AAR Randy Cain Practical Rifle, Lakeland, FL, 7-9 Dec 09

You may be asking something like, “What is a thread (and a long one at that) about a rifle class doing here on a 1911 board?

The answer would be this: If you’re reading the Training section, you probably have an interest ranging from moderate curiosity to diligent attendance and practice about how to use a firearm for defensive purposes. And like many of us, you probably own at least one bolt action rifle in a caliber suitable for man stopping. As discussed on Training Day 1, that bolt gun is arguably the last type of weapon that an over-zealous government would attempt to prohibit and/or confiscate. And everyone knows that compared to things such as AR15s and pump shotguns, bolt guns are hopelessly slow to fire, clumsy to handle and pretty much worthless for anything except the annual zero and deer hunt, right? No place in the arsenal of a really serious defensive tactician, right? Wrong on all counts. And that’s not a big surprise, given that Randy Cain is a rifleman at heart, and his love of the long gun shows not only in his carbine and shotgun courses (“are we really going to shoot all these slugs he told us to bring?”), but particularly in Practical Rifle (http://randycain.com/Rifle.htm).

Unlike most of my AARs from Southern Exposure, this one has zero pictures in it. That’s because from the minute the class began, we were either under the overhead getting schooled (beginning with the non-negotiable subject of safety), on the range running and gunning from near contact distance out to 200 yards, giving our rifles a quick cleaning at lunch, inhaling water and Gatorade, trying to take notes about the massive amount of information Randy put out, or putting our rifles back in their cases at the end of a long, physically demanding day. Even after dinner, it was time to take the rifles inside the motel and clean them well for the next day’s training. It took about six seconds to fall asleep each night….

There were eight of us in the class, ranging from a couple of fellows in the Tampa Bay area who’d done some serious long range, precision shooting, to a hunter who’d driven over from Mississippi. Our bunch included an orthopaedic surgeon, a pilot for a major US airline, a salon operator, and the owner of a great motorcycle shop (if you’re looking for a Beemer or a Duck in Tampa, Joe’s the man at EuroCycles). It was quite a diverse group. Rifles ranged from a box-stock Winchester Model 70 Featherweight in .308, a Browning A-Bolt with one very tapered, thin barrel, a Remington LTR with 20 inch fluted tube, a couple of Savage Precision Carbines (20” medium taper barrel and AccuTriggers, one .223 and one .308 with an AccuStock), plus a couple more, including one with a bipod hanging on the front of it. Several of the rifles sported Ching slings from arguably the best in the business, Andy Langlois (www.shottist.com).

The Model 70 was one of the new ones, built almost to a T like the sweet pre-64s: Mauser-like claw extractor and controlled round feeding. All rifles were .308 Winchester, except for the one .223. Optics included a Nightforce 2.5-10×32, a Nikon Monarch, a couple of Burris scopes, and a few Leupolds, one of them a Mark IV Tactical 1.5-5 with illuminated reticle (the NF had the other lit reticle). More later about hardware.

Since all three days ran together for me, I can’t give you a detailed account of each TD, so here’s a summary while it’s all still reasonably clear in my mind. After the safety conversation and initial discussion about the utility of bolt guns, we took some ammo to the 50 yard line and began the first step in establishing a good zero. All rifles save one were pretty much on paper and close, so between that and the time required by some of us to pull together decent groups, there was no flurry of adjustments made to the scopes. After a while, Randy told some of us to make a few adjustments.

We shot a number of close-in drills from offhand that would be familiar to students from a carbine or pistol class – shots to the body, shots to the head (don’t forget to hold over when you’re up close, or all you’re doing is putting a round in the bad guy’s mouth – painful, but not instantly decisive), failure drills. We covered moving at low ready, forwards, searching, backwards, easing away, all with fire commands and occasional admonitions to keep the line straight and not let anyone wind up in front of it.

