ME: “Dude, I went to this two day handgun-based class! We worked for over 20 total hours!”
BUDDY: “Awesome, man! How many rounds did you fire?”
Obviously, this was not a “regular” two-day handgun class. This was a force-on-force class that was more about decision-making, application of knowledge of use-of-force laws, and the application of some “hard skills” (accuracy, tactics, etc.).
I am going to say right here that this was one of the best—if not the best—class I have taken. Certainly, it was the perfect class for me right now. However, I would hesitate to call it an advanced class. Students at any point in their self-defense journey would benefit greatly from a class like this, as it is designed to validate (or, potentially, invalidate) prior learning/coursework as well as help students chart an appropriate path forward on their training journey.
Venue and Instructors
The class was held at the Alliance Police Range in Alliance, Ohio. I have taken two prior classes at this facility (see here and here), and it is top notch. The facility features a sizeable, climate-controlled classroom, a six-room, multi-hallway shoot house, multiple flat ranges, sniper tower, and the world’s best “range restrooms”. The facility is run by Joe Weyer of the Alliance Police Department and Weyer Tactical and was built with no tax dollars. No other classes were scheduled at the facility during this particular weekend, so we had the run of the entire place.
Though Joe Weyer helped out a bit and lent his opinions in some of the discussions during the class, the primary instructors were Nick Humphries and Jesse Gullikson of Practically Tactical. Nick is basically just a “regular guy” who has taken a ton of training over the last few years. Jesse is a U.S. Army combat veteran but is the first to admit that that portion of his resume is far less important than all of the training and mentoring he has received since leaving the armed forces. As should be evident as you read on, both of these guys are gifted teachers.
Nick and Jesse were assisted by Gary _____. Online, they often refer to him as Coach Gary or just “The Gary”. Gary is a U.S. Army veteran and veteran of over 30 years in the U.S. intelligence community, serving operationally all over the globe. Name a “hot spot” in which the United States government was involved since about 1985 and Gary was probably there. He has been mentoring Nick and Jesse for a while now, and for them it’s like wanting to know all about being a quarterback in the NFL and having Joe Montana take you under his wing.
We also had the assistance of a local police officer, Vinny _____, who I first met during the Practically Tactical Shoot House class I linked to above. Vinny is a young, fit, very well-trained, and very “switched-on” police officer who lent his assistance in the classroom and as a “role player” during some of the scenarios. I suppose this is a good place to put in the usual disclaimer that I am not affiliated with Practically Tactical, Alliance Police Training, or Weyer Tactical, except as a satisfied, paying customer.
It saddened me that there were only seven students in this class (maximum for this class would be 10-12). As the Shoot House class I took in 2019 filled up in two days, I figured it would be the same for this. It is hard for me to even guess how much of this was caused by the pandemic, how much by mere happenstance, and how much by people out there just not wanting to expose themselves to potential failure. The students were all men and came from Ohio as well as states as far away as Illinois and Maryland. Ages ranged from a current college student (age 21) to at least one gentleman around 60 years of age, and prior training ranged from this being the second class for some to people like myself with over 600 hours of professional instruction (a few students with even more). One advantage to such a small class, however, was getting through the scenarios, which we did one-at-a-time, very quickly.
Nothing to say about firearms. I didn’t use one! Instead, included in the cost of the course ($375 plus $50 range fee) was the rental of an Ultimate Training Munitions (UTM) Glock and 50 rounds of UTM ammunition.
Otherwise, gear was all about protection. From the ground up for me, I wore my Salomon boots over my socks. I wore my underwear, cup, UA-style base layer pants under an old pair of Wrangler cargo pants, UA-style T shirt over which I wore a long sleeve cotton T-shirt and then a button down long sleeve Wrangler shirt. I wore a pair of thin neck gaiters on my neck, some random wool-blend beanie/winter hat, and then an Airsoft mask I had not worn in at least 5 years (tested the day before to make sure it would stop UTM rounds). I also wore a pair of Craftsman work gloves. I carried the UTM Glock 19 in my JM Custom Kydex Wing Claw 2.0 AIWB holster and carried a spare magazine in a Raven Concealment single magazine carrier. These were attached to my V Development Group Megingjörð-AIWB Specific-Conceal Carry Belt. I also had an inert Mark VI Pepper Spray dispenser clipped to my left pocket for most scenarios. For a light, I used my Fenix PD-35 set up as per this article.
What a gift! One of the key elements of this class was the use of dedicated role players. This was SO important. In many/most force-on-force classes, the students take on these roles, which means that the students have the chance to see all the scenarios before they go through them themselves. The students are also unlikely to be well-practiced or well-coached in the decision tree of what to do when the student going through the scenario does this or that.
