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Building a Personal Fighting System

Chris Upchurch

I’ve been taught by been-there-done-that guys that you should run your carbine stock all the way out and that you should run it as short as possible. That you should mount your sights high up, and that you should mount them low. That you should run muzzle up, and that you should run muzzle down. That you should do target identification through the sights, and that you should do it looking over the gun. That you should carry appendix and that you should carry on the hip. That you should release the slide by pulling back on it and that you should use the lever. That you should default to dropping expended mags and that you should default to retaining them. And don't even get me started on contrary opinions on handgun makes and models, much less the caliber war.

What is a student of the fighting arts to do? How can you resolve all of this contrary advice?

One solution is to pick a guru. Pick one instructor or one school whose advice you're going to follow. Take a bunch of classes, practice the techniques, and ingrain what you have learned until you can deliver it on demand.

This is probably the right approach for many, if not most people. If you pick a good instructor, you'll get a set of techniques that work and that come together in a coherent system (choosing a good instructor when you're just starting to learn this stuff is a whole other problem, but this article is long enough as it is). Frankly, knowing the basics, practicing them on a regular basis, and carrying regularly will put you miles ahead of most CCW holders.

That said, there are disadvantages to adopting an instructor's system wholesale. No matter how good the instructor their system is never going to be the best possible fit for your needs, your physical capabilities, your life. Choosing an instructor whose system is a good fit for you can help, and any good instructor will try to modify techniques to work with a student's physical limitations. There are inherent limits to this, however. The instructor can't know what you know about your lifestyle or feel what you feel when you try to perform a technique. Any preexisting system that you adopt is going to be a compromise.

There is another path, however, one that is much more difficult and demanding. Indeed, it is a project that, by its nature, will last a lifetime. Build your own personal fighting system by learning, adapting, and adopting techniques that fit your needs, your circumstances, your physical limitations.

Train widely

To start this process, you need a good grasp of the fundamentals. If you're starting completely from scratch, it's best to start with one instructor and one system until you've mastered the basics. This will give you a foundation, a point of departure from which you can begin customizing and creating your own system to meet your needs.

When you have a working knowledge of the fundamentals, it's time to branch out. Train with different instructors so you can see a variety of different takes on the same sort of material. Each new instructor will give you a chance to see some new technique, something that you didn't appreciate before, some refinement that you can add to your skill set. Sometimes, an instructor will cover a technique that you've seen before and didn't understand, but will explain it differently in a way that allows you to "get it."

If you want to get the greatest benefit out of training with different instructors, it's essential that those instructors be different. If you only train with ex-Delta guys, there's not going to be a whole lot of variation, no matter how many of them you train with. Train with instructors who have military backgrounds, train with cops, train with armed citizen instructors. Train with the competition crowd, train with those who think gun games are a waste of time. Train with traditionalists and with guys who are pushing the boundaries. Train at the big schools and train with the 1-man shops. The more diverse your teachers, the more different ideas and techniques you'll be exposed to.

This is not to say you shouldn't be discerning when selecting your instructors. Always seek out good instruction: read reviews, get recommendations from trusted students, learn what you can from what an instructor has put online. There are great instructors out there from all sorts of backgrounds. You don't have to sacrifice quality to train with a wide variety of instructors.

When in Rome

When you seek out diverse instruction, you're going to encounter techniques and approaches that seem strange to you. Maybe even uncomfortable. Keep in mind that while you're at a class, you're not there to make a judgment about whether a particular technique is good or bad, or whether it suits you or not. A class is a chance to learn as much about the technique as possible so that you can evaluate it later. Unless you are physically unable to perform the technique or think it's obviously unsafe, give it a try. Do it the way the instructor is teaching and withhold judgment until you've seen how it works.

In addition to learning the technique itself, it can be useful to understand why the instructor teaches a particular technique. What are the advantages and disadvantages compared to other ways to do it? How does it fit with the rest of their system? What situations is it strongest in and where are any shortcomings apparent? There's a fine line to be walked here. While you want as much context for what the instructor is teaching as you can get, you don't want to take the class down endless "bunny trails" and side discussions (don't be "that guy").

As anyone who's been in a class with me can tell you, I tend to take a lot of notes. This is particularly important if you're trying to build a personal fighting system. The real work when it comes to evolving your system happens after class is over, so being able to call up the details of a technique and the instructor's explanation for it are critical.

Does this have a place?

After a class, it's time to decide whether or not a new technique should become part of your system. Changes could range from minor tweaks (making sure you eject the mag while the gun is horizontal to help it clear the magwell) to major (changing from strong side carry to appendix). Regardless of how significant a change a new technique is, scrutinize it carefully before incorporating it into your system.

I often see instructors describe a new or different technique as "a tool in the toolbox." This comes with the implication that adding a technique to your toolbox is a good thing; that a new technique doesn't have to displace what you already know. I disagree with this approach. You're not trying to fill one of those big rolling tool chests, you're trying to build a system of techniques that work together and enables you to fight effectively.

When you're first starting out, you'll learn a lot of new skills that fill niches that you didn't even know existed, like the finer points of one-handed reloads, or shooting from inside of vehicles. However, as time goes on these empty niches will become rarer. New techniques will more often be alternative ways to do things already know how to do. Think carefully before you decide to adopt duplicative techniques. There are situations where it's helpful to have more than one way to do something. However, having multiple techniques to address a single problem requires more training to learn, more practice to keep current. Or more likely, you don't end up learning either of them to the level that you would if you only had one technique for this particular problem.

If adopting a new technique means dropping the old, it's clear that the new one should have to earn its way into your system. This is the appropriate point to deploy that skepticism you set aside in the class itself.

Think about how the technique fits in with the rest of your system. Is it radically different from the way you do other, related tasks? Commonality among techniques is a good thing, don't give it up unless you get a significant advantage in return.

Think about how the technique fits you physically. If it requires more mobility or more dexterity than you possess, it may not be for you, even if it works well for others.

Think about how the technique fits your training regimen. If your practice time is limited, maybe a complicated technique that requires a lot of practice to maintain isn't the right fit.

Think about how the technique fits your life. If you drive a lot, is this something that works well in or around cars? If you have young kids how does the need to manage and protect them affect things? Does living in the city (lots of bad backgrounds) or the country (lots of wide open spaces) affect the viability of this technique? How does this fit with your requirements for concealment? If your circumstances allow you to open carry or modest concealment that opens up options that aren't available if the law or your employment make deep concealment mandatory. This is not intended as an exhaustive list, everyone's life is different, and the things you should consider before adopting a new technique are going to differ too.

The one thing you shouldn't be considering at this point is how natural it feels or how fast it is compared to your existing technique. When you come out of a class, a brand new technique is almost always going to feel and perform worse than your current technique. For now, ask, "if this works as well as advertised, how would it fit into my system and my life?"

If you decide that a potential new technique isn't a fit for you, don't put it in your toolbox. That doesn't mean you necessarily forget it. Perhaps in the future, your circumstances will change, and the technique will be a better fit. Put it in your storage shed rather than your toolbox and when and if the time comes you can dust it off and pull it out (another good use for notes taken in class).

Apples to apples

If you decide that a technique is worth pursuing further, it's time to investigate whether it really does work as advertised. Put it to the test and see if it's really better than what you're doing now.

As mentioned earlier, any fresh new technique that you've just learned isn't going to feel as natural as something that you've trained with for years to the point that it has become ingrained.

A useful model for this is the four levels of competence:

  1. Unconscious incompetence - "You don't know what you don't know."
  2. Conscious incompetence - You realize the gap between what you can do and the desired level of performance.
  3. Conscious competence - You can perform the skill if you concentrate on it.
  4. Unconscious competence - The skill has become ingrained to the point where you can perform it without thinking.

Most of the time you learn a new technique you're going to come out of a class somewhere between levels 2 and 3. Hopefully, you know what doing it right looks like and feels like, but most of the time you won't have enough repetitions with the technique to do it the right every single time, even when you concentrate on it.

To get to the point where you can make an apples to apples comparison between the new technique and your existing technique, you'll need to practice until you are solidly in level 3. In my experience, this will probably require hundreds of repetitions; several weeks of regular practice. It isn't going to become ingrained to the point where it's completely natural (since you haven't made your final decision to adopt this technique, that's actually a good thing). However, it should be smooth enough when you concentrate that you can make a fair comparison with your current technique.

What form that comparison takes depends on how the new technique is supposed to be better. Is it supposedly faster? Put it on a timer. Is it supposed to be more reliable under stress? Add some stress. Put it on video, have someone watch you perform it, or even just see how it feels compared to what you've been doing.

Finally, at this point, you have enough information to decide whether this new technique is worth incorporating into your system. If you decide that it isn't, it's probably time to put in some dedicated practice concentrating on your existing technique to reinforce it.

Ingraining a technique

Once you've decided that a technique is going to become part of your system, it's time to get to that fourth level: unconscious competence. When it comes to critical lifesaving skills, it's obvious that you want to be able to perform the technique reliably; to get as close to 100% with it as possible. As John Farnam says, "An amateur practices until he can get it right, a professional practices until he can't get it wrong."

The other, perhaps underappreciated, aspect of this is being able to perform the technique without actively thinking about it. When you've truly ingrained a skill you can make a decision to act, then carry out the action while you dedicate your mental bandwidth to other tasks. You think draw, and while your gun is on the way out your mind can already be moving on to where you're going to place these shots.

