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Carbine Vitals I with Daniel Shaw

Chris Upchurch

Last Saturday I took Thunderbird Tactical's Carbine Vitals I course taught Daniel Shaw. Carbine Vitals I is a one-day basic carbine class. I took it for a couple of reasons: I haven't really found any place in Wichita that will let me do anything more interesting with a rifle than shoot it off a bench, so I figured the class would let me give my more dynamic rifle skills a bit of a workout. This course is also a prerequisite for the Rifleman - Squad Member team tactics course that Daniel is teaching in December and January.

I knew going in that there would probably be some aspects of this class that would be a bit different from the sort of rifle doctrine I'm used to, so I resolved to follow the old adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I didn’t want to be “that guy”, the one who thinks he knows more than the instructor and can’t keep it to himself.

One of my goals for this class was to give my new SBR AR a bit of a workout. I've built a few lowers before, but this is the first AR where I've assembled the upper myself, which is extra reason to test it thoroughly. I'd only had a chance to put about 50 rounds through it before class, which is less than I'd really prefer (I had two backups in the car though). I ran an Aimpoint micro mounted forward with fixed back-up iron sights (lower 1/3 cowitness).

The vast majority of the students brought ARs. There was one student with a SIG 556xi and another switched to a Tavor when his AR went down.

It’s been a while since I ran a class from a shoulder bag, and a one-day class like this would be a good opportunity to do it (running a two-day class from a messenger-type bag makes my back hurt), so I brought my Sneakybag. Most of the other students in the class had some sort of tactical gear, mostly chest rigs, with a couple of plate carriers and belt rigs thrown into the mix.

The course was held at a venue about half an hour east of Wichita. A large field with a big berm at one end. Thankfully, there was a ramada to provide some overhead cover, which was especially useful in the morning.


The day dawned foggy and wet. It was fairly thick fog all the way out to the class site. As we were waiting for the rest of the students to show up there was some intermittent rain.

At 9:00 the festivities commenced. Daniel introduced himself and talked a bit about his background in the Marine Corps. He also introduced Andy, another Marine veteran who would be helping him with the class. He asked each student to introduce themselves and talk a bit about any previous training experience and why they were taking the class. Most of the students were in the early phases of the development of their fighting rifle skills.

Next up was the safety lecture. Daniel presented a somewhat different take on the fundamental safety rules than I've seen elsewhere. He really emphasized muzzle and trigger finger discipline. He also mandated keeping the safety on until the rifle is being presented to the target and engaging the safety whenever the rifle came off the target, which is something a bit foreign to my experience (“when in Rome”). Finally, he went through the medical plan, assigning roles in case someone got shot.

Around this time the rain finally let up for good, which was nice, but the first thing we had to do was go out and drop down on the nice wet ground to confirm the zeros on our rifles. Daniel explained the basics of ballistics and why he advocates a 36 yard zero.

I was a bit concerned about my zero. I'd zeroed the rifle on an indoor range which required you to use their targets, and zeroing a red dot on an orange target is not the best recipe for accuracy. As it turns out I was dead on, no adjustment required. Several of the students had brought unzeroed rifles, which necessitated several rounds of shooting and subsequent adjustment, but eventually everyone was well enough on target for what we’d be doing.

We moved up to the 3 yard line. Daniel talked a bit about the fighting stance and had each of us fire a long burst as he or Andy watched, to evaluate our recoil control. After providing some individual feedback, we move on to presenting the gun from a low ready position. He gave everybody plenty of reps with this, until the A-zones of the targets were pretty well peppered.

Next up was height-over-bore issues. After explaining the concept Daniel began calling out some small shapes on the target (roughly 1.5" square, triangle, diamond, and circle), we had to compensate for the mechanical offset in our sights/optics and put the round in the appropriate shape. We practiced these, as well as some headshots, moving back from the 3 yard line to 15 yards, seeing how the offset changes with distance.

At the beginning of class, Daniel asked us to only load our magazines to about half capacity, to give us more opportunities for reloading. Now he went through the reloading process in detail, starting with the speed reload. Before this block of instruction some of the students had rather interesting reloading techniques. We worked this for a while, using a “shoot one, reload, shoot one” type of drill.

Moving on to the tactical reload, Daniel explained the reasons why you might want to retain magazines, expalined the process, and demonstrated it. He introduced a bit of a team aspect to this. We buddied up into 2-man teams and one team member would call out “cover!” to ask the other to cover him while he reloaded. We ran quite a few reps of this process as well.

Our last subject before lunch was malfunction clearance. Daniel moved fairly quickly through failure to fire malfunctions (there isn’t a whole lot to slapping the bottom of the magazine and racking the charging handle). He spent considerably more time on double feeds (both of the failure to extract and true double feed variety), as these are substantially more complicated to clear (especially in an AR). He had us set up and practice clearing double feeds multiple times. Finally, he covered stovepipe (failure to eject) malfunctions and had us work a few of those.

With that, we broke for lunch.


After lunch, we warmed back up with some presenting to the target drills at various distances before starting in on some movement. We started out with, “move, then shoot”. We did some drills involving a quick burst of movement, two to three steps as you bring the rifle up to a firing position, then stopping to fire several shots. This simulates moving quickly to a piece of cover or a point of domination in response to a threat. We ran several drills like this, first moving left and right, then forward and back.

