We had the opportunity to attend Thunder Ranch's Defensive Handgun course this December. For both Teya and I this made for our fourth institution (our other experiences include CENTER-T, Front Sight, ITTS, and VerTac) of handgun courses and my 11th total pistol course. Every course attended, including repeats at the same institution, has offered a learning experience and new challenge depending on how adventurous we want to be as students. Since this was a new course for me I decided to stick with a known handgun. Below is a breakdown of the experience including gear used.
(When we attend a course it's to learn. As a result we don't distract ourselves or others with cameras so please excuse the lack of course photos or video. )
Course: Three days covering drawing from the holster and the defensive mindset. Exercises included a variety of drills at distances from five yards to about 20. Shooting while moving, one-handed shooting from both sides, firing from the ground, engaging multiple targets, and malfunctions. The course description included low-light drills but during our iteration daytime temperatures were barely above freezing so that portion was omitted likely for safety reasons.
Graham's Take: In comparison with the ten other handguns courses I've attended (which really break down to the three other schools as I've repeated Front Sight several times) this course felt much more field expedient. There was less lecture and instruction and more practical application. There was also more room for student evolution and experimentation. For example some drew from appendix carry, some inside the waistband, others outside. I experimented with reloading from an unprepared pocket.
Just like the Thunder Ranch AK course I attended in August drills were explained, executed, and frequently altered so that each drill was truly training; no repetitions of identical drills until mastery. Clint Smith knows that speed comes from form and training and so no shot timers were used. Take as much time as you need to properly execute the task, lean from that, and do it better the next time. This style of instruction may frustrate perfectionists, but is also more practical. Should we ever be involved in a gunfight it won't be textbook because there is no textbook. Every fight is unique both in situation and in how the participants act. Those who want to master a specific drill with a timer will have to do that at home.
Gains: Both curriculum and the below-freezing temperatures gave the opportunity to learn new things. The most significant of them are:
Shooting from the ground: Either on the back, or on either side provides incredible stability if you relax an elbow to the ground and use it like a monopod. We might end up in this position unintentionally, but it can also offer some tactical advantages by providing an angled shot and getting out of the standard line of sight.
Shooting with gloves on: I've always hated this and done my best to avoid it; I like tactile feedback from the weapon! The exception has been with AKs where sharp edges can cut you up over time, in those instances I've always worn the lightest gloves possible. This time the temperatures forced another option. My pistol choice and glove choice (below) worked fine for the trigger, but did require a little extra effort for safety manipulation.
Pocket Reload: Though my pants (below) are certainly set up for this, I wanted to try worst-case scenario and grab from a spacious jacket pocket. I discovered that I could index a mag correctly 90% of the time by feeling the floor plate with my pinky while grabbing the magazine. This worked out great except for when the elastic waist tensioner (which is adjusted inside the pocket) decided to grab on to the magazine or my gloved finger. It's an obvious point, but make sure that pocket is free of any potential obstructions.
Environmental Stress: As Teya can attest, I'm willing to shoot in any weather, but training in prolonged exposure to harsh weather adds another element to training. Nothing can truly replace or simulate the way your mind and body react to combat (speaking from combat experience in two wars), but the environmental physical stress of the cold made for great training. Reduced sense of touch due to cold and clothing, obscured vision as snow and ice obscured the target and my shooting glasses, stiff and slow joints and muscle movement all made everything tougher, plus that foggy headedness that comes when you've been cold for three days. Was it pleasant? NO. Do I recommend training in unpleasant weather? Yes, if your body can take it. Teya and I experienced the opposite weather effects when we traveled from comfy Oregon to hot and humid North Carolina for the CENTER-T AK and pistol courses. It sucked at the time, but I'm glad we did it.
Gear: This list is what I ran. Gear is very much a matter of personal preference and budget, but hopefully these notes can help point you in the right direction.
Jacket: Not sure how the class would go I started with a fleece-lined Russian Gorka jacket with the intent to leave the bottom buttons unbuttoned to permit easy holster access. This worked fine, but the jacket itself wasn't warm enough and lacked the space to tolerate layers underneath. I ended up swapping to an old Army-issue ECWCS"moon jacket" that did a great job against the cold. Being able to unzip from the bottom provided the same level of holster access and kept the jacket snug around my shoulder and neck.