Getting to this level requires a lot of practice; generally thousands of repetitions. For each new core technique you need to put in the work to reach that level, then continue putting in enough practice over time to maintain those skills.

A never-ending process

Building a personal fighting system is a never-ending process. As you get older, as your circumstances change, things that worked for you in the past aren't going to work as well. Perhaps techniques that you rejected in the past will become more relevant. It's important to exercise these skills and reevaluate them over time. No matter how much you know or how much you've trained, there's never a point where you can say, "It's done, I never need to do any more training or learn any new techniques."

We sometimes also face temporary changes. Maybe an injury means you can't perform some of your usual techniques. The classic example of this is if you break your dominant arm. While it's in a cast for weeks, you're going to have to shoot with what's normally your support side hand. Maybe a shoulder injury prevents you from drawing from a hip holster, and you're going to have to go cross draw for a while. Perhaps eye issues require shooting a rifle from the other shoulder.

This sort of thing is where the "storage shed" mentioned earlier is very important. Maybe you chose not to embrace ambidextrous shooting in the past, but as long as you have the knowledge, you turn it into skill with enough practice. Just because something didn't fit when you first learned it doesn't mean it won't fit in the future.

The payoff

Reading all this, it's easy to conclude that it sounds like a lot of work. And it is. For many people, the juice may not be worth the squeeze. For them, it may be better to find a good instructor, learn an existing system, and practice.

For those who are willing to put in the effort of building a truly personal fighting system, the benefits are significant. You get a system that fits your needs, your physical abilities, your circumstances, your life, a system that fits you. One that can evolve with you over time as your circumstances change.

Intermediate CQB with Eric Dorenbush

Chris Upchurch

In early December I attended the Intermediate CQB class taught by Eric Dorenbush of Green Eye Tactical. I took Eric's CQB Fundamentals class last spring; that left me eager to come back for the follow-on course.

Gear

My primary rifle for this class was my usual 14.5” AR with a Leupold Mark 6 1-6x variable scope. One change from the last class is that I’ve put the optic in a taller 2” mount. This allows a more upright head position and makes certain things easier in CQB, but it does compromise your cheek weld a bit for precision shooting.

I’m running my AAC Mini4 suppressor and a Viking Tactics quick adjust sling. This class has a low-light component, so for those evolutions, I’ve got a Surefire M600 scout light and a BE Meyers MAWL IR Laser/Illuminator.

Unlike the CQB Fundamentals class, which was rifle only, the intermediate class includes handguns. I brought a Glock 17 with RMR. For low light shooting, it’s got a Surefire X300 light on it.

One unique thing about the gear list for Eric’s CQB classes is his requirement for rifle rated body armor. The CQB Fundamentals class requires a rig with front and back plates, while the intermediate class adds on side plates and a ballistically rated helmet. This is not so much for ballistic protection in the class as it is a way for Eric to encourage students to equip themselves with this sort of gear.

As with the previous class, I brought a Velocity Systems Scarab Light plate carrier. It’s got Level III+ front and back plates (which are rated against .223, but not .30 AP) and Level IV side plates. I brought a couple of Tru Spec combat shirts to wear under the plate carrier.

For the helmet, I bought a Crye Airframe. Rather than use the Crye pads, which I didn’t find very comfortable, I kitted it out with a Team Wendy Epic Air helmet liner and their Cam Fit retention system. I wanted helmet mounted hearing protection, so I got a pair of MSA Sordin electronic earmuffs and attached them with the Unity Tactical MARK and SARA adapters. For the low light portion of the class, I mounted a Wilcox shroud for attaching my NVG. To provide a counterbalance to the weight of the night vision cantilevered out in front of my face, I used the Crye helmet cover to provide a place to velcro on the TNVC Mohawk (though I replaced their lead counterweights with extra batteries).

I brought a couple of options for carrying extra mags. The most minimalist option (and the one I used in the CQB Fundamentals class) is just a panel with two mag pouches and a tourniquet holder. If I needed to carry more, I could replace that with a full chest rig that can clip into the plate carrier. However, the setup I most wanted to experiment with was running a belt rig in combination with a slick plate carrier. This takes the weight of your ammo off the shoulders and supports it on the hips. In this case, I had an AWS Light Assaulter Belt, kitted out with Tyr Tactical mag pouches, a dump pouch, trauma kit, tourniquet, knife, multitool, and a dropped and offset holster.

As mentioned this class has a low-light component. For that portion of the festivities, I brought my PVS-14 night vision monocular. To attach it to the helmet I have a Norotos INVG Mount and their dual dovetail adapter.

Finally, Eric encourages students to take video during the class to help them retain the torrent of information that he puts out during the lectures and to be able to go back through what they did during the exercises. I made some upgrades from the previous class here. I’m still using a GoPro Hero 6 as my main camera. During the fundamentals class, I had some issues getting it on when I wanted it on. When it’s in a head mount, it’s hard to check to see if it’s running. In one instance I lost video by turning it off when I’d intended to start recording. Another time I had it in time lapse mode rather than video, so I ended up with a series of still images. GoPro makes a remote control that includes a small LCD that shows the camera status (whether it’s recording, what mode, battery percentage, etc.). I also got a helmet mount for it that attaches to the NVG shroud. The other upgrade I made to my video setup was to replace the old Tachyon Ops picatinny rail mounted camera with a GoPro Hero 5 Session in a Sidekick rail mount.

As you can probably gather, this is a pretty gear intensive class. That’s not even counting stuff like clothes, the cooler full of food, etc. My little SUV was loaded up pretty heavy.

Thursday

I left Wichita after lunch on Friday for the drive down to Weatherford. Driving time is about six hours, but throwing in a couple of pit stops and a WalMart run I pulled into the hotel around 9:30.

Friday

We all rendezvoused at the front gate to the range complex, and Eric led us into the area where the class would be held. The road in was kind of muddy and slippery in places, but I made it in even in my little 2WD SUV.

This was a new part of the range that I hadn’t shot at during previous classes with Eric. It’s a small bowl-shaped valley that provides a 360-degree backstop. While we had to designate a non-shootable angle where the vehicles were parked (and where the folks not participating in an exercise could stand) we would still have well over 270 degrees of shooting.

Eric handed out the waivers and had all the students introduce themselves. Probably about a third of the class were people I’d trained with before. Everyone had trained with Eric before (that’s a hard and fast requirement for this course). There was a wide variety of backgrounds, some law enforcement, some former military, but the majority of the class were armed citizens.

Before getting started on the safety brief, Eric talked a bit about his training philosophy, focusing on the core tasks associated with CQB. His strong focus on the fundamentals is one of the reasons I like the way he teaches.

He went through the four rules of gun safety. Eric has a slightly different take on some of these, and the reasons for those differences are on full display in this class. For instance, his interpretation of Rule #2 (commonly described as “Don’t let the muzzle cover anything you’re not willing to destroy”) emphasizes that you don’t unnecessarily point your rifle at your teammates.

Two elements to this would make those who follow a very strict interpretation of this rule nervous. First, people other than your teammates will get guns intentionally pointed at them a lot. (In this class, those people will be represented by paper targets, but as Eric would later emphasize in a different context, we should think of every target as a living, breathing person). Eric teaches doing target discrimination through the sights. You are pointed in at the target before you’ve decided whether or not they’re a threat that needs to be shot. Unless you only ever encounter shootable threats, that means some people who you don’t intend to shoot will get a gun pointed at them.

Second, even your teammates may get muzzled when it’s necessary. That doesn’t mean you stack up with your rifle pointed right at the guy in front of you, but it means the second guy in the stack may raise his rifle as the first guy is clearing the door, covering the first guy’s trailing leg. Or when deliberately taking a four-way intersection, the rear guy may sweep the front guys’ arms as he brings his rifle up to cover down the hallway. This is not a license to muzzle sweep the hell out of your teammates. The key is to do so as little as possible and only when necessary to accomplish the task. In a combat environment, it would be far more dangerous not to cover the hall than to briefly sweep your teammates.

Part of the reason Eric is willing to accept this risk is that he mitigates it by insisting on absolute discipline with the trigger finger and mechanical safety. You must keep the trigger finger straight and angled upward and keep the manual safety on until three conditions are met: You have identified a threat, made the decision to engage that threat, and your weapon is pointed at the target. Only then can you disengage the safety and move your finger to the trigger. This is not an impediment to speedily shooting someone. The mental process of discriminating the target and making the decision to shoot takes far longer than it does to disengage the manual safety.

Once you’ve finished shooting the target, your trigger finger comes off the trigger. The safety can remain off while you continue to scan for additional threats, relying just on trigger discipline. However, once you’ve finished clearing and reclearing your sector, before that rifle drops even one millimeter, the safety goes back on. No exceptions. Eric has found that if you allow folks to slack even a little on this, it doesn’t take long before their rifle is all the way down before they engage the safety.

Moving on to administrative gunhandling, Eric generally asks students to clear and flag rifles between drills or exercises, particularly when we’re going to be coming out of the house or off the line. When you have your rifle slung, and your firing hand is not otherwise occupied, keep it on the pistol grip with a thumb on the safety lever to confirm it’s position. Pistols can remain loaded between drills, but they must stay in the holster. The only acceptable locations for a pistol are in the holster, held in a ready position, or pointed in at a target.

Eric also mentioned the possibility of squib loads, when the primer of a round goes off, but the main powder charge does not. The primer can have just enough power to dislodge the bullet from the case and drive it into the barrel. When you try to fire a subsequent round, this obstruction can cause catastrophic damage to the gun (and the operator).

