The Cabinet Man Goes to Gunsite...


Anyone that knows me well knows that I'm a Big Fan of Gunsite. Gunsite provides -- arguably -- the finest firearms training available to civilians in the USA and, quite possibly, the world. (For you non-silly-villians, don't worry. They train police and military folks as well.) I first went to Gunsite in 2003 for their Pistol 250 course. From day one, I was hooked. My instructor was none other than Louis Awerbuck of Yavapai Firearms Academy and SWAT Magazine fame. The Pistol 250 course was grueling and demanding. Balancing speed and accuracy was a constant and seemingly contradictory requirement. By the end of the 5th day, I was exhausted, humbled, and covered in BandAids. And I was delighted!! I was a better pistol shot. I mean a lot better. I cannot think of any other five consecutive days of my existance in which I learned and improved as much as I did then.

(Note to posers and wannabe's: Gunsite is neither cheap nor easy. If you just want to pad your resume or collect training certs, go elsewhere. Gunsite will eat alive those who aren't serious about learning...)

So, it had been a couple of years and I'd been working up a good Gunsite jones. So last spring, I enrolled in Carbine 223, Gunsite's introductory course to the AR-15. It does for the carbine what Pistol 250 does for, well, the pistol. They recommend Pistol 250 as a prerequisite and that's indeed a good idea. There are some basic assumptions made about the students' backgrounds and those without Pistol 250 will have some catching-up to do. Now, being the "I'll do it my way" kinda' guy that I am, I decided to take Carbine 223 with -- are you sitting down?? -- an AK-47. The course description mentioned 7.62x39 so what's an AK freak supposed to do?? Well, while I don't regret taking the AK, the course is indeed geared towards the AR-15. (Of the 20 students in my class, 18 ARs were being used, my AK and a Springfield Armory M1A SOCOM being the only exceptions.) The instructors weren't entirely familiar with AK but I give them credit for doing their best to incorporate it into the lessons.

Unlike Pistol 250, the Carbine 223 class started kinda' slow. The first day and a half were spent on the mandatory safety lectures, basic carbine operation, and 50/100/200/300 yard sight-in. Had someone had asked me what I thought of the course at lunch on the second day (Tuesday), they might have gotten rolled eyes. But the slow pace didn't last long. We moved to the square range and started the school drills: 1.5 second offhand head shot from 25 yards, 2-second offhand center-of-mass "double taps" from 50 yards, non-standard response drills (failure to stop, "2 to the body, 1 to the head", and carbine-to-pistol transitions), and 100-yard standing-to-kneel/squat/sit timed shots. Countless repeats of two shots from 200 yards in 15 seconds standing-to-prone were practiced. We shot moving targets. We shot obstacle courses that required different shooting positions to engage targets at varying -- and unknown -- ranges, including a shot from inside a dog house!! We shot on steel. We shot at night. We shot a walking course with metal targets out to 200 yards. We performed house clearing. I was starting to get tired. And loving it!!

On the last day (Friday), "final exams" were given: a full run of the school drills. I did OK but I thought I shot better on Thursday. (The exact same thing happened to me during Pistol 250...) However, I seemed to catch my second wind during the shoot-off. The course of fire for the shoot-off was pretty simple. There were two steel poppers to engage for each round: one at 100 yards, one at 200 yards. The 100-yard popper was shot first followed by the 200-yard popper. The 100-yard popper could be shot from any position but prone. The 200-yard popper could be shot from any position. The catch is that a position change must be made between targets -- even if you'd like to shoot both off-hand. Each shoot-off round started from standing, low-ready. (For each round, I shot the 100-yard target from the "Viet Cong squat" position and the 200-yard target from prone.) Two shooters shot at the same time on their own pair of targets. The first shooter to hit both of their poppers won the round. Each person in the class shot 6 rounds. I did really well, connecting 12 times for 12 shots. (That is, if I remember it correctly -- it goes very quickly!!) Unfortunately, I only won 4 of the 6 rounds. A Marine staff sergeant and an Oklahoma police officer each won 5 rounds and shot against each other in the final. The Marine prevailed. Semper Fi!!

I was awarded a Marksman grade, from the possible grades of Completion, Marksman, Marksman I, and Expert (in increasing order of Total Badassness). I kinda' feel like I shot better than Marksman but with all of the excellent performances from the police and military students (which comprised nearly half the class), it's quite possible that I did not shoot in the top 50%. I'll admit that when I had to choose between speed and marksmanship, I chose to make a good, solid hit. I wasn't the fastest guy out there and that probably didn't help my grade. (For the record, I wasn't the slowest shooter either...)

I won't say that I learned as much as I did in Pistol 250 but I still learned a lot. Mostly breath control and trigger control. Gunsite teaches the "empty lungs" method of breath control in their rifle classes which, as much as I tried, I never became comfortable with. I hated the asphyxiated sensation I got from it and it forced me to unnecessarily rush my shooting. Since it didn't seem to improve anything for me, I reverted to my old (bad?) "half-exhale" routine for the last two days. (Probably the only time that Gunsite advice didn't wear well with me.) I'll give the technique more opportunities when I head to range next time. The course's main instructor, Bobby Schneider, hammered home the "press to hold, release to reset" mantra for trigger control. Skeptical as I was, it worked as well for fast shooting as it did for slow fire. When I found my groups turning to patterns, it was usually because I'd starting
slapping the trigger again. Stick to the basics, practice the basics, and win with the basics.

