Pressed, we’d have to say that physical democracy is the thing we like best about shooting. If that’s a little vague, consider this: Within a positively huge range of characteristics, almost anyone can be taught to shoot well and safely. Add to this the vast number of disciplines, and that hypothetical “anyone” is almost certain to find something that fits their tastes in terms of speed, precision, complexity or simplicity. On top of that, it can, like few other pursuits, be a lifelong pastime. Mix in a little aptitude and hard work, and mastery is revealed to be surprisingly transferable—a grand formula as interests and capacities change.
Another way to appreciate that democracy is to see who turns out to be a good—or even spectacular—shooter. You might reasonably think it’s “growing up with it,” or vocational—that is to say law enforcement or military service. It’s easy to find proofs of either theory. More interesting still are the antitheses, and they’re more common than you might imagine. It’s this latter type which brings us to our “Exercise Your Freedom”: a chat with USPSA Grand Master, 200-plus major match winner and sought-after instructor Emanuel “Manny” Bragg.
Exercise Your Freedom: Manny, tell us how you got started.“Seventy rounds later, I finished the stage and was out of ammunition, but it was an important lesson.”
Manny Bragg: I did recreational shooting here and there growing up, but it was hardly a common activity or a way I routinely spent my time. But a buddy really got me going in 1996. I was in my early 30s and playing a lot of golf—which made me want to shoot more (laughing)—even though it took me about 30 rounds and goodness knows how long to “clean” a plate rack on that first outing. Not a great start, but it put me on a one-way road to the shooting life. I was 32.
It wasn’t long before I was shooting some relatively major matches, though not in very accomplished fashion. I got squadded with Jethro Dionisio at one of those early ones, and I had no idea a handgun could be run that fast. Also had a chance to shoot with Jerry Barnhart—on a stage with a plate rack—which he cleaned it in about 2.5 seconds. That’s the first time I remember thinking “I can do that.” Seventy rounds later, I finished the stage and was out of ammunition, but it was an important lesson.
EYF: That “wanting to” wasn’t going to get it done?
MB: (Laughing) Yes, that’s pretty close. I took advantage of every chance I had to shoot with people who were better than I was, but also to work the tried-and-true methods off the range. Dry-fire, for instance, to the tune of 50,000 repetitions a year, and sometimes more.
By 2002, I earned a spot on the U.S. team at the World Championships in Ecuador; an honor and a thrill. I’ve been on the team every time since—a total of four times. I was fortunate enough to have the bigger match wins start to pile up in that period, too.
EYF: Is that when a next step seemed in order?
MB: Yes. At this point, you’d still have had to say I was a hobbyist, though I guess a very serious one. After that first World Championship—the 2005 timeframe that’d be—was when I started to think maybe I could be “that guy,” and teach others at a high level. I started getting serious inquires, too, so that’s when the transition began.
“How hard can it be … it’s only sights and trigger?” is where I started, but soon rediscovered that old gag line through my own experiences: “The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result.” (Laughing)
The next challenge was pretty obvious—figuring out 10 different ways to describe the same “lesson” to different students. Especially when backgrounds and experience aren’t the same, identical words may not transmit the same meaning. “Squeezing the trigger,” is probably the classic example—it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone—but there are loads of others.
A clear example that occasionally happens is the reversal of the “unload” and “show clear” steps when you’re done—you see this mistake in surprising arenas. It just shows you that a firearm “is always loaded,” and you have to check and double check the status of it!
“The next challenge was pretty obvious—figuring out 10 different ways to describe the same 'lesson' to different students.”EYF: So the “pro” transition came about 2010, right? What does that mean a “Manny day” looks like now?
MB: I guess I have four jobs—I’m still in the award business (EYF: making them, that is—not just winning them), but I travel to teach and shoot big matches a lot.
When not doing those three, I’m at the Volusia County Gun Club (south of Daytona Beach, Fla.), where we hosted Steel Nationals a few months ago. Big matches like that are, well, big, and the time commitment for a thing like that is huge. On the other hand, it was a huge success, and that helps the sport and the club in lots of ways.
We’re also adding pistol and 3-gun competitions—both disciplines which are experiencing rapid growth. They’re incredibly safe when you’ve been introduced to them properly, and that’s what our range officers and teaching ensure.
EYF: Manny, yours is a great success story. The match wins and championships, and representing the United States four times in the international arena—tremendous accomplishments, all. One more question, and it’s a bit of a hot potato: We see a pretty constant sneering by the media at civilian firearm ownership, and mainly on the grounds that “regular people” are simply incompetent. Given that you’ve trained and shot with literally thousands of people from all walks of life and from all over the world, can you give us a perspective?
MB: With a proper road map, practically anyone can learn to do what I can do, and safety and responsibility are huge parts of that. I’m not saying it’s easy in the sense that you won’t have to practice, but nothing really worth doing is. That’s nothing new, and of course doesn’t apply only to shooting.“… I don’t have a day of direct military or law enforcement experience.”
But shooting has so many disciplines and so many workarounds, I guess you’d call them, that almost anybody can participate: Multiple people with disabilities, for instance, still compete in things like Steel Challenge here at Volusia and many, many other places around the country. Not many activities of any sort can claim that the way we can.
It isn’t just for young people, either: I had a 70-year-old attend a class just in the last few days, and after a few hours of instruction, he was shooting every bit as well as people literally half his age. My youngest student was a 9-year-old girl, and she shot in the U.S. Steel Nationals a couple of months ago. She did just fine in the match, and had no safety or other issues. Think about that—9 years old. Of course you don’t “turn her loose,” but the idea that safety and genuine skill is this mystical, unteachable, unattainable quality unless your background is some particular thing is ridiculous.
My military (including the Special Forces community) and SWAT/law enforcement students are another way to see how distorted the media view has become. These people are tremendously dedicated and we’re really lucky to have them, but at age 52 I’m fortunate enough to be able to teach them things that help them protect each another and all of us. Yet I don’t have a day of direct military or law enforcement experience.
Sooner or later, that will stop being possible without the sort of laboratory that goes on in shooting right now. Anybody can become a superb shooter and asset to their community no matter where they start out, and we don’t ever want to lose that.
EYF: Thanks Manny; we’ve no idea how to say it better.
MB: Well, thanks.
Keep up with Manny Bragg at mannybragg.com.