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Longrifle and Rural Scout Sniper with Eric Pfleger

Chris Upchurch

Over Memorial Day weekend, I took Eric Pfleger's Longrifle and Rural Scout/Sniper classes. The Longrifle class ran Saturday/Sunday and focused on long-range shooting, while the Rural Scout/Sniper course on Monday and Tuesday covered stalking and the intel gathering role of a sniper.

Eric is a sniper on a regional SWAT team in a very rural area, so he's one of the small percentage of police snipers who's actually going to get a lot of mileage out of a ghillie suit. This sort of thing is right in his wheelhouse. I've taken the Longrifle course before when Eric taught it at Thunder Vally Precision in Ohio. The Rural Scout/Sniper has some overlap with the Pathfinder, Reece, & Man Tracking course that Eric did a couple of years ago, so the curriculum wasn’t totally new to me, but I’m still generally a novice at this sort of thing so more instruction from someone as knowledgeable as Eric was quite welcome.

After the class, I stuck around for the rest of the week to enjoy Montana a bit.

Gear

Long range rifle classes are generally very gear intensive; this one even more so because we'd spend one night camping in the field. That posed a problem for me since I'd be flying in from Kansas.

Despite the fact that I was flying in, I decided to bring two rifles to this class. I wanted to bring out my Ruger Precision Rifle for the long-range shooting portion of the course, but it's kind of heavy and unwieldy to carry around in the field. For the field work, I brought out my new .308 AR.

The RPR hasn't really changed since the last class I brought it to. As before it's got a 3-18x Vortex Razor HD II on it and I've replaced the factory stock with a Magpul PRS. One change I did make was to switch from the Atlas bipod to one of the new Magpul bipods. I did this so I could have one bipod on each rifle, rather than swapping the Atlas back and forth.

The .308 AR is a build I put together, using an Aero Precision upper, lower, and handguard. I'm running a Nightforce ATACR 1-8x on it, in a tall American Defense mount. This is more of a general purpose rifle rather than being optimized solely for long range or precision shooting. I figured it would work well for the Scout/Sniper portion of the class.

When I was testing the gun, I was getting some failures to eject with the spent case hanging out like a stovepipe, jammed up underneath a fresh round that was partway into the chamber. I took some slow motion video to help diagnose the problem. I came to the conclusion that the rifle was probably overgassed, leading to the bolt carrier group coming back fast enough for the extractor to lose its grip on the rim of the case before the case had a chance to reach the ejection port. After a heavier buffer failed to solve the problem, I ended up installing an adjustable gas block. I did not get the chance to run as many rounds through the rifle as I would like before bringing it to class, but during the testing, I was able to do I didn't have any more malfunctions after getting the gas block adjusted, and ejection was much more vigorous and consistent.

Both rifles have QD mounts for my AAC 762-SDN-6 suppressor. Only one can, so I had to swap it back and forth between them.

This is grizzly bear country. While my .308 would be my go-to for bear defense, I might not always have that in hand. I brought a 10mm Glock. One issue when running a big pack is always how to carry a pistol and accommodate the pack's belt. My favored solution for this is a dropped and offset holster. This puts the pistol low enough and far enough out from the body to clear the pack belt without tying it to your thigh the way a drop leg holster does. Whenever you're crawling around in the bush, it pays to have some sort of retention. I ran a dropped and offset Safariland ALS holster.

In a class like this, optics are as important as rifles. In addition to the rifle scopes, I also brought my Leupold Mark 4 12-40x spotting scope with a Horus reticle in it. After my experience hunting in Montana the past two years I decided to upgrade from separate binoculars and laser rangefinder to a set of binos with a built-in rangefinder. I picked up a pair of the Vortex Fury 10x42s for this class (I also brought my old Leica 1600 rangefinder and Vortex compact 8x binos).

On my past hunting trips and classes, I've run the binos on a Leupold binocular harness, but I've found pulling up against the tension of the harness annoying, and it can make it hard to keep the binos steady for long periods. This time I brought a Badlands Bino Mag case that provides the binoculars a bit more protection while keeping them readily accessible (ok, it also looked really cool in Wind River). The case has dummy cords in case you drop the binoculars, but they aren't under tension the way a harness is. I used a set of Peak Design Anchor Links, so I could detach the binos from the dummy cords when I wanted to use them separately.

This is definitely a course where camo is appropriate. I favor Multicam, and the terrain in Montana is quite suited for it. I brought some Crye combat pants (one pair of G3s and one of the new G4s) and Tru-Spec Multicam shirts. Throw in a pair of Multicam Under Armour boots and a Multicam boonie, and I was pretty much cammoed up head to toe.

Being Montana in the springtime, the weather was potentially pretty variable. I wanted to be prepared for everything from hot days to sub-freezing temps, sun to rain (probably not snow, but even that was possible). So, long underwear, fleece, insulated gloves, neck gaiter, and watch cap for the cold. For windy and wet, a full set of Multicam Gortex including a rain jacket, rain pants, and gaiters.

Since we'd be camping out in the field for a night during the Rural Scout Sniper portion, this class also required camping gear. I mostly brought my usual backpacking kit: a small tent, sleeping bag, Thermarest mattress, etc. I did upgrade my old backpacking stove to a new Jetboil model for cooking dinner and breakfast.

I brought a pair of 2-liter water bladders as my main water source, along with a Nalgene bottle (sometimes a bottle is more practical than a bladder, particularly around camp). To keep these full of fresh water, I got a new Sawyer Squeeze water filter and some Katydn Micropur purification tablets.

Finally, food. For the overnight, I brought my usual sort of backpacking rations: noodles and canned ham for dinner, instant oatmeal and hot chocolate for breakfast. Knowing Eric, I figured that during the days it would be mostly eating on the go rather than lengthy meal breaks, so I brought a lot of snack type stuff: Cliff bars, GORP, pretzels, jerky, beef sticks, etc.

Of course, I also needed some way to carry all this stuff. Eric told us to be able to carry all of our kit to our camping location on foot, then carry our food, shooting, survival, and inclement weather gear with us as we moved around to different locations during the day. So, a big ruck to carry everything and a smaller bag to carry the daytime kit.

This sounded like a job for my Eberlestock Skycrane. The Skycrane is less of a "pack" and more of a flexible system for securing heavy loads to your back. The base pack includes a frame, shoulder straps, and waist belt. Its only enclosed cargo space is two long side pockets. You can load this frame up with Eberlestock's Little Brother pack and their Spike duffel bags in various combinations. I squeezed all of my daytime in the Little Brother and loaded up the Spike and the side pockets with my camping gear. When I did my test pack (which didn't quite include all of my gear or ammo), the day pack came in at about 30 pounds, and the full setup was over 55 lbs. Throw in the remaining kit, and it'll probably tip the scales at over 60 pounds (not counting rifle, scope, pistol, or binoculars).

This was all way too much for checked luggage with the airline. Fortunately, Eric was willing to receive packages for students ahead of time. For some stuff like ammo and stove fuel that can be a pain to ship, I bought it online and had it shipped directly to Eric. I packed most of my gear in one big box and shipped it out the week before class. On the airplane, I had one big rifle case with the rifles and pistol in it and a large rolling suitcase with my clothes and other gear. Rather than trusting my expensive optics to UPS or the TSA and airline baggage handlers, I got a carry-on sized Pelican case and brought them with me on the plane.

Friday

I arrived in Missoula in late afternoon. Eric was nice enough to pick me up at the airport. He was putting me up for the class in his fifth-wheel trailer, which was parked on a piece of property where he was also hosting some students from the class who were tent camping. After dropping my gear off at the fifth wheel, a couple of other students and I went out for dinner with Eric and his family.

Saturday

I rolled out of bed early on Saturday and got to work sorting out my gear. It was pretty well mixed up, with gear spread between my checked suitcase, rifle case, carry on, and the stuff I had shipped out ahead of time. Thankfully I could ignore a lot of it until Monday, (mostly the camping stuff) but I still needed to assemble all the shooting gear, some food, and other random stuff I’d need today and tomorrow.

We convoyed from camp out to the rendezvous point (a gas station on the highway where we’d be shooting). Eric briefed everybody on where we were headed today, and we made the short drive out to where we’d be shooting.

We started out with introductions. There were some folks who’d made long trips to attend this class (even longer than mine). He had us team up into two-man teams (shooter/spotter). My buddy for this class was a guy who goes by cdiesel on the Paragon Pride forum. He was shooting a SCAR 17 with a 3.5 power ACOG, so a very different setup (particularly compared to my RPR with the big 3-18 optic on it).

Most of the students in the class were running bolt guns, though there was a substantial minority with semi-autos (mostly ARs of various flavors, plus cdiesel‘ s SCAR). The most common caliber was .308, but there were a number of 6.5s in evidence, as well as one .224 Valkyrie.

Eric gave the medical brief. Since we’d be training in remote locations this was fairly in-depth, with designated medical personnel, incident commanders, note takers, runners, communicators (including instructions on how to get comms with county dispatch), and even designating responsibility for who would be responsible for signaling a helicopter if we had to call in a medivac.

To avoid having to put any of these preparations into practice, Eric did the safety brief. In addition to the standard gun stuff, Eric talked about snakes, badger holes (don’t want to turn an ankle), hydration, and other environment-specific threats. On the gun side, pistols could stay live in the holsters, while sniper rifles needed to be unloaded when not on the line and shooting. Eric demoed his preferred unloading procedure. The element I particularly like about how he does it (which I have incorporated into my own unloading process) is that he does visual and tactile checks of the weapon’s chamber and magwell, then looks away from the gun before checking a second time. This diverting attention away from the gun is key to breaking up the two checks and making it less likely that you’ll miss something.

Eric had everyone grab a pistol, binoculars, and a notebook and writing implement. This is the bare minimum of what it takes to function as a spotter or observer, and Eric wanted everyone to have it on them at all times during the class.

He talked a bit about the sniper mission, and the way it combines observation and precisely delivered fire.

This segued into a lecture on Tier 1 gear; the gear that you carry directly on your person. Eric went through what he carries and why. For a sniper, this usually includes a rifle and ammo, but also survival kit, nav equipment, and sustainment gear.

Eric is known for his epic gear lectures, but in this class, he was making an effort to break it up over the four days, rather than going on for hours at the start of day one. After covering the Tier 1 stuff, we moved on to a Kim’s game. Eric had a dozen items laid out on a piece of cardboard and gave us three minutes to memorize everything we could about them.

Before going out and shooting Eric went through the basics of shooter-spotter communication. It’s important to tell your partner when you’re on target and ready to shoot so he can observe the effect of your shots. Since we’d be shooting in an area with some high grass, Eric also covered some methods for getting more elevation, including using your spotter’s rifle, or your spotter himself, as support.

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We shot at 100 yards to confirm zeroes and adjust as necessary. It took a couple of iterations, but eventually, everyone was happy with their zeroes.