As I mentioned earlier, the course is definitely geared towards the AR-15. Mechanical drills like tactical reloads and failure clearing are all based on the AR. I had to improvise a few of the steps since the AK uses a paddle-type mag release and doesn't have a bolt lock-back. I don't regret having taken the AK but, in hindsight, I'd probably take one of my ARs if I had to do it over again. That said, aside from awkward manipulation during the machanical drills, the AK performed admirably. Granted, I showed up with an upper-tier AK with a red dot sight and not, say, a cheapo WASR-10 and the dreadful stock AK sights. (Let's not forget that I was using the wonderful Cheetah ammunition as well, about which I can't stop raving...) My AK was consistently hitting center-of-mass at 200 yards, occasionally with better groups than the ARs. My 300-yard work was on par with the rest of the class. The only problem I had during the entire week was when my scope mount loosened Thursday afternoon. Other than that, I had zero malfs -- the rifle, mags, scope, and ammo performed flawlessly.

Various notes:

1) For all you gearheads, here's the kit I used:

Rifle: Bulgarian Arsenal SLR-101
Scope: Aimpoint CompML2
Mount: K-Var KV-04
Mags: a mix of Bulgarian waffle polymer and Romanian steel
Flashlight: Surefire G2 Nitrolon
Flashlight mount: Tac-Star Universal Barrel Mount
Cheek rest: D&E Scope-Eze (Brownell's P/N 946-102-003)
Pistol: Glock 22 in .40 S&W
Vest rig: all Blackhawk
Vest: Strike Omega MOLLE (37CL36)
Rifle mag pouch: Strike M4 Double (37CL03)
Pistol mag pouch: Strike Double (37CL09)
Holster: Omega VI (40QD02)

I "designed" the vest rig myself. I love Blackhawk gear but their off-the-shelf vests are very, shall we say, busy. I didn't want all those gee-gaws. Truth be told, I was ready to go with one of those OTS vests, but changed my mind at the last minute. Prior to my departure, I had been practicing with the vest I'd planned to use and found myself getting tangled-up in everything. This was further compounded by lack of Arnold Schwarzenegger-style upper-body strength: I just could not do a weak-side mag change. The SLR is not a light rifle and trying to keep it shouldered with my right hand during a mag change proved challenging and painful. I devised a rather quick strong-side mag change routine, much to the chagrin of the Gunsite instructors. I cobbled-together the vest that I took to Gunsite around that routine. The rifle mag pouch ended up on my right side and the pistol mag pouches on my left, about where they'd been for Pistol 250.

Tac gear specific to the AK is rare. (Untapped market, folks. Anyone paying attention??...) My sling was a Rube Goldberg concoction that consisted of a standard 48" AK sling (too short) lengthened by a steel motorcycle helmet lock cable and attached to the rifle by a minature carabiner. It looked disgustingly Amateur Hour but worked pretty damned well, noise discipline notwithstanding. I kept the AK mags (loaded one per pouch, as opposed to two for the AR) "bullets up" and pointed towards center. This made for the fastest speed loads but still required a good tug to get the bottom plates past the pouch's elastic retainer strap.

There's always a big debate concerning gloves. Fortunately, I practiced a few drills before I left with and without gloves. I could run the AK just fine with my (very thin) Uncle Mike's gloves. However, I couldn't get a good grip on my Glock with them. Hmmmmmm.... What to do, what to do?? Well, I wore one glove. On my left hand. And only so I wouldn't get burned by the AK's various exposed hot spots. Besides, wearing a glove on my right hand would have covered up all the BandAids, the official Gunsite badge of honor.

The equipment list for Carbine 223 lists elbow and knee pads. Rather than the "tactically-proper" Blackhawk stuff, I just brought some cheapo Rollerblade knee pads which worked just fine. I neglected to bring my elbow pads and, given the amount of dropping-to-prone that we did, I wish I had. The reason I didn't is that I've shot with the plastic-faced elbow pads before and the plastic slides around on more surfaces than you might think. And sliding around kinda' defeats the purpose of being prone. A smarter solution would be to bring some of the cloth elbow pads. Something like what a volleyball player might wear seems to be the best solution.

Other stuff I couldn't have done without:

MagLULA: great little toy, saved lots of pinched thumbs and split fingernails

Maxpedition RollyPoly
"dump pouch": didn't have it the first day, bought it in the Gunsite pro shop. Good purchase.

CamelBak: 'nuff said. OK, that wasn't enough. My 10-year-old bladder froze overnight and I (like an idiot) tore the opening trying to brute force it. After saturating my backside in 40-degree weather, I bought a new bladder in the pro shop.