To Randy’s way of thinking, the essence of a good rifleman is the ability to select, get into, and accurately shoot from different positions. The closer you are to the ground, the more stable you’ll be when you press the trigger. Not surprisingly, we spent a lot of time practicing the positions and shooting from them. First he covered military prone, then Olympic prone. We spent a fair amount of time wrapping our heads (and bodies) around the concept of natural point of aim. It’s easy to get intellectually, harder for most to put into practice, but once you find it, your crosshairs stop moving back and forth – they only move up and down with your breathing, or with the position of your support arm elbow or hand on the forestock. You’re no longer muscling the gun onto target, it just falls there easily, without tension. Randy then covered several variations on sitting, all of which provide skeletal support for the rifle.

From there we learned the squat, which gets you quite low and can be very stable. For those of us who’ve had a few too many trips to the ortho docs for our knees, it was a challenge, but everyone hung in and executed. From there we went to braced kneel, again challenging the less flexible among us (our oldest shooter was 60, and there were several in their 50s). And finally, we shot some more offhand. Works real well at relatively short distances, but the next time some blowhard tells you about the deer he dropped on the run at 325 yards from a standing position, your BS detector will probably be shaking itself to pieces, and for good reason.

We shot again on the zero targets at 100 yards, and the groups opened up somewhat. Randy showed us how to use the Ching sling to best effect (and how the guy in a gun shop who wraps his arm around a carry strap isn’t doing himself any favors). In theory, you get a 15% improvement with the Ching sling or other loop-type sling that ties the front of the gun to your upper arm/body. I was amazed at how much steadier I could hold and shoot with it. More adjustments were made as long as the groups were consistent enough to warrant them. Then more drills. Up to this point, Randy had pretty well given us time to top off the rifles in between drills. He showed us how to keep a bolt gun topped off, similar to keeping a pistol running during a handgun class. By the end of the third day, we had gotten real good at sneaking in one or two more rounds in between drills. When your magazine only holds four or five rounds (and one in the chamber), every round really matters.

TD2 included the night shoot, which began at the onset of dusk, at about 75 yards. We began learning to shoot with each other at exactly the same time, something that the SEALs off Somalia did to great effect earlier this year in rescuing the captain of a hijacked ship. After that, Randy told us to assume a firing position we’d be comfortable holding for a while (all of us went prone, save for one shooter who went to sitting). He said that we were to keep our crosshairs on the vital zone of the target, ready to shoot at his command. Minutes (which seemed more like hours) went by, as the light gradually faded from the sky. The evening chorus of birds and bullfrogs was occasionally shattered by “Fire!” and rifles fired in response, bolts run in unison like a percussion section. “When you can no longer hold your position, when you can no longer see your crosshairs or your target, or when you can no longer guarantee a hit on a vital zone, clear out your rifle, leave it on the ground bolt handle up and forward, and step behind the line.” There were a couple more iterations of “Fire!” followed by silence and increasing discomfort. Finally, there was one shooter left on the line, and Randy commanded him to fire.

This wasn’t so much a physical endurance test, such as a sniper might face, but a good lesson on the difference that good optics can make. The last shooter was running the Mk IV Leupold with an illuminated reticle, that he continued to dial down in intensity as the light continued to fade. The shooter with the best glass, the Nightforce, would likely have been able to stay on target even longer due to the superior light-gathering ability of the 32mm objective and better glass, but physical limitations kept him from holding his position. I mention this not to pimp for Nightforce, but to illustrate that with some things, you still get what you pay for. Santa, are you paying attention?

On TD3, Randy started with a detailed demonstration of properly cleaning an accurate rifle (or at least one you want to shoot as accurately as possible). I expect that Brownell’s will be busy this week, filling orders for things such as bore guides, good rods, cotton flannel patches, Shooter’s Choice, Kroil and Sinclair chamber & lug cleaning tools. I was glad for the quality ball bearing-handled rods from Denny Ivy and the superb bore guide I’d gotten from Mike Lucas, as well as shooting buddy and fellow windowlicker Russ’s coaching on using it properly. We then shot at 200 yards from prone, grateful for the slings and lots of practice with the seven points of contact with the rifle, understanding how they affect the accuracy of your shot. We covered the different ways to transition from your rifle to a pistol if circumstances demand it, and practiced with empty rifles. We saw a demonstration of just how fast you can get a rifle on target and shoot from African carry when matched up against someone drawing a pistol from a holster (you wouldn’t believe the results if told you – you have to see for yourself). From there, it was more drills, more position work, the covering fire drill (easy with 28 rounds in your AR magazine, a little different proposition with a bolt gun), and the five shooter metronome drill. We finished up the day starting with head shots from prone at 100 yards, then advanced, taking up the different positions as the range decreased, finishing up with fast and furious offhand fire, and even a little surprise once we were unloaded and cleared out.

