I am a metro cop with 9 years experience, and 8 years Army (active and reserve). A vast majority of my adult work life has revolved around vehicle operation. I am fortunate in that I have been trained in some vehicle combative tactics for both pistol and rifle with both my previous suburban agency, and my current large metropolitan agency. Two weeks prior to this course, I had to draw down through my window on a female about to attack some other people with a large kitchen knife, from the driver's seat of my squad car. No shots were fired, but that incident had me considering how I would have handled the incident should I have had to send rounds downrange. Things like putting my vehicle into PARK offered a major challenge that I had to think through on the spot before I could exit my vehicle. A few days before this course, I did my annual in-service shotgun training. Part of that training involved a shot bloc of instruction on how to shoot at various target locations from both front seats, as my agency typically runs two officers per car. We also covered debussing (getting out of) the vehicle and some other tactics.
My reasoning for taking this course was to go further in depth into this skill set. Dave Spaulding has a great reputation, and this was my first time training with him. A major factor in taking this course has been recent trends towards ambushes on police. A fellow officer in my agency was ambushed a couple years ago around his vehicle, so this is a very hot topic with my agency. Much like any agency, the amount of training offered to street officers is limited by various logistical issues. This was my chance to broaden my horizons.
The class started at Breezy Point PD, which is the typical starting point for all Learning Firearms course and hosted courses. Dave Timm gave the usual introduction and info brief, and then turned it over to Dave Spaulding. Dave started with a brief background of himself and the course. Dave also gave his philosophy on safety and operation, which is the DDSS philosophy. Dave explained that this particular course was borne out of LE narcotics operations around vehicles. The course was then adapted to street LE use, as well as to meet the needs of the citizen gun owner. Dave Spaulding prefaced by saying that the course was a tactics-based curriculum, and not a skill development course. The emphasis was on how to function in and around vehicles, and not on marksmanship development. Dave was very clear about how this was not a combat ballistic masturbation course, and that the goal of the course was not about how many rounds you could launch downrange.
Dave did a great job explaining how the tactics developed for law enforcement translated over to the civilian sector and daily life. A major talking point was on the number of incidents commonly occurring in society. This included car jackings, assaults and violence around your vehicle in your everyday life. All of this reinforced an overall concept to training, which is that it must have CONTEXT. Context is how the training relates to your life, or your professional needs. To do this, Dave presented skill sets that were proven to work. He did not want to present untested tactics, or tacticool ninjery that looks better than it works. The term "combative" was defined as being "ready and willing to fight". This was preferred over "defense", which Dave aptly defines as "losing slowly".
Statistics were presented that outlined the types of attacks commonly encountered and the frequency of them. Without going into detail, the statistics presented the reality of threats that we often face in our everyday lives. These incidents were then reinforced by videos of real incidents. The key take-away was that there are real world threats that people often times are completely oblivious to. Violence and threats exist around vehicles, especially when we consider how much of our time is spent in and around them; be it commuting to work, taking trips, driving a work vehicle, or just being a car enthusiast.
The CIA has a philosophy of AVOID-EVADE-COUNTER for their personnel. If you encounter a threat, the first inclination should be to avoid it. If you can not put yourself into the situation in the first place, that is ideal. Don't drive in bad areas unless you have to. If you do, be aware of your surrounding and how you present yourself. Sometimes, however, you can't avoid the danger and you must evade it. Ideally, you should drive away. The car is the fastest and most effective method of fleeing danger. If you can't drive away, running away may be the best or safest option. Your car or some of your property isn't worth your life. Unfortunately, you can't always get away. If you are car-jacked, you may have a child still in the car, or you may believe that they're going to kill you for your wallet while you fill up at the gas pump. That is the point when you must decide to counter the threat.
Dave reinforced a philosophy that I strongly believe in- which is that when you counter violence, you must take an aggressive approach and seek to win the fight. Mindset was described as the most essential of essentials. Every fight is fought in the mind. Mindset was described as "a precision decision based on reason and intellect, to take action". A major aspect of this is emotional control. Emotional control is a key element, and has been touched on by other top level instructors like Steve Fisher. The biggest element to losing a fight is succumbing to fear. If you dismiss or fight past the fear, you have the foundation to win.
