AAR: Rangemaster (Tom Givens) “Defensive Shotgun, One Day”, Culpeper, VA, April 13, 2018

This past weekend, both Robert and I had the distinct pleasure of spending three days training with Tom Givens and his Rangemaster staff in Culpeper, VA. Friday was a one day Defensive Shotgun class, and then the weekend proper was devoted to Combative Pistol. Both were hosted by John Murphy of FPF Training at a local hotel and at his excellent private range. This is going to be an AAR of our shotgun training, and Robert has followed up with the Combative Pistol AAR here.

Before I write any further, let me share one particular takeaway from class regarding Remington. Their Police shotguns are great, but f!$@ their ammunition! More on this later…

Friday started with us reporting to a meeting room at a local hotel at 0845 for the classroom portion of the class. After we had all signed waivers and received a workbook, Tom began promptly at 0900 by briefly introducing himself and his staff and associates that would be helping out at the range.

Tom’s introductory lecture covered safety, nomenclature, history, context, shooting technique, shotgun modifications, ammunition selection, and more. Taking a break approximately every hour, Tom covered a lot of ground and I learned several things that I hadn’t previously known. Tom framed this discussion within the context of the private citizen using the shotgun for home or workplace defense, which is radically different than the military or law enforcement context. The crux of the discussion is that the shotgun is devastatingly effective, but only so long as it is wielded with skill and precision. At distances commonly encountered inside homes, a miss is still a miss. To take advantage of the shotgun’s incredible power, you must efficiently put the shot (no pun intended) on target. Further, even a partial miss of the shotgun’s payload means that destructive potential is impacting somewhere that it doesn’t belong. Just one .33 caliber ball of 00 buckshot can be fatal to a hostage, family member, or other innocent party in the background.

To summarize the discussion on ammunition for defensive use, birdshot is for birds and low cost training, buckshot is the original and still the best for people that need to be shot, and don’t worry about slugs. Avoid all the gimmicky shit for sale. Take note that pretty much all of the less than lethal shells you may find for sale are intended for uses not germane to our lives as armed civilians and are often misunderstood out of context.

Regarding shotgun modifications, Tom explained that most every shotgun that you can find on the rack will have a stock that is too long for defensive purposes. Somewhere between 12-13 inches is ideal, and most shotguns come with stocks at least 14 inches long. The easy fix is an aftermarket stock from MagPul, Hogue, or Speedfeed, or a gunsmith can shorten the stock appropriately.

The morning lecture definitely covered a lot of material and put things in context and perspective for those of us that choose to defend our homes or businesses with the shotgun. In my safe, I have a lot of different choices that I could use for home defense. Especially after this class, the shotgun is still my first choice if I have opportunity to retrieve it. If you look at the data (which Tom has), threats generally stop what they are doing after a solid hit with the shotgun. The same may not necessarily be true with pistols or even rifles. Let’s look at some data from the lecture that supports this conclusion. I generally use either 55 grain or 62 grain bullets in my AR-15. That’s one of those for every trigger press. With a shotgun, with 8 Pellet 00 buckshot, I am sending eight 53.8 grain projectiles downrange with every trigger press. That’s one trigger press per bad guy vs. 3-4 or more trigger presses per bad guy. That’s why I don’t feel the need to have a side saddle on my shotgun. At the ranges commonly encountered in most homes, that shot column will be devastating to the vital zone of an adversary. The counterpoint to that is that you have to pattern your shotgun to know where you “run out of distance.”

As Tom puts it, every shotgun barrel is a “unique snowflake.” This is due to manufacturing variances, even among the same brand and model of shotgun. You must pattern your shotgun with your choice of ammunition to know what it will do. The good news is that if you have a crappy barrel, you don’t need a new gun, you just need a new barrel. One of the very interesting things that I learned in discussion with Tom that is particularly relevant in my situation is that Federal FLITECONTROL does significantly better out of open chokes than it does out of tighter constrictions. My 870P short barrel has a modified choke, so the “easy button” of Federal FLITECONTROL may not work for me as well as initially expected. Indeed, my patterning to date has borne this premise out. Based on Tom’s advice, I will probably eventually send my barrel off to Vang Comp after I finish my own patterning tests.

