On the morning of Training Day 2, I was informed I’d be moved up to the Blue team based on my performance the day prior. We were told some minor shuffling between teams would happen throughout the week, and that there was nothing personal about it. The goal was to make sure that the right shooters were in the right groups and got the appropriate same-level instruction. Still, I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t more than a small portion of me that was like, “Fuck yeah!“
The training blocks would be repeated on Day 2, as they would for the rest of the week: two hours in two different groups before lunch, then a two-hour block after lunch followed by a full group hot wash discussion. The group level determined where you started. The blue team would start with Leatham, move to the carbine with Chief White, and then finish the day with Tarani.
As the class began to pick up steam, my ability to take written notes began to wane. If we weren’t shooting we were loading. If we weren’t loading we were moving to the next block of instruction. The pace had picked up considerably. As the students convened for lunch each day, the typical group dynamic began to appear, friendships began to form, and the instructors gained a familiarity with the students they were teaching. More than once, White walked by and gave me an arm shot that would numb my shoulder for a few minutes. Apparently, we were bonding.
Day 2 on the pistol range consisted of more grip work where Leatham pushed us consistently at 15 and 25 yards, scoring each string, and inspecting our targets for telltale signs of poor grip. “Vertical patterning is always better than lateral,” said Leatham. The context is that if your shots are vertical on a competition target, you are not mitigating recoil correctly and letting the gun pass the target (shooting too fast) but you are more likely to remain scoring points. Lateral stringing indicates that you are pushing the gun left or right. With accuracy as the focus, he kept pushing our speed because most of us were hesitant on the trigger. “You always have to shoot as fast as you can, but never at full speed.” Let that one sink in.
What I noticed immediately about Rob Leatham is that he chooses his words very carefully and does not fill his instruction with fluff. “Don’t go fast and try to get hits. Just get hits and go fast.” This was very reminiscent of something I learned in William Petty’s Vehicle CQB class which is the concept of reacting “sooner rather than faster.”
Carbine work with Chief White consisted of more basic carbine manipulation skills since there were some guys, even on Blue team, who were not well versed in using a rifle. We covered two-shot drills, failure drills (two to the body, one to the head), and reverse failure drills (two to the body, two to the pelvic girdle). White and his assistant instructors Doug Esposito, Tom Rovetuso, and Chris Currie did a phenomenal job of relating the carbine work to what Leatham taught on the pistol range. They emphasized the same combat-ready stance, very similar upper body positioning, and trigger control that allows increased speed without sacrificing too much accuracy. While I was familiar with all of these concepts, I had to keep reminding myself that it was new for several of the students and to keep an open mind, rather than just move faster through the drills.
After lunch, Blue Team assembled for our two hours with Tarani, but we noticed that there was a highly decorated older gentleman hanging around. In fact, he looked like a grizzled been-there-done-that guy. Tarani, ever humble but somewhat giddy, introduced this man as Bill Maughan, one of the biggest BAMFs on the planet.
As Tarani told the life’s history of this man, jaws began to drop. Enlisting in the Marines at age 16 (he lied to get in) at the beginning of WWII, Maughan traversed the Pacific theater as a “BAR man” running a Browning Automatic Rifle and “killed more men than polio” according to those who knew him. He decided to stay in Japan after the war in 1945 to study several martial arts disciplines including Kenpo Karate and Judo. He received a high Judoka ranking, eventually achieving the rank of 7th dan. He then went to Korea where he wound up in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir (Frozen Chosin) and kept his men alive by having them stuff papers in their boots to prevent appendages from dropping off. He was also literally run over by an APC, miraculously surviving and ready for more. Heading to Viet Nam, Maughan served as an advisor for the Department of Defense in the OGA, the precursor to the CIA. Returning to the US after the war, he served as a chief of police in Buckey, AZ where he continued a full-contact competition schedule (we told you he was an old-school badass). Leaving the Corps, Maughan continued a career of service teaching others in various consulting and contracting roles and is still very active at Gunsite.
Spry as ever with a razor-sharp wit and a bone-crushing handshake, Maughan told story after story and kept us entranced. We are all now better men for having met a true American hero like him. He was one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met.