Eric did another brief gear lecture, talking about the gear he keeps in the stock pouch on his main .308 sniper rifle, including a few rounds of ammo, laser rangefinder, dope cards, a calculator, and a tape measure. He also broke out the whiteboard and talked a bit about ballistics and zeroing, showing how the trajectory of the bullet relates to your line of sight through the optic.

Before getting back to shooting, Eric also went through the contents of his soft case/drag bag. He’s got bigger support gear in here, like a spotting scope and suppressor, more ammo, more dope cards, etc. Between this and the stuff on the gun, he can grab one case and combined with the Tier 1 gear on his person he has everything he needs to deploy as a sniper.

At that point, we switched from bullseyes to photo targets of human heads. Eric talked everyone through the aiming points on the human head, aiming for that perfect “lights out” shot. Eric’s head pictures are not all straight on presentations with the target directly facing the sniper, so you have to visualize where those critical parts of the brain would be based on the head’s orientation (Eric noted that a good way to do this is to think about where you want the round to exit). We ran this drill a couple of times, pasting up new pictures so people had experience shooting at several different heads in different orientations.

We got our first dose of rain, but it was fairly light (barely worth breaking out the Gortex).

On one iteration of the headshot drill, Eric had everyone deliver coordinated fire, doing a count and firing together on three. On the following iteration, he had us do the same thing within our two-man teams. Doing it within the team is a bit harder because someone has to both shoot and do the count. That can make breath control and getting a good trigger press challenging. I ran the count and cdiesel and I were able to get good simultaneous shots.

We moved over to a neighboring draw where Eric had set out various objects and had us search for them using our binos and spotting scopes. Some of them were pretty obvious, others more subtle. Perhaps most notably, he had a ghillie suit set up as an enemy sniper, with a foam head and spotting scope. The sunglasses and spotting scope are surprisingly visible at distance. They were what really made it possible to distinguish the ghillie suit from a big bunch of vegetation. Optic lenses are definitely something you need to camouflage.

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We moved back and debriefed the Kim’s game from this morning to see how much we had been able to remember. Eric talked about doing Kim’s games with vehicles and people, picking out and memorizing characteristics that make them identifiable.

Since he’d used the ghillie suit during the glassing exercise, Eric talked a bit about ghillie suit construction. He had examples of both a full ghillie suit and a ghillie cape that he keeps with his main sniper bag. The cape can be pretty effective at breaking up the human outline without being as hot or heavy as a full ghillie suit.

Switching to some shooting, we moved back to 200 yards. At this distance, the grass was too high to shoot from prone. We had to use various means to get higher to engage the targets. I ended up standing my pack up on end and resting the rifle on that. cdiesel and I were able to get good headshots that way.

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Eric noted that snipers have two movement speeds in the field: crawl and run. He ran us back from the targets a couple of times to get our heart rates up before firing.

Moving back to 300 yards, again we weren’t able to shoot from prone. Since we were getting far enough that my spotting scope wasn’t doing much good seeing holes in the paper, I pulled it off of the tripod and put my shooting saddle on there. I found I could rest the front of the rifle on the saddle and sit with my pack against my chest to provide rear support. This was a very stable position.

We started out with some headshots, though this is pushing the distance that you can deliver a perfect lights-out shot. We moved on to painting some circles on the targets and using those as aiming points.

Finally, we pulled back to 400 yards. Here we had a bit of elevation and some shorter vegetation, so we were able to shoot from prone again. After everyone was satisfied with their hits at 400, we packed up our gear and loaded the targets on the truck.

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Our last exercise of the day was doing some ranging with mil-reticle optics. Eric did a brief lecture on how to calculate the distance to a target based on its size in mils. Standard sized objects like street signs and license plates are good for this sort of thing. He gave us a card with dimensions of these sorts of common objects. This is also why Eric emphasizes a sniper carrying a tape measure, so he can measure stuff in the field and build his database of standard sized objects. What’s useful to know will vary depending on your AO. If you’re someplace overseas where there are lots of Toyota pickups being used as technicals, then knowing the height of a Toyota door or the size of its tire will be useful. Same thing for standard door heights, the transformers on power poles, and other objects or features you find in the environment.

Eric had scattered some road signs and a license plate out in the field. We ranged them with our mil-reticle optics and worked the math, then confirmed with laser rangefinders. I did pretty well with the mil reticle in my spotting scope. The folks running mil reticles in binoculars had some challenges holding things steady enough. I like having a mil reticle in binos for other reasons, but they’re not great for ranging.

We headed back to Eric’s place, where he cooked up a bunch of antelope and lots of mashed potatoes. Several folks had brought growlers of beer and a small keg. I broke out the nice bottle of rye I brought while another student had some good tequila. We all hung out and talked for a couple of hours.

Sunday

On Sunday morning, we rendezvoused at a different gas station. From there we drove out to an actual shooting range for a couple of exercises. First up was shooting moving targets.

Eric set this up on a 100-yard rifle range, with half the class beyond the berm carrying targets back and forth on tall sticks while the other half shot. This did mean that we were shooting over the berm, but we had a whole mountainside as a bullet trap. Eric explained how to lead targets based on movement speed and distance.

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There are two ways to shoot while leading a moving target: tracking and trapping. With tracking, you swing your rifle with the target as it moves and creeping slightly ahead to provide your lead. Trapping involves keeping your rifle stationary using the horizontal crosshair to figure when the target gets to the point where you’ve got the appropriate lead, and allowing the target to walk into your bullet.

Each relay got a couple of dry runs to get the right magnification and practice leading the targets, followed by a live run. We went down and checked the targets to see how we did. I’d gotten my lead right, but I was quite a bit high. This was surprising because while my trigger press was far from perfect if anything, I shanked it low. Then I realized that I’d left my 400-yard adjustment dialed in from yesterday. Always return your turrets to zero!

We got set up again and did two live runs, one moving in each direction. Having got my rifle dialed properly, I did a bit better this time. On the last run, I actually tried engaging multiple times, trapping for the first shot, then running the bolt and switching to tracking for a second shot.

Next, we moved over to the pistol range to practice transitioning from rifle to handgun. Eric had us start off just drawing and shooting from the holster, to make sure everyone could safely get the gun out and deliver handgun fire.

If a sniper armed with a bolt gun encounters a sudden close range threat the best course of action is probably to fire one shot with the rifle, then switch to handgun. With a high magnification optic delivering that first shot at close range may be a challenge. Eric talked a bit about point shooting, specifically using the top turret of your optic with “metal on meat” point shooting.

We drilled taking one shot with the rifle, then slinging the long gun and transitioning to pistol. Rather than metal on meat, I just rolled the rifle over a bit and sighted down the handguard, which works well with the nice straight lines on the RPR’s forend.

Finally, Eric talked about responding to threats when you’re proned out behind the rifle. He demonstrated responding to threats to either side, but for the drill, we would be responding to a threat to the rear. We started out on our dry rifles, facing uprange. On command, everyone rolled over off the gun, sat up, and drew their handgun and engaged the target.

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During these drills, I got had several malfunctions with my 10mm Glock. They appeared to be light primer strikes. Since I’d be relying on this gun for bear defense over the following two days (not to mention as my self-defense gun for the rest of the week), this concerned me quite a bit.

As Eric had said the previous day, snipers in the field have two speeds: crawl and run. He comes to this range and qualifies with his duty sniper rifle every week. As part of that he runs up to the gate and back (about a quarter of a mile) with his rifle then takes a 100-yard headshot. Eric had us shoot this drill. He emphasized that we should pace ourselves on the run, including walking some or all of the distance if necessary (he didn’t want to give anyone a heart attack). However, if you’re not getting yourself winded by the end, you’re not really getting full value out of the drill.

A couple of years ago when I was carrying a lot more weight and not doing as much exercise, this kind of drill really would have sucked for me. However, I think I did pretty well both on the run and in delivering the headshot at the end. I was definitely feeling the weight of that big, heavy rifle though.

We loaded up the vehicles and made a drive out to some land Eric had permission for us to shoot on about 10 miles east of town. Here we could push to longer distances than the spot where we’d been shooting the day before.

After setting up some steel, Eric did another chunk of gear lecture, talking through the contents of his sniper ruck. He covered a couple of alternatives, like a battle belt, sniper vest, or shoulder bag, with examples of each. However, he spent most of the time going through his primary sniper ruck: a medium-sized backpack. As you’d expect from Eric, it’s very well thought out, both in terms of what he’s carrying and how he’s got it laid out with shooting gear on the exterior and sustainment gear inside.

Eric had us move to shooting positions up on a bluff. Rather than just walking up there he had us move somewhat tactically up from the road (though this was not intended as a stalking exercise). Eric talked a bit about vehicle insertions, including one that he did when antelope hunting (which actually has quite a bit in common with sniping). Basically, the vehicle slows down, and the sniper chucks out his pack and hops down while the vehicle is still in motion. We simulated this rather than actually doing it, then moved up to our firing position. While this was not a stalk, Eric did have us crawl from the point where we got to the crest of the bluff into our shooting position.

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One problem many students encountered with this was the “buffalo hump” issue. While your body may be low, that ruck on your back is sticking up and wiggling around as you crawl. Unless you’re moving through very high cover, you really need to get that ruck off and drag it.

Another gear specific issue that cropped up was with the Badlands binocular case that cdiesel was running. He was using one that included a smaller, second compartment on the bottom for a laser rangefinder. When low crawling, this tended to rub against the ground and pop open, dumping out his LRF. He didn’t have the rangefinder dummy corded, so he had to go back and look for it. Clearly, this bino case wasn’t built with a low-crawling sniper in mind.

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Once in position, we did some shooting from about 500 yards. At first, I was off by quite a bit, until I realized that I’d been looking at the dope card for my .308 rather than my 6.5 (there’s about a mil difference between them at this distance). After I fixed that screwup and got a feel for the wind, I was able to bang some pretty small targets (verging on MOA sized).

We did our initial shooting from prone, but after a while, Eric had everyone rally up and demonstrated some techniques for shooting from sloped terrain, shooting uphill and downhill, as well as cross-slope. He had everyone push forward over the lip of the bluff and do some shooting from the slope (which was fairly steep, about 45 degrees). This was kind of tough with my big, front-heavy rifle. The best way I found was to raise my support side knee and brace the back of the bipod against it, then kind of come in from the side and peek through the scope. cdiesel actually had it quite a bit easier with better-balanced SCAR.

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Since cdiesel and I were on the extreme left where the bluff curved around, Eric encouraged us to take advantage of this and try some cross-slope shooting as well. This was considerably easier. I could just use my ruck for support. The only hard part was figuring out what to do with my strong side elbow (splaying it out was less comfortable, but seemed to be more stable than tucking it underneath my body).

As we walked back to the vehicles, Eric went through the 10 deadly “S”s that will betray your position to someone trying to observe you: shape, shadow, shine, silhouette, spacing, speed, scent, sound, signal, and spoor.

