Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Gabe Suarez's Combat Pistol Instructor School

Earlier this month I attended Gabe's Combat Pistol Instructor School in Houston. This class was pretty neat for me in a couple of ways. Two of my friends from the Utah Polite Society who I'd only seen once since I moved to South Carolina were also signed up for the class, and we had a chance to hang out quite a bit. I was also surprised to find a fellow I knew from local matches in Columbia was attending the class (odd to fly a thousand miles and run in to someone I know from home). I also had the chance to make the acquaintance of some folks I'd only known online at Warriortalk.

For the first two days of the class, Gabe taught his Defensive Pistol Skills class. Defensive Pistol Skills class is intended as an introductory course that will take someone who has no experience with defensive shooting and give them the solid base of sighted shooting skills that they need for more advanced instruction. Gabe went through the entire class, giving both the course material, and a lot of advice on how to teach that material to students. We did all the drills (though generally with fewer reps than a student would get). All the shooting was done in pairs, with one student coaching while the other one shoots. On the third day, Gabe talked about administrative details involved in running a firearms company, talked about how Suarez International works, and extended an invitation to apply to be an SI instructor.

I shot the class with my normal carry rig: a Glock 21 in an IWB hip holster. Glocks were by far the most prevalent gun in the class, with about 2/3 of the class carrying them. The 9mm models were the most popular, followed by the .40s (I was carrying the only .45 Glock). Three students were armed with XDs, and one each with a Kimber and a Sig (several of these folks had Glocks with them as well). Gabe made the point that instructors should generally carry common pistols in plain jane configurations. When you're demonstrating something, you don't want students paying attention to your cool gun rather than what you're trying to demonstrate.

Day One

At the beginning of class, Gabe handed out an outline for the Defensive Pistol Skills class, and a copy of his Combative Pistol Marksmanship DVD, which generally covers the same material. Gabe suggested that those of us with access to a laptop or DVD player watch the DVD before the second day. I'd actually brought along my copy of the Combative Pistol Marksmanship DVD and my friends from Utah and I had watched it the night before. I thought having seen it before the first day was really helpful. One suggestion I made to Gabe is to send out the DVD to folks enrolled in the class beforehand, so everyone can have a chance to watch it ahead of time.

Gabe discussed a bit about the SI training philosophy generally, and the DPS class in particular. One particularly interesting point was why he doesn't use timers. He feels that they tend to discourage students who may be doing as well as they can, given age or medical limitations, but who aren't the fastest. The pressure to go faster than you really have the skill for also has a tendency to lead to accidents. The philosophy of the DPS class is focused on the idea that sighted shooting is easy, if you follow the right recipe. "If you can drive a car in traffic, you can shoot a pistol."

We went through the safety briefing, both from the perspective of not shooting anyone in this class, and from a teaching perspective. Gabe explained the reasons behind some of his deviations from the wording of the 4 rules of gun safety as Cooper laid them down. Most of these changes have to do with the fact that students will end up violating a more strict interpretation of the traditional rules especially in more advanced classes. There's really no way to draw from a hip holster without covering your leg at least a little bit, for example. He also introduced the concept of a "Grasshopper" (a la the old Kung Fu TV series); a student who asks a lot of questions, especially when the instructor seems to contradict himself.

There was some discussion of what to tell students about terminal ballistics. Gabe gave his take, that all pistol calibers are roughly the same and it's all about shot placement and volume. He went through his story about the fellow down in Argentina who was involved in 47 gunfights and acquitted himself quite well using 9mm ball (and invited us to use it).

We talked a bit about making sure that students have good gear that can be used safely in class. Holsters and belts need particular attention from an instructor to ensure that they will safely carry a gun. Some pistols can be problematic; competition guns in particular may need some extra attention from an instructor.

This segued a bit into a discussion of student-instructor ratio. Obviously, the skill of an instructor plays into this some, but the skill level of the students is important also. A low student-instructor ratio is particularly important in introductory classes where students need more supervision and are more likely to do something stupid and unsafe.

We moved out onto the range and started in on the fundamentals of shooting. Gabe divides the fundamentals into grip, stance, sight alignment, sight picture, breathing, trigger press, and trigger reset. We went through each of these in turn, with Gabe both explaining them, and talking about how to best explain them to the students.

During this process, we also went through loading, unloading, and chamber checks. Gabe emphasizes that all loading and unloading procedures should begin and end with a chamber check. I was a bit skeptical, since this seemed like an awful lot of chamber checking when we have a pretty good idea of the status of the gun. However, Gabe's reasons for it were pretty interesting. Checking the chamber may be useful for inexperienced students who are more likely to make mistakes during the loading or unloading process (failing to seat a magazine when loading, running the slide before ejecting the mag when unloading, etc.). They also give students a bit more experience manipulating their guns, helping to familiarize them with their weapons.

