“Don’t just look. See.” The voice of defensive weapons instructor John Farnam carried down the firing line where two dozen of us stood, awaiting the order to fire. It was the first morning of Farnam’s Defensive Urban Rifle course, hosted on this occasion by the Firearms Academy of Seattle (FAS) which is located not in Seattle, but rural Onalaska, Washington. Our rifles slung and held at low ready, we were preparing to carry out one of the first drills of the weekend: making sure our chosen firearms were up to the task and heat of mag dumps. My loaded magazines were tucked into the stretchy pockets of my 5.11 Defender-Flex Pants; if you’re going to do simulated CQB, you may as well come to grips with the fact pouches are highly unlikely to be part of a real-life self-defense scenario. “Fire.” Shots rang out as a variety of ARs—and one Tavor—burned through mag after mag of ammunition. At first blush, mag dumps may not seem to have much to do with urban tactics, but they do. Your chosen battle rifle should cycle reliably clean or dirty, cold or hot. As steam began to rise visibly from my Axelson Tactical Black Pearl, the Proof barrel quickly heating as I worked the trigger rapid-fire, I was immediately grateful for the high quality of my gun. Ammo choice matters, too. For Farnam’s course I was running brand new frangible Inceptor .223 Rem 35 grain ARX rounds which turned the weekend into a reliability baptism by fire. In a testament to choices made, every gun in the class aced the cycling exercise, but some would prove more precise than others as time and drills wore on. And then it was on, each of us straining to listen to Farnam’s words through our ear pro in semi-successful attempts to commit the course material to memory.
Farnam’s Defensive Urban Rifle course is designed to give students a taste of CQB training and touches on a grab bag of related skills such as snap shooting, rapid target acquisition, and various shooting positions. Time is split between live fire and lecture with each side of the proverbial coin offering benefits.
According to Farnam it’s called “urban” rifle because students are learning to shoot effectively at distances that mimic the distance between the middle of the street to their front door. My advice when taking a course like this: Take a notebook and write everything down during lectures; listen closely and be prepared to work on the range, and bring knee pads.
This course went beyond simply punching holes in paper by spending every possible moment giving students the base skills necessary to begin training for urban areas or other close-quarters situations. Whether you’re interested in home defense with an AR or want to work on rifle handling in general, this course will put you through the necessary paces to sharpen your rough edges.
That weekend in Onalaska all but one student carried an AR, but beyond that generality they varied widely. Whereas my Axelson Black Pearl sports a lot of carbon fiber and weighs around 4.5 pounds, FAS instructor Diane Walls, who was also taking Farnam’s class, carried a Rock River Arms model weighing well over eight pounds.
I was using the aforementioned frangible Inceptor ARX ammunition; Diane fed her rifle PMC .223 Rem 55 grain FMJs. Gear choices also varied widely among students, a factor driven home during the battle rifle exercise.
Using two dozen different rifles in rapid succession, including a Tavor and an AK-47 that an instructor brought out specifically for the drill, was quite an experience. It’s an especially important drill for the average student who is quite used to their own rifle, but rarely fires others.
Eye relief on scopes varied drastically, irons came and went, and triggers ranged from 2.5 to 8-pound pull weights. The intended point was made: while being used to and comfortable with your gun is a good thing, the ability to pick up and accurately run whatever is on the ground during a life or death situation is a necessary survival skill.
Following the Battle Rifle part of the course, when my Black Pearl found its way back into my hands, the scope base had somehow been loosened and started to fall off. Sure, I had backup irons, but one of those had mysteriously fallen off and was missing the screw. This would make the remainder of the course interesting when I realized the Leupold optic was no longer zeroed and there was no chance to remedy the situation.
Why was this valuable? It was a lesson in compensating for a lack of zero by deducing where shots fired were landing and adjusting point of aim accordingly (this lesson was hammered home not by Farnam but by FAS instructor Jennie Van Tuyl, who was participating in the class and partnered with me at different intervals). Solution: aiming five to six inches low and approximately three inches to the left for a centered hit. Lesson learned: quit your whining and solve the problem before lack of a solution results in your simulated-CQB death.
At one point during the weekend, I found myself on the ground lying on my side, rifle also horizontal, firing at a steel Frankenstein target 150 yards away, up a hill; at another I moved through a low-light shoot house holding a flashlight against the mag well of the Black Pearl.
Targets were varied and included both static and lateral-movement styles depicting everything from threats to hostages to innocent bystanders.
Transitions from rifle to handgun were also practiced, although not at great length, with shooters working both individually and in pairs. Live fire ran the gamut of skills and clearly wasn’t meant for new shooters, but was awesome for those with intermediate-and-above experience.
Farnam stated his expectations early on: a minimum accurate hit rate of 80%; any student with less than an 80% accuracy rate would likely be shooting too fast, he said. Combat accuracy was the goal of the weekend and every student handled their portion of business.
Self-defense skills are perishable and if you’re like me, you’ve spent more time fine-tuning your defensive handgun skills than you have on defensive long guns.
When it comes to long guns it’s quite clear there’s a significant difference between the days I find myself sitting at a bench with the Black Pearl nailing sub-half-MOA groups and pushing for fluidity and combat accuracy in a shoot-and-move drill (especially in the dark).
Don’t bother asking which is more important, because I’ll tell you: both. Bench shooting and defensive drills feed one another, each complementing the other to enhance your marksmanship and memory – notice I didn’t say “muscle” memory – so you can perform no matter the situation. If you’re practicing only one or the other, you’re making a potentially fatal error.
One point Farnam reiterated throughout the weekend at FAS was the need for each shooter to find and narrow what he calls “the Goldilocks zone.”
The term originated as an astronomical term referring to the ideal space the Earth occupies in the solar system—neither too hot nor too cold—which Farnam has applied to shooting. In Defensive Urban Rifle, it refers to the space within which a shooter is comfortably accurate, whatever their skill level may be. Farnam stated each of us should find our Goldilocks zone and expand it by working at the high end of our abilities; shooters should strive to improve their speed and accuracy rather than allowing themselves to stagnate in the middle of their firing comfort zone.
Something to keep in mind: if all you do are a handful of endlessly repetitive and carefully choreographed drills, your skills are unlikely to be up to the task of an actual self-defense situation.
Learning to perform well under stress and in wildly varying scenarios is vital to your self-defense training diet. Be well-rounded rather than possessing a finite number of flashy and deceptively impressive skills. Challenge yourself. Step outside your shooting comfort zone. Learn to solve problems on the move.
Check out John Farnam and his company, Defense Training International, at www.defense-training.com. Take a look at the Firearms Academy of Seattle, where I took my first handgun class many years ago here. FAS is well worth the trip.