AAR: Trident Concepts (Jeff Gonzales) “Combative Pistol Level Two”, Palmyra, PA, 8/1-8/2, 2015

In my article on setting training goals, I mentioned the importance of taking at least one pure handgun class every year. By “pure”, I mean one built around the fundamentals of pistol marksmanship. It was with that belief in mind that I signed up for the Trident Concepts “Combative Pistol Level Two” class with Jeff Gonzales, President of Trident Concepts. The class was held at the Palmyra Sportsmen’s Association in Palmyra, PA, August 1 and 2, 2015. Cost of the class was $525.00. I am not affiliated with Trident Concepts or Alias Training and Security Services, except as a paying customer.

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I think I first heard the name Jeff Gonzales at the end of the handgun class I took with Steve Fisher of Sentinel Concepts over a year before (AAR here). Steve was dictating a list of other instructors who he believed are worth training with, and I scrawled out an assortment of names in my notebook, which included Jeff. Late in 2014, I saw that Kyle Defoor was leaving Alias Training to start his own training company, but I soon saw that Jeff Gonzales stepped in to “fill the void”, as it were. For those who do not know, the Alias Training “banner” carries under it connections with numerous ex-special operators who are now instructors. Each has his own company (Trident Concepts for Gonzales, CTT Solutions for Mike Pannone, Vickers Tactical for Larry Vickers, etc.), but they all fall under the Alias “brand”. Anyway, suddenly Jeff was on my radar, and when I saw he was offering a mid-level handgun class within easy driving distance, I signed up. In the interim, I did as much reading of online AARs and other information about the Trident Concepts program as I could.

I am not going to provide a biography here of Jeff’s history (I don’t know it very well anyway), but the basic gist is that he is a former U.S. Navy Seal. When he left the East coast team he was a member of, he went out to the West coast and became an instructor at the Naval Special Warfare Center at Coronado. This second part is pretty important, at least to me. It’s one thing to be an ex-Tier One super ninja, but it’s something else entirely when an ex-Tier One super ninja teaches future Tier One super ninjas. It tells me that the guy can probably teach. (He can!).

(YouTube link to Panteao video about Jeff Gonzales here)

Right from the get-go, the first thing that was “different” about this class was that the estimated round count for the class as published online was approximately 1200. The 3-day version of the class carries a round count of approximately 2000! My prior two-day handgun classes had run into the high 600s. It was hard for me to fathom how we could shoot so much in just two days. My main concern was that this might turn into some sort of ballistic masturbation, and I had no desire to partake in such a thing.

The other difference between this and other classes was the start time: 7:30 AM. The Palmyra Sportsmen’s Association does not allow live fire until 8:00 AM; meeting at 7:30 allowed us to cover some material early so that we could use the maximum amount of time possible to shoot. Both days, we were active from 8:00 until 6:00 PM, with an hour for lunch. I will also mention now that, for August in central Pennsylvania, the weather was great. High 80s with low humidity, and just a few clouds here and there.

'Twas the night before class...
‘Twas the night before class…

I arrived early, around 7:00 AM, and met the other couple of students already present. One of the students was also the host, Shawn (www.anti-fragile.net), who had driven all night ¾ of the way across Pennsylvania from Pittsburgh. Jeff arrived right on time at 7:30, did a head count (16 students total I think), and we got started. He introduced himself and gave a brief bio, and then started talking about the class. He explained that he usually runs it as a 3-day class, which would mean that he would be running this class at a fast pace in order to cover the material. It would therefore be important that we hustle a lot to hang targets, help out wherever possible, be safe, and generally have our shit together. He explained that his system is built on three things: battlefield experience, performance standards, and no excuses. He said that in his level one classes he typically spends about 70% of the time teaching new stuff and 30% of the time correcting bad habits. In level two classes like this one, those numbers are usually reversed.

We then did a range safety brief consisting of a medical brief with several students assigned different roles if the worst should happen, and then a firearms safety brief where he outlined his five safety rules (no surprises here). One thing that was a little different than other classes I’ve taken was that a “fiddle table” was set up behind the line and off to one side near the berm. If any of us had to do anything to our firearms (clean, lube, repair, etc.), that would be the place to do it. I thought that was a good idea.

