Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Training Courses: thoughts on gear for the new student

In my previous post, I discussed some of my thoughts and some answers to questions that I had as a first time three day carbine class student. Since I didn't touch on what gear I ran and how it worked out much, I figured I'd about double the amount of posts I'm putting up in a typical month and see if I can knock this missive out before I fall asleep and bash my head into my desk. Funny, of course, but I don't like having to explain those black eyes at work. It also damages my Intardweb Celebrity. Can't have that.

To me, gear is something that deserves some thought before a class. Because I believe in train as you fight, getting too much gear can be a hindrance rather than a help to being able to apply what you learn. If you're a SWAT cop or door kickin' Soldier, then it makes a lot of sense to run the course in your duty gear, including armor. That's how you're going to be doing it for real, so the most value will be in training in your gear. If that's not what you do, though, running a lot of gear just to look cool may soon get in the way and stop you from learning. When you figure that going to a class far enough away that you'll have to stay away from home to go is going to cost you a thousand dollars or more, having a breach in learning is a catastrophic failure.

I'm gonna tell you what I ran in the class, and then I'm going to point out a couple issues that had to be worked around or changed. I did find some things that didn't work out as I had planned. That happens when new gear goes to class.

I had to carry four to five magazines per relay, which I did by a chest rig and a first line belt. I gotta shoot some photos, but that may have to wait till after the match this weekend. I also needed two to three pistol magazines. That number is variable because I wasn't using them a lot and I'm not certain I truly needed more than one spare. It was handy to have a pair, and I compete with a double pistol magazine pouch, so I think I'd have preferred that in any case.

My chest rig is the ATS Low Profile Chest Harness, which I carried four magazines and a tourniquet in. The harness holds three magazines in pouches, and has two upright utility pouches hard sewn to it. I used the right hand pouch to hold a Tac Med Tourniquet. The left hand pouch did multiple duty. I typically used it to carry an M4 magazine, but I also used it for my fourth MnP 9 magazine, and also for loose rounds. The thing that's different about my harness is that it was made of 500D (denier) instead of 1000D Cordura. It's about half the weight and about 70% of the strength of the heavier "thousand d" harness. For a training rig, it's just about perfect. I'm fairly sure they'll be available in the near future, but I'm not certain when.

I used an ATS War Belt for my belt kit, and for training, I found a lot to like about this rig. I ran an ATS War Belt Insert Belt, which turned out to be much better than I expected it to be. Its a flexible belt, which usually doesn't bode well for hanging a holster from it. Flexible belts will sag under the weight of the holster. However, since the inside of the War Belt is lined with hard side Velcro and the Insert Belt is soft side Velcro, they pretty much lock together. I also used ATS suspenders on that belt.

On the War Belt, I used a Safariland ALS holster for a S&W M&P9 with an X300 light from Surefire. The holster is attached to a UBL (Universal Belt Loop), which drops it down below the belt 2". The bottom of the War Belt is left open for just this purpose. That way, the hanger runs off the inner belt, rather than taking up valuable PALS webbing on the War Belt's outside. I also used a 500D Roll Up Dump Pouch from ATS behind my left hip, and used a Safariland M77 single M4 magazine pouch. This was used as a "speed pouch", and was typically where I was keeping the mag I used when I needed it fast or where I kept the magazine I loaded out of when doing the five round loads of the Modified Navy Qual. That was attached to the belt with a Safariland MLS hook. I also have the belt loop and ELS mounting systems, but those are for different purposes. Its a very flexible system.

I initially tried running an ATS double magazine pouch on my War Belt, by my Viking Tactics VTAC sling was getting caught on it. Early on, I moved it to the front of the Low Profile Chest Harness (LPCH from now on). That was somewhat less natural for me, since I pistol reload off the left hip, but I didn't find any other issues other than that the sling occasionally had to be moved over to access the mags. I could have hung them on the utility pouch, but since it's much less rigid, I decided that there'd be more trouble trying to get the mags out of a pouch that wasn't against a "solid" surface. The pouch didn't shift or flop on the left most magazine pouch of the LPCH, so that's where I ran it.

