Before this class I had never shot at long range. On the third day of training I moved to a firing position I’d never seen before, identified a ten-inch target with optics, ranged it at 1,040 yards, judged the wind and held to the right of the target by six feet to compensate, and scored a first round hit. Right then I knew the course was worth every penny.
Thunder Beast Arms Corporation is a company run by distinguished long-range shooters. It is best known for its line of rifle suppressors which are optimized for precision shooting, but when the staff aren’t running tactical rifle competitions they are teaching people like me to shoot at ranges most competent shooters think is near-impossible.
A disclaimer: Zak Smith is a partner in TBAC, and I’ve known him for about a decade as a fellow staff member on THR. He is also the best long range shooter I know, and I don’t think our acquaintance has affected this review at all. The relationship exists though, and the reader might want to take that into account when evaluating the objectivity of this review.
For this review I attended two back-to-back sessions of the PFR101 and PFR201 classes (short for Practical Field Rifle.) The course is designed around the kind of shooting seen at the Steel Safari matches or the rifle portion of the Snipers Hide Cup match. The goal is to teach the student how to identify, and score first-round hits on small targets (2 MOA down to .5 MOA) at ranges from 300 yards to over 1,400 yards. PFR101 is designed to give an inexperienced shooter the tools to engage these sorts of targets from a solid prone position, where PFR201 takes away the prone and replaces it with improvised positions and adds in the sorts of time constraints you will encounter in the match.
At the end of the course a student will be able to engage targets (hopefully with first-round hits) from 50 yards to the maximum range of his rifle. You should walk away from the course with a solid understanding of how to use your equipment to best effect, and you will also understand what pieces of equipment are deficient. I learned that my Leica rangefinder was less useful than I would like beyond 850 yards, regardless of its 1,200 yard advertised range. I also developed a strong desire to replace my current bipod, buy better shooting sticks, and suddenly I could justify a rifle firing a cartridge with better long-range characteristics.
This is Wyoming. The country is a little rough, where temperatures can vary by 50 degrees Fahrenheit per day and winds can burst to 30 miles per hour, then change directions. All of these can conspire to make shooting difficult, which makes this a wonderful place to learn.
The class takes place about 20 minutes outside of Douglas Wyoming.
To get there I took a 3 hour flight from Atlanta to Denver, rented a car, and headed North on 25 for about 250 miles.
PFR101: Designed to get even inexperienced shooters hitting long range targets
Shane Coppinger was our instructor on days one and two.
Day one started with classroom instruction from 8:00 in the morning until noon. We covered the types of equipment used for long range shooting, then moved on to marksmanship fundamentals. The material here wasn’t earth-shattering: you can read all you want on the Internet and become knowledgeable about FFP vs SFP rifle scopes, the difference between mils and minutes of angle, and so on. The value here was in hearing the information from an accomplished shooter who was willing to patiently answer questions.
After lunch we went outside and got into prone positions. Shane corrected our form and we worked to make our rifles fit our bodies better. Scopes were remounted as required, and students who showed up with rifles that didn’t fit well were helped accomplish a better fit through the use of duct tape and cut strips of foam.
From there we went to a 100 yard range and verified (or corrected) our zeros. Targets were engaged at ranges out to five hundred yards or so while Shane watched the impacts with a spotting scope so we knew precisely what adjustments were required at multiple known distances. We finished the day by going back to the classroom, calculating customized drop tables for each rifle/load combination at 25 yard increments, and recording them. Our homework was to recopy the ballistic data so it would be easy to access the following day.
This biggest struggle of the day was incorrect equipment: one student showed up with a scout rifle, a tactical scope that did not offer the extended eye relief a scout scope mount required, and reloaded 147gr 7.62×51 ammunition that was probably M80 with 2-2.5 MOA potential. A lot of effort was put into it, but this student really struggled due to having improper equipment.
If you are considering attending and are not sure what equipment you need, please call in advance. The instructors would have been willing to provide a rental rifle and ammunition for a very reasonable fee if they had known it was needed.
Day two started with a discussion of the effects wind can have on the trajectory of a bullet, how to measure the wind, and how to compensate for it. From there we went to a range, prepared range cards, and spent a lot of time behind our rifles engaging the targets. We went slow — only shooting at two ranges the entire day — and received a lot of personal attention. The longest target we engaged by the end of day two was 850 yards.
