Taking Classes with a Critical Eye

I have mentioned before here on the blog that I consider myself a life-long learner.  I don’t know everything about anything, and it’s even mentioned in “About the Blog” that we reserve the right to change our minds about our thoughts.  In accordance with being a life-long learner, I really enjoy taking training classes (as should be evident from the number of AARs I’ve written for the blog).  I like learning new things, meeting new people with similar interests, and meeting the instructors.  Having said that, you will sometimes see it said here and elsewhere that, when you take a class, you should use the stuff you can and discard (I hate to use that word….maybe something more like “set aside”) the rest.

How do we choose what to “keep” and what to “set aside?” Well, for one thing, it could be because a technique or tactic does not work based on our “mission.” By way of example, if I’m a single guy who lives alone, am not involved in law enforcement or the military, etc., then there might be a limited amount of information I am able to use from a team-tactics room-clearing class.  Another issue might be that a technique that is taught in class just does not work for our bodies.  These issues can range from our physical size, prior injuries, general lack of flexibility or strength, terrible coordination, poor eyesight, etc., so that a technique just will not work.  I have seen all manner of sizes, shapes, and ages in the classes I have taken, and some people really struggled to do certain things.  A third reason we might set aside a technique is what I will call stupidity (bear with me here).  Stupidity can range from doing something that you view as inherently unsafe to something that might offer little while potentially costing you a lot.  The first two reasons outlined above are for each individual to figure out for him or herself, as only they know their own “missions” as well as what their bodies are capable of doing.  It is the third reason, stupidity, that I would like to focus on here.

The Carbine Sling

Although carbine classes seem immensely popular among the training crowd (I base this assumption on the number of carbine classes I see offered by so many instructors nationwide), I have tended to focus more on handgun training (personal “mission”:  we have said many times on the blog that the pistol is the tool we are most likely to have with us when the chips are down).  Nevertheless, a few years ago, with my first two handgun classes under my belt, I decided to try to get more familiar with my carbines.  I took two classes with Suarez International (S.I.), with whom I had already done one handgun class.  I took the two-day Fighting Rifle Skills and then, later that summer, the one-day Combat Rifle Marksmanship classes (I took two classes because I wanted to use the AR platform in one class and then the AK platform in another).  I did not write up AARs for these classes for the blog because, at the time I took them, I was not as copious with my notes.  I should note here that classes with these titles are no longer offered by S.I., having been replaced with new nomenclature.

I will start by saying that these were decent classes.  Neither had a lot of students (I think the one-day class had 6 students, and the two-day had only 4), so there was plenty of one-on-one time with the instructor, Dan Choi.  My fellow students had a mix of backgrounds/skill levels, but everyone was friendly in demeanor and safe with their weapons systems.  Having since then taken some carbine classes from other instructors, I can say that most of what was taught was similar to other entry-level classes.  We spent time familiarizing ourselves with our carbines, discussed external ballistics and different zeros, zeroed our carbines, learned the offset relationships between our sights/optics vs. the bore, shot from various positions (prone, kneeling, squatting, standing), and shot drills from about 5 yards all the way out to 75 yards (the maximum available on that particular range).

There was ONE technique taught in these classes that I had a real issue with, however, and that was the rifle/carbine slinging technique.  I should note here that, from watching videos of other Suarez classes and reading on their Warriortalk webforum, this is the technique taught by all of the S.I. instructors and not just my instructor; he was simply teaching the curriculum he was told to teach.

The S.I. slinging method is based around their belief that, when the rifle is in use, the sling should hang from the rifle in a long loop.  In other words, it should not be around any of your body parts.  Their rationale is that, if the rifle is “attached” to you via a sling, in a close-range environment someone can grab hold of your rifle or sling and then sling you around by it.  Of course, this ignores the fact that a long, looping, dangling sling can easily get hooked on gear, doorknobs, and other protruding items in close quarters fighting.

Let us start here.  Is this really an issue?  The United States military just spent 10+ years fighting wars in several locations, much of which was what the military refers to as MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain).  No veterans I have talked to have said that this was a major issue.  Likewise, I know of no other school/instructor—many of whom are veterans of these conflicts, and many of whom are former members of special operations that specialize in close-quarters fighting—saying that this was a real problem.  When queried about it, the answers I have gotten have been “shoot the bad guy off your carbine,” “draw your pistol and shoot him,” or “cut him off you with your knife.”  The S.I. technique used if someone grabs your unslung carbine is to simply let him take it, then draw your sidearm and take care of business.  Personally, I’m not a fan of letting a bad guy take my carbine so I can shoot him with my pistol (in a fight that, by definition, is a fight that requires long-guns).