Once Tom had concluded his initial lecture, we all convoyed over to the range to continue class. Due to a miscommunication, a few students got to the range late, but most of us were able to find it without difficulty. The range is purposely remote and private, so following the convoy is by far the easiest way to get there.

Tom began the range portion of the class by having us do a significant amount of dry work with unloaded guns to practice mounting the gun from high ready and manipulating the slide on the pump actions. “Boom, chunk, chunk” is the name of the game. You cannot baby a shotgun, it needs to be worked vigorously.

We next went live with the guns and began with the emergency load and then progressed on to a ten shot drill that Tom uses to ingrain the skills needed to keep the gun fed. This is where having a side saddle or stock cuff is really handy. For my part, I eschewed extra ammo on the gun and used a Grab & Go Bandolier from Olongapo Outfitters to manage my ammo on the range. After we had practiced this drill a few times, we moved on to what Tom calls “Rolling Thunder.” Essentially, this puts the students under some stress since you have to load and shoot in sequence with other students on the line. At all times, we were expected to aim and press the trigger cleanly to keep all shots in the center of the target. In short order, we all pretty much had the center 8” circle of the targets obliterated.

After a brief lunch on the range, we again returned to dry work with unloaded guns, this time from the low ready. We then went live with drills from the low ready.

Next, to keep adding some stress, Tom moved the class over to a plate rack and dueling tree. With the class divided into two groups, we each took a couple of turns going man against man on both the plate rack and dueling tree. Yes, you do actually have to aim the shotgun to achieve the desired result!

Next, we returned to the firing line and switched from birdshot to buckshot. (Note to the reader, even in training, don’t cheap out on your ammunition selection!) Tom explained how to properly pattern a shotgun and we each had opportunity to see what our own guns and ammunition would do. Walking down the line looking at individual targets definitely showed what was good ammo and what was crap. I was profoundly disappointed with the Remington Law Enforcement Reduced Recoil 9 Pellet 00 Buckshot that I had purchased for class. Not only did the pattern suck, the packing in between the pellets in the shells appeared to leave what almost looked like flechette hits all over my target. (That’s right, they actually market this shit to law enforcement.)

We repeated the “Rolling Thunder” exercise with buckshot and then Tom handed us each a shell of Federal FLITECONTROL 8-Pellet Buckshot to fire out of our own guns onto fresh targets. The photo tells the tale. Even at distance, my shotgun put all of the pellets into essentially a single large hole in the target.

Finally, Tom had us shoot a brief qualification. Again, don’t cheap out on your training ammo! My poor ammunition selection cost me a passing score and what probably would have been a perfect score with better buckshot.

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For this class, I brought my Remington 870 Police Magnum, but not in its short barrel configuration. Unfortunately, my approved Form 5320.20 needed for crossing state lines arrived the day I left, after I was already on the road. I had to leave my short barrel at home in the safe in order to legally transport the gun across state lines. However, I was able to acquire an extra 18” Police barrel from Cabela’s on my way to class, so I was still able to use my gun. The good thing is that I was able to familiarize myself with the controls and manipulation of a new gun and I now have an extra barrel for my shotgun. The bad news is that it has different sights than my short barrel and I now have an extra barrel for my shotgun! At the end of the day, not a big deal. I also brought my old Winchester Defender 1300 as a backup, but didn’t wind up using it. As I mentioned above, I used a Grab & Go Bandolier from Olongapo Outfitters to carry my ammunition for class. This is of course slower than a side saddle or stock cuff, but more in line with how I actually envision using the shotgun for real.

As it sits in the safe, my Remington 870 Police Magnum short barrel shotgun wears the factory 14” barrel with XS rifle sights, a Vang Comp +1 magazine extension, and MagPul furniture. With the addition of a stock cuff, this is one example of what Givens would describe as ideal for a home defense shotgun. Aside from a possible trip out to see Hans Vang, I am happy with it in this configuration and don’t anticipate any further changes.

