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Close Range Gunfighting and Force on Force

May 30, 2010

This is an after action report I wrote several years ago when I took Close Range Gunfighting and Force on Force from Gabe Suarez.  These were the first two Suarez International courses I took, and they had a big influence on my subsequent development as a shooter.  I’m reproducing it here for the benefit of anyone who’s thinking about taking these classes.  However, you should keep in mind that the curriculum for both of these classes has changed a bit in the intervening years.

The classes were held up in the mountains east of Salt Lake City, which led to some pretty interesting weather for early May.

Day 1

The training is actually a pair of two-day long courses. Today and tomorrow are Close Range Gunfighting, while Saturday and Sunday will be an airsoft force-on-force course called Interactive Gunfighting. This was pitched as an advanced course, and everyone was expected to know the basics coming in. I was a little nervous about this, since I haven’t really been shooting that long. Gabe had us introduce ourselves at the beginning of class, including what weapon we’d be using (Glocks being the largest group, followed by 1911s, with a few SIGs, HKs, and one S&W) and how long we’d been shooting. I’m definitely at the low end of the scale in the class when it comes to the amount of shooting experience.

The most notable feature of the first day was the weather: cold and wet. For most of the day it couldn’t quite decide whether it wanted to rain or snow, and ended up alternating between the two and brief periods of dry weather. Temperatures were pretty low. Just yesterday it was in the mid-80s in Salt Lake and many of us weren’t really dressed warmly enough (including me). Despite this there were few complaints and training went on as scheduled.

As far as actual training material goes, the day started off with one string of sighted fire before moving on to point shooting. The way he put it is that sighted shooting is always the preferred technique, point shooting is just something we are forced to use by circumstances. Rather than being presented as part of some super-duper this will always win you the gunfight “system”, it was presented as just another technique for the toolbox. Exercises started with doing some point shooting at full, three-quarters, and half extension, then moved to smoothly transitioning from the holster to full extension.

The second major skillset of the day was getting off the X and shooting on the move. This really emphasized a natural walking movement, rather than the odd sort of crabwalk that you see the IPSC guys doing. We practiced moving in all directions except directly towards and away from the target enough times that I got fairly comfortable with the mechanics of shooting while moving.

While those were the two big topics for the day, the class also covered some after-action drills, including scanning for additional threats and tactical reloads (or as Gabe prefers to call them, preemptive reloads). The scanning technique included turning and looking behind you using position sul. Gabe seems to be a big advocate of sul, which I’m not entirely sold on yet. However, one of the things that was promised for later in the course are methods for defending from disarms and pins from sul, so my opinion may change before the course is over. The day was rounded out with some malfunction clearance stuff, including a simpler technique for clearing a doublefeed than the one most places teach.

The only real negative so far has been a lack of feedback on accuracy. Because of the weather, we didn’t use any paper targets, just cardboard backers on the target stands with garbage bags over them to keep them from dissolving in the rain. Paper targets would have quickly ended up a dissolved mess. Unfortunately, the bags and cardboard got so shot up by mid-morning that it was impossible to tell which holes were the new results of your latest string. Hopefully the weather will be better tomorrow, because at this point I don’t feel like I’ve got much idea how accurate I am with the point shooting and shooting on the move.

On the plus side, I really liked the fact that Gabe took the time to explain why he was teaching certain things or why he thought something should be done a certain way. Knowing they whys makes it a lot easier to assess a technique and put it into context. He also took pains to point out when we were doing something for range safety purposes that wouldn’t actually be advisable in a real gunfight. A lot of this seems like it will tie into the force-on-force stuff this weekend, when we really won’t be constrained by a lot of these safety concerns.

So, despite the weather, I had a really great time today and I’m looking forward to the next three days!

Day 2

First off, a weather report: the morning was partly cloudy and warmer than yesterday. By afternoon, on the other hand, it resumed raining and the temperature dropped considerably. Again, it was not the best day to train, but as we work with what we can get.

The class started off this morning with a repeat of some of yesterday’s shooting drills. Thanks to the better weather, we had targets up. Gabe is a big advocate for photorealistic targets, rather than silhouettes This is intended to help get us used to shooting at things that look like people.

Because of the wet weather yesterday, this was my first opportunity to see how well I was shooting with these techniques. The drills involved shooting while moving at a pretty brisk clip, using point shooting techniques, and shooting one handed when moving towards the weak side. The drills all started at about 5 yards, and on some we moved toward the target, some parallel, and some further away, so shooting ranges varied from 3-7 yards. Out of about fifty rounds, only 2 or 3 were outside the picture of the BG. Most were concentrated in the central core of the body and head. Quite frankly, I was surprised at how accurate I could be shooting on the move, without using a sight picture. This is only my second day doing this, after all, but the vast majority of my shots are on the target and in places where they would have a telling effect on a BG.

