AAR:  Kembativz Brand (Kelly McCann) “Defensive Handgun” Fredericksburg/Culpeper VA, 10/8-10/21

My year with Kelly McCann (see reviews of my prior classes with him here, here, here, and here) continued a couple of weekends ago when I took his defensive handgun class.  In my other (and future) coursework with Kelly I have been focused on physical violence of the up-close-and-personal variety.  Really liking Kelly and how he presents material, I decided to essentially treat myself to his multi-day handgun class.  I also had not taken a handgun class since 2019, and I like to take one each year, if possible. I also felt like he would present his pistol with a solid “combative” focus.  Indeed, owning and having watched all of his handgun DVDs, I knew this would be the case.

It is worth it to find these on the secondary market.

I snagged this class at the sale (bargain!) price of $275.  The class included a two hour session on Friday at Kelly’s gym in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  The rest of the class was held at the super-secret FPF Training range in Culpeper, Virginia.  I am not affiliated with Kelly McCann, Kembativz Brand, or McEntrick (Kelly’s new “brand”) except as a sale-priced-paying, satisfied customer.

Course Description (from Kembativz webpage)

“Our flagship two day handgun class taught by Kelly himself. This fast-paced course will improve and enhance your shooting skills more quickly than other courses you may have previously attended. Friday night (8 October) lecture at RENEGADE COMBAT SPORTS from 1900-2130 followed by two range days each from 0830-1600. Kelly McCann is a former USMC Special Missions Officer and Special Mission Unit (SMU) member. He has produced over 20 instructional videos, written as a columnist for Guns and Ammo magazine, Black Belt magazine, Handguns magazine and others. Don’t miss this opportunity to train with one of the most notable instructors in high-risk environment training.”

Equipment

I used my now usual 3rd generation Glock 19, modified as per this article and equipped with Ameriglo I Dot Pro sights.  I used my no-name kydex magazine carrier (holds two magazines) and a JM Custom Kydex WingClaw 2.0 holster worn AIWB.  Both of these items were mounted on my V Development group Megingjörð-AIWB Specific-Conceal Carry Belt.  I used Federal American Eagle 124 grain FMJ ammunition with a mix of factory Glock and Magpul magazines.  My Glock 19 eclipsed the 16,000 round mark during this class.  I had a few failures to eject on Day Two.  A cursory cleaning of the pistol and the magazines overnight cured these problems for Day Three (I hadn’t cleaned this pistol in quite some time and have shot at least 4 matches this year plus all the rounds fired at my training group.  It was overdue!).  I shot all drills from concealment (under a buttoned down short-sleeve plaid shirt).

Day One

Training Day One was a short session held at Kelly’s gym.  It began around 1900 and ended just after 2100.  Eight of the nine students who were enrolled in the class were present for this segment (more on the ninth student later).  As with so many of the classes I have taken this year with Kelly, there were several familiar-to-me faces in this class.  Kelly would be assisted throughout the weekend by his always capable assistant instructor, Rod, himself an ex-Marine. As always, Rod is the unsung hero of Kelly’s classes. I can never say enough good things about him, and he is one of the reasons I keep coming back to Kelly’s classes.

The format for this evening session was mostly a PowerPoint presentation by Kelly.  As with all such presentations by Kelly, this one was packed with golden nuggets.  He began by setting the stage to put us all at ease, saying that his manner of teaching is not to be the booming voice from the sky who is never wrong, but rather that we would all be there to train together.

Kelly spent a good portion of the presentation going over where failures occur in some other training programs.  He likes to emphasize that, on the day we need to defend ourselves, each of us will NOT be the same person he is in class.  The stress of the moment will quadruple our heart rate almost instantaneously, we will have a dump of chemicals into our bloodstream, and fight/flight/freeze will be in full vigor.  Duress dysfunctions are a real thing, and most (or at least many) training programs do not account for that. 

Dovetailing on that portion of the presentation was a list of failure points for other training programs, which include an unfamiliarity with ground truths, inappropriate individual training tasks, inadequate training intensity, ineffective tactics, techniques, and procedures, and the failure to understand the aforementioned duress dysfunctions.  He provided examples from other training programs (he didn’t name names, but a training junkie like myself recognized most of them) to illustrate each of the above points. 

I am not going to go into every detail covered during this two-hour presentation, but other topics covered included how the startle response affects the ADE (Assess-Decide-Engage) cycle, how to mitigate those effects, how guns are just tools (loved this!), gunfighter myths, sighted fire proficiency, action versus reaction, building a proper grip of the handgun, how static muscular control requires constant effort, and how the more we try to control a tremor, the worse it always gets.  Somewhere in there he also talked about the constant chasing of faster times and faster splits and how these metrics have become “the thing”, which has very little to do with winning an actual fight (right in line with my recent articles on the sub-second draw here and here…..yet another been-there, done-that guy with this view).

