AAR: Tactical Response Fighting Pistol and Fighting Rifle

This AAR is probably more tailored towards an audience that is already somewhat more "experienced" in defensive use of firearms or at least in some "advanced" firearms training. If I use terminology here that you are not familiar with, don't be a goof... ask me what I mean and I will be happy to give you some more detail in one-on-one conversation.

Thunder Ranch is a world-class training facility in southern Oregon owned and operated by Clint and Heidi Smith. I've attended a number of their classes over the past five years and the training there is always fundamentally solid, no-nonsense and LOGICal. I recommend it most highly to anyone serious about firearms training. That said, I have to admit, that when Heidi invited me to attend four days of training under the tutelage of James Yeager, self-admittedly "the most controversial" firearms instructor in the industry, it inspired my curiosity and seemed a bit of a non-sequitur, like opposites attracting. Yeager has more than his share of "haters," (he would say: "more people hate me than even know who you are..." ) but I have never been one to go with the crowd or believe the critics, I would rather make up my own mind about someone as an instructor or as a person, and I will shamelessly take any opportunity to enjoy Clint and Heidi's company and hospitality, so I gladly accepted and signed up. Ok, that's enough backstory.

Day 1, Fighting Pistol: Class started with a lecture, primarily on mindset and technique. If you want more details than that, go take the class. All I can say is that it was obvious that Mr. Yeager has done his homework and spent just a little time thinking about this. He covered all the critical concepts in sufficient detail and he gave credit where credit was due, so far, so good.

After the lecture, we assembled at the range with firearms holstered and loaded magazines ready to shoot. Class began with proper draw-stroke. The technique Yeager advocates is drawing the firearm straight up to a retention position high up on the pectoral and tight in, which also happens to be the draw-stroke I advocate and teach (at least ever since I attended TDI's Extreme Close Quarters class). After some step-by-step practice with draw-stroke, we moved into drawing while moving and issuing verbal compliance, then of course firing. Like most classes at this level, it was actually less about shooting and more about what I typically call "mechanics," that is, the physical handling and manipulations of the firearm and your presence in the situation. This is appropriate, as marksmanship is not really most people's problem, especially not at the distances typically experienced in encounters at defensive or pistol distances. There were a few new ways of doing things, well, new to me anyway, such as the way Yeager advocates performing the 360-degree check. Typically, after firing, I have been taught to bring the pistol back to a chest-ready retention position and scan by tucking the chin downward and turning the head slightly to look over the shoulder to the left and right while keeping the muzzle pointed at the last known "threat." The technique we performed was to bring the firearm up, muzzle pointed up above the head, then turning a full 360-degrees with your feet to scan all the way around, followed by a tactical reload. At this point I should state that no one should actually try what I'm describing here based just on this description because there is a safe way to do it that I am not able to describe adequately in the context of this AAR. If you want more information, contact me, or better yet, take Yeager's pistol class.

I don't know that I can argue for or against the merits of one scanning technique over the other... I think it's important to know both, because application of skills is situational. I know, I know... under stress the pre-frontal cortex shuts off and we become ignorant cavement, so we should only train one set of gross motor skills movements that we perform automatically in all situations because of Hick's law and the more methods we have to solve our problems the more we will delay thinking about which tool to use under stress, etc...etc... I still think you need to know and practice multiple ways to solve your problems.

One other key difference in technique is during magazine changes. Tactical Response's (Yeager's) doctrine regarding magazine changes is that the old magazine remain in the firearm while retrieving the new magazine, whether it is a tactical or an emergency reload. Once the fresh magazine is on its way to the firearm, THEN the old magazine gets ejected to the ground (whether partial or empty) and the new one inserted. If the magazine still has ammo in it, it is retrieved after ejecting by keeping the muzzle toward the threat and kneeling to pick up objects. Considering that one should only be performing a "tactical" reload if there is time, opportunity or cover this is a viable skill in my opinion. This differs from, for example, TDI doctrine, which (if I understand correctly) is to eject the old magazine and strip it clear of the firearm first, stowing it if necessary, then retrieving the fresh magazine and inserting it in the firearm. Seeing as I have a lot of practice in it this way, it was difficult at first to remember to do it the way I was being instructed for this class, but I did make the effort. After all, when you attend a class, you aren't there to show the instructor what a bad-ass you are, you are there to learn a new or different way of doing things to see if it makes sense to you. After two days of class, the new set of movements did start making sense and after the first one or two times, I didn't have any issues like trying to insert a magazine into a full magazine well, I did, however, catch myself looking at the gun more while doing it this way, so... there's a training scar. One last word on this, a lot of people have the tendency, when the firearm jams, to eject the magazine the moment a tap-rack doesn't work. If you eject the mag to the ground and you don't have a fresh magazine to replace it, now you are fumbling around on the ground for the magazine you just dropped and maybe that magazine was damaged, disabled or fell into a sewer grate when it hit the ground. One advantage of retrieving the new magazine prior to ejecting the old one is that you know you have something to shove in the gun before you eject the old one.

