Luckily no eyes were shot out for this post

Sarah M. Chen photo

by Sarah M. Chen

I’m into week 5 now with my ATF Citizen’s Academy training. So far, I’ve really enjoyed it and learned quite a bit about things I wouldn’t expect like why dogs have such a strong sense of smell, fire investigations in Tijuana, and digital forensics.

Of course, the main draw for the academy is the shooting range day. Was it my favorite week of training? You bet! It was what everyone was pumped up to do. I know I won’t ever get the chance to shoot such a variety of guns all in one day or ever again for that matter (unless I join the alumni association – hmmm, tempting, but more on that later). They were all seized weapons. There were revolvers, pistols, AK-47s, a Thompson submachine gun, and a shotgun. There was even a pen gun. I never heard of a pen gun except maybe in a James Bond film. Sadly, we didn’t get to shoot the pen gun. It was pretty darn cute too and looked exactly like an innocent pen.

The only downside to this day was the heat. It was a record heat wave in Southern California that entire week and of course, range day landed on the hottest day. Not only that but we had to be in Glendale which is at least 10-15 degrees hotter than the beach community where I live. I’m sure temperatures were over 100. All the agents and police officers that helped us that day were there on their own time. It was really impressive how patient they were with us and good-natured despite the unbearable heat.

It wasn’t just guns we learned about either. We were introduced to Junior, a canine agent, and even got to see firsthand how he tackled a suspect to the ground. I’m glad we didn’t have to volunteer to be that guy. We played around in the BearCat or what looked like a giant tank.


20150828_104758Me with BearCat

I now know my favorite gun to shoot is a Heckler & Koch submachine gun although I doubt I’ll do much with that knowledge. I’m not sure which model it was but it was the most lightweight and had almost no recoil. I could actually hold it without feeling like my arms were going to fall off. But it was extremely powerful. My instructor put it on full automatic once he was satisfied I wasn’t going to shoot everyone around me, and man, was it an experience! That rat-a-tat-tat sound and that feeling of power firing it. It’s both exhilarating and intimidating.

I’m here with a shotgun. This is one gun I did NOT like. The recoil is really bad and I got a huge bruise on my shoulder. Plus it’s a lot heavier than it looks!

I also learned quite a bit about dogs which I didn’t realize before. Labs are the preferred dogs of choice for the ATF not because of their keen sense of smell which isn’t quite as good as the bloodhound (the breed with the best sense of smell) but their temperament and adaptability are key factors. I didn’t know dogs use the slits on the sides of their noses to exhale and their nostrils to inhale. This enables them to be able to find the source of a smell fairly quickly. They exhale the previous odor and inhale the new odor. If it’s the same odor but much stronger, then they know they’re getting closer. They’re also able to distinguish many different odors at once. So if someone tries to smuggle cocaine by pouring coffee grounds over it, the dog will smell the drug as well as freshly ground coffee.

Here is canine agent Junior. He will select the can that has the explosive in it. When he does, he’s rewarded with food.













I’m sad my training is coming to an end soon and am contemplating joining their alumni association. There are several opportunities to help plan events, assist with trainees, go to community fairs, and even be on the board. It’s one more thing to add to my already-busy schedule so I have to decide what exactly I hope to get out of this training. Is it simply research for my writing or do I want to help the agency connect with the community? I don’t have to decide right this second, but it’s definitely something I’m going to be thinking about over my last few training sessions. I’ve met so many interesting people during my training and it’s fascinating to learn what motivates us all to come together once a week.


Sarah M. Chen has worked a variety of odd jobs, ranging from script reader to private investigator assistant. Her crime fiction short stories have been accepted for publication in All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, Betty Fedora, Vol. 2, Plan B, and the Sisters in Crime/LA anthology, Ladies Night. Her noir novella, Cleaning Up Finn, is slated for publication in 2016 with All Due Respect Books, proving she can write something over 6,000 words.


25 thoughts on “Luckily no eyes were shot out for this post

  1. Good post, Sarah. I’m not into guns at all but I’d love to learn about all the other things you’ve been learning about, Sarah. I’m sure the whole experience will have given you that better edge to writing about it in crime or thriller stories.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think it will be easier for me to describe a character handling different types of guns and how it makes them feel. Of course, it’s much different to be in an environment that’s a life or death situation but thankfully, I haven’t encountered that. And yes, there are so many things I’ve learned that I never dreamed they would teach us. Thanks for commenting, Nancy!


  2. I road along with the police when I was in college for one of my courses, and worked with them in the schools. Also went on the shooting range. It is addictive and so educational. So glad you have had this chance. Alumni, that sounds like a winner. Best to you Sarah. Doris

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think a field trip to a shooting range would be such a rewarding experience for those who want to participate. Of course, the liability I think is what held us back. It would have to be a shooting range with one on one instruction too. That was KEY for me this time as I did an indoor range before and felt kind of lost as it wasn’t one on one. Diane, you should definitely apply to this. If not ATF, then one of the agencies or local police departments. FBI Citizen’s Academy I hear is great. I’d love to apply to Hermosa Beach PD Citizen’s Academy (sadly it’s running concurrently with this ATF one). Another thing I’m eager to do is Lee Lofland’s Writers Police Academy in Wisconsin.


  3. This sounds fascinating! I have a couple of friends who are gun collectors, and I own a pistol and am about to buy another, so I have some experience, but this sounds like it would be quite beneficial to my writing as well as a lot of fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it would definitely be beneficial for you, Joe, since you write crime fiction like me. Plus you’re right, it’s fun! That’s great that you have a couple friends who are gun collectors so you could ask them questions if you ever needed to.


  4. That sounds like a great time and so insightful. I grew around guns and technically own a few that my dad has. I’ve shot a few semi-automatics, but never a full-auto. (I imagine my aim would be so bad by squeezing a trigger with X shots per second.) I’d love to have an intensive experience like that. Maybe someday I’ll try to sign up too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Such great insights, Sarah, and wonderful knowledge and experience! I especially enjoyed all the information on the dogs — they are smart, loyal, and brave creatures, and I’m so glad the many wonderful police, military, and search and rescue dogs are finally getting the applause and thanks they deserve. Thanks for such an educational post, and good luck with your writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I loved learning so much about these wonderful dogs. They were so much fun to interact with and I’m glad we got the opportunity to meet them. I thought it was really interesting information about their sense of smell. Makes me look at my dog, Hana, in a whole new light!


  6. Sounds like education and fun at that course. And food for thought no doubt. Didn’t know that about dogs smelling in that manner either. Bet you are learning a lot more than just about guns with your close encounters with law enforcement people too. It will no doubt make your rich novels richer and more engaging than they already are. Good for you. Thanks for sharing this experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I was a Civil War re-enactor in my younger days. I portrayed a young Confederate soldier from North Carolina, a member of the 26th NC Regiment. Had two rifles, an Enfield and later a Zouave rifle. I imagine you’re going to find a way to use this ‘ATF course’ experience in a novel, maybe something in the vein of “Murder She Wrote.” At our Writers Group in Henderson, we had a guest speaker who trains drug-sniffing dogs. She gave a fascinating talk.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I used to read scripts back in the day as one of my many jobs and I remember one about re-enactments. I knew very little about that lifestyle and thought it was totally fascinating that people did this. It was a great script too. Sounds like a great writers group to be a part of to have such interesting guest speakers! Thanks for commenting, Mike.


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