Monday, September 21, 2009

Gabe Suarez's Close Range Rifle Gunfighting Class

At the beginning of August, the Utah Polite Society hosted a Close Range Rifle Gunfighting class from Gabe Suarez in Salt Lake City. Up until a year ago I lived in Salt Lake, so getting back to Utah and seeing by shooting buddies again turned this class into kind of an Old Home Week for me.

I took my first formal rifle class from John Farnam earlier this year. While it was a good class, and did a nice job teaching my how to run my rifle, it emphasized shooting from what I'd call medium range. The most common shooting distance was around the 40 yard line. For the situations where I might use a rifle for self-defense, it would quite likely be at a closer distance than that. A big part of the reason I decided to sign up for this class was to add to my bag of tricks at closer ranges.

Gabe hasn't taught many rifle classes under this name recently, instead concentrating on his Kalashnikov Rifle Gunfighting class. The AK class has generally the same content, but it obviously includes more AK specific stuff. Since then, ammo costs and availability problems have led Gabe to invite any sort of rifle to his AK classes. However, we still may have had a big more variety in arms than usual thanks to this class being advertised under the different name.

We'd last had Gabe out in Utah two years ago, in early May. That time around, it actually snowed on us during the class. This year, the weather was rather different. Highs were around 90 both days, though it was very dry, so sweat evaporated pretty quickly. Gabe told us a story about a student in one of his classes down in Prescott who didn't drink enough and ended up getting very dehydrated. It was one of those "funny only because nobody got seriously hurt" kind of things. Thankfully, everyone stayed pretty well hydrated in this class. Gabe was very good about giving fairly frequent breaks for people to drink and stuff mags. The first day, we went through two five gallon coolers of water and the second, we emptied the coolers, refilled them, then almost emptied them again. With a little over 20 guys in the class, that works out between half a gallon and a gallon of water per person per day (not to mention whatever water or sports drinks people brought on their own). Given the heat, this was not an unreasonable amount of water.


I shot the class with my Robinson Armament XCR, along with my usual Glock 21. I also carried a j-frame in a pocket holster as a BUG, but I was just carrying it on general principles, rather than for use during the class (I didn't even bother to swap it over to practice ammo). Because I had to fly across the country to this class, I didn't bring along a second rifle or service pistol.

I've been playing around with the configuration of my XCR. I've got it set up with an Aimpoint Micro, a flashlight, and a forward vertical grip. The grip has been slowly migrating backwards as I've switched from a "broomhandle" grip on it to mainly grabbing the rifle's fore end and just wrapping my last 1 or 2 fingers around it. As part of these changes, I switched from a Streamlight mount that held the flashlight quite far to the side to a Surefire G2 in a Viking Tactics mount that put it much close in at about 11 o'clock. Unfortunately, after the first string of fire in the class I found this wasn't working very well for me. The flashlight mount was right near where I wanted my thumb to be. During the next break I stripped it off the side rail and reinstalled it on the bottom rail, putting the light at about 8 o'clock. This also involved moving the vertical grip back half an inch and relocating the sling mount. This worked far better from a shooting perspective, though I haven't had a chance to try out the light at night. The other change since my last rifle class was to exchange the flip-up front sight for a fixed one. I'd been running the front sight up all the time, so it made sense to use a more rugged fixed unit. As usual, I ran PMAGs in my rifle and carried them in a sneakybag.

The majority of the 20 guys in the class were running AKs of some description, but there was a substantial minority of ARs and a few oddballs. Two folks with big ammo budgets were shooting an M1A and a FAL SBR. One fellow from California was using a Kel-Tec SU-16. Most of the rifles were iron sighted, but a fair number had sights of some sort. Most of these were zero magnification red dots (with the Aimpoint Micro being by far the most common), but there was also an ACOG and a conventional 1-4 variable scope. The class seemed to be split about half and half between sneakybags of one description or another and more tactical gear (chest rigs, subloads).