We wrapped up around 2115.

Day Two

Training Day Two began—as virtually all classes that take place at the FPF range do—at the convenience store meet-up location a few miles from the range (at 0815).  John Murphy of FPF Training was there early and led the convoy to the super-secret FPF range location.  The range had been improved upon in some subtle ways since my last visit about two years before.  After being told not to do any firearm handling, but otherwise to get our gear and put it on the tables that had been spaced out under some EZ-Up tents, we gathered with Kelly, Rod, and Murphy for a safety and medical brief, followed by a rough outline of the plan for the day.

Though Murphy was the host of the class and was occasionally asked to throw in his $.02 about a particular topic, he was mainly there as the ninth student in the class.  Like all good instructors, Murphy continues to improve his own craft by training with others.  Of course, Kelly was one of the first instructors that Murphy trained with some twenty years before, so in some sense things had come full-circle.

With that, we were given time to load some magazines and then meet on the 5 yard line.  Each target (USPSA targets) had had an orange 3”x 3” Post-It note attached to it, and we were instructed to fire 15 well-aimed, SLOW-fired rounds at the note.  Obviously, this was done to give a chance for Kelly and Rod to check out the students, their capabilities, their safety habits, etc.  We then did the same exercise, only this time from 25 yards.  Needless to say, the groups opened up quite a bit at that distance.

Given a chance to reload magazines, we then moved back to the 7 yard line and worked on shooting two rounds, the first as we had done earlier, but the second utilizing the trigger reset. 

I will note here a few things that Kelly teaches that go a little against the grain of what many other instructors teach.  One of those is shooting with the head down and chin tucked.  Many these days refer to this as the “tactical turtle”, but Kelly approaches all endeavors from the combatives realm, and so keeping the chin tucked down, at least a bit, helps protect it from potential blows, etc.  (He does not “turtle” nearly as much as some other shooters and instructors out there, however.). Likewise, he likes the inside of the bicep/deltoid area to be touching his cheek, the same way he teaches the throwing of a straight jab in his Technical Striking class.  He seems to be big on “index points” (again, this was the case for various elements of the “fighting” classes I had taken earlier this year), and this would qualify as one of them.

One area in which I struggled but plan to continue to “do the work” was the drawstroke/presentation of the pistol.  Though Kelly favors strongside carry (again, for various combative reasons), “his” drawstroke can easily be adapted to AIWB carry.  In the drawstroke and presentation he teaches, the strong-side elbow comes up very high (almost painfully so), and then stays high as the pistol is pressed out.  This allows the shooter to get on the sights very early and shoot on the way out (if necessary).  I had trouble trusting what I was seeing, but from 7 yards and in, it was not terribly difficult to get good hits.  Nevertheless, I still tended to shoot at or very close to full extension.  Something to work on.

You can see Kelly demonstrate his drawstroke in this video he recorded in 2020:

I should mention here that, for the most part, Kelly keeps the targets pretty simple.  We shot on the Post-It notes mentioned earlier, but mostly shot on simple 8 ½ x 11” sheets of copy paper.  Kelly still expected us to group our shots on that paper (not just hit it wherever), but it still provided a reasonable starting point for most of the students.

In an effort to keep us bringing up the pistol high early in the drawstroke, Kelly had us partner up.  The non-shooter in these drills would hold an Eskrima stick (don’t I just fondly remember those from earlier this year?) parallel to the ground at about solar plexus height, basically right up against the shooter.  The shooter would have to make sure he cleared the stick on the draw.  If doing this solo dry at home, Kelly recommends just tacking up a string across a doorway and trying it.

This is a great time to switch gears and discuss some of Kelly’s instructional methodology.  One of the things he mentioned was that experience has taught him that getting even dedicated students to truly focus for more than 20-30 minutes at a time is tough.  Accordingly, it was rare that we fired more than two magazines without at least a walk back to our gear to reload, urinate, etc.  These were not long breaks, just a couple of minutes, with a longer break every hour or so (ten minutes or so).  Secondly, and this was even more significant, from time to time we would return to slow-fire on the Post-It notes from anywhere from 5-10 yards away.  We would shoot the Post-Its, then we would work on something like the drawing and shooting on just a sheet of copy paper.  Then we would return to Post-It notes.  Then back to the copy paper for turning and shooting, then back to the Post-It notes.  Basically, whenever he saw our groups open up after a new variable was added, he brought us back to the Post-It notes.  Success on these Post-Its reminded us of our capabilities in terms of accuracy, and then we would try to apply that to the new variable.  It was all designed to inspire confidence, and speaking at least for myself, it worked. With that in mind, Training Day Two rounded out with some shooting at the Post-It notes from the draw at 3 yards (instilling confidence for the next day). 

