When I heard about Front Sight Firearms Training Institute's series of free one-day
submachine gun courses I was hooked. I've been shooting firearms for decades but I've
never shot a submachine gun, and the idea of a mob of novices blazing away with submachine
guns was especially intriguing, in a sort of terrifying way. So I called up and got
permission to attend.
Front Sight has training facilities in Bakersfield, CA and in Front Sight, Nevada,
(about an hour northeast of Las Vegas) where I would be going. The course would basically
duplicate the first day of Front Sight's four-day submachine gun course, omitting a
lecture on the legal and ethical use of lethal force.
Front Sight is located in some pretty serious desert, but as a lifelong desert hiker
that was fine with me. I drove in on a temporary entrance road that was bumpy and dusty
toward the end, but a paved road is scheduled for completion this year. Amenities were
sparse but adequate. The current classrooms, for example, are large airy tents, which I
actually preferred to being confined in an air-conditioned room. My class, in which I
counted thirty men and seven women, started at eight-thirty on a dry, clear, breezy
Inside the main tent, Ignatius Piazza—Front Sight's founder—spoke briefly on
the history and future of this 550-acre firearms training center and planned community,
then introduced the gun we would use, the Cobray M-11/9 nine mm submachine gun. Future
submachine gun classes, incidentally, will offer students other Class III firearms from
which to choose, such as their recently-acquired M-16 carbines.
For those uncertain of the terminology, a submachine gun is a full-auto-capable
shoulder-arm that utilizes pistol-caliber cartridges. The M-11 type submachine gun is of
course quite famous or infamous, depending upon your persuasion. Hollywood loves it;
anyone who has seen a few American movies or TV programs has seen an M-10 or an M-11
spewing brass, bullets, and flame. When the trigger is pulled it's definitely photogenic.
The M-10 was designed in the mid-1960's by Gordon Ingram as a simple, inexpensive
close-quarter combat firearm. It was chambered in .45 ACP and 9 mm Luger. Ingram later
produced a smaller .380 ACP version called the M-11. In 1967 Ingram formed a company with
suppressor designer Mitchell WerBell in order to market a suppressed M-10 weapons system,
their primary target being the U.S. military. They met with little success, and in the
early 70's Military Armaments Corporation—with which Ingram and WerBell were
initially associated—bought the rights to the M-10 system. The guns this company
produced were called the MAC-10 and MAC-11. MAC subsequently folded and manufacturing
rights ended up with RPB Industries, who made and sold the guns for a time. A federal
lawsuit related to the ease of converting these guns to full-auto brought on the demise of
RPB. Wayne Daniels—a principle of RPB—formed SWD, Inc., (which in turn owned the
"Cobray" trademark) and SWD subsequently manufactured a BATF-approved version of
the subgun called the M-11/9 (the gun we used at Front Sight). Examples of these
submachine guns can be found with multiple manufacturing marks (Ingram, MAC, RPB, SWD, and
Cobray). Currently no one in the U.S. makes this submachine gun although parts are still
produced and/or sold by several companies, such as Demars Cobray Division
(firstname.lastname@example.org). The hundred M-11's owned by Front Sight are fully transferable
pre-1986 units, which allows them to be used by students.
Up close, the M-11 ain't much to look at. You've got some flat gray phosphated-looking
steel sheeting formed into a boxy thing that looks like an advanced high school shop
project. The M-11's folding strut-type shoulder stock, an immediately noticeable feature,
looks rather crude and works just well enough to keep you from ripping it off and
substituting something more effective, like a taped-on section of old two by four. Even
with the fold-down butt section welded in place by Front Sight, it tended to shift
slightly, degrading accuracy.
You've heard of natural-pointing guns? Used as a shoulder arm, The M-11 is the
opposite. In order to get your eyes level with the rather crude peep-hole sight, the
rather crude butt of the stock has to be placed high on the chest—with only the toe
of the butt touching, actually—and right up near the neck. Furthermore, the two
protective wings on the rather crude front post sight look very much like the post itself.
Twice during hurried drills I confused them with the post and blasted holes in the
target's arms—from about twenty feet away.
The 30-round magazines we used were inexpensive plastic-body units that reportedly wear
out too fast, but nobody seemed to have any trouble with them. More expensive metal ones
are available on the market. We reloaded them during the day from five-gallon plastic
buckets filled with loose, shiny, newly minted 9mm cartridges—a lovely sight. I found
the magazines no more difficult to load than, say, a Glock 17 magazine.
The suppressors on these guns were also low-tech. The attachment threads are too coarse
and tend to unscrew easily. A lock washer would have helped, but they don't have one. The
sound suppression was minimal compared to good suppressors currently on the market. When
the guns were fired, instead of the hard, loud crack of the 9mm round, there was a sound
like a gigantic playing card being flapped onto a table. On full auto it sounded like the
same giant card flapping in the spokes of a giant bicycle wheel. In any case, the real
reason for the suppressors was safety—to give students a better grip, better sense of
muzzle direction, and to keep fingers away from the stubby weapons' muzzles. For heat
insulation, the suppressors were covered with a slightly padded tubular sheath of black
So looks-wise the M-11 is no HK MP5, but it was never intended to be. Does that mean I
wasn't eager to shoot it? Hey, I couldn't wait!
After a safety lecture (during which I spent a fair amount of time verifying that
everyone else was paying attention) we learned the basic manual of arms. The subgun's
controls are simple—trigger at the base of the grip/magazine well; slide-type safety
located forward of trigger on receiver's right side; select-fire lever located on
receiver's left side; bolt-retracting knob located on top of receiver.