I will mention here one of my biggest takeaways from the class. When talking about his administrative load procedure, we talked about how many repetitions of a physical activity it takes to make something “automatic” (muscle-memory). No one knows, but we could all agree it might be 1000, 5000, etc. So Jeff said that we need to take every opportunity we can to get those reps. He said there are “good columns” and “bad columns”, and every chance we have to check something off into the “good column” would be a good thing, and each time we put something in the “bad column”, that would just hold us back. So an example would be the administrative load. This is the load you might perform when putting on your gun in the morning, or loading your first magazine at the range, etc. Jeff believes in performing this load exactly as you would do it under stress. This means the pistol should be up in the “workspace” in front of you, you should access the magazine from your magazine pouch (NOT an extra one you have stashed in a pocket), insert the magazine into the gun, rack the slide (favors the overhand rack), obtain a firing grip, perform a press check, holster the gun, and then, if necessary, take a magazine from your pocket and put it into your empty magazine pouch. Topping off the magazine should also take place so the gun is at full capacity. If you perform this simple task the same every time, you will be building up that “muscle memory” and checking off something else in the “good column”.

We were each assigned a target which, other than in a few rare instances of multiple threat drills, would be our target, or “lane” throughout the class. We began with a few shooting drills that gave Jeff a chance to evaluate the class as much about how well we followed directions than our actual shooting skills. Jeff divides his marksmanship program into Preparatory, Basic, and Combat. We collectively passed his skills assessment and he therefore felt that we could bypass “Preparatory” and go right to “Basic”.

Like some other current “big name” instructors, Jeff bases a lot of his program on the study of elite athletes and biomechanics. As an example, if we look at stance, Jeff said a stance can be built more for mobility or stability. Since this class is all about combat marksmanship, the mobility aspect must win out. Accordingly, the stance he teaches, he said, is basically a split-jerk stance from the powerlifting arena. For someone who is right handed, this looks a lot like the stance most instructors teach, except Jeff keeps his right leg a little further back with the toes pointed outboard a bit for stability. Despite this more bladed position in the lower body area, there is a rotation to the hips that allows the belt buckle and the rest of the upper body to be facing the target squared up. Everything else is sort of “typical”, with weight on the balls of the feet, knees over toes, hips over knees, shoulders over hips. He does NOT favor a forward roll of the shoulders. Instead, his back is more upright, and with a two-handed grip said that our goal should be to squeeze our shoulder blades together (“pretend there’s a nerf football back there that we are trying to hold with our shoulder blades”). Coupled with that, the other “new” thing was to try to point our elbows down. The goal of these nuances is to assist with recoil management, the key to rapid, accurate fire in multi-shot strings.

Next, Jeff discussed grip. Some of what follows I had already read on his blog, but the key is to use a good crush grip. The grip actually starts with the pinkies of both hands, and this should be the strongest part of your grip. Jeff even walked amongst the students and took the time to shake everyone’s hand, squeezing with his pinky and then having each of us squeeze back, in order to show us how hard we need to squeeze the grip. Discussion at the end of the two days showed that the use of this crush grip was the key for the majority of the students and was their biggest takeaway from the class.

With grip out of the way, we moved on to the 3 marksmanship principles, which are Sight Management, Trigger Management, and Follow Through. Regarding sight management, Jeff mentioned that really it’s not a “sight picture”, but a “sight video”, since it is always moving and changing with micro-corrections that the shooter will be making. The area of Trigger Management was broken up into three sub-topics: location of the trigger on your finger (Jeff believes in “sinking it deep” to that first knuckle for maximum strength), location of your finger on the trigger (use the bottom portion of the trigger for maximum leverage), and movement (take out the slack, squeeze, reset, and make sure the trigger finger is ONLY touching the face of the trigger, not dragging against any other parts of the gun or sides of the grip, trigger guard, etc.). Follow through was also broken into three distinct phases which must be performed in the correct order: drive the gun back to the target, reacquire sight picture on the target, reset the trigger). His little mantra for this was “Gun-Sights-Trigger”. Consistency is the key. Even shooting poorly but consistently poorly is a “good” thing (for example, always shooting low left or high right) because this allows for easier diagnosis of issues.

We spent some time going over the three ready positions. The first we reviewed was the low ready, which Jeff felt was most useful in low-light scenarios where you can use a pistol-mounted light to bounce the light forward. The second we reviewed was Jeff’s preferred ready position, and that was the high ready (this was not a surprise to me, as I know from other reading/knowledge sources that the Naval Special Warfare folks have favored the high ready for both pistols and carbines for a long time). Jeff went into a lengthy discussion, with real-life examples, explaining why the high ready was preferred. The basic gist is that the high ready offers quick access to lethal force possibilities–since the front sight is visible throughout the presentation of the pistol–excellent retention characteristics, and integrates well with hand combat (muzzle strikes, etc.). Jeff assured us that being struck in the face with a gun hurts. The third ready position is the tuck, which is where the gun is held with only the firing hand tight against the side of the chest pointed forward. This is a good position for close contact distances as it provides good retention.