I ran a prototype hydration carrier from ATS specifically for ATS chest harnesses. It's not a final version, but that's gonna be a heck of a good seller. It's money and it probably doesn't even know it...but I do.

My carbine has been listed here several times, but I'll get some new pics of it and throw them in the gear photos that I'm gonna take. The only thing that's changed is that I've added XTM panels from Magpul to the rail, but she's so sexy I can't help but post photos of that gun.

I preloaded my 25 Magpul PMags. After talking to some friends that have done lots of training, and to Pat Rogers about this, I've come to believe there are advantages to preloading even more magazines, to the tune of 40-60. Loading 40 will get you about a thousand rounds in magazines. Why that's important is that other students will have done that. They're relaxing, hydrating, and talking to each other. There is much to be learned from other students, and it may or may not have something to do with guns, gear, or training related stuff. If you're jamming mags, you're going to be less able to be a part of that. The advantage of preloading even more is that you can just dump the partial magazines and grab full ones. Less time messing with loading is more time to spend talking to and listening to the instructor and other students. ABL: Always Be Learning.

It was amazingly hot and humid during the three days I took the class initially, so I wore long sleeve shirts. Wicking shirts are something I consider a must-have. Long sleeve wicking shirts would be even better. They do so much to keep you as cool as you can be under those conditions that they're almost life saving equipment. When Joe and I went back on Sunday for the second class, it was a good ten degrees cooler and breezy. The weather was much better, and I ran a short sleeve t-shirt and a lot of Bullfrog waterproof sunscreen. A long sleeve wicking shirt would have been money, and Joe confirmed that...because that's what he had on.

Because of the amount of time spent on the ground, long pants are a must. I used 5.11 tactical pants, because that's what I have. They gave 'em to me; I kinda have to use it when it's free and it works pretty good. I also used knee pads. In my case, they were Alta Superflex buckle knee pads. Joe borrowed my Black Diamond Telekneesis pads, and said they were a life (or knee) saver. Another good one to take a look at are the Hatch X-Factor pads. Elbow pads are not a bad idea. My elbows got some minor dings, and I would have used pads if I'd had them. For that job, I'd go with neoprene pads for their flexibility and comfort. Finally, I ran good ThorLo and Lorpin socks and a pair of The North Face hiking shoes. Ankle support is a good thing on uneven terrain, when shooting and moving and some running is involved.

My go-to-the-range, concealed and open carry belt is the same old black Aker gunbelt I've had since mid-'05. It refuses to die. I carried my Glock 19 to the range in a Peters Custom Holsters "Hold Fast" IWB rig. It's good stuff.

I think that's all of it. I may edit this later if I think of anything else or I get a good question about something I missed. Pics will be coming soon, probably over the weekend. I'm falling over and have to go to bed.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Training Courses: thoughts for the new student

I just got back from three days of the Carbine Operator's Course, taught by the legendary Pat Rogers. This particular class took place in Columbia, TN, a short ways south of Nashvegas, TN. I wanted to blog about this class after the first hour, but as time and training went by, I decided I wanted to take a little different look at it, and not just do another AAR; there are already several very good ones from the class. That would mean this post would have to be taken down the hall to the Department of Redundancy Department.

Instead, I'd like to offer my observations as a new student, to the potential new student who's thinking about taking a class for the first time. This was the first gun fighting course I've taken, although I wouldn't call myself untrained in that area. As a frame of reference, here's a snapshot of what I've done so both readers of my blog can determine where I'm coming from: beginning, intermediate and advanced tactical handgun at Grossmont College in San Diego (through the Administration of Justice department), and training with friends who've trained with several known instructors and are instructors themselves. Most of what I've done has been informal, but the quality of instruction was very good, and I practice those manipulation repetitions regularly.

This will consist of determining if the course is appropriate, what to expect, and some thoughts on what to bring. Out of curiosity, I did some searching before the class, and didn't see anything like this done already. I'm sure that means it's probably not needed, but it's my blog and I don't have to pay for the hosting. Up it goes!

