We all seek to enhance our performance as shooters. We quest for knowledge through books, media, and drill standards. Yet, performance is built upon so much more. You need to understand the building block of performance shooting. I had the opportunity to take First Defense’s Performance Rifle and Pistol class. Let’s take a deep dive into what this class truly has to offer.
Training & Assessment
By Drew Bryant
June 21st, 2023, theloadoutblog.com
Welcome back to another training and assessment article. The purpose of this assessment isn’t to review an instructor or training group. I can’t set hard metrics for assessing instructors that can be applied unilaterally. The end goal is to create a system where that is possible to do. This process is inherently subjective due to personalities and the diversity of learning styles; with that in mind, I will keep it as an assessment of this course.
I have two goals during this assessment. First, to give a good representation of what the course will cover. I’m not here to provide a blow-by-blow breakdown like Joe Rogan at a UFC main event. I believe doing this will discourage some readers from taking the class. Second, this assessment is meant to be a resource to the community to help students spend their money wisely. Training, ammo, and travel are costly. Students have to choose wisely on how they wish to invest their money. A fair and critical assessment of a class and instructor is vital to the student. The goal is to provide helpful information on the course and the instructor to encourage you to go out and train.
This assessment will summarize the course, training drills, instruction, and the learning environment. At the end of the evaluation, I will give my final thoughts and opinion on the information covered.
Ohio Range Day 2022
Last year, I was selected to attend Ohio Range Day 2022, hosted by Achilles Heel Tactical. The purpose of ORD is an annual training event that allows students to get instruction from some of the top instructors within the firearms community. ORD is a two-day training event for attendees. Each day students train with the instructor of their choice. On the first day, I trained with Rick Crawley from AHT and took a condensed version of his Vehicle Tactics Class. On the second day, I trained with Mark Ackenback of First Defense USA and took his Performance Pistol & Rifle.
Ohio Range Day was the first time I received formalized training since departing the military in late 2015. During that time, I have read books on shooting, trained, and participated in The Tactical Games to keep my skills fresh and evolving. Training and constant evaluation as a shooter is imperative. Shooting is a perishable skill. At the same time, training and tactics are growing as well. As a student, you must be training and evolving with the times. All my steps are necessary to keep my skills at decent proficiency. The opportunity to receive instruction from one of the top instructors in the industry can’t be denied. I looked forward to growing and assessing my skills with Mark during his Performance Pistol and Rifle course.
First Defense’s Performance Pistol and Rifle
This class assessment will cover the Performance Pistol and Rifle class from First Defense USA. Mark Ackenback is the owner and head instructor of First Defense. This class is a one-day, 8-hour course. That 8-hour course includes low-light instruction as well.
Since we have the housekeeping material out of the way, let’s dive into this assessment. During this assessment, I will summarize the course, training drills, instruction, and the learning environment within the class.
Class Introduction & Safety Brief
At the beginning of the class, Mark had all the students introduce themselves and what they hoped to gain from the course. After all the student introductions were completed, Mark introduced himself to the class. During this time, Mark informed us of his background as an instructor and previous experience before teaching. After the introduction, we were given a range safety brief and what to expect from the course.
Finding A Baseline
The Performance Pistol & Rifle course by Mark was presented as a course to assess the skills you currently have and fine-tune what you do well, and correct deficiencies within your shooting skills. It’s not a formulaic by-the-number course. Every drill is thoughtful and has a purpose to it. It’s a method to the madness and not just exercises for the sake of routines. The drills are tailored to the class to put building blocks in place to help the student overcome the shortcomings affecting accuracy and proficiency. Before the course building block begins, Mark conducts a baseline course of fire to gauge everyone’s pistol and rifle abilities.
The Cold Start Drill
This diagnostic performance drill is done at the very beginning of the class. The Cold Start drill is meant to evaluate your skills without any primers, repetitions, or external stimuli involved. Mark reasons that in real-life scenarios, you don’t get any warm drills or reps; it’s straight into the fight. You should be able to perform these standards when ripping and running or ice cold. When it comes down to training and stressful environments, a person will always revert to their lowest standard of training. As shooters, we should strive to train to the highest standards.
The Cold Start drill will allow you to assess target acquisition, target transition, recoil control, weapon transition, and magazine reloads. The drill is conducted at 7 yards. A passing time is 14 seconds, while an elite time is 11 seconds. I don’t want to divulge the specifics of the drill, just the anatomy of the drill. Doing so hopefully encourages you to take the class to assess your proficiency level with both rifle and pistol.
Assessment & Evaluation
After the conclusion of the Cold Start Drill, Mark shares the average times on runs for the class along with the fastest and slowest times. Not to praise one by belittling the other but to assess the student’s proficiency within the course. During this debrief, we are informed how the class will be moving forward and a general plan on how he plans to reinforce the strengths and address the class’s weaknesses.
