AAR: OnSight Firearms Training (Ben DeWalt), “Defensive Shotgun”, Culpeper, VA, 03/26/17

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Ben DeWalt pointing out some patterning on his target.

I have very deliberately tried to make 2017 mostly about “filling in cracks” in my training resume.  Empty-hand skills as well as revisiting carbine and medical skills have already been—or soon will be—addressed.  One area I have never addressed with a formal training class is defensive shotgun skills.  Prior to this past Sunday, my only real experience with a shotgun was a handful of trips to the range to pattern for buckshot and just generally familiarize myself with it.  I would say I had about 50 total rounds through my shotgun over the course of about seven years.

Before the Fall of 2016, I must confess that I had never heard of Ben DeWalt or OnSight Firearms Training.  Such is the nature of the firearms training industry these days that there are almost innumerable instructors and schools.  I recall begging John Murphy of FPF Training to host a one-day shotgun class at some point in 2017, and him telling me that he would have Ben DeWalt from OnSight Firearms Training coming in the Spring.  I did my due diligence in researching Ben online, and his resume seemed solid.  What appealed to me the most was that he listed Chris Fry of MDTS Training as an instructor with whom he has trained in the past (and I never hear a negative word about Chris Fry), and that he is from New York.  Why is that important?  I recall an interview I listened to with Chris Fry (also based in New York) talking about how he pretty much had to become an expert with the shotgun due to the restrictive laws passed in New York a few years ago (the shotgun being one platform that is less regulated in that state).  Necessity is the mother of invention and all that jazz.

In addition, having trained with Murphy a few times (as well as those he has hosted), I trust him to only bring in quality instructors.  His good work to date has earned him my faith.  Thus, having never before taken a shotgun course–and being all too familiar with the dearth of shotgun course offerings out there these days–I jumped all over this one.  Also, I should note that it was the knowledge that I would be taking this course that kept me from taking the shotgun seminar with Tom Givens at TacCon (which John discussed in his AAR here); I was able to use that time to attend a seminar with Claude Werner and then walk over and catch the last hour of Givens’ seminar, learning a bit in just that one hour.

Gear and other Logistics

For gear, there was not too much involved.  I used my Mossberg 590A1.  It has the 18.5 inch barrel and factory ghost-ring sights.  It is equipped with a Surefire LED forend, short length-of-pull Hogue stock, a neoprene butt cuff (Uncle Mike’s?), and a strip of Velcro (loop) on the side of the receiver with an SOE 6 shell holder attached.  It is also equipped with an S&J Hardware +2 magazine extension with hi-viz orange follower and extra-long magazine spring. 

For ammunition, I used Fiocchi #7 ½ birdshot, Federal Premium 9 pellet low-recoil 00 buckshot, and Herters low-recoil 1 oz. slugs (purchased from Ben on site, as I had had a little difficulty buying slugs ahead of time.  Ben had plenty of ammunition of all types on hand for purchase—at cost—for people like me who had had issues securing everything they needed.  Many other students took advantage of this service).

I feel compelled to also mention attire.  Weather was cloudy with a high around 60 degrees.  I wore a long-sleeve compression-style shirt under a long-sleeve Wrangler button-down shirt.  Over the top of those I wore a fleece vest.  So there was some cushioning in my shoulder area, but not a lot.  I should also mention that this was the first class I ever took where I chose to double up my hearing protection, wearing my electronic muffs over foam plugs.

Cost of the course was $200, which I paid in full.  I should note that I am not associated in any way with Ben DeWalt, OnSight Firearms Training, John Murphy, or FPF Training except as a satisfied paying customer.

Training Day

As is typical for a class Murphy runs or hosts, all students met at 0745 at a nearby gas station before doing the conga-line over to his super-secret range.  Ben and his assistant, Rachel Maloney, co-founder (with Ben) of OnSight Firearms Training, were already at the range and had 14 B-27 (full silhouette) targets set up.  We parked up-range, hauled all of our various bags and boxes over to some folding tables that had been set up for us, and got started.

Ben began with an introduction of himself and Rachel, providing a bit about their backgrounds and why he likes teaching the shotgun (devastating and versatile).  We also introduced ourselves and briefly mentioned our careers as well as prior experience/training with the shotgun.  A few students had had some prior instruction in the defensive use of the shotgun, and there were a few skeet/trap shooters in the crowd as well.  Several of the students had an experience level that matched my own.   Ben assured us that we would be starting with the bare essentials and moving on from there.

Next up came the safety brief.  As is typical for most classes, a few roles were assigned (with duplicates) in case the unthinkable might occur.  Ben emphasized the importance of safety, as wounds from a shotgun could prove much more grievous than from a handgun round.  I will mention here that Ben and Rachel practiced what they preached and ran a very safe range/class.  Also, unlike the video of which I was quite critical here, we policed the range of shells several times throughout the class, so footing was never an issue.

In accordance with those words, we began with a handout provided by Ben with basic nomenclature of shotgun parts.  Ben also had a blue gun version of a Remington 870 on hand to perform several demonstrations.

