Monthly Archives: July 2012

Nine Lessons Learned During My First Adventure Race

I recently competed, along with a superb teammate, in the Competition Dynamics 24 Hour Sniper Adventure Challenge. The event consisted of hiking 30 miles over mountainous high desert terrain in a period which was roughly 24 hours long – my team took 27. Total elevation gain along the route was approximately 10,000 feet, and a number of intense physical challenges were placed before the contestants as they hit various checkpoints. In addition, as the name implies, there was some shooting involved.

A view from approximately 7000ft MSL of the terrain encountered during the race.

It was a hard day and I had not slept very well the night before, nor had I really eaten very well before the course began. I learned a few hard lessons, some of which I will share here.

Lesson #1 – Know Yourself

It is inadvisable to enter an adventure race without knowing what your limits, skills, and capabilities are. The only way to find out these things is to get out and test yourself. A number of the individuals who attempted 24HSAC were out of shape, and a few were medically obese. One team appeared to quit/drop out of the race within 50 yards of the starting line. The course description was very clear, and why out-of-shape people thought they could safely participate is beyond me.

I won’t say that pushing yourself the way I do is a good idea – the things I do are actually not very smart at all – but they have helped me learn my limits.

Prior to this event, I have undertaken hikes, runs, and walks in remote areas involving difficult terrain and a lack of food, water, or sleep. None were as difficult as 24HSAC, but I have gone 48+ hours without food while walking 20 miles per day at sea level with a 25lb backpack, gone 12+ hours without water or other fluids while walking over 12 miles through soft sand in 95-100 degree temperatures, and covered long distances with large amounts of gear – 15 miles at altitude while wearing full body armor (soft armor and plates) and carrying a 50lb pack.

I have come so close to the failure point of my mind and my body during these “walks” that I know exactly what I am capable of. Near the end of the 24HSAC course, a staff member asked me if I was okay, because I apparently didn’t look so great. I replied that I was, because I knew exactly how far I was from mental and/or physical collapse at that point.

Lesson #2 – Know Your Equipment

For all the time I have just spent talking about how well I know myself and how much I have pushed myself, the main equipment choice I made for 24HSAC was pretty foolish. I bought a new rifle and hurriedly zeroed it the morning before the event. I had never fired it past 50 yards and didn’t even know the exact muzzle velocity of the ammo I was using (acquired at the last minute thanks to the guys at TheGunVault) from my rifle. As a result, all of the holdover decisions I made were theoretical.

Accurate rifle, outstanding optic. But without sufficient experience with them as a system, I might as well have been carrying a 10lb log. Yes, I did ensure that the bore was clear before shooting.

Not surprisingly, I did not do well at all on the rifle shooting portions of the course. I missed the vast majority of the targets – often only by a foot or two at 600-800+ yards, but a miss is a miss. I can’t really say anything more about this: know what your equipment is, what it does in certain situations, and what you can do with it. In contrast, the pistol I carried was my usual Glock 19, which I have shot tons of ammo through at various distances and from various positions. We had the third fastest time to clean the pistol only stage.

Lesson #3 – Hydrate Or Die

This seems really obvious. Heck, maybe the other two points I’ve made here seem really obvious as well. But if I heard correctly, the medical support team for 24HSAC went through three to five cases of IV bags during the event. There were numerous heat casualties who were apparently not getting enough fluids. Water was supplied at numerous points along the course, and all competitors were required to bring electrolyte replacement tablets or powder from the start.

Here I am relaxing at a water station (background) during the route. I replenished my water supply (camelbak, foreground) as often as I could.

As with the second point, there’s not much to say here. Learn to recognize the signs of dehydration and stay well ahead of that point. Bring enough water and do not hesitate to drink it. Clean drinking water is the most valuable thing you can have when you are in a remote area and your life is at stake.

