Last week, I attended the 2010 National Tactical Invitational. NTI isn't really a training event, you're not going to learn any new skills while you're there. Instead, it's a testing ground where you can take your existing skills and put them to a test in a mix of live fire and force on force scenarios.
The whole event runs from Tuesday night through Saturday. You do one day of shooting on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. The other days you can attend lectures by various trainers and others. On Saturday morning, there is a partners force on force exercise. I'm here with a few guys from South Carolina, Bill, John, and Richard (Tactical Trainer on this board). I was squaded up with them for todays shooting.
NTI is composed of ten stages, four force-on-force scenarios, and six live fire stages (five scenarios and a skills test). We started out in the force-on-force stages, the ATSA village (the American Tactical Shooting Association sponsors NTI). Of course, we had to divest ourselves of all live weapons and be searched before being allowed into force-on-force. Once in the village, we were issued j-frame revolvers loaded with Code Eagle sims rounds. These are plastic cased rounds a plastic bullet filled with paint. There isn't any powder, just a primer. The rounds don't generate enough recoil to cycle the slide of a semi-auto (hence the revolvers). They don't require all of the safety gear that Simunitions do, though they do smart a bit more than airsoft. Safety gear includes a plastic face shield and foam collar around the neck to protect the vulnerable bits.
We were introduced to the denizens of the village, including a bride and groom who were getting married that day. Several of the scenarios were wedding related. The law in the village was represented by Vicki Farnam, who played the village Sheriff. All together, this was a fairly major setup, including around fifteen role-players and quite a bit of scenery. We were led through a series of scenarios by a judge, who observed what we did and was responsible for calling a halt to the scenario after it played out.
My first scenario was a visit to the IRS office. Evidently there was a problem with my return, and I had to discuss this with the agent there. During our discussion, her ex came in and started yelling at her. She pulled a gun out of her desk and pointed it at him, prompting him to leave. I didn't want to insert myself into somebody else's domestic situation so I didn't intervene. A few minutes later he comes back. This time when she goes for the gun, he disarms her and I'm within a hair of drawing my gun, but rather than pointing it at her, or me, he pockets it and continues arguing. She eventually crawls over the desk and takes shelter behind my chair. At this point, I still don't want to get in a fight with this guy (especially for a woman who's giving me an audit), but since I'm between him and her, and he's starting to think that I'm the she cheated on him with, I have to do something. I deny the affair and converse with him a bit and he storms off. This was a situation where I could have escalated it to a fight pretty easily, but I didn't want to get into a situation like that where it really wasn't my problem to begin with.
The second scenario took me to a store, where I was to pick up a wedding present, and some other stuff my wife wanted me to get. Just as my hands are full of all of this junk, two guys (one of whom had been loitering suspiciously outside the store earlier) burst in to rob the place. I immediately ditched the stuff, but at this point their attention seemed to be focused on the shop owners and getting the money out of the register, so I didn't want to turn this into a gunfight. One guy behind the counter tried to draw his own gun, but fumbled it uselessly. After they'd gotten the contents of the register, they turned their attention to me, demanding first my money (they passed out fake bills for us to use in scenarios, which I handed over) then my watch. At this point the nearer thug started grabbing for the suspicious bulge under my shirt. In this case was the flashlight on my left hip. It was fairly obvious that my gun was next. I certainly wasn't about to go down that road, so I decided to act. I grabbed the arm that was reaching for my flashlight and yanked that robber towards me as I drew, put two rounds into him, then launched one round at the other robber, grazing his arm. Unfortunately, I didn't do quite a good enough job manhandling the nearer robber, and despite my hold on him, he was able to reach under and pop a round into my chest right as was shooting at the second robber. At this point the judge called a halt. Afterwards, the Sheriff arrived and I was given an opportunity to incriminate myself (I declined).
One of the difficulties here is that there are limits to the amount of physical force you can use with the roleplayers. You can push and shove and grab, but you're supposed to mime and verbally call out any harder strikes or disarms. If I could have manhandled this guy with more force, I might have been able to pull off what I was trying, but given those limitations I probably would have been better off getting off the X rather than going hands on.