The M-11 shoots from an open bolt. This means that when the gun is ready to fire the
bolt is back and the ejection port is open, revealing an empty chamber. Pull the trigger
and the bolt flies forward, strips a cartridge off the magazine, chambers it, and fires
it. This repeats until the trigger is released or the magazine empties. Whenever the
trigger is released, the bolt is open and the chamber is empty. Any cartridges left in the
magazine are visible through the ejection port.
To shoot an unloaded M-11 after picking it up, Front Sight's drill is: tighten the
suppressor, cock the charging handle and ease it forward to detent, use eyes and one
finger to verify that the chamber and magazine well are empty, insert the magazine and tug
downward on it to be sure it's locked in, and take it off safe (which can be done with the
When you're through shooting you cock the charging handle and ease it forward to
detent, remove the magazine, put gun on safe (which if stiff on your particular gun
requires the other hand), verify with eyes and finger that chamber and mag well are empty,
and tighten the suppressor.
The stance we used was feet about shoulder-width apart, weak-side foot forward a bit,
with torso leaning aggressively forward to counteract recoil. As recommended when shooting
all submachine guns, the elbows are brought in close to the body and under the firearm to
further counteract muzzle climb. From a tactical standpoint this also keeps elbows from
banging into doorframes and partners.
How does it actually feel to shoot a gun that blows out 1200 9mm rounds per minute, or
20 per second? Excellent! The trigger pull is pretty heavy—about ten or twelve pounds
for the guns I used—but it had a decent break and quick reset, enabling you to get
off two-round bursts with a little practice. There is no real "kick"—the
gun shoves itself against your shoulder as though it’s squirting out a pulsating,
high-pressure stream of water. As for control, at 7 yards I could keep a three-round burst
inside a three-inch circle, but after that they started wandering.
At the end of the day students were allowed to empty a magazine loaded with 25 rounds
in one burst—a process that takes one and a quarter seconds. Shooting from five
yards, a few students maintained an approximately one-foot diameter group. I topped off
two magazines with 30 rounds for a photo op, but I emptied them in two immediately
consecutive bursts because both guns stopped shooting in mid-hosedown. I attributed the
first stoppage to some sort of mechanical problem, but after the second time—since
the gun continued to shoot when I re-pulled the trigger—I realized I was
subconsciously easing off the trigger when my sight picture vibrated away from the aim
When the M-11 is fired the stream of empty brass flying from the ejection ports is
awesome. Twenty a second, each one spinning away briskly. I got hit in the face dozens of
times from students standing to my left, and the impacts stung from both heat and kinetic
energy. I didn't cry once. When a line of nearly twenty students opened up during the
magazine emptying shoot-fest it looked like they were caught in a miniature yellow
hailstorm. Behind the targets, the earthen berm was blotted out by a miniature dust storm.
In general the twenty or so M-11's used that day proved remarkably reliable. I saw only
two malfunctions during the entire course, but I couldn't verify what caused them. A tacit
Front Sight vote in favor of the weapon's reliability is the fact that between lectures
and shooting sessions the M-11's were simply laid in the baking desert sand at the firing
During a break in the course Ignatius held a subgun "myth" demonstration. To
show the inefficiency of engaging multiple adversaries with one long burst, he swept an
M-11 back and forth across four human silhouette targets about five yards away, the
targets spaced about four feet apart. The gun made three passes before emptying itself,
registering fifteen hits—an unusually high count—but bullet placement was random
and one target was missed entirely. He also fired the gun one-handed and then sideways
(Hollywood "gangsta" style), demonstrating the control and efficacy problems
this produced. I appreciated this demonstration because it's exactly what I'd do if I had
my own submachine gun to play with.
The information imparted in Front Sight's wasn't limited to the M-11 and other
submachine guns; it also included techniques applicable to all firearms combat. Random
examples: efficiently engaging multiple adversaries (a follow-up to the above
demonstration); verifying/re-engaging downed opponents; handling failures to stop;
maintaining awareness in a combat environment (breaking out of "combat tunnel
One technique they taught—applicable to any shoulder arm—was thrusting your
firearm forward when mounting it from any low-carry position in order to clear one's
clothing. The importance of this habit was demonstrated during a challenge drill, when
students shooting subguns starting from the high ready position (butt clamped to waist
under arm, muzzle up at eye level) competed with instructors shooting pistols starting
from holster carry. I forgot the forward thrust once and snagged my M-11's rather crude
butt in my shirt. I'm pleased to say I managed to keep my cool and rip off a quick
three-round burst from the shirt-tangled position, but I didn't beat the instructor, all
of whom were amazingly fast and accurate pistol shots.
In retrospect I'm astounded by the amount of information Front Sight imparted during a
one-day course. In just a few hours, under circumstances made entirely agreeable by a
talented, experienced, courteous staff, we covered the basics of safety, manual of arms,
grip, stance, trigger manipulation, three carry modes, and various combat tactics
applicable to the M-11 and other submachine guns. (Relevant to that last item, Front Sight
uses subguns other than the M-11 for their one-day courses –they choose the firearm
that will be used.) The students themselves—ranging from a rabbi to a grandmother to
an NRA activist to a Constitutional attorney to just regular folks—were polite,
attentive, cheerful, and observant of the safety rules, adding to the positive nature of
the experience. Plus the free snacks were excellent. What more could you ask for?