He emphasized that everyone in the class was a safety officer. Anyone can call cease fire, stop, or freeze if we see an unsafe condition. If you hear any of these, or a sustained whistle blast or air horn, freeze. Don’t take a step, don’t lower your rifle, don’t do anything except straightening your trigger finger. The call may have been made to keep you from entering someone else’s line of fire or otherwise exposing yourself (or someone else) to an unsafe condition.

Eric talked about the medical plan if someone got injured. When he asked who had trauma medicine training, more than half the class raised their hands. We had two doctors in the course, so they would be the primary medical responders for anyone who got injured.

This class would include some long days, and Eric stressed the need to stay hydrated and fed.

The “shoot house” for this class is a floor plan made up of orange construction fencing and doorframes with doors in them. This allows unobstructed visibility into the house for safety purposes. Obviously, the plastic mesh fencing isn’t going to stop any bullets, so we stepped out to the shoot house, and Eric pointed out the range fan (delineating the directions you can shoot).

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Finally, Eric finished off the safety brief with a demonstration of how to clear a rifle. We would be clearing and flagging rifles between drills and he’s got a particular procedure he likes to use. Unlike some clearing methods, it’s designed to be equally usable during the daytime and at night (gunhandling that carries over to low light is something that Eric is big on in general).

With that, we uncased and cleared our rifles and Eric came by and checked out everyone’s kit.

To start the shooting portion of the class, Eric opened it up for the students to do flat range drills for whatever skills we thought we needed to work on. This portion of the class is very student driven; it’s on us to decide what we want to work on and set up the range to work those skills. After a bit of discussion, we quickly gravitated to doing some square range shooting to check zeroes and CQB holdover and doing some lateral movement drills.

We set up a line of targets for checking zeros and holdover. A few students needed to make some adjustment to get their rifles on target, but for most of us, this was a matter of reminding ourselves how much we needed to hold over to put rounds at the exact spot on target where we need them. The rifles that everyone is using in this class have sights several inches above the barrel, so at close ranges we need to compensate for that. Eric’s preferred method to train for this is to hold your sight on a marked aiming point on the target and fire a group. Take a look at how far below your aiming point that group is, then lift your sights to compensate for that offset and shoot another group which should hopefully be right on the mark, rather than below it. This was particularly useful for me because this is the first class I’m taking with the taller optic mount, so I need to hold over a bit more than I’m used to.

For the lateral movement drills, we set things up much the same way Eric does in the Close Quarters Marksmanship class (and the compressed version of that material in the CQB Fundamentals class): a line of targets going across the range, with some cones to channel students shooting the drill. You start by moving directly downrange, but upon reaching a line of cones you start walking right to left (or left to right) down the line of targets, engaging each one as you pass. The key is to keep your toes pointed in the direction of movement while shooting the targets off to your right (or left) side. This requires a fair amount of flexibility and getting your shoulders pointed at the targets requires bending at the waist, hips, and knees. It’s particularly challenging for a right-handed shooter moving to the left since you can’t “cheat” and angle the rifle across your body the way you can moving to the right (vice versa for a left-handed shooter, of course).

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One of the new elements that Intermediate CQB introduces is transitioning to pistol in the even your rifle malfunctions or runs dry. Eric doesn’t allow pistols in the CQB Fundamentals course, in part because they are much easier to inadvertently point in the wrong direction than a rifle is. He talked through how he does a pistol transition and demonstrated the technique, then had everyone do the drill a few times. To train these, Eric has students load one round in the chamber of their rifle, then insert an empty magazine. On command, the student fires the round in the chamber, attempts to fire a second shot with the rifle, then drops the rifle and draws and shoots with the pistol. This ensures that the rifle is, in fact, empty when you drop it, so there’s no chance of it catching on some piece of gear and unintentionally discharging. After shooting with the pistol, Eric had us carry on with the drill by holstering, fixing the rifle, and firing another pair of shots with it. This emphasizes that the goal here isn’t just to get to your pistol, it’s to get the rifle back up and running. We didn’t spend a ton of time working this; it was more of a safety gate to make sure everyone could safely perform the transition and draw their pistols.

At this point, we took a break for lunch.

After lunch, we moved over to the shoot house and began reviewing some of the material from the CQB Fundamentals course. We started with the fundamental building block from that course: clearing a center fed room (one that has the door in the middle of one wall, rather than near the corner of the room). Along with reviewing how to clear a room, Eric also gave some insight into how he places targets to reinforce particular lessons. For instance, targets in the hard corners of the room (the ones to either side of the door) help ensure that the first two guys in the stack go right to those corners, rather than getting distracted by the rest of the room. I found this pretty interesting (maybe it’s the fact that I’m still an instructor at heart).

One of the big points of emphasis in the CQB Fundamentals course that carried over into this class was on slowing down. The limiting factor in a CQB environment isn’t how fast you can move; it’s how fast you can process the environment, make decisions, and discriminate targets. For those of us just learning this stuff, that’s not very fast.

Eric also reviewed pre-assault procedures. The team gathers at the Last Covered and Concealed Position (LCC), where they can conduct final gear checks (and for range safety purposes in the training environment, load rifles). Once they’re ready, the team leader reports this to command (in this case represented by Eric). When instructed, the team moves to the breach point and reports that they’re ready to breach. Command does a short countdown, which would allow coordination between multiple teams, snipers, and other elements, ending with a coordinated breach.

A significant difference between the shoot house we used in this class and the one from CQB Fundamentals is that the Fundamentals shoot house is just four rooms, with one room leading into another. This shoot house is built along a long central hallway, with six rooms and two side hallways leading off of it.

The other new element that the hallway introduced was the distinction between “push and go” doors and “pull and hold” doors. A push and go door opens inward; it’s easy for the lead man to open the door and enter. A pull and hold door opens outward. Not only does this rob you of some momentum, it can also cause the lead man to get hung up on the door. (Things get even more complicated when you introduce self-closing doors). A better way to handle this is for one team member to open the door, hold it while the other team members enter, then the door holder enters as the last guy. Eric talked about a couple of ways to stack up outside the door to facilitate this.

With this extensive review out of the way, we loaded up and did some very simple single room clearances live fire. There were twelve students in the class, which divided nicely into three 4-man teams. We worked both center fed rooms and corner fed rooms.

These clearances went fairly smoothly, so we moved back a step and practiced entering from outside the shoot house into the central corridor, and from there into the adjoining rooms. Eric talked about techniques for moving down the hall as a team and how to move smoothly from hallway movement to stacking up on a door.

When you get down to it, this class doesn’t introduce a whole lot of elements beyond the basic room clearing covered in CQB Fundamentals. The only additions are hallways, corners, and intersections (plus a few minor things like pull and hold doors). However, just these few elements can add a lot of complexity because they add options. In CQB Fundamentals there’s really only one sensible next thing you can do at a time: stack up on the door of the first room, enter the first room, clear the first room, do your post-assault procedures in the first room, stack up on the doorway of the second room, enter the second room, etc. As soon as you introduce a hallway with multiple doors, suddenly you’ve got to start making decisions about what to do next. Door on the right or door on the left? Bypass this closed door to take an open one further down the hall or take the closed door?

For a team of guys to deal effectively with these options, they need to communicate. This can be broken down into two distinct elements: calling out information to get everyone in the team on the same page and communicating a decision about what the team is going to do. Team members need to call out what they see, especially when there are team members who aren’t in a position to see these things. This could be because those team members are in the back of a stack or because they’re otherwise occupied (checking the guys you just shot, for instance).

When there are multiple possible courses of action available, someone needs to decide which one the team is going to take. Decisions may be made by the team leader or the #1 guy in the stack, depending on the situation. The one thing it can’t be is made by committee. Once the decision is made, it has to be communicated to the rest of the team.

This whole process can be very quick. It may be as simple as the #1 guy saying, “Closed door right, closed door left, going right.” What he sees, followed by what the team is going to do. Easy enough in isolation. However, when you’re trying to layer it on top of all the other stuff you’re trying to do in a stressful environment it can very quickly end up sucking up all of your available mental bandwidth. Throughout the class, communicating effectively was a struggle.

We did some dry runs, then geared up and went live, clearing the front four rooms of the shoot house. A couple of runs at this took us through the end of the day. The last team through got a jump on the night iterations; it was dark enough they used their weapon lights during target discrimination.

After debriefing what we’d done, we took a break to eat dinner and let it get dark enough to do our night exercises.

Eric talked a bit about how to do CQB at night. He emphasized the need for commonality between the way you do things in low light and the way you do them during the day. We tend to practice and train much more during the day than we do at night, so anytime you have a special nighttime procedure or technique, you aren’t going to practice it nearly as much as your daytime technique. Much better to have a daytime technique that also works in low light.

When running white light, it’s pretty simple. If you can’t see, use the light.

Eric also went through a compressed version of the lecture he does in the Night Vision Operator class. He’s a real fan of using your NVG to look through your red dot optic as your primary aiming method rather than using an IR laser (not really an option with a magnified optic like mine, so I’ve got to use the laser). Since there was some interest from the folks in the class who did not have NVG yet, he talked some about what to get and what to look for when buying night vision optics.

As far as gear setup goes, the one thing that Eric really emphasizes is that you need to be able to run your white light (and IR laser/illuminator) without compromising your normal grip on the rifle.

During dinner and the lecture, we’d watched thunderstorms roll by to the northeast. It was quite the light show. As we got geared up, we started to get a few drops of rain, so many of us thew on ran gear before donning our armor.

