"If you drive a panel van for work, get a new job." - Aaron Cowan
Nine months ago I took a two day defensive handgun class from Aaron Cowan at Sage Dynamics. I walked away from that experience humbled and with a new outlook on firearms training. I unconsciously approached that class with a "gun-tainment" mindset. Coming from shooting exclusively at indoor ranges, I was so excited to be able to shoot at multiple targets at speed, "temple index", and generally run around and do "cool ninja s**t". I failed to seriously apply the techniques we were instructed. "Hello, my name is Earl, and I am a ballistic masterbater."
After that I took defensive shooting more seriously. I tripled my range and dryfire practice, and started hitting the gym. I also decided that I needed training for events that were more likely to occur and to work my way up to more exotic classes like night vision and such. One class that popped up was Sage Dynamic's Vehicle Defense. Most of us spend a lot of time in and around cars. It only makes sense to get some training involving one of the most common objects we all encounter on a daily basis.
Day 1: ~500 rounds
The forecast was hot and sunny on day one, and called for rain on day two. I came much better prepared this time around. I brought a larger cooler, stocked with an entire case of water, Gatorade, food, and snacks. I bought two trauma kits and a basic first-aid kit due to glass and sharp metal concerns. 1000 rounds of ammo, 200 rounds of defensive ammo, extra mag pouches, holsters, and two guns, an RMR'd Glock26 and an iron-sighted Glock19. I chose to run my G19 without an RMR for two reasons. First, I wanted the practice with irons, and after breaking my glasses a week earlier, I realized that I couldn't rely on the RMR if my glasses were knocked off in a fight. Second, while I'm proficient with my RMR'd Glocks on the range, in training and real-life, I'll probably find myself in an awkward position, where my shoulders aren't square to the target with a perfect two-hand grip. In those cases, I have trouble finding the dot and end up looking for the front iron sight.
The class arrived on the first day at around 8:00 am. I was surprised by the number of students. There were about 20 of us, from all walks of life. Two SWAT officers, former/active military, and even a group of guys having their bachelor party/weekend. Aaron gathered the class and did his safety/medical briefing after which we positioned the cars and began the ballistic lesson. The vehicles used for the class were a fullsize panel van, minivan, and midsize sedan. The vans were provided by a Sage alumni. Students were instructed to load their guns with their preferred defensive ammo. Each student would then be told to shoot 5 rounds into different areas of the vehicle body. After each student, we would gather around the vehicle and look for rounds penetrating and/or deflecting into and/or through the body/glass. 9mm, .40, .45, 5.56, .308, 7.62x39, and 12 gauge slugs/00 buckshot were used on all three vehicle types. This portion of the class was the most eye opening. I assumed that handgun and 5.56 rounds would easily pass through both sides of a car when shot through the doors. Only a few handgun and some of the 5.56 rounds made it out the opposite door unless they deflected through the window. 308 and AK rounds on the other hand passed through, though often they keyholed on exit.
We then broke into pairs, and shot five rounds through the windshields from the front seats. We were instructed to not change our point of aim on the target to observe how our first few rounds deflect. With the targets about 10 feet away, my first two Ranger 147gr rounds deflected about 3" from POA. The subsequent shots were on target. It highlighted the importance of fighting the urge to move to a clear portion of the windshield. By shooting through the "milk" and burning a hole through the glass, accurate hits can be made through laminated glass. Obviously, if the target moves, you have to track it, but the point was made. After every student had done a run in each vehicle, Aaron moved onto the next lesson. This was the pulse of the class. 10-20 minutes of instruction followed by shooting. We were instructed on dealing with seatbelts, doors, glass, exiting, moving, and fighting in and around the vehicle. We used the knowledge we picked up during the ballistics portion, to position as much cover between us and the threat. Stacking the A pillar and C pillar between yourself and the threat can provide temporary but not insignificant cover. Each lesson built on the previous one. We learned the importance of proper metering off the vehicle, and why it's not optimal to suck up to the car and get as close as possible to the body. Drills included engaging threats in front of and to the sides of the vehicle, then exiting and finding positions of cover or advantage. We then moved on to scenarios. In all scenarios, the assumption was that you couldn't simply drive away, or just run over the threat. After each drill or scenario, each student marked their hits on the targets. We were all held accountable for our accuracy.
The last segment of the the day involved defense of a third party. As both the driver and passenger, we rotated through each vehicle with no-shoots playing the part of the wife/friend/child etc. We learned how to safely draw and maneuver our firearm inside the cabin. After running the drills solo, we paired up and did each drill again. I noticed the level of concentration in the class ratchet up during this portion. With a live person next to me, I fired fewer rounds, focusing harder on my accuracy and muzzle awareness. I burned through almost three magazines with a cardboard goodguy, but with a live partner, I only needed a single reload. That was my ah-ha moment for the day. I was heading down the road of gun-tainment. We ran the drills in the panel van and the sedan since the minivan didn't have a passenger seat, engaging threats while guiding the third party to a position of cover.
We finished the day with a funeral for the panel van. We all hated the van. Its size and lack of windows meant it presented us with few options to engage threats, and we also knew that most of the large body was thin sheet metal, offering very little ballistic protection. We lined up and fired our duty/carry handguns, rifles, and shotguns into the van. Most of the rounds penetrated out the other side. Observing the problems the van was causing, Aaron quipped, "If you drive a panel van for work, get a new job."
