If you’re bored with the square range-or want to see how you’ll react when some thug pulls a gun and tries to rob you at the local convenience store-Gander Mtn. Academy can provide the type of firearms training that will elevate both your adrenaline and skill level.
The nation’s first Gander Mtn. Academy recently opened in Lake Mary, Fla., offering a variety of firearms training courses, a live-fire range and interactive, high-definition video simulators like those used by the military and law enforcement agencies. I spent several days getting hands-on instruction, then I stepped inside the simulators to test my decision-making and self-defense skills against virtual bad guys.
Classroom instruction is a key part of Gander Mtn. Academy’s FRS Learning System. FRS stands for Fundamentals, Repetition and Simulation, and learning the fundamentals starts in the Academy’s state-of-the-art, multi-media-equipped classrooms. Ben Stairs, director of training and chief range master, gave me insight into the role stance and grip play in not only marksmanship, but also my ability to react to a threat. His advice would later prove helpful in the virtual simulators, another cornerstone of the FRS Learning System.
Instead of using nonfunctioning polymer replicas of firearms during classroom instruction, Academy trainers teach safe and effective gun handling skills with Gander Green Guns. The realistic training aids are production firearms—such as the Beretta Px4 Storm, Glock G22 and Remington R1—that have been deactivated to prevent them from firing live ammunition, but their controls still function. Slides, slide-lock levers, magazine release buttons, safety and decocking levers, and triggers can all be manipulated like those on an actual gun, which allows instructors to demonstrate techniques such as loading, reloading and clearing malfunctions. Magazines are loaded with snap caps in place of live ammunition.
A short trip down the hall put me on the firing line in the Academy’s V-Range. No ammo required here; the targets are digital, and the specialized firearms project an infrared laser beam to record point of impact. To add realism, a CO2 cartridge inserted in a modified magazine cycles the slide and creates a recoil impulse similar to a live round. Pressing the trigger sends the laser beam downrange to the point of aim, and the impact is recorded on the target screen. Stairs spent some time critiquing my grip and trigger press, pointing out a few specifics on which I need to work. Shooters can schedule individualized instruction like this to get the most out of their training at the Academy.
The Academy partnered with VirTra Systems to develop its exclusive V-Range, with the goal of making practice as realistic as possible despite the absence of live ammo. The projected image of each virtual firing lane is comprised of 2 million pixels and, besides the target, includes a detailed, 3D-like background that closely resembles an indoor range. An advanced audio system delivers the sound of not only gunfire, but also a ventilation system. Even the “bullet” holes that appear on the targets look true-to-life; they form ragged tears instead of perfect circles with clean edges. Shooters can choose from a variety of targets and set the distance from 1 yard to 50 yards. In addition they can run through pre-programmed qualification exercises and marksmanship drills. Other than a slightly reduced recoil impulse and sound level, and no empty cases ejecting from the pistol, I felt like I was on a real firing range.
Technology aside, the V-Range is set up like a standard range. By design, there’s not much room for movement, and the targets are square to the shooter. Things started to get really fun when I entered the Academy’s Pro V SIM 180 virtual simulator, with multiple targets presented on three, 8x10-foot screens that formed a 180-degree arc around my position. In order to hit all the targets, I had to move, which tested another set of skills. Many of the courses of fire resembled those found in action-shooting matches, complete with images of cardboard silhouettes and steel pepper poppers, and of course they were timed.
The Pro V SIM 180 can present a variety of drills and qualification courses, all controlled by a touch-screen kiosk located to the side of the simulator. Instructions for each course appear on the simulator’s front screen and may require the shooter to fire with the support hand, to engage the target from a kneeling or prone position, or to reload. Each point of impact is recorded by the system, which gives the shooter a score and a time when the course is complete. Thirty minutes in the Pro V SIM 180 costs $35. That’s a good deal more than most live-fire range fees, but you get multiple courses of fire at the press of a button and electronic score keeping—plus, you don’t have to spend money on ammo to shoot.
My personal-protection skills were pushed to the limit by the Academy’s Pro V SIM 300 simulator. It works like the Pro V SIM 180, only the screens wrap 300 degrees around the firing position, and high-definition video clips put you smack in the middle of life-or-death situations. In one scenario, I was browsing the snack aisle of a convenience store when an armed burglar came through the front door, demanded money and shot the clerk. I drew my pistol and eliminated the threat, but I forgot about the felon’s buddy who entered the store behind him and disappeared down a side aisle. Bad Guy No. 2 snuck up behind me and shot me in the back. It wasn’t until we reviewed the scenario that Stairs pointed out the curved mirrors near the ceiling of the store, which should have alerted me to Bad Guy No. 2’s position. Even more obvious, I would have been a lot better off had I remembered Bad Guy No. 2 in the first place. It was a tough lesson on awareness, and one that would be difficult to teach without a simulator.
Surround sound makes the Pro V SIM 300 experience even more realistic. Walking down the hallway of an office building, I heard a door open behind me. When I turned around to see who was there, a burly dude holding a crowbar stepped out of the room and charged. I barely had enough time to draw my pistol before he was on top of me. Hearing that door open helped save my virtual life. It was another reminder that, just like in the real world, threats can come from any direction in the Pro V SIM 300.
Situations presented by the Pro V SIM 300 test decision-making skills as well as pistolcraft. In one scene, I encountered a group of hoodlums trying to break into my car. I was greatly overmatched, and one of the thugs displayed a pistol shoved into his waistband. Judging by the taunts and insults hurled my way, it was apparent the gang wasn’t about to leave. I had the option of retreating, avoiding a gunfight and calling 911, which was the best course of action. As I found out later during the review session, another armed bad guy was hiding in a stairwell behind me. Had the situation escalated, the hidden accomplice would have shot me in the back before I knew he was there. The scary realism presented by the Pro V SIM 300 elevated my stress level and required me to react quickly to changing situations. The benefits of this type of training outweigh the cost of $45 for 30 minutes in the 300-degree simulator.
Although the V-Range and two simulators offer unmatched training opportunities, the Academy still realizes there is no substitute for live-fire practice. Its L-Range is one of the most technologically advanced indoor ranges in the country. Billy Hieb, manager and lead range master, explained each lane has a computerized target system operated by a touch-screen display. Like on the V-Range, shooters can easily set the distance to the target and choose from several automated drills, only the targets, firearms and ammo are the real deal. Climate-controlled, well-lit and having a ventilation system that exchanges all the air in the facility dozens of times per minute, the L-Range is a safe, comfortable place to shoot. Granted, it was brand new when I visited the Academy, but I’ve never seen an indoor range that was so immaculate.
The 20,000 square-foot Gander Mtn. Academy in Lake Mary is part of a Gander Mountain retail store. Shooters who buy a gun, holster or ammo at the store need only take a short walk to the L-Range to try out their new purchase. The V-Range and Pro V simulators are worth a trip regardless if plans include shopping. Gander Mtn. Academy has also opened a facility in La Crosse, Wis., with two more locations in Madison, Wis., and Lakeville, Minn., scheduled to open in June. Gander Mountain’s goal is to incorporate the Gander Mtn. Academy into retail stores nationwide.