We then moved to the line and started with some dry work.  The importance of not treating the shotgun gently was stressed, and once some dummy shells were distributed to all the students, Ben demonstrated the result when the pump action is not racked robustly (stovepipes, etc.).

One thing that surprised me at this stage was that we spent virtually no time on stance.  Ben demonstrated his stance, but I had expected a lengthy treatise on the importance of stance when shooting something that has such a strong recoil.  Other than some occasional reminders from Rachel to square up our stances a bit more, there was no specific segment on stance. 

I am not going to go into the minutia of every drill that we performed over the course of the day.  Along those lines, I may also describe a few things that we did out of the sequence in which they actually occurred.

We started out shooting some birdshot at relatively close distances.  With a few rounds on target, we moved up to check out the spread of the shot on the targets.  With all birdshot on target, we backed up (maybe 12-15 yards) and fired again, and now many pellets were wide of the silhouettes.  We then switched out to buckshot, and from this distance fired and then backed out to about 25 yards.  I was pleased that all of my pellets were staying inside the 8 ring of the target.  Clearly, the FliteControl technology was at work here, as others nearby firing cheap 00 buckshot had much wider patterns.

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My target with some buckshot over some previously fired birdshot.

We then moved further back, close to 50 yards.  Buckshot from here would be a fool’s errand, so we switched to slugs.  These actually grouped well for me, shooting from the standing and kneeling positions.  I was able to keep all of mine in about a 6 inch circle, but they were all low and right.  I suppose because students were using a variety of sighting systems on their shotguns, no time was set aside for zeroing of sights.  From then on, when shooting slugs, I just utilized some Kentucky windage, including for some headshots at about 20 yards.

A second surprise that I should mention is that no time was spent on the different types of sights found on shotguns.  Students in class were using bead sights, rifle sights, and several types of ghost ring sights (no optics in this class), but there was no segment on the proper use of each, how to align them, one eye vs. two eyes, etc.  I felt like there also might have been an opportunity here for students to look through different types of sights in order to see the differences, perhaps affecting future purchasing decisions.

Among other things that we practiced in class was some positional shooting.  Standing, down on one knee, and down on both knees were all practiced dry and live.  We did not shoot from the prone due to the difficulty of working the pump-action in such a position, and “urban prone”, though briefly described, was mostly outside the scope of this class.

Later in the morning, we got to watch an interesting demonstration.  A bad guy target was set up in front of a sheet of plywood/MDF board, with several “good guy” targets arrayed behind the board.  Ben shot the bad guy target with his Glock (a 19, I believe), and we saw how the rounds went through the target, through the board, and into several “good guy” targets beyond.  He then switched to his shotgun and did the same demonstration with a slug, then buckshot, and finally birdshot.  As was mostly predictable, the slugs and buckshot ripped through the target, the board, and the “good guy” targets.  Most of the birdshot, however, was stopped by the board.  Ben’s conclusion was that, IN CERTAIN SITUATIONS (apartment/townhouse living, etc.), birdshot at close range may not be the worst choice in the world for defensive purposes.  I am not sure that I completely agree, and the validity of this “test” (the cardboard “bad guy” was hardly the equivalent of a human body) can definitely be called into question.  However, I could also see the point he was making.  In my own situation, buckshot of some sort would definitely be preferable.

Other than the above, in the morning segment we spent a lot of time on reloads.  Due to the limited capacity of any shotgun, keeping the gun up and running was emphasized as of vital importance.  Ben was much in favor of the low-ready position for loading up the shotgun, with the first round always going in through the ejection port with the bolt open, running the forend closed, and then loading the tube.  The low-ready position killed my firing hand wrist as I fed the tube with my support hand, but was necessary in case sudden employment of the shotgun was necessary.  Indeed, we even got to shoot our shotguns one-handed as proof that this is a viable option! 

After lunch we moved into the more “tactical” side of things, practicing shooting while moving forward and backwards.  We mostly did this in groups of 3-4, with Ben and Rachel RIGHT ON our butts, holding onto belts/jackets in order to keep our “firing line” straight (again, I will reference you back to that video reaction I linked to above).  I was no star in this class by ANY means, but during one of these sequences I saw one student repeatedly—at a distance of about 18 yards from the target—shoot the gravel about 6 yards in front of the target!  Yikes!  It is probably safe to say his “wobble zone” was bigger than most.  In actuality, he was probably not bending his knees enough.  I thought Ben did a great job of describing how to bend the knees while walking forward or backwards:  just think of carrying four drinks from the bar back to your table without spilling them.  Great analogy!

With the basic forward and back movements out of the way, we moved on to use of cover drills.  Here, we got some practice shooting from standing and kneeling from both sides of cover.  Not willing to try switching shoulders to shoot when going around the left side of cover, I decided that a roll out was better.  As it was, on one of my shots from the right side, my feet were not positioned well as I leaned out, and the recoil staggered me just a bit.  The shotgun would appear to be unforgiving from both ends!

Next, we combined the movement and the cover aspects of the prior drills with some bounding forward drills with a partner.  So, it was both guys shooting, communicating (“LOADING!”, “MOVING!…..MOVE!”) stuff that might be practiced in some carbine classes.  Ben and Rachel provided feedback about what we did well and what could be improved with each pair.