Lesson #4 – Take Care Of Your Feet

In an adventure race, you’re probably going to be spending a lot of time on your feet. If you’re not wearing the right shoes/boots or you’re allowing your feet to stay wet for too long, your ability to keep going will be severely limited. You should wear shoes or boots that are in good condition – not worn out, but not brand new and unknown to your feet. And you should regularly change your socks. I changed socks four times in 27 hours – each time, the new, clean, soft pair made me feel a little better, and helped me go farther.

Comparing blisters with a friend while enjoying post-race pizza.

The shoes I wore during the event were Skechers Olympias Trekkers. I bought them about a week prior and spent a good bit of time hiking up and down hills in Seattle with them. I didn’t see any blisters at that time, and decided that they would be suitable for use during 24HSAC.

Only a few tiny blisters showed up on my feet, and those appeared at the very end of the event. Some other people weren’t as lucky. Keep in mind that the fit of a shoe to your foot is just as important, if not more, than the features of the shoe itself.

Lesson #5 – Have A Good Partner

I can’t say that this goes for all adventure races, since I’ve only been in one. However, I can say that getting along with your teammate, if it is a team event, is absolutely critical. In addition, you need a partner that makes up for your deficiencies, and whom you can support in other ways.

My teammate and I at the finish line.

My teammate/spotter for this event was Paul, an outstanding individual who is a fellow Eagle Scout and genuine outdoorsman. He’s in outstanding shape and definitely motivated me to keep going throughout the event – not verbally, but simply by setting the example and keeping up a good pace that I was able to follow…for the most part.

He’s also a really smart guy, but he got a little frustrated during one of the challenges of the event, which involved decoding a message from a book using a series of numbers. We had been awake for 30+ hours at that point, were exhausted, and not really able to think clearly. However, I was able to recognize the code immediately and we were one of six teams (out of 35) that got a perfect score on that event.

Lesson #6 – Suffering Is Inevitable, So Ignore It

The race began with every team filling a duffel bag with 100lbs of rocks and carrying it for an unknown distance – it ended up being three miles – using one or two 2x4s. This was not an easy task. In fact, it just plain sucked. At least one team, as mentioned above, quit early during this challenge. Some others elected to drop the rocks for a huge loss of points which essentially made it impossible for them to win the race.

These events are not easy. You will encounter pain, hunger, discomfort, exhaustion, and a number of other unpleasant factors. If you focus on them, you will start circling the drain and might quit early. Of the thirty-five teams that started the event, only 24 crossed the finish line in one form or another; of those, only 7 actually completed the entire race and didn’t turn back early. We certainly encountered unpleasantness, but did not allow this to stop us from hitting every checkpoint and finishing third in the race.

My teammate learns just how uncomfortable I was during the low crawl portion of the event.

This is the most mental lesson I will list – I cannot simply tell you to suck it up. You must be willing to suck it up on your own. If you don’t think you are mentally tough enough to keep going when the true unpleasantness begins, you should avoid entering these types of races until you have built up the requisite toughness.

One thing you might try Рand this will sound a bit clich̩, but oh well Рis to enjoy the view. Most adventure races take place in attractive locations, and if you can get your mind off the major suckage you are facing at any given time, you might be able to go farther than you think.

I also had a Taylor Swift song stuck in my head for about nine hours. It was annoying, but a welcome distraction.

Lesson #7 – Pack Light

Many competitors brought far too much gear. A number of teams brought over 60lbs of gear, plus rifles! My backpack (with water and ammo) weighed 19lbs and my rifle weighed almost exactly 10lbs. I also had a Glock 19 in a Praetor Defense holster on my waist, a Surefire E1B and a Benchmade Griptilian clipped to my pockets, a Casio Pathfinder watch, and a Canon S95 in an arm pocket. That’s all I brought.

When you're hiking at over 7000ft, you will regret every ounce of unnecessary weight.

Even though some of the other competitors were in better physical shape than I, they were unable to go uphill or downhill as fast as we were, and many ended up skipping stages (which cost them a lot of points) or turning back early due to the tons of gear they were carrying.