We relocated the steel, then drove back out to a position where we could shoot out to longer distances, starting at about 800 yards. I found that I was missing my rear bag. I’d used it when we were shooting off the bluff, so I must have left it up there (spoor). I let Eric know, and he said he’d have a look next time he was out here shooting.

Shooting without the rear bag was a bit harder, but I got good hits at 800. This sort of distance was really pushing the SCAR and ACOG, though cdiesel got better results when he switched from the M80 ball that he’d been shooting to some match ammo.

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We pulled back to 900 yards. From this position, you needed to shoot from a higher position to see the targets. Since most of us aren’t steady enough to shoot from standing at this distance, some folks shot from truck beds and others broke out tripods. I was able to get some hits at this distance as well, though it was getting to the point where spotting my misses to make corrections was difficult.

With where we had the targets placed, we could have gotten back to about 980, but not quite to 1000 (a different target placement probably could have made that possible). Rather than push the distance again, we decided to pack it in and head back. I got some dinner with Eric (some excellent goose barbacoa). After dinner, we headed over to camp and enjoyed some more good beer and good conversation before turning in.

Monday

After the light primer strikes the previous day on Monday morning, I partially detail stripped the slide of my Glock. I got the firing pin cleaned off, as well as cleaning and lubing the whole gun generally.

We all met up there in camp. Eric gave a more detailed version of his 10 deadly “S”s lecture. He talked about different camouflage options. A ghillie suit was great for open country like where we’d been operating on Saturday and Sunday, but it’s not as useful in the woods where we’d be today and tomorrow. Not to mention, for long, foot-mobile operations ghillies are hot to wear and heavy to carry. This is much more the domain of BDUs or hunting camo.

Moving on, Eric went through the contents of his big Eberlestock Terminator pack. This was the longest gear discussion of the class since Eric has this pack set up for multi-day operations out in the woods. In addition to sniping kit, this includes heavy-duty sustainment gear like multiple days of food, clothing, a bivy shelter, sleeping bag, etc. It’s basically the same setup that Eric wrote about in his Everything but the Kitchen Sink article.

Eric broke out his sand table kit. This is a collection of little lengths of various colors of cordage, sponges, and other bits and bobs that he can use to lay out maps and diagrams as part of the mission planning process. He used these, along with a whiteboard and markers, to brief us on our initial mission we’d be performing when we got out to the class location.

Our job was to recon a structure on the property and gather the intel a commander would need to plan an assault. Eric talked about what kind of information was required: things like the number and location of windows and doors, window heights and coverings, available cover and its distance from the structure, whether different approaches would be passable for conventional vehicles or armored vehicles. Even down to things like the location of chimneys and roof vents (which can help you figure out the interior layout of a structure), where electrical and phone lines enter the building, and the presence of security lights and cameras.

Eric gave everyone a chance to get packed up (or repack their kit based on his gear lecture), then we mounted up and convoyed out to the property where we’d be doing the remainder of the class.

Once out there, Eric demonstrated using face paint to camouflage yourself. It’s more than just slapping a bunch of green on your face. You want to lighten sunken or shadowed areas of the face, like the eye sockets or under the chin, and lighten more prominent areas like the nose and cheeks. Then you add some blotches of contrasting colors to break up recognizable features like the eyes and mouth.

For this operation, Eric wanted us to carry our full load, including all the gear we’d need to stay out overnight. For me, this probably added up to over sixty pounds, plus rifle (I’d swapped over to the .308 AR for this portion of the class). We’d cache the big rucks near the objective and move forward with just our sniper kit for the recon and retrieve our rucks on the way out.

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I got volunteered as team leader for the operation. We had five teams, so one team would be responsible for each side of the house, and one would get a good look at the gate. cdiesel and I took the gate, and the other teams each took one side of the house. Eric issued radios, but as a backup, we set a time for each team to finish their observations by and to pull back to the vehicles.

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We stepped off and moved up as individual teams. I’m not the sneakiest guy when it comes to moving through the woods, but doing it in a big heavy ruck definitely added to the degree of difficulty. Not only did the big bulky pack tend to brush or catch on stuff, but the weight also pulled me off balance and made it difficult to bend down or lean to avoid branches.

After dropping our rucks, cdiesel and I moved up to our observation position and started glassing the gate and taking notes. The gate was pretty straightforward, so we also gathered what intel we could about the area as a whole, leaving the structure itself to the other teams. When the time came to pull back, we moved to our rucks and retrieved them. I found it took longer that I would like to get the Skycrane put back together. While I was doing that Eric walked by and spotted us.

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We were the first ones back to the vehicles. One student had brought a small drone, so we also ran a bit of aerial surveillance on the target as well.

After everyone trickled in, we relayed our observations to Eric, having each team talk through what they seen and done. Some teams had a bit more of an adventure than we did (including one who got wet crossing the creek to get to their observing position).

We mounted up and drove on into the clearing where we’d be camping. We took a walk around the structure and debriefed the exercise. Generally, we’d done a good job of noting the relevant details of the structure.

Eric pressed some of us into service to go out and set up some steel targets at about 100 and 150 yards for our low light shooting later that night. With that accomplished, we took a bit of a break from class to get camp set up and get some dinner.

It doesn’t get dark until quite late in Montana this time of year, so we didn’t kick off the night shoot until after 10pm. Several folks had brought NVGs, so we started off shooting using those (I’d brought my PVS-14, but I don’t have a laser setup for this rifle yet, so I just watched). Once everyone who wanted to shoot with NVG had a chance, we went out and put some light sticks up on the targets so folks without night vision optics could shoot.

With that, Eric called an official end to the training day, and we broke out the booze. Some folks headed right for bed, but many of us stayed up until the wee hours enjoying some good fellowship with like-minded folks.

Tuesday

After a rather short night’s sleep, we all got breakfast going and got our kit squared away for the last day of class.

Eric started things off with another Kim’s game. After that, we did an exercise where he handed us a little smiley face, and we had to use our optics find the matching smiley on a sheet that had about 20 of them on it, each with slight visual differences. Then you had to engage your smiley. The smileys are only about an inch in diameter, so the accuracy standard is pretty high. To complicate things a bit further, Eric had us shoot this drill from about 60 yards. So if you didn’t know your intermediate holds before you get out to 100, you were in trouble. cdiesel and I were able to ID our smileys, but I missed mine. The round landed high, and a bit left.

The next exercise had us moving one team at a time to the firing position where we’d done the night shoot last night. Our task was to engage a priority target (represented by a paper target) and a secondary target (represented by a steel plate). The priority target varied for each team. Some were given a photo of their target, others were given a photo of a hostage and told to shoot the hostage taker holding that person.

Since I had more magnification, I took the paper target while cdiesel took the steel. Again, I ended up shooting high and to the left. I hadn’t had a chance to check the zero this rifle (this and the previous drill were the first two rounds I’d put through it the entire class). My zero on this gun may not have been that great to begin with, and I’d popped the optic off of it for the trip out, so the fact that it was off was not entirely unexpected. I cranked in a rough guess at an adjustment based on my results on this drill.

After each team had shot the drill, we debriefed the Kim’s game from earlier.

Next, Eric briefed us on our final exercise. He gave each team a bunch of pictures of targets. Some were identified as bad guys who needed to be shot. Others were undercover officers or informants who we were not supposed to shoot.

The targets would be set up on one side of a large open meadow about half a mile away. Our task was to move to the near side of the meadow, covertly move into firing positions, ID the targets, engage, then pull back.

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Once again, I got elected as team leader. I tried to stick with a fairly simple plan: everyone move up to the firing position as a unit, ID the bad guys, and each team simultaneously engage a BG based on their team number going from left to right (team 1 engages the leftmost BG, team 2 the second from left, etc.).

Eric suggested we establish an Objective Rally Point (ORP) where everyone could gather a bit short of our shooting positions and prep gear, sort out any last minute issues, etc. He also wanted us to pull back to that position after taking our shots.

We stepped off, moving in our 2-man teams with about a 25-yard interval between each team. cdiesel and I were team 5, so we were on the tail end. Our route paralleled a road, crossed a more minor dirt track, then paralleled that track into the objective.

After crossing the dirt track, the team running point held up. Eventually, cdiesel and I moved up to where they were stopped. I discovered that their understanding of our route didn’t match mine. I really should have had everyone (but particularly the lead team) brief back the route before we moved out. Once we got that sorted, we started moving parallel to the dirt track to our ORP.

When we got there, Eric suggested a leader’s recon to get eyeballs on our shooting position and the targets before everyone moved up there. I took one of the guys from the lead team, and we moved up to do the recon.

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The shooting position Eric had selected for us was a very good one. The big open meadow we’d be shooting across ended with a line of trees and a slope down towards a small pond. The slope provided good terrain cover from the targets and meant that we could walk to within about 10 yards of our shooting positions before having to drop down to a crawl. The line of trees was thick enough to provide concealment while having enough gaps to use as shooting lanes that we could use to engage the targets. Across the meadow, I could see a bunch of 4’x 3’ wooden targets, each with two faces on them.

However, it quickly became apparent that we would have to push very far forward and expose ourselves quite a bit for every team to be able to see all the targets. Rather than having each team self-deploy and either move forward far enough to see all five targets or engage in a bunch of confused back and forth over which of the five targets each team was looking at, I decided that I’d place each team one at a time and designate a specific target for them so we could be sure that every target was covered.

We headed back to the ORP and briefed this to the team. Everyone moved up to the base of the slope as a unit, and I called one team up at a time and got them in position and pointed at a specific target. They got settled in, broke out the spotting scopes, and got to work IDing the targets.

Since I was running around doing team leader stuff, cdiesel ended up out there on his own. I thought he’d need some more glass than just his ACOG, so I broke out my spotting scope and moved up to give it to him. Unfortunately, I misinterpreted his reply when I offered it to him and thought he was waving me off when he actually wanted to use the spotter. Fortunately, he was able to work with the team next to him to get his target identified.

We had one target board that was a little lower than the others, and that really caused the team I’d assigned to it some problems. They had to push further forward and expose themselves more to get even a tentative ID.

When everyone was settled into positions, we made sure rifles were clear, and Eric moved downrange to the targets and looked back towards us. Even though no one was ghillied up and we hadn’t done any real hide construction (just wearing camouflage with maybe a sniper veil thrown overhead and optics) Eric wasn’t able to locate anyone using his binos. I was moving around quite a bit behind the firing position, making sure each team had ID’d their targets and confirming that there was only one BG (and one no-shoot) on each target board. Even so, he didn’t spot me either.

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After Eric was back behind the firing line, we loaded rifles, and I called the count for the coordinated fire. In real life with teams spread out this far you’d probably do this with radio comms, but we “made pretend” and I just called it out verbally (or more formally, I “simulated radio communications” by speaking loudly). Most targets were engaged simultaneously by both members of the team assigned to that target, but because I was doing the count cdiesel was on his own. One of the other teams could only get one shooter in position to engage without exposing themselves. The coordinated fire worked well, with everyone firing so close together it sounded like one only slightly ragged shot.

