Earlier this month I took Thunderbird Tactical’s Rifleman - Squad Member course, taught by Daniel Shaw. The course focused on small-unit tactics at the fireteam and squad level. This was the very first time this course was taught, so I was in on the inaugural experience.
Daniel is a Marine Staff Sergeant. He’s done this sort of thing for a living for many years. Andy, his main co-instructor for this course, retired with the rank of Gunnery Sergeant. Many of the other members of the cadre and OPFOR (Opposing Force) had military experience, including several other Marines, and token representation from the Army and Navy. All told, there were a total of seven guys there on the second day acting as either instructors or role-playing members of the opposing force.
The course description specified an AR-type rifle. I’d asked about whether to bring a rifle with a magnified optic or a red dot. Daniel advised me to go with the magnified optic, so I brought my DMR-type rifle, a JP Rifles upper on a lower I assembled myself, topped with a Leupold Mark 6 1-6x. I ran it with my Mini4 suppressor on the front end. It’s a bit heavy to carry around for two days, but it’s what I’ve got for magnified optics on an AR. I also brought along a couple of other rifles (my SBR with the red dot and a 16″ iron sighted gun) as backup. The other students in the class brought AR-type rifles, mostly fairly high-end ones. There was a mix of magnified optics, red dots, and iron sights.
I decided to run this course with a battle belt. That’s really my favorite setup for walking around in the woods (unless I’m going to be running a heavy pack). In the past, I’ve run this rig with a thigh holster, but I’ve found for walking around a lot it kind of sucks. So I got a dropped and offset adapter for my Bladetech WRS holster. This puts the holster below the belt and canted outboard. You can run this on your regular belt, with the battle belt over it, but I decided to run it on the belt itself. The HSGI battle belt has several slits in the bottom on either side and in the back, allowing access to the inner, nylon web belt. I used one of these slits to mount the holster to the belt itself. I also moved some mag pouches around and mounted a tourniquet, trauma kit, and multitool (still haven’t found a good spot for a fixed blade though). Most of the class were running chest rigs or plate carriers, but there were several battle belts as well.
Daniel mentioned some night ops, so I brought my PVS-14 NVG and a bump helmet to mount it on. I also brought out an IR flashlight, laser, strobe, and some IR chemlights in case there was a chance for any NVG show and tell. This would be my first chance to actually use my PVS-14 in a class. I’d blown a previous opportunity to use them in another course by leaving them on the kitchen table so believe me, I double and triple checked that I had them with me for this class. There was one other student who brought a PVS-14 and the instructors had a couple of PVS-7s.
I was kitted out all in multicam, as were several other students. There was also some MARPAT (particularly among the Marine-heavy instructor cadre), old school woodland, and several civilian camo patterns. At one point, between his shirt, pants, gloves, balaclava, web gear, and a helmet, one student was wearing no less than seven different camo patterns.
One of the elements of the class was camping out at the course location, so I brought my camping gear, including a new zero-degree sleeping bag. I went with my good, gore-tex lined leather hiking boots and as listed in the course description, “more socks than you think you will need.”
Daniel wrote the pre-class email in the format of a patrol order (using the classic Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration and Logistics, Command and Signal format). It laid out a scenario of a grid-down disaster where you and 11 of your friends (and your families) hole up in a retreat location. This would form the context for the stuff taught in class.
Just like the last time I took a Thunderbird Tactical course, it was rather foggy as I drove out to the range. I guess wet with low visibility is becoming a tradition.
I arrived just before the appointed hour of 0800. The first thing Daniel told us to do was to divest ourselves of any live ammo and stow it in a vehicle. The course description called for some live fire (about 300 rounds worth) but in the end, he decided that there was just too much other material in the class to fit it in. I could tell that some of the other students were a bit disappointed that we wouldn’t be doing any shooting, but I wasn’t. I’ve taken plenty of great courses with little or no live fire, including some similar in subject matter (Pfleger’s Pathfinder, Recce, & Man Tracking course, for instance). By the end of class I don’t think anyone really missed the live fire.
It was a bit wet and chilly, but they’d framed in the sides of the ramada there on the range and installed a wood stove, so we had a warm, dry hooch protected from the elements to come back to between exercises.