Day 1

When the class started on Saturday, the first thing we did was cover reloading. Gabe teaches muzzle up reloading. This gets the rifle up in front of your face, minimizing the tendency to take your eyes off the battlefield while looking down at your gun. It also provides a better angle for getting the magazine into the weapon, particularly for the folks with with an AK, M1A, or FAL where the magazine rocks into place. Gabe teaches a simple 'tactical' reload (always retaining the magazine). He disagrees with using a speed reload for rifles, both because you may need those magazines later (particularly during a situation like the LA riots or Katrina) and because with a rifle, transitioning to pistol (at close range) or seeking cover to reload behind (at longer ranges) is probably a more appropriate response to an empty gun than even the fastest of reloads.

Gabe also talked to us about ready positions. He really doesn't have much use for the traditional "low ready" position, regarding it as more of a range technique than something that's really useful in a fight. It leaves the rifle with quite a ways to move to bring it to bear on an opponent, yet it lacks the advantages (compactness, relaxation, rapid movement) of the other ready positions that leave the rifle far from bearing on the opponent. Instead he teaches a set of five positions: contact ready, close contact ready, sul, port arms, and patrol ready.

Contact ready is simply an offhand shooting position, with the rifle lowered just slightly (only a few inches, versus the 45 degrees or so of traditional low ready) to give a good view over the sights. Contact ready is for confronting assailants, taking corners, or any other situation where you have an identifiable danger you want to be able to shoot very quickly. Close contact ready, also known as underarm assault, has the rifle pointed at the assailant with the butt tucked under the armpit. This can be a firing position or a ready position. It fills the same role as contact ready in tighter quarters. Sul positions the rifle in front of the chest and stomach, pointed straight down. It can be used in very close quarters, in crowds of non-threats, and for scanning behind you at the conclusion of a fight. Port arms, with the rifle held toward the support side, pointed up at a 45 degree angle, is useful for rapid movement, when getting to the destination is more important than shooting, such as getting out of dodge, or moving to a moderately distant piece of cover. An alternative is to hold the rifle in one hand by the pistol grip pointed straight up. Patrol ready, also known as Rhodesian ready, has the rifle held across the body pointed down at a 45 degree angle. This is one of the more difficult position to bring the rifle to bear from, but it's also the most relaxed. If you are going to spend a long time with a rifle in your hands, sooner or later it will probably end up in some variation of patrol ready. Gabe mentioned that because of this, he does most of his practice bringing the rifle into action from patrol ready.

In addition to ready positions, Gabe also covered various administrative carry positions, such as carrying at the balance (usually just in front of the magazine on most rifles) and cradling the rifle in the crook of the arm. For sling carry, he likes a simple support side, muzzle down or "African carry". This keeps the rifle from hanging up on your pistol and allows it to be brought into action fairly quickly. Almost everyone in the class was using a 2-point sling. Gabe is not a big fan of the three point sling, and only likes one point slings in certain specialized situations. He really doesn't like slings that tie you to the rifle. To illustrate why, he told a pretty memorable story involving a huge muscular drug dealer grabbing a MP5 attached to a SWAT team member by a three point sling and throwing him around like a rag doll.

Gabe laid out the four common rifles being used by students in the class, the FAL, M1A, AR, and AK. We had a fairly extensive discussion about the pros and cons of each. Gabe's love for the AK is well known, but he gave a fairly balanced appraisal of each rifle. As he put it, the AK is not as inaccurate as its reputation, and the AR is not as unreliable as its reputation.

The next exercise was to confirm the zero on our rifles. We didn't go through the full zeroing process, since that can be quite time consuming for a large group. In any case, this class is called "Close Range Rifle Gunfighting" for a reason. We didn't take a single shot beyond 25 yards (though some of the 25 yard shots were headshots). A perfect bench rest zero wasn't really required for any of the shooting we did, so we just confirmed the rifles were generally shooting where we wanted them. My Aimpoint and LaRue mount combo held up well, and shot where I wanted them too despite the tender loving care displayed by the airport baggage handlers.

