Rob Leatham, Steve Tarani, and Chief Chris White training one of our own for a week at Gunsite. Read up.
9 APRIL 2016
I was 30,000 feet somewhere over the heartland, quietly wondering what would be store for me at Evolution of Shooting at Gunsite in Arizona. The hype for this class started at SHOT Show where I got to meet the three principle instructors: Rob Leatham, Steve Tarani, and Chief Chris White.
Leatham and Tarani have been on my short list of trainers for a few years now, but quite honestly, I never thought I had the appropriate skills to attend their classes. Not having heard of Chris White previously, but reading his resume (most notably his service on three different SEAL teams, including Team 6) I knew I would be pushed hard in the disciplines of competition pistol, tactical carbine, and non-ballistic weapons.
When the opportunity arose and I was presented with a complementary slot in the class (excluding travel), I jumped at the chance like a fat kid at a chocolate fountain. I pulled my credit card, booked a flight, and started getting nervous. I’ve taken almost 1000 hours of training over the past few years with guys like Pat Rogers, Steve Fisher, Kerry Davis, John Chapman, Chris Costa, Ron Avery, Matt Jacques, Erik Utrecht, Freddy Osuna and others, and while that is not much to some it is much more than a lot of folks get. This one six-day class would add another 72 or so hours.
The intent of EoS (which I will now use because I am a lazy typist) is to “increase your lethality from bad breath distance out to 200 yards.” Combining the elements of world-class competition style shooting, non-ballistic think-on-your-feet combat (ala Jason Bourne in a bathroom fucking dudes up with a towel), and proven real-world modern carbine tactics, EoS was poised to become either the single most thrilling and exhausting training experience I’ve had to date, or an overhyped tacticool fantasy gun camp. Judging by the characters involved, I prefer to think of it as the former rather than the latter. In fact, there were several days at the range while I prepped where I thought “I am SO in over my head.”
My personal training has taken a back seat to work lately, and while I understand these skills are perishable, I’ve been trying to find different types of training that made sense to me as a civilian. I’ve done many shoothouse courses, vehicle classes, and countless foundational classes for handgun, carbine, and shotgun. I don’t seek out team-based night vision classes because that’s not the world I live in. Is it cool? Sure. Applicable to me? Probably not. I want a training experience where I can go home and say, “Yeah, that was well worth the $7500″
You heard me right. EoS costs $7500 for the week. That lofty price tag includes all ammo, lodging, food, and the chance to learn from three of the best teachers in the business. You see why I jumped at the chance?
On TD1, we’d go through a general pistol qualification – 40 rounds at distances between 5 and 25 yards – to assess our skills and place us into groups. I was relatively confident I’d pass and not have to go to the “range over there by the short bus”, but as the saying goes, anything can happen on any given Sunday.
Add to that, I had no idea of the company in which I’d be situated. Would it be dentists, lawyers, and IT engineers, or meat-eating mil guys? My guess, judging from previous classes, was that it would be a mix.
But back to what EoS actually is. The goal of the course is twofold: 1) create better shooters and combatants and 2) change the way instruction is offered by combining multiple disciplines in one package.
Often there are debates about competition vs. tactical training, real world vs. gaming, gunfighting vs. hand-to-hand. Some debates, given the correct context, may have merit while others (the majority) are based solely on hearsay and lack of applicable training; meaning, bullshit. BixPros set out to create this concierge-level course with Gunsite as part of their 40th Anniversary year to deliver students an opportunity to grow their skills in ALL areas, pushing them way outside their comfort zone, and have that training provided by instructors with unimpeachable creds.
A few hours later I landed, grabbed some shuteye, and headed out to Gunsite.
10 APRIL 2016 – TD 0 – Prep Day
Sunday was all about gear checks and safety briefings to make sure the 28 students were squared away. There was a palpable mix of apprehension, social anxiety, hero worship, and excitement as we gathered in the classroom to hear from the Gunsite and BixPros crew. As we strolled around and introduced ourselves informally, my intuition about the demographics was correct. The first person I met? Lawyer. Then a writer. Dentist. Psychiatrist. Another lawyer. Private investigator. Homeland Security team member. Cop. It was definitely not a bunch of weekend warriors, nor was it all pipe hitters. Just a bunch of guys interested in training. There was even a father/son team.
