Recently I had the chance to take three days of classes from Tu Lam of Ronin Tactics. We did a day of pistol on Friday, carbine on Saturday, and Streetfighter (knife and empty hand) on Sunday morning.
The class was hosted by Dave Bonn, a local instructor that I’ve trained with before. He’s previously brought Tu Lam to Wichita to train, so he and some of his regular students have previous experience. One of the lessons from that experience was to make sure you show up to class with a zeroed rifle. I took advantage of a zeroing session Dave held the previous weekend to make sure my gun was on target. At that event, he also did a brief introduction to some of the knife stuff that we’d be doing so we would know the lay of the land coming into the Streetfighter class. Hopefully, this would help us get as much as possible out of the course (Dave said it was a bit of a fire hose of content).
I brought my 14.5” AR, equipped as usual with the AAC Mini4 suppressor and Leupold Mark 6 1-6 optic. Dave Bonn advised carrying plenty of mags for this class, so I ran both a belt rig and a chest rig. The belt was my usual AWS Light Assaulter belt setup, with two rifle mags, a pair of pistol mag pouches, holster, dump pouch, and trauma gear. For the chest rig, I wanted something very light, slick, and low profile, so I broke out my old Infidel Chest Rig. This is a very simple setup with pouches for four rifle mags. I stripped off the other stuff I had MOLLEed to it to keep it as slick and simple as possible.
Everyone in the class was running an AR of some description. A few were SBRs, but I was the only one running a can. The vast majority of students were running red dot optics; a mixture of Aimpoints, EOTechs, and a few Holosuns. There were also a pair of ACOGs, and one other student had a low power variable. Students were running a mix of belt rigs and chest rigs/plate carriers (with a few ambitious students running plates). Some had only one or the other, but the most common setup was similar to mine, running both.
This is one of those classes that’s “tactical” enough I can justify Multicam, so I wore my Crye G3 pants. I also brought a Multicam top, but due to the weather, I ended up wearing Goretex instead.
We convened out at the range at 9:30 and started with the usual administrative business, signing waivers, and the like. It was drizzling on and off, something that would continue throughout the day.
The class proper kicked off just before 10 am. Tu started by talking a bit about attitude. By this point, it was clear that weather would be an issue today, and he noted it was up to us to how we let the conditions affect our attitude and how much we got out of the course. He also talked about attitude related to previous training, emphasizing coming to new techniques with an open mind and pulling out the aspects that are useful in our own context (his thoughts on this dovetail nicely with my philosophy on building a personal fighting system). During class, he repeatedly emphasized that he can only supply 90% of the solution. It’s up to each student to provide the remaining 10% and apply this knowledge and these techniques to our own context, lifestyle, and physical ability. While there are fundamental principles that apply broadly, turning those principles into a way of fighting is a very individualized exercise. “Today is about you understanding yourself.”
Moving on, Tu gave a quick safety briefing and asked Dave Bonn to cover the medical plan in case someone was seriously injured. Tu emphasized that if you don’t feel confident in your ability to safely execute any of the drills, slow down. The primary goal here in class is learning, not speed (speed will come with practice). He introduced Ahmed, the assistant instructor he’d brought out to help with the course.
With the preliminaries out of the way, Tu got out his rifle and demonstrated his methods to load and make ready and show and make clear (loading and unloading). He emphasized the need for standardization: doing these things the same way every time. This makes it much less likely that you will make a mistake and end up with an unloaded weapon that you think is loaded, or a loaded weapon that you think is unloaded (either of which is a recipe for getting yourself or someone else killed). The loading and unloading processes that he demonstrated were fairly standard. However, one unique thing that Tu emphasized was loading your rifle from the least convenient magazine pouch. In other words, do your administrative loading with the last magazine that you’d grab during a fight.
Tu noted that despite his long experience in special operations, he still regularly returns to the basics. We would be starting from those same basics today and building on them.
To even get to the basics, you need a zeroed rifle. Unlike some instructors who advocate for a specific zero, Tu sees this as more situational. In Afghanistan where the shots were long, and he’d be holding over, he preferred a 100 yard zero. In Iraq, where distances were shorter, he preferred a 50-yard zero allowing him to take snap shots out to a greater range before having to hold off the target. For this class, we’d be zeroing about an inch low at 25 yards, giving approximately a 50 yard zero. Tu talked through the fundamentals of shooting from a supported position, emphasizing natural point of aim and a solid, consistent cheekweld.
We headed out to the firing line and put some rounds downrange. Thanks to my trip out to the range last weekend, I was quite close (Tu had me make a small adjustment). However, the zeroing process took a while for some students. Beyond the fundamental issue of bringing an unzeroed rifle to class, there seemed to be a mix of mechanical issues and shooter issues. A couple of shooters had to move up to 10 yards to get on paper before moving back to 25.
Once everyone had a working zero, Tu briefly covered the low ready, talking a bit about its advantages and disadvantages. This segued into a discussion of stance for carbine shooting. He’s not a fan of the very “aggressive” stances where your torso is bent over, head cranked down, and your feet are in the middle of a big stride forward. Instead, he advocates for a relaxed, upright stance. Tu quoted The Book of Five Rings, saying that your everyday stance should be your fighting stance, and your fighting stance should be your everyday stance. Simply stand upright facing the target. The only real “tactical” aspect he covered is keeping the support side foot slightly forward (far enough forward that the heel of the support side foot is in line with the toes of the primary side foot).
The other thing he emphasized was being relaxed. If your muscles are all tensed up, the recoil impulse from the stock is going to rock you back, limiting your ability to deliver sustained fire. If you’re relaxed, you can absorb the recoil, allowing it to flow through you rather than displacing you. This is especially important with an upright body position. We’re not leaning forward and using an aggressive foot position to manage recoil, so we need to deal with that energy some other way. The flip side is that by standing upright, we don’t have to tense up our core muscles to support the body in an unnatural, cantilevered position. The upright stance both enables and requires relaxation.