The third scenario required walking down a long narrow alley. To justify this to the folks who say "I would never go down an alley like that", you're told that you have to cut through this alley, or you'll be late to your job and get fired. As I reached the first bend in the alley, there was a guy standing there. I gave him a nod but he didn't respond and as soon as I was passed, he yelled out, "yo!" At this point, I'm figuring that he just alerted someone up ahead. I turn the next corner to see two guys conducting what looks like a drug deal. The customer wanders off down the alley while the dealer starts offering me some of his product. As I say no thanks he steps to block me. I'm still conscious of the guy behind me and I don't want to get blocked in between them. I use the wedding present I'm carrying from the last scenario to put something between us, as I step left and shove by him. At that point I boogie out of there. During the debrief on Saturday afternoon, Vicki mentioned that someone navigated the alley by buying the drugs off the dealer, then going to the Sheriff and confessing to the crime.
The last scenario involved all four of the shooters on our squad, and all the 'village people' as they call the role-players. We come together for the long awaited wedding. As we waited around between the earlier scenarios we were throated to scenes of the bride being harassed by an old flame, so we all had the feeling that something would happen. A few minutes into the scenario the lights went out and there was a loud pop and some smoke, which caused to of the participants to bolt for the door, but the preacher explained that it was just electrical problems. After the I dos, the guests were asked to line up in a receiving line. As we did so, the ex-boyfriend came walking in with an explosive vest on. I immediately drew and lit him up. My instinct was to take the headshot, but we'd been asked not to shoot for the head for safety reasons, even with the face shields, so I aimed for the chest above the bomb vest. Bill did the same from another angle and so we peppered him pretty good before he had a chance to do anything with the vest.
This finished up our time in the village, and doing force-on-force, so we turned in our sims revolvers and got our gear back on.
ATSA Meditation Retreat
During the brief for this scenario, they explained that I was going to meet a friend at a construction site and that he was wearing a purple-pinkish shirt and had a really bad haircut (all of your friends/relatives that you're supposed to save in the live fire scenarios had made really bad fashion choices). I was led in with my head turned down so I didn't see the setup until the start signal. The signal was a really big bang (something along the lines of an artillery simulator) followed up by speakers playing sounds of automatic weapons fire and guys shouting 'allahu akbar' (though I didn't appreciate that detail until I heard the tape being played for the next guy to shoot the scenario). I didn't see any targets from my starting position, so I moved forward to my poorly dressed friend and shot two close range targets behind a low wall. These are NTI's standard falling targets. 3d rubber mannequins with a central core that you have to hit to knock over. I pied out from cover and engaged three targets about 50 yards away. These were steel targets, and I managed to ding each of them with the first or second shot. Pieing out further I shot another, nearer one. I really like the Warren Tactical sights I've got on my Glock 21. I think they made it considerably easier to hit those three far targets than it would have been with my old three dot sights. As with most of the live fire stages, this was videotaped, and they ran the tape back to review my performance. They also give you a copy to take home so I have the chance to replay all of my mistakes again and again.
This was my first 360 degree stage. On these stages, the range has a berm in all directions and rather than going through it with a range office behind you, you go in on your own, with the RO and judge monitoring via video cameras (you also get a copy of the tape). From their spot safely behind the berm, they can move some targets, open doors, and speak to you over a PA system. Despite being only static targets, this is a very interactive environment.
As the name might suggest, this stage was meant to represent a mall. The setup described during the stage briefing (the 'Bedtime story' as skip Gochenour refers to it) is that you were shopping with your wife or girlfriend and you had gone to the restroom. They mentioned that the start signal would be 'unmistakable'. To cap it off, they put your support hand in a sling, preventing you from using it for anything.
You start off the stage in a small room, simulating a restroom (though without the accoutrements of one). Again, the start signal is a really big bang (they seem to love that around here). I drew my pistol, opened up the door to the rest of the stage, and took a look around. The shoot house was set up with an open central area, with several columns for cover. The sides had a bunch of nooks and closets that could (and did) conceal various targets. At this point, I had an opportunity to see my 'wife' being held hostage in a dark closet in the far corner. It was very easy to miss, and I missed it. The hostage taker also had a good field of fire all the way down the center of the room, an area that I would cross three or four times in the course of the scenario. He could have easily shot me without me even seeing him. I moved into the room and saw a hanging target (one that uses a balloon inside and falls when you pop it). It was intended as a mover, but it hadn't started moving yet. I dispatched it with one round, then immediately realized that I hadn't seen a gun on it before shooting. It would turn out that there was a threat indicator on there that I hadn't seen, but until the debrief afterwards I was certain that I had just shot a no-shoot.