After going through the point shooting/get off the X drills, we went in the classroom for Gabes” Three Phases of a Gunfight lecture. Despite the “three” in the title, the talk focused mainly on before and after the fight. The phase representing the gunfight itself was pretty brief, and mostly about focusing intensely on the gunfight (rather than, say, watching your life flash before your eyes). The “before” portion of the talk covered preparations that could reduce your uncertainty about the outcome of a gunfight and covered things like thinking about the legal consequences, what sort of opponents were possible, and the dynamics of a gunfight, as well as traditional preparations involving your gear, skills, and mindset. The after the gunfight portion was mainly a discussion on how to call 911 and deal with the police (though it also covered a bit on things like first aid and dealing with family reactions).

The 911 stuff was something I’ve never head discussed before. Since 911 calls are all recorded, and the dispatcher is passing information to the responding officers, it definitely seems important not to say anything that would either get you thrown in jail or cause the responding officers to treat you as the BG. Gabe’s advice is don’t just call and say “I just shot someone,” since that makes you look like the BG. Instead, give prominent mention to the crime the BG committed (home invasion, robbery, whatever), the fact that there’s been a shooting, and that you need police and paramedics. After you get that information across, stay on the line, but try to avoid answering the 911 operators questions without looking like you’re avoiding answering their questions (suggested excuses include, “My kids are running around in a panic, I need to calm them down,” and “I feel like I’m going to be sick, I need to go to the bathroom.”)

When it comes to talking to the police, Gabe advocates a middle ground approach between the “say nothing until your lawyer arrives” school and the “I’m a good guy, I’ve got nothing to hide school. Go ahead and talk to the cops, explaining what happened in terms of what the BG did, emphasizing that you only acted in response to his illegal actions. If the questions turn toward you (particularly if they get into territory beyond the immediate events, like how many guns you own, or how long you’ve carried a gun) then it’s time to shut up and wait for your lawyer.

After lunch, the weather had turned sour again, but training continued regardless. We talked a bit about multiple attackers, and moved on to a drill involving shooting three assailants while moving off the X. Since this one involved a lot of movement and shooting at a fairly extreme angle to the firing line, we ran it one at a time, rather than as a group.

Our second exercise of the afternoon involved transferring the pistol from one hand to another (for use in the event your shooting hand was injured, going around a corner to the weak side, to get a better shooting angle while running away from the BG, etc.). Gabe’s got a technique that actually seems pretty secure against dropping the pistol. Basically, you pull the thumb of your shooting hand back off the pistol and slide the thumb of your non-shooting hand in underneath it, so you’ve already got the non-shooting thumb wrapped around the grip of the pistol before you begin to loosen your fingers on your shooting hand. This keeps the pistol fairly securely gripped at all times during the transfer. Despite doing this in the rain, with cold, numb fingers, we didn’t have any dropped guns.

The last exercise was doing some contact range shots from position sul. On one hand, these exercises put to rest a lot of my concerns about sul, on the other hand, they convinced me that it’s a pretty uncomfortable position to hold for any length of time. I may use it for a quick check behind me in a post-shooting situation (to avoid sweeping any bystanders and lessen the chance of getting shot if a cop happens to be coming up behind me) but it’s not going to be my standard ready position. The drills involved shooting at targets from sul at a contact distances to our front, right and left sides, and behind. The combination of the close range muzzle blast and wet paper targets meant that most of them had totally disintegrated by the end of the drill (we all ended up with little bits of target on us). The drill was also evidence of quite a lot of trust in us on Gabe’s part (or maybe just trust in his liability waivers). In order to avoid shooting into the sidewalks on the range (with a substantial risk of ricochets) we had to move the targets closer together in the gravel areas between the walks. So we were doing these drills where it would be very easy to sweep your neighbor with just arms length distances between shooters. I have to say that this level of trust was probably well earned. During the entire class everyone seemed to have very good muzzle and trigger finger discipline.

At the beginning of this class, I was a bit worried about my skill level. As I mentioned in the Day 1 post, I was one of the least experienced shooters in the group and, to be completely honest, I’m a fairly mediocre shot. However, I think I’ve acquitted myself fairly well over the past two days. Of course, a big part of this is the fact that point shooting and shooting on the move were new to most students in the class. Since we did very little sighted fire, this kind of leveled the playing field.

