My 3-day handgun class at Tactical Defense Institute

by Dean Rieck

Tactical Defense InstituteIt seems that the more involved I get in the politics of guns, the less time I have to exercise my Second Amendment freedom and actually shoot.

So this year, I promised myself I'd get to the range more often, acquire some sorely needed gear, and get in more training time with quality instructors. One of the the best decisions I've made so far is to attend a Level I-III Handgun Class at Tactical Defense Institute (TDI).

TDI is a 186-acre training facility in West Union, Ohio, offering a variety of self-defense classes for civilians, law enforcement, security teams, and military/federal agencies. There's a 400-yard rifle range, three live-fire houses, two-story force-on-force house, jungle lane, upper range with steel plates, lower range with steel targets and a covered firing line for paper targets, plus a sizable classroom.

I've been to TDI on several occasions for Buckeye Firearms Association fundraising shoots, but always as a volunteer to help run events, never as a student. So this three-day outing proved to be a treat.

The Trip Down

I live in the Central Ohio area, so for me the drive to TDI is a little more than two hours. I could have easily made the trip on the first day of the class, but I chose to go the day before. This allowed me to have a more relaxing drive, get situated in my hotel, and show up on day one rested and alert.

Plus it gave me a day to unwind. After checking in to the Comfort Inn in Seaman, OH (probably the best, if not cheapest, choice if you're taking multi-day classes at TDI), I drove 18 miles to see the Serpent Mound in nearby Peebles. Most other area attractions were too far away or time-consuming, such as Kings Island or Mineral Springs Lake.

After getting back, I walked next door to Snappy Tomato Pizza Co. to get a hot sandwich then returned to my room to answer emails, deal with Buckeye Firearms Association business, and get my guns and gear ready for the next day.

I wanted to give my new M&P 9mm Compact a workout, however I brought my trusty Glock 17 as a backup. Other gear included a Comp Tac holster and magazine carrier, extra mags, sturdy belt, and range bag with basic cleaning supplies and eye and ear protection. A few extra comfort items included a brimmed hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses.

TDI recommends 1,800 rounds for the three-day class, though most people I know who have taken the course told me I wouldn't use anywhere near that amount. Nevertheless, I'd rather have too much than not enough, so I took two ammo cans with 2,000 total rounds. (I ended up shooting only about 1,000 rounds over the weekend.)

And since I knew I'd be doing a LOT of magazine reloading, and I wanted to keep my fingers intact, I made sure to take my Maglula UpLULA pistol mag reloader. It's a funny name, but reloading without one isn't funny at all. This little device prevents shredded fingers and assures a pleasant day of effortless reloads. The little reloaders that come with some firearms are better than nothing, but they are nowhere near as fast and easy as the UpLULA.

Day 1 – The Fundamentals

I arrived early at TDI to meet two others from Buckeye Firearms Association who were also taking the three-day course. Plus, I had a couple assignments from yet another BFA volunteer who asked me to pick up a modified M&P .40 from Dave Bowie of Bowie Tactical Concepts and take photos of TDI's steel targets on the upper range (he wanted to build something similar for his own range). Then it was off to the classroom to start the training.

TDI classroomRight off the bat, we started with John Benner, TDI founder and lead instructor, giving us a test, asking us to read a few short paragraphs describing several actual cases of self-defense and determining whether we would be justified in using deadly force. The tests weren't graded, but we discussed each case and our answers in detail. Then we went over legal issues and the elements necessary to justify deadly force against a threat.

I liked this because while shooting skills are vital, it's even more vital to be clear about the law, your personal responsibilities, and the practical results of being involved in a shooting. It's not something to take lightly and certainly not something you want to figure out after you're in a deadly force encounter. And frankly, if there's any way at all to avoid a shooting, that's always the best way to go.

Benner went on to demonstrate action and reaction times and discuss general guidelines for self-defense. It was all basic stuff, but because the TDI staff includes law enforcement and military veterans, they were able to share a practical perspective to make the concepts real.

We also spent a good deal of time on survival mindset, how criminals think and view the world differently, physical stress reactions, and the concept of denial (most people think bad things will never happen to them so they are totally unprepared when they do).

Then David Bowie took over the class and outlined the shooting fundamentals we would be learning on the range. TDI teaches the isosceles stance because it is the most stable and most natural shooting posture. He also went over real-world shooting distances, survival pre-planning for all the most common locations during your day, and the myth of stopping power and how we shouldn't obsess about finding the "magic" bullet. Shooting is about shot placement, as Greg Ellifritz concluded in his long-term study on stopping power.

The most valuable lesson from Bowie was his emphasis on proper and consistent training. He drilled into us the idea that "what you do in your life every day will be what you do in a gun fight." In other words, every movement you make, every pull of the trigger, every draw is a practice whether you intend it to be or not. It is better to train slowly and pay attention to getting your technique right than to unload multiple boxes of ammo downrange. Every sloppy movement will be magnified by the stress of a life-or-death situation. Speed comes with proper and consistent practice.

Before going to the range, we briefly discussed what do to after a shooting, including the "4x4" breathing technique to help you calm down and what to say and not say to law enforcement. As our own Ken Hanson says succinctly in his book The Ohio Guide to Firearm Laws, "Shut up."

TDI range drillsWe then headed to the range to learn basic shooting skills, including a firm two-handed grip, ready position, trigger control, and sight picture. There were about 30 students and 10 instructors, which is an impressive ratio and shows how seriously TDI takes the idea of personal, one-on-one instruction. Instructors watch every student and are constantly providing advice and encouragement. It seemed like I was learning something every couple of minutes.

The shooting drills consisted of firing on small dots: one shot at a time, then two shots at a time, then three shots at a time. Then we drilled shooting at multiple dots and finally did a "mag empty" drill where we shot the entire magazine empty.

Perhaps the most disconcerting part of the range time was when we roped our pistols and practiced pointing them at the instructors and other students. Roping a gun is where you remove the magazine, clear the chamber, and insert a "rope" or piece of plastic cord (like a foot-long segment of weed eater line) through the barrel and down through the magazine well. It is then impossible for the gun to be loaded and is visibly safe.

The point of this exercise was to have some sense of what it's like to point a gun at a living person and pull the trigger. Many people find this exceptionally hard to do, because we're taught to never, ever point a gun at anyone. Forcing students to do this makes an impression and helps elevate the seriousness of having to point and shoot at a real person. I do not recommend you do this outside of a highly controlled environment such as this class.

After the range drills, one of the instructors lead an optional class on weapons care and cleaning. Again, basic stuff, but even here I learned a few things. When you're doing this sort of intensive training, you might as well take advantage of every opportunity. Humility and an open mind pays off.

Day 2 – Drawing, Shooting, and Reloading

The second day started with a review of what we had learned the day before. We then briefly discussed awareness and planning, meaning that at every moment you should know where you are, what's around you, and what you will do at any given moment if you're suddenly in danger. While it would be impractical to be making snap decisions all day long about how to handle an attack, it's fairly easy to come up with plans ahead of time for your home, business, and vehicle that you can apply when needed.

We also discussed the "ODE Loop," which stands for Observe, Detect/Decide, and Engage/Disengage. You should always be observing your surroundings, especially the people around you. When you detect something that seems out of place or unusual, you decide if it poses a threat. If so, you engage. If not, you disengage. Then you go back to observing.

We spent very little time in the classroom and were soon out on the range for a long day of shooting drills. Building on what we had done on the first day, we again shot at dots: one shot, two shots, three shots, then random shots in various combinations on two separate dots. The difference was that we specifically worked on trigger control.

TDI teaches what I would call the "push out," which is pushing the gun forward from the ready position while simultaneously pressing the trigger. I didn't like this idea until I tried it. I'm a bullseye shooter, so I'm used to extending the gun, taking careful aim, and only then putting my finger on the trigger. But the push out makes perfect sense and works far better than I imagined. After firing through a few magazines, my groups shrunk to about two or three inches at a distance of maybe 15 feet.

We then moved on to what no one ever likes: failure drills. Rack, tap, shoot. I say no one ever likes this, but everyone needs to know this. We all picked up three pieces of brass from the range and mixed them with fresh cartridges. An instructor came to each of us, took one of our magazines and the ammo mix, turned his back, and randomly loaded the magazine. Then as we shot, we had to deal with each malfunction as it happened. We also drilled on a smooth draw from the holster and learned reloading skills.