We rounded out the day with two fun drills.  The first I heard variously called “Rolling Thunder” or “The Mad Minute”.  Either way, Ben had all of us standing in a line at about 6 yards loaded down with as much ammunition as we were willing to have on us.  We had to load up our shotguns to full capacity, and then starting on the left, the first student would shoot all of his rounds and then immediately start reloading.  Once he emptied his shotgun, the next student would empty his shotgun, and so on down the line.  If you ran out of ammunition, had a malfunction, or did not complete reloading your shotgun by time it was again your turn to shoot, you were out.  It took quite a while for the line to get whittled down, and I know I reloaded my shotgun at least 7 times during this drill!  My shotgun, at some point during this drill, had an imaginary twenty pound weight hung off the muzzle, so that I had an impossible time trying to reload from the low-ready position we had utilized all day.  I kept finding ways to hold it, even switching to strong-hand reloads at one point.  Eventually, I just ran out of ammunition, having put something in the neighborhood of 45-50 shells through it.  Needless to say, it was smoking and VERY hot.

The final drill of the day was a Tueller drill.  Rachel was armed with a training knife and positioned about 20-25 feet to the side of the shooter.  The shooter, aiming downrange (i.e., at a right angle to Rachel) would have one round loaded in the chamber and a second round anywhere he wanted.  On the beep, Rachel would start charging at the shooter.  The shooter had to shoot the target positioned about 5 yards to his front, get the second shell chambered, and shoot it as well, before Rachel went to work with the fake tanto.  Each student got two chances.  A few students had real fumble fingers, others were quite smooth.  In my case, on my first go I got the second round fired right as she got to me, and Ben felt like it was a tie.  On my second go, I did a slight fumble running the forend forward, and so she got me!

I fired 171 rounds of birdshot, 24 rounds of 00 buckshot, and 20 slugs.  I also fired one round of some sort of magnum birdshot that Ben passed out to each of us to try out (I flinched a bit and blew apart my target stand with the wadding!).

We finished up with an informal roundtable of takeaways from the class.  All the students seemed to get quite a bit out of the class.  Ben handed out certificates of attendance and also business cards, urging us to get in touch with him with questions about anything.

I also should mention that several students had issues with their equipment in class.  Ben was very generous, lending out shotguns to students who needed them (I think one had a stock break, and another was getting battered by the positioning of some attachments on his own gun).  Dump pouches were also available for a few students who lacked them.  Also, a few students, including myself, had fixable issues with our shotguns, and tools were lent out as needed to effect repairs (my buttstock started to work its way loose from the receiver.  I guess it needed more Loctite!  I had my own tools with me, but it was great that he had brought a bunch along.)

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Ben helping a student fix his shotgun.

What did I learn? 

1.        I need to zero my sights for slugs.  My shotgun (and me) were capable of reasonable accuracy out close to 50 yards with the slugs, but I was hitting low and to the right on EVERY shot.  I need to hit the range and make some adjustments.

2.       When feeding directly into the chamber, I am much more comfortable going “over the top” rather than underneath the receiver.  I just feel like I can see what I am doing better.

3.       I am happy with the patterns of the nine-pellet buckshot.  John told me that Tom Givens prefers the eight-pellet version, as he has found the nine-pellet tends to have one “flyer” due to the way they are packed into the shells.  I did not experience this, but I do have some eight pellet at home that I can compare to one day.

4.       The shotgun is a bitch to do “up” drills with.  It’s just so heavy. 

5.       It would surprise me if I ever took another shotgun class.  As Ben mentioned several times, there really are not too many different shotgun drills, and most are variations on a theme.  I feel like I can accomplish a lot with some dummy rounds and dry-practice in my living room mixed with the occasional range trip, and my body will thank me for the lack of abuse.

6.       In line with the above, I’m pretty beat up.  My shoulder bears some pretty good bruising, and the “bump” where the “constant-on” button is located on the Surefire forend bruised my left thumb pretty badly.  In a defensive encounter of just a few rounds, such an issue would be a mere nuisance that probably would not register for hours afterwards.  In a class where we fired a few hundred rounds, it was punishing.

Overall, I accomplished most of my goals with this class.  I learned a lot about my shotgun and how to “run it” effectively.  I am definitely much more competent and confident with it.

As for Ben and Rachel, kudos to them for their stress on safety throughout the class.  They were nice, approachable, funny, and knowledgeable.  There are a couple of tweaks that I would make to the syllabus/curriculum (more focus on stance and grip/arm tension, different sighting systems and how to use them along with pros/cons of each, and maybe some true patterning of the buckshot from up-close and personal range out to 25 yards), but they have a solid core of objectives that I think were met.

Overall, I would describe this as a solid class that covers most of the bare-bones of shotgun employment in a defensive setting.  I definitely have a new-found respect for the “scattergun”.

Do you have any questions or comments?  If so, please share below or on our Facebook page.  Also, if you know others who can benefit from what do here on the blog, please share with your friends.  Thanks, as always, for reading.

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