This difference was in fact huge – we were the second to last team to leave the starting point, but the third team to reach the second checkpoint. That first “hill” was a real challenge.

This is a lesson I have learned the hard way in the past, and is a mistake I wasn’t about to repeat. I brought little more than what was on the required gear list for the event. I would strongly advise that you carefully consider everything you want to bring with you on an event like this. I took a serious look at everything I wanted to bring and honestly made decisions based on 2-3 ounce differences in weight.

Even the weight of your pack matters. I have a lot of packs, and they are all good for different things. My Gregory G pack is superlight and nice for short day trips. The North Face backpacks I have are pretty rugged, but look like school backpacks and don’t stand out much in urban environments like those I’ve encountered in Europe and North Africa. My Kelty MAP 3500 can hold a good amount of weight and distribute it properly – it’s seen use in North and South America, as well as Asia. And my HSGI TRASH pack – well, it weighs 12lbs or so empty, so I only take it when I really, really need to carry a LOT of weight.

Lesson #8 – Quality Gear Is Nice To Have

I took a lot of name-brand gear with me on the race. Most of it was purchased, some of it was loaned, and some was given to me. Most of this stuff was pretty expensive. For example, I bought a Leica CRF1600 rangefinder specifically for use during this event, and found it to be an outstanding and accurate product. I was loaned a USO scope, dropped it in the dirt a dozen times, and never saw any real signs of damage.

Could I have cut myself free from the tree I was duct taped to during the E&E phase with a cheaper knife? Sure, but I like my Benchmades, and the one I brought has served me well in extremely harsh places for a long time. That’s what you pay for with expensive gear sometimes – not just initial quality, but quality that lasts.

Here I am relaxing in my expensive Arc'teryx attire.

I was also given about $700 worth of Arc’teryx LEAF clothing for use during the event. I was initially skeptical of the items simply based on cost and made some related Facebook comments which upset some people, but which the Arc’teryx reps I showed them to found quite funny. They then proceeded to give my teammate and I a solid breakdown of what makes Arc’teryx gear expensive. We were impressed – not only with this breakdown and their knowledge of the gear, but the performance of the clothing during the event. I feel that this gear/clothing deserves a separate article, but for now I think that it is sufficient for me to say that I could actually see myself spending money on this clothing if I intended to use it in a harsh environment.

Lesson #9 – When You’re Done, Relax And Enjoy Life

It was really nice to finish this trip and be done with everything. Really, really nice. But what it gave me – and what many of my other trips give me – is an appreciation for life. From hanging out and eating pizza with my friends Jim and John (the other Deliberate Dynamics/Arc’teryx LEAF sponsored team) after the race to the flight back with my teammate and friend Paul, I just don’t take things for granted after something like 24HSAC.

Some of the scenery I enjoyed while flying home in the 182.

 

I will definitely be looking to participate in similar events, and I think Paul will be, too. For all the pain and suffering that we encountered, the event was truly rewarding.

West Coast Armory & A Very Brief Evaluation of the Caracal F

I’ve spent some time hanging out at West Coast Armory with a friend recently, and the (very polite) staff has inexplicably given me access to the whole facility, including their multiple indoor ranges and open bays for “action” shooting. I began comparing WCA to Scottsdale Gun Club as soon as I arrived. SGC has a wider firearm selection – both rental and sales – but I was treated with respect at WCA, whereas at Scottsdale Gun Club, I’m almost always ignored or treated as if I don’t know anything about guns.

It’s worth noting that a number of WCA employees recognized me, but even those who did not were polite and helpful to me as they seemingly would be to any customer. And although WCA’s rental selection is smaller, they still have a ton of stuff available. The only negative thing I can think of to say about WCA at the moment is that several of their rental firearms were in dire need of basic maintenance and parts replacement. I pointed out the issues I saw to range staff.

One of the firearms available for rent was the Caracal F, which I had been meaning to examine for a while, and therefore found its availability convenient.