In this case, we had two husband and wife pairs, Heath and Kelly along with Kevin and Abby. On Day Two, we were also joined by “J.W.”, a fifth dedicated role player. For some scenarios, Vinny, Jesse, or Gary also performed roles as well.
The class began at 0800. After the initial introductions of Nick, Jesse, and Gary, we got to enjoy a few blocks of instruction, the first of which was led by Gary that he called “Tradecraft as Streetcraft”, and what a bucket of gold this was! Gary spent much of his childhood growing up abroad, and that experience together with his many years living in dangerous places (Baltimore to Mogadishu) gave him quite the wealth of experience to draw from. This included a combination of identifying people or things that just do not belong in a place as well as various indicators that someone is considering making you a victim.
Nick and Jesse then covered what this class is and what this class is not. The class is supposed to mimic life as much as possible. Obviously, there is some training artificiality, but the point was that there would not be ninjas rappelling down to attack us or anything like that. Many of the scenarios were based on specific, real-life events, while others were contrived but believable. Secondly, the class is supposed to allow us to pressure-test our skills and decision-making and either validate or invalidate those skills. The course is also designed to pressure-test the students’ knowledge of use-of-force law. Finally, the class is designed to help us plot a course for future training. In short, the class serves as an audit of a variety of skills.
It was stressed repeatedly that this class is not one for those with too much ego. This is a class that is designed to expose weaknesses in our game so that we can LEARN. Imagine that! It was definitely a class from which the students would get out what they put in.
Every year there are stories of regular citizens or law enforcement officers who are injured or killed during force-on-force training. The Practically Tactical guys do not want to ever make that infamous list. Accordingly, EVERYONE in the class (the students, instructors, and role players) were subject to very elaborate and very thorough search and safety procedures to guarantee that no live weapons of any type would find their way into the scenarios. All firearms, ammunition, sharp/pointed objects, chemical irritants, and anything else that could be used to injure someone else had to be removed from our possession and locked in our cars. We were then frisked by at least two people, had our bags searched, coolers/lunch boxes searched, etc. Our keys were then all locked inside an ammo box with the keys to that box held only by two instructors. Everything we needed for class would have to be with us in the classroom. No returns to our vehicles were permitted (Nick’s car was the only one left unlocked, as it was used in some of the scenarios, but it was “sanitized” of all potential weapons). Also, each time we stepped out of the classroom to take part in one of the scenarios, our UTM guns were checked and our spare magazines checked (to make sure they only contained UTM rounds).
We had a very thorough safety brief, some of which was specific to how to interact with the role players, from what distances they could be engaged with UTM rounds, etc. There was also a very thorough medical brief, with primary and secondary medical people, primary and secondary callers, evacuation vehicles, etc., all identified and confirmed. We also received instruction on “shoot house rules” as well as force-on-force procedures (how to stop a scenario if, for example, some piece of your protective gear fell off, or what commands the instructors would be using).
Use of Force
While Nick and the role players began setting up for the first scenarios, Jesse led us in an instructional block on Use of Force law. Though I have read books and even attended Mas Ayoob’s MAG 20 a few years ago, when we can use deadly force was presented a little bit differently here. Jesse broke it up into two groups of three: three things the “bad guy” controls, and three things we control. The bad guy controls having a weapon (or not), having a delivery system for that weapon (or not), and having intent (or not). WE control whether or not we are at fault (did we start this?), whether or not we have a reasonable fear of danger, and whether or not we have attempted any sort of retreat (this is more complicated than running away, and presumably “stand your ground” laws create some variability here).
I am not going to divulge any of the scenarios. To do so would ruin this class for future students and be a great disservice to the obvious hard work in planning that Nick and Jesse have put into this class. Instead, I will just give you a mock one that includes some of the basic elements.
We would be told a “bedtime story” setting up each scenario. The bedtime stories were all quite simple, something like this:
“Okay. You and your wife are going bowling. Nick’s car will be your car. You and your wife will leave the car, walk across the parking lot and enter the bowling alley, which will be Room One of the shoot house. There, you will pay for a lane, rent bowling shoes, get a ball, and bowl. Any questions?”
We numbered ourselves one through seven and would rotate through, from one scenario to the next, who got to go first, second, etc. This was important, because once each student completed his “run”, he would get to watch all of the following students go through the same scenario. It would be unfair to go last every time because that person would never get to see any other runs.
When it was each student’s turn, Nick or Jesse would come into the classroom, search the student, check his gun and spare magazine, take him outside to the starting position, ask if there were any questions, and once set, yell “IN ROLE!”, which would be the signal for the scenario to begin. The scenarios would continue until an instructor yelled “END EX!” An exception would be if a student struggled, the instructor might yell “PAUSE!” in order to coach the student just a bit (this happened twice to me over the two days).
