One would have thought, with the hundreds of hours of training that I have now accrued, that I would have taken several classes more than once. Honestly, I had to go through my AARs to confirm that I had never done so. Well it WAS true…until now. And how fitting it is that the first class I ever took more than once was the Defensive Elements (formerly Practically Tactical) “Who Are You With A Gun?” course. I first took this course last year at the Alliance Police Range in Alliance, OH. I would urge readers of this review to first read my review of last year’s class, since I will refer to it several times here. Suffice is to say that my experience in last year’s class was so overwhelmingly positive that I just HAD to take it again. Not to be a spoiler, but this class was every bit as great as last year’s iteration.
“Who Are You With A Gun?” is a scenario-based force-on-force class that emphasizes verbal skills, knowledge and understanding of use-of-force law, decision-making/critical thinking, and the differentiation of task versus priority. It does this by dropping each student into realistic scenarios (often “ripped from the headlines”) populated by dedicated, well-coached, professional role-players in quasi-realistic environments. The students have to navigate the scenarios using whatever skills they have when they come to class (supplemented with teaching blocks on different topics interweaved throughout the course of the class), with the idea of pressure-testing their knowledge and skills in order to chart a training path forward. Though we were equipped with training tools such as UTM pistols and in some cases inert pepper spray and fake edged and impact weapons, this was NOT a game of paintball, “cowboys and Indians”, etc. I participated in 15 scenarios over the two days of the class. I fired my UTM Glock in five of the scenarios (probably should have in a sixth), firing a total of 18 UTM rounds. Clearly, this was no blaze-fest.
The class was held at the Midwest Threat Assessment Centers (MTAC) in Muncie, Indiana. Cost of the course was $425, and this cost included the facility fee, UTM ammunition, and UTM rental pistol. I paid full price for the course, and am not affiliated with Defensive Elements or Practically Tactical (“Practically Tactical” is now strictly the podcast/blog name, of which I am a Patreon member……$9 per month is worth it, trust me) except as a full-price-paying, very satisfied customer.
I was one of seven students in the class. Not a lot of diversity in this group of students. All were white guys with varying experience levels of prior training, including one former (retired) federal law enforcement agent.
In addition to the UTM pistols provided to us (mine was a Glock 19 model), MTAC also allowed the use of their helmets/masks, which was awesome. I got to wear a much larger mask this year (more like a plastic welder’s mask, with a full, clear face shield), which allowed me to wear my prescription eyewear underneath. Last year, my mask had integrated goggles which prevented this, resulting in me having to get closer to things than I would have liked in order to identify them. Not so this year.
MTAC is a fantastic facility. Founded by Eric McBride, it is a completely indoor facility and is built strictly for non-live fire. This means that the walls are not abnormally thick for ballistic protection, but are instead built to code. Being indoors also means that many of the “accessories” in the shoothouse are real. Beds, televisions, ovens, refrigerators, chairs, etc., are all real (though not necessarily fully functional). Being indoors also takes weather and time of day out of the equation. Want to practice low-light? No need to wait for darkness; just turn out the lights! There is also a carpeted classroom, good bathrooms, a small pro-shop, and other amenities. It is a first-rate facility. The only thing that would make it even better would be if it was closer to my home! I drove more than nine hours each way to attend this class, twice as far as I did for the class at Alliance last year. If that’s not a vote of confidence in my experience from last year, I don’t know what would be.
