By Chris Upchurch, Director of Marketing
This weekend I took Eric Pfleger’s Team Tactics class in Anaconda, Montana. This is a class I've been looking at for a long time, but we don't offer it all that often, or at all that many venues. I had some time this summer before moving to Prescott and Eric was teaching the class up in Montana, so I jumped at the chance. I'm glad I did it was really a blast.
I brought a pair of AKs both in 7.62x39mm. My primary rifle for the class was an SGL–21, with a TWS forend and dogleg rail. I’m running a SWFA SS 1–4 on the dogleg, on the American Defense QD mounts. The stock has been replaced with a TSD hinge carrying a Magpul CTR with the 3/4" cheek riser to provide the proper cheek weld for the optic. This means that using the AK irons I’d have to mash my head way down on the stock, so I put on a pair of flip up Midwest Industries AR BUIS (eventually I’m going to have the AK front sight tower removed, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet). My backup rifle in case the first breaks (or I just get tired of carrying the thing around and want something lighter) was an SLR–107F, with an Ultimak gas tube rail mounting an Aimpoint Micro.
To feed these rifles I’ve got an Insurgent chest rig that I’ve converted to run bungee retention rather than the flaps. My sidearm is an RMRed G17 in a Bladetech WRS thigh rig. This is the first time I’ve run a retention holster or a thigh rig, so we’ll see how I like it. Primary water source (and a counterbalance for the chest rig) was a 3 liter Camelback.
The majority of the class were running AKs, but there was a substantial minority of ARs. One student was running a SCAR 17. Given the nature of the class, most students’ support gear was very tactical: about a 50%/50% mix between chest rigs and battle belts.
The class was held south of Anaconda, Montana, on a piece of land owned by a long-time SI student. For a range we had a long clearing running up the slope of a hill (so we got to do all our bounding drills running uphill, yay!). The surrounding area is a moderately dense pine forest, giving us a great venue to do some patrolling stuff. This is some really beautiful country and being out here really added to the enjoyment of the class.
Most of us stayed at the nearby Sugar Loaf Lodge. This is a really nice facility. They’ve got a couple of cabins, which are very nicely furnished and decorated (as I write this I’m sitting under a mount of a 12 point bull elk). When you load up one of the cabins with a bunch of guys the price ends up being very reasonable. They also provided all our meals (at a very low price). This is kind of the slow season for them (they mostly cater to hunters in season and cross country skiers and snowmobilers during the winter) so they cut us some very good deals. If you’re attending one of Eric’s classes in Anaconda, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend staying at the Sugar Loaf Lodge.
Most of the class showed up sometime Thursday afternoon or evening. The lodge laid out a nice spread of hors d’oeuvres which most of us turned into our evening meal. Everyone hung out for a bit and shot the breeze and we generally enjoyed the good fellowship that comes in a gathering of like-minded folks at an S.I. class. No real business to conduct but Eric did stress the point of making sure you drank plenty of water to pre-hydrate for the class tomorrow.
After a hearty breakfast at the lodge we headed over to the training venue. Eric handed out the waivers and had us promise not to sue on the video release. Eric also introduced Jesse, a long time S.I. student and former police officer who would be assisting with the class.
This was followed by an extensive medical briefing. The Team Tactics class is one with a lot of potential danger, and the venue was fairly far out in the sticks, meaning it would probably be a while until the official ‘first responders’ got there. So for the initial response to any serious injury we were effectively on our own. Eric designated two people to fill each role in the response (two incase on of them was the one who got shot) from providing the initial treatment, to calling 911 (itself a tricky business in an area with little or no cell service), to taking notes on the patient’s condition. He pointed out the main trauma kit, and talked about the sort of personal kit (IFAK) that people should have with them for these sorts of operations.
This also provided an opportunity to promote our medical classes, which Eric delegated to me as the newly minted SI Director of Marketing. I talked a bit about the program and the Trauma Care for the CCW Operator class. Eric’s girlfriend Linda who was taking the class had also taken the first Advanced Trauma Medicine (our second level medical class) in Orange, TX earlier this year, so she talked about that (made me want to go to the class even more than I already did).