Next, he discussed the high compressed ready. This has the rifle angled upward with the muzzle up at eye level with the buttstock held below the armpit. You mount the gun by driving it towards the target and pulling it back into your shoulder (much like throwing a jab with your support hand, or as Tu calls it, the drive hand). This has the advantage of being a very linear movement, not prone to over swinging like bringing a rifle up from low ready. One advantage of the high compressed ready I really appreciate but that Tu didn’t mention is that it’s much easier to maintain one-handed, leaving the other hand free to manipulate objects like doorknobs, bystanders, etc.
While Tu likes the high compressed ready, he did emphasize that it’s situational. You’re not going to use a high ready when working around vehicles or other low cover, for instance. Nevertheless, since it was new material for most students, we’d be doing all of our work out of the high compressed ready position in this class.
He talked a bit about rifle setup, starting with the appropriate length for adjustable stocks. We tend to think of stock length when the rifle is shouldered, but if the stock is too short, it makes it difficult to control the rifle when it’s in hand, but not in the shoulder pocket, such as while reloading or in the high compressed ready. As a rule of thumb, he recommends adjusting the length so that when your elbow is bent 90 degrees, the butt of the stock is right at your bicep. If you’re running body armor or bulky clothing, you may have to go one click shorter. I’ve heard instructors advocate for running adjustable stocks both very short and fully extended, but Tu is the first I’ve heard advocate fitting it to the users’ body in a concrete, specific way.
Like many instructors these days, Tu is not a fan of one-point slings. He prefers two-point quick-adjust slings. However, while he’s not a fan of one-point slings, he will often pull his support arm out of a two-point just leaving it hanging around his neck, giving it many of the characteristics of a one-point while having the option to easily go back to a two-point configuration.
Finally, we discussed the use of the manual safety. The safety is tied to the gun being mounted and at eye level. It doesn’t get disengaged until you mount the rifle. Before that rifle drops even the slightest bit from your eye line, you need to reengage it. This is an area that Tu hammered on throughout the class. For the most part, Tu is very gentle and constructive when correcting students’ issues, but when it comes to not re-engaging the safety, the correction has a bit of a harder edge to it.
We headed out to the line and worked some mechanical offset drills, learning how high above the desired point of impact we need to hold when shooting at close range. We eventually got down to shooting 2” squares, which is pretty challenging when you’re dealing with 2” or more of offset. Most of the class got the hang of offset pretty quickly during this drill. Getting used to the high compressed ready took a bit longer for some students. It can be quite an adjustment if you haven’t worked these kinds of positions before.
During this drill, it was wet enough that when my suppressor got hot, there was steam coming off of it — kind of a cool look.
Next up was bolt lock reloads (or as one student put it, the “holy shit” reload). There’s a nice level of consistency here since bringing the gun back into your “workspace” can essentially be identical to the high compressed ready. You may cant the gun outboard slightly to give better visibility/access to the magazine well, but that’s the only real difference.
To help mags drop free, many instructors teach flicking the mag out of the gun by rotating the rifle to one side or another to help free the mag by centrifugal force. Tu sees this as inefficient. He’d rather encourage the mag to drop by snapping it vigorously from a shooting position back to the high compressed ready, using the magazine’s inertia to help get it to drop. This is particularly effective since going from a shooting position to the high compressed ready involves driving the gun forward slightly to free the stock from the shoulder before snatching it back as you pull the buttstock back under your arm. This sudden reversal of direction does a great job of ensuring the magazine exits the rifle. The key is to have the mag release depressed before you start to unmount the gun.
It’s worth noting here that while snapping the gun back to the high compressed ready can serve a particular purpose during the reload, Tu advocates snapping the gun briskly where it needs to go during all sorts of gun handling.
The other thing Tu emphasized is to get your support hand moving to the reload mag while the rifle is in motion. In a “holy shit” situation like this, you should be going to your “lifeline”: the easiest mag to reload from. If you’re running a belt rig, this is probably the first mag on the belt. A chest rig or plate carrier will take a bit more time to access, but there’s still one mag that’s more accessible than the others.
Tu had us set this up as a drill with a round in the chamber, an empty mag in the gun, and a loaded mag in our “lifeline” mag pouch. We fired one, reloaded, and fired again. Again we mounted from the high compressed ready, and we shot the drill on a small square, building on and reinforcing the lessons of the previous exercise.
It started really dumping rain on us during drill. Of course, it slackened off once we came off the line and got back under cover. This was the pattern that followed for the rest of the day; it seemed to rain while we were out shooting and taper off when we were done. Tu didn’t let it affect our training, though. It says “we train rain or shine” on the Ronin Tactics webpage, and he means it.
At this point, we moved on to a series of drills building up to multiple target engagement. When confronted with multiple adversaries, Tu strongly advocates of putting one round into each guy, then figuring out who isn’t dying fast enough and dumping five rounds into each of them. To make this work, those initial single rounds into each target need to be very, very quick. This is both to get a round onboard everybody and hopefully impede their ability to shoot at you, as well as getting anyone who needs those follow-up shots their five rounds as quickly as possible.
The way Tu teaches accomplishing this is by dispensing with our usual follow-through. While he didn’t quite describe it this way, my take on what he teaches is that there are two steps to the follow through as it’s usually taught in the context of combat shooting. First, you perform your marksmanship follow through, bringing your sights back on target and resetting the trigger. Then you do the combat follow through (sometimes described as the first steps in your after-action drill): asking if I need to shoot this guy some more, tracking him down to the ground, and scanning for additional threats. Tu’s teaching is twofold: he dispenses with the marksmanship follow through entirely, and he saves the combat follow through until after everyone has their first round on board.