I also wrote down a tidbit that was a repeat of something that Kelly said in his knife class that bears repeating here.  He said that if you find yourself in a place or situation where you are tapping your holstered gun (using fingers, hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, etc.) in a “let-me-make-sure-it’s-there” kind of way, that should be your signal to LEAVE.  Same for the knife or any other tool you may carry.  Great advice and a great way to make sure you’re practicing avoidance.

I fired 412 rounds on Day Two.

Training Day Three

The final day of training focused more on the combative use of the pistol, and though I will not cover everything we did on Day Three, a good portion of what we covered follows.  The day began by shooting one of Kelly’s standards, which is 2 shots on a sheet of copy paper from 7 yards from a concealed draw in under 2.0 seconds.  Easy-peasy, right?  We performed this five times, doing it one at a time.  Myself, John Murphy, and one other student were the only ones who could consistently perform to this standard at the start.  My times were typically around 1.6 for first shot and 1.9 for second shot.

I will note two things here.  First, a number of students in the class had very limited prior handgun training.  Several came from more of the combatives end of the self-defense spectrum, and so probably sought out Kelly as a trusted instructor.  Several confirmed to me that this was their first handgun class (my partner in the class is a current federal agent who does protective work and told me that this was the first non-agency handgun course he has ever done).  Secondly, Kelly and Rod never got down on anyone.  The point was to improve.  So if someone was shooting a 2.8 first shot and 3.4 second shot, reviews of things like efficiency on the draw (some students had a LOT of excess movement), grip structure, etc., were covered.  For those of us who were quicker at the start, we still received teaching points to try to get our times down further or our groups a bit tighter.  In short, everyone could improve.

Readers may note a lack of photos from this class.  Kelly expressly told us on Day One that photos and videos were forbidden. Experience has taught him that such media posted online is invariably taken out of context.  However, we were instructed several times on days Two and Three to make video recordings of our training partners—using their phones–drawing and shooting, including some recordings in slow motion.  I cannot stress enough how valuable it was to watch myself drawing and firing.  While impressed with my recoil control, I was unimpressed with how high I got the pistol before presenting it forward and also how much I was overconfirming my sights.  Work to do.

With two shell casings visible up near my head (one near hat brim, one above and to the right), and with pistol back on target, recoil control was not a major issue for me.

After drawing and shooting on the clock, we went back to some fundamentals work from the day before.  We then came to what I thought was the best drill of the weekend, the target discrimination drill.  We used “homemade” targets (similar to the DT2A target used in Tom Givens’ “Casino Drill”) with a variety of geometric shapes in different colors.  No two targets were the same.  I am not going to give away the entire drill, but basically we were given very specific instructions describing what to shoot and when to shoot.  We were then given a wide variety of commands, and the trick was to only fire when the command we were given in the moment matched the instructions from the start of the drill.  Because each of us had a different target in front of us, not all of us would be firing on each command, which was a bit unnerving.  All of this was from the draw at 7 yards.  It was interesting to feel “the twitch” when Kelly would yell a command, only having to stop reaching for the holstered pistol when our brains caught up and realized that the command was not one that required us to draw and fire.  It was a great drill, made even better by the almost frantic nature of Kelly and Rod’s commands.

We finished out the morning with three more blocks of instruction (as always, we intermixed some breaks and some of the accuracy on Post-Its in between).  The first was how to reduce malfunctions, and we worked on both failures to fire and double-feeds.  No real surprises here.  Kelly does teach the inboard roll before racking the slide (as opposed to the overhand powerstroke), not unlike Dave Spaulding (there are connections between them) and a number of other instructors (Kyle Defoor, Bill Rapier, many others).  I am personally not a fan just because I do not trust my grip on the slide and always feel like my hand will slip off.  But I did it in this class because that is what he teaches.

We worked a bit on moving while shooting (only forward and backward).  For backward, Kelly teaches a slide/drag-step with the back foot and then a catch-up step with the front foot.  Again, combatives.  The back foot drags in case there is a curb or other obstruction there, as we do not want to end up on our backs.  This is exactly how he teaches backing up in the boxing ring.  For moving forward, it was basically just….well….walking forward while shooting.