A quick note on targets: I was infantry in the early 1990′s and my preconceived notions about long range shooting were based on what I had seen in training. There, 300 yard targets were torso-sized silhouettes, and the 500 yard targets were essentially painted sheets of 4×6′ plywood. The standard here was much higher. The targets were steel squares, and ranged in size from 4×4 inches all the way up to 18×18 inches for the largest targets. The expectation was that a competent shooter would score first-round hits at all ranges. Here is an example (shown hanging from a 6 inch wide rubber strip):
The ranges were marked positions that offered a view of multiple targets. One of the tasks we were expected to master was target identification and ranging in a compressed time period (the base standard for the matches TBAC runs are to identify, range, and engage 5 targets with five rounds in five minutes.) It’s harder than it sounds.
On the third day Ray Sanchez took over instruction of our group. Shane used to be on the Navy Marksmanship unit, which probably explained his gentle demeanor and the overall feel of the first couple of days of instruction. He was an outstanding instructor; but his “gentle as a teddy bear” approach was something that surprised me.
Moving from Shane’s instruction to Ray’s felt like moving from elementary school to high school. In the first couple of days if a student struggled with something basic it was patiently re-explained, often to the entire class. Ray’s approach was more of a “you’ve seen how to do it, and you’ve been doing it for a few hundred rounds, so that the #&%@ is the problem?” Expectations were higher, and the level of instruction was focused on more advanced topics rather than repetition of the basics for slower learners.
This is not a criticism: Ray was there to answer any question we had (even the stupid ones), and individual instruction was given at every stage, especially to those that were still struggling with basic concepts, or with equipment that wasn’t up to par. My perception was that in Ray’s mind the real value of the class was in getting to practice our skills on new targets, at different times of day, with wind conditions that are about as challenging as you are likely to see in North America. If a student was still struggling with core skills then they would leave as a competent shooter, but much of the value of the course would be missed.
Ray’s attitude offered a wonderful contrast to Shane’s. Ray was focused on scoring solid hits as quickly as possible, and his attitude toward shooting was more of a “make it good enough and get the shot off” approach rather than trying to emphasize perfection in the basics. It elevated my game, and got me thinking more about getting the shot than the technical skills to get there.
If I were to compare shooting to photography, then Shane did a great job of teaching us about shutter speeds, apertures, sensor sensitivity, bolting the camera down on a tripod for crisp images, and so on. Questions were answered from a theoretical perspective. Perfect technique that is capable of a 20×30″ enlargement is great if you’ve got time, but we were learning to shoot well enough under time constraints, where full credit would be given for the equivalent of a reasonably sharp 5×7″ print. Ray taught us which rules could be stretched and which could be safely ignored. More importantly, we learned when to ignore those rules, and when to be sticklers.
PFR201: Now it gets harder
Day four felt like we were starting from scratch. By now we understood our rifles and ammunition. We had solid prone positions so the rifle didn’t move prior to our shot, and we were still on target to see where the round hit so we could adjust if our wind call or range estimate was off. We could reliably hit out to the range of our rifles, and felt like pretty good shots.
On day four the prone position was taken away from us. Instead we were shown how to shoot from improvised positions. Shooting sticks were introduced, as was the idea of taking extra stuff (like a shooting sock or our backpack) and shoving it in underneath us to firm up our improvised positions. The feeling of perfect stability we had acquired in PFR101 was instead changed to a more wobbly shooting position, and the game became one of “am I stable enough in this position to hit that target at its range?”
At least this was my perception. We were given the tools to get into very stable improvised positions, and Ray could make some amazing 1,000 yard shots from a sitting position, but I never really could. Of course, I’m a middle-aged overweight dude who sits behind a computer for a living, so a big problem I ran into was that my basic level of fitness was insufficient to get the most I could out of the course. This isn’t to say I failed: I got my share of first-round hits at 500-700 yards from funky positions. But I sure felt deficient — especially since I now knew what I could do from a solid prone position.
Day five was more of the same, so we got as much practice as we could stand.
Zak Smith took over the last two days of the course. His job was to take what we’d learned in the first four days, fix any gaps in our shooting education, patiently answer questions that still popped up, and introduce time pressure into our shooting.
