A few weeks ago I got a chance to take an outstanding training course from Aaron Cowan, owner and operator of Sage Dynamics. I live in Colorado but have been following Aaron’s Youtube channel and Instagram for awhile. My impression from what I saw is that he is the kind of guy who works hard at his craft and really knows what he is talking about, and also that he cares that what he teaches actually makes an impact on his students.
Sage Dynamics is based out of Georgia and I was resigned to the fact that the only way I was going to be able to take his classes was to travel to Atlanta to visit UrbanArmed. My budget doesn’t usually stretch that far so my chances were slim. But not to fear, Instagram came to the rescue. Aaron was advertising a class right in my neck of the Eastern Colorado plains. After promising my wife the moon, I packed my gear and joined 7 other local guys for Aaron’s Defensive Handgun Fundamentals and Defensive Handgun I classes.
My goal over the last several years is to take at least one handgun training class a year. The last class I took left a lot to be desired, both in the skills we focused on and frankly the personality of the instructor. I won’t waste time with details but I left that class feeling like I had wasted my time and money. Based on what I had seen of Sage Dynamics, I was hoping for a much better class. I was not disappointed.
The class largely focused on skills that I and most of the rest of the students had already spent some time working on in our prior training and practice. But Aaron spent a good deal of time focusing on the concepts that support the skills. Understanding the ‘why’ behind the skill is essential for honing your training and practice to produce the greatest value. Aaron’s background in law enforcement helps to illustrate the concepts he teaches. It’s obvious that he cares a great deal about what he is talking about, and imparting his knowledge and experience to his students.
I’m not going to go into the weekend blow by blow. Instead I want to talk about 5 things I learned that made a strong impression on me.
1. One handed malfunction clearances – This was probably the most ‘tacticool’ thing we worked on all weekend. Aaron likes to run his drills and scenarios in order of most likely to least likely. Focus your attention on the most valuable skills and work your way up from there. In that context, clearing a double feed with one hand isn’t really the type of scenario that keeps me up at night. But there are two things I took away from this part of the class.
The first is that when you are training and practicing, there is a lot of value in putting yourself into difficult scenarios in order to humble yourself and force you to confront the fact that there is always something you need to improve.
The second important thing this part of the class did was remind me that shit happens and that it is important to push yourself through what seems like an impossible problem and to fight to succeed. This is a thought process that we can neglect in our training and practice. Most real life gun fights for your average citizen will never include an atypical malfunction in your gun. At the same time, most real life gun fights are prone to some level of Murphy’s law. It may not be a malfunction in your gun that slows you down and puts you into a problem solving situation, but it may be a seat belt, multiple attackers or an innocent person that is in your way.
2. 3D Targets, Sight Picture and Targeting Critical Anatomy – It’s hard to produce training scenarios and practice drills that recreate real conditions and we accept this reality. We can’t practice shooting at real bad guys with real guns. But by accepting this reality, sometimes we neglect important skills that we can still simulate with the right tools. Aaron likes to use 3D cardboard targets to illustrate an important reality of gun fights, the bad guy rarely presents you with a full frontal and stationary target. We are using to shooting at a 2 dimensional target with a frontal view that trains us to shoot the T zone and/or the upper thoracic area. What do we aim at if the target is bladed at 45 degrees, or 90 degrees?
Aaron spent a significant about of time talking about how we must consider that sometimes the sight picture will be the side of the head, or the side of the rib cage. He coached us to visualize where the internal organs are, and how they move when the target moves. I found this to be a very beneficial exercise and we saw a lot of students, myself included, start to struggle with accuracy. Not so much because the target was smaller, but because we weren’t used to aiming at a bladed 3d target.
3. Verbal Commands – This part of the class is something I had never really practiced. We worked scenarios involving varying threats and distances. Aaron explained two primary reasons for using verbal commands, influencing a witnesses understanding of the situation and deescalation of the situation. Yelling and swearing at cardboard feels pretty awkward, but only at first. After overcoming the self conscious aspect of it and really getting into the exercise mentally, the importance of the skill really became apparent.
The odds of you pulling your gun and firing at a bad guy without uttering a single word are, in reality, very low. There is almost always an escalation of the threat and it requires you to be prepared to meet that escalation with appropriate force. That force may start with only words. This drill helped me to get into the head space of seeing my cardboard target as a real threat and using whatever I had available to me to meet that threat with appropriate force.
Aaron also gave us the option of not shooting, letting our own imagination dictate the direction of the scenario. This really added to the training as we were allowed to practice the important skill of not shooting. I believe this is skill that is severely lacking in your typical firearm training and practice.
4. Protecting a 3rd Party – This is definitely the part of the class where I felt most like a secret service agent. It’s also the part of the class where I felt the most challenged. Basically we practiced managing the position of a 3rd party in a defensive scenario. This involved moving into position around the person, drawing and firing. Sometimes we had to maintain contact or control of the person, sometimes not.
The biggest challenge with this drill for me was combining all my skills with the added difficulty of having another person in close proximity and maintaining safe gun handling while doing so. As I worked through the drill I was pleased to observe that the time, practice and discipline that I have worked on for years did the job and I had no problem maintaining safety while I worked through the drill. But my accuracy on target definitely did suffer as the scenarios became more complex and difficult.
It’s very likely that if I ever find myself in a self defense scenario that there will be other people who need to be considered and/or protected. I’ve already experienced situations where I felt there was a certain level of threat and most of those situations happened when I was with my wife or my children. Practicing the skills of managing another person while you confront a threat really made a strong impression on me.
5. Focusing On Your Weaknesses, Not Your Strengths – Aaron devoted some of the class to talking about the fact that we tend to spend our time practicing what we are already good at because we don’t necessarily like to fail. When it comes to training for self defense with a handgun, a good example of this is that we tend to do most of our practice shooting with a 2 handed grip. But most self defense scenarios involve shooting one handed, at least for part of the encounter. A lot of the skills we know we should practice get neglected because we don’t want to fail, especially in front of other people. What’s important to understand though is that these are the areas where we can really grow if we give them the attention they deserve. We do ourselves no favors by creating blind spots in our training and practice. In order to grow in our skills and abilities, we have to force ourselves to confront our weaknesses and push through them.
In closing, I want to point out that Aaron is clearly an instructor who knows what he is doing, has seen his methods proven in real situations, and yet maintains an open and humble attitude. He has a very pragmatic approach to his training that focuses on using skills that work and understanding that what works for one person may not work for someone else. There is very rarely one single right way to execute a skill. This approach made the class feel very relaxed while at the same time pushing all of us to failure and then improvement. As someone who is committed to this craft, I find great value in a teacher who can tear you down and build you back up in a constructive way that leads to real learning and improvement.
Sage Dynamics conducts firearms training around the country and I encourage you to check them out if they are in your area. You can find the training calendar at http://www.sagedynamics.org/calendar.