Jeff also reviewed the steps to the proper drawstroke. These consist of the grip, the clear, and the punch. At the grip, any retention devices present on the holster must be defeated, and the firing grip must be achieved. If the firing grip is not achieved while the gun is still holstered, the grip will only get worse on presentation. The clear step consists of coming straight up and then rocking the elbow down so the gun comes into the tuck position. The punch consists of acquisition of the two handed grip and then punching the gun straight out toward the target, picking up the sights on the way out.

I suppose I should note here that Jeff does not allow the use of appendix carry in these pistol classes. He does offer a specific concealed carry tactics class in which appendix carry is permissible. However, in these marksmanship classes, Jeff has joined Larry Vickers and some other instructors in not allowing appendix carry. Accordingly, I had to buy an outside the waistband holster designed for strong-side carry, and chose a holster from F3 Holsters (http://f3holsters.com/).  I will review this holster in a separate blog post. My magazine pouch was a Blade-Tech double magazine pouch with Tek-Lok attachment (http://blade-tech.com/). I mounted both the holster and pouch to my Wilderness Instructor belt. My pistol was a Glock 19 equipped with Defoor Sights, Glock 17 smooth-faced trigger, and Vickers/Tango Down Slide-Stop/release.

Another topic that we discussed was threat neutralization. Basically, Jeff said that there are four types of stops. Immediate incapacitation, rapid incapacitation, destructive trauma, and psychological. Immediate is obviously best but not always easy to achieve with a handgun (central nervous system shots). Rapid is linked with blood loss. Thus, more holes is better. Destructive trauma might be shooting someone in the arm that’s holding the gun to the point that they can no longer hold the gun. Psychological are those occasions where the attacker chooses to stop the fight. In this segment, Jeff talked about the importance of shooting at targets that actually have a face, as it could help inoculate us to what we might one day have to do. Also, he favors the term “face shot” to “head shot”, since it is the face that we should be shooting. As he said, a shot to the forehead, if it even penetrates the skull, might keep a bad guy from being able to one day balance his checkbook, but may not stop the fight”. Since the face already has holes in it (eyes, nasal passages, mouth), this is the area we should be aiming for. He also pointed out the importance of recognizing that real targets are three dimensional. So instead of a flat 8 inch circle on a chest, we should try to imagine an 8 inch diameter globe inside the torso, and aim for that (depending on how the bad guy is oriented toward us). The same goes for the head, only we should imagine a 4 inch wide bandanna, with the top edge at the bottom of the eyebrows and the bottom edge at the upper lip, wrapped all the way around the head. Hit that, and you should be good to go. He also reminded us that you cannot overkill someone. If you are justified in using lethal force, then firing one or seven or even more rounds doesn’t matter, as long as you can articulate afterwards why you believed the bad guy was still a threat. I should note here that the targets we used throughout the class have faint grey lines outlining an 8 inch circle in the upper thoracic area, and a similar line outlining a 4 inch circle on the face.

We finished Day One talking about multiple threats. First, he talked about the numbers, that if we are one day attacked, statistics show that it will more likely be by more than one person. Accordingly, some of our training time needs to be devoted to this. He talked about prioritizing who to engage first, and also about maneuvering on the bad guys in order to minimize their effectiveness while maximizing our own. Throughout, I was happy that he stressed the importance of avoidance and situational awareness, as the best fight is the one that never happens.

The above probably suggest that we didn’t shoot on day one. Quite the contrary, the above instructional modules were interspersed among many shooting modules, to the point that I fired 696 rounds on Day One! We did some 25 yard diagnostics where we would shoot the prescribed number of rounds at the target and then walk forward and receive one-on-one feedback from Jeff on what issues we were having. THIS is worth the price of admission from Jeff. Unlike most of the students in the class, I do a fair amount of work at 25 yards in my typical practice sessions (you wouldn’t necessarily recognize this from the looks of my target!). So some people got more “a ha” moments than I did, but to watch him talk to each student and isolate different issues they were having with their grip, sighting issues, trigger control, etc., was something to behold. Many, including me, struggled at 25 yards, but just as I found in Steve Fisher’s class, at 25 yards you just cannot mask your deficiencies.

What a 100% looks like.
What a 100% looks like.

