There’s more to the HITS club
than aiming at targets © Jan. 9, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich University HITS club members practice target-shooting techniques on the Abare Farm in Northfield, Vt.

photo courtesy of HITS clubNorwich University HITS club members practice target-shooting techniques on the Abare Farm in Northfield, Vt.

It’s a fall training session for the Handgun Intensive Tactical Shooting [HITS] club, but the pistols remain untouched.

More than 50 people from the Norwich University community—military and traditional students, men, women and staff members—have gathered in the corner of a cavernous space of the National Guard Training Facility on the college’s Northfield, Vt., campus. Staff Sgt. Lee Hughes, a fourth-year student, part-time Guardsman and former Army pistol instructor, explained the “21-foot rule,” a law-enforcement guideline for drawing a weapon in self-defense.

He had a student stand approximately 21 feet away, then rush at him quickly while Hughes feigned drawing a handgun. It’s hard to say who won the race.

I was astonished when I showed up for the first meeting. There were 150 students there.

~ Mark Wolski,
Norwich staff member

“I don’t think there’s a black and white number you can use,” said Hughes, founder and president of HITS, to the crowd. “Twenty-one feet is a really short distance.”

Hughes’ program for the day included practice of self-defense moves and cleaning of the club’s cache of weapons, which sat in a row on a loading dock in the building. There was no shooting planned. He wants members, including those with shooting experience, to learn a broader range of skills than simply racking up target points.

Nathaniel Colleran equates the program with combat training.

“There’s a lot of things you wouldn’t get to experience in a civilian environment,” said Colleran, 19, a first-year student and member of Norwich’s Corps of Cadets. “Your adrenaline is going to be pumping [in combat]. You’re going to be winded. You’re going to be distracted.”

Colleran, of Rowley, Mass., said he was virtually born with a firearm in his hand, and is well versed in gun safety, weapons care and target shooting. The HITS club, with its additional emphasis on speed, efficiency and making your weapon available when needed, is something unique.

“To me, it seems like the perfect combination,” he said. “It’s perfectly balanced.”

For Hughes, of Barre, Vt., tactical training is secondary to safety. As an instructor who served in Kuwait, he found weapons handling was often neglected, particularly with officers who were taught leadership rather than hands-on skills. Many students at Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college, come from states where ownership of firearms is discouraged, he added.

“It’s not that they’re irresponsible,” he said. “It’s that no one has taken the time to train them.”

He’s not alone in believing a military institution like Norwich should have opportunities for students to use firearms.

“I’ve seen people there who have never fired a firearm before,” said Mark Wolski, an engineering department technician and HITS member.

Like Colleran, Wolski joined the club with experience in formal shooting environments. He’s a National Rifle Association-certified pistol instructor, and more accustomed to a style that promotes accuracy over speed and grouping of shots.

“I’m a bull’s-eye shooter,” he said. “This is a new thing to me.”

Wolski remembers a time when Norwich had a more traditional club. In fact, a Class of 2000 graduate, Emily Caruso, attended the Summer Olympics in 2004 and 2008 in the air rifle competition. But when Hughes arrived at Norwich, the program had lapsed.

“We didn’t have anything except an abundance of interested people,” he said.

Hughes and a few enthusiastic helpers soon worked through the administrative actions necessary for Norwich to recognize HITS as an official club, and began fundraising. Dave Magida, Norwich’s chief administrative officer and Safety Committee chairman, said any organization hoping to use firearms faces a “high hurdle” to obtain approval. The presentation by Hughes and faculty advisors, however, was exceptional.

“The University’s Safety Committee and insurance brokers were totally convinced that HITS would be run at the highest standards and be of great value to interested students,” said Magida.

Through grants from the National Rifle Association, help from Norwich and raffles and benefits of their own, members were able to buy eight Glock 22s—Hughes calls them the “Honda Accord” of pistols for their ease of use—an M4 rifle and associated safety gear. The campus’ shooting range was in poor condition, but that issue was solved when local farmer Jack Abare offered to host live-fire practice on his property. A firing range is on the University’s list of projects it hopes to complete in the coming decade.

All that was left in the spring of 2008 was to attract club members, which didn’t prove a problem. In fact, they had trouble finding adequate meeting space.

“I was astonished when I showed up for the first meeting,” said Wolski. “There were 150 students there.”

Hughes is happy with the success of the fledgling club, but not surprised. There is a need for the program due to the volume of students who want to shoot, and do so correctly.

“This school has a tendency to breed mature young adults,” he said.