We started out over on the flat range where everyone tried out shooting using their weapon lights. Those of us with NVG (about half the class) were able to have a go using our night vision gear as well.

Moving over to the shoot house, each team did a dry run through the same four-room clear that we’d just finished doing during daylight, using our weapon lights for illumination. This all went pretty smoothly, so we went live clearing the same four rooms.

About the time we went live, the rain went from a few random sprinkles to fairly steady. During some of the other team’s runs, it shifted to a complete downpour (since my team wasn’t shooting, we retreated under the tailgate of an SUV). By the time we came back out to do some more shooting, it had slackened considerably.

Finally, the six of us with night vision did it as one big team under NVG. I found that my NVG had fogged up considerably during the rain, so I had to get those cleared off to see well enough to run the drill.

While we hadn’t done any multi-team exercises in the class so far, the six of us fell fairly naturally into operating as two 3-man elements, clearing rooms on either side of the hallway simultaneously. When we cleared the fourth room, Eric had us do a free flow backclear back to the breach point. This was something we’d done in CQB Fundamentals but hadn’t yet done in this class. Nevertheless, everyone remembered what to do well enough to do it pretty smoothly, even under NVG.

During the night evolutions, the higher mental load meant we saw mistakes that people probably wouldn’t have made during a daytime iteration. Lots of folks (including me) either didn’t move far enough into the room to reach our point of domination or moved beyond our point of domination putting us in the wrong spot. There were also a lot of missed calls, particularly “last man” calls to let people know that the team was leaving a room or a position (if anything these are more important at night, especially under NVG where your situational awareness is more limited).

By the time we got done with the NVG run it was close to 10 pm, so we called it a night. We agreed to reconvene at 10 am the following day, starting a bit later because of the late night. Little did we know it was about to get even later.

The recent downpour had made slippery spots in the road even worse and turned areas that had been pretty solid kind of slippery. On the way out one of the guys slowed down enough to force the guy behind him to stop. He had four-wheel drive, so he was able to get going again, but the next guy in line had a two wheel drive pickup, followed by me in my little front wheel drive SUV. Neither of us was able to get moving again. We were just spinning our wheels in the mud.

A couple of guys gave me a push, and I was able to get out of the ruts and over onto some grass where I had at least half decent traction. At that point, I figured the best thing I could do for everyone was to was to get from the little dirt track to the main, nicely graded gravel road without getting stuck again and needing another push. I tried to keep on the mowed grass on either side of the dirt track as much as possible and didn’t stop till I got to the gravel. I waited there to make sure everyone else got out, which took quite a while (in addition to the pickup that had been ahead of me, they had to push some of the folks behind me out as well).

We held up until Eric made it out as well, then headed back into town. I grabbed a burger as a late second dinner. By the time I got back to my hotel and racked out it was almost midnight.

Saturday

After the late night last night, I slept in a bit on Saturday morning. I hit Walmart for some food and headed down to the range. The road in had dried out some from the previous night, but it was still kind of sloppy. I kept to the grass as much as I could and made sure not to slow down too much in the muddiest parts. I was able to make it in OK.

When everybody had rolled in, Eric briefly summarized the day’s agenda. We’d be learning about corners, T-intersections, and four-way intersections and incorporating those into our clearing drills.

He asked everyone for two individual tasks and one team task they thought we needed to work on. Lots of people brought up communication-related issues: calling out what you see, making decisions, and generally coordinating actions among team members. There were also quite a few folks who mentioned remembering to hit their proper points of domination when clearing, which was something that had popped up multiple times in the low light exercises the previous night.

Much like on the first day, Eric gave us the opportunity to start off with some student-driven work. In this case, all of us chose to do dry work in the house, working flow drills as 4-man teams. During these drills, we worked hard on proper communication and coordinating actions among the team members.

One thing Eric pointed out is that while there were times where we weren’t communicating enough (missing calls, failing to call what we see, etc.), there were other times where we were communicating too much. You don’t really want to have an extended discussion in order to have a meeting of the minds.

One of the fundamental principles in CQB is “Find work.” It's probably #3 in importance after, “The #1 man is never wrong,” and, “Go the opposite direction of the man in front of you.” If you’re not doing anything at a particular moment, look around and see what work is available. Provide security, cover a door, if the door’s already being covered, stack up on the guy covering so that you’re ready to go. Don’t wait to be told what to do, just see what needs to be done and do it.

The corollary to this is that there shouldn’t be a bunch of discussion about what particular team members should do. They should take the initiative and find that work themselves.

One place where this approach can create a problem is when you see a job, but you think it makes sense for someone else to be doing that job. For instance, Eric mentioned that after you clear a room it often makes the most sense for the team leader to be the one covering the guy who’s searching the targets you just shot because that role provides the most situational awareness of what the whole team is doing. However, the team leader shouldn’t be micromanaging his team saying, “you search the bodies, you cover the door, you stack up on him.” Rather, the way this is supposed to unfold is that one guy takes the initiative and finds work doing the searching, a second guy then finds work covering him, a third guy finds work covering the door, and a fourth guy finds work stacking up behind him.

To solve this problem, Eric talked about the “pregnant pause.” The team leader can hold up for a moment letting another team member find work by taking up the role of the searcher. Then the team leader jumps in immediately to take the covering role. He lets the other two team members find work covering the door and stacking up. Essentially, by not jumping right on a role you’re implicitly delegating that role to someone else. The key is that this delay is only momentary. If you see work an no one else jumps on it in short order, it’s better to go ahead and take that job yourself rather than standing around waiting.

While the example above uses a team leader, other guys can use this technique as well. For instance when you come to a pull and hold door, after calling it the lead guy can hold up on the near side, implicitly inviting the guys behind him to move to the other side to provide cover down the hallway and stack up on the other side of the door.

Moving on to live fire, Eric had us do some single man entries, entering rooms as the #1 man without any #2, #3, or #4 behind us. He set up three targets, one in the hard corner, and two further into the room. The goal was to shoot the target in the corner and get rounds on the next target before you get to your corner. This required both getting rounds on the first target quickly and moderating your speed so that you’re not all the way to the corner by the time you finish engaging that first target.

Eric ran everyone through these drills in both center fed, and corner fed rooms, then we broke for lunch.

After lunch, we covered L-intersections, T-intersections, and four-way intersections. L-intersections (basically a 90-degree bend in a hallway) are the simplest case, so Eric started with those. He divides techniques for taking a corner like this into taking it deliberately and taking it dynamically.

We started with deliberate clearance. Eric showed how to get two guns pointed down the hall at almost the same moment by having one guy kneeling down and another guy standing behind him. He emphasized the need for the standing guy to get far enough forward that his rifle was directly above the kneeling guy’s head, not behind it. This way if the kneeling guy were to stand up unexpectedly, he would whack his head on the standing guy’s rifle, rather than taking a bullet to the back of the head (the possibility of getting whacked on the head with a rifle and the muzzle blast from having a gun go off directly above your head are part of the reason Eric requires helmets in this course).

One thing Eric emphasized is that the guy who’s kneeling can’t just decide to stand up. He needs to stay kneeling until someone “picks him up” by giving him an upward tug on his kit. Anytime you wind up in a lower position, whether it’s because you take a knee or slip and fall, standing up carries with it the danger of putting yourself into someone else’s line of fire. Stay down until you get picked up.

Taking a corner dynamically is much simpler. You basically just come sweeping around the corner. The only moderately tricky bit is adjusting your speeds so that the inside guy and the outside guy stay in sync.

We moved on to T-intersections. When you’re coming across the top of the “T”, a T-intersection is very much like an L-intersection. The only additional element is the need to cover any potential threats down the hallway as you handle the corner.

Coming up the stem of the “T” is rather more complicated. Here, you effectively have two L-shape intersections back to back. This creates problems of space and coordination. If the hallway is wide enough (like the hallways you find in many public buildings), you can treat it like two L-intersections, with one guy kneeling and one guy standing on either side. The coordination problem crops up because you need to get both sets of guys popping out at the same time.

In narrower hallways, typical of residential construction, you may not have room to have two guys on either side. In this case, coordination is actually easier, because one guy will be signaling both kneeling guys to pop out, then picking a side and becoming the high guy in that direction. In even narrower hallways, there may not be room for a guy to squeeze in between the two kneelers at all.

A four-way intersection is a lot like coming up the stem of the “T” at a T-intersection, with the added complication that you have to be worried about possible threats coming from down the hallway to your front.

As we were working all of these dry and live we did run into some issues. In one case we had the standing guy suffer a malfunction just as the kneeling guy ran his rifle dry. A reminder to transition to pistol was required.

At a four-way intersection, I was one of the guys kneeling down, and I got bumped and toppled into the intersection. Eric had mentioned that bending your primary side knee too much could leave you without much margin to recover if you get bumped and this was a good illustration of that. It also illustrated what can happen if you try to stuff four guys into a hallway that’s not quite wide enough for that.

After working intersections in isolation, we incorporated them into a larger exercise, clearing from the front door of the house, down a long hallway to a T-intersection, then clearing a room beyond it.

During these exercises, one of the muffs on the MSA Sordins I had attached to my helmet came loose. When we had a break, I took it apart to try to get it reattached, but I found I’d need a very small Torx bit to get the circuit board out of the way in order to do so. Since I didn’t have one, I ended up pulling the Sordins off the helmet entirely and finishing out the day with a pair of Peltors that I’d brought as a backup.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, we took a break for dinner.

