Hunters, Housewives, Cops Learn Gun Skills From Il Ling New
Prescott, Ariz. -- The gunman slinked up a ravine, hunting for Cape buffalo amid the junipers. A single bead of sweat trickled from his right temple and down his cheek. At his shoulder, Il Ling New, the shooter's mentor, crept alongside, unconsciously fingering the exposed tips of rifle cartridges slotted in her gun belt. "See him?" she whispered. The gunman hesitated for a moment and then dropped to prone. "Got him."
New locks in with a rangefinder: "398 yards." The shooter steadied his rifle for only a moment, just as he had been trained by New, and then pulled the trigger. The blast boomed across the hills. An instant later, the ring of lead hitting metal echoed back.
"Got him," New said. The gunman was Greg Rodriguez of Texas, preparing for a trip to Africa, taking his final exam in an advanced rifle course. The target was a metal plate.
The teacher was New of San Francisco, a Yale grad with a master's degree in business who ran the Pacific Rim operations of one of the world's largest advertising agencies. She now teaches self-protection, how to handle guns, and big-game hunting. Her clients include CIA and Secret Service agents, SWAT teams and Navy SEALs, as well as hunters, housewives and children. She also freelances as a self-protection specialist and hunting guide across the country.
Her smile could melt steel, yet New, a petite 5-foot-4, with a miniature handgun in her palm, can pop two shots in three seconds at 100 yards into an 8-inch pie plate -- or your head.
As a "poor, naive California kid at Yale," New was robbed with a gun jammed in her back. Now as an expert in self-defense, she is the first female staff instructor at Gunsite Academy, the top firearms training school in America.
"People think that when they face something, they will rise to the occasion," New said. "But we don't rise to the occasion. We default to our level of training."
After the recent vote to ban handguns in San Francisco, New said she believes it's a mistake to think that anybody but you is responsible for your safety.
In the 1990s, New worked 16-hour days directing the Asian marketing operations for Oglivy & Mather, in the ad agency's Seoul office. She left Oglivy & Mather for another firm, returned to the Bay Area and then decided to get out of advertising and take an outdoor job. Now 44 but looking 25, this fast-thinking onetime executive is an anomaly in the firearms field that is dominated by former military operatives.
"One day I woke up and decided, 'It's now or never,' " New said. "I don't miss the business or the bucks of a real job. My only regret is, 'Why didn't I do this sooner?' I love what I do."
So she turned her back on a lucrative career in favor of teaching self-defense and firearms training.
A day at work
On the first day at class at the Gunsite Academy, the tiny woman with the magic smile greeted students and checked them in at a classroom. A rifle was slung over her shoulder, a .308 Remington with a forward-mounted scope, carried with the same ease she'd tote a briefcase on a business trip. She also was wearing a gun belt with a holstered .45 semi-automatic, a spare magazine with eight rounds, a fighting knife, extra rifle cartridges, a Leatherman multi-tool, hand radio, and a micro high-power flashlight that can be mounted to her rifle.
This class is called Hunting Prep Tutorial. Her students include a housewife, engineer, investment executive, helicopter test pilot, accountant, and rancher, among others; most are planning hunts to Alaska, Canada, the Rocky Mountains or Africa.
Gunsite Academy is north of Prescott, Ariz., set on a ranch-like property that covers 2,000 acres of desert and foothills at an elevation of 4,900 feet, sprinkled with juniper, pinon pine and sagebrush. Some 25 classes are taught there, including pistol defense, precision rifle, and for military or law enforcement personnel, anti-terrorist defense.
At the first range, surprise targets rotate by remote computer control. At the touch of a button, targets resembling big game -- Cape buffalo, grizzly bear, mountain lion, wild pig -- are rotated to face the students. Each shooter gets 3.5 seconds to fire before the target is turned away.
"If that grizzly was charging, I don't think we'd have made it," said Jeri Johnson, a housewife in her mid-50s, after scanning her target punched with several erratic shots.
New observed Johnson in action and then homed in.
"After you fire, hang tight with your rifle stock," New advised. "Keep your head down, eyes on the exact spot of the crosshairs ... right through the shot, instead of pulling away to look."
Johnson's next round of five shots, taken in a series of 3.5-second windows, were within a few inches. "Maybe we could survive after all," she added with a grin.
"You can be subjected to danger from people, or from animals, said Rhonda Stika, another housewife under New's guidance. "I'm aware that I'm responsible for my own safety."
The basic idea at Gunsite is "Don't get any holes in your body that you weren't born with."
New was 6 years old when she fired her first rifle, a pellet gun, under her father's supervision. Now as a firearms master, she handles everything from a pocket-size .22 revolver to a submachine gun, but notes, "I'm not really an expert with a submachine gun, but I do have a good grounding."
Mugged at Yale
On a dusty road in the northern Arizona foothills, as we drove out in a pickup truck to set up a field range, New described the moments on which her fortunes turned.
She was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and then, after five years in Tokyo with her mother, King Ping, attended high school in Santa Barbara. She was introduced to shooting and hunting through her father, Ilson New, a San Francisco litigator and avid duck hunter.
At age 10, two years before she was allowed to use ammunition, she remembers sloshing across Sacramento Valley rice fields with her dad on a pre-dawn winter day, joining a duck hunt. "He was saying to me, 'You can handle it, you're self-reliant. Just do it and come along.' That's how I've done all of these outdoor sports. I've never been made to feel that there was something I could not do."
As New arrived at the range, she recalled her mind-set as she entered Yale, majoring in psychology.