Within the law enforcement community, there has long been a concept of "officer survival" within training and tactics development. The concept of survival is not winning. I have often seen that many people train to stop the threat with minimum effort or minimum violence. The unfortunate byproduct of this training is that officers go on the defensive and are being killed. This was highlighted in Dallas, Texas when video captured an officer using a defensive posture when engaging the gunman, and the officer was overrun and murdered. I strongly believe in the need for controlled overwhelming violence of action and aggression to counter a lethal threat. When Dave spoke of how survival is not winning, I was reminded of the sage words of Col. Jeff Cooper who said "The will to survive is not as important as the will to prevail. The answer to criminal aggression is retaliation."
The next bloc of instruction delved into the technical side of the course. I am an analytical thinker, and this portion was of great significance to me. It highlighted the impediments with engaging into a vehicle, and how the vehicle is not as safe as most people believe it to be. We covered federal guidelines for motor vehicle safety, which do provide some safety to interior in motor vehicle crashes. The important thing to understand is that cars are reinforced to protect the driver and occupants during a crash, not under gunfire. The information provided indicated that while engine blocks will stop bullets, considering the rest of the car as cover is hopeful. When you are around a vehicle, getting away from it offers the most safety. In my previous agency training, I have learned that cars are bullet traps. Videos and previous incidents have asserted this.
There are certain physics to shooting at cars, as well as physics that you should take into account when you are using cars as concealment or cover. The propensity of a bullet to bounce off of the car is a common one. When a bullet strikes the vehicle at less than a 45 degree angle, it has a tendency to follow a path of 3-10 inches off of the vehicle after striking the surface and ricocheting. Strangely enough, this will also occur when shooting at windows at very shallow angles. Bullets will actually skip off windows and not break them if you shoot at very shallow angles. All of this is important, because it points out the dangers of getting sucked into your cover. When you have stand-off distance, you can get protection from that bullet skip.
When shooting into and out of cars, you essentially shoot through what you can when you have to. Whether you make it through and hit what you are intending remains to be seen.
We moved to the range and broke up into two relays. I shared a target with Dave Timm so that he and I could have time shooting together and I could watch what he was doing. Both Mike Davis and Dave Timm are excellent shooters and guys you can learn from just by watching.
We started the shooting by doing a 3-shot fade-back drill. From a ready position, you do three slow fire precision shots at increasing ranges. The distances were 3, 5, 7,10,12,15, 20 and 25yds, and the target was a 3x5" target area. With this drill, you learn that most front sights will obscure the target at 12yds and beyond. The big factor to this drill are human factors at long ranges. Shooting at 20-25yds, Dave Spaulding asserted that you need to be DELIBERATE. Physical factors like shaking and incremental adjustments alter your sight greatly, and you must consciously pull the trigger at the right time. On this drill, I managed to make all of my shots into the 3x5 area out to 20yds, and I was shooting high at 25yds. This was likely due to the sight placement on the target. This better shooting was heavily due to recent revelations I've made relating to how I grip my pistol and manipulate the trigger. I have very small hands, and after making some changes and testing the changes, I've been able to dial in the fundamentals that I need to use to make first round hits at distance.
Dave walked us through what he calls the Arc of Ready, which are a series of ready positions. The traditional high/low ready positions do not do enough to cover the needs of pistol users in dynamic environments. The main position was the Chest Ready, also referred to as the Federal Air Marshal Ready. This is a chest level high-ready position with a strong-side bias. From there, you rotate your shoulders to change pistol heights for differing positions. Since we were working around vehicles, a high ready position has substantial applicability. Other positions like Sul or low ready are rarely used for vehicle use. A rib cage index was covered, as was the temple index. The Temple Index has applicability for VIP protection, as well as for working around other friendly shooters/teammates while moving in close confines under fire. The problem with the Temple Index is that it gets pushed out of your field of view (FOV).
We practiced our pistol movements with ready positions and draws, simulating negotiating a steering wheel. You would keep your hands on an imaginary steering wheel and then negotiate your gun over the wheel accordingly. Dave was constantly working the line and making corrections as needed. He would catch mistakes and was always on hand to reference for assistance.