This is not what I would consider to be a review of the firearm. I didn’t put a ton of ammo through the Caracal or spend a lot of time with it, and therefore I can’t make any definitive conclusions or recommendations. However, I do have some kinda okay photos thanks to my good buddy Roy of Weapon Outfitters allowing me to use his lighting setup.

I will be able to show and discuss some of the features of the weapon, although many of you may have read similar comments elsewhere – for I am a bit late to this particular party. I’ll also discuss how it shoots – that part is at the end, if you want to skip ahead.

The Caracal F is a full size, polymer frame handgun in 9mm. It’s decently attractive, I guess, as handguns go – although I like Glocks, and they’re uglier than anything, ever. If you didn’t already know, the Caracal is made in one of the more affluent of the seven United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi. Dubai has a big shiny tower, but Abu Dhabi has its own handgun – so that’s pretty cool.

It has a lot of markings on the slide and a good number on the frame, but they aren’t too obnoxious. They’re also nicely done, unlike the crooked laser engraving on the slide of the M&P9 Compact I recently acquired.

The sights are interesting – the front is in a dovetail, but the rear sight is integrated into the “firing pin unit,” as the Caracal manual calls it. Two dots, one above the other. I didn’t notice them when shooting and simply kept the front where it should be in relation to the rear.

The mag catch is ambidextrous, but the slide release (yes, I call it a slide release) is only on the left side of the pistol. It’s small and a bit farther back than, say, a Glock, and I didn’t find it terribly easy to release with the index finger of the left hand. With my right thumb, it worked just fine.

The slide itself is pretty short, rounded and smooth, which wouldn’t seem to lend itself well to manipulating the pistol with sweaty hands. That said, the surface area available for gripping is, in my opinion after briefly handling the weapon in a range environment, more than adequate, and the rounded design might actually be better than a relatively short, angled slide.

Back to the sights for a minute – the rear sight continues the curve started by the slide, and once you put the front sight in the right spot, it sort of completes a nifty rounded circle thingy, as viewed directly from the rear (naturally, I chose to make this point while showing you an angled shot from the muzzle end). I don’t know for sure if this would aid in a rapid alignment of the sights under stress, but it seemed to make sense.

The magazine holds 18 rounds, and the opening for the mag catch has a little tab which sticks out prominently and sharply enough that you can easily feel which side needs to be pointing forward, even without rounds in the mag.

The pistol comes apart quite like a Glock. I didn’t spend too much time messing with the internals. The range staff informed me that it had seen perhaps 5000 rounds without any major complaints from customers to speak of, but this does not mean 5000 malfunction-free rounds. Still, it does not seem to have fallen apart in that time.

This review is a bit backwards chronologically, as I shot it before I took photos of it. But I didn’t bring my K-01 with me into the range – just my iPhone – so the image quality will suddenly decline here…

I fired the pistol at 7, 10, and 25 yards, both slow fire and with speed in mind. I also shot weak hand and strong hand. I’ve heard the pistol described as having a low bore axis and stuff – whatever. I have never spent much time thinking about bore axis.

The Caracal F shoots well. It is easy to control and easy to get back on target with. In the above photo, the four groups are, counter-clockwise from bottom left, my first five shots from the pistol (which were fired using both hands), then strong hand, weak hand, and finally, top left, five more shots offhand. All shots were taken at 10 yards.

I don’t have any other target photos, but it was incredibly easy to keep all shots in a small area when shooting rapidly, and accuracy at 25 yards was good as well.

Perhaps I will have more time with a Caracal pistol in the future – for now, my interest has been piqued.

BUIS/Optic Drop Test

In early May, I performed a BUIS drop test which was partially published on Military.com’s KitUp blog several days ago.

The unpublished portion involved an EOTech 552 and an Aimpoint CompM3. The EOTech used the standard thumbscrew mount, and the Aimpoint was in a GDI CMC7-OSM mount.