As different teaching modules outlined in the above paragraphs were completed, we would add things to our shooting drills. For example, after we covered the ready positions, he would have us shoot from each of the ready positions. After we covered the draw, we might shoot the drills from the holster. To help deal with issues of grip, recoil mitigation, and reset, he would often have us shoot strings of 3-5 rounds.

On day one we were also introduced to elimination drills. All 16 of us on the line would receive instructions (for example: “on my command, you will draw and fire 2 rounds at the chest of the target. If you miss, you are out. If you are the last person firing, you are out”). Thus, we had to be accurate but we had to be quick. We might start at 3 yards, then back up to 5, then 7, 10, 15, etc. I made it to the final pair on a few of these throughout the weekend (also got knocked out at the 3 yard line once!), but never “won” any of them.

Jeff and a student competing in an Elimination Drill.
Jeff and a student competing in an Elimination Drill.

Training Day Two started again with some 25 yard diagnostics. Here, some people really started to get some “a ha” moments (the guy two lanes over from me suddenly could not miss!). I think we did 4 or 5 of these 25 yard diagnostic drills. We also did a few on the timer (2 shots from the holster at 25 yards), where we had to beat the second “beep”. This was very psychological, and I struggled. I’d invariably rush my shots even though I had the time to make the hits. A few people asked Jeff what the standard was, i.e. what the timer was set for. Jeff answered by saying, “It doesn’t matter if you can’t get the hits.” He had a point.

We moved on to some malfunction drills. There was nothing here that I had not seen before. We did some drills utilizing mags of 3 live rounds and one dummy round, where we had to shoot until we got to the dummy (“click”), tap-roll-rack, shoot until empty, speed reload, and shoot another round or two. Here, my Glock 19 had what I thought might be its first malfunction in its history. It got jammed up solidly after I had racked out the dummy round. Jeff had to take it from me and work the action free. It was then that I discovered that a second dummy round had found its way into my magazine, and thus into my chamber, but the plastic “bullet” got hung up.

The next thing we covered was strong-hand only shooting, and this was one of the most enlightening parts of the entire class for many students, including me. Jeff said he learned the most about shooting with only one hand from some former teammates who had lost arms. Makes sense! He said learning to shoot strong-hand only isn’t just about preparation if the other hand is injured, but also an issue for people who have kids or others who they may need to control with one arm while engaging a bad guy. Regarding injury, though, he said that we should always make every effort to get the wounded arm/hand up on the gun. Just because you are shot or stabbed in your arm does not automatically mean it is useless. If, however, it is out of commission, then the secret to shooting with one hand is to do everything the same as with two. Same stance, same grip (except bringing the strong-hand thumb down toward the magazine release in order to help facilitate that crush grip, and pointing the elbow a little more downward). No canting the gun 20 degrees, no stepping forward with strong-side foot, and no putting the “wounded” hand over your chest. Why? Continuity of training. I was one of the few students who raised his hand when Jeff asked who practices shooting with one hand (I also practice some weak-hand only).

After doing some strong-hand only drills, we did what would be our final instructional module of the day, which was on movement. Here Jeff gave us his opinion (rooted in practice, of course) that the Groucho Marx-Duck-Walk moving-forward-while-shooting-thing, so evident in training classes and videos, is crap. It is physically taxing to walk like that for extended periods and offers no real benefit. The question of “when to shoot” also came up. Do we shoot when one foot is in the air, or when both are on the ground. The answer, of course, is that we shoot when the sights dictate that we shoot; it has nothing to do with our feet. We did a few shooting while moving drills but didn’t go too crazy with this; there just wasn’t time. We did moving forward while shooting but didn’t do any shooting while moving backwards, laterally, etc.

We broke for an hour lunch, and then did 10 minutes of policing brass in order to minimize such work at the end of the day and to get our blood moving again. After that, we did some more elimination drills, some 25 yard drills on the timer, and some more graded evolutions. We finished up with some practice running the El Presidente drill, first at 7 yards and then at 10, and then did it for a score at 10. The El Presidente drill is one shooter vs. three targets set up next to each other (I think typically two yards apart). The shooter must draw and fire 2 shots at each target, speed reload, then 2 at each target again. As usual, it was better to be slow than inaccurate. If our score was good enough (and again, he didn’t tell us what the par time was), then we got to do it a second time for an even quicker/better score to be some sort of “designated marksman” or the like. I made it to round two, but I missed a few on round two, and I don’t think anyone made it to that “higher echelon” of marksman. So it goes.