With a warm welcome and opening by Denise Bixler, owner of BixPros, the mic was passed to Ken Campbell, COO of Gunsite who took us through the history of the facility, which is the oldest shooting school in the country, and gave us a solid safety brief. Kicking off the day with the Pledge of Allegiance got everyone in the right mindset and focused on the task at hand.
At the end of the introduction, we were gifted our first (of what would be many) swag bags. We were given an M4 mag pouch, holster, and chest rig from Safariland that we could use throughout the week.
We were then separated into two groups to ease the gear checks. Chief White ran us through our carbine related gear: chest rigs, pouches, sling configurations, and rifle functions. Rather than rely on T&E gun provided by Devil Dog Arms, I brought my trusty 11.5” SBR Frankengun with me. I recently installed a Law Tactical folding adapter and couldn’t wait to put it through some paces. While I felt extremely comfortable with my equipment, there were several folks that were less so, never having donned a chest rig or even a sling. Since we had to have at least 4 mags on us at all times during the carbine blocks, the gifted Blue Force Gear 10 Speed chest rig was the choice of most students, and it was interesting watching guys strap them on. Personally, I was utilizing a Mayflower UW Chest Rig Gen IV.
In the alternate classroom, Rob Leatham performed the same safety checks on our pistols and mag pouches while quizzing us on safety and watching our basic manipulation. It was here that I started to see Leatham’s personality come to light- a mix of focus, humor, wisecracks, and over the top ego. Leatham’s seemingly endless trove of stories was always on full display. At some point, I have to ask him about a supposed scorpion bite on the dick. Deftly dodging questions from others about said dick bite, Leatham addressed the group, laying down the law for safety, accuracy, and the fact that we would be overloaded with information. Chuckling, he said, “This class will not be what you expect.”
11 APRIL 2016 – TD 1 – The Learning Begins
As Monday morning broke, I found myself awake at 4 am, still on East Coast, time so I figured it was as good a time as any to start mentally preparing for what lay ahead. Would I be accurate enough? Would Tarani use me as a stunt dummy and make me bleed my own blood?
After a very brief muster in the ready room, the entire group headed down to the pistol range to run through the qualification. When complete, we would be divided into squads that would be our team for the remainder of the week. A quick scan around the group and you could clearly see that there were several nervous folks with an equal number of nonchalant meat eaters. In all the classes I have attended, we have not performed a qualification to gauge capability that would then dictate the level of instruction. It was going to be a humbling experience. My competitive side kicked in and it was business time.
Leatham, assisted by his wife Kippie (a champion shooter in her own right), shot the entire string first to demonstrate. There is something completely unnerving about watching what your eyes tell you is a human being, but your mind has decided beyond a shadow of a doubt is a robot. To watch Leatham shoot is to second guess why you ever got into pistolcraft in the first place. I could shoot every single day and never approach the level of familiarity with the firearm that Rob has. It truly is an extension of his body and his consciousness. Mixed with unending humor to ease the tension, Leatham assured us that we would be fine. And we were.
The 40-shot string at distances from 5 to 25 yards was meant to be nothing more than a way to gauge our skills. With perfection being all 40 shots in the Alpha zones of an IDPA target, I had three Charlies and in my head was able to call every single one of them as they were shot. I would have been happy on any other range, but the barely-missed shots just irked me. I wound up in the second tier group. I knew I could do better.
After the qual, we reconvened in the muster area where Chief White took us through some history of the AR platform, some extremely basic BZO ballistic theory, and told us the end-of-the-week goal was to “get within 20-30% of what Leatham can do with a pistol, but with a carbine. Hell, the carbine is just a big pistol.” While Leatham has a bigger than life personality and Tarani is exceedingly modest, White is the Loki of the instructor trio – always with an air of mischief, extremely quick with a joke, but with a presence of unmatched capability.
“I’ve got three things that work well,” White said matter of factly, “My eyes, my dick, and my trigger finger. If those things go, I’m fucking done.” Those of us over forty – most of the class – could absolutely relate.
With the comparison to Leatham being the lofty goal set at our feet, the only way that we could reach that target percentile for proficiency was to be “tactically correct and technically perfect, all the time” according to White.
Bixler announced our groups, and my group, “Red Team”, was first to head to pistol training with Leatham.
The block of instruction would be spent on fundamental trigger control and crushing often-repeated range lore and myths. At this level, Leatham has no time for the slow “press-follow through-reset” style of shooting. He started to challenge us on what it meant to “slap the trigger” or “jerk the trigger.” I would do his lessons an injustice by trying to recount absolutely every teaching point, but let me try to sum it up: “Go faster and be more accurate.” There’s really not a lot to it. Elegance in simplicity.
