SEPTEMBER 12, 2014 BY DAVID RODRIGUEZ
Firearms marksmanship is a skill that you must constantly build and hone. During my time in the active duty military and as a private security contractor, I've had the opportunity to learn and train with some great instructors. The better you become, the more you realize how much further you have to go in mastering the skill.
When I was approached by my friend PH001, the president of Pipe Hitters Union about attending and conducting a review of a tactical pistol course for publication by MOTUS, I saw it as another training opportunity. My next question was naturally, “Who is running the course?” and I was informed that it was a company called Survival and Tactical Systems (STS). STS was going to be in Austin, Texas running a two-day Tactical Pistol course. After a short phone conversation with the CEO of STS, I got the impression that the course would be well worth my time.
On the first range day, I arrived a little early and met the instructors, and my impression was confirmed. There were four instructors, including the STS CEO, Nick Koumalatsos. The other three were Nick, Ron and Bryan. Three of these instructors are former members of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC), and the fourth is from the U.S. Army Special Forces. Together, they bring just over 50 years of intensive tactical marksmanship experience to the table.
Once everyone got settled, Nick K. addressed the group, giving a short introduction about himself and the other instructors. He then talked a bit about their training philosophy: focus on the fundamentals. Instantly, I was on board.
He went on to explain that without the fundamentals firmly in place, moving on to more advanced techniques is a waste of training time and rounds. “We can have you guys shooting a thousand rounds and doing Bruce Willis rolls, but what is that going to teach you?” With that, he turned it over to Ron and Nick (that’s Nick number two; keep up with me).
After a safety brief, the instructors asked some quick questions to gauge the experience levels in the class, which covered everything from a very new shooter to shooters who had already fired thousands of rounds, and everything in between.
You would think that this wide experience range might take away from the training value for some of the attendees. One of the biggest endorsements I can give this course is that they were able to give everyone something. In some cases it was some quick feedback and observation on the next course of fire. In others it was taking someone off to the side to give them one-on-one help. The STS instructors had plenty of experience and patience to handle both scenarios.
The first class focused on the basic mechanics of a pistol and the specifics of some of the pistols that were brought by the students. The instructors rolled that information into a brief explanation of the cycle of operations and various types of malfunctions.
After that they got into what I would consider the meat and potatoes, the fundamentals:
- Sight alignment
- Sight picture
- Body position / stance
- Trigger control
Some instructors can find a way to make that training into a daylong affair with stories and diagrams and multiple demonstrations. Nick and Ron distilled it down to its most important aspects and went through each one, bringing students to the point where they understood without pushing to the saturation point. They set up the framework for what they expected on the firing line.
The next big topic to cover was drawing from the holster. Using the same approach, the instructors broke it down to a four-step sequence, each with a set of movements that has to happen in order to set up for the next step. Done correctly, the draw sets you up mechanically to employ those fundamentals once the pistol is on target.
After a quick break, they got us on the range for some dry fire. Dry fire isn’t the coolest or sexiest activity. You don’t get the instant feedback of a round through a target, so it requires discipline to make sure you are mentally checking all of those blocks required to employ the fundamentals correctly. This was also the instructors’ chance to observe and make corrections as they saw them, setting shooters up for success when rounds were being fired. Ron stressed that at this point everything is slow. The speed will come later. “You can fire fifteen rounds in five seconds and hit nothing, or fire one well aimed round in five seconds and win the fight.”
After some quality time on the line doing dry fire drills, reinforcing those new good habits, the instructors covered the next big topic: the speed reload. They took the same approach: break it down into its important parts, teach the sequence, and put it all together into a smooth motion. And the key is smooth, not fast. “Smooth, almost robotic movements right now…”
The next big topic to cover was malfunctions. The instructors briefly but clearly discussed the types of malfunctions and some of their causes, and then moved on to the more important topic of clearing a malfunction. We can sit around and diagnose malfunctions all day, but the more important step is clearing them and getting back in the fight.
Back on the firing line we went through a series of drills designed to build the muscle memory of those good fundamentals. Throughout the day we moved from the five-yard line back to the seven- and continued shooting as the instructors called out the next course of fire. Then back to the ten-yard line. The instructors stressed that anything you are doing incorrectly at the five will increase in magnitude at the ten and by extension at the twenty-five. Fixing minor issues early on was the main focus.