We finished with a voluntary drill that I really liked, which was his stress test. Five rounds loaded in the gun, standing at 10 yards. On command, drop down and do 10 pushups, then stand and fire at the 8 inch circle on the chest of the target, then 10 more pushups, etc., for a total of 50 pushups and 5 shots. You had to make all 5 shots and then the lowest time would win. He said that, typically, the first person to make all 5 hits wins, because everyone after him/her will push it. Sure enough, I was 60 seconds faster than the guy who won, but I missed two shots an inch low. I was kind of pissed because I should have taken more time. Oh well. My time was 128 seconds. Oh, and the range was gravel, so my hands were in gravel when doing the pushups. Only about half the class attempted this drill, and I was rather surprised that several of the students who looked quite fit struggled to do 5 sets of 10 pushups. The fastest time was actually by a 60-something year old guy two targets over from me, who I think did his in 112 seconds, but like me had 2 misses.

We did one final graded drill, then policed brass, debriefed, got our scores, and off we went.

There has been quite a bit written and talked about on the web about how Jeff scores every round fired and how you don’t receive a certificate unless you get an 80% overall. The high shooter in the class (the same guy who won the stress test) got a 91%. If anyone got anything in the 80s I missed it, and I shot a 77%. All of the other scores were lower. Now, I should note that not every shot was graded, but we kind of had to treat the course that way. When doing the graded evolutions, any shot outside the outline of the bad guy was an automatic DQ (= 0 pts). I think I DQed once. I shot a 79 on three different occasions (one of which should have been higher, but I’d failed to tape over a miss from a previous test, so Jeff scored it as a miss twice…..my own fault for not taping over it! Several people, including me, found out the importance of following directions on these graded drills.), an 82 once, and I can’t remember the others. Also, our score in the El Presidente and a few other drills also went into it. Looking back on it, I’m not upset. One of the goals from Jeff’s perspective is to hold his students accountable for every round they fire. So, in the end, it was probably about 5 rounds that I fired out of the 1385 I expended that weekend that kept me from an 80% score. Heck, it might have been the one that got me the DQ on that one target on Day One. I likened it to a tennis match between evenly matched players, where the whole match rides on just a few key points/tiebreakers. It happens.

Final Thoughts:

I liked this course a lot. Although I had fun, I cannot really say that the course material was super-fun. It was so diagnostic in nature that it could, at times, almost feel tedious. The round count was so high that I had to tape up irritated spots on my fingers, something I’ve never had to do before. The hand discomfort, the hot sun, etc., all led to some fatigue on my part. I never felt like we were engaging in ballistic masturbation, but I do feel like it all took its toll. To his credit, Jeff kept mixing up the drills from diagnostic to competitive to graded, so things stayed as interesting as he—or any other instructor—could possibly make them.

Never had to wrap my fingers before!
Never had to wrap my fingers before!

My goals for the class were to identify areas in which I continue to struggle in my solo trips to the range. Trigger control, grip, and improving my performance in multi-shot strings (recoil management!), were all things I wanted help in diagnosing/fixing. So, were my goals met? Drum roll….

The answer is, “I don’t know”. Much like the Steve Fisher class I took back in April of 2014, I feel like I may not reap the benefits of this class until months from now. The fast pace of the class meant that Jeff had to focus so much on instruction that we did not get to put in a lot of practice time. That is what I’ll have to do on my own, taking the lessons he taught and try to put them to work. I definitely feel like I received excellent instruction; I just don’t know that I will benefit until I practice a lot more. I also should say that I would definitely train with Jeff again; his Concealed Carry Tactics class will be of great interest to me if it is offered nearby in the future. Finally, I have found his book, Combative Fundamentals: An Unconventional Approach, a fantastic resource. It reads almost like a college textbook and, as far as I’m concerned, is THE definitive book on combat marksmanship and gunfighting (could use a few more pictures/illustrations, though). I would say that 80-90% of what was covered in class is in the book, so, in addition to re-reading this AAR, I can also look back at the book to revisit key concepts.

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I would definitely recommend this class to anyone who has their basic safety/gun-handling skills in good shape but wants to improve in pure marksmanship ability. Jeff is excellent at diagnosing issues that people have and providing the “fixes” for those issues. By his own admission, the reason why he is so good at it is because he has experienced all of those same issues himself at one point or another. Now, he pushes his students to failure, because it is only by pushing the limits that we can improve as shooters.

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12 thoughts on “AAR: Trident Concepts (Jeff Gonzales) “Combative Pistol Level Two”, Palmyra, PA, 8/1-8/2, 2015

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