Next up was moving while shooting. Daniel emphasized natural movement, rather than the exaggerated Groucho walk you see at some places. We started out moving forward, towards the targets. We did a couple of iterations dry, then moved on to live fire. Starting from fifteen yards we moved in to the ten, seven, and three yard lines, stopping at each. After a couple runs we switched to moving backwards, away from the targets.

For side to side movement, Daniel changed things up a bit. Rather than running the whole class at once in a big conga line, we did this individually. He set up four targets and had us go down the line from left to right and engage each target in turn. When we got to the end of the line, we had to go back and give each target one to the head. In introducing the headshot portion of the drill Daniel also took this opportunity to talk about failure drills and what we should do if our initial shots do not seem to be effective.

Once everybody had a go at this, we did it again moving from right to left. Since we were moving towards our support sides (everyone in the class was shooting from the right shoulder) we had to either sidestep or walk backwards. This was actually rather difficult for me, since my instincts from previous training were screaming at me to transfer the gun over to the left shoulder and walk naturally. I resisted this urge, not just because of the, "when in Rome" thing, but also because I wouldn’t want any of the students without a good support side skill set (and in particular, without a well education trigger finger on their left hand) to see me do that and try to do the same.

Finally, it was time for the culminating exercise of the entire class. Daniel and Andy put up five targets with numbers spray painted on them in different colors. Each student had to start 100 yards downrange and run up to the line (to get the heart going), then start walking in a rectangular pattern (laid out using cones). Daniel or Andy would call out a numbers, or a color, and we had to shoot those targets, while remaining on the move, reloading, and clearing any malfunctions. They even did some tricky stuff like giving you math problems (“fourteen divided by two!”).

This was a fun drill. I burned through about 75 rounds (five half filled magazines) and heated my Mini4 up enough that it cooked the finish off the front half of the can.

After everyone had a chance to run the drill, we did a debrief of the class, then packed up and headed out. A couple of us adjourned to a local watering hole for some dinner, a cold adult beverage, and some excellent fellowship with like-minded individuals.

Final Thoughts

When I give my opinion on a foundation level class like this, I kind of have to do it on two levels: what did I get out of it, and how well would it serve someone coming in without a lot of fighting rifle experience.

To start with the latter, I think this would be an excellent class for a beginning tactical rifle shooter. Daniel did a good job explaining everything clearly and he and Andy provided lots of useful feedback to the students. The curriculum is well laid out and proceeds in a logical fashion. There’s a lot of content in here, very few beginners level carbine classes will get all the way to shooting on the move in the first day. Despite this, the class didn’t feel rushed. Daniel has clearly made a decision to focus on the ‘gunfighting’ aspects of the fundamentals (as opposed to marksmanship) and really emphasizing presenting the weapon, shooting quickly and accurately at close range, reloads, malfunction clearance, and movement.

One thing I really appreciated (and a place where a lot of otherwise good instructors fall short) is Daniel’s explanation of the context. Where does this technique fit, why is it being taught this way, and how does all this apply to you.

Going back to what I got out of this class: To start with I got some good coaching. Coaching (as opposed to teaching) is a very specific skill, and one that not all instructors have. Honestly, I may have thrown Daniel a bit of a curveball by enrolling in this class, and there are plenty of instructors who would have kind of ignored the guy who obviously knew what he was doing in favor of those who needed a bit more help (very easy to do in classes with widely varying skill levels). He didn’t. He was able to provide me good feedback on what I was doing and gave me good suggestions for improvement.

I also picked up some nice instructional tidbits. I’m always looking for better ways to explain particular ideas. If I go back to teaching firearms classes in the future, it’s good to have different ways to get the information across. Sometimes a student just isn’t grasping the concept, but if you change the way you explain it, then it suddenly becomes clear.

I got some good trigger time. It’s actually been quite a while since I’ve put so many rounds downrange at one time, probably back to summer of 2013. The rifle classes I’ve taken since then have either emphasized long range precision shooting, or non-trigger pulling skills entirely. It was good to go out there and shoot a bunch.

Finally, I was successful in wringing out my new SBR. The rifle ran like a champ, with nary a hiccup all day. Unfortunately, this wasn’t true of all the rifles in the class. In addition to the normal issues (missing primers, feeding problems, and the usual share of operator-induced malfunctions) we also had two rifles that just would not work. Both of them for the same reason, oddly enough (the two guns were from different manufacturers and were completely unrelated). Both of them were short-stroking: the bolt was either failing to come back far enough to eject the case from the chamber or coming back far enough to eject but not far enough to strip the next round off the top of the magazine. Thankfully, both of the students had back-up rifles available.

The listed round count for this course is 300 rounds, and you can probably do the class in that amount if you’re really restrict how many rounds you fire at each target. I probably put about 500 rounds downrange during the class. My feeling is that in a real deadly force situation I want to put as many rounds into the bad guy as I can in the time available. If you’re already paying for the class and spending the time to come out to it there’s no sense in artificially restricting yourself, and potentially building a training scar in the process. Bring a 1000 round case, shoot freely, then use whatever’s left over to practice the skills you learned in class.

Overall, I think this was a great class. One I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to either the beginning rifle shooter or a more experienced rifleman looking for a tune-up. Based on this experience I think I’ll be signing up for the Rifleman - Squad Member course that Daniel is teaching in January.