Day 2, Fighting Pistol: More lecture on mindset and particularly on the aftermath of being involved in a shooting or gunfight. This was unique because Yeager actually went into more detail about dealing with the emotional aftermath such as PTSD. I think this is important because it is a common malady to those who carry firearms or who fantasize about using a firearm defensively to think they will become John Wayne afterwards and brush it all off with a stoic witicism like "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." Just ain't so. Unless you are a sociopath, you will have some emotional reaction. If you can't handle the stress of the situation and become substance dependent or suicidal... you lost the gunfight, you just didn't know it yet. I think that many people incorrectly view firearms and "fighting" instructors, (particularly Yeager) as very visceral (which may be true), but not terribly intellectual (which is not true at all.) All of the best instructors I've encountered, Yeager included, have been warrior poets.

Oh yeah, and as always, my Walther got shit-talked. Say what you want, that gun did no worse, and maybe better than all of the Glocks, etc... that were there, a few ammunition problems notwithstanding. (Remember that Thunder Ranch is a lead-free range and frangible ammunition can be finicky, particularly when you get a bad lot. The only thing I will concede is that I have an AS trigger in my Walther, which is more or less a traditional double/single action trigger. My next handgun will be a quick action or double action only (glock style) trigger.

Day 3, Fighting Rifle: The mindset of the rifle is that it is more of an offensive than a defensive application, though it may be more correct to describe it as "proactive" rather than "reactive." For example, we carry handguns because they are convenient and concealable on our person for every day use when we don't anticipate being in a gunfight that day, or at least the likelyhood that we are going to get into a gunfight is statistically nominal to low. If we draw our handgun, it will most likley be in response to some threatening situation, therefore reactive. If you knew you were going to get into a gunfight that day, you would have stayed home or if that wasn't possible, you would have brought a rifle. In a home defense situation, where you aren't hindered by the need for concealable firearms and it is convenient to have a rifle handy, it is a pro-active or offensive tool.

I was shooting a 16" midlength gas system AR-style rifle with a 4X Trijicon TA-31 ACOG (4 MOA red circle reticle). It shot plenty accurately, but I will say this, the second day, when that rifle took an ammo-related crap because it was fouled from all of the accumulated frangible residue, I switched to my back-up rifle with an Aimpoint PRO red-dot. That red-dot sped up my rate of accurate fire considerably over the low-powered magnified optic. For a home-defense or close quarters AR, low magnification optics work, but a 0-magnification red dot is the way to go for fast and accurate. EVERYONE had ammo issues this week. The frangible is a light-weight projectile, about 40-grains typically, and it was cold and rainy, so the rifles were acting up, but... a certain amount of malfunctions do make for good training. With the exception of one Bushmaster ACR, everyone was using AR's in one form or another.

The range applications of rifle included dealing with sight-offset and height over bore issues, shooting and moving, the standard complement of loading, reloading and malfunction clearance drills then transitions.

Day 4, Fighting Rifle: The day started with rain and wind and temperatures in the 40's. Clintism of the week: in response to "if it ain't rainin', we ain't trainin'" was "Boldly spoken by people who've never had their balls frozen off standing ass deep in freezing mud." Which (if I may digress) reminded me strongly of a line from one of my favorite movies:

Wang Chi: "A brave man likes the feel of nature on his face Jack"

Egg Chen: "...and a wise man knows enough to come in out of the rain."

...back to the AAR: more transition drills and then working on basic team tactics, working with barricades and shooting through arperatures, bounding overwatch, etc...

One funny anecdote of the last day: of course, because it was cold and raining, I was dressed up in layers with rain pants and a rain-jacket. The rain pants had an elastic waistband that I couldn't pull up all the way because of the holster, mag pouch, etc... on my belt. It was a day when a drop-leg holster would have been nice to have. In any case, during one of the bounding overwatch drills, while performing tactical reloads, I was stuffing the partial magazines into my pocket for the sake of speed. The only problem is that I missed my jacket pocket and shoved the first one into my pants pocket. Once the first one was there, the others got stowed in the same place. After 3 tactical magazine changes during the course of the run, I had the weight of 3 partial mags pulling my rain-pants down and by the time I finished the drill was pulling a pretty good Marky Mark impersonation.

So... summary of the classes: having been through multiple training classes and several schools, there's not a lot of stuff in a 2-day class that I haven't seen before. That is NOT me saying that I've "mastered" all of these things, just that I've seen them before. So, the class did give me some great new perspectives and more importantly, some active, structured, guided practice. One thing I really like about Yeager's style is that he corrects your mistakes immediately, rather than waiting for you to make the mistakes and talking about it later after the incorrect behavior is imprinted on your amygdala.

As far as instruction goes, both Yeager and Aaron Little, (his assistant instructor) are very safety-oriented, skilled, capable instructors. I at no time felt unsafe during the class nor was anyone ever insulted or belittled. They do apply a very slight amount of controlled duress during the training, which is important to do... but it was never degrading or them showing off on some kind of ego trip. It was obvious that they were there for the student, not to show off how bad ass they were as instructors, which shows a level of confidence and professionalism in my opinion that is the halmark of the best instructors I've seen. Some of the techniques they taught were environment-driven and maybe don't make as much sense to me (in my limited experience) than some of the other things I've learned, but... that doesn't mean those techniques are wrong, it just doesn't mean they are always right.

All in all... I rate it as an excellent training experience and I look forward to more training with the Tactical Response crew in the future.