Minds racing from our meeting with Maughan, Tarani’s focus on this day was about controlling time and space – not in some theoretical physics application, but by controlling your distance to a threat, your position relative to them within contact distance, your mobility (again, the combat stance) and your reaction time. He spent a good portion discussing how the average human reaction time is about .25 seconds, information stemmed from the research of Bill Rogers.
We then progressed to straight edged weapons, covering proper grip which differs depending on what feels most comfortable to the user. Watching Tarani demonstrate each drill (I often became his dummy) we learned about several variations of attacks – slashes, hacks, thrusts, flicks, and the eight points on a body that are easy to filet.
As with any class taught by high-end professionals like Tarani, there were several “real-world” lessons I can’t commit to paper. Suffice to say there are many places on the body that you do not EVER want to get struck with a knife, but with the right information and training, that knowledge could very well be used to save your life.
THEMES OF THE DAY: Control your space, find a balance of speed and accuracy
As we entered TD3, Leatham jumped right into timed scoring drills, having us run the El Prez from 5, 10, and 15 yards. The goal was to begin to break down some of the competition vs. tactics mindsets. Leatham unapologetically concentrated on aspects of competition, stating that guys like Chief White are the real tacticians. Leatham’s goal is to have you fire the shot as soon as you see the sights align with the target since his only concern is time. Once you commit to firing the shot, shoot it and move on. “I can’t fix a shot after I fired it,” barked Leatham. All this was said in an effort to get us to carve out those minute slivers of time that we waste micro-analyzing our performance in the moments immediately following a shot.
“The target is a perfect record of what and how you shot,” he said as we checked again for vertical or lateral stringing. At this point, I was feeling relatively good as I was posting decently fast times, all Alpha hits and some minor vertical striping. Leatham wandered over, looked at me and said “Go faster. Push yourself.” He wanted to see me start to fail so I could find my limits.
Wrapping up his two hours, Leatham ended with “Talent is just the ability to apply skill and technique on demand.”
As we quickly progressed to the carbine range, Chief White had us jock up and get online so we could jump right into movement drills working multiple targets. Consisting of basic side steps and box drills (two to each body, then headshots) we ran several iterations with varying intensity. White wanted us to start running the gun subconsciously, focusing on the instruction. Noticing that some guys were starting to slow their shots significantly when rotating in place to address a rearward target, White said shooting should become instinctual and that it is a basic two-step process. “Look first, then shoot. At some point, you just have to pull that ‘I Believe’ switch.” Nutshell: don’t overthink it.
We ended the day with shooting on the move, focusing on the heel-to-toe movement to minimize gun barrel bounce. It must be said that we weren’t doing some sort of modified Groucho Marx movement seen in other schools, but just practicing a way of connecting to the ground to smooth out shot placement. Lastly (and for a little bit of fun) we cleared out our ammo by doing Bill Drills from retention at the target line. Feeling the gun concuss that close was an eye opener for quite a few guys.
Tarani’s focus on this day was using our own carry knives, working with them to find our preferred deployment method. We covered where on the body to carry a knife (which is often determined by your environment), your ability to carry a pistol, and your own physical capabilities. Tip up, tip down, neck knives, fixed blades, folders, assisted, auto, flipper…it didn’t matter what we were using, the goal was to get the knife out and deployed in two moves in two seconds. Tarani had us work our technique in a similar fashion to how I’ve seen Ron Avery teach the pistol draw – in reverse. Using my Strider folder, I was able to cut my deployment times from the pocket down from 1.55s to an average of 1.21s – in line with my pistol draw times.
After we felt confident in the fact that we could get our knives into the fight, we talked about Tarani’s favorite blade, the curved Karambit. “The only way to disarm a trained guy with a curved blade is a magazine to the face,” Tarani said half-jokingly. Traditional curved blade training teaches three positions, three grips, and three motions. When combined, however, the possibilities to eviscerate your enemy seem endless. Displaying these techniques as well as others such as the plainly labeled “taint rip,” it was immediately obvious why Tarani says that a perfectly deployed curved blade “hits you like a freight train.”