We started out with some introductions of both the instructor cadre and the students. The class was limited to 12 people, giving a 12 man squad made up of three 4-man squads. One guy didn’t show up, so one fireteam was a man short. Everyone in the class had taken at least one previous Thunderbird Tactical course, many of them considerably more than that, so with only one Thunderbird carbine class under my belt I was a relative noob. Several of the students also had some military experience.
I was assigned to a fireteam with three folks who already knew each other (two of whom were a father-son team). They had been speculating for a while who they’d get as the fourth member of their fireteam, referring to this notional person as, “Professor X”. Once they found out I was an honest-to-god professor, my nickname was inevitable. “Professor” it is, then.
With the introductions out of the way, we got started with some lecture material. Daniel talked about gear, particularly the need to avoid noise (such as the clink of metal buckles against rifles). He also covered the need to avoid dangling straps or other gear that might catch on vegetation and the like. This went pretty quick (quicker than I think Daniel expected) because everyone came with a pretty good gear setup. No major issues were evident inspecting the gear during this lecture, or throughout the rest of the class.
Next up Andy delivered a lecture on camouflage. He went through visual aspects like shape and color, but also covered things like smell and sound. Everyone was already wearing camo clothing of one sort or another. They broke out the face paint, which was a new experience with me. I’d heard about how to apply camo paint to your face in previous classes, but this is the first one where I’d actually had a chance to do it.
Once everybody was all camoed up, we went through the different hand signals. They covered a somewhat more extensive repertoire than I’d seen in previous classes, but most of them were fairly familiar. Andy also used an easel to go through the different formations. He kept the formations fairly simple, sticking to wedge, staggered column, ranger file, and on-line.
He and Daniel also went through the responsibilities of different roles within the fireteam, including the point man and especially the team leader. For the team leader they talked about accountability, positioning team members on the defense, setting up interlocking fields of fire etc. Each team had a chance to pick a team member as their fire team leader (not me today).
Finally, they finished up the main lecture by talking briefly about types of patrols using the RACES acronym: Raid, Ambush, Contact, Economy of force, and Security. Over the course of the class we would get a chance to experience all of these except economy of force.
Daniel took advantage of the nice big instructor cadre and broke the class up by fireteam. One went outside to practice moving in formation, another went off to another portion of the property to do an observation exercise, while we stayed behind for a lecture on land navigation.
Andy took the land nav lecture. I think he may have been a bit concerned by having someone with a PhD in geography in his lecture, but honestly I learned more about land navigation as a Boy Scout than I did getting three geography degrees. He covered the basics of map orientation and recognizing terrain features, which would be the really critical skills for use later in this class. He also talked a bit about Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) coordinates, which I found pretty interesting because despite all the geography degrees, that’s not really an area I had much experience with.
After about 90 minutes, we rotated out to the formation practice. This was taught by two members of the instructor cadre. We basically moved up the range, through some trees, and back down, using hand signals and changing formations under the watchful eyes of the instructors. After a couple of runs directed by our team leader, each team member rotated through the lead position to get some experience running the team.
One of the things we noted was that having the rifle tied to the body (with a one-point sling, for instance) could impede the ability to do some of the signals (particularly on-line and wedge). This wasn’t really a problem for me since I was using a simple two-point sling and only slinging the rifle between drills. As we did this I also got complimented on my gunhandling by one of the instructors. Not only was this a nice compliment, it also supports my long-held belief that you can tell a lot about how well a person is trained just by watching their non-shooting gunhandling.
Again, after about 90 minutes we rotated again, heading out to a field elsewhere on the property for an observation drill. This was the classic drill where there are a multitude of objects sitting out in the field and your task is to find and identify them using optics. Before the drill, Daniel talked a bit about observation techniques. One thing he covered that I hadn’t really appreciated before was the ability to stand behind (or inside) some vegetation and use the distant focus of binoculars or some other optic to “burn through” the vegetation and see beyond. All you have to do is focus the optic on the more distant object and your eye will tend to ignore the closer, out of focus vegetation.
Our fireteam did pretty well at this drill, finding 12 of 13 objects, although we did not identify all of them. One of the things we learned is that the son in the father-son pair on our team has some really sharp eyes. He was the first to spot many of the objects we found and if we’d gone with his first impressions of what they were we’d have done a better job identifying them as well. Having only 8x binoculars was a bit of a limitation on this drill, even though we had some pretty good Vortex glass available. It made me wish I’d brought out my spotting scope (maybe it’s time to go ahead and buy a smaller, more portable spotter). The difficulty we sometimes had on talking a team member onto an object we spotted also reinforced my belief in the usefulness of mil-scale reticles in binoculars. Unfortunately, mine were the only binos in our fireteam equipped with a mil reticle.
After we finished the observation exercise, and all the teams had done each of the three stations, we rendezvoused back at the hooch. Many of the folks were planning on sleeping in the hut, but for those of us with tents, Daniel told us to get them set up before it got dark and we started our night exercise.
With the tents up, we reconvened in the hut for some lecture before the night op. Andy talked a bit about unaided night vision, as well as noise discipline (noise travels a lot further at night). Since a few of us had NVGs he talked a bit about aided night vision as well.
By this time it had gotten fairly dark so we geared up and gathered outside. There was a bit of show and tell as NVGs got handed around and the students and instructors broke out the IR flashlights and lasers.
My fireteam was the first to head out, albeit a bit shorthanded. One team didn’t have anyone with NVGs, while ours had two, so one team member got moved temporarily to another squad. Our mission was to patrol along a route that took us around the property, noting any unusual items or occurrences. Some members of the OPFOR made some noise as we moved by and we noted some stuff as we moved along our patrol route.
Having the NVG to help navigate was a huge advantage. I did run into some problems in places where there was a distant light in the background that tended to overwhelm the relatively darker foreground. I also had some issues with the PVS-14 fogging up a bit. I ended up folding back the eye cup to get a bit more air circulation going.
After all three fireteams got back from patrol, we stowed the rifles and other tactical gear and rendezvoused over by the campfire to wait for dinner. Some folks broke out the booze and there was good fellowship all around. After a bit of revelry we headed back over to the hut for some dutch oven shepherd’s pie and cherry cobbler. It would have been tasty at any time but after a long day like today it was especially welcome.
With that we turned in for some well deserved rest.
At about 5am, Andy came around and roused everybody. Once everyone was up and over in the hut we had some time to wait while breakfast cooked. They handed out the special AR bolts for use with the UTG sims that we would be using later in the day. Since I had the Mini4 on my JP upper I asked about running these through my can. Daniel recommended against it, so I took this opportunity to switch over to my SBR (which is also quite a bit lighter than the JP upper).
With that done we were still waiting for breakfast to finish up, so Daniel and Andy started in on some lecture about squad-level maneuvers. They went through the basics of a hasty ambush, movement to contact, and reactions to contact at the front, left, right and rear.
When breakfast was ready we took a break from the lecture to scarf down some very welcome food. Those of us who had put up tents headed out to take them down. With all the housekeeping taken care of, we came back and picked up the lecture where we’d left off, covering responses to a far ambush and crossing danger areas.
We also switched out fireteam leaders. When Daniel called for new team leaders one of the other members of my fireteam immeaditely “volunteered” me.
We geared up and headed out to put the lecture material into practice. After forming up into a staggered column we moved out into a field south of the range. There Andy, acting as squad leader, called out “contact front”. The guys in the lead fireteam flopped down while those of us in middle and rear teams had to run up and get on line to the right and left of the lead team. Once everyone was on line we started bounding forward in buddy rushes.
Our first attempt at this was a bit of a mess. Rather than bounding in parallel, staying in our lanes, we all converged on the notional enemy (played by Daniel and another cadre member). I think we really would have benefitted from some fireteam-level bounding drills first. We fell back to the point in the drill were everybody was on line and tried it again, to somewhat better results.
After regrouping into our staggered column, we patrolled a bit further, then did a reaction to a far ambush. Everybody got on-line (easy since this contact was to our left) and the left-hand fireteam, which I was in, maneuvered around to envelop the attacker’s flank while the other two teams served as a base of fire. As we swept across the objective the two supporting fireteams shifted their “fire” (really just pointing in and saying bang) and then lifted it entirely. The rest of the squad moved up and reconsolidated on our position. There was a bit of confusion during this drill given that our team was “Team 1”, but we were third in the march order, so Andy was looking at us, but yelling for “Team 3!” Afterwards Daniel suggested using, “Louie! Louie!” or “Reggie! Reggie!” to designate the right hand or left hand teams to do the envelopment.
From there we set up a hasty ambush, then patrolled back to the hut.
After a bit of a break, we headed out into the field and practiced crossing linear danger areas. I’ve mostly done this at the team level using the “bump” or “patch to the road” methods, but with a squad you have enough guys to actually dedicate a fireteam to set up security while the rest of the unit moves across.
We did this by having the entire squad stop when encountering the danger area. The trailing fireteam moves up to provide security. The first two guys on the team cover to the left and right on the near side of the road. Then the second pair of guys crosses the road and briefly searches the area on the other side to make sure the rest of the squad has a safe place to move to, then take up positions covering left and right on the far side of the road. The lead and middle fireteams cross two guys at a time and begin moving off in the direction of travel. Once the other two fireteams are completely across, the the near side security guys follow. The far side security guys pick up as the tail end guys in the staggered column. This leaves the unit in the same marching order as it was in before crossing the road. We practiced this out in the field a couple of times.
At this point Daniel broke out the UTM sims ammo. These rounds fire small paint-filled pellets, much like scaled-down paintballs. However, unlike paintballs, they can be fired through actual rifles. The rounds don’t have any powder in them, they use a large primer to expel the projectile down the barrel. The primer also pushes the tail end of the cartridge case to the rear in a piston arrangement. Combined with a modified straight-blowback bolt this allows the gun to cycle despite the lack of propellant in the round. We’d swapped in the special bolts into our rifles that morning, now we got special blue mags (designed not to feed live ammo) and the sims rounds themselves.
They also passed out helmets with clear plastic face shields. While the rounds are non-lethal, they will put your eye out (and probably wouldn’t be too good for any of the other openings in your skull either) so proper protection is a must.
Each fireteam was given a different patrolling/reconnaissance type mission to check out a portion of the property. Our fireteam was tasked to patrol down a road past the main house to a gate. We got geared up, including the masks and moved out.
Almost immediately the masks began fogging up, to the point of almost zero visibility. Between looking through the less fogged patches on the mask and stopping every minute or so to wipe off the interior we eventually got down to the end of our patrol route and encountered two members of the OPFOR.
After a brief, very foggy gunfight we pulled back to head back to the hooch when Daniel (who had followed us down to observe) called a time-out. While our orders were to pull back if we encountered opposition, Daniel wanted us to complete the react to contact drill, including assaulting through the enemy position before we pulled back. So we rewound to before we had encountered the enemy and ran the drill again. Afterwards we did a bit of a debreif, talking about the encounter and the issues with the fogged masks. One of the members of the OPFOR had some Cat Crap anti-fog lens cleaner (yes, that is the actual brand name of this product). Daniel and a member of the cadre took it and hopped onto an ATV, heading back to the hut to begin applying it to all of the masks. We followed at a more sedate pace.
Back at the hut each team briefed the others on what they’d found. In addition to our encounter with two members of the OPFOR, another team had found the OPFOR’s base and a third team had observed the base and reconned the terrain approaching it (in reality, the third team probably wouldn’t have started its mission until after the first two had returned, but Daniel had them start their patrol while we were still out in the field to save time).
Our encounter had established that the OPFOR was hostile, while the other two had located their base of operations, so the next step was to plan an assault. Based on what the two teams had seen, and with some input from Daniel and Andy, we developed a plan where two teams would provide a base of fire while the third team moved up and assaulted the target (there was a bit of suspension of disbelief here, since the maximum range of the UTM sims is around 30 yards and our support-by-fire position was closer to 150 yards, but Daniel said to assume for the sake of the exercise that our weapons had the characteristics of an AR-type rifle firing live ammo).
The two groups would take different routes into the target area. The assault team would move around to the west and south to a clump of trees providing cover about 100 yards from the OPFOR position. This fireteam had traversed the same route when they spotted the OPFOR earlier, so they knew the way. The other two teams (ours and the one who had done the second recon) would follow a different route in, one that the recon team had seen (but not traversed) when they’d done their patrol. We did a small scale rehearsal of the fire and assault out on the range and synchronized our watches before stepping off.