To be fair, my EOTech 552 has seen better days.

POI shifted 12MOA to the right with the EOTech, POI shift was 1MOA or less with the Aimpoint.

Aimpoint CompM3 in GDI mount. The Aimpoint wasn't exactly new either.

One thing I did not mention in the post which was sent to KitUp (due to word count limitations) was that after dropping the MBUS twice, I picked the rifle up, held it over my head like the maul I used to split seasons’ worth of firewood while growing up in Alaska, and swung it down on a concrete shooting table, with the MBUS taking all of the impact. It did not break or shift POI by anything more than 1MOA.

My opinion of the MBUS went from “cool airsoft gear bro” to “wow.”

For the record, the only pieces of gear used in this test which were not provided to me for free by a manufacturer or dealer were the MBUS, EOTech, and Aimpoint. The Diamondhead, Troy, and GDI Aimpoint mount were provided by Rainier Arms, Spike’s Tactical, and GDI, respectively.

Magpul MBUS after being dropped (while attached to a rifle) twice and swung onto a concrete surface with force.

Are You Shooting Too Much?

I shoot a lot – probably too much at times. This shooting includes various disciplines, from smallbore rifle shooting to service pistol and carbine training to hunting – mostly unicorns and kittens.

My first exposure to high volume training was under the guidance of a USMC SNCO who had just come from SOTG. For those who were lost at USMC, this means that my platoon leader was an experienced sergeant – not a commissioned officer – who had recently been an instructor at the Marine Corps’ Special Operations Training Group, which is both cooler and not nearly as cool as it sounds. We shot a lot, to the point that I would run and hide whenever the subject of “going to the range” was brought up. I don’t know exactly how much we shot, but I think the first day was over 1000 rounds through the M4, and some pistol as well.

This was so much fun!

Since that time, I have had many, many days (and nights) during which I have fired more than 1000 rounds. I have noticed that on days when I shoot more than 500 rounds – give or take – my performance starts to decline, both in terms of speed and accuracy, and I see little point to continuing to dump rounds into the dirt if I’m not accomplishing anything. Other days, it’s 20-60 shots of slow fire rifle, and I’m done (for the last year or so, the bulk of my range trips have been work related – once that work is done, I have little appetite to stick around and “play”).

There can be real value in high volume carbine/pistol/shotgun shooting over a short period of time, but too often it is done with the objective of a certain round count in mind, not the attainment of any particular goal or mastery of any particular skill. This goes for both shooting as an individual and shooting in organized classes.

Here is a photograph of me shooting a gun.

I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the few times when I have taken very big steps forward as a shooter, none have resulted from hurriedly loading magazines, running to the line, shooting a lot, then running back to load mags again. They’ve all come as a result of good instruction/observation/feedback, either watching myself on high speed video, or with a good instructor, with a certain – limited – amount of shooting after the “epiphany” to drive the point home.

On a slightly related note, the concept of the “DumpEx” – when military personnel go cyclic to get rid of excess ammunition after training – is incredibly stupid. They then deploy with (and, as a result, entrust their lives to) those same weapons that they abused. It would be the equivalent of a race car driver lapping the track after a race at redline in first gear, just so he wouldn’t have to account for any extra gasoline after the race.

I guess what I’m getting at is that you should think long and hard about how your skills have progressed on high round count days in the past before you decide to shoot 1000-1500 rounds of 5.56 or 9mm in a day. Is this the best way to spend your money and time? Is the accelerated wear on your weapon(s) from maintaining high component temperatures worth it?

In many situations, I would say that the answer is no.