As we moved through the scenarios, we would have to deal with whatever happened. Honestly, sometimes nothing “happened”. However, even on those occasions when nothing seemed to happen, we would be questioned afterward about what we saw. “Did you see what Heath had in his hand?” “Did you notice what Kelly was saying on her cell phone?” “Did you notice what Vinny was wearing?” Essentially, this was a crash course in identifying what sights or sounds were important and which ones could be dismissed. I will note here that every scenario was recorded on video and will be sent to each student. Five days later I received mine (just after posting this, so I had to edit this to add this information), but that was fine because it was a lot of video footage for these guys to upload and collate. It will be nice to review these for learning points.
We ran through the first three scenarios quite quickly, as they were all similar with new elements added each time. We then did a whole class “hot wash” in the classroom, reviewing the key learning points. After those three, each scenario was its own “unique snowflake”. Most would be followed by whole-class hot washes to again review key learning points.
I should mention that, in moving through the scenarios, very little was “pretend”. For example, if we were going into a “bowling alley” as outlined above, and had to rent shoes, there would be a counter, a person working behind the counter, and shoes we would be handed over. If we were at a restaurant, there were tables, chairs, plates, other customers, wait staff, etc. If we were at home in bed, we were in a bed with covers with our preferred home defense tools on the nightstand next to us. Our hands were encumbered in numerous scenarios and it was interesting to watch some people quickly shed these items while others managed to treat these items like precious family heirlooms!
Along the way, there were a few other blocks of instruction. Jesse, for example, took the class on a quick (30-40 minutes?) block of instruction on single-person CQB techniques in the shoot house. Having already done the two-man Shoot House course with Joe, Nick, and Jesse, much of this was either review or “variations on a theme”. Obviously, one-person CQB brings with it many disadvantages compared with two-person or team-oriented CQB, but most of the time YOU will be the most trained person around, so one-person CQB it will be!
Mixed in with the CQB block was a sub-unit on “subject control”. As regular citizens, we do not have the same needs or responsibilities here as law enforcement, but having at least rudimentary skills in this area could prove useful in some very specific situations.
One of the issues many of the students were having was Managing Unknown Contacts, or MUC. This is a term originally coined by Craig Douglas and the Shivworks collective (I should note here that everything that Nick and Jesse teach is given proper attribution, so Shivworks gets the nod here, Will Petty and Chase Jenkins got the nod for some low-light information provided later, Joe Weyer and others for some of the CQB information, etc.). Reviewing MUC (it was review for most of us) as well as pre-fight indicators was given a good amount of class time, but both Nick and Jesse suggested all students pursue this in greater depth with Craig et al.
The final block of instruction for Day One was on low-light techniques. As much of what they teach comes from the aforementioned Will Petty and Chase Jenkins (and Joe Weyer), and having done coursework with all of them in the past, much of this was (welcome) review for me. I especially liked the short segment on how to use a pistol-mounted light that does not have a DG switch, which was something that I had not given enough attention to in the past. Good stuff.
With the final block of instruction complete, we got a one-hour respite while they set up the low-light scenarios and we waited for the sky to darken completely (I used the time to step outside the classroom and call home while getting eaten alive by some sort of mutant mosquitoes!). The three low-light scenarios were quite fun and, I will simply say, were largely made up of scenarios that are often discussed on gun forums. I was pleased with my performance in all three of these. After the final scenario, we met in the classroom and were given a homework assignment to write up a “Use of Force Statement” about that scenario and have it ready in the morning.
I left the range at 2307 hours, having fired a total of 6 UTM rounds over the course of 11 different scenarios.
Day Two began at 0900 in the classroom. We began with our Use of Force Statements. I was one of two students called upon to read mine aloud. Joe Weyer was on-hand for this, and having his experience in the classroom for this segment was invaluable. As a veteran police officer (he is due to retire in about a year), he knows all the Do’s and Do Not’s of these and provided plenty of feedback (I had to make numerous “adjustments” to my statement).
We did a “hot wash” of the final scenario of Day One and also got general feedback from Day One from Gary (main theme here was that we were, collectively, much too task-fixated on our 911 calls that we made during most of the scenarios).
We then moved into sterilizing the classroom and all the participants of all weapons, went again through the safety and medical briefs, and through all shoot house rules and Force on Force procedures.
We then moved into the five scenarios we would cover on Day Two. I must admit that I struggled a bit with my observation skills during the first scenario, and then struggled with my command voice during the second scenario (I was not the only student who had issues there. One student who followed me ordered an adversary, in a low voice, to “please stop.”). During the hot wash of this scenario, Vinny provided a timely, off-the-cuff block of instruction on being loud versus being commanding, how to demonstrate confidence, and voice projection.
The third scenario of the day required a lot of our observation skills as we were fairly heavily task-loaded and had to really sift through—mentally—what was happening. I did “okay” with this one.
