"... and to be honest, as section leader, my first impression of your class has been very very poor."
As one of the most senior NCOs in our training company, we typically addressed the staff sergeant (E-6) by his position, as is common in the ROC armed forces: section leader (組長). Word was, he'd been in the Army for 12 years. He stared at us with a look that seemed to mix disdain with general apathy - his usual attitude toward us new recruits. This had a tendency of changing on select occasions. Our first introduction to him was in the mess hall when one of the mess squads from an adjacent company failed to don surgical masks while dishing out chow. The explosion of profanity and clang of trays being thrown frisbee-style across the room could be heard throughout the building.
Now, we were gathered around him in a semicircle, sweating in full combat gear, for our first real introduction to using our T-65K2 assault rifles for their intended purpose... namely, passing our final qualification exam at the end of basic training.
"Your objective will be to land 4 out of 6 rounds within the designated target area at 175 meters during your final exam (監測) at the end of basic training. In a few days, you will have your first target practice outing, firing at calibration targets at a distance of 25 meters - a piece of cake."
He paused for dramatic effect...
"We will now practice for your first outing using simulated targets at 25 meters. You may rest your unloaded rifles on sandbags while in the lying position that you will be assuming at the firing range. You will follow a precise procedure at the range that we will practice now...
Listen up. After the first round is fired your IQs will go from 60 to 30. After the second round, they'll go negative."
We lined up behind half a dozen sandbags placed on the ground, next to several foam mats. Wooden targets resembling an inverted U were placed some distance away.
"Now I hope you've been reading the material we've issued you to carry around in your pockets. What trajectory does a bullet take upon leaving the muzzle of your rifle?"
"Are you all mutes or something?"
"Reporting sergeant! A parabolic trajectory!" (「報告組長，拋物線！」), a rather brave (and obese) recruit yelled.
"And where are you from?" (「你是哪裡人？」)
"Reporting sergeant, New Taipei City!" (「報告組長，新北市！」)
"What, are you from everywhere in New Taipei?" (「怎樣，全新北都是你家喔？」)
"Reporting sergeant, Tamsui!"(「報告組長，淡水！」)
"Tamsui? Looks like you've been eating too much A-gei (a Tamsui specialty dish consisting of noodles wrapped in tofu)" (「淡水？我看你是啊給吃太多。」)
Sarge proceeded to go down the line, asking everyone where they were from, and coming up with a specific insult corresponding to each.
"Now listen up. Since your bullets will not be flying in a straight line, at 25 meters your bullets should fall about 2.4 centimeters below the target if your aim is true."
We then proceeded to act out the standard operating procedure for target practice:
"Prepare for target practice in lying position!" (「臥射預備！」)
"Preparing for target practice in lying position!", we yelled, taking a step to the left and dropping onto the mats, while resting the stocks of our rifles on the sandbags pointed towards the target.
"Load three bullets, release bolt!" (「三發子彈，送上槍機！」)
"Loading three bullets, releasing bolt!", we yelled while inserting an empty magazine and pushing the bolt release catch on the side of our rifles.
The bolt snapped forward with a satisfying metallic clack, which would have chambered a bullet from the magazine, had there actually been any. If you've ever seen an action movie where a character slaps the side of his rifle after inserting a new magazine, this is what he was doing. We were expressly forbidden from slapping our rifles (Too much potential for weapons damage, our company commander had said).
"Ready on the left!" (「左線預備！」)
"Disengaging safety" (「開保險！」)
"Ready on the right!" (「右線預備！」)
"Taking a deep breath!" (「深呼吸！」)
"Ready along the line!" (「全線預備！」)
"Opening fire!" (「開始射擊！」)
A series of clicks echoed along the line as everyone pulled their triggers.
"You should press the stock of your rifles to your chest during target practice, since your aim will tend to shift when pulling the trigger. We will practice by placing NT$1 coins (about the size of a US penny) on the barrels of your rifles. If you are holding your rifles steady, the coin should not fall off when you pull the trigger.
You will continue this exercise until you have pulled the trigger 20 consecutive times without the coin falling off the barrel."
We proceeded to do just that. Sweating in my steel helmet and long sleeved BDUs in the tropical heat and humidity, I yanked the charging lever of my rifle backwards to cock the firing pin. Another recruit placed placed an NT$1 coin on the barrel. I inhaled and held my breath, and carefully lined up the sights on my rifle, before gently squeezing the trigger using the second joint of my index finger as we were instructed...
By luck, or by skill, the coin stayed put. Maybe I'd get the hang of this after all.
I repeated the process meticulously, sweat starting to pool up under the lining of my helmet. Taiwan still uses the classic US M1-style steel helmet in basic training and other roles where looks or budgets are at a premium (eg. the honor guard). While being heavier and providing less protection than the newer Kevlar versions, it is unmistakably more stylish in a Saving Private Ryan-sort of way.
By now, sweat was running down my face, the rim of my helmet was sliding down over my eyes, and I was struggling to keep my eyes open through the stinging sweat and the increasing blurriness from keeping my right eye open. (Remember, you only have about 15 seconds of effective vision when sighting your target, sarge had warned.)
The unmistakable sound of the coin falling off my rifle barrel jolted me out of whatever zen state I was previously in.
It may sound trivial, but by the end of the hour, no one had managed to go for 20 consecutive shots without the coins falling off their rifle barrels to sounds of frustrated cursing.
It eventually dawned on us that like so many other things in basic training, we were being set up to fail.
"That was pathetic", Sarge said at the end of the session.
"I'm.... I'm sorry sergeant!" (「報...報告組長，對不起！」), one recruit ventured.
"Don't apologize to me, apologize to the country!" (「現在不是對不起我，是對不起國家！」)