Army's novel idea: give them guns early!
The Army has a novel idea--make recruits familiar with guns from the start, thereby reducing accidental discharges and increasing skill.
Army wants soldiers to get used to guns
Fort Jackson recruits now are given guns much earlier in basic
training and carry them almost 24/7
By CHUCK CRUMBO
On his third day of basic training at Fort Jackson, Pvt. William
Banks got his gun - an M16A2 rifle.
Less than an hour later, the 23-year-old soldier from Colorado
Springs, Colo., already had taken the gun apart, cleaned it and put
it back together.
Then, Banks and other soldiers in Company D, 1st Battalion, 34th
Infantry Regiment slung the weapons over their shoulders and marched
off to chow.
Giving recruits a gun so early in boot camp and expecting them to
carry it almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week marks a radical
change in how the Army trains its soldiers.
The training program is called "weapons immersion," and its aim is
twofold, Army leaders said.
First, the Army wants to instill discipline and the "warrior ethos"
in troops. Soldiers in Iraq must have their weapons handy 24/7, so
recruits should get used to that.
"I think it definitely adds a little more realism to it," Banks said.
"Now you're responsible for an issued weapon."
Second, increased familiarity with their weapons should help recruits
become more safety conscious, preventing accidents.
"They learn real quick to respect their weapon and understand what it
can do," said Lt. Col. Mel Hull, who is credited with implementing
the weapons program at Fort Jackson.
Since Oct. 1, 2002, 24 soldiers, including 16 in combat zones, have
been killed by accidental discharges, according to the Army Safety
The Naval Safety Center reported four Marine deaths during the same
period resulting from negligent discharges.
It used to be that recruits did not get their weapons until they went
to the firing range, which came almost halfway into their nine-week
basic training course.
At the time, Army regulations allowed guns to be issued to recruits
for only short periods of time. That's because commanders feared the
weapons, which cost about $600 apiece, could be lost or stolen.
Lt. Col. Hull said the new program was launched after veterans of the
Afghanistan and Iraq wars returned to Fort Jackson to help train
In a combat zone, soldiers live with their weapons all the time, said
Hull, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment. "What
better way to help prepare them for their units than to start doing
that here at basic training."
About half of the drill sergeants and training officers at Fort
Jackson are Iraq or Afghanistan veterans, officials said. Those
veterans include Delta Company commander Capt. Tony Brown, who was
with the 14th Engineer Battalion near Tikrit, Iraq, from April 2003
to April 2004.
Learning the correct way to handle a weapon - checking the safety and
keeping your finger off the trigger unless you're ready to fire -
should become so ingrained during training that soldiers will do it
the right way despite fatigue or complacency, Brown said. "Second
nature will make you do it the right way."
Fort Jackson tested a pilot program in August and launched the new
policy in February, Hull said. The training program also has been
adopted at the Army's four other basic training sites - Fort Knox,
Ky.; Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; and Fort Benning, Ga.
Saying the troops carry their weapons 24/7 is only a slight
exaggeration. At night, the guns are locked in a rack at the front of
a barracks' sleeping bays. Otherwise, the recruits carry their guns
everywhere except to church.
To add even more realism to the training, by the fifth week of
training - after recruits have passed qualification tests with their
weapons - the new soldiers carry rifles loaded with blanks.
When they leave the barracks, the soldiers load a blank into the
firing chamber as if they were going to patrol off base in Iraq. When
they return to the barracks, the recruits take the rifle's magazines
out, clear the blank from the rifle's firing chamber, then point the
muzzle into a sand-filled barrel and pull the trigger, ensuring the
weapon is not loaded. It is the same procedure the soldiers would
follow when returning to a base in Iraq, Brown said.
The new policy seems to be improving soldiers' proficiency on the
firing range, as well as safety, commanders said.
Only about 60 percent of recruits initially qualified as proficient
in firing their weapons the first time that Lt. Col. Michael Ryan's
training battalion went through the pilot program. That was much
lower that the usual 70 percent to 75 percent.
Ryan, who commands the 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment,
attributed the lower first-time qualification rate to new
requirements that the recruits wear body armor and shoot from a
kneeling position. Once the soldiers became more comfortable with the
gear, scores went up, he said.
"What we consider most important is that, at the end of the day, 100
percent of the soldiers had qualified," Ryan said.
Sgt. 1st Class Edward Anderson, one of Delta Company's drill
sergeants, also said he has seen improvement in safety.
"The last (training) cycle, we didn't have any (accidental)
discharges," Anderson said. "We usually have two or three, but two or
three is still not acceptable."