Eric also appointed a few people to a fire watch, since the fire danger this time of year was very high (I’d passed at least five fires on the drive up from Prescott). The property owner had a trailer with a water tank and a portable fire pump on it that we used to wet down the impact area before and after shooting.
Next up was the standard safety briefing, covering the four rules of gun safety. This segued into a discussion of slings and sling carry. The majority of the folks in this class were set up with two point slings, but there were a fair number of single point slings as well.
Eric talked about the nature of this class. Most S.I. classes are about improving our individual skills, but Team Tactics is a bit different. The only way to learn how to function in a team is to work as part of one. To this end, Eric had us form a two-man team with a buddy. In addition to being our partner for some of the exercises, we were also to stick together outside of the drills. I teamed up with John Betancourt, a longtime S.I. student who I knew from some previous classes.
We talked about pre-operational gear inspections, and eliminating anything that might give you away, especially shine and noise. You also want to make sure all your kit is functional, including checking batteries, verifying the zero on your weapons (if possible), etc.
With the lecture material out of the way, we started with some actual drills. Before starting with any gunhandling we emptied out the rifles and triple checked that our rifles and mags were unloaded. Eric went through the carry positions that were appropriate in the context of this class (primarily patrol ready and high noon ready). Once everyone had those down we moved on to an extensive set of muzzle aversion drills.
When you have people moving around each other with live weapons it is absolutely vital that they adjust where their gun is pointing to keep from muzzling each other. From most positions Eric had the students do this by raising the muzzle up to high noon ready. The exception was prone, where he had them ground their muzzle instead. He lined the students up and walked back and forth in front of them, requiring them to avert their muzzles. During these drills I noticed a dropped TSD pistol on the ground. It turned to be John’s, and since I’m his battle buddy Eric had both of us run up to the targets and back.
In addition to the muzzle aversion he also added in removing the trigger finger from the trigger whenever your eyes come off the target. Eric had the students circle up, facing outward, and do muzzle aversion and eyes/finger drills from the various positions. After he was satisfied with everyone’s muzzle and finger discipline, we moved on to some actual team tactics.
We started off with one of the drills we often do in other rifle courses to introduce students to the team tactics material: the peel. Fundamentally, a peel involves a group of guys lined up in a file. The first guy in the file engages the enemy (usually until he expends all the rounds in the gun or suffers a stoppage) then peels off and moves to the back of the stack. The next guy in line steps up and does the same. This kind of thing can be used by a small unit responding to an unexpected contact, or in a variety of other contexts. We worked a lot of variations on the peel drill in this class.
We started out doing the peel in a very tight stack (like one might use for a SWAT entry), then opened up the distance to more realistic levels. Once everyone had the concept down Eric set us up in two parallel files (as if walking down either side of a road, for instance) and do a paired peel down the center. He also introduced the concept of a lateral peel (from a line abreast and peeling left or right. This also brought up some discussion of team leaders positioning particular assets (belt fed MGs, grenadiers, etc.).
With this we broke for lunch. After everyone was done eating we talked about various methods of communication. Non-verbal communication is useful when you’re trying to be sneaky, or after the fight has started and the volume is too high for verbal commands to work. Verbal, on the other hand, is quicker and easier.
For the verbal communication we use a pretty simple set of commands. “Moving” indicates that the person yelling it wants to move and is asking for cover fire. “Covering” declares that the other person is able to provide cover fire. When the moving person gets to their next position they yell “set” to let their parter know that they’re there. If your rifle goes down while shooting, “Checking” lets your teammate know so they can make sure to lay down fire for you. “Up” announces that you’ve fixed the problem and are back in the fight.
The non-verbal communication is a kind of pantomime, pointing at yourself or the other person to indicate who is doing something and miming walking with your fingers for movement or pointing at your eyes to indicate the area they should cover. The key here is to take your time and make sure you’re understood.
We put these to work in dry drills first moving up and back about a seventy yards between conveniently located barrels and pallets as pieces of cover. We did it with voice commands first, then ran it using the hand signals. After everyone had done it a couple of times Eric sent our two-man teams out through the woods and down the road towards the house to put this into practice in other environments more realistic than the open clearing of the range.
