Last Sunday I attended APA Training Group’s Advanced Carbine 1 course, taught by David Bonn. I ran across the APA website a couple of years ago when I was looking at local training options here in Kansas, but I hadn’t had the occasion to take one of their classes until now.
One caveat I need to put in up front is that Dave is definitely one of those instructors who isn’t afraid to modify his curriculum to suit the skill level of a particular class. Hence the “(.5)” in the title above. So, no guarantees that this is exactly what you’ll get if you take the Advanced Carbine 1 course, but if everyone shows up with the requisite skillset, he’s definitely willing to push things a bit.
My main motive for taking this course was to test a new AR that I built. This is a 14.5” gun with a fixed muzzle device. It’s built on an Aero Precision upper and lower receiver with a LaRue barrel, Magpul UBR Gen 2 stock, and a Lancer handguard. This is the first rifle I’ve built with a VLTOR A5 buffer so we’ll see how that works. I’ve got my usual AAC Mini4 suppressor on the front end and I rounded the rifle out with a VTAC sling and a batch of new Gen 3 PMAGs (in FDE to match the paint job on the rifle).
The biggest change for me is the optic. I’m using my Leupold Mark 6 1-6x, which I pulled off my DMR. This will be the first fighting rifle class that I’ve taken with a magnified optic. In every other combat rifle class I’ve taken I used either a red dot or (rarely) iron sights. My experience with magnified optics has been limited to precision rifle courses.
One of the reasons I’m trying out a low power variable is that I’ve got some significant astigmatism in both eyes dots appear blurry and starburst shaped to me. This isn’t really a problem at across the room distances, but it does come into play shooting at longer ranges. In 2016 I took a couple of rifle courses involving some shooting at 100 and 200 yards and I definitely ran up against the limits of my ability to shoot accurately with a red dot. The etched reticles on a magnified optic don’t suffer from these issues (not to mention the benefits of the magnification itself at longer ranges).
The flip side of magnified optics, even at 1x, is that they require a more precise and consistent cheekweld than a red dot. Since most of my fighting rifle experience has been on red dots I’m cognizant of the fact that my cheekweld may be a bit sloppy. Starting about a month before the class I did daily dry practice mounting the rifle and acquiring the illuminated reticle in the magnified optic.
Between the weight of the optic, the moderately heavy profile of the LaRue barrel, and the hefty UBR stock this was the heaviest rifle that I’ve ever brought to a class, over 11 pounds. The dry practice helped me get used to that as well.
Not knowing what the “culture” (for the lack of a better term) of the APA classes was when it comes to support gear, I decided to run the class off of mag pouches on the belt. Since I only had one AR mag pouch that would fit this belt, I picked up a couple of Bladetech kydex mag pouches before the class. I paired these with one of my EDC pistol mag pouches, an EMDOM dump pouch, and an 1110 tourniquet pouch. For a handgun I brought my red dot equipped Glock 17, in an Archangel holster. Last (and probably least) I wore the fancy Overlord tactical gloves that I recently bought on a friend’s recommendation.
All of the other students in the class were running ARs of one description or another. They all had red dot sights (either EoTechs or full size Aimpoints). Many of them were also running flip to the side magnifiers (mostly Vortex). Handguns were a more varied lot, with Glocks, XDs, and M&Ps, and maybe some others that I didn’t notice. All of them were polymer frame striker fired guns. Most students had war belts, though there was also one chest rig in evidence (and one fellow just running the class out of his pants pockets).
Rather than meeting at the range Dave has the students meet up at a local restaurant for breakfast, then convoy over to the private range where the class takes place.
I toted my stuff over to the benches and started getting geared up when I ran into my first issue of the day. I found the the new Gen 3 PMAGs I was using didn’t want to fit into the older kydex mag pouch that I’d brought. I initially thought the problem was the over-travel insertion stop on the PMAG, but examining it after class I think the real issue is the horizontal ribs on the front corners of the mag. Thankfully, I had the two Bladetech pouches which were more squared off and took the PMAGs fine. Two mags on the belt turned out to be sufficient for everything we were asked to do in the class, but this experience ought to teach me to test new mags with the mag pouches I plan to use them with.
Once a couple of laggards arrived we had half a dozen students for the class. All of them except me had trained with Dave before.
Dave started off with the safety brief followed by a short medical brief. Since I had mentioned that I was zeroed at 50 yards (really more like 45) he took me out on the range to verify my zero (he also used this opportunity to check out my technique). My zero was fine and we moved up to 25 for the rest of the students to verify their own zeroes. I took the advantage of the opportunity to verify that dialing in 1 mil of elevation on the optic would put me dead on at 25. That way I can verify my zero at 25 in the future if necessary.
After a few adjustments to get everybody on target, we moved up to the 7 yard line and did some precise close range shots where you had to compensate for the mechanical offset of your sights.