At breaks, instructors would check the targets and talk to each shooter individually about what they saw and how to improve. There was also a big focus on helping the shooters analyze their own targets. As they said, “We want to train you to be able to diagnose yourselves once you leave here and train on your own.”
One thing that stood out to me was that the round counts for each drill were low. Working from three magazines (one in the pistol and two on the belt) forces you to do speed-reload after speed-reload. Ron explained to me that this arrangement is by design. Sometimes the reload is a neglected skill, and he wanted to use those two days to reinforce it.
The course also covered shooting while moving. Ron and Nick talked through and demonstrated how to keep good body mechanics from the waist up while your lower body gets you to where you need to be. In smaller groups, with an instructor moving with each shooter, we engaged targets while moving forward from the ten-yard line to five.
As the day progressed, the drills consisted of multiple targets with speed reloads. The visible trend throughout the two-day course is that the instructors build the foundation and then bring new skills into it so that the shooters slowly start integrating it all into one smooth movement.
To finish off the day, the group got back together and the instructors addressed issues that they saw throughout the day, discussed some final points, and we called it a night.
The second day began with a short review, covering the major learning points of the day before, and then getting back on the line for some dry fire. The next step was to warm up at the five- and ten-yard lines. All of the same elements carried over from the previous day: smooth drawing from the holster, trigger control, and low round counts allowing you to take your time and focus.
Then it was back to what the instructors referred to as “The Humbler.” If you are feeling like a rock star at the five-yard line, the twenty-five-yard line will take you down a few notches if you let it. With three magazines of five rounds, we lined up and shot five good, slow rounds. After each magazine, we re-holstered and walked up to the targets to get individual feedback on our grouping. After each magazine, we could see an improvement across the entire firing line as people started using those teaching points.
Next on the agenda were facing movements. Regardless of the location of the target in relation to you, you modify that four-step draw to get eyes on the threat. Then you quickly get into position to get on-target. We had a chance to run a few courses of fire from each side, letting everyone get comfortable with facing and shooting.
With that covered, the instructors moved on to engaging targets with friendlies in the mix. Nothing ninja—no one was shooting with volunteers zigzagging in front of the targets. Picture this scenario: You are a concealed carry license holder out in public, and a threat clearly presents itself. Your loved one is walking on your right, and the threat is also on your right. What is the most efficient way to get your loved one out of the line of fire while getting yourself in place to go through that smooth draw sequence and engage that threat if possible?
The instructors addressed some basic movements with the threat at various angles and did some dry fire with a partner. After the dry run, we did some slow live fire drills using those techniques and getting rounds on-target. This naturally led into the next topic: cover and concealment.
We established the difference between cover and concealment, and the proper use of both. With some barricades set up, Bryan went through the principles of using cover, regardless of the kind. Whether the cover is upright, low, or somewhere between, there are dos and don’ts.
After the instructor did a live fire demonstration the class was divided up and we did a few runs with an instructor moving with us. With safety in mind, as long as we used the principles we learned and our shot placement didn’t suffer, we were encouraged to pick up the pace each time through.
Next on the agenda was a discussion on concealed carry, the concealed carry mindset, and some options for concealed carry. The instructors set up for the final two courses of fire—a friendly competition. A little self-induced stress is always good, and there is no better way to induce it than to shoot with everyone watching. Both courses of fire were designed to pull everything we learned together and have some fun in the process. The various sponsors and STS even put together a prize package for the winner and one for the most improved shooter.
I think my conclusions will be fairly obvious to my readers. The course was a great opportunity to re-visit some foundational skills and do some minor changes to show immediate improvement. The proof is in the pudding. Everyone who attended, regardless of where they started, walked away shooting better than they had the day prior.
It’s one thing to know a subject matter or a skill, and another to be able to translate that into good teaching. The instructors were incredibly accessible and professional. On a non-shooting related note, they also did a great job of managing the course. Things moved smoothly and the pace was just right.
If you’ve got the opportunity to attend an STS course I have no reservations in saying that it would be well worth your time and money. I look forward to seeing them for another course. I would like to thank Survival and Tactical Systems (STS) for having me, MOTUS for publishing my article and Pipe Hitters Union for putting this opportunity together.
For more information on Survival and Tactical Systems, as well all the training courses they offer, please visit their website. I also recommend checking out The Raider Project, a non-profit that STS CEO Nick Koumalatsos is involved with that works towards facilitating a peaceful, successful transition from active military service to a civilian life filled with hope and purpose.