With enough practice, Eric decided that everyone was ready to do this live. We did this in a very controlled manner, with clear lines of fire (defined by orange spray paint on the ground). Each student had an instructor (in body armor) bird dogging them all the way up and all the way back.
We moved up towards the target using non-verbal commands and at some point Eric let off a shot from his pistol, indicating we’d made contact. We engaged the targets with our rifles and started using verbal commands as we bounded up to the target then bounded back.
The under-appreciated key to this drill is the ability to reload on the move. If both team members keep their rifles topped up by reloading as they move back, they can keep up continuous fire. If they don’t reload appropriately, they’ll run dry when they’re supposed to be covering their buddy. This requires a bit of a different mindset than the individual operator. You can’t just do the reload on your schedule when you think you’re running low. You have to take advantage of your buddy covering you and do the reload when you move, even if it’s sooner than you’d really like. Some folks managed this really well, others not so much. Some folks also needed to either reposition their dump pouch or to get more practice using it. I saw a lot of magazines end up on the ground.
When John and I ran the drill, we did a good job doing this. Neither of us ran dry at an inopportune moment. The odd thing is that I realized halfway through the shooting portion of the drill that I was running it left-handed. I’d switched hands to get a better view of John when we were communicating using hand signals, and then when Eric lit off the round to initiate the shooting portion of the drill I kept on with the rifle on the left side. We were most of the way through the drill before I realized what I was doing. I’ve put in a lot of time on running the gun left handed, I guess I’ve internalized it to the point that it’s second nature.
This was a nice high note to end the training day on. We adjourned to the lodge for a very nice dinner. After dinner one of the students who is a former intelligence officer gave an interesting lecture on aspects of HUMINT (human intelligence).
To get warmed up we started off Saturday by running the two-man bounding drill again, dry. We quickly moved on to working with four-man teams. Eric really likes four man teams for the guerrilla operator. It’s a realistic number of people to get together, fits nicely in an SUV, and can accomplish a lot of stuff that a two-man team can’t without having too high a profile. It allows more specialization within the team (one man can be the medic, another the commo guy, the sniper, etc.). When moving in a rural environment it also allows much better 360 coverage than a two-man element.
We put this into action by doing the bounding drill with two of our two-man teams. One member of each time acted as the controller, communicating with the other team. The other team member acted as the primary rifleman. We ran this dry, bounding up towards the target and back, switching off roles to give each person a chance to act as the controller.
To put a little more emphasis on the command role, we ran this again using two three-man teams. In this case we had two shooters and one team leader in each team. To emphasize the team leader’s role, he did the drill with his rifle slung. He was there to command and coordinate with the other team, not as a trigger puller.
We ran it this way dry a bunch of times to give everyone a chance to rotate into the command position, working both with hand signals and verbal communication. After everyone had a chance to command while running it dry we did it live fire.
With four men dedicated to shooting it was a lot easier to keep a steady cadence of fire on the target. For the live run the team leader had his rifle out so he could step in and shoot in case one or both of his shooters ran dry. In one case a team member had a nasty stoppage in his AR (a case stuck in the chamber that we had to pound out with a range rod) so the team leader stepped into the rifleman role and the student with the malfunction took over as team leader. They accomplished this very smoothly on the fly.
After everyone had a chance to run the drill live, Eric brought out a suppressed AR and the student with the SCAR put his suppressor on his rifle and they did a bit of a demo showing how much easier communication was if your outgoing fire was a lot quieter.
With that, we broke for lunch.
After lunch we spent a bit of time working with movement formations. This is something we do a lot more of in the Rural Patrolling class, but here we just had a taste of it. Eric brought out his ‘team leader admin kit’, a bag with bits of colored paracord sponges, and other little stuff he can use to lay out a little impromptu map in the dirt. It’s not quite as cool as the little plastic army men that Randy Harris has been known to use, but it fits a bit better in a cargo pocket.
Eric used his bits of paracord to lay out the different movement formations. To this point we’d done a bit of work with the file for the peel drills yesterday (a file has folks lined up in the direction of travel). It’s good for confined spaces like a jungle trail or moving through an urban environment. He talked about how to divvy up sectors of responsibility. With four men you basically have the point man take responsibility for the front, one man on either side (and this being S.I. we advocate that one of them have his long gun on the left shoulder so he can keep it pointed at his sector) and one watching the rear. There was some discussion of different ways for the tailgunner to keep an eye on what’s behind them without having to spend the whole time walking backwards.
