Tactical Skills for an Adventurous Life

AAR: Max Velocity Tactical HEAT 1 Training Course

Way back in 2010, when I really started taking shooting seriously, every forum I read kept sending the same message: go get training.

Sadly, I did what most of us do. I neglected training in favor of buying more “stuff.” I bought Magpul Dynamics DVDs and practiced it with my local group.

That wasn’t the same thing though. There’s not really a substitute for a knowledgeable instructor guiding you down a learning path and coaching you along the way. 

Montana was too remote for well-known training schools to visit, and my schedule rarely permitted me the time to travel. When I moved to California…well…it was California. I did a few things here and there focused on marksmanship, but the intricacies of California law made actually getting training very difficult– even for an active duty military officer.

When I left the military and moved to Virginia, I vowed to finally start doing some serious training.

Introduction

There’s a list of gunfighting rules attributed to Drill Sergeant Joe B. Frick. It’s usually passed around the shooting community in jest, but some of the highlights include these nuggets:

  • Bring a gun. Preferably, bring at least two guns. Bring all of your friends who have guns
  • Only hits count. The only thing worse than a miss is a slow miss.
  • If your shooting stance is good, you’re probably not moving fast enough or using cover correctly.
  • Move away from your attacker and go to cover. Distance is your friend. (Bulletproof cover and diagonal or lateral movement are preferred.)
  • If you can choose what to bring to a gunfight, bring a semi or full-automatic long gun and a friend with a long gun.
  • If you are not shooting, you should be communicating, reloading, and running.

Most training courses offered to civilians focus on quickly and accurately running a carbine. The curriculum includes the mechanics and care of the AR-15; fundamentals of marksmanship; malfunction clearance; and maybe some elements of shooting from behind cover.

These are important skills to learn, of course, and I’ve always enjoyed the opportunities I’ve had to practice them. But as Sgt. Frick’s rule show, there is more to learn.

During this four-day MVT course, I learned that these other skills are vital.  There isn’t any other way to develop them other than getting out and doing it.

Why Small Team Tactics?

Long ago, I read an article talking about the mindset of typical tactical enthusiasts. This included the prepper crowd as well. In short, it’s possible to gain a great amount of individual shooting skill and amass large stores of supplies. But we all need sleep eventually. 

At some point, we have to accept that there is safety in numbers, and we will need a team.

My Background

I grew up in South Florida. I’ve lived through several powerful hurricanes, including Andrew, Katrina, Wilma, and others. My senior year of college in Miami, two hurricanes hit us in rapid succession. We lost power for two weeks. One night, at about 2 AM, someone kicked in my duplex neighbor’s door and stabbed them 16 times.

It took hours for the police to respond.

We’ve all seen what happened when Katrina hit New Orleans, or what happened more recently in Houston and Puerto Rico.

I’ve lived in places with blizzards, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. My prior specialties with nuclear weapons also gave me unique insight into the “what ifs” of the world. After that, you come to accept that there will be situations where the veil of civility drops and you are on your own. At least for a while.

If one of my underlying goals is to protect my family and community, or at least my “tribe”, then it stands that I should start learning how to fight alongside them.

This is what brought me to Max Velocity Tactical.

Max Velocity Tactical

I’ve seen Max’s articles on and off for a long time.

It was his old posts that first got me rethinking my battle belt configuration. Max shares a similar background to most of the well-known tactical trainers.

However, he came up through the prepper market rather than the tactical.

In a way, that makes a lot of people cautious about him. There is a negative undercurrent of “militia training” surrounding civilians practicing small unit tactics that don’t sit well with a lot of people. 

That said, Max has distanced himself and his school from that image.

He wants to attract a more professionally-minded tactical audience. This group invests in quality equipment, training, and fitness. They aren’t trying to be a bunch of Walter Mittys, just people developing skills.

The message I noticed all during class was that this had nothing to do with politics. In fact, I can’t recall any political comments on the part of the instructors whatsoever. Any discussion of motivation focused on teaching people a more complete tactical skillset. More still, a lot of discussions centered on how to improve the courses and training.

The MVT Courses

Max Velocity Tactical assembled ecosystem known as TacGun. This philosophy focuses on developing well-rounded citizens who with not only the ability to shoot but the ability to function as a team. That also includes demonstrating leadership and work towards the high level of physical fitness.

To quote Max himself, the underlying skills are:

  • Combat Shooting
  • Weapon Manipulation
  • Real Combat Tactics
  • Physical Fitness
  • Teamwork
  • Performance under pressure
  • Communication
  • Personal growth
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Character development
  • Competition

Interestingly, those who prove aptitude in these courses sometimes get the opportunity to play OPFOR when US Army ODA groups come train at the MVT facility.

From talking to those who have had this chance, the lessons learned and camaraderie are striking. I, for one, think that would be an awesome opportunity for anyone interested in tactics.

The Training Facility and Cadre

Max Velocity Tactical rubber training rifle and loose magazines
A rubber training rifle amid lost magazines at the tactical range

Max Velocity Tactical (MVT) is one of the few schools in the country that will teach small unit light infantry tactics to civilians.

When I say light infantry tactics, I mean light. There’s no crew-served weapons and imaginary fluff here. All of the curricula focuses on standard semi-auto rifles and minimalistic load carriage. 

I arrived just after sunrise on Thursday morning. A handful of students camped on site, they were going about their morning rituals. As the parking lot started filling up, I heard a small engine in the distance. 

A side-by-side ATV suddenly came around the corner and someone hopped off. He looked us all up and down and announced, “We’ve got a fucking situation here!” 

This is Max. He’s very direct and to-the-point. Minimal beating around the bush and zero tolerance for BS. He took a moment to greet returning students like an old friend would, and give them a little crap along the way.

Max is the owner and lead instructor. He’s a life-long infantry soldier who “grew up” in the British Parachute Regiment and spent time with the British Special Forces Support group.

He has six deployments as both an enlisted soldier and officer. Of note, he spent a tour selecting and training recruits for the Parachute Regiment. After leaving the military, he spent five years as a government contractor for both the US and UK in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The situation, by the way, was a controlled burn of fall foliage that grew a little out of control. We helped fill five-gallon water jugs to suppress it before getting on with the training day.

MVT Training Center

The main training facility is about 40 miles west of Winchester, VA. It occupies a 100-acre wooded section of the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia.

The site includes a variety of ranges for training a wide breadth of skills from CQB to Combat Patrolling. Dug in pits with PT-61 pop-up target systems, to which Max fixes 3-D “Ivan” targets, dot the terrain

The ground in much of the facility is…unforgiving.

Once off of the flat ranges, the hills and trails are punishing. Students with a poor level of fitness or carrying too much stuff in their kit can and do have problems.

The terrain on the ranges themselves is uneven, with hills, roots, soft soil, and other debris often making correct positions difficult to obtain. On more than a few drills, I found myself shooting into the cover in front of me rather than the target due to height over bore issues with the optic.

These are the things you don’t get on a groomed 25-yard range.

The HEAT-1 Training Course

HEAT stands for Hostile Environment Advanced Tactics.

When I took the course, it had a different name: Rifle Skills/Combat Team Tactics. The name changed, but the curriculum is roughly the same. The purpose of the name change is to show a progression through Max’s courses. HEAT 1 is the first level, followed by HEAT 2, and so on. Prior to that, each course had a different name and it wasn’t clear there was a progression to follow.

I paid my deposit months in advance, excited to do some real training. Four years of living in California meant that I simply didn’t practice a lot of the carbine skills I picked up while living in Montana.

The first day of the course is a review of the AR-15 platform, marksmanship fundamentals, zeroing, and basic rifle handling.

The eccentricities of California firearms laws also meant I developed some awkward weapon handling habits. 

The second day teaches malfunction drills, reinforces the lessons of day one, and begins to teach movement and cover techniques on a square range. 

The second two days leaves the square range and takes place on Tactical Ranges 1 and 2. An outdoor classroom stands at the base of these ranges.

The second half of the course focuses on communication, movement, cover, and safety.

The end goal is to learn basic fire and movement drills as well as variations of breaking contact. It is these two days that showed me the things I didn’t know. It is one thing to read about these drills in a field manual, Ranger Handbook, or Max’s own manual. It’s another to understand the challenges associated with them.

Training Methodology

The course follows a crawl-walk-run method.

First, there’s lecture and discussion of the drill about to be performed. Sometimes, when appropriate, there’s a demonstration. Then, students perform a rehearsal without weapons. Lastly, they perform the drill with live fire.

Tactical Ranges 1 and 2 are “Jungle Walks” where a team advances down a lane until they are “contacted” by pop up targets and the drill begins.

I want to point out that safety was always a paramount focus of the instructors. From the opening drills on a square range to the jungle walk lanes, the student to instructor ratio during live fire never exceeded 2:1.

The instructors made sure that safety angles, muzzle discipline, and positioning were enforced at all times. I constantly heard the instructors taking note on whether or not students clicked their weapon safeties on while moving.

On more than one occasion, an instructor would joke with me after a drill about, “What you didn’t see was me standing behind you with a large rock if you had raised your weapon at that moment.” Luckily, I always kept safety angles in mind.

Daily Recap

I kept thorough notes on each training day as a way to keep track of the activities performed and lessons learned each day. In hindsight, I found the course material well organized, and effectively built upon itself with each iteration.

Day 1

The class opened with a safety briefing and clarification of expectations provided by Max.

Through discussion, Max learned a bit about each student’s background and prior experience. It became clear that the four students, including myself, all experienced rifle shooters. Two were multi-class returning alumni of Max’s other training courses, another was a retired USMC infantry officer who continues to do government security contracting work overseas.

This first day covered everything you expect from any tactical rifle class. The fundamentals of marksmanship, loading and reloading, and other elements were all there. We had a short discussion on preferred zero distances, point blank zero, and practical effects.

Shooting positions were briefly covered. The gist of this portion of the course was to explain that there are many ways to skin a cat. It is more important to do what works for you than obsess over minutiae of technique.

That last phrase, minutiae of technique, is a recurring phrase throughout the training. 

The rest of the day broke into various drills to reinforce the lessons. We also started talking about the importance of communication.

Day 2

The second instructor, Scott, joined us on day 2. Scott is a retired First Sergeant who came up through Army LRSC and deployed everywhere from Gulf War 1 to Afghanistan.

Scott opened with discussing malfunctions, their causes, and how to fix them. Corrective actions focused mainly on variations of tap-rack-bang, but also double feeds and bolt overrides. The importance of actually looking into the ejection port to identify the source of any stoppage was emphasized.

My habits stemming from California’s bullet button and my ambidextrous charging handle caused me grief. I was accustomed to using my firing hand to do a lot of things.

The rest of the day continued to build on individual and buddy pair movement. Other topics included throughout the day were tactical reloads and scanning.

The instructors are not fans of the cursory quick scan left and right that has grown popular. Instead, they emphasized a good steady scan of the surrounding terrain as well as the weapon’s ejection port.

This would be reinforced in the following days on the tactical ranges.

Day 3 – Intro to the Tactical Range

MVT Tactical range
A view from the outdoor classroom. Pictured is the whiteboard used to discuss drills and examples of the “Ivan” targets used during the course. Behind the board is the start of Tac Range 2.

The third day started in the outdoor classroom at the base of Tac Ranges 1 and 2.

The first half of the day built upon Day 2’s closing drills. Rather than a single buddy pair advancing up a square range behind plywood sheets for cover, the pair instead advanced up Tac Range 1.

The range consisted of uneven wooded terrain on a steady uphill climb. The teams fired and maneuvered while suppressing pairs of pop-up targets. Again, this was demonstrated, rehearsed, and then done with live fire.

MVT Tac Range 1
The trail of Tac Range 1. It’s difficult to see how much this trail inclined upwards. Running up and down it while diving behind trees for cover was exhausting.

Every time the drill grew in complexity, the course grew longer. We would “fight through” the first position, only to be contacted again by the next one further up the trail.

This emphasized the importance of scanning. In the wooded terrain, it was not always obvious that the next “bad guy” had popped up unless you were carefully looking around. Getting “sucked into the target” was a recipe for failure.

Through it all, the instructors stuck right behind each pair. They ensured safety angles were never violated and muzzles were kept in safe directions.

The day finished with breaking contact. Demo, rehearse, perform. 

Fitness Notes

These drills are the reason for the new fitness requirements at MVT. Fighting up these hills is no joke, and focus begins to drop off when you’re tired. Even more so, if someone is unable to stand up from a kneeling or prone without waving their rifle in every direction, they are a safety hazard.

In all, these drills were exhausting but extremely fun. I tracked my heart rate through them, and it routinely hit 160-170- even just walking back up the hill to fetch spent magazines. My partner, the perpetually cigar-puffing retired Marine officer spoke well of the drill organization. He also admitted that the terrain was humbling.

Day 4

The hardest thing you will ever do in combat is extract a casualty under fire. The second hardest will be to locate the enemy. 

– Max

The final day took place on Tac Range 2, which follows along a curved creek bed. The drills remained the same, but the terrain grew more complicated.

This is Max’s quote above became a factor. Finding targets to shoot becomes downright difficult at a times. It was easy to focus on the ones I already knew about. If the team wasn’t communicating as they spotted more, then we had problems.

I often found myself shooting at the same few targets because my cover blocked my left field of view. Had I moved my head a few inches to the right, I would have seen them and engaged. 

Trijicon ACOG TA110

This portion of the class really showed the benefits of magnified optics like my ELCAN and ACOG. I used both throughout the course on different rifles. They are absolutely fantastic at this sort of thing.

Magnified optics dramatically improved target location and identification speed once there was some distance involved. Since multiple shooters were involved, speed was less important than hits and communication. This is an important takeaway for me.

I don’t want to give too much away, but these were fantastic drills.

Momentum

One more thing to hit here. I’ll say it again in my personal lessons learned, but keeping pressure and momentum is huge. You must be aggressive. If you slow down because your communication was slow, then you lose the initiative.

This is the kind of thing you don’t get from a book or video. You need to show up and try it.

Parting Thoughts

This was an excellent training event.

I was much more satisfied with the second two days, but I understand the need to bring everyone up to a basic foundation in the first two days.

If anything, I would like to have had more practice with unconventional shooting positions. Staircase barriers were already present on the square range, so it wouldn’t take much effort to cut holes in them and teach those lessons. Not super important, but it would be useful to have if there is extra time with a quick-learning class.

The next logical course for me to do is HEAT 2, which focuses on combat patrol. That course takes the team tactics drills and expands them into planning and conducting patrols.

Beyond that, I am very interested in trying my hand at the Force on Force Team Tactics event. In FoF, students split into competing squads and drill against one another using simulators.

I would highly recommend this course for anyone looking to grow beyond just being able to shoot quickly on a square range.

Learning to communicate and coordinate with others during a firefight is a skill that isn’t going to be taught by reading a manual or watching a DVD. Until more trainers get past whatever it is that stops them from teaching it to open enrollment courses, Max has a pretty solid lock on this material.

Personal Lessons Learned

It’s Not About Me

Once you start bringing your friends to the fight, it has a whole lot less to do with your individual speed/skill and a lot more to do with coordinating and communicating with those around you.

There’s this attitude in the shooting world where everyone thinks they just need to be a lone badass and everything else false into place. Showing up to this training really taught me that skill matters, but not as much as the team does. 

Marksmanship Matters

Only hits count. A lot of the fancy whiz-bang stuff people attach to their weapons becomes a whole lot less important in the real world. You’re going to control your rate of fire, not blow through your ammo. 

Communicate, but do it quickly

Communicate, coordinate, communicate- but fast about it. I had a discussion with Scott at the end of the whole course about my performance. My weapon handling and maneuver mechanics were pretty good, but I was simply slow to communicate. This slowed down momentum.

Still, they would prefer that a team do it correctly a bit slower than attempt to fly through and become a mess. Remembering to communicate and coordinate constantly while also trying to put shots on target is very difficult, and it simply can’t be learned from reading.

Keep Practicing

Lack of practice is killer when combined with even a little stress. Even though I set goals for myself for some weapon handling skills, I hadn’t actually been practicing prior to class. On the very first reload on Day 1, I ended up pulling out two pistol mags before finally grabbing the rifle mag I needed. Oops.

You can’t be too fit

The fitter you are, the better you will be able to keep your head in the game. If you’re already sucking wind after a short walk, and then make contact, you are far less effective and may even become a safety hazard.

Drills Matter, but Don’t Mistake them for Skill

Do the drills to practice the skills, but don’t let them make you stupid.

Two moments stick out to me regarding this. The first happened on day three. During the first two days of square range training, the react to contact drill included firing and then taking a kneeling position to simulate getting into cover.

On the jungle walk, I went stupid and actually took a knee right in the open rather than darting to the side behind actual cover.

The second moment involved correcting a stoppage, a reload, and then taking a shot at the last known target’s location. The target was no longer visible at that point, though. The instructors called a “madman” and asked why I did that. I could only answer that firing that last shot was how we finished all the malfunction drills the previous two days.

Practice Your Marksmanship, but it won’t be perfect in the field

The more you practice correct marksmanship fundamentals, including positions, the better able you are able to improvise when conditions are less than ideal.

After we left the square range, I don’t think I ever adopted a fully correct kneeling position again. The terrain just didn’t allow for it. However, I have practiced my natural point of aim and bone-on-bone to make it work anyway. It wouldn’t have been an x-ring hit in a match, but the target still got hit.

Getting Behind Cover and “Working” Cover are Different Things

You don’t need to “hug cover.”

The instructors corrected me several times for bounding too far ahead of my partner and the other buddy pair. In my mind, I was simply getting up to the next reasonable piece of cover, be it a wide enough tree or bundle of fallen logs.

The reality was that I didn’t have to be next to it for the cover to do its job. As long as it was between me and them, it was working. By bounding too far ahead, I put safety angles at risk and forced my partner to move again. 

Short aggressive bounds are better.

Notes on Gear

Gear bomb at MVT tactical training with a GoRuck GR1
My “Gear Bomb” of kit prior to packing it up at the end of the course. The bright tape helped prevent losing any magazines in the thick piles of fallen foliage

Rifles

Rifle #1 went down 2/3 of the way through day one with short stroking issues. This is my first AR-15 and one that I’ve rebuilt several times. I was unable to determine the root cause, so I am chalking it up to poor lubrication and weak ammunition for now. It’s had trouble with weak ammo and cold temperatures in the past.

The TR24 1-4x optic on it worked great for that application, though.

Rifle #2, the LW BCM with Elcan Specter OS4x functioned flawlessly. Its light weight was awesome when humping up and down the trails, and the Elcan was perfect for target ID and engagement. I used maximum brightness almost the entire time, and it was perfect for the shaded wooded terrain. It stood out just enough to draw the eye, but not so much that it was distracting.

Rifle #3, the 20″ Musket with UBR 2.0 and TA-110, worked great for the afternoon that I used it. The LED ACOG was superb, as expected.

However, the extra weight of the entire set up was definitely noticed. The stubby foregrip was very useful for carrying the rifle in the patrol position without inducing wrist strain. All things being equal, I wouldn’t mind having to hump the musket around longer term- but I definitely preferred the lighter weight of rifle #2.

Load Bearing Gear

The medium battle belt format was perfect. Two changes I made right before class was to swap out the HSGI Bleeder pouch for the Chinook MED TMK and I mounted a dump pouch at the center rear. Thankfully, I did not need the med kit, and the dump pouch just wasn’t useful except for gathering mags after drills. I won’t be keeping it there. The medium battle belt made a great layering item for controlling profile. I will have to write more about this.

Along with the battle belt, I ran MVT’s own chest rig. It was low profile enough to not get in the way of any positions, or become a snag hazard, yet it worked well for reloading. While using it, the rig just blended in and became unnoticeable. 

I tested two slings during the course, the FTW multipurpose and my long-standing BFG Padded VCAS. Both worked well, but I ultimately liked using the VCAS more.

Clothing

When it comes to hats, short soft brims work better than long stiff ones. I wore a patrol cap for the first couple days and switched to a Tyr Huron short brim boonie hat for the second two.

The patrol cap, an Outdoor Research Radar Pocket Cap in Multicam, was certainly convenient. I could fold it up and stuff it in a pocket, and it didn’t interfere with my electronic ear pro at all. The boonie, a Tyr Tactical Huron short brim boonie, interfered far less with sight picture through magnified optics. Once I figured out how to make it work with my ear pro, I much preferred the boonie hat.

I wore my Vertx smock for all four days. While it sometimes grew warm in the sun, its pocket space was indispensable. On the first two square range days, I carried extra magazines inside the pockets and replenished my belt from them as needed. The smock has six sleeves sewn in for convenient magazine carry. 

I didn’t think it would matter, but I happened to wear a pair of TAD Force-10 pants for the whole course, which proved great. Not only were they durable and allowed freedom of movement, but I never realized they had magazine sleeves sewn into the cargo pockets. In all, between the pants and the smock, I could discretely carry eight 30-round magazines in purpose-made pockets.

Eye Pro

I felt like quality eye pro made a big difference in the class as far as vision went. I used a pair of Revision Sawflys through the entire thing, swapping from tinted to clear lenses for the second two days.

Conclusion

This was an awesome way to spend four days.

Yes, the cost of doing could have bought a whole new rifle, and I know a lot of people will balk at that. But the reality is that skills and knowledge are far more important than tools.

Aside from the training aspect itself, I appreciated the opportunity to vet some of the gear I’ve acquired over the years. To be honest, it all worked pretty well. I suppose that is another mark in the column for buy something good up front and it won’t fail you later.

So do I think you should attend this class? Absolutely. It was attending MVT’s course that really highlighted the fact that a lot of people get too wound up around tiny details of gear and minutiae of weapon handling. Don’t fall into that trap. You need to buy quality, then learn to use it before buying more junk.

Thanks for reading!

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