West Virginia is beautiful country. Lush, green forests. Bare rock faces-the bones of the earth, grey as slate and laid bare. Smoky mountains. Blood red soil. It’s gorgeous.
It is not, ordinarily speaking, “I want to drive 2.5 hours” gorgeous . . . but it is breathtaking nonetheless.
So how did I find myself here, just over the Virginia border and smack dab in the middle of Nowhere, West Virginia?
Bit of a long story.
It’s been a couple of years since I completed SWAT school (or the Basic Tactical Officer Course, as it’s less commonly known). And it's been even longer since I was an active duty Marine. But even though I’m no longer affiliated with an official organization (law enforcement, military, or otherwise), I try to stay abreast of the latest training theory. I’d seen some stuff Aaron Barruga (of Guerrilla Approach) had put out there at some credible websites, so I thought I’d give his class a shot (no pun intended).
There WAS actually a class right here in Richmond (practically in my back yard), but I somehow missed the deadline for it. (Fun fact-I missed out on being able to take that class by about 1 week-just didn’t see it was available until it was juuust too late to register). But as I bemoaned the way I’d missed that local class, I saw there was one close by.
In West Virginia.
A mere 189-minute drive away!
“Why the hell not?” I figured. Aaron seemed legit. And he had cool videos.
But more importantly, I was intrigued by his philosophy, which I found both practical and refreshing (more on that later). So I jumped at the chance to train with the exceptionally well-written (and, as I’d discover, surprisingly funny) prior-service Green Beret.
Aaron’s class started at 0900. So instead of getting up at 0-dark thirty and driving the whole way from Richmond, I crashed with a buddy of mine in scenic Winchester, VA (Thanks Paul! ‘Preciatecha man). From Winchester it was about a 40-minute drive to the Echo Valley Training Center in breathtaking Hampshire County, West Virginia (remember those gorgeous forests, lush green mountain, and roads cut through the raw rock I mentioned earlier?).
I’d originally debated driving my everyday commuter (a 2000 mustang) for this trip, but when I hit the turnoff to the park where the training center was located and got to the top of the trail? I was glad I didn’t.
Because from that point on it was pretty much off-road mountain trail driving.
Amazing scenery, but no place for anything other than a 4-wheel drive vehicle (which happened to be what I had decided upon). I followed the trail up the mountain, then down into a mist-shrouded, sleepy-looking valley.
The range was hella hard to find, but I must admit I enjoyed the drive in. I finally got there at about 0845 (if you’re early you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late), and pulled into the parking area adjacent to the range. The set up was nice-covered classroom (no walls), a berm cut right into the foothills, graveled range, panoramic mountain view behind us.
After parking I popped the back hatch of my truck and started getting my gear situated. While I was doing that, I took a minute to assess the caliber of the other students. There were definitely some hitters in there. Several Pennsylvania State Troopers, none of whom looked like they’d missed a single gym sesh since the 90’s, were in attendance. Their t- shirts revealed them to be tac team guys.
There was a father/son combo there (son wasn’t military, but was decked out in full multi-cam), a tall, “quiet professional” looking government type was there with a woman who I later found out was his partner (I should have figured-she looked every bit as lethal as he did). They never mentioned what agency they were with.
An older gent drove in right before me. He later shared that he was a retired LEO. He sticks out in my memory because he wore some kick-ass tactical suspenders, and had his socks tucked into his boots to prevent tick bites.
Besides myself, there was one other brother there-a young cat in a black tee and multi-cam trousers (found out later on he was active duty Army. More on him later, too). And there were a couple of other guys there as well. Entire class was maybe 15-20 students in total.
The day started out easy. Aaron collected safety waivers, introduced us to his co-instructor (I think he said his name was Blair. I assume he was also Army SF or something similar, although they never said). They made the admin stuff quick before we got down to business.
Surprisingly, the class was done armor free. Aaron said if we’d brought it along to leave in in our vehicles, so for the entire class my body armor lay in the truck right where I’d placed it the night before-next to my ammo cans, sidearm, and other gear.
Another surprise was that we didn’t bother zeroing our rifles. Aaron assumed that if we were there, we were zeroed. Which pretty much everyone was. Part of his concept of ‘Big Boy’ range rules, as he calls them. A concept which I very much liked. Often in these courses, valuable training time is taken up with zeroing weapons and hand-holding. But not in this case.
This wasn’t a beginner’s course.
First order of the day was what, at first, felt like some Jedi mind trick stuff about shooting more precisely and ‘seeing where your next shot’ would be. I admit, this was a bit hard to grasp. But I’ve since then studied it some, and it goes like this:
See this target?
You start by focusing only on the leftmost sector you’re shooting. Then you expand your field of vision to include the entire top section. The theory here is twofold: first is that you don’t ‘tunnel vision’ into a single target, and second is that by taking in the entire field, you can increase the speed with which you adjust your point of aim (thereby engaging targets much more quickly and efficiently).
Aaron explains it way better than me in the video link below.
And that target shown above? Aaron designed it himself, especially for this exercise. You can get them (free of charge) at the Guerrilla Approach website.
I recommend trying this at your next range session. It’s a little tough at first, but as with anything it becomes more natural with practice. I’ll be working this again next time I hit up my own local range.
Aim small, miss small.
Next up was a concept which is fundamentally true, but one which I never even consciously thought about (but hopefully I did subconsciously?). As Aaron correctly states, the vast majority of the ‘moving and shooting’ equation in a fight is you moving. What I think he means is that it takes a millisecond to pull a trigger (I.e. “shoot), so the ‘moving’ part must, by default, equate to the bulk of the action.