As I moved further into the room, I spotted a target to the right and engaged him. While I was doing that, they opened a door behind me and exposed another target. After I turned and dealt him I spotted another target in an Army uniform further down the mall and saw that he had a pistol. I yelled for him to drop his gun, but he refused, claiming he was a good guy. I didn't want to shoot him, but I didn't want to expose myself to him either, so I moved back to a side hallway where I would be out of sight.
At around this point, they activated a device that dropped a fake bomb (half a dozen sticks of simulated dynamite taped together). I totally missed this, but before the bomb went off (another big bang) I had already moved off to the side hallway. The wall between the hallway and the main part of the stage was only concealment, rather than cover (it's all wood, but some panels are painted with a brick pattern indicating they're hard cover) so it wouldn't necessarily have protected me from the blast.
I did a one handed tactical reload in the hallway, then called out to the fellow in uniform that I was just looking for my wife and not to shoot me. In return for a less confrontational approach, he clued me in to a hostile target around the corner to my right, which I promptly dispatched. Finally, the only part of the stage left unsearched was that dark closet in the corner. When I finally got close and looked inside, I saw my wife (the only target in the stage wearing a wig) in front of an armed hostile. I put a few rounds into his head and told the wife to come with me, ending the scenario.
Like the mall this stage was on a 360 degree range, overseen by video cameras. As with the previous stage, your support hand was in a sling and out of action. Again, you start out inside and are tasked with rescuing a friend or relative. These two features run through most of the live fire scenarios. The NTI is designed to me occupationally neutral, suited for police officers and the private citizen alike. Unlike police officers, citizens do not have a duty to enter buildings full of armed men, and the best course of action will often realistically be to call 911 and let the professionals handle it. This wouldn't provide you with much training, so the NTI places a friend or relative in most scenarios like the cheese at the end of the maze to incentivize the private citizen to fight their way through a building full of people who want to kill them. They also usually start you inside the building, so you don't actually make the decision to enter, instead you're already there.
The shoot house for this stage was roughly L-shaped. I entered at one end of the L and had a clear view up the length of this leg of the L to a very confusing target. The target had a wig and was wearing a dress. Now in the previous two stages, the only target with the wig was the friend or relative you were trying to rescue. The briefing for this stage did not include a description of the friend or relative that I was going in after. As I was trying to figure this out, a plank with a pair of foam pipes attached to it swiveled up. This was supposed to be a double barreled shotgun the woman was wielding, but because of where it was placed, kind of low and off to the side, it didn't really register that was what it was supposed to be. Based on the position, it looked like the gun was being wielded by someone crouching down behind her, but there wasn't anyone there. After pondering this for a while, I fired some rounds at her, but the angle was hard for a right hander shooting one-handed, and I missed. I figured this wasn't a falling target and moved on, checking the rest of the room she was in.
Hidden to the left of the door was a target wearing cammo with a badge, representing courthouse security. I told him not to shoot me and moved past him into the room. There were two parallel hallways leading off to the right, one of which held another security guard. At this point I missed a target standing outside a window down the right hand hall. I moved over next to the woman and gave her a bit of a shove, knocking her over, then moved down the left hand hall. There was an armed target outside a window on the left. Further on, I saw a target in a small nook to the left, but I didn't see any weapon. I also noticed the gun of the target that I'd missed earlier. The foam rubber gun was attached to the window frame with a screw, in front of the target, but I couldn't see the target itself from this angle and I wasn't about to stick my head in front of that gun to see out the window. I moved by the target in the nook I'd identified earlier and saw that he had a gun, which had been out of view earlier, so I shot him. In the final room were two targets, one of which was armed and one was not. I shot the armed one and correctly assumed the other was my friend I was supposed to save.