(BTW, I spent less than $70 in the pro shop, quite possibly a Gunsite record!! The pro shop is a dangerous place if you have a credit card. They stock only the best kit. Their prices are fair but good stuff ain't cheap!!)

I didn't spend money on a range bag. Instead, I used a rubber-bottomed, heavy-duty tool bag I picked up a few years back at Home Depot. I paid maybe $30 for it and it was perfect!! I saw no range bags that looked sufficiently durable for under $75. Mine held 400 rounds of 7.62x39, 100 rounds .40 S&W, ten 30-round AK mags and four Glock mags. There was even a little room left over.

But the best thing I brought to Gunsite was my ATV. Gunsite is a big place and we did a lot of jumping between ranges. I stayed at Gunsite's campground and having the ATV allowed me to keep the truck parked and still be mobile. I loaded-up the ATV Sunday night and pretty much left it loaded all week. I had room for my aforementioned "range bag" full of mags and ammo, my gear bag, my lunch cooler, two rifles, and all the BandAids I needed for the week. I highly recommend an ATV for people who have one and plan to drive to Paulden.

The basic rule for gear still stands: train like you fight. If you're a cop or a soldier, bring and wear as much of the gear you're issued as you can. The Marine that won the shoot-off wore his exact kit as if he were in the field. He was even given permission to bring his service weapon. Three-round burst is pretty cool!! That said, he did not wear his k-pot nor his body armor. We silly-villians are forced to guess what we might need. Do I need just enough to chase away an intruder or do I plan to hold off wave after wave of blood-thirsty zombies?? (Personally, I planned around the hope that any surviving zombies will retreat after I decimate the first wave...) Choose your gear accordingly.

2) Stay in the Gunsite campground.

The reasons go on and on. First, it's cheap and convenient. It's located on the "compound" and is only a few hundred yards from the classrooms. They have running water, bathrooms, showers, grills, fire pits, a microwave oven, a washer/dryer, an ice machine, and a pavillion with picnic tables. The campground fosters a "family" environment, with people from different classes getting together to discuss courses, instructors, and just about anything firearms related. While I was there, I met an alpaca rancher from Alaska, a Greek security guard, a truck-driving couple from Florida, and a Marine officer stationed in Hawaii. From these folks, I learned about karambit knives, weapon retention/take-away drills, how to completely disassemble a Glock, how an Aimpoint still works just fine with its front lense cap closed (if you shoot with both eyes open, that is), how to party with hookers in the Far East, and the broad scope of human generosity and shared meals. You just can't get that kind of interaction by sequestering yourself in a motel 45 minutes away.

3) Bring an AR

Yeah, I know. I was warned. But, hey, I needed to find out for myself. I plan to take the Carbine 556 course -- the advanced course -- next year and I'll take one of my ARs. (It's not like I'm totally pig-headed and, well, because I'll hafta'...) In the interim, I'll practice the AR-specific mechanical drills that I didn't get to do with the Kommie Karbine. There were a wide variety of ARs at the course and they all seemed to run pretty well. Most shooters had 30-round mags but those with 20-rounders didn't seem to be handicapped in any way. A few hardcores stuck with iron sights and the rest had either Aimpoints or EOTechs. I know of no optics failures. What I really, really, really want for my AR is a Trijicon TriPower. Trijicon teased the market with these things last year but they were ultimately vaporware. I guess a few were sold but Trijicon went back to the drawing board with them. They claim they'll be available in 2006 in their redesigned form. They got my hopes up once -- they better get their act together next time. There won't be a third foolin' of old TCM...

4) Be prepared

Start by getting into shape. This is a good rule in general but it applies double to Gunsite. I started lifting weights in the spring but had a big (working overtime related-) lull about a month before the class started. And it showed. The course is physically demanding and I know if I hadn't been even marginally prepared, I would have suffered for it. I did a lot of bicep and shoulder work which paid off nicely. However, one thing I didn't plan for was spending hours at a time with a heavy AK tac-slung across my chest. It took a toll on my lower back and a few (hundred) extra reps on the hyperextension machine might have prevented that. My current aerobic condition sucks (literally) but fortunately there weren't many opportunities to get short of breath. Learn how to apply BandAids with one hand.

One thing I was tempted to do that I don't recommend is getting the video of your course before you take your on-site course. "Why not, TCM??", you ask. Well, you'll watch the video and go thru the drills. And there's a good chance you'll think you're doing something right when you're really not. Then when you plant two feet on the range you need to un-learn your bad habits, which is significantly harder than learning them correctly to begin with. The videos are great but relegate them to "refresher" status.

Well, that's enough writing. I'm tired of typing and you're probably sick of reading. I'll depart with one comment. Get training. Most, if not all, of the readers here own guns, just as I do. When I took Pistol 250, I was shocked at how much I didn't know before I took the course. A person could have thousands of dollars worth of weapons but without training, they're worthless. Better to have $3000 worth of training and a $100 gun than a $3000 gun and $100 worth of training. Get quality training. The expensive guns can come later. Give Gunsite a try. It's neither cheap nor easy but it's worth it. Get some!!


No comments: