The class is entitled Basic House Clearing for Home Defense, and if you think you are going to be running and gunning, burning the hot adrenaline and putting rounds downrange, you will surely be in for a disappointment. The class is more akin to learning how to track a homicidal boar grizzly bear than it is any kind of training for hot-headed would-be heroes. First, the student has to ask themselves: Why do I want to find this enraged and homicidal grizzly bear? What exactly am I going to do after I, slowly and methodically, creep up on him? Wouldn’t my time (and my life) be better spent, say, planning a fishing trip with my wife and kids? “This is strictly a defensive class!” begins Tiger McKee, the founder and lead instructor of Shootrite Academy in Langston, Alabama. “You do not do any of this stuff unless you have to!” Tiger recites the rules of any action of self-defense, armed or unarmed: “I know exactly what is going on. I know I can contribute to a positive outcome. It is worth risking my life to do this.” “And remember- none of this will ever contradict the truth that avoidance is victory. The best way to protect yourself and the people you are responsible is to establish your position in a safe room, with a solid core door, out of line with that door, and with a dead bolt on it. We do not go looking for trouble, ever.”
“I’m always hearing these stories that began, ‘I heard a noise in the garage, so I grabbed my pistol and went to investigate…’ Wrong! There is nothing in that garage worth your, or anybody’s, life. ‘I grabbed my pistol and went to investigate a noise in the yard. I told my wife to call the police.’ Wrong! Wrong! What do you think is going to happen next?”
Avoidance is victory. Armed or unarmed, avoidance is victory.
And armed or unarmed, if you have to enter or escape a structure to save yourself or someone for whom you are responsible, the rules are the same.
“We are not warriors. We are not jocked-up in tactical gear. We don’t sleep in body armor. We don’t have a team of warriors ready for battle – our team is ourself, or our wife and kids. We are men and women taking responsibility for our own and our family’s safety.”
Eight years ago, I attended one of Tiger’s classes on house-clearing for home and family defense. I’ve dipped back in here, at Shootrite Academy, for brushups, to follow any new techniques, to try, in my own way (I’m a writer and a father, a hunter and a fisherman, not a professional warrior or law enforcement officer) to understand what would be necessary to prevail over an opponent who was in a structure, or in my home, and dead-set on harming my son or daughter or wife. I practice what I have learned, but I’ve never practiced enough. I’ve studied the books (I’ll list a few of them at the end of the story) but not closely enough. So, on this cold week of January, first week of 2018, I wanted to take a refresher course, to put myself back in that place of situational awareness, to relearn and practice the very skills that I never, ever, want to have to use.
I listen to Tiger’s opening presentation on the range, and I write these notes, my dummy pistol holstered, my pen occasionally gumming up from the twenty degree temperatures. We stand in the sun to catch what warmth we can. My notes are as follows:
Recognize that there is no safe way to do what we are talking about here. This is self-defense, and protection of family and friends, when there is no other way to avoid it. There is nothing dynamic here- no flash bangs, no leaping through doors. Everything is stealth: slow, deliberate, and methodical.
“Imagine the wagon wheel,” Tiger explains. “You can only cover 180 degrees, half of the wheel. Safety would be a dome, 360 degrees of protection. This does not exist – not even for a six man SWAT team, and you are not that.”
The world is made of corners. Trees, rooms, hallways, all of it. Some are vertical, some are horizontal. The wagon wheel, or the pie, is the visual to understand how to address a corner, how to move so that the threat does not see you before you see and identify at least some part of it.
“You are going to cut the wagon wheel, spoke to spoke, using short lateral steps. You have your weapon in hand, carried without the kind of muscular tension that will exhaust you. You will be tense in body, and tense in mind. It takes time to clear a corner. The body position you want is head up, body leaned. As you lean outward to clear the corner, your weapon, your hands, arms, all leaned in the same direction. It’s not an intuitive posture, not an intuitive movement. It has to be learned and then practiced.”
We approach Tiger’s training house- a large structure with doors that open in various configurations and tarps in place of walls, so that the students can practice the techniques while under observation from the instructors. It is an ingenious design, and the targets (I’m still running the dummy pistol) set here and there in surprise locations, near to the doors, far from the doors, partially or completely hidden, render the whole exercise unpleasantly nerve-wracking. I try to maintain the posture, try to move slowly and slice the pie, go from spoke to spoke on the wagon wheel. Every exercise, I do something new that is wrong, leading with my foot, raising the dummy pistol so that the threat around the corner can see it. At one point, concentrating fiercely, I cross my feet, somehow trip over my own boot, and almost fall. Catching myself, I stumble into the line of vision of the target in the room. I start over, and then I have to start over again when I move too quickly.
(One way to practice this by yourself is to take a full-length mirror and use it to see what the threat or the bad guy sees. “You’ll be able to see immediately what you are doing wrong- there is my foot, too far ahead of me, there is my head, leaning too far around the corner,” Tiger says.)
Okay, so you’ve made it safely around at least one corner, and you come to a mainstay of almost every horror movie ever made: the closed door in a building where there is a known or suspected threat.