Our low light work the previous night had focused on the fundamentals: from basic shooting under white light and NVG to clearing rooms. Tonight we’d be putting it all together in a larger exercise. We’d move from the far end of the parking area to the LCC via a somewhat circuitous route (getting in a bit of practice moving at night on the way), approaching the shoot house, and clearing the building.

Again, Eric divided folks up into a white light team and an NVG team. Because of the length of the exercise, each team would only get one run. The white light team went first, so the NVG crew just hung out while they were doing their run.

While Eric briefed everyone on the basic structure of the exercise beforehand, he updated with additional elements over the radio as the team was moving to the LCC and from the LCC to the breach point. As part of this, he’d previously asked another student and I (both with suppressors on our rifles) to each simultaneously put a round into the berm to simulate a sniper shot taken as the white light team was moving up to the shoot house.

Interestingly, the other guy with a can on his rifle had a failure to fire when doing this (one of the reasons you might want to have two snipers on a target in real life). At the debrief afterward, he explained that he’d done a press check after loading his rifle and didn’t get the bolt all the way back into battery. Shows how important it is to make sure you get that bolt seated and to know what a seated bolt feels like (and then feel for it) so you can be sure that you’re in battery even in low light.

Once the white light crew was done with their shooting, Eric had those of us running NVGs step off for the trip to the LCC. We had a bit of difficulty finding a good place to cross the small creek that ran along the range. Once we got across we followed the treeline back up past the shoot house to a place where a dirt road crossed the creek that served as our LCC (for once the LCC was actually covered and concealed from the shoot house). While we were moving up, we got updates on the scenario over the radio, including a hostage we were supposed to rescue (represented by a police officer target) and the possible presence of explosives.

Eric did a simulated sniper shot, similar to what he’d done with the white light crew. This time, however, he simulated a missed sniper shot, calling the miss over the radio and placing a target outside the shoot house for us to engage before entering.

The room clearing still had some issues but went more smoothly than the previous night. We ran into some trouble at the T-intersection. In low light coordinating so that the guys facing either direction pop out at the same time was a lot more difficult than during daylight. The other issue was that one of the guys kneeling and leaning out had chosen to switch shoulders (so he would expose less of himself out beyond the corner) without considering that he was running a monocular night vision setup and wasn’t equipped to shoot from the support side shoulder.

These issues aside, we were able to clear most of the shoot house reasonably effectively. When we got to the last room, which contained the hostage we were supposed to be rescuing things fell apart a bit. It also contained a target with a suicide vest. The #1 guy in that room called out the presence of an improvised explosive device (IED), but he initially used the wrong codeword, which confused things for a bit. Eventually, we got the IED call sorted, and everyone booked it out of the building. However, nobody grabbed the target representing the hostage we were supposed to be rescuing, so not exactly the strongest finish.

Both the white light and NVG teams congregated for the debrief where we talked through some of these issues. With that, we broke for the evening and headed home (about an hour earlier than the previous night). Everyone made it out without getting stuck this time. I grabbed a late dinner and headed back to the hotel for a somewhat longer night’s sleep.

Sunday

Before class on Sunday, I stopped at Home Depot and picked up a small Torx screwdriver so that I could fix the MSA Sordins on my helmet. With that, I was able to pop the circuit board out and get access to the mount that had come loose.

Out at the range, Eric started out by reviewing some of the CQB Procedures in the 3-ring binder full of written material he hands out at his classes. I've had a copy of this ever since the Night Vision Operator class I took back in 2017. Now that I've gone through CQB Fundamentals and Intermediate CQB I feel like I understand enough of the context to really grasp this material and reviewing it like that did a nice job clarifying certain details.

In addition to going over the written material, we also got onto some other topics, like permissive vs. non-permissive environments and the proper employment of flash-bang grenades.

One of the reasons Eric went through this stuff is to prepare us for free-flow CQB. Free flow is really the ultimate expression of the principle of "finding work." Rather than just finding work within your own team, you find work within the assault force as a whole. If you have four guys stacked on a door, go. It doesn't matter if they're from the same team. This helps eliminate pauses and dead time and creates a faster pace.

Many of us had been exposed to this in the CQB Fundamentals class (though Eric has said he doesn't always get to free flow in that class). After a break for lunch, we kitted up and did a dry run through of the house in free flow. Those who hadn't been exposed previously picked up the concept pretty quick.

We went live. This time rather than having everyone come up in one big conga line, Eric had the three teams move to the house from separate LCCs. We still all entered through one breach point (it's very hard to set up a non-ballistically rated shoot house for a multi-point breach), but the rendezvous at the door was still pretty slick.

On this drill, I found myself all by my lonesome out in the hall at one point. We had cleared the first room, two of my team members were checking the targets, and I moved out into the hall to find work, only to find nobody there. After a bit of indecision, I ended up tucking into a room until there were other guys ready to move on to the next room.

Talking to Eric afterward it was clear I had gotten a bit too "free" with my free flow. I should have either waited for a squeeze from the guy behind me or made sure there was a team out in the hall I could join up with.

This became the pattern for the rest of the day: multiple teams converging on the breach point followed by free flow CQB. However, Eric still had plenty of curves to throw at us.

He started putting a radio blasting music at high volume into one of the rooms. This wasn't so much intended as a distraction as it was a tool to get students to increase the volume of their verbal communication. Combat gets loud, and if you want to be heard, you have to use your command voice.

On another drill, he simulated a comms failure on the countdown. If that happens, you're supposed to keep counting in your head and go at the appropriate time. We handled it so smoothly Eric didn’t even bring it up in the debrief after the drill.

Eric also threw in a simulated casualty on one of the drills, which we handled a lot less smoothly. There was quite a bit of faffing about, both in terms of getting the casualty treated and moved, and in what the other teams should be doing to provide security. To get us moving Eric had to put some pressure on us by reporting a large enemy force closing on our position.

I think at least part of this confusion was because while we had individual team leaders, we didn't have anyone in the assault force in overall charge of the operation. Having an on-scene chain of command would have made clear who was supposed to be making decisions in situations like this.

One thing that came up several times in drills on Sunday was people interpreting accidental contact as a squeeze or a pull-up, leading them to go or stand up when that's not what was intended. It's crucial to make it squeezes and pulls distinctive. Squeezes seem to work better when they're done on the outside of someone's shoulder rather than squeezing the shoulder strap of their plate carrier. Conversely pulling up on the plate carrier is an excellent way to signal someone to get up.

On the last drill of the class, I missed a target visible through an open door when I was posted up at a 4-way intersection. This was a clear example of the tendency to look at openings like doors and windows and see the opening, rather than what's visible beyond it.

During this last drill, one student had a squib load in his rifle. Thankfully, he realized that it had felt different and didn't try to fix the malfunction and fire the rifle again. After the drill, he cleared it and had to tap the bullet out with a rod.

Eric handed out the certificates, and we did a debrief of the class. I got my stuff packed up and headed out.

As usual for Eric's classes, for Sunday night I got a hotel room north of Dallas, so I wouldn't have to deal with the Monday morning traffic on my way home.

Conclusions

As usual with Eric, this was a great class. While it only introduces a few new physical elements, like hallways, corners, and intersections, it really layers on the teamwork and communication in much more depth than the CQB Fundamentals. By the end of this class, it felt like everyone had a grasp of how to function as a team in the CQB environment.

While I may never hit a building with a team of guys, I think the team-based aspect has benefits for individual CQB skills as well. For one thing, it forces you to have your individual skills very solidly ingrained. If you don't, you'll never have the mental bandwidth necessary for communication and teamwork. Doing this with a team, especially live fire, also pushes your ability to process the environment and make decisions under a certain amount of pressure, both of which are vital skills doing this individually.

Gear

Wearing a ballistic helmet is something that takes getting used to, but I think the Airframe with the Team Wendy pads and retention system makes it as comfortable it can be. Despite the issues I ran into with the mounting system, I really like having helmet mounted ear protection.

I do think the helmet does a better job mounting NVG than the Crye Nightcap that I've used in the past. The helmet mount is more solid and stable. The Nightcap has the edge in size and weight though, so it's a tradeoff. This class emphasized again for me just how much I like the night vision and white light setup on this rifle. It ran well for both the white light and NVG iterations.

The Scarab Light plate carrier still carries nicely. I did find that I'll need to rearrange some stuff on my belt rig, so it works better when I use it in concert with the plate carrier. There were a few places where the overhang from the plate carrier interfered with drawing mags from the belt.

The higher scope mount on my rifle worked well. It definitely makes certain things easier, especially when moving laterally. I think I'm sold on the concept.

The one piece of kit I brought to this class that didn't work out was the GoPro remotes. The little displays on the remotes were difficult to see, so it was hard to use them to check the status of the camera. The intervals between exercises were long enough that the remotes went to sleep and when they work up they didn't always connect with the cameras. I ended up just using the buttons on the GoPros themselves (taking my helmet off if necessary).

Final Thoughts

I'd highly recommend Intermediate CQB (and anything else that Eric teaches). The whole sequence of Close Quarters Marksmanship, CQB Fundamentals, and Intermediate CQB does a great job layering individual skills, room clearing, and teamwork. Eric has done excellent work designing these courses to get students to a very high level in a small number of training days.

2018 Montana Antelope Hunt AAR

Chris Upchurch

I tremendously enjoyed my hunting trip to Montana last year. Hanging out with Eric Pfleger and his family, slipping through the woods, and shooting a buck made for a fantastic experience. Even before I headed home, I had resolved to come back and do it again.