Moving on, we did some pistol transitions starting at 4 yards, then moving back to 7. It’s worth mentioning at this point that while he hadn’t explicitly said it so far in this class, it was pretty clear that Dave favored a two-point quick adjust sling run wrapped around the body. Not only did he run his rifle that way, but so did all of the other (repeat) students in the class. This was not completely new territory for me, but it is an approach I have less experience with (most of my previous instructors either favored using the sling as a carry strap only or were fairly agnostic on the issue). I’m always up for trying different techniques stuff, so “when in Rome, do as Romans do”. Of course, when you’re “wearing” the rifle transitions to pistol are pretty easy.
I’d never shot using this particular pair of gloves before (and it’s been too long since I shot wearing gloves, period). They had not inhibited my rifle shooting at all (no surprises there, since I’d done some of my dry practice wearing them). However, one thing I noticed when going to pistol was that even with the nice big trigger guard on the Glock the fingers on the gloves were fat enough to disturb the sight picture a little bit when I went from finger straight to finger on the trigger. They didn’t inhibit the trigger press itself at all, just moving my finger from the register position to the trigger. Maybe the red dot just makes me more sensitive to this, but it threw me off a bit when I first noticed it. I really need to do some handgun dry practice wearing gloves (both these shooting gloves and my warm gloves now that winter’s just a few months off).
We moved back and did some transition drills on steel at about 20 yards. Dave had a pepper popper with a pair of small 5” “flippers” attached to it that you could flip from one side of the popper to the other by hitting them. We used these as our targets and at this distance they were quite challenging. The red dot on the Glock definitely helped here.
Switching back to rifles, we did some drills coming up to shoot from the ready position. Then we extended that to some turning drills where you started out facing 90 degrees to one side or the other from the target and turning and shooting on command.
During these drills Dave pointed out some things about the way I was doing the turn and the stance I ended up in to shoot. While I’ve done essentially the same turning drills in the past, they were generally just intermediate stops on the way to dynamic movement from this position. So the instructors weren’t too concerned about some of the details of exactly where your feet ended up, etc. While the drills themselves are very similar Dave is approaching these from a different direction than I’ve experienced in the prior classes.
Not only did he emphasize a very squared up stance, he also advocated for keeping the feet in the same plane, rather than having the support side foot any further forward. He explained this as providing the largest possible range of shooting angles without requiring you to move your feet. Applying these principles to the turn and shoot drill, he gave me some good coaching about how to do the turn and end up withe the feet parallel rather than stepping into the turn and ending up with one much further forward.
We did a few more drills where you started out facing uprange and turned 180 degrees to engage. Then we switched to handguns and did both the 90 and 180 degree turns. After a few reps doing this with just handguns Dave had us sling our rifles and get used to drawing around our rifles, both with them slung up on the chest, and slung diagonally across the back. This simulates a situation where you might be proactively going to your pistol (in a tight space, or while climbing a ladder, for instance).
Thus far Dave had been watching me pretty closely, and I think that by this point he was confident enough in my skills to ramp things up beyond what he might normally do in this class. We started working on some moving and shooting. Starting at about 35 yards and moved up to 25, shooting steel on the move. After a couple of runs just moving forward (stretching out the starting distance each time) we did some where we moved up, then moved back, walking backwards. As Dave pointed out, shooting while moving backwards is often easier than moving forwards, because you’re naturally taking shorter, smoother steps, while moving forwards you have to consciously take that sort of short, smooth steps.
These distances were definitely pushing my controlled movement shooting abilities beyond their limits. In a gunfight at these distances I would probably either post up and shoot stationary, or bust ass to the nearest piece of cover and shoot from there. This is one drill where I would have appreciated a bit more context from Dave. Would he really advocate shooting on the move at this distance? Was it intended to push our shooting skill and the smoothness of the movement to provide greater benefits when using these techniques at closer ranges? Or was it just a convenience so that we could safety shoot this drill on steel? (That said the feedback from the steel was nice).
One of the things Dave emphasized was tightening up the sling around the body and using it for greater stability. He demonstrated by cinching his sling up, holding the rifle with just the support hand and having me reach in and operate the trigger.
Switching to another kind of movement, Dave set up four rows of cones between 25 and 50 yards. Two shooters at a time would start out at the 50 yard line and shoot from there, then run up to the next set of cones, shoot, run to the next set, shoot, and run to the 25 and shoot again. After a few reps he threw in some keeling positions so we would have to run up, assume kneeling, fire, then pop up and run to the next set of cones. To make things a bit more interesting, he started initiating by shooting one of the steel targets rather just yelling “threat”.
Once everybody had that down we used the same shooting positions for some team bounding drills. One student would shoot once (simulating cover fire) and call out “move”. The other student would respond “moving” and run to the next set of cones. Then second student shoots and yells, “move” and the first student bounds past him up to the next set of cones to the front. I’m used to “moving” “covering” “set”, so the verbiage took a little getting used to, but the basic concept was familiar to me.
In response to a student’s question, Dave expressed a pretty strong preference for muzzle down carry when moving, which is a different than what I’ve done in the past (he can articulate a good case for it that’s a product of his particular experience).