We cleared rifles and Eric moved downrange to observe us while we pulled back. He threw in one slight curveball when he told everyone to police their brass as they withdrew (easy enough for the bolt gun guys, but more of a tall order for those shooting semi-autos). Eric had a bit more success spotting us as we withdrew. He made two bits of movement, one very fleeting, the other more obvious and sustained (sustained enough he could have engaged).

After finishing our pullback, we walked out to the targets to debrief. The shooting results were a bit more mixed. Two were solid hits, two more flesh wounds, and one clean miss.

We hiked back to camp, moving non-tactically down the road. There everyone got packed up and loaded our kit, Eric handed out certificates, and we headed out. We convoyed back down the mountain to the main camp where some people had left vehicles and gear. Folks who were headed elsewhere peeled off as appropriate.

Eric and I headed over to his place, and we enjoyed a nice dinner and some beer before making an early night of it.

Conclusions

This was a fantastic class. The long range stuff on Saturday and Sunday was great, but for me, the field work on Monday and Tuesday was the main event. There are few people better at teaching this kind of stuff than Eric, and he really delivered during this class.

As great of an instructor as Eric is, a lot of credit also goes to my fellow students. Everyone contributed significantly to the class. We had a lot of great questions that pushed Eric to elaborate on certain aspects of the material. Many students had experience hunting or shooting long range, and they were able to provide some additional perspective. After the training day was over, there was also some great fellowship among like-minded folks. I thoroughly enjoyed hanging out with this crew.

I had a good shooting partner in cdiesel. He did a great job spotting and pushed the ACOG on the SCAR farther than I would have thought possible. He did a great job holding up our team’s responsibilities when I got sucked into the TL role in the last exercise, and I need to thank him for that.

The Ruger Precision Rifle ran great. It’s a bit of a heavy SOB, but it shoots very accurately. The Vortex 3-18 ran well, using both holdovers and dialing my elevation. I’m liking the Magpul bipod. It’s not as good as my Atlas, but for 1/3 of the cost, you get a lot more than 1/3 of the capability. I’d much rather run this than a Harris or Versapod style bipod. The only thing I’m really missing is QD capability.

I really should have confirmed zero on .my 308 AR on Saturday, even if it meant holding up the class at 100 for a bit longer. There were some more adventures with this rifle accuracy and reliability wise later in this week, which you can read about below.

The Leupold spotting scope ran well, as usual. I am very tempted by the nice tripod Sammy brought for his spotting scope setup. I think I may get a bigger tripod for range use, and maybe something even smaller and more compact for use in the field. My current tripod tries to split the difference between these two roles and doesn’t do either of them optimally.

The Vortex Fury laser rangefinding binoculars worked great. I’m very impressed by the glass on these, and the LRF was effective out to 900 yards (I even pinged a hillside beyond where we were shooting at 1300, though I wasn’t able to confirm that number). Having the laser and binos in a single package was very convenient. I gave Eric a peep through them, and he was pretty impressed as well. I think I may have cost him some money on this trip (turnabout is fair play).

The Badlands bino case worked well. There were a few instances where I wished it was more compact when I was crawling around in the dirt or had to shift it a bit when I got behind the rifle, but generally, it stayed out of the way and kept the binos well protected.

I’m loving the Crye G3 and G4 pants (if anything I think I like the older G3 design a bit better). The knee pads rock for this kind of stuff, though I probably got as much mileage out of them kneeling by the campfire on Monday night as I did doing sniper stuff. Multicam is a good choice for Montana, but this early in the season you could have gotten away with a greener color scheme like woodland BDUs.

My backpacking gear worked as it always does. I was snug and warm even down below freezing the night we slept out. The new Jetboil worked well. I got the bigger pot, which was definitely appropriate for cooking dinner, but I could see a role for a more compact stove as well.

I’m a bit more mixed on the Skycrane system. I like the Little Brother pack as a sniper ruck (it’s got a lot in common with the Eberlestock Halftrack I usually use in that role). However, I’m not entirely satisfied with how long it takes to get in and out of the Skycrane. The Skycrane carried all my gear well, but it’s a pack that tends to get wider side to side and deeper front to back as you add stuff to it. Being 6’5”, I’d really prefer something that gets taller. The biggest issue is that the Skycrane doesn’t really have much in the way of external storage that you can access easily. The Little Brother is kind of buried, and the Spike duffel that sits on the outside is just one big compartment without any organization. I may have an Eberlestock Terminator like Eric’s in my future (though if I get out of a class like this with Eric and that’s the most expensive thing I buy I’ll count myself lucky). I already picked up a Mongo Versapack shoulder bag from Eric, and I’m going to set that up as a small sniper pack as well (which will require slimming down some of my gear).

Using the carry-on sized Pelican case for my optics worked out pretty well. No problems getting it through the security checkpoint at the airport. I did end up having to gate check it for the Denver-Missoula and Missoula-Denver legs (itty bitty airplane with tiny overhead bins) but that's a lot less handling and time out of sight than if I'd checked it as baggage.

I'll definitely be making some changes to my kit after this class. Lots of small "quality of life" improvements like using the Maxpedition pocket organizers to carry kit in cargo pockets, carrying stuff like cough drops, wet wipes, and a microfiber towel. He also demonstrated using an ID card holder dummy corded to your bag to hold dope cards, which is just genius. I'll also be setting up “on gun” and “drag bag” kits for each of my sniper-type rifles.

I’ve talked a bit with Eric about what he wants to do next year and the possibilities that the areas we used for this class have to offer. It sounds like there’s some awesome stuff on tap.

More Montana

Wednesday

The end of class on Tuesday was not the end of my Montana adventures. I’d decided to take the whole week off and wasn’t flying out until Sunday afternoon, so I had some time to hang out with Eric and see if I could fill my bear tag.

Eric had to work a shift on Wednesday, so I spent the morning I doing some work on this writeup. Eric picked me up about noon, and I spent the afternoon doing a ride-along with him.

We swung by the range to take care of the zero on my .308 AR. I was able to get on target, but the experience confirmed that the load that I’m shooting does not group very well out of this gun (it’s the Fiocchi loading of the Barnes 168 grain TTSX bullet). It’s still minute of bear through. However, I also had a couple of failures to cycle as I got down to the bottom of the magazine.

After my light primer strike issues on Monday, I also took my 10mm Glock out to test with a couple mags of ball ammo. I had 3 failures to fire in a row. At that point, I just walked back uprange in frustration.

After thinking about it and talking with Eric, I decided to try some of my hollowpoint carry ammo in it. I was reluctant to do this since I’d only brought two mags worth of hollowpoints (along with two mags of hard cast for bear defense). Shooting some of the carry ammo would leave me less than a minimal loadout for self-defense, However, given the effect, these problems were having on my confidence in this pistol I effectively had zero rounds of useful ammo, so there wasn’t much to lose.

I walked back downrange and blew through a full mag of carry ammo rapid fire. As Eric succinctly out it when I got back to the bench, “You have an ammo problem, not a gun problem.” I got my confidence in my Glock back, though now I was a bit light on ammo (I just carried a mag of hard cast as my reload for the rest of the trip). I gave what was left of the 10mm ball to Eric; maybe it’ll go bang in one of his guns.

That evening we did a road hunt for some bear. We loaded up Eric’s family in the truck and drove up into the mountains west of town, keeping an eye out as we drove and glassing open areas for bear. We kept at it until dusk (pretty late this time of year in Montana). No luck with the bear, but time spend driving around the Montana woods in such good company is by no means wasted.

After some chow and beer at Eric’s place, I drove back to his trailer and turned in for the night.

Thursday

After the late night road hunting last night we got a fairly leisurely start today. Eric and I headed out to an area where we could get some distance and checked the dope on a couple of his rifles. I also tested out my .308 AR at 300 yards. After the failures to cycle on my .308 AR, I’d opened up the gas setting on my adjustable gas block another notch. There were no troubles cycling, but I did have one round fail to fire.

After I was done shooting, I found an anvil from a primer rattling around in my magazine, indicating I’d probably popped a primer. We didn’t recover that round, but another piece of my brass we did find showed signs of pressure. Eric and I hypothesized that the primer or anvil kept the bolt from going quite all the way into battery and that’s what lead to the failure to fire. Not really the gun’s fault, but this isn’t helping my frustrations with this rifle.

We did some more road hunting. No luck finding a bear, but Eric pointed out some areas where he’s had good hunting on deer and elk in the past. I’ve got an elk tag for this fall, so I’ll be seeing some of these places again later this year.

We had some pizza from a local place for dinner. The pizza was very good, and I’m not grading on a curve here. This wasn’t just “good for small-town Montana,” it was good pizza.

Friday

I did another ride-along with Eric on Friday. He got rolling early (though I didn’t join him until mid-morning) so he clocked out mid-afternoon.

Eric put paint on some steel targets and stands that he scored off of a student in the class, then we geared up for an evening bear hunt. This was the last day of the season, and we didn’t bump any bears. We did see a ton of deer through, which augers well for hunting in this area when I come out here in the fall. Fall will also provide a second opportunity to fill my bear tag (tags are good for both spring and fall bear season in a given year).

We got some chow, and I headed back to the trailer.

Saturday

I headed over to Eric’s place early on Saturday and helped him with fitting a brush guard to one of his vehicles that didn’t have one. We discovered that this would be a considerably more involved process than anticipated (one involving welding and fabrication), so we didn’t get it mounted, but I think we clarified the approach he needs to take to this.

That afternoon I did another ride along, then headed back to the fifth wheel and started the process of getting packed up. This involved sorting my gear into stuff that’s going in my luggage, stuff that will be shipped back, and stuff I’m stashing here until either this August when I’ll be back for another class or when I’ll be in Montana hunting.

Sunday

Sunday morning I got my gear packed up. I left Eric a big box of stuff to ship back to me at his leisure. This time I managed to keep my gun case below the overweight bag limit.

Over at Eric's, he packed up some antelope that I'd left in his freezer last fall, along with some of his tasty venison summer sausage. We swung buy the fifth wheel to pick up my bags and headed into Missoula. There we hit a couple of gun shops and sporting goods stores, grabbed a late lunch/early dinner, and got me to the airport in plenty of time (in Montana, when you check guns, the TSA agents all crowd around your bag to see what cool stuff you've got when they're searching it).

My flight out of Missoula was delayed 25 minutes due to bad weather in Denver. I only had a bit over an hour layover, so I was concerned about making my connection. Thankfully, they got us there in less than the scheduled flight time, so I was able to make my next flight, no problem. I got home around midnight and staggered into bed.

Final thoughts

I need to thank Eric and his family for putting me up (and putting up with me) for a week. I love spending time in Montana, and it was great to hang out with all of them for a week. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity.