While I put in for another out of state Elk/Deer combo tag this year, I didn’t get drawn. Eric suggested that I put in for an antelope tag. Unlike the statewide big game combo tag, the lope tags are for particular hunting zones. Eric has an area in central Montana where he’s hunted several times and was planning to put in for again this year, so I put in for tags there. I got drawn, as did Eric's wife, Linda. Eric, however, did not (probably all those out of staters coming in and hunting in Montana). He did have second, special elk tag that was good for the area where we’d be hunting, so he and his young son went out there the week before to get camp set up and do a little elk hunting.

There’s a week between the end of the deer/elk archery season and the start of deer/elk firearm season that Eric likes to use to go out and hunt antelope. I arranged to fly out to Montana and hunt that week. The timing worked pretty well for me since it would be after I moved to a new apartment the first week of October. That did create some challenges as far as keeping track of all my gear during the move, however.

Gear

My primary rifle for this trip was my Ruger Precision Rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor. This is a pretty long, heavy gun, but according to Eric, antelope hunting out in the wide-open areas of central Montana is sort of sniper-ish anyway, so it seemed like it would suit. For field use, I’m very glad that I decided to replace the factory stock with a Magpul PRS stock, which has much less to catch on vegetation and such. This rifle has a Vortex 3-18x scope (also quite heavy), and I’m running an AAC 762-SDN6 suppressor.

My main load for this rifle uses Berger target bullets, which aren’t all that suitable for hunting. Instead, I worked up a load using Barnes LRX. This basically gives up some external ballistics (the ballistic coefficient isn’t as high) in return for better terminal ballistics. They’re very tough and are supposed to expand well.

Initially, I was only going to bring a 9mm Glock for “social purposes,” as Eric indicated that this area wasn’t really grizzly country. However, the day before I left Linda texted me with a story about a grizzly killing a calf just west of where we’d be hunting. I decided to throw a 10mm and some 220-grain hard cast ammo on board as well. For both pistols I brought along Safariland holsters that are dropped and offset to clear a pack belt. I had some CCW holsters as for use around camp too.

Knowing that the weather in Montana in October can be quite variable, I packed a couple pairs of long underwear, fleeces, gore-tex, and gaiters. I also brought many pairs of gloves, including a nice new pair of Outdoor Research Convoy waterproof insulated gloves that I hoped would help do a better job of keeping my fingers warm than the thin glove plus flip open mitten setup I’d used the previous year (though I brought that as well). I also brought along a pair of gardening gloves for crawling. My Eberlestock Halftrack pack would carry all this kit.

If this sounds like a rather lot of stuff to fly with, it is. I shipped Eric and Linda a box of gear ahead of time with my pack and some of the warm clothes. This both lessened the amount of stuff I had to fly with and got one box out of my hair during my move.

The rest of the stuff fit in a big rolling suitcase, a large rifle case, a carry-on duffel bag and a small backpack with some room to spare (and weight to spare for the checked bags). I was able to keep track of almost everything that needed to come on the trip during the move. The only things I couldn’t locate as I was packing were a set of add-on lenses for my iPhone camera.

Saturday

I loaded up my bags and headed to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Checking the guns went smoothly, and my flight to Denver got in early. I was able to get some lunch in Denver without hurrying too much. As it turns out I needn’t have hurried at all since the Denver to Missoula flight was delayed.

Linda picked me up from the Missoula airport after my delayed arrival. After hitting Costco for some last minute supplies, we headed out to central Montana. We didn’t see any antelope on the drive, which I gathered from Linda was unusual. I hoped this wasn’t a portent of how our hunt would go.

The drive was about 3 hours (Montana is a big state), so it was late by the time we got into camp. We saw some snow up on the north-facing hillsides as we went through the mountains and we got a couple of flurries. During our last fuel stop, the temperature had dropped considerably.

When we hit camp, Eric had some nice, hot soup ready for us. Camp was two big tents, both with vestibules. The main tent, where Eric and family slept, was a Cabela’s Big Horn 3 with a wood stove to keep everything toasty warm. No wood stove in my tent, but he had a long cot and a warm sleeping bag for me.

We all sat up talking in the heated tent for a bit before turning in. It was cold enough I ended up double bagging it using both the bag Eric provided and the one I brought. Combined with some fleece and merino wool long underwear that kept me warm enough, except for my toes. The foot of the bag was up against the wall of the tent, which I think contributed to the problem. The next day I shifted things around so my feet wouldn’t be right up against the tent fabric and that (combined with warmer temperatures) prevented any more issues.

Sunday

We all slept in a bit on Sunday morning. It was pretty brisk out at sunup, so waiting for it to warm up a bit was quite welcome. Eric took his bird hunting shotgun down to the river to see if he could flush any ducks, but Bridger (Eric's bird dog) flushed the only bird they saw too far away for him to take a shot.

We had a hearty breakfast (oatmeal and sausages) and started getting our gear together to go hunt antelope. I’d had to pull my pack apart and completely unload it to get it to fit in the shipping box, so I had some work to do to get ready.

It was late morning when we headed out. We drove just down the road to a Hutterite colony where Eric had permission to hunt on some of their land. The area was rolling terrain, where you could see for miles, but there might be a whole herd out of view in a draw a hundred yards away.

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Driving into the colony, we saw a small herd of antelope running off in the distance. Then further in we saw another small herd, much closer. We got geared up for a stalk. Since I figured we’d be crawling, I went light and didn’t bring my pack, just stuffing the essentials (water, rangefinder, binos, etc.) in my pockets. Eric took a large Maxpedition messenger-type bag. He and I started moving in towards where we’d seen the antelope.

With the very barren terrain (either hay stubble or short sage vegetation) the process actually reminded me of CQB, using the angles to your advantage to conceal yourself from the antelope as much as possible. This is where skill at reading micro-terrain really pays off.

As we were moving up on the herd we were working, we spotted a third group, further from the road. The terrain to move towards this new group was more favorable, so we crossed a barbed wire fence and worked our way up a drainage towards them. They moved off over a small rise, but as we got closer, we spotted them again.

Pretty soon we were crawling on hands and knees to avoid being spotted, then down to belly crawling to stay out of their line of sight. We found the lope bedded down at about 300 yards. There was one nice buck in the group, he was laying with his rear towards us. The wind was strong and gusty, making for difficult shooting. I waited for a lull, but a gust came up just as I pressed the shot. The whole herd sprang up and bounded off. No sight of any injury to the buck, so it was a clean miss.

After the lope crossed a distant ridgeline, Eric and I took a peek down in the depression where they’d been bedded down, then walked back to the truck.

From the truck, we used our binoculars to glass another herd far off but decided they were too distant. Instead, we drove to some nearby Block Management Areas. BMAs are private land where the landowner gives hunters permission to hunt on their property in return of a share of the money from hunting licenses (based on how many hunters sign in using a box at the entrance to their BMA). We drove up a road with several BMAs and pieces of state land along it to take a look.

There was a nice herd with a big fat doe, but it was just on the wrong side of the property line on land that wasn’t part of the BMA. Most of the BMAs and state land were much flatter than the terrain on the colony, making any stalking a more challenging proposition (Eric did a 500-yard stalk on one of these plots a few years ago).

We headed back to camp and finished off with some tasty chili and beer. While I was a bit frustrated with my miss, it was a good day of hunting.

Monday

After another nice warm breakfast of oatmeal, we loaded up the truck and headed down to the colony again. This time we spotted a small group of antelope not too far from the road just as we came in. The terrain wasn’t very conducive for stalking closer from this side, so we drove around to the other side of the ridge they were on, hoping to approach them from that side. We geared up and stalked over the ridge, only to find the lope had moved off.

Returning to the truck, we drove down the main dirt road in the colony, stopping periodically to glass the prairie for more lope. We saw a large herd back to the west. It was on a part of the colony that we weren’t allowed to hunt (they’d leased it out exclusively to an outfitter for his paying customers).

The members of the colony were rounding up cattle in the next field over and moving them into the area where we were hunting. All this activity seemed to have run off all the antelope, as we didn’t see any more on the land we were allowed to hunt.

Instead, we decided to drive up and take a look at some more Block Management Areas and state land further east. On the way, we drove into Harlowton (the nearest reasonably sized town). Eric hit the post office, and we stopped at a gas station where they also have an attached ranch supply type store with western wear, camping gear, guns, and other supplies (I get an odd sort of joy shopping at places that sell alcohol, tobacco, and firearms under one roof). We grabbed some lunch and a few supplies for camp before heading out.

We did a big loop up towards the Little Belt mountains, taking a look at half a dozen Block Management Areas and some parcels of state land. We didn’t see any antelope. Some of the BMAs near the Little Belts were getting into more rugged, heavily treed terrain that wasn’t great lope habitat but would be good prospects for elk if Eric came back a bit later in the season to fill his special elk tag.

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Heading back to the colony, we saw a small herd quite a ways from the road. We geared up and headed out to move up on them. As we got close, I spotted one of the does looking right at us over the top of a hill (I’ve got about a foot of height on Eric or Linda, so I often spotted lope first when we were on foot). We dropped down and crawled closer. Before we had a chance to shoot the herd ran off. I might have had a shot, but I couldn’t pick out any bucks in the herd, so I held my fire.

We watched them for a while as they moved off at what was, for them, a slow trot (a pace at which they’d probably outrun top athletes). Even after they slowed down to more of a saunter, they seemed to stay fairly mobile. Rather than putting on a ton of miles trying to get closer to moving antelope, we headed back to camp.