Our first drill focused on the marksmanship follow through aspect of this. Ever since I started shooting, it has been ingrained in me that every shot has two sight pictures: one before you press the shot and one after as part of the follow-through. If I’m shooting a single shot, it’s “sight picture, bang, sight picture.” For a controlled pair, it’s “sight picture, bang, sight picture, bang sight picture.” Etc., etc. What Tu asked us to do in this drill is to dispense with the second sight picture and instead immediately start driving the gun off line (towards an additional target, though that second target was notional in this first drill). The emphasis is on immediately. It’s not “sight picture, bang, drive the gun,” it’s “sight picture, bangdrivethegun.” The barrel needs to stay rock steady up until the shot breaks so the bullet will end up in the 3” squares we’re shooting at, but the moment the shot breaks, you should be driving the gun.
An additional layer is that Tu asked us to drive the gun by reorienting our hips. When discussing stance earlier, he emphasized squaring your hips to the target, and that doesn’t go away just because you’re engaging more than one target. Indeed, in this case, it’s even more important: by locking your upper body and hips together, you can drive the gun using your legs. This allows you to drive the gun much more vigorously than just using your arms or abdominal muscles.
For the first drill in this sequence, that’s all we focused on: driving the gun off line the moment the shot breaks by snapping your hips. It sounds simple, but it’s deceptively difficult, at least at the level of performance that Tu was pushing us to achieve. Not following through with that second sight picture after the shot required overcoming years of shooting instincts. Driving with the hips seems straightforward, but Tu wanted a very fast, vigorous snap without putting all of our weight on to one leg or bending our kneels and changing our level or body angle. I’ve practiced driving the gun to a new target by snapping my hips based on past instruction, but Tu was pushing it to a different level.
After we practiced driving the gun off line, the next step was to add a target for you to drive the gun to. Our next drill added another target square on a different target and required snapping from one square to another. Tu had us fire two shots into the square on the first target, then snap to the second and fire two shots on it. But it’s not just enough to fire 1-2, drive the gun to the second target and fire 3-4. Tu wanted us to maintain the same cadence of fire throughout the drill: 1-2-3-4. There shouldn’t be any more pause between shots on different targets than there was to make repeat shots on the same target. This really upped the level of difficulty.
To delve a bit deeper into shooting cadence, we moved back to a single target and worked to put five rounds into it with an absolutely consistent cadence. Rather than have everyone shooting at once, he and Ahmed moved down the line from opposite ends and had the students shoot individually while they observed. They gave each student the shooting cadence they wanted the student to achieve by counting off “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” at the appropriate pace. Based on your shooting, they provided great individual feedback both about how consistent your cadence was and any other issues with your stance, mounting the gun, etc. If you were able to shoot it at a consistent cadence without any other issues, they sped things up. It became “1-2-3-4-5” and eventually, “12345”. If you started throwing rounds outside the 3” square, they dialed it back down.
I often say that “coaching” is a very different skill set than “teaching.” In my experience, great coaches are much rarer in the shooting community (to the point that some instructors will just lecture and demo and not provide much if any feedback to students). Both Tu and Ahmed did a great job coaching. I really appreciated their feedback. They also did a great job ramping the cadence up and down for individual students. They’d push you faster and faster until you started throwing shots, dial it back enough that you were on target, then push you faster until you hit the failure point again.
The next drill combined the cadence with multiple targets. This time we worked six squares, numbered 1-6, on a single sheet of paper. You had to put two rounds on each square, in numeric order, keeping the same cadence with the same splits driving the gun from one square to another as you had for repeat shots on the same square. As with the previous drill, the instructors move down the line running one student at a time. Again, they gave the student the cadence and ramped things up and down in response to their performance.
One thing this drill made very evident is that knowing your offset in an intellectual sense is not the same as ingraining it to the point it becomes automatic. Some students had some real issues with this. I probably did better than most, but there’s still lots of room for improvement. The targets on the Ronin Tactics website with progressively smaller squares should be great for this.
Our final drill of the day added one more layer. Instead of just shooting the boxes in order, we had to put one round at a time into each box, starting with #1, then #2, then back to #1, then #3, back to #1, and so on (1-2-1-3-1-4-1-5-1-6). As a shooting problem, this is only slightly more complicated than the previous drill (easier even, since you only have to shoot one round per box at a time). However, the more complex ordering sucks up much more of your mental bandwidth.
I will be honest; I totally botched this drill on my first attempt. Standing there with Tu Lam calmly asking me, “Do you understand this drill?” made me feel about six inches tall. However, I managed to execute properly on my next attempt, and with his coaching and progressively increasing cadence after a couple of iterations, I was blasting through this at a pretty good clip while maintaining accuracy.
This concluded the training day. We took a class picture, and Tu handed out the certificates for the students who were only taking one or two of the three days (those of us who were here for the duration would get our certs on Sunday). We all packed up and headed out.
This was a great class. I’ve been to enough courses that I’m pretty happy if I can come away from a class with one really good insight or technique. I came away from this course with many.
My biggest takeaways are wrapped up with Tu’s take on multiple target engagement. This whole block of instruction has me thinking about the multiple target problem differently. In particular, thinking about follow-through in a fundamentally different way opens up a lot of possibilities and has the potential to get rounds on everybody faster if I develop the necessary skills to a high level.
I’ve long believed that having a sense of how fast I can shoot at a given distance and achieve a given level of accuracy is a vital skill, but Tu’s explanation of cadence articulated it in a way that I’d never previously heard or been able to express. However, the real eye-opener was the multiple target cadence drills. I’ve listened to instructors talk about how your split times between targets should be the same as your split times for repeat shots on this the same target, but I hadn’t really understood until this class. Tu’s explanation, combined with the multiple target drills, helped me truly get the concept and its effectiveness.
There were other takeaways as well, like relaxing to absorb recoil rather than tensing up, snapping the gun back to the high compressed ready/workspace to help drop the mag, and taking an arm out of the sling and just going with it around the neck in certain situations. The class also reinforced certain things I was already moving towards, like adopting a more upright stance and making more use of the high compressed ready. While I had already adopted these to a certain degree, I think the reinforcement that the class provided will help me take them further than I would have on my own.