His approach was different from the other instructors: Shane taught us the basics patiently, Ray forced us to identify the essential issues to get the shot and perform them quickly, and Zak was there to help us round out our training and get gaps in our knowledge filled. If Shane was elementary school, and Ray was high school, then Zak was college. And I should emphasize that Zak is extremely bright — if you want to talk about ballistics on a level that requires integral calculus then Zak is happy to oblige. I’ve forgotten most of my calculus (it was 22 years ago after all), but I really appreciated the way Zak could help me get my head wrapped around more theoretical concepts that most people simply wouldn’t care about,.
The big change under Zak was the imposition of time constraints into our shooting. It turns out it’s harder to move to a shooting position, find the targets, measure and record their distances, and hit them all when under time pressure than it is when just practicing the individual skills. It’s really hard. But we worked through it, and engaged targets from multiple ranges to better test our skills.
Towards the end we had the opportunity to try out a particularly devious stage that had been set up for the Snipers Hide Cup. Brutal. At least I thought it was — I took longer than 10 minutes to find the targets at that stage, but Zak was confident that the more experienced shooters would find them faster. To be honest to a large degree it was me — I’m still shocked at some of the places targets were placed. I would understand it if we were descended from mountain goats, I guess…
After we had spent enough time on the required skills, we had the opportunity to revisit ranges and work on whatever skills we wanted for the rest of day six. The last day was really built around the shooting the class wanted to do, and we focused on the skills we were most interested in working on. It was a day where we got to work on the weak points of our game, though after nearly a week of shooting I think most of us would have preferred to sit around a beer cooler and drink instead.
How TBAC’s training compares
Most of my training was in the Army, which is an unfair comparison (TBAC was an order of magnitude better, and was even pleasant.) The best I can do is compare what we ran into in Wyoming with the training I saw at Gunsite:
At Gunsite every hour is planned. We know where we will be from hour to hour, and the entire class (across multiple ranges) follows the same pattern according to the set schedule.
Thunderbeast is much more relaxed and informal. And flexible. At Gunsite if you wanted to run some drills at the range after formal instruction concluded this simply wasn’t allowed. Want to run some drills during lunch? Nope — not allowed.
I’ll give TBAC the advantage here.
At Gunsite our time was split between classroom sessions, square ranges, and the lunch area. Lunches were catered, there was a full service store on site that sold everything from clothing to firearms, and weapon failures could be handed over to the on-site gunsmith. If you had a weapon that simply didn’t fit well, replacement parts were stocked and could be installed over lunch.
At TBAC everything was conducted outdoors, except the first day’s classroom session where we sat in a garage in front of a volunteer fire department truck. Someone went to Subway to get lunch every day, but for the most part students had to be responsible to bring what they needed.
Overall this is a positive for Gunsite. We had a Nightforce scope fail on the fourth day, and the fix was to shoot an instructor’s rifle. We couldn’t simply head to the shop, have a new scope installed, and be using it at lunch. Of course, if one needed to do this the range would probably be closed while the new scope was signted in which would impact the entire class.
Instructors and Training
At Gunsite we had an student-to-instructor ratio of 1:4 which was reasonable. The difference was that we never had the entire class on the line at the same time. At TBAC you were always shooting at the range unless you needed a break.
At TBAC our instructors were all accomplished, competent, and invested in our learning and performance. The same is true at Gunsite, but there all instructors oozed the same sense of professionalism. Courtesy, politeness, and never using a curse word seemed the norm. The same instruction methods were taught by all of the instructors, as they were all working off the same playbook. And this system worked — it’s a pleasant place to learn and the methods they teach have been honed over decades and are proven to work the the majority of students.
At TBAC everything was more “real,” I suppose. We learned under three different instructors, and the training we received was superb, but it was colored by the personalities of the instructors. Long range shooting, like photography, or car racing, is a mix of science and art. Learning under multiple instructors who had mastered the art allowed us to see the art from more angles so we could get more perspective on what we were doing. There was no single “best way” to shoot, and we had the opportunity to see variations in shooting style and instruction that seemed to provide more depth.
I’ll give the nod to TBAC here. Gunsite training is great, but it’s very structured and is taught from a single playlist. You can learn to shoot well with a pistol at Gunsite, but they teach the Weaver stance. Period. It is coded into Gunsite’s DNA. TBAC seemed more interested in getting our proficiency up to the standard needed in competition rather than teaching the One True Way. I felt like we were learning what worked best for us, rather than training to a set standard.