When building a home, a solid foundation is vital. Having a weak foundation will jeopardize the integrity of the structure and could cause it to collapse when put under immense strain. This analogy also applies to shooting performance and accuracy. If your fundamentals don’t have a solid foundation, it leaves the rest of your skills on a shaky foundation when pushed. Understanding this, Mark’s course focuses on those fundamental skills, ensuring the foundation is solid and then challenging us to see if they have been applied correctly.
At the beginning of the course, we did a cold start drill to assess our performance and proficiency. Once that performance baseline was established, this was the standard he would use to tailor the class to the students. The best way to gauge each individual and find the weakness is to deconstruct and isolate the skills to asses for performance and deficiencies. I consider this the isolation of fundamentals to increase performance and proficiency.
Isolation of Fundamentals
Mark chose to isolate our pistol proficiency first. In this part of the class, he discussed proper grip to aid in recoil management, sight alignment, sight picture, and trigger manipulation. A concept that Mark delved into heavily was proper trigger manipulation.
Trigger manipulation is one of the essential concepts of pistol shooting that seems to be glossed over by shooters. Mark emphasizes that we must understand all the elements that make up our trigger pull by increasing our accuracy and performance when shooting. Deconstructing and isolating each component of your trigger pull provides a deeper understanding of the dynamics of our trigger press as a shooter. A deeper understanding of the dynamics can enhance performance and effectiveness when shooting. During this part of the course, our drills corresponded with assessing and improving those fundamentals.
As we worked on refining those core skills of trigger manipulation, Mark continued to build upon that foundation and push our skills forward. The idea behind the training is to reinforce the foundation and test the student’s performance. Performance is tested by having timed drills as an assessment tool.
As we continued to enhance your understanding of trigger manipulation, we also focused on proper grip, recoil management, sight alignment, and picture. Our goal initially wasn’t to shoot the fastest. It was to understand how all these elements worked together to aid performance and accuracy.
As we worked on the fundamentals, Mark added layers of complexity to the isolation of the pistol drills. He was taking that building block method and building upon it. First, we worked on firing multiple rounds into the target while maintaining the fundamentals of pistol marksmanship. Next, we added emergency and tactical reloads. Finally, we worked on target transition and progression.
These drills help students focus on core skills while adding difficulty to the training. Time standards were also placed upon many of these skills to test our performance and to allow us to see our abilities and performance progress within a short window of time. After the class had a firm grasp on those fundamental building blocks and how they can drive performance, we moved on to the isolation of rifle mechanics.
Next, we moved on to the isolation of rifle fundamentals. The training progression was the same. First, Mark discussed proper stance, recoil management, understanding of optics, and trigger manipulation.
Proper Stance & Recoil Management
One of the concepts Mark elaborated on was the proper shooting stance when firing a rifle. He discussed how having a sound foundation when shooting a pistol or rifle aids in recoil management and allows for faster and more accurate shooting. While discussing this concept, he demonstrated the proper stance he sought from students. While giving his explanation, he also provided the reasoning behind the stance. During this demonstration period, he also discusses how proper stance aids in the recoil management of your rifle—allowing you to have a more reliable recoil pattern when shooting. Once he explained how proper stance aids in recoil management, he demonstrated the various stances and how it adversely affects recoil management. This allows the student to see the real-time effects of recoil in regards to stance.
When discussing concepts, Mark always relayed to you the “why” behind the method. It was essential to him for you to understand the “why” and the process behind the madness.
Sights & Trigger Manipulation
Next, Mark discussed sights and trigger manipulation. This portion of the class focused on understanding your zero, mechanical offset(aka height overboard), and trigger manipulation.
First, he discussed understanding your rifle zero. During this part of the course, he discussed the advantages and disadvantages of red dots versus LPVOs. What distance you should zero those optics at. He also discussed the advantages and disadvantages of different zeroes with those optics. While also fielding questions about the zeroes, optics, and mount risers from students.
In the next part of the class, we discussed mechanical offset, aka height over bore. Mark teaches height over bore in a very intuitive way. The way he taught it is the easiest way I have personally ever seen it explained. I also use his method to introduce the concept of height over bore to new shooters. The framework is clear, concise, and easy to understand.
Also, during this time, we discussed trigger manipulation. Mark discussed single and double-action triggers—the different characteristics between the two trigger styles, along with the benefits and downsides of each trigger.
When conducting rifle drills, he taught with the same technique—isolating our fundamentals and building upon them. Once the class established a uniform ability and performance with the drills, we would be challenged with new skills. During the course, we worked on proper stance, efficiency of motion, target acquisition and mechanical offset, and recoil management.