The flip side of the file is the line (everyone lined up perpendicular to the direction of travel) which is good for large open areas. You can bend the line into a wedge formation (or a V if you bend it the other way). A variation of this is echelon right or echelon left, which weights the wedge towards one side other the other (whichever side presents the greatest threat of enemy contact). Finally, we talked about the diamond formation (or if you have more than four guys, the wagon wheel). With the basics covered Eric grouped everyone into four-man teams and set them off to take a walk and try out these varying formations.
After everyone returned from their walk in the woods, we moved on to talking about ambushes and counter-ambush drills. This is another subject we cover in more detail in the Rural Patrolling class, but Eric wanted mainly to cover the counter ambush stuff here, and you can’t get into that without learning at least a bit about ambushes. He used his bits of string to lay out a map of a chokepoint and diagramed out an L-shaped ambush.In terms of counter-ambush drills, the key is whether this is a near ambush or a far ambush. What counts as near and far depends on terrain, but a good rule of thumb is a near ambush is close enough to charge while a far ambush is out of range. In moderately forested terrain like we had here, figure 35 yards and in for a near ambush and beyond 35 yards for a far ambush. From the point of view of the ambusher, a near ambush is really designed to annihilate the opposing force. It’s a very committed attack. A far ambush could be just taking a few potshots at the enemy (a sniper attack would be an extreme example of a far ambush).
In responding to a near ambush, the immediate response is to charge the enemy position. Get in among the ambushers where you can shoot at them and you’re not in their preplanned fields of fire. Charging into the enemy’s guns may not seem like a good idea, but it’s better than remaining in the kill zone, and if it’s a well designed ambush, you won’t have any other viable choice.
For a far ambush, you have more time and distance. Here it’s appropriate to take cover and use fire and maneuver and take advantage of terrain to either escape, or to close with the enemy.
When escaping from a far ambush, or simply from unexpected contact with a superior force, things like smoke, CS gas, mines, etc. are very useful. We discussed these, and Eric passed around some examples. With smoke in particular there are versions that we can acquire as civilians. ATF has made the true military grade stuff harder to get of late, but there are versions for marine signaling or made for airsofters that we can actually buy.
Eric also took the opportunity to talk about some signaling methods for communicating between teams. You can start out pretty simple with things like whistles, or a length of brightly colored webbing that you can weight at one end and throw up in the air. Flares can serve a similar purpose, particularly at night. Radios obviously offer a lot more flexibility and covertness in communications, if they are available. However, as technological devices they do break or fail to function, so it’s important to have a backup plan.
Eric ran everyone through a couple of staged ambush scenarios, both near and far, to help everyone understand how these work. With this, we wrapped up for the day.
We had another a fine dinner over at the Sugar Loaf Lodge. After dinner Linda (who can be seen in Die Less Often and several videos of Dog Brothers events online), talked a bit about using sticklike improvised weapons. Even if you carry a firearm, these are good skills to have, particularly if you find yourself in an NPE. As part of this she showed some of the stuff she carries in her purse for self defense in California, including her pink-handled ‘Goodbye Kitty’ purse hatchet. With some help from a student who’s a long-time martial artist and some demonstrations using Jesse and Eric as demo dummies, this developed into a more general discussion of hand to hand skills.
There wasn’t a whole lot of time to practice some of the movement formations yesterday afternoon, so to start up the day today Eric formed the students into two six-man teams and sent them out on a patrol. I followed one of the teams to get some pictures.
They headed up the wooded ridge to the right of the range then worked their way uphill (downrange). As they were swinging around the end of the range, they ran into the other patrol coming around in the opposite direction. Neither team had planned for this. Both immediately took cover when they spotted the other and waited for about five minutes while the team leaders tried to figure out what to do and quietly communicate their intentions to their teammates. Finally, the patrol that I’d followed up the mountain initiated a simulated firefight (yelling ‘bang’ in lieu of actual fire) and withdrew back the way they came.