"I was walking through life, not paying enough attention to what was around me," she said.
Then she told a story to illustrate it:
One weekday morning, a blue-sky day in Connecticut, she parked and noticed two strangers lurking along the sidewalk. After locking her car, she looked up and they were gone.
"I walked around to my apartment and I remember this big gloved hand coming up behind me and then seeing it come across my face," New said. "Even then, I thought, 'This is probably a joke.'
"This is how much the human being wants to believe, 'This is not happening to me. This cannot be happening.' It's just human nature."
It was as real as the gun pointed into her back. One of the robbers grabbed her purse and ran. The other grabbed her bracelet.
"I started talking. I told him, 'I'm just a poor California kid, I don't have a lot.' He left me alone and took off. It could have been so much worse."
Nine months later, the robbers were caught when investigators tied them to New's stolen credit cards and jewelry.
"I was terrified at the time," New said, "and at times, I'd get that same feeling again."
At Yale, she joined the skeet-shooting team and competed nationally with her shotgun, and also shot at ranges with handguns and rifles. At her peak in NCAA competition, New placed second in American Skeet, winning a silver medal, and then placed third, a bronze medal, in International Skeet.
After graduation, her dad urged her to get the best self-protection training possible and paid for her to enroll in a formal firearms course at Gunsite.
"I was the classic example of the unaware, what we call 'Mental Condition White,' " New said. "I started being more aware, more sensitive, to someone who looks suspicious, situations that aren't right. I take steps to avoid bad situations. Now if I have to go to Condition Red, I am completely ready, I am in fighting mode. I am willing and prepared."
Mountain lion charge
In the past 15 years, hunting under the instruction of several premier guides, New has developed into one of the top female guides in the world. In the process, she has hunted across much of the western United States, and in Botswana and Zimbabwe in Africa.
Her life is full of sizzle and travel. In one recent three-month span, she taught a handgun course to police officers in Wisconsin and hunting and firearms protection courses in Arizona, then she went to Scotland to spot-and-stalk red stag, ventured to Idaho to hunt elk, vacationed in Seoul, spent a week roaming across Northern California and headed to Texas to hunt with a past student.
In early October, she went to Zimbabwe to hunt cape buffalo, the animal many believe is the world's most dangerous. The next week, she flew to Korea for family business. Next on the agenda: duck-hunting with her dad "somewhere special" in North America.
At a field range, she described a showdown in Africa in which a guide was blindsided in tall grass by a Cape buffalo and killed.
"These things happen," New said. "Nobody thinks it is ever going to happen to them."
New then detailed a showdown of her own: Two Octobers ago, New faced a charging mountain lion at point-blank range.
On a deer hunt in Northern California, New's dog, Mini, a Jack Russell terrier, was hopping around in the forest, playing, exploring and sniffing, when the dog suddenly came sprinting back to her.
"A mountain lion was right behind my dog in a full-on chase," she said. The fleeing dog was leading the mountain lion straight at her.
"I reacted on instinct," she said.
The training kicked in, the muscle memory familiar -- "eyes, muzzle, target" -- the rifle fired, the mountain lion was downed, the dog saved.
After telling the story, New stopped to scratch Mini behind the ears.
"You know, I just love this little dog. I'm not going to let anything happen to him."
Il Ling New offers some rules to live by:
Be aware: "Be truly aware of your surroundings. Take note of people, unusual elements, changes in the norm and anything that doesn't seem right."
Have a plan: "Consider what routes you could take to get out of a place or situation. Consider what you would do if something went wrong in your office, on the bus, in the parking lot. Consider what you would do in the worst of all scenarios."
Be decisive: "Don't hesitate. Don't second-guess yourself. If you execute your plan, be decisive. A mediocre plan executed assertively will serve you better than a perfect plan executed too late."
Be prepared: "Be certain your cell phone and flashlights are charged and ready to use, especially at night. Keep these and other necessities together in one place. Always have what you need when you need it, and know where to get it."
Trust your intuition: "If you have a feeling, that is, if your gut tells you something is not right, then listen to yourself. You lose nothing by avoiding a potential conflict, for instance, by crossing the street, taking the next elevator or getting off the bus early."
Be smart: "You don't have to give directions, change for a dollar, open the door or respond to a question from a stranger. Be smart. Don't worry about being polite or hurting somebody's feelings."
Don't look like food: "In the great outdoors, predators go for the weak and fearful because they're usually not going to fight back. Don't look like either."
Leave: "If a situation looks bad, do whatever you can to get out of it. Whenever possible, prevent and avoid rather than confront. In other words, leave."
New's "Five Musts" for firearm self-defense
1. Safety -- live by it: "Having a gun in your hands is a tremendous responsibility. Recognize and accept that responsibility in each moment."
2. Learn to shoot: Get the best training you can afford: "Contrary to what we see on TV, shooting is neither easy nor is it intuitive. Learning proper techniques, especially for self-defense, is critical. Start with fundamentals. Then learn to shoot for your specific real-world applications."
3. Know your weapon: "Train with your firearm. Beyond shooting, you'll need to know how to handle gun jams and malfunctions and other issues that could rear their ugly heads at critical moments."
4. Keep your firearm in good working order: "Make sure that your firearm is clean, and that all systems work properly. Have a gunsmith do a complete check every one or two years. Replace your ammunition every few months."
5. Practice: "Practice, practice more and then practice even more. Shooting is a perishable skill -- it takes practice and repetition to maintain proficiency. Not all practice needs to be live fire. Your shooting instructor can give you exercises to do at home to help keep your skills up."
Originally published at SFGate.com