I used Winchester Super-X 1-1/8 oz. #4 birdshot and the aforementioned Remington Law Enforcement Reduced Recoil 00 Buckshot. Since they had everything I needed for the weekend in stock, I ordered all my ammunition for class from Target Barn. I remain impressed with their quick order fulfillment and shipping times. Over the course of the day, I fired 121 rounds of birdshot and 41 rounds of buckshot. I was surprised that I did have a few malfunctions with the Winchester ammo. I’m not sure whether it was due to cheap ammo or a rough chamber, but I did have to mortar fired shells out of the chamber a couple of times. (Note the dirt on the toe of my stock in one of the photos above.) I have not experienced this with my short barrel, so hopefully this problem will be limited to the spare barrel I bought. A few other guns and shooters had problems as well. A shell loaded into the magazine backwards locked up a Remington 870 (don’t let this happen in the middle of a fight!), and the lone 20 gauge on the line was experiencing ejection issues due to apparently missing or broken parts in the receiver!

Robert brought his Mossberg 590A1 and better buckshot than I did (Federal FLITECONTROL), and had a similar round count. Both of us had brought 30 slugs as per the class preparation instructions emailed prior to class, but we didn’t need it. This was a bit of a disappointment, but not a big deal. It’s easy enough to go to the range and see how different the point of impact might be with a slug vs. buckshot. Tom did discuss this point in class, and I suspect his class preparation notes are tailored for shotgun classes for both civilian and law enforcement or military clients. This just reinforces the point that in and around your home, you really don’t need slugs. If you are a law enforcement officer using the shotgun for a different purpose, then slugs may be appropriate. As Tom said, to quote the late Pat Rogers, “Mission drives the gear train.” Context!

There were a variety of shotguns on the line, with most being either of Remington, Mossberg, or Beretta 1301 persuasion. Tom did devote some time to the features and attributes of the Beretta 1301 in class, as it is becoming more and more common. In fact, I would estimate that somewhere between a third to half of the class used the Beretta 1301. There was the one 20 gauge on the line, but otherwise everything was 12 gauge. Due to ammunition availability and shotgun availability, Tom only recommends the 12 gauge for defensive use.

I did not escape class without minor injury, but it’s entirely my fault. Trying to load my shotgun quickly, I jammed my left thumb and thumbnail while shoving shells past the lifter into the magazine tube. Ouch! Both Robert and I had some minor shoulder and facial bruising after a full day behind the shotgun, but this was expected. I’m still not entirely sure that I don’t need to go even a bit shorter with my shotgun stock, as I had a lot of bruising and abrasions on my upper arm. Perhaps a shorter stock would allow me to seat the gun deeper into my shoulder pocket. At any rate, I don’t think I would necessarily want to spend more than one day on the range working with the shotgun, and I’m glad that I load pistol mags with my right thumb and that Tom teaches flagged thumbs for pistol!

If you are serious about using a shotgun for home defense, then I think the Rangemaster Defensive Shotgun class is a required stop on your journey. Tom’s four decades of experience as a teacher is evident in how the class is run and in the significant real world knowledge imparted. Tom is funny in class yet deadly serious when appropriate and eminently knowledgeable on the subject of interpersonal violence. I still consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have had him as my first formal shooting instructor over two decades ago. His approach to safety is unparalleled and he really emphasizes the “accountability” entailed when you incorporate a firearm into your lifestyle. The workbook that is handed out at the beginning of class is a valuable reference both during and after class.

For all of our readers, I highly suggest that you find a nearby Rangemaster class as part of your own personal development, no matter what level you’re at. The material and skills taught aren’t high speed or flashy, but they are robust and profoundly relevant. Training with Tom Givens is akin to either building a solid foundation or reinforcing an existing foundation for everything that we do as armed civilians. I regret that he will probably retire prior to my children coming of age and being ready to learn these skills. When people talk about “standing on the shoulders of giants,” Tom Givens is one of those giants. Go learn from him. The time and money will be well spent.

As always, thanks for reading! We welcome comments, questions, and civil discourse. Follow us either here on the blog or on our Facebook page. And stay tuned for an upcoming series of posts we are planning as we chronicle the patterning of our own shotguns.

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4 thoughts on “AAR: Rangemaster (Tom Givens) “Defensive Shotgun, One Day”, Culpeper, VA, April 13, 2018

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