Once everyone made their way back to the range we spent some time debriefing. One lesson I pointed out is that one student spent a lot of time with his (tape switch activated) weapon light illuminated during the patrol. If you’re setting up a rifle for this sort of thing, first consider whether you need a light at all. If you do, make sure it can be locked off during the day, and consider either a QD mount or lens cap to avoid both accidental activation and having the shiny reflector give your position away.
One thing that came up during the patrol exercise was how to move across a linear open area like a road. Eric described the ‘patch to the road’ method for doing this. Essentially you have one guy on the far side of the road with his left shoulder (the one where the U.S. military puts the unit patch) towards the road providing security in one direction. Another guy is on the near side with his left shoulder to the road providing security in the other direction. The next guy in line replaces the guy on the near side, allowing him to go over and replace the guy on the far side. There’s a bit of special choreography with the point man and team leader. This method allows a small unit to move across the road with each man providing security for the man in front of him and behind him, instead of halting and deploying security elements in both directions.
Eric had them run patch to the road a couple of times to get the idea. This is the sort of thing that we cover more extensively in the Rural Patrolling class, but Eric wanted to go through it since it came up during the patrol.
Next up was our big exercise. Eric broke out the bits of colored paracord to map things out. The objective was to retrieve a 5 gallon water jug from near the target (in this case a painted piece of wood rather than our usual steel plate to avoid ricochets). The exercise would involve three teams: an overwatch team (including a sniper element), an ambush team, an assault team.
The plan went like this:
1. The overwatch team and the sniper element move through the woods to their designated position (on the left side of the range about 60 yards from the target).
3. The assault team takes up position about 50 yards from the target, screened from the target by a small ridge.
4. Once everyone is in position the overall commander (the leader of the overwatch team) orders the sniper to fire.
5. The sniper shot is the signal for the ambush team to open up on the target, rapid fire.
6. After the members of the ambush team have expended about 1/3 of their ammo load (2 mags each) the they lift their fire.
7. The assault team moves in, shooting as they advance, and retrieves the water jug.
8. After the assault team clears the target area, the ambush team opens up again, expending another third of their ammunition.
10. The overwatch team ceases fire and withdraws to the rally point.
In the real world, this would be done with continuous fire on the target from the first sniper shot until the overwatch team withdraws. For training purposes, we had some pauses built in for safety, to make sure that the ambush team didn’t shoot the assault team and the overwatch team didn’t shoot the ambush team. These pauses, combined with carefully delineated lanes of fire and close supervision by the instructors are what allows an advanced live fire exercise like this to be carried out in a training setting.
In addition to these precautions, Eric had everyone run the entire operation dry before doing it live, to make sure everyone was on the same page. Pictures of the dry fire walkthrough are above, pics of the live fire exercise are below.
Overwatch team moves up to their position.
Ambush team moves up.
Assault team moving into position.
Ambush team in position.
Eyes on the objective.
Sniper element with the overwatch team, firing the first shot.
Dust kicked up by muzzle blast obscures target for ambush team (lesson learned here).
Assault team closing on the objective.
Assault team returning with the objective.
Ambush team opens up again.
Ambush team begins withdrawal.
Overwatch team opens up.
Sniper and last element of Overwatch team covering withdrawal.
After lunch, we did some work with vehicles. The host provided his Mitsubishi Montero as a practice vehicle.
The important thing to remember with vehicles is that the stuff we’re talking about here should be a last resort. If the vehicle is still operable and you aren’t totally blocked in, driving out of trouble is almost always the better choice. That said, this isn’t a driving class, so we concentrated on how to bail out from a vehicle while under fire.
One thing that quickly becomes apparent when working with rifles in side vehicles is that a short barrel and/or folding stock are worth their weight in gold. A full length rifle just isn’t very handy inside even a big SUV. The ideal gun for this sort of thing would be something like a Suchka, or even a small SMG like the MP5K. Absent something like that, a pistol with an extended magazine may be a good choice for working inside a vehicle (see this thread, for instance). Slings can be even more of a problem, and Eric recommended using rubber bands or bits of bicycle inner tube to secure or shorten up the sling so it doesn’t catch on stuff.