ATSA Skills Test
The next stage I shot was the ATSA skills drill. Rather than being a scenario, this involves shooting a series of predefined exercises against cardboard targets. There were two strings of three shots from retention, moving to cover while shooting two rounds on each of three targets, a ball and dummy drill, and a few similar exercises.
Church of the Holy Reload
This was this year's mystery gun stage. The setup is that you are about to enter your niece's wedding carrying your wedding gift: a 12 gauge coach gun (for which you just happened to bring ten rounds of birdshot). Since the point of the mystery gun stage is to force you to fight without your usual gear, you are supposed to be wearing a tuxedo which doesn't have room for any of your normal carry gear. Rather than have every shooter take off all the crap we carry (and because no tuxedo was available) we put on a hospital gown over our clothes. This not only prevents us from getting to our gear, it also deprives us of any pockets.
Before the stage started, I spent a minute handling the coach gun. I wanted to make sure I knew which direction the safety and the lever to open up the action were supposed to go. Unfortunately, I missed the other salient feature of the gun: that the hammers have to be cocked manually. My very brief previous exposure to coach guns has been with models that didn't have external hammers. The gift box I was carrying the shotgun and ammo in also included the worlds worst flashlight. It was dim and activated by a knob (which also focused the beam). Rather than being a tube light, it was about four inches in diameter with a swiveling handle, making it very cumbersome to use in conjunction with a long gun. Of course, this was a dark stage, meaning we would need the flashlight for target identification.
At the start signal (the RO yelling that there was shooting inside the church, rather than an explosion this time) I set down the box and got the shotgun loaded. In my left hand, I grabbed as many shells as I could manage and the light. As I entered the church, I realized that the beam was way too diffuse. I managed to readjust the light and saw two figures with guns off to the right. I tried to fire, but got nothing. It was at this point that I realized I needed to cock the gun manually. After pulling the hammers back, I let them have one barrel each. Somebody yelled out that there was a guy with a knife up in front of the church. I hurriedly reloaded and rechecked the gun, used the light to identify the armed target, and blasted him. A bystander informed me that the bride and groom had gone out the back.
I had no idea which barrel I had just fired, so I reloaded both with my last two shells, dropped the flashlight and pied the corner as I stepped out the back door. I spotted one armed BG at the corner of the church and dropped him. With one round left, I pied around a short wall segment and spotted an unarmed target with an armed one just behind him. I was in the process of pulling the trigger when I spotted the badge on his chest. I know I saw the before the gun went off, but I wasn't able to stop in time and ended up giving the deputy my last round.
Overall, this stage was a series of blunders for me. In addition to my trouble with the hammers and shooting the cop, I also stood rooted in the doorway for at least half a minute while I messed with the light and shotgun rather than stepping back outside and seeking cover. As they explained during the debrief on Saturday, they don't do the mystery gun stage because they think you should know how to operate every weapon on the planet. The do it because forcing you to use an unfamiliar weapon (and a crappy flashlight) rather than your regular gear induces stress that can reveal weaknesses. It's interesting what degrades and what doesn't. I failed to seek cover and had an obvious problem with target discrimination. On the other hand, I shot well. I point shot the gun from the shoulder and every target went down with one shot. I also think I did a good job pieing the two corners, even doing a smooth shoulder transition to pie around the left side of the wall (right before I blew away the deputy).
ATSA Medical Clinic
The final stage I shot used mostly pneumatically activated targets, rather than the falling targets that characterized the earlier scenarios. This allows them to reveal and retract the targets as you move through the stage, but they don't go down with quite the same satisfying finality as the dropping targets. Again, you are tasked with rescuing a relative from a medical clinic after you her shots coming from inside.
I entered, moved down a hallway, and pied a corner to the right. I spotted a target that was facing away from me. The target whirled around just after I spotted it, revealing a pistol. I shot it. A moment later, a pneumatic target popped up out a window to my left. I put several rounds into it before it disappeared. Another target popped out further down the hall. I shot it until it retracted, then rounded another corner to my right, revealing another target. Putting several rounds into this target left me at slide lock, prompting me to reload. I rounded a left hand corner, revealing a long empty hallway with a door at the end. Opening the door revealed my relative out the back door of the clinic, but to reach him I had to move past a hallway to my left. As I pied out I saw another turning target, which I gunned down (almost hitting a no-shoot behind it) and another pneumatic target out the window. I moved past the hallway and spotted yet another pneumatic target in a nook to my right. Shooting it ended the stage.