Putting It All Together
At this time, we had isolated both skill sets; now, it was time to integrate them. From here, we worked on drills incorporating rifle-to-pistol transition and pistol-to-rifle transition. Conducting emergency and tactical reloads. Target progression and much more. As always, with every exercise we worked on, it was demonstrated and given a performance standard. Not only to hold us accountable but also to push our performance on with the skills taught through the class by that time.
After we had some time working on our proficiency and performance with both pistol and rifle, Mark introduced us to First Defense’s Performance Standards. The standards were designed to test performance in a variety of individual skills and combined skills. There are five performance standards altogether. If you can accomplish all five, you win a coin or patch with G.O.A.T.. At the time of the class, no student had successfully received the patch.
Below are the rifle and pistol performance standards from First Defense USA.
25 yards C-zone steel
2 hits in 1.00 second back to back
1 reload 5 in 5.00 seconds
2 hits in 2.00 seconds back to back
1 reload 5 in 5.00 seconds
5 transition 5 in 5.00 seconds
Low Light Shooting
To wrap up the day, Mark introduced us to low-light shooting with a pistol and rifle. We kept the same tempo as before, first isolating pistol and rifle. After that, we combined those skills and conducted Performance Standards in a nighttime environment.
When working with a pistol, we worked on properly manipulating your weapon-mounted light (WML). We also worked on drawing from the holster, operating your WML, shooting, and re-holstering your sidearm. During this time, we worked on reloads and basic movement at night, along with strategic choices that are advantageous during nighttime shooting. This is the same action for rifle and WML manipulation in low-light environments.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t delve into the curriculum as he wanted to due to time restrictions. He was unhappy about that, but we could do nothing about it. He apologized for not getting to that material and for his frustration with being cut short. The material covered was a wealth of knowledge that would take time to digest completely.
The atmosphere during the class was one of people eager to learn and improve themselves. From jump street, Mark fostered an environment of openness and learning. He made it clear that we don’t need egos in the class or stubbornness and that everyone has to be willing to learn. Before we started the course, Mark wanted to know what we hoped to accomplish by taking this class. For this, he tweaked the style to meet those goals. Which I thought showed his skill as a teacher knowing how to adapt to his students.
Everyone in the class was humbled and excited to learn. Within the ranks of the course, it was some fantastic shooters. Training with them allowed everyone a chance to learn from great shooters. I took the time to reach out to discuss shooting concepts to increase my knowledge base. Mark encourages us to be inquisitive, encourage each other, and push our performance.
Mark created an environment that allowed for growth and development as a shooter. Everyone came with a passion to learn and grow. That type of atmosphere pushes everyone to excel.
Side Note: I want to put a disclaimer on my thoughts on Mark’s instruction during this class. Mark’s teaching style is one that I know personally aligns with my preferred learning style. The way he conveys ideas and information is in tune with the way I learn. I will make some statements at the end of this section that are not impartial and are my personal opinion. I wanted that to be known.
Instruction from Mark was informative, concise, and insightful. Mark can take complex or abstract shooting ideas and make them understandable and relatable to everyone. His analogies are creative yet insightful. This ability allows him to bridge that gap and find a metaphor that allows for the idea to click for the student. He uses an artful blend of visual and kinesthetic learning to have it all sink in for the students. You can tell he is passionate about what he does and that he has a love for teaching. That passion is conveyed in his teaching style and his desire to push his students’ performance to another level.
When Mark teaches, he wants you to understand the who, what, when, where, and why. Then, all the fine details that come with answering those questions. He wants you to understand the “why” and to test the “why.” So you can see how it all works.
This Is A Way Not Thee Way
Even though explaining the “why” was necessary to Mark, never stated that “his way” was the correct way. He offered the information as a tool to add to your toolbox by applying those principles. He freely admitted that they are viable methods to approach different aspects of shooting. He never discouraged different approaches. He only advocated for it as another tool in their arsenal. This philosophy is important. Some instructors in the industry speak in absolutes. This is because students desire absolutes, and they are trying to satisfy that desire. The instructors that separate themselves explain and showcase why their approach is a viable option. Never the way but a way.
The way Mark teaches and the passion he instructs with left me fully engaged in his class. He is honestly one of my favorite instructors. I believe he is one of the best instructors in our industry today. His teaching style has been so influential I plan to model some of my teaching methods after his.
The Performance Pistol and Rifle class by Mark is a phenomenal one. His class is informative and insightful, having something for everyone. Whether you’re an experienced shooter or a decent shooter, there is something here for everyone. Many of the ideas and training concepts presented to me in this class I currently use. I also try to pass along that knowledge anytime I have the opportunity.
If you can take a class by Mark, do it. I highly recommend this class due to the instruction, knowledge, and skills acquired by the student. I look forward to the opportunity to train with him again and to see how I have grown as a shooter.