That night we were treated to a lecture from Bill Rogers, gun industry icon and subject matter expert in Reactive Shooting. Rogers spoke to us about brain physiology, reaction times, and practical application of conscious and subconscious thought. We soaked in every word since it’s not often you get to hear directly from the guy that created the “Bill Drill.” Rogers imparted more information than can properly be cataloged in one paragraph, but the bottom line was that through proper training, we are much more capable than we currently believe.
THEMES OF THE DAY: Keep your weapon in your workspace. You can move faster than you think. Stop wasting critical time. Stop just owning a gun and instead learn to run it.
Our fourth day of training started once again on Leatham’s playground where someone asked a question about using steel vs. paper targets when scoring for time. “Steel is good for testing,” Leatham noted, “but it’s not good for training [like this] because it doesn’t identify fundamental mistakes in marksmanship.”
We were put through the paces on one-hand shooting, both strong side and everyone’s least favorite, support side, while standing still as well as moving. There were a LOT of groans on the target line as many of us experienced a significant ego check.
Seeing similar problems occurring in the group when shooting support hand only, Leatham said that the most important contact point on the gun is where the webbing between the thumb and forefinger contacts the backstrap of the gun. The higher the better. Someone brought up the point of having to build muscle memory in the support side hand. “Muscles have no memory,” Leatham said quickly. “The brain only knows right or wrong.” Tip your bartenders, people. He’s here all week.
Progressing our movement with a carbine, we arrived on the range with White to see barricades and vehicles on the line. Chief White took us through a lecture on vehicle cover points, positions that could be used behind cover, and considerations when in each position such as knowing your muzzle offset. As we worked barricades, we were drilled on shoulder transitions as well as support side reloads, once again showing the majority of us that we need significant support side practice. This gelled very nicely with the Leatham’s earlier lessons.
Post-lunch break, we headed into our Tarani block where the Blue team would concentrate a bit more on knives, and then on impact and flexible weapons. With a quick demo of straight vs. serrated blades on a variety of fabrics and materials, it was clear that density will have a major impact on the efficacy of a chosen blade. However, once again, the curved blade appeared to have fewer issues due to the double-sided edges. It’s a nasty weapon.
Speaking for a while about impact weapons, Tarani mentioned that you don’t need a dedicated impact tool on your person. Could you use a shovel handle laying in the corner of the garage? A bat? A pool cue? A stick? Working in teams we learned how to use impact weapons (in our case, rattan fighting sticks) to disable an opponent, as well as ways to block incoming blows. Utilizing angled blocking techniques described as “working the diamond”, we were able to deflect almost all incoming energy, redirect it, and open up our opponent for the attack.
In a similar fashion, flexible weapons like a scarf or old t-shirt can be used to block an attack when snapped tight, but could then also be used to take an enemy to the ground by their neck. The primary importance though is to use either the impact weapon or the flexible weapon to deflect the attack. “Make safe the weapon,” Tarani quoted from his old masters, “and then make safe the body.”
We worked these drills for most of the two hours, and you could see the rapid progression of skills as we all became more comfortable with the movements.
“I love instructing,” said Tarani, “because I love to see when the light comes on in someone’s eyes when they learn how to smash someone in the face as hard as they can.”
THEMES OF THE DAY: Make training a lifestyle. Become hard to kill regardless of the situation. Maintain the skills and push yourself well outside your comfort zone.
Our last training day would consist of shortened “final exam” sessions with each instructor and an overall Simunitions-based FTX (final training exercise) scenario for each team.
Our pistol exam consisted of a USPSA-based course, moving through multiple doors, and engaging paper and steel targets as well as a head to head steel challenge with the winner battling Leatham himself. I was using Taran Tactical base pads on my Glock 17 and thought I could run the entire course on one mag of 22. Because of a thrown shot or two early in the stage, I wound up one round short and had to reload prior to my final shot, losing critical time. So much for my plan.
Rumor has it that on the six-target steel challenge in one of the other groups, Leatham took on three opponents at once and beat them. After seeing him shoot all week, this is my surprised face.