He introduced an interesting drill for getting very new shooters to experience a surprise break. The shooter points in and the instructor caps his sights (putting a mag on top of the rear sight and asking if they see the front sight with the same amount of light on either side). Then the student stays pointed in with their finger in register while the instructor pulls the trigger to the rear with his own finger. Obviously, the moment of firing is going to come as a surprise to the student. Then the student puts their finger on the trigger and relaxes while the instructor pulls the trigger and trigger finger backward until the gun fires, then lets the trigger and finger forward until the trigger resets. For this part of the drill, it's very important to grip the shooter's hand so that the instructor's hand stays in contact with the gun during recoil, otherwise you're likely to double as the student recovers from recoil. Finally, have the student work the trigger on his own, gradually applying more and more pressure while telling them to try not to fire the gun. I think a drill like this would have been very useful when I was a new shooter. I developed a bit of a flinching problem when I was starting out, and it was quite a while before I experienced a real surprise break (it came shooting a S&W revolver that an instructor had lightened the spring on a bit too much so that it only lit off about one round in three; when it went "click" three or four times, the eventual "boom" really did come as a surprise).

After this drill, we broke for lunch. Gabe showed off his Glock with the Trijicon RMR red dot mounted on the slide. This seems like a pretty slick setup, though it would definitely take a lot of practice to get the red dot lined up with your eye every time. Definitely worth further investigation. I also got a chance to look at the Warren Tactical Sights on Gabe's other Glock. They produce a pretty sharp sight picture, and I think a pair will end up on my Glock pretty soon.

After lunch, we did some drills involving shooting from the ready position. The only ready position Gabe usually teaches in the DPS class is the compressed ready (count 3 on a 4 count drawstroke). Unlike low ready, this keeps the gun pointed at the target, and it integrates nicely into the drawstroke. More complex readies like Sul are left for more advanced classes.

We started with single shots from ready, then moved on to strings of multiple shots to practice trigger reset. During these drills, Gabe also talked about how to watch students shoot. He recommended standing on the strong side, just behind the tip of the muzzle in compressed ready. This affords a much greater view than standing behind them, and gives you the ability to physically grab their gun or arm if they are going to muzzle you or other people on the line.

After the basic shooting drills, we went through proactive and reactive gun manipulation. A proactive reload is what some folks call the tactical reload. Gabe made the point that for most new shooters, the terms "speed reload", and "tactical reload" are pretty meaningless ("Aren't all reloads in a gunfight tactical reloads?"). Proactive and reactive are more descriptive.

One interesting point Gabe made about demonstrating reloads is that it may be useful to strip the slide from the frame of your pistol (particularly easily done with a Glock) and demonstrate a reload using the frame. Reloads really can't be demonstrated using a blue gun, since you need to be able to insert and remove the magazine. Using the frame allows this, without needing to worry about muzzling someone.

Gabe teaches the simple, "make a hole, fill a hole" proactive reload. Remove the old magazine, pocket it, draw the new one and inset it into the gun. He discussed the pros and cons of racking the slide afterwards: making sure you have a round in the chamber at the potential cost of one round of capacity (a small sacrifice on a high cap gun, a larger one on a single stack).

We talked a bit about reloading the revolver. In the course of the demonstration he made one interesting and pithy observation about the j-frame: "it's simple for the first five shots".

For reactive gun manipulation, Gabe is a big advocate of non-diagnostic malfunction clearance. Rather than spend time trying to figure out what time of malfunction you have, just use clearance techniques that will work on any malfunction. We went through two procedures that will cure almost any malfunction or running out of ammo. A tap-rack will clear a failure to fire or failure to eject, and ripping out the magazine and reloading the gun will clear a failure to extract or an empty gun. They are simple, easy to teach and learn, and performed in order will allow you to fix anything that's fixable without disassembling your gun. We practiced both proactive and reactive manipulations.

At this point, we wrapped up our first day at the range. I enjoyed a nice dinner with some friends from Utah and South Carolina, then retired to start work on this writeup.

Day Two

We started out the morning of the second day with a review of Day 1's activities. Gabe went over the fundamentals of shooting and we had a discussion of why he teaches the compressed contact ready in the introductory classes and how it fits into the ready positions taught in more advanced classes.

With the review out of the way we moved on to teaching the drawstroke. Gabe emphasized that teaching a new shooter to draw a loaded gun is probably one of the most dangerous things we do (followed up in second place by teaching a new shooter to holster a loaded gun). Go very slow, teach one count at a time, and do lots of dry repetitions before going live.