Fight Focused Handgun III - The Reactive Gunfight with Roger Phillips

Chris Upchurch

Last weekend I attended the Fight Focused Handgun III - The Reactive Gunfight class taught by Roger Phillips. The “reactive gunfight,” that FFH III focuses on are situations where you start out behind the curve because you are surprised or your opponent initiates the action. The tool set it teaches for dealing with these situations is built around dynamic movement and point shooting.

I’ve taken FFH III before, as well as Point Shooting Progressions, Roger’s previous flagship point shooting class. While FFH III is worth taking more than once simply to build point shooting and dynamic movement skills, I had a specific reason for wanting to retake it now.

I recently switched from carrying on my strong side hip to carrying in the appendix position (with the gun about 1 o’clock on the belt). This requires a somewhat different drawstroke, including a switch from open front cover garments to closed front. Having taken FFH III before I knew this is a class where I’d get a lot of reps drawing the gun. And they wouldn’t just be static, always squared up to the target, stand and deliver reps either. They’d be very dynamic, in a variety of orientations. This class would put my new carry position to the test.

In addition to being an excellent instructor, Roger has some of the best firearms coaching skills of anyone I’ve seen. He can look at what a student is doing, pick out the mistakes they’re making or something they’re doing that’s less than optimal, then provide feedback that meaningfully increases the student’s performance. I figured that Roger would be the best person to take my new drawstroke to the next level.

Gear

This is not a very gear intensive class. All you really need is a pistol, holster, mag carrier, and a couple of mags.

For my primary handgun, I brought my new G19X “Roland Special”. A Roland Special is a Glock (usually a Glock 19) with a compensator, red dot sight, and weaponlight. This gun is a slight variation on the concept, starting out with the Glock 19X to take advantage of the longer, G17 length grip (I much prefer the way the G17 feels in the hand to a G19). It’s kitted out with a Trijicon RMR milled into the slide, a Crimson Trace Lightguard LTG-736, an Apex trigger kit, a Mayhem Syndicate Mk 2 compensator and barrel, and some nice Dale Fricke kydex to carry it in. The last piece of the puzzle, the Mayhem Syndicate comp, arrived the day before I flew out to Vegas for the class so I didn’t have a chance to run much ammo through it before bringing it.

Given how new and untested my G19X setup was, I wouldn’t bring it to a class without a backup, much less trust it as my carry gun while I was in Las Vegas. Even if that were not the case, it’s generally a good idea to bring a second handgun to a course like this. No sense having a broken or problematic pistol spoil your investment of time and money. So I also brought my usual RMRed Glock 17.

While this is not a gear intensive class, it is an ammo intensive class. Roger lists a minimum round count of 750 rounds and says “bring more if you want to shoot more”. In my experience, while the class can be done with 750 rounds, doing so requires being very conscious of your ammo consumption on each drill. I didn’t want to have to think about that (and I just like to shoot a lot), so I ordered 1500 rounds and had them shipped to Roger ahead of time.

As a corollary to the amount of ammo, this is a class that benefits from bringing lots of magazines. Since I was shipping my ammo out, I wouldn’t have the chance to load mags ahead of time, but I still wanted plenty of mags so I could just get a bunch loaded on Saturday morning and not have to worry too much about it later. A pistol magazine loader like the LULA is a huge asset in a class like this.

Preparation

This class is the culmination of a lot of effort switching to appendix carry. I made the switch back in early February and since then I’ve been doing dry practice almost every day. At this point I’ve done the drawstroke dry thousands of times. Unfortunately, given the restrictions at local ranges I have access to I hadn’t had the opportunity to do any live fire with it.

I’ve also practiced reholstering thousands of times. Given where the gun is pointing in the appendix position, safely reholstering is definitely a critical skill. Particularly when you’re working with a dry pistol, it’s easy to treat reholstering as an afterthought; just a step you need to get through to set up the next draw. I’ve put a lot of effort into fighting this tendency and reholstering slowly and deliberately. One advantage of appendix carry is that it’s easy to look down and visually confirm that the holster is clear before holstering the gun and I worked hard to ingrain that.

While most my dry practice time has been dedicated to the drawstroke, I also put quite a bit of time in practicing reloads; specifically reloading from slide lock (aka: reactive reloads or emergency reloads). When I switched to appendix, I also moved my spare mag from my left hip up to the 11 o’clock position (just to the left of the belt buckle). I wanted to get used to grabbing the magazine from there.

I decided to take advantage of all these practice reloads to make a couple of other changes as well. In the past, I’ve made my default a reload with retention (pulling the old mag out of the gun and pocketing it before inserting the new mag into the gun). When reloading from slide lock I made dropping the empty mag my default. Similarly, my previous practice was to get the gun back into battery by tugging the slide to the rear. I made the switch to using the slide lock lever (the G19X has a nice ambidextrous one). I also swapped my spare mag from a stock Glock one to one of the Magpul 21 round models and used all my practice reloading the larger mag. Between these changes to how I reload the pistol and a couple thousand reps of dry practice, I’d say my slide lock reloads are smoother than they’ve ever been.

Friday

One of the nice things about training in Las Vegas is it’s one of the few places you can get a direct flight from Wichita. Thanks to a 2-hour time difference my flight got me there in the early afternoon. I took advantage of this to stop at REI to do some shopping, make a Walmart run, and grab some dinner before retiring to my hotel.

Saturday

I was up bright and early Saturday morning. After breakfast at the hotel I got loaded up and headed out to the range. I met Roger at the range’s front gate and followed him down to the bay where we’d be shooting. He gave me my 1500 rounds, and I immediately began stuffing ammo into mags; I got all my mags loaded up before class started.

Roger started off with a short lecture explaining the context of the class. In particular, this class, and the way Roger puts it into context has evolved a bit since the last time I took it. This is largely in response to some changes in the way Roger teaches sighted fire.

In a gunfight we’d really prefer to use our most optimal skill set: shooting sighted fire from a solid, stationary position to deliver fight-ending hits as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, we’re not always in a position to do that, especially as armed citizens. Our gunfight may come as a surprise. Even if we see it coming, we often aren’t the ones choosing when to initiate the action and may start out in a position of disadvantage. We’re usually reacting to the actions of a criminal adversary rather than being proactive. This class is all about fighting in those suboptimal situations.

One thing Roger placed a big emphasis on in the course was that even if we start out in a reactive mode using our suboptimal situation skill set, when we get to the point where we’ve gained the initiative, we want to transition to using our optimal skill set to finish the fight decisively. Clint Smith said, “The purpose of a pistol is to fight your way back to your rifle.” Well, the purpose of a reactive gunfighting skill set is to fight your way back to the point where you can use your optimal, sighted fire gunfighting skill set. Integrating the suboptimal and the optimal, the reactive and the proactive was a big part of this class.

This is something that Roger has been saying for as long as I’ve trained with him (even as “the point shooting guy” he still preached the importance of a sighted fire skill set). However, in this class he went much further into including it in the drills.

Since everyone in the class was fairly experienced, Roger noted that this would be more of a workshop type curriculum, exploring these concepts. This class is like a Petrie dish, an opportunity to gather information about what you can do with these skills.

With this, he segued into the safety lecture, talking about friends taking care of friends, the four rules of gun safety, etc.

Roger did a brief review of the optimal stance: support side foot well forward with the knee bent, primary side leg straight to transmit recoil to the ground. The ability to absorb recoil is more important with a rifle, but using the same stance across both provides consistency.

The grip is one area where Roger has really changed what he teaches, a process that started about three years ago in his first Fight Focused Handgun IV - Fight Focused Marksmanship course. The “locked wrist” grip is built around the idea of using leverage and skeletal support to control recoil and muzzle flip, rather than friction and muscular support.

Your primary hand should grip the gun as high as possible, with the web of the hand up on the tang of the grip and the middle finger up tight against the bottom of the trigger guard. Getting the grip as high as possible helps transmit the recoil to your body rather than flipping the muzzle upward. Squeeze tightly front to back: the work counteracting muzzle flip is being done by forward pressure from the web of your hand and rearward pressure from your pinky. These wedge the gun into place.

The support hand should be angled forward and down as much as physically possible; this is the locked wrist. It reinforces your pinky’s rearward pressure on the bottom of the gun. It can also mitigate recoil anticipation problems, since if your hand is locked out literally as far as it can go, it’s much harder to dip the muzzle in anticipation of the recoil when the gun goes off.

So far this matches what Roger was teaching in Fight Focused Handgun IV class I attended back in 2016. One new element he’s introduced since then is keeping the support side shoulder high and your elbows pointed out. This torques your hands together, pinching the upper part of the pistol’s frame tightly between your hands and making the grip much more solid. He’d talked about this in the CQB class last year, but since I skipped out on the live-fire range day in that class this was my first chance to shoot it live in one of his classes. It definitely helps further stabilize the gun and combat muzzle flip.

We started off shooting a couple of one hole drills. This was five rounds of sighted slow fire at about 5 yards, with the goal of stacking every round right on top of each other in a single hole. I did pretty well on this, getting everything into one rather ragged hole each time.

Next we started from the holster and pushed the speed a little, drawing and shooting some sighted fire groups.

Moving down the sight continuum, we did some work drawing and shooting with a flash sight picture. After a few reps of that we transitioned to “type 2 focus”. This is a flash sight picture, but rather than being focused on the front sight, you focus your eye on the target and superimpose the blurry sight picture on the target. By Roger’s definition, this is where really starts, when your visual focus shifts from the sights to the target.

Since I’m running a red dot, there’s not the same sort of distinction between hard focus on the front sight, flash sight picture, and type 2 focus that there is for the folks running irons. Instead it’s a matter of varying how much time I spend getting that dot placed precisely and settled on target. In the earlier drills where we were shooting with greater precision, I took a lot of time making sure the dot was exactly on the aiming point and as still as possible (perfectly still is impossible and part of shooting accurately is learning to accept that). With the later drills I took the shot as soon as I saw the dot near the aiming point, trading accuracy for speed.

Next up was aligning down the top of the slide. Rather than looking through the sights, you lower the gun about an inch and look over it. The sights are still there as reference points, but you’re not looking directly through them. With a red dot you have to lower the gun more and looking through the lens of the optic at an angle can have a distorting effect on those reference points. Given these complications I find I can definitely shoot faster and at longer distances aligning down the top of the slide with an iron sighted gun than I can with a red dot. The flip side of this is that the red dot allows me to use sighted fire in some circumstances where I’d be aligning down the top of the slide with an iron sighted gun. It’s a different set of tradeoffs.

After a fair amount of shooting aligning down the top of the slide, we briefly covered “metal on meat”. This is where you superimpose the entire back of the slide (“metal”) on the target (“meat”). If you can see meat all the way around the metal, press the shot. It works well out to about 4-5 yards, but beyond that the slide starts completely covering a torso sized target.