Lead instructors for this class were again Nick Humphries and Jesse Gullikson. They were joined by their third primary instructor, Tim (who runs Defense Mechanisms, a tactical gear and apparel company based in Minnesota). Also assisting, as he was last year, was Gary ____, who, in addition to mentoring me (and enduring the long drive to the class with me) has long been mentoring Nick and Jesse. I described some of Gary’s history in my review of last year’s class. Fast version: he is the epitome of a been-there, done-that guy. As an extra bonus this year, auditing the class (and lending some helpful advice from time to time) was one of my favorite instructors, John Holschen. Holschen, in addition to his time in the U.S. Army Special Forces and in one of the larger contracting companies that served in combat zones, also worked for a time with Greg Hamilton at InSights Training Center in the Pacific Northwest. Today, he runs his own gun range and does associated training, largely with beginners. He is one of the most technically and tactically proficient people I have ever been around. I told him that I would take a class with him on how to watch paint dry. He’s that good.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the course that cannot be lauded enough was the role players. In many force-on-force classes, the students take turns being good guy or bad guy. This, of course, takes away all novelty from the scenarios (since most of the students would have been “bad guys” before having their turns at “good guy”), but also means that the students cannot possibly be well-coached to handle different eventualities as the student going through the scenario takes different paths along the decision tree.
Last year, I was ecstatic that we had five role players for most of the scenarios. This year, we had as many as ten for some of the scenarios. So I want to take the time right here to thank Kevin, Abby, Heath, Kelly, Ernie, Dick, and Aaron. Also, Gary played a role in a few of the scenarios, as did Eric McBride of MTAC. They all did a great job performing in their various roles throughout the weekend. Without dedicated, well-coached role players, a class like this lacks any semblance of realism. Kudos to all of you for your hard work.
Not too much to speak of here. As noted, MTAC provided helmets/masks to those students who needed them. I wore an old pair of fairly snug cargo pants, a long-sleeve Wrangler button-down shirt over an Underarmor T Shirt, and Mechanix gloves. I also carried my own Inert pepper spray (identical, except in contents, to the Mark VI Sabre Red canister I carry most days), a trainer version of my standard Benchmade Griptilian knife, and a long-dead cell phone for use as a prop (the instructors had a few, but I thought it a good idea to bring my own). I carried the supplied UTM Glock 19 in a JM Custom Kydex Wing-Claw 2.0 holster with a homemade wedge (cut from a Yoga block), and my spare UTM magazine was carried in a slightly modified Raven Concealment Systems magazine pouch that is my standard carry item. I also carried a blue training Combat Application Tourniquet in my Fieldcraft Survival Tourniquet holder. My holster, magazine carrier, and tourniquet holder were carried on my V Development Group Megingjörð-AIWB Specific-Conceal Carry Belt. My final piece of gear was my Fenix PD-35 flashlight, set up as per this article. I suppose I should also mention that I wore a cup all weekend; a UTM round to the apparatus did not sound good in any way.
Training Day One
We began at 0830 on Saturday. We first knocked out waivers, picked up some free SWAG, and then got down to business. Nick began with his definition of what scenario-based training should be. We then moved into class expectations, what we needed to do as students, and what UTM is (and is not).
Perhaps the most important aspect of the class was the time spent on the various safety elements. After all, we would be pointing guns at other humans, so safety would be of paramount importance, and this crew takes safety as seriously as any instructors I have been around. We began with the life rules of firearms safety (notice, these are not “range rules”). This was followed by a comprehensive medical brief, facility rules, force-on-force procedures, and, finally, the cleansing of all weapons from the classroom and each other. We had to put all firearms, live ammunition, blades, pepper spray, etc., into our locked cars. What equipment/bags/coolers/etc. that we brought into the classroom were then thoroughly searched. We double-checked our own bodies/pockets for anything missed, then had a buddy check us, and finally had at least one instructor check us. We then got to watch the instructors check and frisk each other. Our car keys were then surrendered and placed into a box. No one would go out to cars to retrieve any items except in the most dire of emergencies, and if this did occur, an instructor would go out with them and both would be checked upon their return (this was a non-issue in this class). It was stressed that only if we felt and were assured that the situation was safe could proper learning occur.
All of the above took about two hours. While Nick then went into the shoothouse to help set up the first scenario with the role players, Jesse led the class on a solid Use-of-Force-Law lecture/discussion. Obviously, it is not enough to carry a gun or even to know how to use a gun: we also have to know WHEN we can gun. I thought this segment of the course was streamlined (in a positive way) a bit from last year. It was just tighter, easier to follow, and delivered more confidently. Way to keep working at your craft, guys.