That allowed us to move into some up down drills, on steel, at 100 yds. Up down drills happen thusly: starting in the prone, a ‘burpee’ motion up to the feet, sight in, ping on steel, drop back to prone.
We did quite a few of these.
Then it was time for some sprinting dills. Sprinting, decelerating, getting on target, ping on steel, sprint away. Here Aaron stressed keeping the rifle toward the threat/enemy, and he had us employ a technique where you balance the rifle stock on the bicep, keeping it pointed downrange. That way it stays pointing toward the enemy vs. pointing to the sky or at the deck (like I’d been used to before) as you race to the next point.
Did I mention this was in May? In West Virginia?
There was no sun, but humidity was like 1,000%. Thankfully I went with 511 tactical pants and a moisture wicking t-shirt that day. Because I was sweating balls.
After a short water break/ammo load we hit the drills again, only this time we removed our slings. In the interest of full disclosure, I’d never done this before-in the Marine Corps, in SWAT training, in other tactical classes. . .anywhere. It was a bit weird having the ‘dog off the leash,’ so to speak. And it was also just one more thing to concentrate on (along with muzzle awareness, ammo count, movements of the drill, etc.). This was good learning, and no doubt helpful as far as building that muscle that allows you to adapt to less than ideal situations. But I was very thankful to reattach the rifle to my single-point sling.
Having that rifle off-sling like that also drove home a great point about mindset, dogma, and doctrine, which Aaron proselytizes upon quite a bit. It reinforced the idea that you should never get locked into a mindset because of dogma. I believe Aaron referred to this as the ‘September 10th' mindset.
For me those words-September 10th mindset-conjured up just about as powerful an image for not getting locked into regimented thinking as anything I could imagine.
Afterwards we broke for lunch. I got a chance to chat with a young guy who was from West Virginia. He had on a ‘1775’ Grunt Style t-shirt, so I assumed he’d been in the Corps.
Nope. Just a regular civilian, as it turned out. But he handled his AK like a damned champ. Just more proof to me that the U.S. may not be the best county to invade. . .if you’re an evil foreign power out looking for easy pickings, that is.
After some speedy midday chow we moved right back into the drills. This time it was sprint, decelerate into position, then take a range of targets on the move, working from left to right and then right to left.
Quick note here: at this point an older gent (who’d arrived late) had to sit off to the side. Looked like he was hurting a fair bit. I’m not being ageist here, but again I have to stress this . . . Aaron’s course is a lot of moving. A LOT. It’s called Functional Marksmanship Movements for a good reason. You’re sprinting (not jogging) into positions. You’re up and down. You’re carrying a rifle, and maybe ammo if you went with a tactical rig consisting of a belt with mag pouches.
You need to come to this course in some type of basic shape. And with the ability to perform some moderately strenuous movements. Fair warning.
After the target movement segment, we did some ‘T’ drills. That’s where small orange cones are set up in a ‘T’ shape. You dash from the bottom of the ‘T’ to the top, then move left and right, putting a round on steel at pre-set points along the route (also marked by orange cones).
This was in keeping with the overall theme of the course (i.e., racing into position, getting on target, moving to the next position, rinse and repeat).
After the drills were pretty well ingrained, it was time to have some fun. Nothing takes thing up a notch like some good old-fashioned competition.
In this case, it was T drill face offs.
You start heel to heel with an opponent (facing away from them), run the T drill as fast as you can, then back to center and a final shot on target for the win.
I got paired up with the army kid in the black tee.
He probably had me by about 20 years, but hey-your boy stays fit over here. I have to, really. I’ts a requirement for competing against people who are, like, half my age. Which is a big part of the art of Brazilian jiu jitsu (which I love).
And all my devil dogs out there will already know this, but I also had another ace up my sleeve. Marine Corps marksmanship principals are forever, y’all!
So we line up heel to heel, facing opposite directions. We get the signal, and off we go.
We’re pretty much neck and neck. I can hear my targets ringing through my ear pro, and I can hear his ringing as well. I ended up taking an extra shot at a cone I didn’t need to (I’ll chalk that up to ‘the fog of war’). Even with my self-imposed penalty shot, I was still was only a millisecond behind him coming in. But I have to hand it to him-he dumped half a magazine into his last shot just to make sure he won. I laughed out loud at that.
Smart kid. I’m glad to see the new generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with that winning mindset.
Couldn’t even be salty about losing that one. Guess that’s what they mean by ‘Army Strong’ LOL.
That was the final exercise of the day. Afterwards we got in one last school circle for a wrap up from Aaron. I don’t even think anyone took a class pic (another departure from the usual way these courses go). If they did, I didn’t see it.
Afterwards I shook hands with Aaron and Blair and thanked them for the instruction. Then I changed into a clean T, got my ass in the truck, and started the 3 hour haul back home.
On the road back, I had quite a bit to chew on.
I really loved Aaron’s principle-based instruction (vs. the stuff you see on YouTube that just looks cool but isn’t functional. In one of the writings on his great blog, Aaron terms the instructors who push this stuff as “Tactical Kardashians”). And I also dug the emphasis on movement vs. fancy shooting and crazy speed reloads.
This was a great class. Well worth the drive.
I think Aaron’s got a few courses coming up in RVA (and points nearby?) this year.
If anyone’s interested in taking one, hit me up. Maybe we can get a group rate. LOL
As long as the schedule allows, I’d definitely be down to train with Guerrilla Approach again.