To briefly return to equipment, a couple of observations. It’s surely the Indian more than the arrow, but the arrow does matter. I’ve heard Randy Cain go on (and on, and on) about the virtues of the pre-64 Model 70s for years now (and more recently, the re-introduced Classics, that improve on the pre-64 design). I learned, both from observation and personal (painful, expensive) experience that there’s a good reason for that. The guy running a new Model 70 Featherweight in .308 never missed a beat the entire class (except for one late-breaking case of operator-induced error). You can run the bolt on that gun with a single finger, to include unlocking and re-locking it. It was an absolute gem. On the other hand, the light factory trigger setting on my gun that was so delicious when breaking in the gun and zeroing it apparently had a price – whenever I ran the bolt home vigorously (as you should), it would lock up the trigger, and the gun wouldn’t fire until I re-set the bolt, slowly and deliberately. Can’t tell you how many times that happened.

The hinged floorplate magazine showed itself to be the preferred setup, with internal box magazines and detachable box magazines running behind. The DBMs in my gun were very handy during the covering fire exercise, but other than that, they were a huge disappointment – prone to double feeding at the worst possible time. As Randy presented me with my course certificate, he looked my hands, still bearing dried blood from being shoved into the action to force out the magazine and clear double-feeds: “Damn, you look like you put your hands into a coffee grinder.” What do you suppose my next rifle will have? And finally, when the gun heated up, lifting the bolt handle became a real effort, one that would often cause me to break my cheek weld on the stock. Not good.

Again, in fairness to this rifle and its maker (that I shall not name, since I will contact them and give them the opportunity to address these issues), for 99% of the rifle-shooting population, it would be a great, accurate gun. But for use as a real practical rifle, including realistically hard training, it fell short of the mark. I spent as much time fighting the gun as I did running a demanding course. So at the end of the day, I still want a left handed bolt gun that will pass the test. But since I can’t afford a Dakota or Brockman right now, that right-handed Model 70 Featherweight is starting to look mighty good….

That’s a fair amount of discussion about equipment in a training AAR, but believe me, the right equipment can make a world of difference in the value of your training. I can’t wait to do this class again with a rifle that is up to the task, so that I can focus on the training and get my head (and bloody hands) out of the gun.

We do love our handguns in general, and our 1911s in particular, and they serve us well in daily carry. But as Randy has often said, “A handgun is a weak, puny, inefficient weapon.” I took a lot of good things away from this class, including some that will make me a better hunter. But perhaps the most striking conclusion we reached over the course of three days is that a bolt gunner doesn’t need to feel at all disadvantaged should he find himself having to rely on that weapon as a defensive tool. The ability to put accurate, effective fire on target, including quick successive shots, turns out to be (surprise) mostly a matter of training. And first class training is something that Randy Cain excels at – I can’t recommend him highly enough to any serious student.

Finally, I’m pleased to recognize Irv Lehman, the training coordinator at Southern Exposure, a great place to train in Central Florida. Despite his many annoying traits, the truth is that Irv and his wife Watfa make every student feel like he or she is part of the Southern Exposure family, and Irv brings in some of the best instructors in the business, starting with Randy Cain. Southern Exposure may lack the cache or fancy facilities of some of the big name resident schools, but the quality of training there is equal to that of any of the famous ones (and in many cases, that’s because the same instructors do the training at both). You can view the coming year’s training schedule (which is always being updated as new classes are confirmed) here: http://southernexposuretraining.com/schedule.php

I’ll continue to train with my 1911s more than anything else because that what I carry more than anything else, but carbine, shotgun, edged weapons, improvised weapons, empty hand and practical rifle round out the curriculum for me. Practical Rifle was an eye-opening, fun class that left me with a few more good tools in the toolbox – I’m glad I took it, and will take it again. I recommend it highly.

NRA Life Member