After a few reps everyone was used to doing this as individual elements of a two-man team, so Dave put everyone on the line as a pair of three man teams that bounded at the team level (one three-man team shoots while the other team moves up, etc.). To that point we’d been pretty conservative with ammunition, firing one shot per bound to simulate cover fire rather than really delivering it. For the last run Dave had the team providing cover fire actually shoot at a fairly fast clip (each student shooting every second or so), more like you would in an actual infantry fight. When that goes down well it’s pretty impressive.
For the last exercise Dave set up a timed competition between students. Due to the skill level of the students in the class, he pushed the difficult of the course of fire for this a bit. You started out next to the bay where we were shooting and on the start signal you had to throw a tomahawk at a big wooden board (minus 30 seconds on your time if you managed to get it to stick, which only one student did). Then you ran back to the 100 yard line and started engaging four steel targets. You had to shoot the targets once each, then repeat (take however many shots you needed to take to get those eight hits). Then you moved up to the 75 yard line and did the same, and again at the 50, 40, and 25 yard lines. Then you moved up to 15 yards and transitioned to pistol. You had to flip both of those little 5” flippers on the pepper popper, then engage five steel targets right to left. Move up to 10 yards and engage the five steel targets left to right and flip the flippers again. Finally, holster your pistol, switch back to the rifle, and make a 7 yard shot at a small 2” square (remember your mechanical offset).
I was the third student to run the course of fire, and after watching the first two students I decided that my strategy would be to try to slow down my shooting as much as possible. A slow hit would be quicker than a bunch of fast misses. I paused before shooting at each distance position and concentrated on sight picture and trigger press. I probably overdid the slow shooting more than I needed to on the pistol stuff (Dave commented on how long I’d taken for the relatively easy shots on the five steel targets afterwards). I didn’t quite shoot the course clean, but I only had about half a dozen misses for the whole course of fire. Despite my slow and methodical shooting I got my hits with few enough wasted shots that I posted the fastest time, and it held up even after the rest of the students in the class had shot the exercise.
Once everybody had shot the timed event we debriefed the class. Everyone packed up their gear and we talked for a bit (I had a chance to shoot Dave’s CZ P-10C, which was a nice little pistol). Eventually we all headed out after a good day’s training.
This was a great class. I really appreciated Dave’s willingness to deviate from the planned curriculum to take advantage of the fact that everyone in the class had a solid skillset.
As I’ve pointed out a couple of times there are areas where he’s got a bit of a different outlook than a lot of the guys I’ve trained with before, and that’s a good thing. Exposure to different ideas and concepts is valuable. Even if I don’t end up adopting the way Dave teaches a particular technique it prompts me to think critically about why I do things a certain way.
One of the things I’ve believed for quite a long time is that coaching is a distinct skill set from teaching. Folks with one skill set don’t necessarily have the other; some instructors are very good at teaching, but not coaching their students. Dave definitely has good coaching skills as well as teaching skills. Despite the fact that I presented him with a student who came into the class with more of a skillset than he probably expected, he was able to do a good job coaching and give me great pointers. I definitely appreciate that. I came out of the class with some things I need to practice (some of the footwork on the turns and playing around with using the 2-point sling around the body).
Dave ran this class with a very limited round count. Most of the drills where done with just one round per repetition or shooting position, rather than pairs or bursts. I’m of two minds about this. There are definitely some instructors who will run you through a lot of rounds for relatively little benefit beyond ballistic masturbation. That said, there is a value to ingraining the habit of firing multiple shots and developing the skills to absorb recoil and drive the sights to the target. Its also possible that this criticism (diffident as it is) is premature since I’ve only taken one course out of a three course sequence. We may just not have gotten to that part of the curriculum yet.
We were lucky enough to get some unexpectedly good weather for this class. It clouded over a bit in the afternoon and never reached the 90 degree high that was forecast.
My new rifle ran well. I’d still like to put some more rounds through it before relying on it for self-defense, but at this point I think I can say that I didn’t seriously botch anything when I put this gun together. Besides the baseline of shooting reliably, it was accurate when I did my part and the gun handled well. I’m very happy with it so far.
The Leupold Mark 6 1-6x also worked really well. The dry practice mounting the optic and acquiring the reticle definitely paid off, I didn’t have any trouble finding the reticle during the class. Even though I never took the optic off of 1x (except for zeroing) it was clearer for me than a red dot and I felt more confident with it. The hits I was able to get at the 100 yard line in the final exercise validated that confidence.
Aside from the incompatibility between my old AR mag pouch and the Gen 3 PMAGs, my support gear worked well. The Bladetech mag pouches worked fine; I may have to pick up another one. The dump pouch did not get a lot of use, both because we didn’t go through a bunch of ammo and because Dave is definitely in the “drop your mags on the deck” camp. The Overlord gloves worked well; no issues with dexterity or feeling the controls. I’m happy I got them.
There was no formal lunch break during class, so I was glad I’d brought snacky type food (jerky, Fritos) rather than more of a meal. There were enough breaks for hydration that I just used bottled water rather than breaking out the Camelbak and carry a couple of extra pounds around.
All in all it was a very worthwhile class and I’m glad I went. I would definitely recommend Dave Bonn and APA training. I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is on that; after class I wrote him a check for the Advanced Carbine 2 class in a couple weeks.