“You are getting comfortable with the tactics of clearing corners, working the body stance, using the short lateral moves to divide the pie or the wagon wheel, you understand the lean. Now, you are going to solve the trick of opening that door. What is behind it? More corners, something that you understand how to deal with.”
Look at the door carefully. The hardware will tell you whether it opens in or out. You need to know whether it opens left or right, too. If it opens out, take one variable away by sliding your foot forward and blocking it so that you can’t be surprised suddenly by the bad guy flinging it open. “My weapon is in my strong hand. My weak hand reaches to the doorknob to check: locked or not? I am making 100%– 100%- sure that I am not sweeping myself with the muzzle of my weapon. I open the door, and fall back, immediately, to my last known safe location, or at least to place out of the line of that open door. It is crucial that whoever is in that room cannot see me after that door is opened.”
I work on these door-opening techniques, using the different doors in the training structure, for an hour or more. For one of the first times of the day, I feel good- the door opening techniques are concrete, and they make sense, and I know that, if I practice, I could apply them.
My notes resume:
Now, through that open door, we have another set of corners. If it is an open room, you’ll have a T-intersection. The technique for clearing that T is called “pinballing,” lateral motions with lean to clear both open sections of the room behind that door. You’ll move forward, holding that extremely awkward body position- butt out, head up, pistol straight down so it is not seen by the threat inside the room, shortening your arc each time you move forward until you reach the doorway itself. In that doorway, you have maintained your awkward posture- your butt is out, head up, pistol straight down.
“Think! Your pistol cannot lead you into that uncleared room. It cannot go beyond the corner. It cannot extend past where your eyes can clearly see.”
The pinballing technique is counter to what my body wants to do. My quad muscles in my thighs burn. My neck hurts, too (I’ve woken up an old injury). I’m too tense. I can imagine losing patience here, in a real-life situation, and trying to rush the room. I also imagine being hit from behind with a hammer or a chair, losing my weapon, and leaving my family at the mercy of the threat. I take a deep breath and practice the techniques.
If the door opens into a room with a wall on one side (like a hotel room), you have one less corner to clear, but you still have the bathroom on the left (door open? door closed?), and the open room, with another corner, yawning to your right.
We start over in another part of the structure where we’ve pulled a tarp down to recreate that scenario. Cutting the pie, again. Using the techniques to open the door, again. Cutting the pie on the new corners. I am getting better, and tired is working for me, rather than against- I’m slowing way down, I’m not as worried about making a mistake, I have more techniques in my quiver, and I’m more familiar with them now. We stop for a break. I could use a cup of coffee, but forgot my Thermos. The bottles of water in the cooler- we left them here yesterday- are frozen. Tiger moves on, from strict technique, to some deeper levels of what we are learning, a kind of life practice that I’ve been away from for too long, caught up in busyness and work and family. You can call it a combat mindset, or situational awareness, or simply mindfulness. It is about being a hunter, a person who is not lost in their thoughts or on their phone or computer, who is aware to higher level of what is happening around them. A person who is more likely to win in a contest with an opponent bent on harm. That is who I want to be.
“Let’s remember that none of this is natural. The skills have to be practiced and the tactics kept in mind, over and over, long before we need them. Let’s visualize our own house or office building – are there 20 corners in it? 100? Every step we will take in trying to establish the location of a threat will bring us to a new view. And we want that view to come to us very slowly, with time to react to what is in it. There is one goal that rules us: see them before they see any part of us.”
“There is a way of being that involves being aware and present to what is happening around us, to an extent that too many of us have lost or never had. There is a sixth sense that we have, but we have to develop it, and practice it.”
This sixth sense involves a practicing a heightened level of situational awareness- what am I really seeing? Smelling? What is that shadow? That shape? Why am I smelling cigarette smoke? Propane?
“Sound, movement, reflection, outline, contrast, smell. We can almost always figure out what does not fit, what is out of place.” Of these, the focus on reflections might be the most powerful way to enhance our awareness of most of the wagon wheel or pie. “With consistent practice, reflections can actually give you eyes in the back of your head. Windows, pictures, vehicles, mirrors. They exist everywhere and you can learn to use them. Your home can be set up so you always have the advantage- you can set up pictures or mirrors that reveal whatever is behind the hard corners. We use nightlights in our house that are placed so that shadows will tell me immediately whether there is somebody in the room, without me ever having to go in there.”
“I want to stress, again, that none of this is natural. When we are teaching these techniques, we’ll spend an entire day on the range with just a dummy pistol. And on day two or three, we’ll come back to what most people think of as a basic: okay you’ve located the threat. What are the options now?
One: You Go Somewhere Else! Avoidance is victory.
Two: You hold your position and issue verbal commands
Three: Step out just far enough to identify positively and then engage if necessary
My last notes of the day:
A whole day on the range with the dummy pistol. This is a pass/fail kind of instruction. There is no grading curve, because there is no grading curve in real life. Here’s another rule of three for you: three possible outcomes to this action. One: The bad guy wins. Unacceptable. Two: there is a tie. Unacceptable. Three: You win. It is the only acceptable outcome. And winning can mean getting away clean without engaging at all.