As with a previous article on training, I sent this to Mike Pannone for his thoughts. Here is what he had to say:

I love to shoot and it is a rare day I don’t feel like going to the range so for me the overtraining obsession was a problem. I’ve seen that for years and still do, sometimes by well-known units, departments and civilian trainers and it comes from a lack of understanding of performance management and sports psychology. I over trained on the range in the Corps and the Army at times until I took the time to properly educated myself via inquiry. While in JSOC I was fortunate to train under and shoot with some of the best soldiers I have known and the biggest names in action shooting. When given the opportunity I asked each of them how much do you shoot each session and the two most influential sport shooters on me, Rob Leatham and Mike Voigt, said about the same thing. To paraphrase it was “until my performance peaks.” When I pressed further with an extremely competent unit member who was also a very accomplished IPSC and 3-gunner, he said it was all about setting training objectives prior and then it sunk in. In the military we did that in everything else but shooting at an individual level I didn’t.  

For instance, when I go to the range on a bull’s-eye pistol day I will decide on a course of fire or training regimen, allocate a certain number of rounds and a desired training objective and stick to it. I will record my times and scores most of the time to track performance. If I am shooting the 25 yard B8 target for slow fire score I will allocate 50 rounds to the session. My goal is a perfect score of 100 and if I shoot that in 10 rounds then I clear my gun, bag it and go home. Conversely if I don’t shoot it in all 50 rounds and 5 strings, I again clear it, bag it and go home. I’ve found that my scores have gone up, my ammunition consumption has gone down tremendously, I feel more confident in my on demand skills and I have a lot more time in my day to do other things. If I am doing training on paper, I tape targets religiously which does two things: shows me where my shots went (obvious) and slows down my training pace (more subtle benefit). On days I shoot steel I will only load a certain number of magazines beforehand to keep me from shooting too much too fast and getting sloppy and worst of all reinforcing sloppy. I will also repaint often for the same reasons I tape paper targets.

Consistently go to the range with a plan, shoot to the training objective or plan and then call it a day. Once you make that a habit you’ll get better and spend less time and money.

Mike Pannone shooting small targets with a Marvel kit on his 1911.

Focusing On Your Weak Points

It’s easy to fall into a rut in any sort of activity – a comfortable place where you only practice the things you’re good at, and therefore think you’re good at the activity as a whole. This could apply to shooting, driving, flying, running, waterskiing, etc. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss.

I was shooting with Mike Pannone a week or so back and shot a new drill he is working on which forces the shooter to do things he or she normally wouldn’t do (for practice purposes) at various yard lines and within certain time limitations – I will let him come forth with the details, but the way he has structured it made a lot of sense to me. It pushes the shooter out of his comfort zone.

This made me think about how earlier this year, I decided to focus on one area I thought I had ignored for too long – bullseye shooting – and spent quite a lot of time improving my skills in this area. In fact, “fixing my failings” is something I’ve tried to do for a very long time. Not only have I chosen to try to build skills across various disciplines – mastering none but become decent at many – I try to focus on improving whatever subsets of skills in which I find myself to be weak.

I'm still working on my "human torpedo" abilities.

When I first started driving, I thought I was Petter Solberg. Heck, a movie producer paid me to drive him around in a Bentley. Did it go to my head? Kinda. However, after spinning out various V8 and turbo V6 cars on paved roads which had small amounts of dirt strewn across the surface, I knew I needed to improve not only my ability to control a vehicle in these circumstances, but learn to recognize the signs the car was giving me in the fractions of a second before the car swapped ends.

Long hours spent practicing car control on desolate roads – as well as professional instruction at schools like Bondurant – have paid off, such as when I had a blowout in my Mini at 110mph, when I’ve had the opportunity to do fun things like push a Z06 Corvette to its absolute limits in Italy, or every time I drive my 450hp, 2800lb classic Mustang, which I built with my dad from the bottom up, in the rain. Even so, I still know that I’m not perfect – the first time I tried to spin the Z06 around a cone with the stability control/traction control off, I just managed to make a lot of smoke and spin the car around in no particular pattern.

One of the next “weak areas” I’ve identified as far as driving goes is fine-tuning braking before a corner to manage weight transfer (as appropriate for the corner). I’ve plenty of room for improvement as a driver, but this is what I’m focusing on next.