Our insertion was a bit interesting. First, we missed the turn off the access road that lead down to the field. Then we found the “gate” and the end of this lane was actually a section of low fence. We managed to get across this and got everybody on line to move up to a clump of trees we’d identified as a potential OPFOR observation post (we did not find anybody there). From there we move up to the reverse slope of the ridge that would be our support by fire position.
We waited until the appointed time and moved up to the top of the ridge to open fire. At this point we couldn’t actually see any of the OPFOR, but we opened fire with the sims rounds anyway (as it turns out, we’d actually taken the OPFOR by surprise, they weren’t expecting us for a few more minutes). As the assault team advanced that flushed some of the OPFOR out. At this range, though, trying to hit with those sims rounds was more like indirect fire than using a rifle, so I don’t know how much effect our supporting fire had.
As the assault team pushed down into the objective, one member of the OPFOR came running out with his hands up. This left us at a bit of a loss, since prisoner handling was not one of the subjects covered in the class (this was a last minute improvisation by the OPFOR). We yelled at him to get down on the ground and the support-by-fire teams moved down and set up 360 degree security while the assault team finished up their actions on the objective. We got into a staggered column formation and moved back to the hut.
We spent quite a bit of time debriefing the class, talking about what we learned, went well, and what could be improved. This being the first time for this class, Daniel was pretty serious about the latter, and I have no doubt that future iterations are going to be even better.
We got everything packed up and then most of us adjourned to a local eatery for some beer and a well earned dinner, as well as some great fellowship.
I’ve done some courses like this before with very good instructors and Daniel Shaw definitely belongs in their company. While I’ve got a little bit of experience there was plenty of stuff in this class that I hadn’t seen or done before. Even with elements of this class that I’d seen previously, Daniel and his cadre often provided a different take on it that was very illuminating. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot.
The students in the class were top notch. That’s a very important element of making a class like this successful. Everyone had solid individual skills, a lot of enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn. They got out there and worked the drills even when it was cold and wet. Everybody participated fully and I think everyone learned a lot. As always with classes where the students stay together on-site, the fellowship among like-minded folks is a unique and valuable part of the experience.
The real highlight for me was the night operation and the squad-level stuff on Sunday. Most of my previous team-tactics type training has focused on fireateam-level stuff, so the squad-level tactics were mostly new to me. Daniel and Andy did a good job of teaching it and we were able to run through a good bit of it on Sunday morning.
As far as the night patrol goes, this was my first chance to really put my PVS-14 to use and I was very pleased with it. There were some fogging issues, but nothing too bad, especially after I peeled back the eye cup to get a bit more air circulation. While it was nice to get a chance to take it out for a spin, I’m definitely still looking for a full fledged low-light class focused 0n NVGs.
The UTM sims rounds were pretty interesting to try out. In my gun, at least, they were very reliable. The masks made it hard to get a cheek weld, though if I pressed down hard on my cheekweld I could just barely see my red dot (with a magnified optic I doubt it would be usable at all). While I’d enjoy something like a CQB class with these, I don’t know that they were really well suited to what we were doing, particularly the support-by-fire stuff. They just don’t have the reach to really portray that role effectively.
One thing you may have noticed is that I didn’t specifically mention lunch either day. This is because in this class, “food and hydration are continuous.” Had I realized we weren’t going to break for lunch I would have packed my food differently (pre-made sandwiches rather than just sandwich fixings, small ziplocks of snack food that I could take out into the field rather than bigger bags, etc.). As it was I managed to get enough to eat during the day, but it would have been nice to have things set up a bit differently.
My reconfigured war belt rig worked really well, although I didn’t really get a chance to test out things like the mag pouch positions. I guess I’ll need to take this setup to a live-fire class to give those elements a real workout. As far as walking around in the woods, however, it was very comfortable and distributed the load well.
I was a bit less enthralled with the holster. It was OK, and definitely much more comfortable than a thigh rig. However, the Bladetech dropped and offset adapter places pistol fairly far from the body (there’s quite a bit of offset), duplicating one of the disadvantages of the thigh holster. I’ve seen a similar Safariland rig that’s a bit closer to the body and somewhat more slick (though it wouldn’t take my red dot Glock). I may give that a try.