On the way into the campground Eric spotted three moose across the river, including a massive old bull with a huge rack. We pulled out the binoculars and watched them for a bit. In Montana, a moose tag is something you might put in for every year and only get after ten or twenty years. If Eric ever draws one, this might be a good region to come back to fill it.

We changed clothes and headed into White Sulphur Springs, the next town to the west. The eponymous springs have been turned into a motel with hot water pools. After a couple of days of chilly temperatures and vigorous physical activity (and no showers), it felt great to relax in the hot water. We spent over an hour soaking in the pools before heading over to a local eatery, Bar 47, for nachos, burgers, and beer.

It was very late by the time we got back to camp, so we turned in straight away.

Tuesday

After the late night last night, we slept in a bit (no bird hunting walk for Eric this morning). We had some breakfast and headed out to the colony, as usual. On the way in we saw a few pairs of antelope before coming on to a big herd fairly close in. A bit too close, as it turned out since they moved off after they saw the truck.

We drove up to a high point near the end of the road and watched them as they moved off. They eventually headed over a short rise into a depression where we couldn't see. However, after waiting for a while we didn’t see them emerge further away, or to the right or left, up or down the depression, so we figured they must still be in there. We decided to walk out and have a look.

Linda and I geared up and headed out first, with Eric and his son following a ways behind. It was a good, long walk out to the ridge they popped over, all the way out past the barbed wire fence Eric and I had crossed on Sunday.

I spotted a few members of the herd on the other side of the rise where they disappeared, confirming they were still there. We couldn’t see much (or shoot) from this distance, so we picked out a patch of tall grass about a hundred yards further forward as our observation point and got down on hands and knees to crawl closer. Eventually, we were belly crawling, but when we got up to the grass, we were able to get a look at some of the herd.

The grass was too high for me to get a shot from prone but too short for a taller position like sitting. Though I was afraid I might spook them, I crawled closer. This was all very slow sniper crawling, shoving the rifle forward with one hand, then pushing with your feet and sliding your belly along the ground with your arms to move forward six inches at a time. Several times I paused and raised my rifle to see if I could get a shot, but the grass was still too high.

Eventually, I was able to get a good enough view through my scope to take a shot. At this point, we were about 300 yards away. I picked out a good looking buck and Linda set up about 5 yards away to take a doe if she still had a shot after I shot the buck. The wind was strong but less gusty than Sunday. I held off for the wind and pressed the shot. Another miss.

The herd sprang up and ran. Linda didn’t have a shot at a doe either. Most of the herd headed off up the draw to our right. A few headed away from us, including a decent looking buck. He ran partway up the butte, stopping broadside to us about 500 yards away. I was hesitant after two misses, but Eric encouraged me to take the shot.

I held just behind the buck’s tail for windage and loosed another round. The buck dropped like a rock.

We watched the rest of the herd run off some more. I used my rangefinder to lase the spot where the buck dropped. It came out at 516 yards. Eric and his son headed back to the truck, while Linda and I walked out to my buck.

I’d hit it in the neck near the base of the head, accounting for how quickly it dropped. That also tells you how windy it was, since I’d held just behind the rear end and the bullet had drifted the entire length of the animal, probably more than 4 feet.

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We got some pictures of the buck, including me with the trophy, then set about the process of gutting it. With some help from Linda, I remembered enough from my experience gutting the deer I shot last year to get him opened up and get the guts out. Eric arrived with the truck just as we finished gutting. Once we had everything packed up, we drove back to the road.

On our way out of the colony, we came on a small group of lope that ran off when I hit the buck. Linda hopped out and took a shot from the hood of the truck, but her round impacted short.

We headed back to camp and got to work butchering the buck I shot. It was warm enough that it was important to get the animal broken down into quarters and deboned so it would cool off and not spoil. Eric had Linda and I do the work, starting with caping the animal (removing the hide). Last year I’d had my deer hide tanned. I liked how that came out (it’s currently sitting on my couch). Eric said that antelope fur tends to come off leaving a tanned hide very mangy looking, so I opted not to save it. This meant we could be a bit more aggressive getting it off, but it still took quite a while.

Eric was sure right about the hair coming off the hide, that stuff got everywhere while we were caping the animal. As we broke it down into quarters, we spent quite a bit of time trying to get it off, since you don’t want that on your steak or in your burger. We did as much as we could, but doing a really decent job would have to wait until we got home and could wash the meat off. Next, we deboned the quarters, since that would help pull the heat out of the meat. Finally, we cleaned the remaining meat off of the rib cage and spine, to be ground into antelope burger. Using a bow saw we took off the head for a European mount (bare skull with horns).

This process took the rest of the afternoon. While Linda and I were finishing up, Eric put together some tacos for a tasty dinner. We followed this with some celebratory liquor (Templeton Rye) and a game of Sneaky Snacky Squirrels.

Wednesday

We got going considerably earlier this morning than we had previous days. Heading out to the colony, we drove down to the end of the dirt road and spotted a big herd of antelope off near the base of the butte where I’d shot my buck. We glassed them for a bit and planned out a stalk.

As we drove back down the hill to where we’d planned to start our stalk we encountered four antelope, who ran off a ways. Linda and Eric jumped out to see if they could get a shot on them, but no joy. They trotted off and joined up with the others that we’d seen earlier.

Rather than riling them up further, we decided to leave them be for a bit and go check out the Block Management Area where we’d spotted the herd on the wrong side of the property line on Sunday. Today, however, we did not see any lope out there.

Instead, we headed out to a big ranch that allows hunting but requires you to sign-in in person. Unfortunately, we found the sign in place was closed on Wednesdays. Despite this, we drove through the ranch to take a look and to see if there were any antelope on some parcels of state land that were interspersed with the private property.

Down at the end of this road, the road climbs up into the foothills of the Little Belt Mountains and crosses into National Forest. There’s a campground out there that would be another good spot for Eric to try to fill his special elk tag later this year.

Hoping the big herd had settled down a bit, we headed back to the colony. Driving down the dirt road, we came across a small group at relatively close range. Linda bailed out and took a shot from the hood of the truck, but didn’t get a hit. The group ran off.

We drove out to the end of the dirt road without seeing any more antelope. After that last shot, Linda wanted to confirm zero on her rifle. Eric set up a target at 300 yards (her zero distance), and they did a test fire (it was within 2”).

Even though we couldn’t see any lope, we decided to walk out and take a look at the broad draw where the herd and been bedded down on Tuesday before I shot mine. The herd we saw this morning had been wandering out that way when we last saw them and the ones that Linda took a shot at had run off that direction too, so we figured they might still be there. Linda and I geared up and walked out there, while Eric stayed back at the truck with his son. Since I’d filled my tag, I didn’t bring my rifle, just a pistol, some binos, and a laser rangefinder.

The stalk was complete deja vu from the day before. We parked the truck in the same place, walked down the hill on pretty much the same route, crossed the fence in the same place, and spotted the first members of the herd from about the same spot.

Linda dumped her pack, and we crouched down out of their view and moved closer. As we closed in, we dropped down to hands and knees, then shifted to belly crawling as we closed in. I saw places where we’d scraped up the ground crawling in the day before, and I even ran across one of my spent shell casings that I hadn’t been able to recover the previous day. We were in exactly the same spot.

During the stalk in I was even more nervous than the last time we did this stalk. As much as I hadn’t wanted to blow my own shot at a lope, I really didn’t want to blow Linda’s stalk.

We got up to a point with a good view of part of the herd. I very carefully raised myself up clear of the grass so I could lase them with my rangefinder and got a range right at 300 yards. Linda told me which nice fat doe she was going to shoot at and I got on target with my binoculars to spot for her.

She took the shot and missed just a hair over the doe’s back. The herd got up and ran, but not nearly as far as they had the day before. One group sort of circled around and stopped about 300 yards from us. Linda picked out another big doe and took the shot. This time it dropped like a rock right there.

After about a minute the doe started whipping its head up and flailing around with its front legs, but it didn’t seem to be able to get up. Linda stayed on target while I went back and retrieved her pack. We closed in on the downed doe and saw it was still alive, though not kicking around as much as it had been earlier. Linda stepped up and shot it in the neck, which took care of things.

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After getting some photos, Linda gutted the doe. Once its guts were out, we rigged up some paracord to the legs to help us drag it. The mercy shot to the neck complicated things a bit since it had completely severed the spine, leaving he head loosely attached. Linda wasn’t going to have it mounted or anything, but we decided having it tear off as we were dragging would be a bit too macabre. I trussed it up with some paracord to help keep it off the ground, and since I’m taller than Linda, I carried the head end.

We dragged it about 500 yards to the fence, where Linda was able to get service on her cell phone and text Eric to drive down and pick us up. We loaded up the doe and headed back to camp.

It was after 3:00 at this point, and to speed things up, Eric went ahead and caped the lope. He was able to get it done in about 1/10th the time it took Linda and I the day before (and spread a lot less hair around to boot). I guess that’s the benefit of having done this hundreds of times rather than two.

Linda and I quartered the lope and got the bones out. While we were working on this, a friend of ours who goes by Colonel Plink on the Paragon Pride forum pulled in to camp. He and his girlfriend were out hunting antelope, and earlier Eric had texted them the location of our camp. They were planning on going into White Sulphur Springs to get some dinner and soak at the hot springs. We decided we would join them after we were done butchering the lope.

We got everything deboned. Rather than pick the ribcage clean like we did with my lope, we decided to break it down into racks and throw those in the cooler whole.