Failure has never looked so impressive.

Flying is something else I spend a good bit of time doing. I learned to fly on floats in Alaska, and flying on floats is quite different than flying on wheels. One thing that’s notably different is dealing with a crosswind – when you’re on the water, as long as you’re not forced to land in one particular direction for some other reason, you can just line up into the wind (looking for the crests of the waves to tell you this) and land.

On wheels, you’re probably going to land on a runway, and while many airports have multiple runways for you to choose from, others only give you one. Depending on how strong the wind is, you might not be able to effectively control the aircraft and land – but at points below that limit, it’s possible to use various techniques to land safely. Dealing with crosswinds was something that I didn’t pick up overnight and still haven’t fully mastered – but when the winds pick up around here, rather than saying “nah, it’s too windy to fly,” I say “Hey, this looks like a good time to practice landing in a crosswind.”  Similar to driving a car at its limits, learning to feel what the airplane is communicating to the pilot is vital to, well, not dying in a fiery crash.

My next hurdle, flying-skill-wise, is getting better at short field landings, especially when dealing with updrafts and downdrafts due to terrain. I know I can make great short field landings, because I’ve done them – but I can’t do it as consistently as I’d like.

Landing (or taking off, in this case) in a crosswind is like drifting in midair. Fun.

The reason why I bring in driving and flying is simple – while this is a firearm-focused blog, I want my readers to identify whatever skills might be critical to their daily lives – whether they have to do with shooting or not. If you’re a police officer and you’re a good shooter, but your “subduing a resisting suspect” skills are lacking, polish them up before some bath salt-enraged dude takes you down and eats your face. If you’re a Border Patrol agent working alone in the desert and you can’t read sign to save your life, focus on that.

I can’t tell you what you’re not good at, but chances are that you know better than anyone. Take some time to identify and work on these issues. Even if you’re really good at something, chances are that you’ve got a few weak points.

After much concentration, study, and practice, I have truly mastered the art of eating real gelato (while wearing sunglasses indoors).

 

Training with Military vs. Competition Shooters

This is a topic I have been thinking about for a long time, yet upon which I have not really spoken to anyone except for a few close friends.

I have heard (and read) back and forth discussions about whether it is better to pay for training from a former military or law enforcement shooter – say, someone who spent a long time in a special operations unit of some kind – or from a shooter who has won multiple national titles in something like NRA Action Pistol/Steel Challenge/USPSA/IDPA/IPSC etc. Of course, I can only offer my opinion, and the truth may lie elsewhere – but here goes.

When you pay to take a shooting course, you are primarily paying for someone to teach you how to shoot a pistol (rifle, shotgun, slingshot, whatever), and not much more than that. Some of the most important skills that relate to surviving armed confrontations are not sexy and most people would never actually pay to learn them. They’re gained through experience and are much harder to learn in a two day course…but I digress.

The best competition shooters – like Rob Leatham and Dave Sevigny - are highly sought after by military special operations units, the personnel of which want to learn how the best and fastest shooters in the world do what they do. They aren’t asking Dave Sevigny to teach them how to locate and close with the bad guys – they need to get better at the part where they destroy the enemy. And so the military values very highly the time of these men.

People attend shooting courses for different reasons - but what they are primarily there to learn is how to improve their shooting skills - and not much more than that.

Some folks have told me that they will only ever train with instructors that have been in combat or have “seen the elephant” – I’m pretty sure that Rob Leatham has been to the zoo at least once in his life. The problem with this “combat or nothing” mindset is that some people who have been in combat might not be a good enough instructor to teach you much of what they learned, or they might be interested in talking more about combat and gunfights than actually teaching you important things, or they might tangentially mention combat situations in order to impress you when they really haven’t been there and done that.