Pants: I packed my favorite range/training pants, the Atlas from LA Police Gear, but the weather quickly told me they might be a bit chilly without long johns underneath. That left me with two jeans-like alternatives. The Operatus XP from Viktos, and the McQuade Pant from Tactical Distributors. Despite the advertising the Operatus pant pockets are not very spacious and are rather unforgiving for the wearer once something is in them. They look good, but were not practical for my needs. The McQuade's saved the day (again) with their near infinite stretch pockets that stretch around the item in your pocket instead of trying to shove it into your flesh. I've always felt a little warm in these pants, and in the cold that warmth was appreciated.
Boots: 5.11 Cable Hiker You may not seem them on camera often, but these waterproof boots have become a go-to for cold and wet weather. My feet tend to run hot, but when the temperature drops below 50 it's nice to not have cold feet either. They have moderate weight which I don't mind when standing on the range,
but are also a bit stiff. That stiffness provides great stability, just don't expect to use them at the dojo.
Gloves: This was a nervous choice for me. I did not want to give up tactile feedback, but needed some sort of hand protection. I grabbed an old pair of Oakley SI Lightweight Gloves as we headed out the door. Yes, they're labeled as lightweight, but they're as thick as I'd ever want to use with a firearm. I was pleasantly surprised at how well they did with both traction and protection while still giving me some sense of touch on the firearm. I was able to load magazine, activate the safety, and retained normal dexterity. Mine are a few years old and some of the rubbery traction bits finally fell off, but for the cost they performed wonderfully.
Ear Protection: Normally I run with some type of in-ear protection, but knowing it'd be cold and we were just shooting pistol I went with a set of basic Walker's muffs. The muffs kept my ears from freezing and did a decent job at deadening the noise. Nothing fancy, but it worked.
Pistol: As some of you know, I wasn't entirely sure what to bring for a handgun. Logic would say to train with my carry gun, the Grand Power K100 Decocker model, but I've previously attended more than one course with the gun and wanted to get to know something else. I packed the Archon Type B, but didn't like the holster I had for it. I contemplated running a tricked out Sig P365XL I have in for an upcoming magazine article, but didn't want to wrestle loading those magazines. My primary was the Grand Power K100 X-Trim as a viewer requested.
The K100 X-Trim is both similar and different from my daily carry. The action is SA/DA with a safety and no decocker. This provided good training as I had to constantly manipulate the safety off and on with gloves on. I found the low-profile safety easy enough to operate without any failures, in fact through the entire 1,000 rounds of lightweight, frangible ammunition I had no mechanical failures despite the ice, snow, and complete lack of cleaning during the course. Loading the magazines while gloved was not an issue, the Grand Power simply couldn't be stopped. Additionally I've decided I want these sights on my carry K100. In the low-light of dark and snowy days the red fiber optic front sight contrasting against the blacked out read sight was perfect.
Ammunition: Thunder Ranch requires the use of frangible ammunition. Sometimes that can be unnerving as it tends to mean silly-light projectiles moving way faster than normal. A different recoil impulse and not always in a way the gun likes. We used some Norma 65gr we had bought bulk months prior (no longer listed on their site, perhaps leftovers from their acquisition of the Inceptor brand). Out of the entire case there was one failure to fire and zero issues for the Grand Power. It appears that Norma has changed to a 94gr projectile which may help reduce malfunctions in pickier guns compared to the 65gr.
Firearm Transportation & Security: Condition 1 makes great cases here in the USA and somehow manages to compete price-wise with the imported stuff. We tried one of their cases a while back for a pair of Stribogs, then bought a bundle when they went on sale a few months later. Multiple layers of pluckable foam make the interior very customizable, or if you're like us and are always packing something different just remove enough layer to make room and you're good to go.
Conclusion: It was a great course. If you ever have the opportunity I recommend Thunder Ranch regardless of your experience level. Our class had a mix that ranged from new shooters to the well-experienced and I think everyone learned something. My biggest take away is to train as many places as you can. Despite this being my fourth school and 11th institutional training experience I still learned techniques and tactics that I had previously not been exposed to. Every school has its method, and they all have their advantages. The "best" method is simply a matter of which one you have trained most. Lastly, if the weather looks nasty dress for it as your normally would. Unfortunately the nature of defensive shooting is that we don't get to pick where or when the fight will be.