With that, we were assigned numbers (I was number 3). As we did last year, we would start going through the scenarios one-at-a-time, but we would rotate who went first each time. At the conclusion of our personal scenario, we would get to watch—from the catwalk above or some other assigned viewing area—the students after us navigate the same scenario. Not rotating the order would mean that the number 7 student would never get to watch others go through.
Once again, I am not going to give away any of the scenarios. Nick and Jessie and the rest of the crew put in way too much time and effort for me to divulge anything here. As with the course last year, we would be told a “bedtime story” (the setup for each scenario). We could ask some questions as needed, and then we would navigate the scenario one-by-one.
Although I will not reveal any of the scenarios, I will give readers an idea of how they worked by making up my own. So, the “bedtime story” might say: “You and your 11-year-old daughter, played by Kelly, are going to the mall to buy her new soccer cleats. You will exit your car in the lot and enter the mall. You will go directly to the sports equipment store to purchase the cleats, then go to the food court for lunch, and finally proceed to your car.” Along the way, you have to deal with whatever happens.
The great thing was that everything was there. We had a somewhat derelict Ford Crown Victoria inside the overall structure for our car. And then we had the shoothouse portion of the structure to use as the mall, which could be set up as stores, food court, etc. With so many role players, we could have everything from store employees, customers, vagrants, police officers, etc., with whom we would have to interact. Sometimes, “nothing” would happen, but on those occasions we would still be quizzed about what we saw/heard/sensed and the decisions we made. On other occasions, of course, some pretty horrible things happened. Navigating those situations challenged all of our knowledge, skills, and decision-making ability unlike anything else I had experienced before (well, except for last year’s class!).
One thing the readers may be wondering is whether or not the scenarios were the same as last year. The short answer is no. Indeed, while some of the “bedtime stories” were identical to last year’s “bedtime stories”, the scenarios they led to were—with one exception—VERY different. Of the 15 scenarios I participated in this year, only one was really identical to one from last year. Three were quite similar to scenarios from last year, and the rest were all new. I should also note that even the scenarios that were the same or similar were still challenging, and I still made some mistakes in each of them. So I did not feel like doing the class 15 months before gave me any real advantage or allowed me to game the scenarios. I managed to suck regardless!
Interspersed with the scenarios were various training blocks. These included a section on Managing Unknown Contacts (MUC), the material from which was mostly attributed to Craig Douglas of Shivworks. There was additional information that came from the late Dr. William Aprill. I should note here that the instructors always provided attribution as to where certain ideas or information originated.
Other blocks of instruction included Gary’s “Tradecraft as Streetcraft” segment that he presented last year, and some off-the-cuff mini-blocks presented by John Holschen, mostly presented in response to mistakes the students made in different scenarios. This provided some serious “value-added” material that all of the students appreciated.
We wrapped up the first training day around 1800 hours, mentally exhausted. We completed seven scenarios. Of those, I fired shots in two, firing a combined 10 UTM rounds.
Training Day Two
The second day again began at 0830. I will take the time to note here that the day began with the same safety brief as the day before, albeit just slightly quicker. So we reviewed the firearms safety rules, the medical brief, the facility rules, the force-on-force procedures, and finished with the cleansing of the facility and students, conducted exactly as the day before.
Moving just slightly quicker and without as many blocks of instruction, we were able to move through eight more scenarios on Day Two. These proceeded much like the ones on Day One. I would end up firing my UTM gun in three of these scenarios, firing a combined 8 UTM rounds. Thus, over the 15 scenarios, I fired 18 UTM rounds across five scenarios (I probably hit with 14 of those, and no non-threats were hit). For comparison, in last year’s class I fired 13 UTM rounds across 4 (of 16) scenarios.