We took a break for lunch, which was catered by the range manager's wife and her sister. They dealt out a fine array of burgers, chicken sandwiches, and other assorted fare.

After lunch, we started in ernest with the shooting exercises, beginning with some snap shooting practice. Gabe distinguished snap shooting, which involves mounting the rifle and getting a sight picture, from some of the CQB techniques introduced later that don't involve getting a traditional sight picture. The amount of time to make a snap shot varies depending on the distance and size of the target. After a demonstration from Gabe, we did some snap shooting at 15 and 25 yards.

Next we moved up to CQB distances for the first time and shot at about 5 yards. At this distance, you don't need even a rough sight picture to get good hits. Gabe explained the "Caveman EOTech" technique, shouldering the rifle and superimposing the front sight on the target without using the rear sight. This can provide very fast torso hits out to 7-10 yards. It works particularly well for rifles with tall front sight towers like the AK and AR. However, it is not particularly well suited for a rifle like mine. I have my Aimpoint mounted as far forward as it will go, just behind the front sight. The LaRue mount blocks my view of the front sight tower, except for the sight itself, which sticks up in the bottom portion of the scope. This is great for getting the sight out of my face and providing visibility, but not so good for the Caveman EOTech. Instead, Gabe advised me to turn off the red dot and just shoot through the tube. I did this and found my group was significantly off to the left. This was a bit odd, since I'd tried shooting Caveman EOTech with my new AK and was able to place all the rounds right around the center of the target. After thinking about it a bit, I decided that it was probably because while I wasn't looking through the rear sight of my AK, it was still in my peripheral vision for me to use for reference centering my eye on the stock. On my XCR, on the other hand, I had been running my rear BUIS flipped down, leaving me without a reference. Sure enough, I flipped up the rear sight and looked over it for the next exercise and the group moved over to the center of the target. This has me thinking about going with a fixed rear BUIS instead of the flip up one.

Once everyone had a chance to get comfortable with the Caveman EOTech, we moved on to shoulder transfers. As Gabe pointed out, the world is not right handed and we may need to shoot while moving to the left or around the left side of a piece of cover. Lefties, in turn, need to be able to shoot right handed. This means we need to not only be able to shoot from the opposite shoulder, but to transfer the rifle back and forth. The technique Gabe taught involves bringing the hand back to the magazine (if it isn't already there) moving the rifle to the opposite shoulder, then switching the primary hand to the forend and the support hand to the pistol grip. If necessary, the rifle can be fired halfway through the process, with the stock on the opposite shoulder, but before the hands have switched position (a partial transfer). Gabe demonstrated this, then gave us a chance to try it dry before doing it live. We ran a continuous drill, starting with a shot from the primary shoulder, a partial transfer followed by another shot, switching hands for a full transfer and firing again, then doing a partial transfer back to the primary shoulder and firing again. Switching hands back to a conventional strong side firing position finishes the cycle. It's basically the same as the introduction to the Kalashnikov Rifle Gunfighitng DVD, though none of use were as smooth or fast as Gabe is there. I'd practiced shoulder transfers quite a bit before the class, so I did pretty well, but I noticed some folks fumbling around a bit trying to move the rifle back and forth.

After giving everyone a chance to try out the shoulder transfers, we started applying them with the pacing drill. This was our introduction to getting off the X with a rifle. We started out in front of our targets, faced to the right, and took three steps forward shooting from the right shoulder. We then turned around, transferring the rifle to the left shoulder as we did so to keep it pointed downrange, and took three steps to the left, firing from the left shoulder. After turning around and transferring, we started the cycle over again. After a few iterations of this Gabe asked us to switch to firing bursts of 3-5 rounds from our rifles and following up with a headshot. Most fighting rifles have big mags, so there's not much reason to be stingy with ammunition.