During the class, Tu mentioned that he served as both a sniper and an assaulter. Snipers, of course, are all about collecting data. Tu brought that same sort of mindset to the assaulter role, and it shows through in his attitude and in how and what he teaches for CQB distance carbine work. As someone with a somewhat of an analytical bent, I see this as something I’d like to emulate.
Perhaps this is my past life as an instructor showing through, but one of the things I appreciated about this class was the well-designed curriculum. It’s easy for intermediate level firearms courses to feel a bit scattershot. With basic courses, the fundamentals of shooting provide a clear path for the instructor to follow (there are only so many ways to skin this cat). Once you move beyond the basics, however, there are a bunch of different directions that a course can branch off in. It’s up to the instructor to choose a subset of these and organize them into a package that makes sense. With this curriculum, Tu has done a great job selecting a set of techniques and drills that start with the fundamentals and build upon each other to take the student to a very high level in a particular area. It’s not too narrow or specialized, but you can clearly see the focus and direction.
Having taught some firearms courses in the past, I can appreciate the challenge that comes with having students of varying skill levels in a class. That challenge definitely reared its head in this course. While I think Tu and Ahmed did a good job meeting this challenge (with some assistance from Dave Bonn), sometimes the variance in skill level is so great that no matter how well the instructors handle it, it can’t help but have an impact on the course. In particular, zeroing sucked up a lot of time at the beginning of the course, and some remedial instruction was also required during some of the drills. Tu ran the course past its scheduled end time to make up for the extended zeroing session, which I definitely appreciated.
Speaking of the scheduled end time, one of the things that gave me a bit of pause when I signed up was the relatively short scheduled training day. I need not have worried. Aside from the aforementioned zeroing issues, Tu ran a very fast-paced class with lots of content. The breaks were short, and the drills were long. I got more content and did more shooting in this class than I’ve done in a lot of courses I’ve taken that were scheduled to run eight hours or more.
The corollary to this is if you want to get the most out of this class, you need to come prepared. Bring lots of mags and be able to reload them quickly. I brought all my ammo on stripper clips with a StripLULA loader to charge magazines with. I’ve used this setup in a lot of classes, but seldom have I been more glad to have it. Similarly, I was very glad that I brought of snack-type food that I could eat quickly during short breaks rather than expecting a long lunch. The one thing I might change is to run a hydration system rather than depending on water bottles (I brought a Camelbak but did not run it). It was less critical given the cooler temperatures and all the water falling out of the sky, but on a hotter day, it would have made a bigger difference.
My war belt and chest rig ran well. They were the right kind of kit for this class. Having the belt-mounted mags for bolt lock reloads was definitely helpful. It was good to have more mags on my person than just the two on my belt, but I wouldn’t have wanted a bulky chest rig with a whole bunch of stuff on it. Slick and light was the way to go.
Overall, my rifle ran well, but I did suffer several failures to fire towards the end of the day. Unfortunately, I was unable to find and recover my rounds from the sea of brass on the range to see how they looked, so I don’t have a solid diagnosis of the issue. Given that it only manifested towards the end of the day, I’m thinking it might have been a dirty gun, occasionally preventing it from quite getting all the way into battery. I wiped down the bolt and bolt carrier and lubed up the gun before class, but it’s been a while since I did a more thorough cleaning, including scrubbing out the chamber and barrel extension.
This class left me really looking forward to Day 2.
My handgun for this class was my Glock 19X “Roland Special” with an RMR, Mayhem Syndicate comp, and a Surefire X300. For “tactical” use (and reloads for every day carry), I’ve moved mostly to the 21 round Magpul Glock mags, and that’s what I used in this class.
I ran the same belt rig as I had in the carbine class, with a Safariland ALS holster on a dropped and offset mount. I prefer the dropped and offset holster rather than a thigh rig because it doesn’t require a strap around your leg, but still gets the handgun dropped down so it will clear body armor or the padded waist belt of a big ruck. On the belt, I ran a pair of pistol mags, dump pouch, trauma gear, and an empty pair of rifle mag pouches (more on those later).
Most students in the class were running some sort of tactical belt setup, with a few running their gear directly on their pants belt. The majority had a thigh holster, but there were also a good number of tactical OWB holsters in evidence. Everyone had modern, high capacity semi-autos (no wheelguns or 1911s), with Glock being the most common. The majority were shooting iron sights, but there was a sizable minority running red dots.
We kicked things off again at 9:30 on Saturday morning. It had rained enough overnight that the range owner asked us to park out near the road and walk the 200 yards to the firing line, so we didn’t tear up the grass. Since I didn’t want to make that trip a bunch of times, this prompted some hasty gear consolidation and choices about what I needed out on the range. I managed to get everything for the day down there in one trip.
As we had more rain in the forecast, Tu once again started off the day talking about attitude. Even though conditions might not be what we’d like, it’s still up to us what we get out of this training. Whether you take misery or knowledge from a training day like this is up to you.
He talked a bit about the context of combat shooting before moving on to the safety brief. Since we would be shooting steel at close range today, he placed a lot of emphasis on eye protection. Ricochets and bullet fragments are real issues at this distance. He passed it off to Dave for the medical brief.
We started with the fundamentals: in this case, stance. As with the rifle, Tu is a big advocate for an upright, relaxed stance. With a pistol, however, we can carry this even further than we can with a rifle. When shooting a long gun, you have to bring your head forward and down to bring the cheek into contact with the stock. With a pistol, we can keep the head upright. Until he pointed it out, it hadn’t occurred to me that the classic head forward, shoulders rolled combat pistol stance may be a product of imitating a rifle stance in a context where that isn’t necessary. Indeed, having the head down and forward is downright counterproductive. Where the head goes, the body follows; moving it forward, even that little bit, shifts your balance and reduces your mobility.
Having the head forward also rolls your shoulders, tensing those muscles. By its nature, the rifle is solidly connected to your body through the stock. We can relax our core to help absorb recoil, but there’s nothing we can do to mitigate it before it reaches our body. With the handgun, we can relax our arms and shoulders, adding an additional layer of recoil absorption before it even gets to our core. Achieving this state of relaxation is more difficult if we have the head forward.