This was the only scenario I came close to running out of ammunition on. Despite shooting fairly generously, I only used one magazine on the Meditation and Courthouse stages. During the Mall stage, I did a tactical reload and shot slightly more than one magazine of ammunition. On the this stage, I ran one magazine dry and had only 3 rounds left in the second at the end of the stage. I think this can largely be attributed to the fact that the pneumatic targets don't retract anywhere near as fast as the falling targets| drop to the ground.
This finished up my day of shooting on Thursday. NTI was not yet over, however. In addition to a day of lectures and discussions on Friday, there was also a set of partners scenarios on Saturday.
The partners scenarios are run force on force, using the same revolvers loaded with sims as the ATSA village. One partner is armed, but the other is not, and represents the friend or family member to be rescued. I was partnered with John, one of my friends from South Carolina.
For the first scenario, I was unarmed. It was a fairly faithful recreation of the ATSA Mall live fire stage, using the same shot house with role-players in about the same locations as the live fire targets. As the cheese at the end of the maze, I was placed in a small closet to the rear. As John came in the front, I yelled that I was in the back and decided to take a peek out to see if I could see anything to help him. The door swung open further than I'd intended and for my troubles I was shot immediately. Deciding discretion was the better part of valor at this point, I moved back further into the closet and waited for John to come to me.
John ended up taking a round in fairly short order, after he spotted an armed criminal and attempted to shoot him, but was unable to get the revolver to fire. After a moment, the criminal shot him. Before the scenario, John opened the cylinder of the revolver to check that it was loaded (NTI has been known to give people unloaded guns in Force on Force, particularly if it is taken from you by the Sheriff during a scenario and returned). Unfortunately, he didn't completely close the cylinder, resulting in an unifireable gun.
The second partners scenario took place in the Courthouse shoot house, but the scenario was somewhat different than the live fire scenario yesterday. The unarmed partner entered the courthouse to pay a traffic ticket and is thrown in a cell by two criminals attempting to escape. Of course, I did not know this at the time, I'm just waiting outside for my friend when I hear gunfire. I entered and encountered a man holding a cellphone. I manage to identify the contents of his hand correctly and don't shoot him. After he assumes I'm a bad guy (since I have a gun) I tell him to get out of there, then think better of it and ask him to call 911.
As I moved further into the shoot house, I hear the two escaping convicts. They're down a pair of parallel hallways to the right. Rather than trying to dig them out, I initially set up behind some cover and wait for them. My position isn't a great one, since I have to either overexpose myself to one hallway in order to see the other. When one of them yells out where I am to the other, I decided to move. I swung over to the wall next to the to hallways, where they will have to pie the corner in order to see me. They don't seem to be too keen to come out, so I formulate a new plan. The nearer hallway ends in an open door that swings out into the room I'm in. I swung that door shut, eliminating one hallway and, for the moment at least, one convict from the situation. He tries to shoot me through the crack of the door as I swing it shut, but the paint bullet disintegrates on the door. With him out of the way, I rolled out around the corner of the second hallway and shoot the convict at almost the same moment he shoots me. My aim is better and I hit him pretty good while he gets a grazing hit on my cover garment.
At this moment Sheriff Vicki comes in (the fruit of my request to the fellow with the cellphone to call 911). I pulled back from the corner and drop the gun on the Sheriff's order. They called a halt to the scenario.
To paraphrase something I said during the debrief on Saturday afternoon, if you don't consider the mistakes you made at NTI, you're not getting your money's worth. In that vein, here are what I consider to be my biggest mistakes.