He teaches a somewhat different 5 count drawstroke than more traditional gunfighting schools. The five counts are Grip, Clear, Clap (where the hands merge), Point, and Sights. This omits the "Rotate" count a lot of schools use in teaching the drawstroke. There "Rotate" count is included because it matches the close contact shooting position that these schools teach. SI teaches some rather different concepts that are much more combative focused than the usual close contact/retention/speed rock type shot, so there isn't really much reason to have a separate rotate count.

As the student learns the drawstroke, you can start removing some of the steps and have them all blend together. Omit clear and make it Grip, Clap, Point, Sights. In a point shooting class, you take away Sights and make it Grip, Clap, Point. Eventually, you can even take away Point and do half hip type shooting.

In order to practice drawing loaded guns from a holster, you need to first holster a loaded gun. This has it's own pitfalls. Many NDs at gun schools occur when shooters are holstering under stress, indeed, my friends from Utah recently told me of just such an occurrence at one of their monthly shoots (without any injury, thankfully). While we need to learn how to draw fast, there's really no need to learn a speed reholstering technique. No one ever won a gunfight by getting his gun back in the holster quicker. Tell students to do it slowly, and pull it out if they feel any resistance. Again, do a lot of dry practice before having the students do it live. Gabe suggested allowing (indeed, encouraging) students to look at the holster when they are first starting out. You obviously don't want them doing this forever, but the first couple of times it can be a great help.

At this point, Gabe discusses what a student should do if he drops a gun: just let if fall. If they try to grab it, there's a chance that their finger will end up in the trigger guard, and according to Murphy's Law, the gun will probably be pointed at something important when it goes off, like your head. Gabe recounted the story of a female police officer who was being trained on the fat gripped Glock 21. She fumbled the gun, tried to grab it as it fell, and skipped a round off her forehead. She survived, but it could have easily been fatal. Phil, the range owner mentioned that a few weeks ago a shooter in a class on another local range had done something similar and put a round through his femoral artery. He bled out. If a student looses their grip on a gun, they should just let it drop. No matter how nice their gun is, a scuff mark isn't worth someone's life

Gabe suggested that after students shoot their first drill from the holster (single shots from a fairly close range), that you leave the students guns loaded and transition to a hot range at this point. Of course, this depends on how squared away the students are and how confident you are of them at this point. Some classes you may not want to use a hot range at all. If you have one student you're worried about, Gabe had a fairly clever suggestion: call that student up to the front and have him unload and use him as an example of reholstering, then just leave him dry until the start of the next drill.

We moved from the classroom out to the range and went through the fundamentals again. This time, Gabe called on various students to get up and teach the safety rules and the fundamentals, then critiqued their lesson. As part of this, I explained the trigger press, surprise break, and breathing. During this process, Gabe reiterated his suggestion about stripping the slide off a Glock and using the frame as a demonstration tool. Since I'd left my blue gun in the car (not having gotten any use out of it yesterday), I used this technique for my short lesson. He also suggested using the Glock slide, sans frame, as a tool to demonstrate sight alignment.

We went through a few dry drills, then moved on to firing single shots. Before shooting, Gabe demonstrated the exercise. He also had some suggestions for doing demonstrations in class. It's important that you don't embarrass yourself in a demonstration, so do the demonstration close to the target. Don't go at full speed, 80% of what you can do will seem plenty fast to the students. Also, get the students to stand to your left and right so they can watch what you're doing, rather than standing behind you and watching the back of your head. Finally, always do a chamber check before shooting a demonstration (either live or dry fire). There's nothing that will make you look a fool faster than going up for a live fire demonstration and getting a click or doing a dry fire demonstration and getting a bang. Instructors are even more vulnerable than students for this because they are constantly unloading and loading their firearms to do live and dry demos and it's easy to forget the status of your gun. Always check!

Gabe also gave us a good trick for getting people lined up evenly. Have everyone face to the left, then line up directly behind the person in front of them, then face downrange and they should be an even distance from the targets. Simple, but it works.

After lunch, we discussed the After Action Review process. Introductory students aren't going to be doing Sul scans, but you can have them check the threat, look left and right, reload, and do a self check to see if they were hit.

Much like the chamber checks before and after administratively loading or unloading, Gabe suggested having the students do a preemptive reload after every drill. This builds in a lot of repetitions over the course of the class in a much more interesting way than just going up and having them do twenty preemptive reloads in a row.

Once the students are comfortable with shooting from the holster, they can move on to a simple multiple adversary drill. Three targets, one shot on each. The instructor calls out an order and the students have to change their point of aim between targets. Of course, this is a lot less dynamic than the multiple adversary stuff in Close Range Gunfighting or Force on Force, but it gives them an introduction to the idea.

