As part of my research for a magazine article I was given the opportunity to attend Thunder Ranch's Urban Rifle course with the Thunder Ranch VSKA. You've seen bits of this rifle on the channel, but of course the main points of review are reserved for the magazine article.
Thunder Ranch is one of those bucket-list schools. Despite living in the same state as the school I've either not had the funding to go, or had the funding but all courses were booked out for the year. Meanwhile the financial demands of the channel continue so there goes the funding and the cycle continues. I was only able to attend this as part of an article and am incredibly grateful for the opportunity.
To bring you up to speed here's our tabletop video on the rifle which explains some of the features and what makes it a Thunder Ranch rifle:
We later gave you a peek at some of the basic tests without spoiling the goodness that will be in the magazine article:
Clint Smith is a legend in the firearms industry and has been shooting and teaching people how to shoot for more than 50 years. He knows and respects the AK platform dating back to his service in Vietnam as a United States Marine where he was shot by one. Clint teaches multiple weapons platforms, but it's hard to deny the practicality of the AKM.
More energy on target at defensive distances, undeniable reliability, and simplicity of maintenance and use. Yes, the Russians continue to advance the AK, but it's essentially the same system today that it was in 1947, and much of that based on German designs from World War II.
So what does the course cover? We ran a variety (more on that later) of drills from standing, kneeling, and prone positions from about five yards to fifty yards, then prone out to 200 yards on targets sized to represent the average human. The drill variety ranged so widely that at first I didn't feel satisfied. We would start a new drill, then after just a couple iterations the drill would change either by adding a new element or changing completely; effectively denying any of us the repetition to make much progress on any single drill.
My lack of satisfaction came in the form of not feeling like I was making much progress. It wasn't until some later reflection that I came to understand and appreciate the methodology. We were training to fight with the rifle, NOT training to get the best time with a particular drill. A good run or bad run couldn't be countered by starting over, just like in real life. Each drill or iteration was a new "fight" so to speak and the outcome of that fight could not be undone or redone. This is in contrast to many other training events that introduce a drill and then drill it into you over and over until you're good at it. This isn't too dissimilar from the Instagram videos you see of someone performing an amazing reload after a beep. There is validity in training that way as it helps establish the muscle memory that makes reloads (our example) quicker when done under duress.
The method we experienced at Thunder Ranch serves as a more realistic test of one's shooting ability. Sure you're still standing at the ready, knowing what you'll need to do, and waiting for the command to start, but for individual development the learning is much deeper than simply building a better reload, hammered pair, or whatnot. We were all established shooters which may be why this method was used, or it could be the way things go at Thunder Ranch. Considering Thunder Ranch has hosted everyone from Joe civilian through special operations units I'm sure the curriculum has flexibility. The method we encountered would not work without the groundwork skills known in advance.
To breakdown the experience:
Facility: Incredible. Well-designed ranges kept in pristine working order, Thunder Ranch feels like a dream amusement park for shooters.
Course Material: The curriculum and methodology as explained above really set an impression of what could be accomplished with the rifle.
Location: Lakeview, Oregon is far from about everywhere. Driving down from the North was a test of how far a tank of gas can get you, and from what I heard the drive up from Reno wasn't much different. The "city" of Lakeview doesn't offer much, but has all the essentials; a further reinforcement that you're there to train.
Equipment: I ran the same Thunder Ranch VSKA you've seen in the videos and have only popped the dust cover off once to film and photograph. How it ran, and the five other TR VSKA's at the course while digesting brass-cased frangible ammunition is something you'll have to wait for the print article to learn about.
Gloves: Anyone who has spent any serious time with an AK knows that gloves or finger tape will save your hands after a few hours of manipulation. I ran the older version of Oakley's Factory Lite gloves because although I knew I needed them, I hate the way gloves reduce tactile feedback and add heat to the equation. These gloves do a good job of not being too hot and retaining about as much tactile feedback as can be done with a glove also durable enough to survive and AK. My older version gloves are about ready to retire, but this also wasn't their first go at spending quality time with an AK.
Pants: I hate heat, and when it's 95 degrees out, I'm doing physical activity, and wearing knee pads the last thing I want is pants, but I also appreciate the protection they provide from sun and gravel. I used my tried and true LAPG Atlas pants. For a fraction of the price that others demand these are worth more than the typical $40 they run. Stretchy/breathable sections make all the difference for me when I'm scrambling into improvised shooting positions and these pants have them. Plenty of pockets and organization within those pockets means that while a mag on the thigh is still a mag on the thigh, it's at least staying relatively put while sprinting or crouching.
Elbow Pads: The Army issued me a couple different pair of high-speed pads, but I always found them bulky, hot, and slippery on hard surfaces so this time I went with an inexpensive, basic set from Amazon. The Triple 8 Covert pads fit nicely under my over shirt and were just enough to take the bite out of gravel while shooting or going prone. I wish they didn't have as much material on the inside of the arm, but they were comfortable and easy enough to don and doff. Not bad for about 20 bucks.
Knee Pads: Same lesson learned from the "tactical" stuff in the Army, I wanted to go simpler and try something that wouldn't force my knee into a bent position or slip when on concrete or smooth dirt. For a whopping $25 The NoCry Professional Knee Pads on Amazon did a great job. They lack grippy material on the straps, and sometimes slide down, but a good synch and crossing the straps behind the knee kept them comfortable and locked in place. Most importantly the aggressive tread on the front of them kept my knee planted where I put it when taking position.
Footwear: Tired of gravel ranges destroying my shoes I've recently swapped to a more hiking-boot type shoe with a beefier sole. I bought the Columbia PeakFreak X2 at an outlet not realizing it was waterproof. That feature has come in handy while rinsing them off, and while filming in Oregon, but somehow Columbia has figured out how to keep my feet dry from outside or inside heat (remember, I hate heat). With temperatures in the 90's and activity levels consistent I had traction all day, but not sweaty, stinky feet at the end of the day.