With the basic pacing drill down, we added in some post-fight drills. First, asses the target, "Did I hit him? Did it work?" This is followed up by a side to side scan. One neat trick Gabe showed is that if you lower your chin a bit but keep your eyes level, you can increase your peripheral vision by quite a bit. This is followed up by turning around and scanning to the rear in position Sul. One thing Gabe mentioned is the importance of not simply swinging around 180 degrees, but turning a bit more slowly, and keeping the gun from view until you have some idea what's behind you. If there is, say, a police officer coming to investigate the gunfire, this may keep you from getting shot. If you do see a police officer, it's time to drop the rifle and show your hands (one more reason not to use a sling that ties you to the rifle). Once you're sure there are no immediate threats, it's time to reload the rifle. The last post-fight step is to asses yourself for any injuries, since adrenaline can keep you from realizing that you got shot.

During these last drills we had one rifle go down with trigger problems. Gabe mentioned that match triggers tend to be a lot more finicky and less reliable than the standard triggers in military rifles.

Day 2

We started out the second day with pistol transitions. When following Gabe's advice not to tie yourself to the rifle with your sling, you need a method for quickly slinging the rifle when it's time to get the pistol into action. Gabe's preferred method is basically to toss the rifle over the head and shoulder so it can drop and hang diagonally across the back. As a teaching method, he had us start buy thrusting our support hand out under the forend, sliding the rifle down the arm, then dropping it once it cleared the head. With more practice, this can become a single, fluid tossing motion. We practiced this dry for a fair bit, first while standing still, then on the move. This method works well when the rifle is on the primary shoulder, but when shooting from the support side shoulder, doing this kind of transition tends to drop the rifle so the sling falls right across a pistol on your hip (the reverse is true for people who usually shoot pistol and rifle on opposite sides, as many who are cross dominant do). In this case, the primary hand moves from the forend to the bottom of the magazine and rotates the rifle so that the muzzle is pointing towards the support side. Form this position the support arm can be thrust through the sling and the rest of the transition accomplished as normal.

After working the pistol transitions for a while, we worked on getting off the X when faced with threats at the 3, 6, and 9 o'clock positions. When faced with threats to the support side (or behind you when you turn to the support side), this is fairly simple, just mount the gun and move. Threats on the primary side require mounting the gun to the opposite shoulder, which is a bit more difficult. Gabe demonstrated a "golf swing" technique for doing this. From patrol ready or Sul, you swing the rifle up towards the threat while switching hands. I had shoulder transitions while facing the target down pretty well before coming, but this one messed me up a bit. It's a bit tricky to swap hands as the rifle is coming up like this, and I fumbled around some when I was doing it. This one is definitely going to take some dry practice to get comfortable with.

This exercise also saw our only ND of the class. One of the students fired his rifle as it was coming up, blowing a half-dollar sized divot in the concrete about a yard from his feet. The rifle involved was another one with a light match trigger on it, and this might not have happened with a standard military trigger.

We moved on to some position shooting, starting with kneeling. Gabe demonstrated and talked about the advantages and disadvantages of the position. He also demonstrated how to address threats from the sides and rear when in a kneeling position. We did some dry practice in getting into and out of kneeling positions, switching shoulders while kneeling, as well as adjusting our position and hold on the rifle to engage higher or lower targets. We did some shooting from kneeling, including shooting from both shoulders. For kneeling, and all the supported shooting positions, Gabe asked us to do headshots at 25 yards (which frankly isn't all that difficult against static targets from a supported position). He also had us reload while in position between strings of fire, to get us used to realoading in some of these other positions.

While shooting kneeling, I managed to crack one of my PMAGs. I'd loaded it with 31 rounds instead of 30, and was trying to seat it in my rifle. I pounded on it pretty good before realizing the problem and stripping out a round and seating it. Later I found out I'd cracked the back of the mag for about an inch up near the top. It still fed fine in the rifle for the rest of the drill though.