The final two scenarios were my best of the entire class. Unfortunately, I did them as second-to-last and last, respectively, so I did not get to see many other students’ runs. But I was told by others that, though I hesitated just a bit during that second to last scenario, it was less so than anyone else. The final scenario had the potential to be the most complicated, but I managed to reach back to somewhere and do some great work that had the other students on the catwalk cheering aloud when Jesse called “END EX!”, as I was the only student to do what the instructors had basically forced upon us all. Nothing like ending on a high note! I fired a total of 7 UTM rounds on Day Two, for a total of 13 overall.
Back to the classroom, we received some more feedback on the overall and then had the chance to go through our list of things about ourselves that we want to sustain and what things to improve, and then feedback for Nick and Jesse about what things worked and what things to improve. We wrapped up around 1540, meaning we had worked for almost 22 hours.
Old and New Work
All of my shooting-related skills were fine. Of the 13 rounds I fired, I hit the bad guys/girls with 11. Among them were one hit to an arm/shoulder area, one hit to a forearm (that was crossed over my target’s chest at the time….the second shot I fired hit just off the sternum), 2 face shots, 1 neck shot, a few stomach shots and 2 side shots (entering the side on a decent trajectory to inflict some good damage). None of my missed shots hit anyone else. My draw speed was good enough, and my tactics through most of the scenarios were decent. I should also note that I had at least a rough sight picture on most of my shots (I fired two rounds from a retention position, so that is out of the equation). The face and neck shots were quite clear.
I will note here that I was hit by a single UTM round on Day One. Frankly, I regarded this as a lucky shot, as it was essentially flicked off one-handed by the “bad guy” after several of my own rounds had already hit him in a low-light scenario. The hit on me would have been a tough one had it been real, hitting just below my ribs and just left of center (pancreas? large intestine?).
My biggest issues were not unlike when I did Armed Movement in Structures with Craig Douglas or in doing the Shoot House class last year: looking but not seeing! Ugh. Still a struggle. I also had some issues with command voice, violence of action when moving through the shoot house, and in truly having the six use-of-force criteria down to a subconscious level so that I am prepared to act as soon as I recognize that they are all present.
This was only the second time Nick and Jesse have conducted this class. Honestly, no one ever would have known it if they had not told us! The amount of preparation they put into this class was obvious (as in, a LOT). The lessons were clear and easy to understand, the scenarios were well thought out, and the role players were well-coached. The objectives of the course were clearly stated (and were met!), and the lessons of each scenario were reviewed in every hot wash. In short: Nick and Jesse are great TEACHERS.
I have been the “victim” of terrible force-on-force training in the past (I will not soil this review by linking to it here, but you can find it on our blog). It is too easy for force-on-force training to degenerate into “cowboys and Indians” or slightly more structured paintball games. This was the opposite of that crap.
I cannot overemphasize the value of having dedicated role players for force-on-force. Our five dedicated role players were fantastic at providing visible and auditory clues and cues for us to recognize in real time. My hat is off to Abby, Kevin, Kelly, Heath, and JW, all of whom were present for this class voluntarily. Without them, this class would have been far less effective. And also a hat tip to Jesse, who NAILED his roles as well!
I must admit that, two years ago when I would occasionally check out Practically Tactical videos on YouTube, I was a bit of a skeptic. “What have those guys done?” Right? Then I met them at their sponsored Shoot House class in 2019, and I was feeling better about them. But even then, Joe Weyer taught most of that course. However, knowing these guys are mentored by the likes of Will Petty, Joe Weyer, and, of course, Gary (who also mentors me and has yet to steer me wrong!), I felt enough confidence in them that I actually withdrew from another course in order to free up the time and the funds to pay for this one. I was not disappointed.
I am now a believer. The students collectively told Nick and Jesse that they could easily charge much more for this course. However, they said they are committed to making force-on-force training affordable for the average person who trains, and so I would not expect the price of this course to go up in the near future. Nevertheless, my advice would be to jump in sooner rather than later. Leave your ego behind and test your skills, wherever you are on your journey, to see how they stack up and what you need to work on. (NOTE: at the end of class they solicited opinions for a new title for this course instead of “Outside the Berm”. The new title will be “Who Are You With a Gun?”)
I would expect to take this course again in the future. Nick assured me that they have plenty of scenarios we did not see and that some that we went through can be tweaked a bit for returning customers. Honestly, I could do identical scenarios and it would still be quite a test. Since Gary started working with me he has been stressing that I need to take classes where I am “thinking with a gun in my hand.” I cannot imagine any course requiring more of that than this one.
The tagline of Practically Tactical is: Add Critical Thinking to Your Every Day Carry. This class hits the proverbial nail on the head.
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