Hearing it explained this way was a real eye-opener. As someone who’s always shot with my head forward, this was quite a significant change for me. Throughout the class, I had to keep reminding myself to keep my head up.
The next fundamental was the grip. Tu teaches a very specific grip, with the web of the hand driven up against the beavertail and the middle and ring fingers pressed up against the trigger guard, squeezing the gun tightly between them. The drive hand wrist is locked forward, and the fingers clamp the pistol tightly. You torque the two hands inward, squeezing the top of the frame by rotating your elbows outward, pointing to the side rather than down.
This type of grip is not new to me, I’ve learned in previous classes (Roger Phillips has been particularly helpful in refining it). I can attest that gripping the gun this way really does reduce muzzle flip and has allowed me to shoot faster and more accurately. While the grip wasn’t new to me, I think Tu’s explanation of it was particularly good. If I ever get back to instructing, I’m definitely going to be drawing from his example to explain a proper grip to students.
One thing that was new to me is the Kagwerks extended and raised slide release that Tu has on his pistol. One side effect of the aggressive position of the support hand with this grip is that you can inadvertently push up on the slide lock lever, inadvertently locking the slide back when there are still rounds in the magazine. This sometimes happens to me (though so far only with Gen 5 Glocks). The Kagwerks slide release is intended to solve this problem.
One challenge with the combination of this grip and the upright, relaxed stance that Tu teaches is successfully combining a very firm grip on the gun (and the accompanying tension in the hands and forearms) with relaxed elbows, shoulders, and body. It can be difficult to prevent the tension of the grip from leaking into the rest of your body.
Next up was the draw. Tu teaches bringing the gun up to a high compressed ready as part of the draw. The position is analogous to the high compressed ready with a rifle: the pistol is angled up at about 45 degrees, with the front sight right at eye level in front of your dominant eye. The sight stays at eye level as you drive the gun out to the target, dropping right into the rear notch as the gun levels out. This works with red dot sights too, delivering the sight’s eyebox directly to your eye.
This is not the first time I’ve seen this sort of drawstroke. I’ve been in a couple of classes with Eric Dorenbush, where he’s taught drawing the pistol in this way. However, those were rifle and CQB classes where the pistol work was just a 30 minute module to make sure people could safely draw a handgun before moving on to rifle to pistol transition drills, so I didn’t feel like I really had the time to delve in to such a different drawstroke. Now I had a full day of class and the watchful eyes of two excellent instructors to make sure I was executing the technique correctly. It was time to dive in and explore this new technique.
The opportunity to do so started with our very first drill. Of course, as soon as we got to the firing line, it started drizzling (hey, at least the weather’s consistent). Tu had us draw to the high compressed ready, then push out and deliver a single aimed shot. Retract to the high compressed ready and repeat. There was no time limit, but if we were consistently keeping them in the 3” square, he encouraged us to pick up the pace and push it faster.
Continuing the marksmanship focus, we moved on to a “ball and dummy drill.” Rather than using dummy rounds, Tu had another student set our gun up with either a live round or an empty chamber and place the pistol in our holster. Not knowing which of these you have, you draw, press the trigger, and, if it’s an empty chamber, see if you have any trigger jerk. Optimally that front sight will stay rock solid and not move at all as the trigger breaks.
Next, we started upping the speed with a cadence drill. Before the drill, Tu reviewed the grip, since rapid-fire is where the ability of this grip to reduce muzzle flip comes into its own. Similar to the carbine class, we worked cadence drills delivering five shots in a row on a 3” square.
As with the carbine course, a big part of the class was dedicated to a sequence of drills building one step at a time toward multiple target engagement. Tu began by explaining the context and talking about his philosophy of giving everyone an initial round in very rapid succession, then figuring out who’s not dying fast enough and giving them five follow-up shots.
We started with the driving the gun off the target drill. Rather than doing it on paper, we moved back to 20 yards and did the drill on steel for instant feedback (while the targets were bigger, the distance was longer, so it all comes out in the wash). We fired a single shot at the steel targets. The moment the shot broke, we drove the gun off line (towards a notional second target) by driving with our legs and snapping the hips.
Since we were running this on steel rather than having one paper target for each shooter, each student did the drill under the watchful eyes of Tu or Ahmed. As in the rifle class, they provided a lot of good coaching, pick up the flaws in our technique, and correcting them. I had a bit more trouble getting this right with the pistol than I did with the rifle. I think perhaps the rifle provides structure that makes this a little bit easier than with a handgun. Eventually, I got the hang of it, but this is definitely an area where I need a lot of dry practice.
By this time, the weather had improved to the point that I tempted fate by peeling off my Goretex.
Returning to the cadence drill, we shot it again on steel. As Tu says, “Paper keeps you true. Steel keeps you fast.” Because of the instant feedback it provides, the instructors were able to ramp up the pace to push students to their limits. I did pretty well on this one. The time that I’ve put into practicing the locked wrist grip has clearly paid off.
Having done both the cadence and driving the gun off the target drills, it was time to put them together. Two rounds on the first target, followed by two rounds on the second target. Tu and Ahmed would count off 1, 2, 3, 4, and the student was to match their cadence. This required driving the gun between targets in the same amount of time as a repeat shot on the same target. It’s quite the challenge at any speed, but once the student showed they could master the drill at a slower cadence, Tu and Ahmed would ramp up the pace. Eventually, it reached the point where the wheels came off, and the student started missing or breaking the cadence. When that happened, they would slow the pace back down, then begin gradually building it up again.