Before moving on to the other shooting positions we broke for lunch. Today the range manager's wife and sister-in-law prepared pulled pork for everybody, which was really quite delicious.

After lunch, we moved on to the squatting position. Again, Gabe demonstrated it before we practiced getting into and out of it dry. We shot it from both shoulders, with reloads in between. I didn't find squatting as comfortable as kneeling, but it is very quick to get in and out of.

The next position was sitting. As Gabe explained, this is more of a long term position. It's very comfortable, even for relatively long periods of time, but takes longer to get into or out of. He demonstrated cross-legged sitting (indian style), sitting with the legs crossed out in front, and sitting with the legs splayed out. He also showed us a neat trick when sitting cross legged. When he was a SWAT sniper, he used to stick something (extra magazines, small sandbags) between the thighs and feet to make the position a bit more comfortable when sitting for a long while. When we were shooting, I found that in addition to being very steady, the rifle also tended to drop right back on target, permitting more rapid fire. In the previous positions or shooting offhand, there was more of a need to drive the sights back to the target, instead of them dropping back on their own. This tendency to drop back onto the target was also true of prone.

Our final shooting position was prone. This was a bit interesting, since the ground had grown pretty hot by this time of day. I had long pants and elbow pads on, so I didn't actually have any bare skin in contact with the ground, but even through clothing it was pretty warm. Gabe demonstrated both a conventional prone, and using the magazine as a monopod. He also mentioned a neat trick for those of us carrying our ammo in Sneakybags. When going prone, it's possible to swing the bag out ahead so that it's within easy reach for reloading while we're there on the ground. While shooting this exercise I suffered a pretty badly stuck case, no amount of racking would dislodge it. I got off the line and borrowed a friend's cleaning rod to pound the case out. A bit of pounding eventually dislodged it enough to get it under the extractor, but now I couldn't pull the charging handle back. Finally I ended up applying a boot to the charging handle which sent the case flying right out. I'd shot quite a bit of Wolf ammo in the gun since last doing a good cleaning with a chamber brush, and I think that's what prompted this: a hot, gunky chamber latching onto a case.

The last two exercises of the day involved some team tactics work. Gabe has an entire class on this, so these exercises were only an introduction. Gabe talked a bit about team tactics and bounding drills in general, as well as the importance of communication:

"Moving" - I'm about to move, could you give me some cover fire?
"Covering" - I'm giving you cover fire, go ahead and move.
"Set" - I'm done moving and providing fire.
"Checking" - Something's wrong with my gun (malfunction, out of ammo, etc.) please provide cover fire.

He also stressed the importance of redundant communication paths, based not just on what each person is saying, but also by what they're doing and what you're seeing.

The first team drill involved the class forming up into two lines. The front person in each line was to fire at the target, then roll to the outside and move to the back of the line. The whole line steps up and the next person in line starts firing. This isn't a very realistic drill, but it gets people used to safely handling weapons and shooting in close proximity to other people. We did the drill with all rifles pointed straight up unless we were firing, so as not to muzzle sweep anyone. Gabe had us do it dry quite a few times before trying it live fire. We did the drill live twice.

After shooting this drill we took a break and Gabe talked a bit about muzzle devices. He supervised the drill by standing between the two lines up at the front and looking back to make sure everyone kept their rifles pointed in a safe direction. This put him right in the best place to get hit with the sound and pressure from muzzle brakes. He said that one of the ARs with a particular muzzle brake on it was just as loud to him as the short-barreled FAL (having stood behind and to the right of the AR during previous strings of fire, I experienced this first hand). In addition to trying to deafen the trainer during this drill, muzzle brakes tend to increase the visual and auditory signature, which is generally undesirable in a fighting rifle. Gabe really feels a flash hider of some sort is a far better choice than any sort of muzzle brake on a fighting rifle.