The final technique in the sight continuum is shooting off the drawstroke. Basically this involves ignoring any visual input from the gun and focusing solely on the target, relying on your body mechanics (drawstroke and stance) to deliver the hits. This works at very close ranges and can be useful in low light, but if you can get visual input from the gun, it generally makes sense to do so. Many people think that this sort of purely body mechanic based shooting is all point shooting is (“spray and pray”). They don’t realize all the other places along the sight continuum that point shooting encompasses. In a two-day point shooting class we disposed of the pure body mechanic/no visual input point shooting in about 5 minutes and I never really used it again for the entire class.

Roger uses a series of step-back drills to bring the entire sight continuum together and help students get a feel for when they need to transition from one technique to another. We started off a three yards shooting solely of the drawstroke and body mechanics. Stepping back to 4 yards, we drew from the holster and shot metal on meat. Step back again and align down the top of the slide. Keep stepping back and aligning down the top of the slide until that starts breaking down, then transition to looking through the sights with the focus on the target. Step back some more and switch to a flash sight picture. We ended up at about 15 yards shooting with a hard focus on the front sight.

Now that we’d covered the sight continuum, Roger gave a lecture on the seven concepts of reactive gunfighting: the reactionary curve, the takeoff, movement, the drawstroke, retention, the sight continuum, and the grip and trigger continuum.

While we’d been varying the amount of visual input in previous drills, we’d done all of it from full extension with the gun up in our line of sight (or just an inch below it when aligning down the top of the slide). Now, we started getting the gun further and further from our field of view.

The first step in this process was to shoot from contact ready, with the gun far enough below our line of sight that you can clearly see the adversary’s hands and waistband. You often need to see these things in order to decide whether or not to shoot them. Optimally, if we decide we need to shoot, we bring the gun up and use our sights. However, things aren’t always optimal and sometimes the need to shoot is so urgent we may need to take our initial shots with the gun several inches below the line of sight.

Here Roger explicitly introduced the idea of fighting our way from reactive to proactive, from a suboptimal situation to an optimal situation. Now, starting out pointed in and challenging someone at gunpoint isn’t that far down the reactionary curve, but it’s still a situation where we may find ourselves reacting to what the adversary does in response to being challenged.

We started out shooting with the gun below our line of sight, then after a few rounds we brought it up and used the sights to deliver another burst. Rather than making this transition based on a specific number of shots, Roger asked us to visualize the physical reaction from the bad guy that would lead us to make this transition from our reactive skill set to a more proactive one. This is what Ninpo Student describes as “knowing when you’ve got a guy”. Think of someone shifting from moving aggressively to being back on his heels in response to your gunfire. It’s important that he still legally represents a threat (otherwise we shouldn’t keep shooting) but we’ve gained enough of the initiative to shift to our proactive, optimal shooting skill set.

The other big reason to shoot with the gun below our line of sight is if we have a retention problem. Often people think about retention being just for very close ranges, but it really starts being a consideration at about 4 yards. The length of your arms put the pistol about a yard closer to the adversary, their arms put their hands about a yard closer to you, and the remaining two yards can be eaten up very quickly by a couple of big steps.

The corollary to this is that we can’t just go from full extension straight to the gun tucked up against the body in a classic “speed rock” position and think that covers all our retention needs, because the speed rock doesn’t work at 4 yards. Instead we need a continuum that allows us to gradually withdraw the gun as we get closer, trading accuracy (that we don’t need as much as the distance gets closer) for weapon retention (that we need very much as the adversary closes in).

The first step along this road is shooting from partial extension. Think of this as being part of the way through the drawstroke, about halfway between when the hands come together and full extension. When we were shooting from contact ready the gun was 5-6 inches below line of sight, now we’re talking about shooting about a foot below line of sight.

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Again, during this drill Roger had us visualize the target responding to our shots and make the transition from point shooting below the line of sight to driving the gun out to full extension and delivering a couple of headshots using the sights.

In this class I was trying to manage my ammo so that I never ran dry during a drill (reloading before reholstering, swapping out mags between drills, etc.). But as we were shooting this drill, I did run the gun to slide lock and had to reload. Roger complimented me on how smooth the reload looked, so I guess all that dry practice paid off.

Our last drill before lunch was shooting from an even more compressed position, right where the hands come together during the drawstroke with your elbows up against the rib cage. Because of the solid skeletal support this is a position that allows for very rapid fire, but the lower level of visual input on the gun means that distance is limited. Again, we shot a burst from the below line-of-sight position then drove the gun up to eye level to use the sights for a headshot.

After lunch we picked up with the zipper drill. This involves shooting during your drawstroke, starting where the hands come together and continuing all the way up to eye level. If you do a good job keeping your shots centered and the gun parallel to the ground, you end up with a vertical string of shots right up the centerline of the target. Roger emphasized that the zipper is primarily a drill for learning and practice rather than a combat technique. If we really need to go from shooting from compressed position up to eye level, it makes sense to just drive the gun all the way out and take our next shot from there rather than shooting en route. In training, however, it provides the opportunity to shoot from varied distances below line of sight and varied extensions in a single drill. Being able to use the zipper to produce a nice vertical string of shots demonstrates mastery of several important point shooting skills (shooting parallel to the ground, transitioning from one focal point to another, etc.).

The last drill of the two-handed shooting portion of the curriculum was the hammer drill. With this drill you shoot from where the hands come together and put a burst into the torso, then shift focus to the head and put a round into the head from the same basic shooting position, without extending the gun any further. The key is to hinge your arms at the elbow and go from parallel to the ground to angled upward as you change your focal point from the body to the head. Note that when setting this up it’s critical to make sure that you’re not shooting over the berm.

Moving on to one-handed shooting, Roger talked a bit about Fairbairn and Sykes and their history in Shanghai, since this material comes to us pretty much directly from their book Shooting to Live.

Given this pedigree, Roger had us shoot these drills from a combat crouch, rather than the more optimal recoil absorbing stance that we’d been using thus far. We started out with 3/4 hip, which is the one-handed equivalent of the two-handed shooting from partial extension that we’d done earlier. One difference is because you’re shooting one handed, you need to concentrate on getting the gun on the visual centerline (with two-handed shooting this happens pretty much automatically). Most people initially try to do this by angling their forearm in and articulating their wrist to get the gun pointed at the target, but the bent wrist and angled forearm don’t do a great job transmitting recoil back to your body to be absorbed. A better approach is to get your elbow on your visual centerline, directly behind the gun. This will allow you to shoot faster and more accurately.

As we did this drill my trigger started feeling “crunchy” for the lack of a better term. It was hanging up at the very end of the trigger press and requiring more and more force to get it all the way back. When we took a break to drink water and ammo up, I asked around if anyone had a Glock disassembly tool. (I had not brought one. A lesson for next time even if I’m flying out to a class). Thankfully someone had.

My initial suspect was the aftermarket trigger or connector, but after I popped the slide off, they seemed to move freely. When I detail stripped the lower and popped the trigger, trigger bar, ejector housing, and connector out they appeared pristine. Something in the lower is usually the obvious culprit for trigger issues, but having ruled those out I turned my attention to the slide. Sure enough, when I pressed the striker back it hung up about an eighth of an inch short. That would account for the feeling I got from the trigger. I popped the slide cover plate off and removed the striker. It appeared a bit gunky, but there were no obvious problems with it. I cleaned it off a bit and reassembled the gun. The trigger operated normally. I still don’t know exactly what caused it, but the problem hasn‘t reoccurred since.

Next up was the half-hip position; the one-handed equivalent of shooting from where the hands come together in a two-handed drawstroke. There are actually three variants of this: one where you brace the elbow on the front of the ribcage, one where you press it in on the point of the hip, and one where your upper arm is behind the point of the hip pressed forward against the floating rib. These allow progressively greater retention, but limit accuracy and effective distance as you get less visual input from the gun and it moves off the visual centerline. We shot all three variants.

Roger also used this as an opportunity to teach the elbow-up/elbow-down drawstroke. This is a way to get the gun out of the holster and into a half-hip shooting position very quickly. You acquire your grip, pull your elbow up and back until the gun clears the holster, then drive it down and forward until you hit the half hip shooting position. It is very fast.

Last, we maxed out the retention concept shooting with the gun braced up against the pectoral. Roger taught it with the gun angled downward, so you can have your support side arm up blocking or fending off the attacker and not risk shooting yourself in the arm. This is one take on what many instructors call “the retention position” (propagating the mistaken impression that you only need one position to cover all retention problems).

I’ll note that I had absolutely no issues shooting a pistol with a compensator on it from the retention position.

During these last few drills I was getting a few failures to feed, with the round hanging up halfway into the chamber, angled upward. Given that it only developed late in the day, my suspicion was that it was probably related to the gun getting dirty.

We packed up, loaded up the targets, and headed out. Roger let me buy him a nice dinner at Boulder Dam Brewing and we spent some time talking about the state of the training industry and some of the classes I’d taken and he’d taught recently.

After a nice soak in the tub back at the hotel I cleaned the G19X as thoroughly as I could with the gear I brought with me. I did bring some oil, so I was able to get it well lubricated.

Sunday

On Sunday morning I worked a bit on this write up. When I went down to grab the free hotel breakfast, I found it was raining lightly. I had not been expecting any rain based on the forecast, but luckily I had brought my goretex rain jacket for the wind we were expecting on Sunday.

The rain continued as I headed down to the range. It was supposed to stop not long after 8 o’clock, so we held off on setting up the targets and shooting until it did.

All of our shooting on the first day had been done squared up to the target. Today’s first block of instruction was dedicated to breaking us away from that. First up was shooting with the target towards your support side. For this Roger teaches the Center Axis Relock (CAR) positions.

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The low CAR position has the gun braced up against the chest with the barrel parallel to your shoulders. Roger emphasized that the gun needs to be braced against your support side pec, since having it on that side forces your support side elbow back and keeps the support side arm clear of the muzzle. In this position you can clamp the grip of the gun between your primary and support hands giving very good recoil control. However, being so far below the line of sight and with virtually no extension accuracy and effective range is limited.

When you need to shoot at more distant targets on your support side, you can use the high CAR position. This basically takes the low CAR position and rotates your arms up about 90 degrees, so your support side forearm is vertical and the primary side arm is horizontal at shoulder level, putting the gun just below your line of sight. Recoil control isn’t quite as good, but bringing the gun up to eye level makes hits out to 5 yards or so quite doable.

We shot both the low CAR and high CAR positions live fire, then did a drill where we started out in the low position and shot continuously as we raised the gun to the high position. The cool thing about this is that if you do your focal point transitions right, even though the gun is moving in a curved, C-shaped path the string of bullet impacts will be vertical.

This was actually the one drill where I noticed muzzle blast from the comp. In low CAR the muzzle blast was like getting slapped in the bicep. Nothing that caused any damage or that I would even notice in a fight but in training it was definitely noticeable.

