Back at the range, this time with a new gun!

After a long but not unpleasant series of travels as part of my international move, I’m now in the San Francisco Bay Area again and wanted to go shooting at one of my old stomping grounds, the Coyote Point Rifle and Pistol Club. It’s been a long time since I’ve been shooting so this post is considerably longer and more detail-rich than my posts of late, but I digress.

This range, which is owned by the sheriff’s department for police training and which is conveniently located in the middle of the Peninsula, is open to the public three nights a week from 7pm to 10pm.  Odd hours, but what can you do? Last time I was there was ten or more years ago (where did the time go?) and it was in need of some renovations. The sheriff, while not particularly pro-gun, appreciates the value of the range to both police and public users, and does what they can to keep things funded and working, but the local politicians are decidedly anti-gun and have been trying for years to shut down the range or, if they can’t shut it down, make it difficult to exist. For example, even though there’s large overhead structures downrange to prevent bullets from getting out of the outdoor complex, they require that all shooting from the bench take place through small openings that limit the muzzle from aiming too high skyward.

Still, the sheriff somehow managed to convince the powers that be to fund some big renovations. There’s now a big indoor pistol range, but it’s limited to the police only and it ended up taking out half of the public range (it sits where the rimfire rifle and pistol lines used to be). Additionally, there’s now an enormous bullet trap downrange that collects bullets and mechanically conveys them into a bucket for recycling — previously one just shot into the dirt berm, which was periodically mined for bullets, but the powers that be decided that they needed a bullet trap, so now there’s a bullet trap. Unfortunately, that means that shooters are now prohibited from shooting any ammo that contains steel at all: no Wolf, no M855, etc. Magnets are installed at the RSO booth and at each shooting position for testing. Installing the new bullet trap and building the indoor police range meant the public range was shut down for the better part of a year and only just re-opened.

While the club members have maintained things well and done what they can to do little improvements (they have periodic work parties and the like), the public side of the range is in dire need of renovation and improvements. The RSO booth and much of the equipment, signs, and structures date back to the 50s or 60s and could really be updated. The sheriff recognizes this and does what they can without needing to get a building permit from the relevant authorities, as that reminds the politicians that the range exists, and has been organizing things and setting aside some money so that when they do get a permit in the next few years they’ll be able to do a huge amount of much-needed work during the time the range is shut for renovations. Or so the RSOs, some of whom are long-time board members with knowledge of such things, say. I’ll believe it when I see it.

One other unpleasant change: previously, $10 would get you access to the range for the full three hours it was open. Now, they charge $10 per hour or $20 for the whole 3 hour session. That’s just great. Club members who are also RSOs (and it’s strongly expected that all members volunteer one night a month as an RSO) don’t have to pay for range time when they come to shoot, so I’ll have to apply for membership.

Anyway, enough about the range itself.

Although I have some ammo in my dad’s garage, my guns are stored with other family members in a different state for various reasons I won’t get into now. Thus, I had no guns to shoot at the range. Easy solution: make a gun. Earlier I had made a Polymer80 AR lower and wanted to try making an aluminum lower from the stash of aluminum 80% lowers I had lying around. Thus, a few days ago I started making one and, after learning some valuable lessons about how machining aluminum is a very different beast than machining polymer and breaking a few end mills and drill bits, finished it today. The trigger holes were very slightly misaligned due to my failing to align the jig correctly at first, so the rear of the trigger assembly which interacts with the safety selector was slightly off to one side. It doesn’t meaningfully affect the feel or movement of the trigger when shooting, but it did cause the trigger to get hung up on the safety, even when switched to fire, and refuse to fire. Some quality time filing the relevant part of the safety (slightly widening out the central gap into which the trigger moves when the selector is on “fire”) and reshaping some other parts of the selector, and the everything’s great: the gun doesn’t fire while on safe, reliably fires when set to fire, and there’s no sticking or binding at all.

I then took the opportunity to finally build both the aluminum and polymer lowers into working rifles thanks to Palmetto State Armory M4-length rifle kits. Unfortunately, the kits don’t come with carry handles or rear sights, and I only had one Magpul MBUS rear sight on hand (this needs to be rectified), so I decided to mount it on the aluminum one. Since the PSA rifle kit is not a California-compliant “featureless” build, I opted to get a CompMag fixed magazine so my rifle wouldn’t be classified as an illegal “assault weapon” in California. With the fixed magazine installed and rifle completed, I grabbed my eye and ear protection, rifle, and went to the garage to get some ammo.