Speaking of muzzle devices, one of the shooters switched to a suppressed AK on the second day. He had some accruacy problems earlier in the day and during the first team tactics drill some of his rounds were keyholing at under 7 yards. Afterwards, we saw that the end of his his suppressor was oddly bulged around one side of the muzzle. The suppressor was rated for .308 rounds. However, despite sharing the same metric designation, 7.62x39mm bullets are actually slightly greater in diameter than the 7.62x51 (about .310 in diameter). This minor difference may have damaged the silencer.

The last drill of the class was another team tactics exercise. This one involved pairs of shooter. The first shooter would begin putting fire on the first in a long line of targets while the other moved behind him and took up a position further down the line (using the "Moving", "Covering", "Set" commands described above). The pair leapfrogged down the line like this until they reached the end (about 3 bounds per person). The execution of this drill varied pretty widely, with some folks having a pretty good run, and others failing to communicate and ending up with both guns out of ammo at the same time. Some folks had to transition to pistols to keep fire up. I was partnered with Harold Green on this one and our first run was pretty good, though I could have used another preemptive reload in there. The second didn't work out so well. Towards the end I started having failures to fire and he ran out of ammo. Gabe mercifully called our run to an end.

I didn't figure out exactly what was wrong with my rifle until later. One of the bolts holding the ejector in had backed out and fallen down into the firing mechanism, first intermittently causing the hammer to fail to fall as it bounced around in there and eventually wedging itself into the action making it impossible to move the trigger or engage the safety. This is a known problem with XCRs, and some owners preemptively pulled the bolts out and re-loctited them. I left them alone under the "if it aint broke, don't fix it" principle. They'll both get loctited now.

This drill also so the only really bad instance of lack of muzzle discipline in the class. One shooter transitioned to pistol, but accidentally ejected his magazine on the drawstroke. He fired a round into the target and Gabe called an end to the run. As he bent down to pick up the magazine, the muzzle of his pistol swung over towards the folks waiting their turn behind the firing line. He stopped when everyone standing back there started yelling at him. At the time I didn't know whether he'd fired the round in the chamber or not, so seeing the big black hole at the end of the muzzle swinging toward me was not a good feeling. He was very apologetic about it afterwards.


This was really a great class. The curriculum covered the basics of rifle fighting well, with a particular emphasis on close range confrontations most likely to come up in a civilian self-defense context. Gabe does things a bit differently than some other trainers. He did a good job of not only explaining the techniques, but explaining why he preferred a given technique rather than others that are commonly taught, allowing the student to consider the merits and reasoning behind an approach.

Close Range Rifle Gunfighting was taught at a somewhat more introductory level than Close Range Gunfighting, it's pistol equivalent. However, I was still glad to have some defensive rifle training under my belt. I think that having taken Farnam's rifle class, and particularly the large amount of dry fire practice I did afterwards really helped get me ready for this class.

The dry fire aspect brings up another point. Gabe really crams quite a bit into his classes, and to a certain extent this comes at the price of the number of repetitions. In order to really extract the maximum benefit from this class, you need to go home and practice this stuff, both dry fire and at the range. To a certain extent, this is true of all defensive firearms classes, but it is particularly so with Gabe's.

I only shot about 350 rounds of rifle ammo during the class, and not a single round of pistol ammo. This made it pretty economical from an ammo point of view (despite the cost of ammo recently). I was able to sell off the rest of the case I bought for the class to one of my friends in Salt Lake. The relatively low round count was mainly a product of Gabe's extensive incorporation of dry fire. We did almost every drill dry before shooting it live. Not only a good strategy for dealing with high ammo costs, I think getting everyone comfortable dry would be a pretty good way to go even if ammo costs weren't an issue.

I would highly recommend this class to anyone who's looking for a good, no BS introduction to the up-close and personal use of a rifle.

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