During these drills one of the students got a badly stuck case in his pistol. This was a G27 with a 9mm conversion barrel, which may have contributed to the issue. He got the case knocked out with a rod, but switched over to his G19 for the rest of the class.

The next drill was focused on drawing directly towards the target. As Roger pointed out, sometimes we have to do things on the range for safety reasons that are not necessarily the most efficient in a fight. In this case, safety and combat efficiently match up perfectly. For safety reasons, when drawing the only thing we want the muzzle to cover is the dirt between us and the target. Drawing directly to the target like this also gets the gun on target quickly. Driving the gun to the target is faster, more efficient, and less likely to overshoot than swinging on to the target from the left or right. This is relatively easy when facing squarely towards the target, but if the target is off to the left or right, or even behind you it becomes more difficult.

Facing diagonally uprange with the target off your right (primary) side shoulder the most direct way to get the gun on target is to draw and bring the gun straight up towards the target. If you’re drawing from the appendix position, this can be thought of as driving the butt of the gun to the target. Coming from the hip the gun is traveling more sideways. In either case you end up shooting back behind you using the point shoulder position. One key to doing this safely on the range is to get the gun pointed at the target, then rotate it so it’s straight up and down (or angled over a bit so you can aim down the edge of the slide if that’s your preference). If you try to rotate the gun earlier, you’ll have a tendency to swing the gun up in an arc, rather than go directly to the target which is both less efficient and a potential safety problem on the range.

Facing diagonally uprange the other way, with the target on your left (support) side shoulder, you basically draw to Sul, then rotate your torso until you can raise the gun right into the CAR position (high CAR at the distances we were shooting).

We did a bunch of dry work on both of these before shooting them live, to make sure everyone could get the gun on target without covering anyone else on the line with us.

Having covered the full sight continuum, drawing directly to the target, and shooting at these extreme angles, we had all the building blocks in place to move into dynamic movement. The difference between controlled movement and dynamic movement is all about the relative priority that you’re giving to shooting accuracy and movement speed. With controlled movement you’re sacrificing movement speed to prioritize a good shooting platform. Dynamic movement sacrifices some of that shooting platform in order to move more quickly (there’s also “get out of dodge” movement where you eschew shooting on the move entirely and just book it).

With dynamic movement you’re moving too fast to use your sights effectively. Keeping the eye, sights, and target all lined up just isn’t possible beyond a certain speed (even with a red dot). Point shooting is absolutely mandatory. That said, we’re not just pounding along paying no heed to our shooting platform. The fundamentals of shooting on the move still apply: lower your center of gravity, step smoothly and shorten your stride, and absorb the impact of your footfalls. They’re just done at a faster pace than in controlled movement.

The reason we’re employing dynamic movement is usually to get off “the X”. To get off the spot where our adversary’s gun is pointed, or about to be pointed, and where his bullets are going to go (or where he’s about to hit us with some sort of contact weapon). If we want to do this effectively our initial movement has to be explosive. We need to accelerate very rapidly off of this spot. Our initial “takeoff” is critical. There are a variety of ways to do this, and which is best depends on your physical capabilities and the amount of traction you have available (stuff that works on dry asphalt is not going to work on wet grass, gravel, or ice). Roger demonstrated several possibilities, including just stepping off (“lean and push”), the Pekiti takeoff, the Russian takeoff, and the two-footed takeoff. He seems to prefer the two-footed approach most of the time, but he’ll adopt what works for the conditions. We spent some time playing around with the different takeoffs to see what worked for us (at least on this gravel range).

After a bunch of dry work, we started live fire with moving directly towards the target. While this doesn’t get us off the X the way lateral movement does, there are circumstances where going straight in is appropriate. We may need to close rapidly with an adversary to defend a loved one, because we’re facing multiple adversaries and closing on one will put us in a better position versus others, or because it’s the only available option.

One consideration when going straight in is we don’t want to charge right into a retention problem. We worked on techniques for withdrawing the gun into a more compressed position as we got closer.

Moving on to the more traditional, “get off the X” directions, we practiced moving diagonally forward to the left and right (the 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock directions). We started off running these drills from about 9-10 yards, which is really further than you’d want to use these in real life (at that sort of distance other techniques would be more appropriate). However, Roger wanted to give students enough time to do the takeoff, get the gun out, and get some shots off. Once we’d had some practice and everyone was getting the gun out and rounds on target within those first few steps, we moved up to a more realistic distance of 5 yards. At this distance things develop much more quickly, closer to the classic gunfighting “rule of threes” (3 steps, 3 rounds, 3 seconds). For all of these drills, Roger had us cap things off by switching to a sighted fire headshot when we got to the end of our movement.

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After lunch we did the rear diagonals, starting within arms reach of the target and moving back to the 5 o’clock or 7 o’clock directions. Roger put out cones at about eight yards to serve as notional pieces of cover for us to move too (it was far too windy to put out chairs or targets that we could actually use to simulate cover, so we had to use our imagination). Again, emphasizing the idea of fighting your way to your optimal skill set, when we reached this notional cover Roger had us post up and switched to delivering sighted fire.

We switched back to the forward diagonals, but this time we incorporated a directional change. After getting off the X to the 1 o’clock or 11 o’clock Roger had us visualize our shots putting the adversary back on his heels allowing us to regain the initiative. We changed direction to closing straight in with the BG, switched to controlled movement and sighted fire, and started putting headshots on board (not because you’d necessarily go for the head in this situation, but because it was a clean part of the target allowing us to see our sighted fire hits).

Switching gears like this is one of the more difficult things to do in the middle of a fight. A more traditional application would be going from delivering torso shots at a high cadence of fire to slowing down to deliver headshots. Here, we’re not only going from torso to head, but from dynamic movement to controlled movement and from point shooting to sighted fire. It’s quite a challenge.

After demonstrating our controlled movement/sighted fire accuracy this way in a couple of iterations, Roger had us run it using sighted fire on the torso and a higher cadence of fire (since it’s a bigger target).

Next up we did some drills starting diagonally to the rear while point shooing, then changing direction moving diagonally forward (think of a letter “V” with up being downrange) still point shooting, then when you get back up near the target line, stopping and delivering sighted fire headshots. The drill simulated busting off the X away from the assailant, changing direction to acquire the target’s flank, and, once you flank them, shifting to your optimal skill set and finishing the fight.

We had covered moving straight in and moving diagonally both forward and to the rear; next up was moving directly right or left (the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock directions). We did these drills moving all the way from one side of the range to the other, engaging each target on the line in turn as we moved past at about 5 yards. Again, Roger integrated the optimal, sighted fire skill set, this time by calling out one or more target numbers at the end of the drill and having us deliver headshots.

Last up, Roger covered “tactical pirouettes”. Normally when you move to the right rear (primary side) you do it using Center Axis Relock and if you move to the left rear (support side) you do it using point shoulder. The tactical pirouette allows you to switch that up. You get off the X by taking a big step to the side, then pivot on the ball of that foot. So if you take a big step to the right you can pivot and move to the rear using point shoulder and if you take a big step to the left after the pivot you end up in CAR. You might use point shoulder instead of CAR when going to the right just because you’re more comfortable with it, or because point shoulder is generally good out to longer distances than CAR. There’s less reason to use CAR instead of point shoulder, but one might be in a confined space like a hallway where you won’t be able to create distance the way you would in a more open area.

That drill wrapped up the class. Everyone loaded up their gear and helped Roger tear down the range. He handed out the certificates, and we all went our separate ways.

Concluding Thoughts

This was an excellent class. Roger does a good job adapting his courses to the student body and in this case we had a group of safe, experienced, shooters that allowed him to push the envelope and teach the class at a very high level.

As expected, Roger evolved the class considerably since the last time I took it in 2014. These changes really come to the fore in two areas: the locked wrist grip and the integration of the reactive and proactive. The locked wrist grip helps you deliver fast and accurate hits when point shooting just like it does during sighted fire. Roger did a great job integrating the transition from reactive, point shooting based skills to more proactive, sighted fire skills into the class. Many drills called for students to make that transition in various ways.

I’m pretty happy with how I performed in this class. All the dry practice I did with the draw really paid off. I was always able to get the gun out safely, quickly, and effectively. I think I acquitted myself pretty well in the point shooting and movement aspects of the class too.

One area I through was particularly interesting was how well I did doing shooting during controlled movement with the pistol, despite the fact that all of my recent controlled movement live practice and most of my dry work has been done with a rifle rather than a handgun. This is a skill that definitely crosses over from one platform to the other.

While I’ve been using the locked wrist grip in all of my dry practice, this class has helped me refine it. Keeping the elbows out and torquing the gun is the main change, but I also need to make sure I’ve got the support hand aggressively forward (particularly when coming off a reload or other situation where I have to compromise my grip on the gun).

The teething problems with my Glock 19X on Saturday were kind of concerning. I still don’t know what caused the trigger/striker issue, but it hasn’t reoccurred. The fact that the failures to feed didn’t crop up until I’d put a bunch of rounds downrange and went away after I cleaned and lubed the gun makes me think that’s the cause. I’m not really used to having to clean a Glock, but I’ve never run one with an aftermarket barrel that has tighter tolerances for any length of time. It appears this setup may be a bit more sensitive to cleaning and lubrication than I’m used to. I’ve got another two-day pistol class coming up in late June. I won’t be making a decision about whether this setup is reliable as a carry gun until after that class.

One thing that had cropped up a couple of times when I was testing the G19X was the slide locking back even when the magazine wasn’t empty yet. I was wondering if this was related to the new gun, or to running the locked wrist grip. It happened a couple of times in this class, and it seemed like it actually occurs when I’m not being as aggressive about getting that wrist cocked forward. If I want to shoot using that grip it seems like I really need to stay hardcore about it.

The Apex trigger and connector worked very nicely. I think they deserve at least some credit for the groups I was able to shoot during the one-hole drill. The short reset on the Apex trigger also contributes to the ability to take very quick follow-up shots. The comp does seem to make a difference in this department as well, though it probably makes a bigger difference during sighted fire than during point shooting since less muzzle flip makes it easier to reacquire the sights (or the red dot in my case). The Trijicon RMR ran just like any other RMR I’ve used: accurately and reliably. The Dale Fricke kydex I was using was great, as usual.

For a while there was a running joke in Roger’s class is about how “the weather will be perfect”. In this class the weather really was perfect. It was a lot cooler than we had any right to expect it to be in Vegas in May (I even wished I’d brought a long sleeve cover garment on Sunday morning). The brief bout of rain didn’t disrupt any of our shooting. About the best you could ask for. It was quite windy on Sunday, but this isn’t a class where the wind disrupts much.

Fight Focused Handgun III - The Reactive Gunfight is a great class. Roger continues to evolve it over time and I think the integration of reactive and proactive skill sets that he’s introduced takes it to another level. I’d highly recommend it (including to folks who, like me, have previously taken one of Roger’s point shooting classes).