Gabe also suggested moving to more realistic targets at this point (he happens to like of the photorealistic targets). Prior to this part of the class, his suggestion for a target is an 8.5"x11" sheet of paper with a dot in the middle.

Moving to more realistic targets also allows introducing the failure to stop drill. The students fire three shots to the torso then come up for one or more headshots.

We went out to the range and started shooting multiple adversary drills. We shot this drill many times, enough for each student to have a chance running the line and calling out the range commands. After some students turn up on the line, Gabe called us together to critique and give some suggestions.

He also took the opportunity during one of these sessions to talk about teaching concealment. Drawing from concealment is not formally part of the curriculum for this class, but if the students are squared away and you think they can handle it, you might introduce it sometime on the second day. If you're having the class in cold or rainy weather, it may be appropriate to teach getting the gun from concealment on the first day, since every student is going to end up wearing some sort of overgarment anyway. On the other hand, if you're teaching on a hot, humid day, you may not want to go for concealment at all.

After everyone had their turn up on the line, we broke for the day. I had another fine dinner with friends old and new.

Day Three

Sunday morning, the class began with Gabe calling us up to the line for a test of our shooting skills. He had us fire ten prevision rounds at the little guy in the upper left of a B-27 silhouette target, then 90 rounds freestyle at main portion of the target.

After that was out of the way, we moved on to talking about the administrative end of being a firearms instructor. Gabe listed four requirements to be a successful firearms trainer:

Finding and Arranging Venues
Development and Delivery of Classes
Advertising and Marketing
Accepting Phone Calls and Payments

An interesting part of this discussion was Gabe's description of how the training business has evolved since the early '80s. There are really a lot of options, particularly in the advertising and marketing areas, that really weren't available twenty or thirty years ago. On the other hand, students expect more than they did thirty years ago. Not having a good website and not being able to accept credit card payments online are really going to limit how successful you can be.

Gabe pointed out some of the pitfalls in dealing with venues. Once you've advertised a class and had students sign up, the range kind of has you over a barrel if they want to be underhanded and jack up their rate. Memorialize these discussions in an email so there's a 'paper' trail later in the event of a dispute.

We also discussed insurance. It's required by many venues, but it can be difficult to get (or keep) it if you're teaching some of the more advanced stuff. Gabe talked about who SI has insurance with and how he manages that relationship.

While insurance is required to train at many venues, it may not really provide much protection in the event of a lawsuit. Gabe strongly recommended organizing a firearms training business as an LLC or corporation to help isolate it from your personal assets. He also talked a bit about the importance of a good attorney (or attorneys, specializing in different areas).

This led into a discussion of the sort of things that can lead you to need your insurance or a good attorney, and I took the opportunity to push one of my pet peeves: how few shooters take trauma care classes. Instructors strive to prevent accidents, but if one happens, you need to be able to deal with it and keep them alive until you can get them to medical help. Gabe described an incident where a student shot himself in a class several years ago. Phil, the range owner, described two accidental gunshot wounds, both of which severed the femoral artery. One occurred on his range, and he had tourniquets at the ready and the skill to use them. One occurred on another local range and did not have the instructor did not have the skill or equipment to deal with the situation and the injured shooter bled out (this was the same dropped gun incident I described earlier). An instructor has an obligation to be prepared for an accident, that means having the right skills and the right tools to deal with the situation.

The remainder of the class was dedicated to Gabe pitching the idea of signing up as a Suarez International Staff Instructor. This really gets into some internal SI business, like how his instructors are categorized and compensated that would not be appropriate for me to repeat in a public forum. I will say that the arrangement seems eminently fair to both SI, and the staff instructors.

Concluding Thoughts

This was an excellent class. I picked up quite a few neat tricks, both for teaching in general, and especially for instructing an introductory pistol class. The discussion on the third day also taught me a lot about the administrative elements of running a firearms training business, an area I knew very little about. Unlike other SI classes I've taken, this class didn't really make me any more badass, but I think it improved my ability to teach other people to be more badass.

This is normally the part of a review where, if I liked a class, I encourage people to sign up for it. I did like this class, and I think it would benefit a lot of people, but signing up for it may not be possible. Gabe is teaching this class three more times this year, one of them as I write this. All three classes are completely full. He's also teaching a Combat Rifle Instructor School in June; that's completely full as well. All of them filled up very quickly after being put on the schedule, some within a few hours of when they were opened for registration. I have no idea if he will be teaching these classes in the future, but if you are interested in teaching people how to shoot and you see this class on the SI schedule, jump on it quick, because you may not get another chance.

I'd like to thank Gabe for putting on an excellent class, as usual. I also want to thank my fellow students, who provided some very interesting conversations over the course of the class. One of the highlights of these classes for me is a chance for some fellowship with like minded folks.

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