While I feel I held my own when it came to shooting, I was surprised to find that I’m actually ahead of the curve when it comes to some of the non-shooting stuff. During the past two days, I saw several of these much more experienced shooters just standing there when their gun jammed, either staring at their gun, or looking over at Gabe with a, “what should I do?” look on their face. I also saw quite a few empty guns being put back in holsters. Shooting with our local Polite Society group for the last six months has really trained these habits out of me. At our meets, if the gun locks up during an exercise, the people watching back behind the firing line will start yelling, “Fix it! Fix it! Fix it!” until you start clearing it. I had one jam during the course (a doublefeed). It surprised the hell out of me (it was my first ever jam with my HK, after more than 1400 rounds) but after a moment of shock, I stripped the mag, worked the slide, and shoved a fresh one in. Since the other students might not be as used to comments from the peanut gallery, I tried to hold my tongue, but I did end up yelling “Fix it!” at one guy today. Same deal with topping off your gun at the end of the fight. It’s something we emphasize at our shoots (you’re supposed shoot the next drill or scenario with your gun in the exact same condition you holstered it in at the end of the last one). During this course, the only time I holstered my gun without a full magazine is when I didn’t have a full one to feed it. This assessment of my fellow shooters may be somewhat over-critical, but I think it goes to show that knowing how to fight effectively with your pistol encompasses a lot of things beyond just knowing how to shoot it.

Tomorrow: Force-on-force! (and hopefully better weather).

Day 3

Weather report: It was colder today than the last two days, with light snow on and off. However, this was actually quite a bit more comfortable than the freezing rain we got the first two days.

We started the day with some talk about the purpose and structure of the airsoft force-on-force drills. After this we all disposed of all live weapons (including any knives or impact weapons in addition to pistols) and had a partner verify that we were clean.

The first drill we did was called the “suicide drill”. Essentially, this was an old west style quick-draw showdown. The two participants stood about seven yards apart and each tried to peg the other on Gabe’s command. Unless somebody flubbed their draw, the usual result was an airsoft BB arriving on each target with no more than a quarter of a second interval between them. Unless you hit the BG’s CNS, they’re not going to be forced to stop fighting before they shoot you.

Throughout the day, we actually had quite a few flubbed draws. Guns got caught in coats, people didn’t disengage safeties, etc. One guy even sent his gun skittering across the pavement. A lot of this was probably due to people not being used to shooting in heavy or many-layered clothing. Some of us have been shooting once a month on this range all winter, so we’re used to shooting from beneath coats and while wearing gloves. Of course, the folks who came to the class from the warmer parts Arizona and California didn’t have much practice shooting in cold weather gear, but I was surprised at how many of the folks from colder climes didn’t seem to have experience actually shooting in the cold.

The other big contributor to problems on the draw was the fact that many of the people who were borrowing Gabe’s airsoft Glocks for the course didn’t have a holster that fit them. They were carrying Mexican style instead. If anyone is thinking about taking an airsoft force-on-force course, I would highly recommend getting your own airsoft gun, preferably one that’s as close to your carry gun as possible. If it fits in your carry holster, great. If not, get a decent holster to carry it in. My EDC is an HK USP Compact .45. For the course, I bought a KWA USP Compact. Since the airsoft gun is intended to represent the 9mm version of the USPc (which is built on a slightly smaller frame than the .45) it’s not exactly the same as my carry gun, but its pretty close. It fits quite securely in my EDC holster. I’d also recommend getting a gas blowback gun. We’ve got one guy shooting an electric (a Glock 18 airsoft that has full auto capability, though he’s thankfully refrained from using that feature in the drills so far). The gas blowbacks seem to be the most realistic when it comes to weapon manipulations, and they have the higher velocity.

The rest of morning was occupied by a series of gun versus knife drills. We started off with the standard Tuller Drill: the guy with the knife charges from 21 feet while the shooter tries to get off the X and hit him with the airsoft. At seven yards, this isn’t that hard unless you flub the draw or trip and fall (a particular danger when you try to backpedal, rather than turning and running forwards). As the day went on, we got progressively closer and closer. We wound up doing the drill at 4 yards, and most people were still able to put 2 or 3 rounds into the knife wielding attacker before he caught up with them. Since airsoft pellets aren’t actually going to stop anyone the way a good hollowpoint would, the standard for success is how many rounds you put in your opponent before he stabs/shoots you.