Joking aside, Leatham (in the context of competition) wants shooters to find the balance between speed and accuracy, sometimes sacrificing one for the other depending on the dictates of the situation. We explored three distinct trigger finger positions and the merits of each: finger out of the trigger guard, finger touching the trigger but not moving it, and moving to the “wall.” All were justifiable depending on your shooting style and capability. In fact, he demonstrated an exaggerated trigger slapping technique that he uses, and there was no loss in accuracy. Leatham went on to dispel the range-dogma of “jerking the trigger” stating that a more accurate description would be “jerking the gun” since that is what is actually happening. Without a solid grip, the act of jerking the trigger manifests itself in gun movement and ultimately, misses.
Additionally, we discussed sight alignment, crushing the myth that front-sight-tip focus is of primary importance and in fact slows down some shooters. In one example, we were able to use rear sights only and still maintain proper alignment and accuracy.
Last was the concept of trigger reset. Once again, the over-emphasized consciousness of the trigger reset really doesn’t matter, according to Leatham. What matters is having a perfect trigger pull and to just reset the gun as quickly as possible.
“It’s simple,” Leatham stated matter-of-factly. “If you’re shooting high, you’re allowing the gun to move. Just cause it not to move.”
Easier said than done there, Robbie.
As we moved over to our block with Steve Tarani, I was truly geeked because these were the blocks I was most excited to attend. As with a majority of civilian shooters, I would venture to guess we don’t get nearly enough time learning about non-ballistic weapons and what to do when we’re in bad-breath range of a threat. Tarani’s classroom portion on Day 1 was geared around our most potent weapon, our minds.
With an emphasis on avoiding, mitigating, or defending against threats, Tarani took us through the salient points of his book “Prefense” (we all got a copy). There are three major themes of his Prefense philosophy: 1) Have a 90% advantage over the bad guy by understanding the very nature of threats, recognizing them and becoming hard to kill, 2) elevating your situational awareness for yourself and for those around you and 3) when faced with a threat, understanding exactly what will be necessary to defeat it. “The fight starts before the fight starts,” Tarani stated in his modest tone. It’s about mindset, preparedness both physically and mentally, and living life not in a state of paranoia, but of readiness. It was up to us to be able to complete any given fight by using no more than two moves in two seconds. We would hear “two moves/two seconds” as a mantra over the subsequent days.
Heading down to the carbine range for our final block of the day, we assembled as a group, checked our gear and White began to take us through the zeroing process. Having guns that were properly zeroed, especially after all of the travel we did, would be important. We utilized the 50 yard zero on paper with confirmation at 200 yards on steel. My optic, an Aimpoint Micro H1, had been dialed in the day before my trip so I was relatively sure I would be good to go. However, out at 200 yards, my shots were just high on a 1/4 scale steel target. Due to time constraints we only had five shots to confirm, and once I brought my point of aim down a bit I was ringing steel. I made a mental note that leaving my Vortex variable optic at home was a mistake, but hey, you gotta dance with who brung ya.
As we wrapped the day’s events, dinner was held offsite and we were treated to a lecture by Dr. Steven Bucci, Undersecretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld and former Army Special Forces soldier. He is now with a think tank out of Washington called Heritage Foundation. Bucci gave an overview of threats facing the United States, the operating environment of our armed forces, and America’s role on the world stage.
While stating that “readiness is an esoteric concept,” Bucci’s takeaways were that the biggest threat posed by ISIS at the moment is remotely trained radicals and that we could very well be on the brink of a major war in the Middle East since it resembles pre-WWI Europe. You know, really uplifting stuff. The poignant, if not somewhat bleak geopolitical outlook was matched well with the pulled pork.
Following dinner, Chris Schneider, Executive Director of Agency Relations at 5.11 arrived and presented us all with a 5.11 range bag stuffed to the gills with clothing along with a personal note from Tom Davin, CEO. The generosity once again took everyone by surprise.
THEMES OF THE DAY: Dispel myths, get rid of institutional inertia, maintain SA, stop overthinking, and realize that a carbine is just a big pistol.
Why come to visit our double secret closed and private discussion group? Because of the Morningwood Bazaar and the conversation, obviously.
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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.