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On the drive into While Sulphur Springs we saw an enormous herd of 100 plus elk on a hillside outside of town. There were several big, impressive bulls and we got to see a couple of them lock antlers (though the rut was over by this point). They were quite vocal, calling to each other and making a lot of noise. It was awe-inspiring and majestic, a real treat.

In White Sulphur Springs we had dinner at the Stockman’s Bar, where we had some excellent burgers and good bread. Afterward, we headed over to the hot springs and met up with Colonel Plink. Tonight the warm pool was significantly warmer than it had been on our previous trip, nice and toasty. We spent about an hour there, soaking our aching muscles and enjoying some good conversation.

We headed back to camp and turned in.

Thursday

Since both Linda and I filled our tags, we decided to head back to Eric’s place where we could finish processing the antelope into steaks and maybe get out to hunt some birds or bear and, starting Saturday, deer and elk.

Tearing down camp was a bit of an operation. Eric and Linda had brought out plenty of kit and supplies, including food for the entire week. Getting it all back in the pickup and the suburban was a bit of a tight fit. By the time we tore down the tents, got everything packed up, and loaded it into the vehicles it was early afternoon. We headed out, making a late afternoon stop in Helena for a great dinner at the Brewhouse Pub & Grille.

President Trump held a rally in Missoula that day (we saw Air Force One sitting at the airport as we drove by) so there was a lot more traffic headed out of town than usual for a Wednesday night. We got to Eric’s place around 9 o’clock and only unloaded the most vital stuff, leaving the vast majority of gear until tomorrow.

Eric and Linda had just moved into this place in September, and there were still plenty of boxes waiting to be unpacked. We cleared some space amid Eric’s gun-related gear for an air mattress for me to sleep on. After a drink and some hanging out, we turned in for the night.

Friday

Friday morning I helped Eric unload gear from the vehicles. In the afternoon Linda and I turned the deboned quarters from our antelope into steaks and roasts while Eric continued the unloading process.

Through the use of copious amounts of water, we managed to wash off most of the hair that had troubled us out in camp. Linda did the trimming, and I sliced the trimmed meat into steaks. As a token of my gratitude after my hunt up in Montana last year I bought Eric and Linda a nice meat slicing knife and I got to use that to slice up the antelope. We got some really nice steaks out of them. Being smaller animals, many of the cuts were more like medallions than full-sized steaks, but I’m sure they’ll be equally tasty.

It took long enough to finish butchering the antelope quarters that we decided to eschew an evening hunt. Instead, Eric drove around showing me a bit of the local area, including one of the areas he planned to use for some of the Longrifle/Rural Scout Sniper class he’d be teaching in May.

Eric had some venison marinating all afternoon, and when we got back, he threw it on the grill. Along with some mashed potatoes this made for a delicious dinner.

Saturday

Saturday was opening day of rifle season for deer and elk. I was a bit leery to go into the woods on a day when the yahoos would be out in force, but Eric persuaded me that we could get far enough back in the woods that it wouldn’t be a problem. He and I got up at 5:30, grabbed some breakfast, and headed out around 6:20.

After about a 20 minute drive we were at a forest service gate closing off a side road up in the mountains. From there we stepped off and hiked in a couple of miles to a spot where the road made a sharp switchback. The tamarack were just turning gold and the views in the morning light were pretty fantastic.

We walked a bit beyond the switchback to a spot with some excellent views down into a bowl below. This would give some good shooting opportunities should an animal come along. It also provided a look at the area where Eric would be teaching days 3 and 4 of the Longrifle/Rural Scout Sniper class next May.

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We sat for over an hour as the sun came up high enough to shine on us. No deer, elk, or bear for Eric to shoot, but we had an enjoyable wait. Around 9:00 we grabbed our gear and headed back down the road. We heard other hunters (both vehicles and shots) but did not see anyone. Pretty good for opening day.

After we got back to the truck, we drove down to the area where Eric would be teaching the class, and he showed me a bit. The folks who own the property were there hunting, so I didn’t get the full tour, but it looks like it will be a great location.

Back at Eric’s place, we had some venison sausages for lunch. Afterward, we cleared moving boxes and other stuff out from around the woodstove so Eric could fire that up to heat the house. After they moved in it hadn’t been cold enough to require heat until we got back on Thursday night. In the intervening time, we’d been using an electric heater which wasn’t really adequate and was probably more expensive to run than the woodstove.

That afternoon we took a drive, including taking a look at two nearby reservoirs that provide some good waterfowl hunting. We swung a ways up to the north and stopped at a wildlife area where we saw a big pheasant fly off. Eric loves pheasant hunting, so he grabbed his shotgun, and he and I headed out to see if we could scare it back up. No joy.

Eric is still getting familiar with the area, and on the way back to his place we saw a couple of areas along the river that would be good spots for waterfowl hunting. While you can legally hunt up to the high water mark without landowner permission, Eric made note to ask about access.

Back at the house, we decided to take a more serious run at pheasant hunting up where we’d seen the bird. Eric and Linda got their shotguns, while their son and I were just along for the walk. This time we brought Bridger, Eric’s bird dog. Bridger is still pretty young and doesn’t have a lot of experience pheasant hunting.

Out at the wildlife area, we moved through some of the fields with Linda and me abreast of Eric and his son, about 75 yards distant. Since Bridger was pretty new at this, he didn’t quite know what to do, but by calling him back and forth, we got him zigzagging between us to help put up any birds. No luck finding any pheasants, but we had a good time.

Back at Eric’s house, we had a nice dinner of antelope (last year’s rather than the ones we’d just shot this week) and mashed potatoes. We enjoyed some good booze and generally relaxed for my last night in Montana.

Sunday

Rather than going out to hunt again, we slept in Sunday morning. I spent a bit of time packing up my gear. I managed to stuff enough gear in my rifle case, carry on, and the box I’d be mailing home that I managed to make enough space and weight for about 15 lbs of meat in my main suitcase. This was mostly steaks from the antelope I’d gotten, but Eric threw in a few other treats from his freezer as well.

We headed down to Missoula a bit early and grabbed a late breakfast from Wheat Montana, a local eatery. Since we had a bit of time to kill, we stopped off at a local outdoor store to browse a bit before heading to the airport. My flights back went smoothly. With a long layover in Denver, I got home about midnight.

Conclusions

This was a great trip. I had a fantastic time hunting antelope. It’s definitely a thinking man’s game that will exercise your sniper skills. It has a much more proactive vibe to it than hunting deer or elk, given that you usually spot the lope from far outside your engagement range and have to figure out how to stalk in close to them. The stalking is very challenging, as it’s easy to scare them into moving off. It’s all about reading terrain and figuring out how to get as close as possible, probably followed by some belly crawling to get in that last little bit. I found the whole process immensely enjoyable.

Gear

My rifle shot very well. It’s a bit heavy for carrying around, but until I build something lighter, this is a good choice for antelope. That said 18x is probably overkill for this sort of work. In fact, it probably hindered me a couple of times until I got in the habit of not cranking the magnification all the way up when I came off of 3x.

I may have to rethink the bipod a little bit. As I mentioned, when I was stalking in for my shot there were places where it wasn’t quite tall enough to see over the grass. I’ll have to consider whether I might want something a bit longer for this kind of hunting.

The 10mm Glock carried well, as usual. Switching back and forth between it in the field and the 9mm for going into town was a bit of a pain. I need to get some good, full house hollowpoint loads for it so I can just swap ammo.

I was pretty satisfied with my clothing. While I spent quite a bit of time wearing two layers of fleece, plus long underwear, my core was never cold, even sitting outside in freezing temps. The Convoy insulated gloves worked well. Between them and my thin glove liners, I was able to keep my hands reasonably warm, but I do think I want to get a pair of big fuzzy mittens that I can toss some chemical heaters into for situations where I need to warm up my hands but don’t have a woodstove-heated tent handy. I did sometimes wish they were a bit more dexterous, but overall they’re a good compromise between warmth and thickness. When it was warmer out, the Outdoor Research Overlord shooting gloves that I brought worked well enough for crawling that I never broke out the heavy leather gardening gloves.

One thing that was a bit more of a mixed bag was the pack. Nothing wrong with the Halftrack itself, I was just reluctant to carry a ruck on a stalk when I knew I’d probably be belly crawling by the end of it. In fact, while we were antelope hunting, I did all of my stalks just pocket carrying my most essential gear. This could be a bit awkward at times, and I had a water bottle and some other kit fall out at one point. I was never really caught short on gear, but there was definitely stuff I would have liked to have had just in case that I couldn’t fit into my pockets.

Eric had a big Maxpedition shoulder bag that he used on our stalks which worked much better when crawling than a pack would have. He could just drag it along beside him rather than having it up on his back. Something like that would be a better solution, but after developing some back pain when working out of a shoulder bag for a 2-day rifle class, I’m a bit reluctant to carry heavy loads asymmetrically like that. Antelope stalks probably aren’t long enough for it to be a big problem though.

If I do this again, I’m seriously considering a big fanny back or lumbar pack that could be converted to a shoulder bag. That would be big enough to carry a fair amount of kit, but small enough to easily drag beside you when crawling.

In contrast, when we went looking for deer and elk on Saturday, I took the Eberlestock and didn’t regret it at all. Different kind of hunting, different kind of gear.

Thanks

I need to thank Eric and his family for putting up with me for another hunting season. It was a great experience, and I enjoyed myself immensely. I will be going back to Montana, and more antelope hunting is definitely in my future.