Tu generally ran students through iterations of this drill until they ran out of ammo. Once someone’s slide locked back and they didn’t have another mag available, he moved on to the next student. For most students, this usually amounted to 3 or 4 mags. I, on the other hand, had brought a bunch of 21 round mags to the class and had done a good job keeping them topped off. Not only was I carrying two in my pistol mag pouches, I’d also stuffed one into each of the two rifle mag pouches and had a couple more in my dump pouch. For this drill, I wanted to get as many reps in as he’d let me, so I did my best to take advantage of all the mags I was carrying. The moment my slide locked back, I did a speed reload and got back to the high compressed ready to show I was up for another run. Since I was the last guy Tu was willing to keep running me for a ton of repetitions. I put 159 rounds down range before he finally called it and told me to holster up (I only had a mag and a half left at that point).
Given Tu’s coaching and his skill at pushing students right up to their limit, every single one of those 159 rounds was worthwhile. He pushed me beyond what I thought was possible. I found that I could drive the gun and hit the second target even when the dot in my pistol optic was visible only as a red smear across the steel. But this was only true if my body mechanics were correct: good stance, solid grip on the gun, and most importantly, snapping my hips towards that second steel. If my mechanics were off, and especially if I drove the gun with my arms or by pivoting at the abdomen, there was no way I’d get good hits at that speed. It seems like snapping the hips not only drives the gun to the second target faster, it also helps stop your swing and get the gun settled on the target more quickly. This was the moment when all these elements that Tu was teaching in this class came together for me.
While that would have been quite the note to end on, we still had a few more drills to go. The next one was even more challenging. Tu said up front, “This is a hard drill.” The goal was to deliver five rounds on each of three targets. Again, we had to match the cadence the instructor called out, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” keeping the same pace when we transitioned between targets as we did with repeat shots on the same target. If you break it down, the elements are no different than the four-round drill we did earlier, but delivering fifteen rounds without breaking the cadence (even during two target to target transitions) requires quite a bit of concentration and a lot of consistency to pull off.
We ran this drill with pairs of students, one shooting left to right and the other shooting right to left. This meant there was not as much opportunity to vary the cadence for the individual student. I did get to do a couple of runs solo after the student I was paired with ran all his mags dry (though not the ridiculous number that Tu allowed me on the previous drill).
For our last drill of the day, we moved back to marksmanship. Ripping off lots of rounds on steel is fun, and, as Tu noted, it builds speed, but speed doesn’t mean anything if you can’t get the hits. Rather than going back shooting squares on paper, Tu kept us on steel and increased the distance. He ran this drill as a bit of a competition. You got one miss. After your second miss, you had to clear your weapon and step out of line. We started at 25 yards and moved back in roughly 12.5-yard increments (25, 37.5, 50, 62.5, 75, 87.5). Most of the students were able to get out to 50 yards or longer before getting their second miss. I managed to get a hit at 75, along with three other students (all of us missed at 87.5). While you could call it a three-way tie, I think the guy who did it shooting irons probably deserves the victory over the pair of us using red dot pistols. He definitely had the bigger challenge shooting at these distances.
That wrapped up the shooting portion of the class. After a class picture, we did a quick debrief. It’s pretty clear that this class (and the carbine class before it) only scratched the surface of what Tu has to offer. During the debrief, I asked about the possibility of a 2 or 3-day class (either carbine or pistol) to delve into his material in more depth. Tu handed out the certificates to students who were there just for the pistol class, and everyone packed up and headed out.
Today was another great class. Tu provided lots of good insights on shooting a pistol quickly and effectively. My takeaways from the pistol class overlapped quite a bit with the carbine, especially in terms of multiple target engagement.
One area where the pistol class took me quite a bit further was on my stance. I’ve been moving towards a more upright stance for a while now, but Tu’s point about keeping the head upright and bringing the pistol up to the eye line was a bit of an epiphany. Similarly, the effect of keeping the shoulders and body relaxed seems even more pronounced with a handgun. Both of these go against some of my ingrained habits, so I foresee a lot of dry practice in my future.
Shooting the cadence drills on steel and having an experienced instructor like Tu or Ahmed set the cadence for each iteration of the drill pushed me faster than I would have on my own.
I can see the potential of incorporating the high compressed ready into the drawstroke. Unlike tweaking my head position or relaxing my shoulders, this is a pretty significant change to a fundamental part of my pistol gunfighting skillset. Adopting it would have a considerable cost both in terms of learning and ingraining the new drawstroke and in maintaining it over time. It would also have significant effects on other parts of my personal fighting system; there are things beyond just my drawstroke that would need to change. I don’t really feel like I’m in a position to decide on this quite yet. I need to get a lot of dry reps to get a real sense of the benefits of this technique before I decide.
The varying skill levels among the students in the class were less of an issue today. Some of this is probably just the nature of the course. There was no zeroing, and more of the drills were done with one student and one instructor, allowing Tu and Ahmed to tailor things to the students’ skill levels. There also may just have been less variance in skill levels with the pistol than there was with the rifle.
Even more so than the carbine course, this was a very fast-paced class. I was glad to have a bunch of mags (even when I wasn’t using all of them on one drill). The PistolLULA magazine loader was a godsend in keeping them topped off. We actually had a slightly longer lunch break today (about 20 minutes), but with the long walk to the car, I was still quite glad I’d brought snack-type food.
The only issues with my pistol were a few instances where I inadvertently pushed up on the slide lock lever and prematurely locked the slide back. I’ve already got a pair of the Kagwerks extended and raised slide releases that Tu mentioned on order. Hopefully, they’ll put this issue to bed once and for all.
Compared to the carbine and pistol classes, this was very light on gear. The course included an aluminum trainer version of the Ronin-Spartan Shinto knife. The only other piece of kit I brought was some clear shooting glasses. Ever since Roger Phillips took a training knife to the eye during a class, I’ve been a strong proponent of eye protection when doing knife training.
The venue for the Streetfighter class was further from my house, and we had a much earlier start time (0730), so I rolled out of bed pretty early on Sunday morning. The course was held in a large classroom (indoors the one day it wasn’t going to rain, naturally).