TDI reloading magazinesEveryone always likes moving and shooting and we did a lot of it. We practiced on the steel targets, moving forward, to the side, and then backing up, all the while shooting for accuracy and reloading when necessary. This can be humbling as you find your feet getting tied up or missing what would be easy shots while standing still. This is where you can run a large amount of ammo, emptying two or three magazines, reloading, shooting again, and so on as many times as you want.

Finally, we were introduced to shooting around barriers and got a chance to visit the live fire house to go over the course we would run the next day.

The first two days of this three-day class cover Ohio's training requirements for a Concealed Handgun License, so some of the students went back to the classroom to get a quick lecture and take their test. If you're serious about carrying concealed, there's no better place to get your training than at TDI. No, it's not the easiest or the cheapest, but you'll get far more training and range time.

Day 3 – Tactical Skills

I have to say that by this time, I was a little tired. I was learning a ton, but I had never spent so much time shooting day after day. My elbows were a little sore from "locking out" so often. And the fingernails of my right hand were digging into the palm of my left hand, not to mention a sizable blister on my right middle finger from the trigger guard of my M&P. However, I could see my skills building.

TDI Dean Rieck shootingAfter a quick review of the previous day's lessons, we launched into more drills on the steel targets. Steel targets are fun. They give you instant feedback with a satisfying "ding" on each shot. We did the move and shoot drill and an "off the X" drill, where an instructor shouted, "Gun!" and we had to move to the right or left then shoot. We also practiced one-hand and off-hand shooting, which come easy to me because of my bullseye experience. However, we also learned hand changing, which I had never seen before, where you have to smoothly switch the gun from one hand to the other.

Then came the live fire house. I've run two of the three TDI houses at BFA's Buckeye Blast fundraisers, but they were basic "slice the pie" exercises. Here, I had to incorporate many new techniques that got me tied up in knots, such as the drop out (astonishingly effective but tiring) and various new shooting postures such as the goose neck (holding the gun closer to your face and twisting your grip 90 degrees to look through the sights sideways).

Every movement of every part of your body must be precise, so between my feet, legs, elbows, hands, trigger, sight picture, and half a dozen other considerations, I experienced information overload. The scenario was that my wife was being held hostage and my house was filled with bad guys. I did manage to shoot the hostage taker and save my wife with two good head shots, but my hits were not at accurate on the other targets.

One of the instructors took a small group of students to a hidden location for "furtive movement" drills, which consisted of having people mill about while he randomly chose a victim, who had to figure out how to deal with the situation. I won't spoil the experience for future students. I'll just say this was a highly revealing exercise and shows how difficult it can be to know how to react in real-word situations. Every situation is different and a gun is not always your best response. Kudos to TDI for including this in their training.

TDI targetWhile it sounds like we did a lot, trust me … we did more than I mentioned in this article. I don't see how they could have packed more information or practice into three days. And I'll be thinking about this class and practicing what I learned for years to come. Many people repeat this class multiple times and I can see why.

After meeting briefly in the classroom to receive our training certificates and shake John Benner's hand, I said goodbye to my BFA buddies, got in the car, and drove back to Central Ohio. The trip was uneventful and I arrived home exhausted, sore, and ready to crash on the couch. It was a great weekend.

The Cost

I wish money didn't enter into firearm training, but it does. This kind of training isn't cheap. Between the class fee, hotel, ammo, gas, food, and other miscellaneous odds and ends, I easily spent over $1,000 for this 3-day course. I think it was worth every penny. But I know there are many people who simply could never blow a grand in three days.

Of course, you could save money by staying at a cheaper hotel, camping, or driving to and from the range each day. You could also save $25 by paying for the class in cash, cut corners on meals, and reload your own ammo. One woman shot a .22 all weekend, which would dramatically lower ammo costs.

Final Thoughts

There's a big difference between going to a range now and then and spending three solid days drawing, shooting, moving, and rehearsing self-defense tactics. The endless repetition, the intense focus, and the highly-personal instruction provided by TDI is unlike anything I have ever experienced.

However, like any other mental or physical skill sets, shooting skills degrade over time. You need to learn solid technique, practice correctly, and make that practice a part of your life.

Am I going back to TDI? Absolutely. It's a world-class training facility. The instructors are experienced and professional, with no "attitude." And the quality of instruction is top-notch.

Dean Rieck is the Marketing Director of Second Call Defense and a Leader with Buckeye Firearms Association.

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