There are two things I consider to be very important that I'm sure get the least amount of attention: knowing who the instructor is and the course description. Knowing who the instructor is becomes important not so much as what he'll teach as what level he's teaching to. Larry Vickers has an introductory class that reads like a beginner's course description, but it's really not. He's Larry Freakin' Vickers. His background is pretty well known: a guy that taught tactical shooting to Operators isn't the first guy to go to when you leave the gun store. Some thought MUST go into choosing a progression of instructors. And, once you know who the instructor is, including their background and what they teach, the course description will make a whole lot more sense. When in doubt, contact the instructor. They want you to have a positive learning experience as much as you do.

You've found an instructor that the Intardweb says you need to be training with if you're cool. That may or may not be a good idea, based on the next factor: matching the course of fire to your physical abilities. I'm really not talking about the PT studs as much as those of us who are...less fit, shall we say. Here's why that's important: when the course says "moderate intensity", what that means is you're going to have to be relatively flexible and be able to do some physical things, like going to your knees about a hundred times in a three day course. Honestly, that was a big problem for me. My knees don't like to be knelt on. Couple that with soreness from the course, and I wasn't able to keep up on the Mod Navy Qual on day three. You've got to be honest with yourself and your abilities to get the most out of the course. Some are more ACQ (Arm Chairborne Qualified) friendly than others. Contact the instructor and ask what type of stuff you'll be doing, and be honest with yourself in your evaluation as to whether you can do it or not. It's your money, invest it wisely.

When and where exactly you choose to attend a class will make a difference in your comfort. Be aware of what the weather is doing and dress appropriately. You may need rain gear, you may need warm clothes. If that's something you need, shop early, and determine what your budget is. If you can't afford decent stuff, you may consider training at another time. Going cheap because you won't use it much may not help you if you tear a hole in it early in the training. You're not deploying with it, but you will be using it a lot, Make sure it's not going to fall apart before you're done with it. The same goes for warm weather gear, and one factor is critically important to both: make sure it's breathable. Overheating or being cold and miserable can both lead to dehydration, which will put you down and keep you from learning.

The class I attended ended up being humid and warmer than average for this time of year. I am prone to sunburn, so I used copious amounts of Bullfrog waterproof sunblock and long sleeved shirts. I also used wicking t-shirts underneath, which was tremendously helpful. Even so, I did sit out a relay. I brought three gallons of water and ten bottles of Gatorade. In this humidity (we're in the middle of April right now) that was about half as much as we ended up using. The cooler, though, was money. The one we used was a 40 quart with wheels and a travel handle. Big enough for about a day and a half of hydro, but we consumed a lot more than we planned. The most important thing is to stay hydrated, and having a cooler full of that stuff was worth the hassle of lugging it along.

Consider food, too, both in what to eat and how the cost impacts attending training. There's a balance to reach between getting calories so you have energy and eating too much and wanting a nap after chow. I certainly got hungry, but tried to eat just enough to stop being hungry. I got my Jetboil up and running again, so I took a Mountain House freeze dried entree for lunch. Worked like a champ! Snacking on NutriGrain bars between did the trick.You might consider an MRE a day if you have some you like, but there are some good freeze dried meals out there that'll keep you from having to leave the range. Interaction with your fellow students is tremendously helpful. Stay where they are. Many classes will meet after the class to break bread. I find this time very helpful, and highly recommend spending the time with your fellow students.

I lived an hour and 40 minutes from where the class range was. That's far enough, to me, to make getting a hotel room worth the cost. The less you travel, the more time you have to prepare for the next day's class. I brought 25 mags that I had preloaded. If I'd needed to, I could have jammed mags in the hotel room. I had all the time I wanted to get cleaned up (and taking ridiculously long showers that I don't do at home because I pay for the water), relax, get sleep, go out to eat with classmates by staying 15 or so minutes from the range. That was a big, big help. Plan that carefully when choosing to attend a class in your region. What you make up in saving money may cost you in other areas. Put some thought into this.