Tu started by talking about some of his experiences deployed overseas in places that were not exactly active combat zones but were by no means “safe” either. As a Special Forces soldier, he was often embedded with indigenous forces or on low profile missions that involved living among the population, rather than on some isolated base. A trip to the grocery store might involve passing through checkpoints and other dangerous areas where a firearm was not an option. While most of us would not be spending time in dangerous third world countries, we might find ourselves in situations where we have to defend ourselves without a firearm. This class was intended to give us some tools to use in those sorts of situations.
He emphasized the difference between what he’s teaching here and stuff that’s appropriate for the dojo or the ring. These are not techniques that are appropriate for competition or “casual fistfights.” These are intended for use when you’re in fear of death or great bodily injury.
There are two concepts that Tu repeatedly emphasized throughout the class: get to your opponent’s flanks, and the best defense is a good offense. If you’re standing right in front of an adversary, he can hit you with both arms and both legs. We’re potentially on the receiving end of 100% of his offense. If we get off to his right or left side, we’ve taken one of those arms and one of his legs out of play, as well as limiting what he can do with the remaining arms and legs. He can only bring a much smaller percentage of offense into play. Tu emphasized that this is very much a matter of timing and distance: In just a moment and the opponent will reorient and turn towards you. You need to step in close (what to me feels uncomfortably close) and deliver your counterattacks very quickly.
Speaking of counterattacks, we don’t want to stand here and duke it out with a guy. The goal is to finish the fight quickly and decisively. To do that, we can’t just stand here diverting his attacks; we need to go on offense. Tu divides the body up into four quadrants (upper right, upper left, lower right, and lower left). He favors attacking the quadrant that the opponent used to launch an attack. If the opponent throws a right-handed punch, Tu might divert that attacking hit him in that shoulder (or more likely jab him in that eye, but that comes later in the class).
We started with a hubod drill. This is something that Tu was introduced to while he was deployed to Indonesia. In response to a punch (a right-handed punch for this example), you use your left hand to divert the blow. This doesn’t take much; a punch delivers a lot of force, but it’s very weak laterally. Very quickly, the right forearm comes up and replaces the right hand, keeping him from swinging his arm back at you. This frees up your left hand to grab his elbow or bicep, further diverting his arm, clearing the way for your counterattack.
We paired up to practice this. I was paired with a guy who was slightly taller than I am, which is pretty unusual (at 6’5” I don’t run into a lot of guys taller than me).
I’ve done some similar drills in previous knife/empty hand courses with Tom Sotis and Eric Pfleger. That tripped me up a bit in this class. In that training, one of the goals was to use the fact that you’ve gotten to the opponent’s flank and have a brief moment as an opportunity to break contact so you can access a handgun. In the context that Tu’s teaching for you’re going to follow this up with some sort of contact distance attack, either knife or empty hand, meaning you want to stay in close. My habit from previous training was to finish up the drill by giving the opponent a strong shove with the left hand, which was exactly the wrong thing in this context.
In addition to this new context, Tu had some valuable refinements and training tips for the hubod drill. I tended to do this drill with quite a bit of lateral movement in my arms, pushing to the side. Tu explained that you don’t need to shove his arm off that far to the side, just deflect it a bit. Most of the motion of your arms during the first two steps of the drill should be back towards your own body, rather than sideways. He describes your hands as being like water flowing towards you. He also suggested that as you’re learning and practicing this, actually thinking “left, right, left” as you redirect his strike, replace your left hand with your right forearm, and go for his upper arm.
This became particularly important when we started alternating between deflecting to the right and deflecting to the left. Thinking “left, right, left,” and “right, left, right” helped me keep everything straight.
We initially worked these drills stationary, but Tu quickly introduced the element of stepping to the 1 o’clock or 11 o’clock to get to the opponent’s flank. It’s essential to keep to a nice steep angle when you move. Moving laterally to the 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock makes it much easier for the opponent to reorient to your new position. Moving to the 1 or 11 gets you in close on their flank and is both harder to react to and opens up a bunch of options for counterattacking.
Thus far, the drills had focused on diverting the initial attack and getting into a position to counterattack. Now Tu introduced some potential counterattacks we could use, starting with stepping into the opponent and acquiring a neck hold. He emphasized that in real life, you would strike the opponent in the neck, then wrap your arm around him in the hold. For training purposes, though, we needed to do this a bit more gently. Once you have him by the neck, you can take him to the ground. Tu also mentioned a technique for breaking the guy’s neck by sprawling your body out to the rear and driving the adversary to the ground. We wouldn’t be doing either of these things in this class. Tu emphasized doing it slowly and stopping once we had the right arm around the adversary’s neck and the other in the small of his back (a point at which if we kept going, we would tip him over backward and put him on the ground.
One aspect of this that gave me some trouble was the footwork. If you do this right, you move past your opponent and end the technique behind him. Doing this smoothly requires a big step forward with the left foot, then pivoting and throwing your right foot even further back. It’s something that’ll take some practice.
Tu talked a bit about creating the time you need to access a knife or firearm. If you try to draw without creating time first, you’re going to leave a huge opening for your adversary to attack you while you try to get your weapon out. As I mentioned earlier, my previous training focused on creating time to access a weapon by creating distance. In contrast, Tu seems to favor creating that time by counterattacking your adversary.
Along those lines, The next counterattack that he demonstrated was attacking the opponent’s eyes. Rather than the three count “left-right-left” sequence that we’d been practicing so far, he merges the eye jab into the second count. So, divert the attack with the left hand, bring the right arm up to block, then use the right hand to jab over the attacker’s arm at his eyes. Depending on the dynamics, the eye attack can be a straight jab or more of a rake across his eyes. Either way, it’s going to degrade his ability to see you and give you a moment to access a weapon. We practiced eye jabs for a while (while we were going slow and keeping this non-contact, I was still glad to have eye pro).