Our scored and timed carbine exam was multi-faceted. We were timed on “two reload two,” “Bill drill, reload, Bill drill,” and “El Prez”, all from the seven-yard line. I shot all the drills clean and in relatively fast times, but screwed up my El Prez because of an unclean reload. Once again, my lack of focus on precise fundamental movement was my downfall. Speed vs. Precision. The struggle is real.
Our non-ballistic weapons segment was a bit different. We were moved to a different location where Tarani had several very large pieces of meat clothed in varying thicknesses of materials, as well as a half-hog in a leather coat. It was here that we were able to verify on real flesh just how devastating an edged weapon can be, regardless of how dense the fabric.
Breaking for lunch, the teams started gearing up for the FTX. Chief White gave us a mock intel briefing and then took us through some basic platoon sized movement drills so that we were safe. Our “mission” consisted of being driven to a location where we would move as a team and engage threats as we encountered them. Utilizing Simunitions, we would shoot actual projectiles at enemies while attempting to recover “the package” – a briefcase with sensitive information. All this seemed a bit too much “fantasy gun camp” for me, but it was such a great week so far, I figured I would just roll with it.
The drill was entertaining and some guys were all about it, having never done anything so “high speed.” Since I have done a lot of Simunition work in the past, I wound up placing myself at the rear of the column letting the others play operator and spending most of my time providing covering fire. The wind had picked up significantly on this day, and watching the POA/POI shift in the Simunition rounds was interesting.
We ended the day and the week with an enormous outside BBQ, where, after stuffing our faces with meat, prizes were presented to students who showed the most improvement, most heart, and best attitudes. These included some Aimpoint optics, and three lucky guys got to go home with custom rifles from Devil Dog Arms. After the prizes and a 40th Anniversary cake for Gunsite, the instructors gave us our certificates. Tarani also presented us each with a custom Benchmade Presidio knife. Once again, the generosity of BixPros and their list of sponsors left everyone speechless.
As the students posed for pictures, exchanged contact information and said their goodbyes, I had to reflect on the fact that the week was truly incredible. An event of this size, carried out with astounding precision, is a testament to the BixPros staff and the graciousness of Gunsite.
If I had to do it all myself, I would have made the blocks on instruction a bit longer, or only had two blocks per day rather than three, and I would have also made the total class size a bit smaller. That would allow students to get more in-depth with the material. As for the FTX, I personally would have swapped that out for more instruction time or competition stages. However, all that said, there was very little to complain about, if anything.
In my opinion, the experience of working with these instructors intimately, the fact that I did not want for anything in lodging, food, or ammo, the gear and swag that was provided in an almost endless stream, and the smiles and laughs all week long, were well worth the price tag.
It’s my hope that we see more of these types of combined training classes in the industry. We could all use a wider base of skills, more exposure to different methods and contexts, and certainly more support hand practice.
THEME OF THE WEEK: Don’t try to be a tough guy, just be hard to kill. Never stop training.
Our thanks once again to Denise Bixler of BixPros, Gunsite, and their sponsors: Aimpoint, Safariland, Devil Dog Arms, Benchmade, 5.11 Tactical, and Simunition. I have never seen this level of sponsor generosity at any class in the country. All of the instructors and support staff who helped make the week happen, and all the students who provided a safe training environment, made for a great overall experience. Now I get to go back to being not-so-tough.
PS. Because we care about you, we got Rob Leatham to give us a knifehand for all the BBC readers.
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When Matt Stagliano is not busy scoring with legions of Japanese girls who think he’s Chris Costa or character acting a bit part in cheap Westerns (he usually plays a syphilis-ridden cowpuncher or similar saddletramp) he can be found shooting some of the best photos and video in the tactical/firearms industry as a firearms photographer and owner of Firelance Media. He's also a portrait photographer who owns Stonetree Creative, a Maine portrait studio. A former Fortune 50 consultant who is (no shit) a former DJ with a degree in Physics he never uses, Matt is not only brilliant behind the lens but also a helluva nice guy with great taste in booze. Oh, and his dog has a fierce, unnatural love for porcupines.