After lunch, we moved on to gun versus gun drills. One student plays the BG, and just stands there and shoots while the other plays the GG and gets off the X. After doing this once, you switch. In the real world, your opponent in a gunfight probably isn’t going to expect rapid movement. In the class, however, the person playing the BG has just gone through the same training you have, so if they’re smart, they’ll just draw immediately to the right or left, rather than experiencing the surprise that a real BG would. To simulate this, the ‘BG’ is instructed to fire one round right at the ‘GG’s’ original position before they start tracking and shooting at the moving target. In addition to helping to simulate an actual BG’s reaction, it also encourages you to move quickly, since you know your position is about to be occupied by enemy fire.

We started off doing these drills at about seven yards, with both students drawing on Gabe’s command. Barring a flubbed draw, the ‘GG’ was almost always able to put 2-3 rounds into the ‘BG’ before receiving any return fire. After moving this up to four yards, we started letting the ‘BG’ initiate the confrontation (rather than drawing on command, the BG initiated the exercise by drawing) putting the GG behind the curve. Surprisingly, even when the ‘BG’ got to draw first, the ‘GG’ could generally get a couple of rounds into the ‘BG’ before recieving any in return if he had a smooth draw and got off the X real quick.

The last drill of the day was at just three yards, and both participants were allowed to use movement. This really eliminated the edge that movement offers versus a stationary target, and thanks to the close range, both guys ended up taking a lot of hits. The only exception to this was when one of the participants decided to go hand-to-hand. Grappling generally resulted in one of the participants taking a lot of hits, with the other coming out unscathed. However, which participant took the hits and which came out all right was pretty variable. Sometimes the one who initiated the grapple came out well, sometimes he got clobbered by the guy he tried to grapple with.

Going into the training today, I was a little concerned about how all those incoming pellets would feel (you tend to absorb a lot of them, especially when playing the BG). Between adrenaline and the heavy clothing I was wearing because of the weather, I didn’t really notice any of the incoming rounds (I do have a few red welts on my chest, but I don’t really remember getting them). I actually consider this a bit of a problem. Not knowing when you’re hit doesn’t do as much to encourage avoiding incoming fire as a good hard hit would. When the weather gets better I’d like to run some force-on-force drills wearing just a long-sleeve t-shirt, rather than a t-shirt, thick sweatshirt, and jacket. The only time the pellets really hurt was if you got hit by a bunch in the same spot in a row (which happened sometimes when we got up close) or when the pellet hit a thin layer of flesh backed by bone (like the hands or skull). Since we did the drills wearing paintball masks, head hits were pretty rare (a few guys got hit in the top of the head while playing the knife wielding BG when they lowered their heads and charged). Unfortunately, the hands are one of the more common areas to be hit, and because the flesh is so thin there in really hurts. I was wearing gloves and it still hurt like hell when I got hit there. One of the hits on my pinky raised a pretty good blood blister.

Tomorrow: more force-on-force!

Day 4

Weather report: Much better! About 10-15 degrees warmer than yesterday, partly cloudy, no precipitation. Definitely much nicer than the past few days.

With the warmer weather today, everyone was a bit more lightly dressed. I wore a t-shirt, with a fleece jacket over it as a cover garment. The rounds hitting the t-shirt were definitely noticeable, and painful enough to make me want to avoid getting hit.
This morning we started off with some hand to hand stuff, mostly disarms and trying to trap the gun in the holster. This is something I really wanted out of this class. For quite a while I’ve felt that not knowing disarming techniques represented a pretty big hole in my repertoire. We started off trying to trap the opponent’s gun in the holster, focusing on trying to get “two against one”: both of your hands on the opponent’s gun arm. One of the lessons I took from this drill is the importance of having a weapon you can deploy with your off hand while wrestling with a guy. Even after you’ve got his gun trapped, the longer you are struggling with him the better the chance that he’s going to break free and shoot you. You can try throwing him around into walls or the ground, but there are times when it would be nice to stab him or empty your gun into his spine. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s your gun hand that’s holding his gun in the holster. Being able to draw a BUG or knife off handed would be a real advantage in this situation. Right now I carry a knife in my weak side pocket, but it’s not something I’d feel confident about deploying in the middle of a fight (part of this is because the clip is set up for right handed carry, so when you put it on the left side nothing’s really in the right place for opening it and I’ve got to get it turned around before I open it). Gabe and one of the students had some big Cold Steel folders (“That’s not a knife. This is a knife!” sized knives). I may have to get me one of those (and some real knife training to go along with it).

After doing that for a while, we moved on to disarms. Gabe showed us three techniques, depending on how high the gun was and where our hands were. After some practice in pairs, we went at it with airsoft. We started out at close range (close enough to easily reach the weapon) then moved it out further and further, maxing out at 3-4 yards. At close range, the disarms are really effective (provided you don’t flub them) but as you get further out, it becomes more and more likely that you’ll take a round before getting a hand on them.

