were barely scratching the surface. I learned more in one morning than I might have in a month spent with a civilian shooting instructor.
I considered all of this as I watched the Green Berets let their bullets fly faster than I could have ever attempted. I considered it as they moved their rifles from one target to another with grace and speed, rarely missing, almost always firing a kill shot as if their lives depended on it, which, in many instances, they have.
A few stalls down from where our sniper rifles were perched, a pair of younger guys, 22 or 23 years old perhaps, were shooting their own long guns. We noticed them sneaking glances at us between rounds, ogling Kiesewetter’s ultra-high-end pieces of weaponry.
“You wanna come check these out?” Kiesewetter asked after he and I both hit a few targets.
“Really?!” one said.
As they fawned over the long guns, Hueske ran to Kiesewetter’s truck to pull out some of the carbines and pistols we had shot earlier in the morning. He triple-checked to make sure each chamber was empty and laid them out on a table before the pair.
The Green Berets explained to the young men all of the upgrades and add-ons, little flourishes that make these guns, to the trained eye, very awe-inspiring.
“You wanna shoot one?” Kiesewetter asked, motioning back to the long guns.
“Are you serious?!”
Kiesewetter spotted while one sat behind the sniper rifle. He instructed him just as he did me, telling him exactly where to aim, how to breathe and how sensitive the trigger on the gun was. The shooter pulled the trigger, eliciting no plink. Just a plume of dirt a few feet short of the target.
Kiesewetter calmly adjusted his instructions, explaining how and where to direct the gun. The second shot was dead on. After a few shots, the duo told us that they were fraternal twins who grew up shooting. They talked guns and ranges, accessories and models, all in terms I barely understood.
They asked Kiesewetter how he got his hands on all of these heavily modified firearms. The Green Berets revealed to the brothers that they were Army Special Forces and how these guns were just perks of the job. The brothers turned to me, mouths agape.
“Are you a Green Beret, too?”
“Me? No. I’m just a writer who’s never shot a gun before.”
“You like it?”
“It was fun. Definitely educational.”
“You gonna do it again?”
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