ALDERSHOT, NS – Today was the day I fired an automatic rifle for the first time.
It was also my first time shooting a gun. Ever.
It was a literal blast.
Having said that, I have to be honest – I was more apprehensive than excited. Would safety be considered? How would I feel after firing a weapon?
What I now know is I walked away very sure of one thing – safety is taken very seriously at the Fifth Canadian Division Training Centre at Aldershot, where I and other media members were invited to observe Canada Army Reserve candidates completing various aspects of training.
Our day went a little something like this:
We were given the basics by Commanding Officer Errol MacEachern, who is head of the training centre at Aldershot. He described what candidates go through, the extensive physical training – better known as ‘PT’ on base – and the classroom learning each candidate completes, as well as giving us an overview on what we’d be witnessing while walking along the gun range.
We were also told to stick close and remain with officers at all times to ensure safety while walking the course.
Ear plugs for all
We all piled into shuttles and were brought to the gun range, where we were immediately handed ear plugs to avoid hearing damage from the constant booms ringing in the distance.
We listened closely to the gun range chief drill us on where we were to stand, when we were allowed to walk around and how far we could go.
Grenades could be heard detonating in the background and constant shots were fired from drills happening at the machine guns, so we donned military-grade ear plugs to keep our ears safe.
Suiting up and feeling the heat
Getting into the gear was a challenge itself – there are many layers required for safety reasons – and army gear, while comfortable, is not quick to put on.
Two separate vests, a helmet, gloves and new safety glasses were donned by all who were to fire the automatic gun, and it wasn’t long before we began feeling the heat.
“We overheat all the time,” said MacEachern.
We walked in full gear toward the range, where five candidates were firing rounds from the machine guns. They each took turns firing, and eventually practiced a drill which had them run up a steep embankment, load their guns and fire at targets, all the while observed by teaching officers.
“As soon as you get to this environment...and get weapons training, safety is extremely important – they drill that into you,” said air force graduating candidate Matthew Jamieson.
Get down on the ground
And then came the time to size up how to hold the gun, how to aim and finally, how to fire it.
My instructor was very patient, and walked me through each step – more than once, admittedly – and answered every question I had for him.
The staff double checked I was doing everything according to their instructions before ensuring my glasses and helmet were in place, and then told me to hold the trigger down until all five rounds had been fired.
Despite feeling anxious, I concentrated and did just that.
I was shocked at how intense the impact was, even after having been briefed that it would feel that way. I also felt very aware that I had just shot a gun for the first time – something Jamieson said training teaches all candidates how to process.
“It was a really big shock for students – a lot of them were afraid of the weapons at first, but as you do your training, you get comfortable with it and it’s not a big deal anymore,” he said.
‘A whole-person kind of concept’
After completing my own short training, I spoke with MacEachern about what measures are taken to ensure recruits are prepared not only physically, but mentally, for what can come with carrying a gun.
“We look at a whole-person kind of concept of different kinds of fitness – physical, spiritual, intellectual fitness – the ability to be resilient in the face of a bit of adversity is what our whole program is about,” he said.
MacEachern said the around 300 candidates passing through Aldershot each summer are taught to always be aware of what is going on around them, and how to safely approach their training each and every day.
“Showing candidates what they are capable of,” and instilling a sense of purpose in them, goes hand in hand with showing them the seriousness of the job and handling weapons, he said.
“It’s the first thing we think about, and the last thing we think about. We work with weapons, explosives and other heavy equipment, so it’s really necessary we think about safety with everything we do,” said MacEachern.