Given that driving ought to be our default response to a threat, and this could well lead to crashing, seatbelts are extremely important when traveling at highway speeds. A car wreck can kill you just as dead as incoming fire. At lower speeds (traffic jams, back alleys, parking lots, etc.) the belt should be off to allow quick egress if necessary. Eric demonstrated a method for getting the belt off without tangling yourself or your gear in it.
We generally want to work with long guns muzzle up in the car. This makes it easer to go back and forth between the right and left sides, and when you exit the vehicle it makes it less likely you’ll muzzle one of your team members (particularly if they’ve gone prone).
The basic idea when bailing out of a vehicle is for those nearest the incoming fire to begin (or continue) shooting back while those on the opposite side get out and get to positions where they can provide cover fire. When they’re ready to take up the slack, those still inside the car stop shooting and bail out (generally through the non-engaged side of the vehicle if possible). There are a lot of smaller nuances, such as when to leave doors open and when to close them, what good points to provide cover fire are, etc.
We worked the bail-out drills with threats to the front, rear, left and right, giving everyone a chance to experience getting out of the car in different directions.
I mentioned to the students that S.I. has a very good Vehicle Gunfighting class. Although it’s a little more pistol focused than what we were doing here the fundamentals are still the same. The coolest part is it will give you the chance to do live fire from your own vehicle (you’ll be finding the odd piece of brass in weird places for a long time afterward though).
The vehicle drills were the last thing on the schedule, so we wrapped up the class. We policed up the brass that we’d scattered hither and yon up and down the range and Eric handed out the certificates.
While the class was over the weekend wasn’t quite done yet. Some of us were sticking around until Monday morning. We had a great dinner over at the lodge. Several of us started up a friendly poker game that ran until midnight. We passed around some Wild Turkey and fine tequila and a great time was had by all.
This was definitely the funnest S.I. class that I’ve attended (and I’ve attended a lot of them).
All my gear ran well. I wasn’t really a fan of the chest rig before, but counterbalancing it with a Camelbak really makes it a lot more comfortable. The fact that I was running a nice light rig (just four AK mags) probably contributed to that as well. I didn’t really have much opportunity to use the pistol much, but the BladeTech WRS kept it solidly in the holster even during drills that involved lots of movement and getting up and down. The rifle ran great, as expected for a decent AK.
The curriculum for this class is really great. Someone who doesn’t have any background in this sort of thing will get a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of team tactics. It takes you to a surprisingly high level after just a few days. We had several veterans in the class and they confirmed that you’d spend months or more likely years in the service before getting a chance to do some of the live fire stuff we do in this class. The key to this is close supervision by the instructors and carefully designing the drills so that lanes of fire and movement are clearly delineated.
Eric is one of the best instructors I’ve had the pleasure to train with and he did a spectacular job teaching this class. He does a great job explaining these concepts and showing how to put them into action. The breadth of Eric’s expertise is just incredible, everything from sniping and team tactics to hand to hand. He’s probably S.I.’s most well rounded and versatile instructor. He’s also an all around great guy, who I’m really happy to get a chance to hang out with.
Jesse provided a lot of supervision when we were running the live fire drills and helped keep everyone safe. The student hosting the class has some experience in this sort of thing and he provided some excellent insights and helped supervise during some of the drills as well.
We had a great group of students for this one. Speaking as an instructor that really has a big role in making a class great. Everyone came into the class with the right skillset (the kind you can get at an S.I. rifle class). They all had solid gunhandling skills, which is vitally important in a class like this.
Finally, the Sugar Loaf Lodge was a big factor in how fun this class was. Having the lodge right next door where everyone could gather for meals and fellowship really turned this from a simple class into a gathering of like minded folks. The food and accommodations were excellent. It would make a great vacation spot even apart from an S.I. class. I know Eric is planning several more classes that will take advantage of this great facility next year and I’d highly recommend it. I’ve always loved the fellowship aspects of S.I classes and the lodge really takes it to another level.
All in all, a great class. Suarez International’s team tactics program really takes it to another level, stuff that you won’t get at most other gun schools. Eric is one of our best instructors and I’d highly recommend anything he teaches.