After breaking for lunch, we worked on recoil control. At first, two round rapid fire strings were conducted, and the goal was to shoot through the same hole. This stressed the need to maintain that control due to issues with shooting through a windshield. Windshields are made of laminate safety glass, and as such, they deflect bullets. Once you make a shot through, you have created a port that you need to keep shooting through so that your bullets hit what you are aiming at. This recoil control preps for rapid fire through that port. We moved to three round bursts to increase the difficulty. Despite the need for speed, you must let the gun settle after each shot to ensure you are making your shots count.
We moved to shooting from seated using hard plastic lawn chairs. This would involve pistol draws from the holster, simulating shooting from the driver's seat of your vehicle. We did a substantial number of dry runs before going hot with live ammo. The procedure was to draw and move the gun in the inverted "L" direction so that you cleared the steering wheel. Dave was using a wooden stake and holding it at steering wheel height for shooters down the line. You had to draw and maneuver over the stick dry numerous times. The unfortunate reality of drawing and maneuvering a gun inside of a vehicle is that you may muzzle your leg(s) in real life. While it's important to avoid this in training, you have to have significant adherence to safety procedures in case you do muzzle yourself. I know from personal experience that this will happen. A key element to the draw was the final aiming of the pistol. Your gun should arrive where you were looking, or your draw sucked.
As we started shooting, Dave varied the number of shots from 2-4 shots per sequence so that we did not get into a pattern. We moved from shooting forward to turning our chairs and shooting sideways one-handed. The primary method here was to extend the right hand and shoot fully stretched out, simulating shooting though the front passenger window. This was designed to also work should you have a family member or partner riding shotgun. I work in a metro agency where we ride in 2-man cars, so this was very pertinent information for me. I must be able to extend past my partner to prevent him from getting hurt from my shooting.
We moved next to shooting to the left, simulating shooting out the driver's side window. This can be done one-handed, or two-handed if you turn your body with your back to the center console.
The next segment involved "debussing" or getting out of the vehicle. In this training, it was stressed that the primary objective was to draw and engage close targets as necessary before you take any action. You have to be able to survive inside the vehicle before you can get out of it. You also don't want to be ambushed at close range the instant you get out of the vehicle. From there, you go through a sequence so that you develop that automatic response that reduces chances of you getting trapped, or getting hurt. Removing the seatbelt is necessary, but opening the door is the important part. Once you open the door, you have to trap the door open with your foot before stepping out. If you don't, the door can swing back closed and break a leg or otherwise injure you. You then get out and ensure you are on the opposite side of the vehicle as the threat. When you get out and move, you have to remember to stay low to reduce your silhouette. I found myself standing a couple times and Dave was always present to remind us to stay low as we moved. Once we were to a hard point of cover, we had to keep your bodies low by kneeling or crouching. While using the vehicle as cover, you have to maintain your situational awareness and move to prevent being flanked by the threat.
We practiced getting out of imaginary vehicles from our lawn chairs and doing dry runs to get the sequence down. Eventually we practiced debussing various vehicles from both the driver's side and passenger sides of the vehicles.
At that point, we did a ballistics gel lab with Johan Boden from Vista Outdoor (formerly ATK). Johan is the ballistics guru behind the development of noted duty/defense bullets like the Federal HST, Speer Gold Dot 2/GD2, Federal Tactical Bonded Soft Point, Federal Tactical Bonded Tipped, and others. Johan provided calibrated ballistic gelatin, which we placed on the seat of a junked out Honda coupe. We shot through the windshield with numerous loads that Johan provided, as well as duty and carry loads provided by the students. We shot the following loads:
9mm 147gr Speer G2 (FBI load)
9mm 147gr HST (My agency's 2017 load)
9mm 124gr +P Speer GD (NYPD load)
9mm 135gr +P Tactical Bonded (My agency's current/outgoing load)
.40S&W 165gr HST (Minnesota State Patrol load)
9mm Hornady 115gr Critical Defense (student carry)
.380 Hornady 90gr Critical Defense (student carry)
.223 Federal 62gr Tactical Bonded JSP (MSP, my agency and other agency load)
.223 Speer 75gr GDSP (other agency load)
5.56 XM193 (for comparison)
12ga 1oz Slug (multi agency duty load, including mine)
The performance of the duty loads was consistent with the advertised ballistic gel photos shown on Vista's website. The Hornady loads were the Critical Defense, which were not designed for barrier-blind performance through hard barriers like windshields or car doors (Sheet metal). They displayed fragmentation and limited penetration. The XM193 heavily fragmented, and a shot through the windshield would likely not be fatal. The 62gr Tactical Bonded JSP and 75gr Speer GDSP both performed flawlessly. The Speer 75gr GDSP is really an amazing load that recently came onto the market. It has a very low operating velocity, and can effectively function and expand out of short barrel rifles with barrels as short as seven inches.