As most of the attacks we’d concentrated on dealing with in this class were fairly linear (like a jab or cross), a student asked about dealing with haymakers or other more circular attacks. Tu talked some about the difference in angles and how this affects whether you want to follow the force (diverting the attack as we’d been doing with the hubod drills) or meeting the force (blocking the attack). He noted that with a more circular punch like a haymaker, meeting the force is often more appropriate.
With that, we moved on to some knife work. Tu started by talking about how situation influences blade choice. He discussed some of the decisions he made in the two blades he’s designed: the Sakura and the Shinto. The Shinto is intended for both fighting and survival/utility use, while the Sakura is more of a pure fighting knife. I have to say he did a pretty good job selling the Sakura. I’ve been looking for a fixed blade fighting knife to run on my belt rig, and it seems to fit the bill (I have one on order).
He passed out the aluminum Shinto trainers that we’d be using for the knife work and started by demonstrating the saber grip. He generally prefers keeping the thumb tucked down rather than resting it on the back of the blade. He also briefly covered the reverse grip, but for this class, we’d be practicing with the saber grip.
Tu’s system includes eight lines of attack, number 1-8. We started with slashes: 1 and 2 are diagonal strikes from the upper right to lower left and upper left to lower right. 3 and 4 are horizontal slashes. 6 and 7 are diagonals from the lower right to upper left and lower left to upper right. 7 is a downward vertical slash, while 8 is an upward one.
We worked the eight slashes in sequence, without an opponent at first, to get the movements down. Then Tu had us face our training partner and practice the slashes in turn (without making any contact).
Next up was stabbing attacks. These enter along the same eight lines as the slashes, but rather than passing through, they are directed to a specific point. Tu described it as being like a pyramid lying on its side, with the point being our opponent. The stabs follow the edges and faces of the pyramid to the point.
After practicing the stabs for a bit, we combined the concepts into a comma cut: stabbing in, then continuing the movement as we slash our way out of the opponent’s body. Tu emphasized that this shouldn’t be a stab, then a slash. It should be a single fluid movement.
This wrapped things up for the day. Tu handed out certificates to students who were there for just the knife class. Those of us who were there for all three days got to stick around for a bit for something rather more special.
This was a good class. Tu’s comments on the context got me thinking about knife and empty hand work a bit differently.
I’ve done some work with hubod-style diverting attacks before, but this class helped me refine that quite a bit. The simple trick of thinking “left, right, left” as you drill it is helpful keeping it straight while practicing. The other significant insight I took away was that this does not need to involve a lot of movement or force. You’re not trying to shove the opponent’s arms around, just diverting them slightly.
Obviously, “empty hand and knife” is a pretty broad topic (the Full Contact Gunfighter class I took last summer spent the better part of four days on the subject and still just scratched the surface). As with the pistol and carbine classes, Tu has selected a subset of the material that makes as a relatively self-contained block of instruction (hubod, a few follow-up counterattacks, and basic knife slashes and thrusts). Unlike the intermediate level pistol and carbine courses, however, Streetfighter is targeted at the “basic to medium skill level,” meaning not everyone came into the class with the foundational skills or knowledge to put this stuff in context. I think it might have helped to explain to the less experienced students where this stuff fits in a broader, more well-rounded skill set.
Unlike firearms classes, there isn’t the same need to exclude inexperienced students from a course like this for safety reasons. However, creating a class that benefits both the novice and the more experienced martial artist is a difficult challenge for an instructor. There were some pretty serious martial artists in the class (I was definitely in the bottom half of the class when it came to skill level and experience, but there were other students who came in with even less of a background in this than I did). I could see Tu shifting gears a bit between addressing the novices and the folks who came in with higher-level skills.
This may have contributed to the pacing of this class feeling a bit rushed, particularly toward the end. This was a lot of material to fit into a four-hour block, and layering on the wide range of skill levels only adds to the challenge.
After the Streetfighter class finished, everyone who attended all three classes had a chance to sit down individually with Tu Lam. We had a brief conversation about how we’d done in the classes, and Tu presented a Ronin Tactics Sakura challenge coin. This has the Ronin Tactics logo on one side and a cherry blossom symbol on the other. Tu explained a bit about the symbolism of the coin, including the cherry blossom as a symbol of the impermanence of a warrior’s life.
This is physically the most impressive challenge coin I’ve ever handled. It’s big, heavy, and beautifully designed and made. Of course, what makes it truly special is the experience and knowledge that it symbolizes.
Lately, I have been trying to seek out what I describe as “advanced fundamentals” classes: classes that are for the intermediate or advanced student, but which concentrate on further developing the fundamentals rather than focusing on “advanced” skills. They offer the opportunity for the instructor to coach the student and refine all the small but crucial details of their technique. The Ronin Tactics carbine and pistol classes definitely fit the bill. Running so many drills one shooter at a time with great coaching from Tu and Ahmed really helped refine my shooting and push my skills to the next level.
My big takeaways from the Ronin Tactics classes fit into three categories. First, stuff that I was already doing that these classes reinforced. The big one here is the grip. It’s been a long and gradual process, but I’ve recently arrived at a grip very much like the one that Tu Lam teaches. His explanation of it and the way it performed on the drills in this class gives me confidence that I’ve ended up in the right place. Similarly, there are directions I was moving in that this class has inspired me to take further than I would have otherwise, like greater use of the high compressed ready with the carbine.
Second, I picked up quite a few refinements to my technique. The relaxed, upright stance for both pistol and carbine seems to work very well for me. The idea of using a more upright head position for the pistol was a real eye-opener as well. Snapping the gun back to drop the mag during reloads should mean fewer mags getting hung-up and less wasted movement.
Finally, there are some big, new things I learned from this class. Tu’s philosophy on engaging multiple targets has me rethinking how I handle those sorts of situations and what skills I need to do so. That brings us to cadence. The drills we shot in this class and, in particular, how far I was able to push myself under Tu and Ahmed’s coaching have helped me realize there’s another level I can get to in terms of speed and accuracy. The other big thing is the drawstroke incorporating the high compressed ready. This is a significant change, and I’m not quite ready to commit to it yet.