My performance in the course was similar to last year’s in that I was inconsistent. I performed well in some scenarios, terribly in a couple, and sort of muddled through the rest, doing some things well and other things poorly. My main improvement compared with the 2020 class was in my observation skills. Last year, for example, I missed a very obvious “Exit” sign that would have provided me egress from a scenario, but this year I had no such issues. I was able to relatively quickly identify the signs that something was afoot. I would also say that I improved a bit with my 911 calls. I provided better information more concisely, but I was far from perfect.
This year, one of my struggles was identical to that of last year, and that was in command presence. Although I can really project in my classroom at work (people nearby or passing in the hallway often think I am yelling at my students!), for some reason, in these scenarios, I present as lacking in confidence and more meek. I would also say that I probably tried a bit too hard to not use my firearm at all. I tried to get out of a few scenarios in which I had the legal framework within which to employ deadly force but chose not to, which then put myself and, on a few occasions, others at much greater risk. As John Holschen said in class, the question is not so much “When CAN I shoot someone?”, but “When MUST I?” I would say there was at least one scenario where I really NEEDED to shoot, but in my effort to not get involved ended up putting my own safety at serious risk, and it was dubious as to whether or not I would have escaped injury or death by NOT shooting.
We completed the 15th scenario by about 1645, and Nick, Jesse, and Tim allowed me to present my takeaways from the class before everyone else so that Gary and I could hit the road for the long drive back. So, unfortunately, I missed my fellow students’ evaluations of the course. Things that I noticed among my peers, however, included the sub-1.0 second draw……of the cell phone! Some students were way too quick to get their phones out and call 911, when instead they would have been better served neutralizing the threat, securing the scene, or rendering medical aid, all of which should take priority before a 911 call. Some students also struggled just a bit with their manipulations, especially in low-light when also utilizing a hand-held light (I did not have this issue, but some ended up inducing malfunctions or flagged themselves with their muzzles).
One of the issues that many students—including me, at times—had was “dithering”. In several of the scenarios, we were presented with complex problems which could best be dealt with by doing SOMETHING rather than NOTHING. Some of this dithering was due to simple overload of our problem-solving abilities, and some of it was due to the very realistic scenarios that, on a few occasions and with a few students, caused them to actually freeze and be virtually unable to continue.
Speaking for myself, another issue I had was struggling a bit to get “in role”. There is always training artificiality in even the best scenario-based training. Compared with last year, I felt like I had more difficulty letting go of my real life and getting full immersed within the role it was dictated I needed to play. I cannot explain why it was that I struggled some in this area, but I definitely felt it at times.
I wrote earlier this year about the value of taking scenario-based training. Presented well (as it was here), I do not know that there is a better way to test your skills. And yet again, here I was in another class of seven total students. Where was everyone??? Why were so few willing to test themselves? The answer, most probably, is ego. This is a class in which you MUST leave your ego at home. It is not a contest, and no one can go through each scenario perfectly. It is truly a LEARNING experience. You find out what you do well and shore that up while at the same time identify deficiencies in your knowledge and skills so as to provide the basis for a training path forward. Gear was not a deciding factor in any of the scenarios. Knowledge and skills were.
Overall, this was another fun and VERY challenging class, and having taken it twice now, I would definitely take it again. This type of training is, in my opinion and the opinion of many others from the been-there, done-that crowd, the most important type of self-defense training a person can take. So I want to again thank Nick, Jesse, and Tim for putting on the class with all of their combined knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm; and Gary, John Holschen, and all of the role players for their hard work and dedication to this endeavor. They have a lot to be proud of. I could write even more about the class, but at this point the readers have TWO reviews to sift through. If these do not adequately describe the course and convince people to take it, I don’t know that anything will.
One final note: in addition to a role player named Kevin, there was also a student with the same first name. That dude brought a veritable smorgasbord of food for everyone to munch on over the two days. Truly enough for EVERYONE. Not every class can count on that, but it deserved a mention. Thanks Kevin!
As always, thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments about this course, please post them below, as we always welcome civil discourse.