Even if we accept the above doctrine, the story is just beginning.  Let us say that all is going well, but then you have a malfunction or your carbine runs dry while you are engaged with the bad guys at, let us say, 25 yards or less.  What do you do with your carbine?  As taught by any other instructor I have worked with, the standard answer is:  let your carbine drop on its sling, draw your sidearm, and engage.  There are some differences between instructors on how exactly to “drop” the carbine on its sling (with instructors like Jeff Gonzales and Pat Rogers advocating a roll of the carbine so that the selector switch on an AR ends up away from your body), but the basics are the same.

In the S.I. method, none of the above options exist.  With the carbine sling dangling loose, the only possible options are to either just drop the carbine on the ground, hold it in the support-hand and shoot the sidearm strong-hand only, or, under fire, sling it after all.  They advocate slinging it, and use a technique similar to one I have seen used by Russian and Russian-trained AK users.  Assuming a right-handed shooter, the technique consists of driving your head and left arm through the loop of the sling while holding the pistol grip of the carbine with the right hand.  The right hand/arm then elevates to get the carbine over the head, and then it is dropped onto the back, muzzle down.  I should note that this technique is utilized by S.I. regardless of platform (AR, AK, FN FS2000, Tavor, etc.).

If the above description does not adequately form an image, or series of images, in the minds of our readers, take a look at this video of an S.I. affiliate instructor teaching the exact technique I was taught:

Let us look at this with a critical eye:

  1. Safety—On the range, such as in a class, while the carbine is being slung over the head, there is a period when the muzzle is pointed down the line to you support side.  Travis Haley pointed this out in his now out-of-print Kalash DVD that Panteao Productions produced.
  2. Safety—When this is performed by a right-handed shooter with an AK, the selector of the AK remains oriented away from the user’s back.  However, if it’s a left-handed shooter with an AK, or the shooter is right-handed and using an AR or any other platform with a thumb-operated safety lever, that safety lever is now sliding down your back.  Consider that there have been some well-documented cases of AR selector switches and triggers being activated by students’ gear (the windlass on a CAT Tourniquet comes to mind in one instance), and the ramifications of this can easily be imagined.
  3. Inconsistency—If we accept the above issues, another issue we face is that this is not a technique that can be used all the time/everywhere.  One thing I learned from Paul Howe is that it is better to learn one technique that can be used in all situations.  It has to be something that can work in daytime, at night, in a building, in a field, prone, kneeling, seated, etc.  Try using this technique in a narrow corridor (think home defense), a basement with a low ceiling, when wearing a backpack or camelbak (I was wearing the latter in class and had to remove it just to perform this technique!), when wearing a helmet, etc.  In class, it also has the strong potential to knock off your hat, eyepro, or earpro.
  4. Equipment setup—The first time I tried this technique, in addition to having a camelbak on my back, I also had my AR set up with sling attachment points located on the handguard just forward of the receiver and at the castle nut.  The result was an incredibly tight window to fit my arm and head through (which could result in some of the issues outlined in #3 above).
  5. SLOW to transition—This technique is incredibly slow to get the sidearm into action.  Think about it:  you have your strong hand heading up to be even with or above the top of your head, when the place you NEED it to be heading is to your side for your pistol.  In the technique taught by everyone else, it is your support-hand/arm that does most of the dropping of the carbine, guiding it down, while your strong-hand is already heading for the pistol holster.
  6. SLOW to get the carbine back into action:  Let us assume that all of the above has worked out for you.  Your pistol is in your hands, you have eliminated immediate threats, done a scan, etc.  Now you have a pistol in both hands and your carbine on your back.  However, because you were using a carbine to begin with, you are, by definition, in a CARBINE FIGHT!  You need to get that carbine back in your hands and operational as quickly as you can.  So now you have to holster your pistol, contort yourself to sling that carbine under your support-side arm, and bring that carbine back into your “workspace” where you can either reload it or fix whatever caused you to sling it to begin with.  In the more “standard” technique, you just holster your pistol and bring the carbine right back up.
  7. Difficulty practicing live—Other than in S..I classes, you probably will not find any other instructor who will let you practice this in class, and no range I have ever been to would ever let you do so, either. So your only option if you want to try this with live-fire, is do it on some sort of private range/land.  Of course, there are many more options for doing it dry.
Putting It To The Test