Building a Personal Fighting System

Chris Upchurch

I’ve been taught by been-there-done-that guys that you should run your carbine stock all the way out and that you should run it as short as possible. That you should mount your sights high up, and that you should mount them low. That you should run muzzle up, and that you should run muzzle down. That you should do target identification through the sights, and that you should do it looking over the gun. That you should carry appendix and that you should carry on the hip. That you should release the slide by pulling back on it and that you should use the lever. That you should default to dropping expended mags and that you should default to retaining them. And don't even get me started on contrary opinions on handgun makes and models, much less the caliber war.

What is a student of the fighting arts to do? How can you resolve all of this contrary advice?

One solution is to pick a guru. Pick one instructor or one school whose advice you're going to follow. Take a bunch of classes, practice the techniques, and ingrain what you have learned until you can deliver it on demand.

This is probably the right approach for many, if not most people. If you pick a good instructor, you'll get a set of techniques that work and that come together in a coherent system (choosing a good instructor when you're just starting to learn this stuff is a whole other problem, but this article is long enough as it is). Frankly, knowing the basics, practicing them on a regular basis, and carrying regularly will put you miles ahead of most CCW holders.

That said, there are disadvantages to adopting an instructor's system wholesale. No matter how good the instructor their system is never going to be the best possible fit for your needs, your physical capabilities, your life. Choosing an instructor whose system is a good fit for you can help, and any good instructor will try to modify techniques to work with a student's physical limitations. There are inherent limits to this, however. The instructor can't know what you know about your lifestyle or feel what you feel when you try to perform a technique. Any preexisting system that you adopt is going to be a compromise.

There is another path, however, one that is much more difficult and demanding. Indeed, it is a project that, by its nature, will last a lifetime. Build your own personal fighting system by learning, adapting, and adopting techniques that fit your needs, your circumstances, your physical limitations.

Train widely

To start this process, you need a good grasp of the fundamentals. If you're starting completely from scratch, it's best to start with one instructor and one system until you've mastered the basics. This will give you a foundation, a point of departure from which you can begin customizing and creating your own system to meet your needs.

When you have a working knowledge of the fundamentals, it's time to branch out. Train with different instructors so you can see a variety of different takes on the same sort of material. Each new instructor will give you a chance to see some new technique, something that you didn't appreciate before, some refinement that you can add to your skill set. Sometimes, an instructor will cover a technique that you've seen before and didn't understand, but will explain it differently in a way that allows you to "get it."

If you want to get the greatest benefit out of training with different instructors, it's essential that those instructors be different. If you only train with ex-Delta guys, there's not going to be a whole lot of variation, no matter how many of them you train with. Train with instructors who have military backgrounds, train with cops, train with armed citizen instructors. Train with the competition crowd, train with those who think gun games are a waste of time. Train with traditionalists and with guys who are pushing the boundaries. Train at the big schools and train with the 1-man shops. The more diverse your teachers, the more different ideas and techniques you'll be exposed to.

This is not to say you shouldn't be discerning when selecting your instructors. Always seek out good instruction: read reviews, get recommendations from trusted students, learn what you can from what an instructor has put online. There are great instructors out there from all sorts of backgrounds. You don't have to sacrifice quality to train with a wide variety of instructors.

When in Rome

When you seek out diverse instruction, you're going to encounter techniques and approaches that seem strange to you. Maybe even uncomfortable. Keep in mind that while you're at a class, you're not there to make a judgment about whether a particular technique is good or bad, or whether it suits you or not. A class is a chance to learn as much about the technique as possible so that you can evaluate it later. Unless you are physically unable to perform the technique or think it's obviously unsafe, give it a try. Do it the way the instructor is teaching and withhold judgment until you've seen how it works.

In addition to learning the technique itself, it can be useful to understand why the instructor teaches a particular technique. What are the advantages and disadvantages compared to other ways to do it? How does it fit with the rest of their system? What situations is it strongest in and where are any shortcomings apparent? There's a fine line to be walked here. While you want as much context for what the instructor is teaching as you can get, you don't want to take the class down endless "bunny trails" and side discussions (don't be "that guy").

As anyone who's been in a class with me can tell you, I tend to take a lot of notes. This is particularly important if you're trying to build a personal fighting system. The real work when it comes to evolving your system happens after class is over, so being able to call up the details of a technique and the instructor's explanation for it are critical.

Does this have a place?

After a class, it's time to decide whether or not a new technique should become part of your system. Changes could range from minor tweaks (making sure you eject the mag while the gun is horizontal to help it clear the magwell) to major (changing from strong side carry to appendix). Regardless of how significant a change a new technique is, scrutinize it carefully before incorporating it into your system.

I often see instructors describe a new or different technique as "a tool in the toolbox." This comes with the implication that adding a technique to your toolbox is a good thing; that a new technique doesn't have to displace what you already know. I disagree with this approach. You're not trying to fill one of those big rolling tool chests, you're trying to build a system of techniques that work together and enables you to fight effectively.

When you're first starting out, you'll learn a lot of new skills that fill niches that you didn't even know existed, like the finer points of one-handed reloads, or shooting from inside of vehicles. However, as time goes on these empty niches will become rarer. New techniques will more often be alternative ways to do things already know how to do. Think carefully before you decide to adopt duplicative techniques. There are situations where it's helpful to have more than one way to do something. However, having multiple techniques to address a single problem requires more training to learn, more practice to keep current. Or more likely, you don't end up learning either of them to the level that you would if you only had one technique for this particular problem.

If adopting a new technique means dropping the old, it's clear that the new one should have to earn its way into your system. This is the appropriate point to deploy that skepticism you set aside in the class itself.

Think about how the technique fits in with the rest of your system. Is it radically different from the way you do other, related tasks? Commonality among techniques is a good thing, don't give it up unless you get a significant advantage in return.

Think about how the technique fits you physically. If it requires more mobility or more dexterity than you possess, it may not be for you, even if it works well for others.

Think about how the technique fits your training regimen. If your practice time is limited, maybe a complicated technique that requires a lot of practice to maintain isn't the right fit.

Think about how the technique fits your life. If you drive a lot, is this something that works well in or around cars? If you have young kids how does the need to manage and protect them affect things? Does living in the city (lots of bad backgrounds) or the country (lots of wide open spaces) affect the viability of this technique? How does this fit with your requirements for concealment? If your circumstances allow you to open carry or modest concealment that opens up options that aren't available if the law or your employment make deep concealment mandatory. This is not intended as an exhaustive list, everyone's life is different, and the things you should consider before adopting a new technique are going to differ too.

The one thing you shouldn't be considering at this point is how natural it feels or how fast it is compared to your existing technique. When you come out of a class, a brand new technique is almost always going to feel and perform worse than your current technique. For now, ask, "if this works as well as advertised, how would it fit into my system and my life?"

If you decide that a potential new technique isn't a fit for you, don't put it in your toolbox. That doesn't mean you necessarily forget it. Perhaps in the future, your circumstances will change, and the technique will be a better fit. Put it in your storage shed rather than your toolbox and when and if the time comes you can dust it off and pull it out (another good use for notes taken in class).

Apples to apples

If you decide that a technique is worth pursuing further, it's time to investigate whether it really does work as advertised. Put it to the test and see if it's really better than what you're doing now.

As mentioned earlier, any fresh new technique that you've just learned isn't going to feel as natural as something that you've trained with for years to the point that it has become ingrained.

A useful model for this is the four levels of competence:

  1. Unconscious incompetence - "You don't know what you don't know."
  2. Conscious incompetence - You realize the gap between what you can do and the desired level of performance.
  3. Conscious competence - You can perform the skill if you concentrate on it.
  4. Unconscious competence - The skill has become ingrained to the point where you can perform it without thinking.

Most of the time you learn a new technique you're going to come out of a class somewhere between levels 2 and 3. Hopefully, you know what doing it right looks like and feels like, but most of the time you won't have enough repetitions with the technique to do it the right every single time, even when you concentrate on it.

To get to the point where you can make an apples to apples comparison between the new technique and your existing technique, you'll need to practice until you are solidly in level 3. In my experience, this will probably require hundreds of repetitions; several weeks of regular practice. It isn't going to become ingrained to the point where it's completely natural (since you haven't made your final decision to adopt this technique, that's actually a good thing). However, it should be smooth enough when you concentrate that you can make a fair comparison with your current technique.

What form that comparison takes depends on how the new technique is supposed to be better. Is it supposedly faster? Put it on a timer. Is it supposed to be more reliable under stress? Add some stress. Put it on video, have someone watch you perform it, or even just see how it feels compared to what you've been doing.

Finally, at this point, you have enough information to decide whether this new technique is worth incorporating into your system. If you decide that it isn't, it's probably time to put in some dedicated practice concentrating on your existing technique to reinforce it.

Ingraining a technique

Once you've decided that a technique is going to become part of your system, it's time to get to that fourth level: unconscious competence. When it comes to critical lifesaving skills, it's obvious that you want to be able to perform the technique reliably; to get as close to 100% with it as possible. As John Farnam says, "An amateur practices until he can get it right, a professional practices until he can't get it wrong."

The other, perhaps underappreciated, aspect of this is being able to perform the technique without actively thinking about it. When you've truly ingrained a skill you can make a decision to act, then carry out the action while you dedicate your mental bandwidth to other tasks. You think draw, and while your gun is on the way out your mind can already be moving on to where you're going to place these shots.

Getting to this level requires a lot of practice; generally thousands of repetitions. For each new core technique you need to put in the work to reach that level, then continue putting in enough practice over time to maintain those skills.

A never-ending process

Building a personal fighting system is a never-ending process. As you get older, as your circumstances change, things that worked for you in the past aren't going to work as well. Perhaps techniques that you rejected in the past will become more relevant. It's important to exercise these skills and reevaluate them over time. No matter how much you know or how much you've trained, there's never a point where you can say, "It's done, I never need to do any more training or learn any new techniques."

We sometimes also face temporary changes. Maybe an injury means you can't perform some of your usual techniques. The classic example of this is if you break your dominant arm. While it's in a cast for weeks, you're going to have to shoot with what's normally your support side hand. Maybe a shoulder injury prevents you from drawing from a hip holster, and you're going to have to go cross draw for a while. Perhaps eye issues require shooting a rifle from the other shoulder.

This sort of thing is where the "storage shed" mentioned earlier is very important. Maybe you chose not to embrace ambidextrous shooting in the past, but as long as you have the knowledge, you turn it into skill with enough practice. Just because something didn't fit when you first learned it doesn't mean it won't fit in the future.

The payoff

Reading all this, it's easy to conclude that it sounds like a lot of work. And it is. For many people, the juice may not be worth the squeeze. For them, it may be better to find a good instructor, learn an existing system, and practice.

For those who are willing to put in the effort of building a truly personal fighting system, the benefits are significant. You get a system that fits your needs, your physical abilities, your circumstances, your life, a system that fits you. One that can evolve with you over time as your circumstances change.