Back at the hotel, I downloaded my GoPro video and watched my runs. I noticed a lot of mistakes, though in many cases I self corrected during the run. I would punch my gun through a window opening where glass would still be, meter way to close to the car, or punch my gun out over the hood or trunk. After a shot or two, I'd back up, correcting my mistake. I also noticed that I would shoot faster after a slide-lock reload, as if to compensate for the lull in gunfire. I then spent an hour practicing my dry-fire and reloads until meeting up with a few of the students at the only nearby chain restaurant. We talked jobs, guns, families, cars, politics, and the class before heading back.
One takeaway I had was how I didn't feel disadvantaged without my RMR. Contorting around the vehicle cabins, and often shooting one handed, I was picking up my irons much more quickly than I would have my RMR dot, and getting good hits. It also reinforced my belief that Aaron is a great teacher. Some students shot no-shoot targets. He didn't have to call anyone out or make a big show of it since everyone already knew it. After one of my runs, he told me that I had strayed too far from the car to get a shot on my threat, and exposed myself to the second threat. Instead of using it as a teaching moment for the entire class, he addressed me individually. It was the same when a student violated a safety rule. He made no attempt to hide it from the class to spare the students feelings, but simply addressed the issue with him and moved on. It shows a level of respect for us as students, and a stark contrast from the instructors who treat classes more like reality TV.
Day 2: ~350 rounds
I wish I'd brought my EZ Up. The forecast had changed from light rain in the late afternoon, to heavy rain all day after lunch. We removed all the glass from the cars and hammered down any metal protrusions as best we could. We started the day with a practical quiz of the previous day. The student started in the sedan and would engage targets around both vans at a simulated intersection. We ran the drill solo. Even though the threats and no-shoots were in the same position for each student, we often approached the drill differently. I advanced toward the last van, while some students stayed behind the sedan. Neither strategy is wrong. If you have small kids strapped into car seats, you need to move the fight away from them as soon as possible while being as violent as possible. If alone, stacking the car between yourself and the threats and looking for an escape route might be a smarter option. Students could also retrieve a long gun from the trunk if they chose to.
We used 3D targets complete with cardboard arms that portrayed an empty hand, knife, or gun. We then moved the cars into an ambush or road rage incident position. The student started in the sedan with the panel van next to the driver side and the minivan blocking both cars at a 90 degree angle. We ran the drill in pairs, with both students armed. The key to the drill was simple communication. No code words or abbreviations. "Move to the back" "Okay move" "reloading" "Come back to me" Simple and clear communication was critical especially around the van. With limited sight lines, it was entirely possible for two students to end up on opposite sides shooting at a threat between them. Fortunately, no safety violations occurred.
The scenarios started with students in the car with cardboard covering the windshield while everyone else moved the threat and no-shoot targets around. There was no way to "game" the scenario. When the cardboard was lifted, I saw a threat target standing directly in front of me. I completely tunnel visioned on the threat as I drew my gun and failed to clear my backdrop, but a split second before I fired, I saw the minivan behind it. I shifted my aim from the chest to the head to clear the van. Two of my rounds impacted the roof of the van. Directly behind the threat target, a student had positioned a no-shoot in the minivan. We exited the vehicle and maneuvered around as a pair, engaged all the threats with zero hits on no-shoots, and checked our accuracy. Then the rain came...hard.
We covered the targets with blue plastic trashbags, which meant checking for accuracy would prove difficult. Other than that, we rolled on. We ran more drills either solo or in pairs. The last drill was a turkey shoot. We would engage all targets from behind the panel van or sedan. Aaron would call out positions to fight from. Either over, through, or under the cars. The rain stripped our guns of lube, and mixed with the Georgia clay, forming an unholy paste that gummed up a few guns, including a Glock. Magazines that were buried in the mud were hastily rinsed off in muddy puddles and reloaded. My G19 was feeling quite gritty but it ran just fine, until the front sight came loose. Despite the sight flopping left to right, I fought through the drill, cursing myself for using blue instead of red loctite. I finished the day with my RMR'd G26. Despite the rain and mud, I was surprised at how I could still get hits with a fuzzy dot through a foggy lens.
By 4:00pm a creek had formed and there was no way were were going to be able to move the vehicles. Aaron gathered the class and we headed into the barn for debrief. I was cold, soaked, muddy, and tired. Yet I had spent the day shooting so I was happier than a pig in s**t. After the debrief came the infamous Sage patches. Some students demonstrate excellent application of the skills learned in class and show up with solid shooting skills. Aaron recognizes these students with a red pvc Sage patch. One student received the coveted black patch for the top student. I was one of six students to receive a red patch.
High fives and handshakes went around as the class broke up and headed out. At home, I reviewed my GoPro footage and reflected on the past 48 hours. I felt so much better this time around. I learned a ton of new info. I learned that I didn't have to feel out gunned without an RMR. I can CCW a G19 with a weapon light. My carry ammo does pretty well against vehicle bodies and glass. Gym time is just as important as range time.
If I could do anything different, I would improve my first-aid kit. Two students lacerated their thumbs but all I had were band-aids, gauze, and tape. Some dermabond or steri-strips would have been handy. Also, Red loctite on my front sight and an EZ Up.