Wx: Mid 50's and overcast
We started with a 3rd fade-back drill, and my performance was better that TD1 with a tighter group. Guys on the line were putting fist to hand sized groups on the 3x5 target out to 25yds, which is very good. We practiced the previous day's skills including the Arc of Ready and our draw strokes with the inverted "L".
Dave covered windshield deflection. Our primary concern was shooting from the inside-out. JHP bullets tend to "bite" into safety glass. The edge bites into the glass and causes the bullet to rotate into the angle. Since windshields have an inward angle, the bullets deflect high. JHPs will deflect higher. Johan Boden also noted that the harder the bullet, the less if deflects. Bullets with harder lead and bonded or lock-base designs will have less deviation. Another factor noted by Dave was that windshield angles affect deflection. The steeper the angle, the greater the deflection. This is of note for vehicles like sports cars that tend to have heavily rakes windshields.
While we talked about glass, it was noted that side glass will typically shatter out on the first glass. Side glass is designed to shatter into small pieces to prevent injury to the occupants. I have broken plenty of windows and been to enough crashes to be able to confirm this. However, window tint affects glass integrity. The tint will hold the glass together and you basically are just going to punch through the glass with the bullets.
From individual debussing, we then practiced doing team debussing with two front seat occupants. We practiced going out our own doors, and then practiced going over the center console and only going out one side. Again, this was a significant benefit to me since I always ride with a partner. You have to follow the path of the door so that you are not fighting the design of the vehicle. If you have to debus immediately, do so and then draw.
Dave touched on a very important issue- you need to learn the vehicle that you're in before you get moving. You should know how to operate the seat belts, be able to work the door locks, control the windows and open the doors. Everything has its own location and method of operation, and you have to familiarize yourself with the necessary steps to get out of the vehicle.
Fighting around vehicles was touched on. We shot around the vehicles and it was stressed that we need to maintain our stand-off from the vehicle. Throughout shooting sequences, I saw numerous students getting sucked into the vehicles and start shooting their guns over the trunks and hoods. I found myself doing the same thing a couple of times and had to consciously remember to get back from the car to be protected from the bounce.
We worked on shooting positions around the vehicles, including the urban prone and fetal position to shoot underneath the vehicles. We shot underneath the vehicles at targets, using the wheels as our cover the way we are supposed to. As we did this, several peoples' holsters got scuffed up pretty good. We were grinding our equipment on sand and quarry rock, and it stressed the need to use high quality, durable gear that will not fail you in adverse conditions.
Stations were setup with a coupe, a sedan and an SUV. Students rotated through the stations in both driver and passenger positions. On the SUV position, Dave Timm had his infamous RC car target that drives around the vehicle. This simulated a threat attempting to flank you, and you had to make sure you kept your situational awareness and moved to head off the threat.
The class then concluded with Dave's 2X2 drill. I made time, but I threw a shot just out of the 3x5 target. If I had used better recoil control, I would have made the shot count and I would have gotten a coin. The reality is that I was still happy with my performance, but I know that almost isn't always "good enough". That miss was a possible missed CNS hit.
I already had been trained in most of these concepts, so this class wasn't foreign to me. I didn't so much learn a ton of new things, but rather I was able to refine and modify what I knew to a more effective and efficient level. Don't get me wrong- there was plenty of learning that occurred and it was all excellent information. I was by no means an expert going into the course, but leaving it I felt far more secure in what I could do. To put it in metaphorical terms, I could liken this to a knife blade. My previous training forged the blade of the knife, but it had not edge. This course put a full edge to the blade. Final honing would be my responsibility with continuing education and practice.
This is an excellent course, and I highly recommend it for all. It is especially important and pertinent to cops, considering the substantial increase in ambushes on police in 2016.
Vehicle Combatives by Dave Spaulding - After Action Review by Andy