Before I had left for Switzerland years, I had stored much (but not all) of my ammo in my dad’s basement. As an aside, this collection includes the remaining substantial chunk of Carl’s 2009 donation of .22LR which is still earmarked for new shooters and not my personal use; I’ll need to start taking new shooters to the range again. In the collection of ammo, I had a can of M193 (which has a lead core and copper jacket) and some M855 (which has a lead core, a small mild steel penetrator, and a copper jacket) sitting next to each other on the shelf and grabbed one of the cans for the range. Unfortunately, I didn’t pay much attention and grabbed the M855 can by mistake, loaded it in the car, and headed to the range.

When the RSO asked if I had ammo with steel in it, I said “no” (thinking I had the M193) and tapped the round tip-first on the magnet to show him it was fine: it didn’t stick, as the amount of steel is small and the little amount in the tip isn’t enough to stick when presented tip-first, and so he let me sign in and get a table. More on the ammo soon.

Here’s my rifle at the range, where the weird slits and magnets are visible:

Since this rifle was only a few hours old and, other than a factory test-firing of the PSA upper, had never been shot before, I was a bit anxious to see if I had actually built a working rifle. Sure, the at-home dry firing tests worked, but the real test is if it can reliably fire live ammo. Both the front and rear sights were centered by their respective manufacturers, but I had no idea if that meant I’d even get on paper.

So, now the good news and bad news: the good news is that the sights were nearly perfect out-of-the-box and only needed one click on the rear sight and one on the front sight to get everything where it needed to be. The rifle itself functioned flawlessly, though that’s not saying much due to the low round count. Success!

The bad news is that the M855 had steel in it, which is not allowed at the range. Unseen by me because my view of the bullet trap behind the target is blocked by the target itself, the six zeroing shots I fired were hitting the steel bullet trap and sparking as they disintegrated. One of the friendly RSOs happened to notice the sparking and checked my ammo against the handy magnet by sticking it sideways to the magnet. Although the bullet itself won’t stick tip-first to the magnet, it does stick side-first due to the steel penetrator in the bullet. The RSO wasn’t happy since the sheriff is a bit protective about his $BIG_NUM-costing bullet trap and doesn’t want people punching holes in it, and asked me to stop shooting on this night lest I damage the bullet trap. I felt like a jerk for not noticing that I had picked the wrong ammo; I should have known better and done a side test as well as a tip test.

On the plus side, after looking at the bullet trap, the RSOs found no damage from my bullets. Even with the steel penetrator, M855 isn’t going to punch holes in the heavy-duty armor plate used at the range, though I can imagine the plates wearing slightly faster after many years of impacts from steel-containing bullets. Either way, it was my mistake and I take responsibility; I just lucked out that there was no damage.

Also, because the rifle was nearly zeroed out-of-the-box, the fact that I was asked to stop — unless I had other ammo, which I didn’t at the time — wasn’t a huge deal to me. Instead, I just chatted with the RSOs for a bit, apologized for my error regarding the ammo choice, discussed reloading and building 80% lowers, etc. Everyone was nice and friendly and since there was no harm to the expensive bullet trap, they did the RSO equivalent of letting me off with a warning.

Years ago when I was shooting at Coyote Point the idea of “off list lowers” and “featureless ARs” (that is, AR-15s that were not of the specific brand and model banned by law in the state, or those with detachable magazines that lacked “scary” features like pistol grips, flash hiders, etc. in order comply with the law) were relatively new concepts, rarely owned, and something not widely recognized as OK by the RSOs. Thus, people who brought such perfectly-legal guns to the range were sometimes hassled by the RSOs who, in their defense, didn’t want to get in trouble for having people with what they presumed to be illegal “assault weapons” shooting at the police-owned range. This evening, of the six people shooting, four had various CA-legal ARs (one had a featureless build, the others including myself had fixed-mag variants) and the RSOs had no issues and, indeed, were chatting about their own CA-legal ARs and, in the case of one of the older RSOs, his pre-ban “registered assault weapon”. Very interesting and refreshing.

Also refreshing was the fact that one of the RSOs was female and relatively young (she seemed to be in her late 30s or early 40s, while the older male RSOs looked to be several decades older). There was also a group of several females and one male, all asian and looking to be in their 20s, shooting a very nice .22 rifle at the rimfire section. The females in the group seemed to be the main shooters, and I’m nearly certain the gun belonged to one of the females.

Sure, the range is a bit dilapidated and the laws in California suck pretty hard, but even so, there’s still a bunch of gun owners and people going to the range on a cool and windy night in the Bay Area. This makes me happy.

In the end, even though I only fired six shots tonight it was really fun to be shooting and I can’t wait to go back again — this time with the proper ammo — to shoot more and to become a member.

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