For those who wonder, I have tried both techniques dry, on the clock, in my home, to see which is faster.  I used an AR-15 and a Glock 19.  The drill I used was to start with the carbine at the low ready and, at the beep, raise it and acquire a sight picture through the red dot optic at a spot on the wall, dry-fire one round with carbine (indicating an empty magazine), slinging it (using the S.I. technique in some drills and the Gonzales/Rogers technique in the others), drawing my pistol (using the same strong-side holster for both drills), acquiring a sight picture on that same spot and “firing” one round with the pistol, holstering the pistol (no scanning, as someone could argue I scanned longer in one case than the other), then performing a reload on the carbine (mag drawn from a belt-mounted HSGI Taco and loaded with a dummy round so it would chamber) and “firing” one round at that same spot on the wall.  Time was measured from the beep starting the drill to the “firing” of the final round from the carbine.  The results were not even close.  I performed each drill three times and then averaged the times:

“Regular” method:  10.69 seconds

“S.I.” method:  13.80 seconds

Three seconds could be an eternity in a gunfight.  As it happened, I felt I was going a little slow overall on the “regular” method and felt like I did the S.I. method about as fast as anyone possibly could.  To top it off, I klonked myself on the side of the head pretty good with my carbine during one of the S.I. drills!

Here is a video of Jason Falla of Redback One performing a more typical transition drill.  In fact, this is the exact drill I outlined above (and blew away my 10.69 average!  I’d love to see him try to beat my 13.80 average on the S.I. method, though!):

Note:  I have not trained with Jason Falla, but I know a few people who have and I would not hesitate to take a course with him.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it.  A technique is taught for what can only be described as dubious reasons/benefits, but the technique offers a slew of failure points.  I can accept choosing one technique over another if it gives me as many benefits as negatives (though, obviously, I would prefer more benefits) if it happens to work with my body, my “mission,” etc.  But to choose a technique which offers little to nothing in exchange for an assortment of negatives makes no sense to me, and no one from S..I has ever been able to make a cogent argument as to why their technique is better.

I must note here that, when we performed this technique in class, we always did it with unloaded weapons.  We did it with them completely unloaded, and then we used it in drills where we had a specific number of rounds in the carbines, and then we fired ALL of those rounds before we slung the carbines.  This, in of itself, is indicative of the safety (or lack thereof) inherent in this technique.

Overall, I have found my experience in 5 classes with S.I. with two different instructors to be fair to good (the two classes I have AARs here on the blog, here and here , coming out more on the “fair” side rather than “good”), so I do not mean to pick on S.I.  This is simply illustrative of the critical eye I would love our readers to utilize when taking classes.  Do some thinking/evaluating on your own and ask yourself:

Is this technique safe?

Is this technique efficient?

Is this technique better than whatever I am already using?

In short, you can borrow from Mike Pannone, asking yourself:

What are you doing?  Why are you doing it?  What is the specific mechanism for success that makes it work?  What are the possible failure points?  How can those potential failure points be eliminated or mitigated?

Always apply your critical thinking skills to what is taught.  Pay particular attention to things that are taught that you know NO ONE else teaches!   Just because someone is standing in front of you wearing an “instructor” hat does not mean that he or she is giving you the golden egg.

I had all of the above composed and ready to post, but just to make sure I am not totally nuts (at least in this case), I decided to do some checking.  I contacted two former members of the premier special mission unit of the United States Army to find out their opinion of the rationale for the S.I. slinging method.  Both pronounced it complete and utter bullshit (that’s actually a quote from one of them), saying that clearly whoever is teaching this (I didn’t mention S.I. to either of them, just described the technique) has no experience in MOUT/CQB.  So if all of my words above are not enough, at least take their word for it!

Thanks for reading!  If you have any similar experiences, thoughts on this, or questions, please comment below.  We love to hear from our readers.

2 thoughts on “Taking Classes with a Critical Eye

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s