What to bring is an interesting question. Let me preface this by saying that the only thing I brought that I didn't use, other than clothes and the portable DVD player, was my big ol' collapsing chair. I could have, I just didn't need the chair because chairs were provided. As I typically do, I packed more clothes than I used, trying to cover contingencies. People who pack better than I do will be able to take a smaller bag, but since I only have one piece of luggage, I tend to fill it.

I also brought my own pillow. It's a Sobokawa buckwheat hull pillow that I've been versions of for a couple decades now...not the same pillow all that time; I've bought new ones since the original. I find that, for me, the secret to getting some sleep away from home comes down to my own pillow, earplugs, and Simply Sleep. Add to that a cranked up A/C to make the room good and cold, and I tend to fall asleep fairly readily.

My friend Matt E. and I traveled together for this class, and on the way back we discussed the many ways to carry the load required for this class. Many of the students in this were full time Tactical Team members. We had guys who did that for their local PD, and contractors as well. Those guys took the class in their work gear: full armor and full load outs. I don't want those guys coming through the door on me. Those guys are Terminators. Train as you fight was applied in spades.

In other classes, though, there are guys that wear a bunch of gear because they see photos of America's warriors doing so. Yeah, it's cool, but ask them if they want to have to carry that load. They'll say lighter is better. Apply that to a class and you may find that running all that cool kit is getting in the way of your learning because you're suffering. We both came to the conclusion that more is definitely not better in this case. I would posit that the way I went is the best path to follow: not only minimal gear, but I also chose the lightest stuff I could get.

Where the load out comes into play in a big way is this: you're going to be putting out all day long. You're going to be working hard. You're going to fire somewhere over a thousand rounds in three days. What you'll find is that you're going to get sore in places you don't expect to. Your hands will get sore and weak, your shoulder and back muscles will get tight, your knees will get beat up (can't recommend knee pads strongly enough) and your lower back will become irritated. Even though the AR carbine has very little recoil, jamming it into your shoulder will make your shoulder sore. Your forearm muscles will get fatigued from pulling on your carbine all day. You're going to get tired even if you are in good shape but don't shoot that much regularly. Minimize how much compounding of that you do.

Another thing to know is how stuff rides before you get there. You need to spend some time adjusting and situating your gear to find conflicts. I did that and still ended up moving my double pistol magazine pouch to the front left of my harness because it was hanging up on my sling. That's another reason less is more: less conflict and fighting your gear, the more you're learning! See how this works now?

The instructors are the real authorities on what is required to get through their class, and they'll have recommendations for you. I would caution you to do your research ahead of time and try to keep your questions to a minimum. They're on the range literally all day, busting their butt training people. Away from that, they're taking care of administrative issues for the class. They have limited time when they're on the road to take care of such things. Don't pester them. Ask pertinent questions, but don't bombard them with every thought that comes to your head. That's one of the ways to get on the NFE (Not F'ing Ever) list.

Other ways include: being That Guy to the point that what you're doing becomes unsafe or irritating to a level the instructor won't put up with. Having poor gun handling skills in a class that requires being good with them is another way. Whining, arguing, and having a closed mind will all get you NFE'd. If you're trying to prove a point of one training style over another, you're wasting your time and theirs. One of my friends went to train with Larry Vickers, one of the premier pistol instructors extant. A guy paid for, paid to travel to, and paid to be there for a pistol class with The Man. He also did EVERYTHING with the Israeli Method he'd been taught previously. Why go to train with LAV if you're going to bring something else into it and not at least try his way? That's stupid, and a waste of money.

There are several forums that a prospective student can check out to read AAR's (After Action Reports) for various classes and instructors. Google can be a big help. Before you do that, though, have an idea of what it is you wish to be trained on, and be honest with yourself when checking the qualifications.

I will be doing a separate post on the gear I used for this class. I'm not sure if both the readers of my blog care, but I'm gonna do it anyway.