During the robbery scenario in the village, I got shot. After some consideration, I think I was on the right track, going hands on with the closer robber as I shot him, then the second robber. However, just grabbing his arm and shooting from retention didn't work so well. In real life, getting shot in the leg might have reset the robbers OODA loop enough that he wouldn't have the presence of mind to shoot me, but that's not something I want to chance. In hindsight, I would have been better off going for the quick kill, rather than the retention shot. Plant the first round in the near robber's head to eliminate him as a threat, then shoot the second robber. Alternatively, rather than grabbing his arm, I could have hit him in the brachial plexus with my left arm and driven him back (or just run him over) relying on that pressure to keep him from shooting me while I dealt with his friend. While I think both of those are good real life options, neither is really available in the ATSA village, due to safety limits on headshots and hard strikes.
I missed chances to see some less obvious threats. During the mall stage, I failed to see my wife being held hostage in the dark closet in the far corder of the room, and at the courthouse, I didn't see one of the targets standing outside the window. This is more than just the NTI organizers being sneaky. Both locations were really good choices to lay up for an ambush, just the kind of thing someone might use in real life. I need to work on recognizing such things.
Finally, I shot twice when I shouldn't have. I shot the first target in the mall before I saw the threat indicator and I let the poor deputy have a load of birdshot in the mystery gun stage. The thing that both of these have in common is that they were times when I was pretty highly stressed. As designed, the mystery gun stage induces a lot of stress as you try to run that coach gun. The Mall target came at the beginning of my first 360 stage, my first real shoot house experience, and my first full on NTI scenario (the Meditation Retreat stage I shot before this one was more of a hybrid skills drill and scenario than a full scenario). After shooting that first target, I calmed down a bit and went on with the stage. Obviously, this kind of stress can induce mistakes, and it's a good thing to be cognizant of. Further experience may solve this problem at NTI, but when I find myself in a real gunfight, it's liable to be pretty stressful.
These were the three big ones. There were some others. I failed to recognize the woman with the shotgun as a threat in the Courthouse stage, but that's really a problem in interpreting what NTI is trying to say with their setups, rather than a problem that might crop up in a real gunfight. I'm confident if a woman wielding a shotgun tried to kill me in real life, I would recognize it as a threat. I'm pretty good at working corners, but most of my experience is with single pieces of cover. A full 360 shoot house (particularly the NTI ones with lots of nooks and crannies) is a more difficult problem. I need to learn more about how to clear complete rooms, rather than just single corners.
Interestingly, two of the areas I decided need some work (0-5 feet and CQB) are the primary subjects of two classes I'm scheduled to take from Gabe Suarez later this year. In a way, my NTI experience provided some additional evidence for what I already knew.
Point shooting worked. I was really glad to have taken Roger Phillips' Point Shooting Progressions and Advanced Point Shooting Progressions classes before the NTI. They really raised my point shooting skills to a new level. NTI provided a chance to put those skills to use. I only had a full sight picture on three targets during the NTI scenarios: the three 50 yard targets in the ATSA Meditation Retreat stage. I shot every other target using some variant of point shooting. The Mall and Courthouse stages involved a lot of point shoulder, since I only had one hand available. The Courthouse also required some half him shooting where the quarters were a bit closer. During the other stages, I shot mostly from isosceles, with the gun just below my line of sight. My shooting was pretty accurate, with every target going down in one burst or less. I point shot the shotgun during the mystery gun stage too, and every target went down with only one shot.
With the exception of the mystery gun stage and the very start of the ATSA mall, I was pretty calm throughout the exercise. Some participants talked a lot about how stressed they were during their first NTI, but I didn't experience too much of that. This may have a lot to do with my previous experience. I spent a year and a half doing two live fire scenarios a month, so I'm familiar with that aspect. NTI's scenarios are grander in scope and use a lot more scenery, but the basic need to run through your OODA loop and make quick decisions remains the same. I also had quite a bit of force on force experience coming in, including several classes with Farnam and Suarez International, so that wasn't new to me either.
Overall, NTI was a great experience. It really allowed me to put my skills to the test. I didn't walk out with any new skills, but I learned a lot about the skills I've got, and the skills I need to work on. Despite some shortcomings, I was pretty satisfied with my level of performance. It validated a lot of what I'd learned in previous classes and has given me confidence in my fundamental skills. At the same time, it provided a roadmap for some future skill development. If you're willing to be humbled a bit, NTI is a great experience for any skilled shooter. I definitely plan on being back next year.