Next, we tried the exact same drill (facing an opponent at 3 yards who has a gun on you) except you went for a gun rather than a knife. The really interesting thing is that even at 3-4 yards, the outcome was generally better going hand to hand than using a gun. If you try to draw on a guy who has a gun on you at three yards, the best anyone could do is turn it into a tie, with both guys firing at about the same time (even this takes really explosive movement off the X, a fast smooth draw, and good skills shooting on the move). In the real world this would mean that both parties end up dead. Going hand to hand often meant taking a hit before you closed the range, but provided you really got off the X fast that hit was usually a peripheral one (probably survivable as long as you win the fight). Trying to outdraw a drawn gun the best outcome that you can hope for is that both of you end up dead. This is definitely a, “die less often” situation. A drawn gun pointed at you outside of arms reach is a real sucky situation, and going hand to hand against them is the best of a bad set of choices. Still, I found it very surprising that hand to hand was the best choice at that long of a range.

The other important thing I learned is that if you attempt a disarm it had better work. A failed disarm generally resulted in the guy attempting it getting shot. I don’t want to be standing there with a mugger pointing a real gun at me while I’m thinking, “OK, we covered this in Gabe’s class six months ago, how does that disarm go again?” I’m definitely buying a red gun and disarms are going to be a part of our local shooting group’s monthly get together.

After lunch we started on some multiple adversary drills. We started off with one on two. Multiple live adversaries are really difficult, much more difficult than doing a multiple target stage or scenario against paper or steel BGs (particularly when your adversaries are on the tail end of four days of intense shooting training). The best strategy is definitely to try and stack your opponents, but doing this with two guys who are moving and shooting at you isn’t easy. One shortcoming of our multiple adversary training is that airsoft guns don’t have any stopping power. Since your fire isn’t doing to disable either adversary, it’s real easy to just get focused on one BG, pumping round after round into him while not paying any attention to the other guy. I really want to shoot a multiple adversary drill with live ammo and reactive targets so I can get a feel for how to transition from one BG to another as they go down.

Next we threw in a third guy armed with a contact weapon. The contact weapon was interesting, because seemed difficult for a lot of shooters to prioritize them. If you shoot him first, you just end up getting shot to pieces by the two guys with guns. On the flip side, some guys concentrated on the gun armed assailants first, to the exclusion of the guy armed with the knife. While playing the knife armed BG, I was able to close in on the good guy, wrap him up in a one-armed bear hug and bury the foam knife in his ribs because he was concentrating so hard on the gunfight he was having with the other two BGs. When you’ve got multiple adversaries armed with a mix of contact and ranged weapons, who to shoot first is highly situation dependent.

One thing I’m really feeling the lack of in this course is the absence of any more freeform simulations or roleplaying, rather than the predefined drills we’ve been doing for the last two days. I kind of felt this way the first day and a half, when we were doing one on one drills, but this really kicked into high gear when we got to multiple adversaries. We were starting these drills with two or three BGs lined up about five yards away. Other than having them on either side of you, this is probably the most difficult position to start a fight against multiple adversaries. With multiple potential opponents, the pre-fight maneuvering is really important. If you can get your assailants stacked up (put one behind the other, relative to you) it would be a big advantage, since you can take them more one after the other rather than both at once. I can see why Gabe doesn’t do this sort of thing, given the limited time available during the course (this was a pretty full two days), but it’s definitely something I want to explore with our local shooting group.

After finishing up with multiple adversaries, we went into the classroom to talk about our experiences and figure out what we need to do to win a gunfight. This was a great, freewheeling discussion about everything we learned in the course.

Overall, this was a great course. I had a really fun time, and learned a hell of a lot. Gabe is an excellent instructor and really has a point of view that’s different than you’ll get most other places. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to expand their horizons when it comes to personal defense.

One last thing I’ll add. I mentioned back in my day one post that I was a bit apprehensive about my level of experience, particularly for the live fire Close Range Gunfighting course. On the Suarez International website, it even has a prominent warning, “THIS COURSE IS NOT FOR THE NOVICE SHOOTER. If you have not received basic instruction in Defensive Pistol, or have a question about your skill level, please call us first.” After taking the class, I think I can give a slightly more nuanced take on the level of experience required. I don’t think you have to be a crack shot to take this class and do well in it (I’m certainly not). However, you do need good gunhandling skills. If you haven’t got your draw and presentation down pat, it’s going to be hard to get the most out of this course. If you don’t have good muzzle and trigger finger discipline, you’re going to be downright unsafe. However, if you’ve got good gunhandling fundamentals, you’ll get a lot out of this course no matter what your group size is.

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