The final drill of the morning was some elevated heartrate drills.  We had to do combinations of bodyweight squats and push-ups, as commanded, in order to get our heartrates elevated and our arms a bit rubbery.  Then we would be given a command to fire, then back to the exercises, then fire, etc.  We did a few magazines of this and got to watch our groups open up a bit.

After an hour or so for lunch, we went back to the timed “standards”, shooting several strings to try to get our best times.  My best here was a 1.29 first shot/1.53 second shot.  This was second-best in the class (Murphy was consistently better).  Notice that the two times we did this drill on the clock were at the start of the day and after lunch.  In other words, we were as “cold” as possible, and so these would be more realistic times for most of us.

We finished out with some more “combative” drills.  One of these involved our partner putting on a small Muay Thai glove/pad, whacking the shooter around the head area (that the shooter would block).  Then the shooter would strike the Thai pad (hard!), turn, draw, and engage the target downrange.  If, as we drew, our partner yelled “STOP!” or “DON’T SHOOT!”, we would instead give commands to the target.

We also did a drill where the shooter would face his partner, and the partner would simply get “handsy” with the shooter, trying to touch the waist and/or concealed handgun of the shooter.  The shooter’s job was to block all of these efforts and then, on command, turn, draw, and engage the target in the same manner as the previous drill.

We rounded out the day with some one-handed shooting, some quick response “flinch” shooting (essentially a rapid point shoot at almost-touching range), and weak-hand reloads and malfunction clearances.  I fired 286 rounds on Day Three, for a total of 698 in the class.

We finished out the day at around 1600, had a roundtable of takeaways, and then went on our merry ways.  I was off the range by 1645.

Final Thoughts

A combination of time, money, the pandemic, and the ammo shortage meant that I had not taken a handgun class since the summer of 2019.  So though l did rip through nearly 700 rounds of not-quite-irreplaceable but certainly somewhat expensive ammunition, I thought the class was very much worth it.  Though the three day format cost me a second night in a local hotel, the $275 price tag–as with all of the classes I have taken with Kelly—SCREAMED value. The long lunches were counterbalanced by the Friday night lecture, so I am calling this a 16-hour course.

Kelly is one of the rare been-there, done-that people who fully understands the civilian side of self-defense issues.  Though he is probably better known for the hand-to-hand side of things, he has been a true pioneer in the area of firearms training for a long time.  I have almost all of his DVDs, some of which were originally produced on VHS and date back to 1996.  Things he was teaching in those classes are the EXACT SAME things taught by all sorts of “high-speed” guys today.  This was often because they learned them from Kelly or from people who learned them from other people who learned them from Kelly.   

Having said that, though most of Kelly’s program is tried and true, this does not mean that his training program is stuck in the 1990s.  He was able to cite examples of things that he thought were “weird” or just “wrong” at different points in time that he has since changed his opinion about and now teaches.   He was the first self-defense instructor to put a red dot on his Glock (he used it in the DVD series that was produced in 2003…..I seem to recall it being a Docter sight) and was instrumental in the development of the Trijicon RMR.

I like that Kelly’s approach is simple and based on combative principles.  One thing that he stressed in class is that it is okay for people to have other opinions.  However, unlike many others, HE has a strong rationale to back up everything he teaches, and that rationale was often earned through blood, sweat, and tears, not what looks cool on social media.

One thing I should note is that Kelly described the most important thing with all of this “stuff” is reliability.  Everything we use and everything we do needs to be reliable.  Can it be done in the dark?  Can it be done when you are tired?  Can it be done when you are injured?  Can it be done under the influence of duress dysfunctions? Can it be done when you are covered in mud or blood?  Will it work EVERY time? It is not coincidence that other been-there, done-that instructors with whom I have trained subscribe to a similar philosophy.

Kelly does not teach this class often (he offered it twice this year), and except for rare special occasions, he does not travel much to teach anymore.  However, the fact there were students from Arkansas and Missouri among the nine total students should be indicative of the pull that Kelly has.  I am fortunate that such a valuable resource teaches within easy driving distance for me.  This class served as a nice brush-up for me on some things but has also given me some new things to incorporate into my own practice sessions.  As we had both experienced and novice shooters in the class and everyone took away something, I would recommend this course for anyone looking to take a “combative pistol” course.  Kelly has long based all of his training programs on how to get the students up to speed as quickly as possible (in his .gov and .mil days, he often had limited time with students and so had to plan accordingly), which is why there is so much carry-over from his stick to knife to striking to handgun classes.  It makes it easier to teach and easier to learn, and he is one of the few instructors out there who has expert-level experience in all of those areas. 

As always, thanks for reading.  If you have any questions or comments, please post them below, as we always welcome civil discourse.

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