I was high pistol shooter in a class (In fact, I’m pretty sure that I outshot the instructor too) taught by a guy who spent a lot of time telling war stories and claimed to have been shot numerous times in multiple shootouts, including once in the face. My first thought was that if he kept getting shot in gunfights, like half a dozen times, he must not be very good at gunfighting, or maybe he was a slow learner. My second thought was that he hadn’t actually been shot in the face, as far as I could tell with my limited medical knowledge, which has involved looking at people who got shot in the face.

Although not in the same vein, I really don’t like what is said at 1:45ish of this video - I’m not going to a shooting class to hear about how to “step over my dead buddy’s body.” I’m there to learn how to be a better shooter, plain and simple. Whether that instructor has actually stepped over any dead buddies is almost irrelevant – it’s just not something a class full of civilians needs to hear about for any reason other than to impress them.

"Not sure about you, instructor dude, but I spent most of my time in Iraq sleeping or handing out candy to children."

Military units have turned out people – who have been in combat – capable of teaching other people how to shoot very well, and so has the pressure of competition shooting. You’re free to spend your money however you want, but don’t discard an instructor just because he or she hasn’t actually been in combat. Similarly, I wouldn’t ignore someone just because he spent his peak physical years jumping out of airplanes and strangling bad guys with their own intestines instead of winning trophies and sponsorships.

After writing this article, I asked Mike Pannone for his thoughts. Here is what he had to say:

As an instructor with some decent real world experience I am loath to talk about it in any detail because it usually does one of two things:

  • Makes you look like a braggart
  • Alienates those students with lesser experiences

The goal of an instructor is to either teach new skills or enhance existing ones. There is much to be learned from sport shooters about how to shoot fast and accurate but it stops there for them. The application of those skills in a combative environment is best taught by those instructors with the appropriate formal training, experience and temperament to articulate the application of the skills or the areas where they do not apply and why. Just because you’ve been in combat of one sort or another doesn’t mean you are a superhero and have all the answers and wisdom. Hell, it doesn’t even mean you were any good…it just means you were there.

Being a soldier or cop who was in bad or multiple shootouts and survived doesn’t make you a great soldier or cop. Conversely, just because you haven’t been in some sort of mortal combat doesn’t mean you are not prepared and capable more than most. I have seen many who have been in multiple engagements in Iraq who survived and were completely incompetent still. I have also seen and trained some that I would hate to be on the other side of a gun from yet they have never seen a shot fired in anger.

Guidance for SOF type instructors:

  • Stop trying to sell “who you were in another life” that’s for the bio page on your website and the bar at Chili’s, not the range.  
  • Experience doesn’t remove the requirement of being able to articulate and demonstrate shooting techniques at a high level of proficiency.  
  • Use your experience to show how it applies to a combative environment with minimal “no shit, there I was” stories

Guidance for sport type instructors:

  • Stop trying to wow students with circus trick show demonstrations…everybody came there because you are an accomplished shooter.
  • All the shooting competitions in the world are not the same as dedicated training for combat and combat experience so don’t talk it as though “you were there”
  • Don’t teach a class with a $3k sport gun to a bunch of people with Bushmaster or DPMS stock guns with stock triggers or box stock pistols. It gives the student an easy out and makes you look like you’re “cheating” i.e. “if I had a $2500 JP gun or custom Wilson 1911 I’d be able to do that too.” Shoot a weapon as comparable to theirs as you can. Emphasize what can be done with their gun not what you can do with yours.

Mike Pannone shooting a BCM 14.5" M4.

Final thought; the fortitude and personal courage necessary to face the dangers of life and combat are no different. They come from within and all the “pep-talks” in the world won’t be of use unless you have sat down and thought it through. Decisions of consequence are rarely made correctly on the spot. They are the culmination of training and decisions made long ago.

NO instructor can teach you that. You have to go to scary places in your mind’s eye and find it yourself. Everyone should stay away from the “touch the magic, I’m going to turn you into a killer-commando in 2 days” crap and just stick to shooting. 

My mantra: “Good luck is for novices, bad luck is for everyone. Bank on skill, at least you control it.”