SpartanCore Charon (Vehicle-Borne Tactics) AAR

I always enjoy training with new instructors. Everyone’s got a different take on subject matter, and even small tweaks to technique can lead to big gains over time. Thus, when I saw that SpartanCore was offering a new vehicle tactics class (“Charon”), I was excited not only to get in some training in and around vehicles, but to also learn more about SpartanCore and the people involved.

How did it go? Read on!

Disclaimers of Sources of Bias: None. This is the first time I’ve ever trained with these guys, and the only discount I received was available to everyone on Facebook following them.

Class Title: Charon (Vehicle-Borne Tactics)

Class Description:

Come learn how to fight from your main mode of transport. This Tactical Vehicle ops course covers Ballistic Considerations, Firing Into and Out of Windshields, Vehicle Employment as a Weapon, fighting positions inside and outside of the vehicle and much more..

From the website.

Cost: $289 (but I believe I only paid $230).

Round Count: 100-150 pistol, plus an indeterminate amount of rifle. I wound up using ~125 9×19 and 30 5.56×45. I could have used less rifle, but I deliberately ran a mag dry during a drill to force a transition.

Instructors: Matt Dane, Johnny Miller, and Sean Smith. Matt is a former Ranger, Johnny is former LEO/SWAT, and Sean is former military. Matt and Johnny also apparently did some state-side contracting for a bit. A nice mix of experience. They were all friendly and could easily demo the drills they were running.

SpartanCore the training firm is kind of a shooting / Crossfit / lifestyle outfit, which is maybe a little different than some other trainers in the area. The dedication and enthusiasm is infectious, so I can see why they’ve been doing so well lately.

Location/Date: Crucible, out in Stafford, VA, on 5/23/2021 from 8AM-4PM. I have never trained at Crucible before, so this was a bit of a treat. They have a sprawling facility with some impressive capabilities. I only saw a small part of it, so let me note that one thing I really liked was that they had an air-conditioned building with functioning, relatively clean bathrooms within a short walk (or quick drive). If SpartanCore has a big competitive advantage, it’s definitely their semi-exclusive access to this facility as to train civilians.

This was quite a sight to walk into.

Weather: The day started off in the low 70s and cloudy. By lunch, it was sunny and in the 90’s. Heat management became a major issue in the second half of the class; a lot of the students camped out under tents in order to get some shade. The instructors called for frequent (and mandatory) hydration breaks, and provided plenty of water and Gatorade.

Equipment Details: I used a Sig P320 X5 Legion with DPP and ported barrel, holstered in a Safariland GLS holster on a QLS belt loop mount. Pistol mags were in a Bladetech double pouch; the one carbine mag I needed just got stuffed in the back of my 5.11s. The carbine was a mixmaster MD-compliant fluted HBAR with a Vortex Razor RDS and Leupold D-EVO, equipped with a Blue Force Gear Vickers two point sling.

No major malfunctions except for a couple failures to eject with my pistol. Not a big deal in a training course like this; I racked the slide and got on with business. I assume some powder spillage or similar brought a couple of the reloads just a touch under the power factor needed to cycle the ported barrel.

Preparation Drills: I’ve been practicing carbine drills a lot with my son for his shooting practice, and I do a bit of pistol dry-fire afterwards most of the time. I also took the TOC Vehicle Ambush Tactics two weeks prior, so I felt pretty confident going into this class.

Author’s Previous Experience: Civilian with no military or LEO background. Have shot some competition, but no accomplishments worth bragging about. Training junkie since April 2018, and have averaged a class a month since then. I am OK with a carbine, pretty good with a pistol, and just average with a shotgun.

Class Demographics: The class was surprisingly diverse. There were a number of women, various ethnicities, and even a couple of minors (who were reasonably good shooters). Experience level was, on average, pretty high; most of the people there were professionals or had multiple shooting classes under their belts. IIRC, there were like 24 students in total.

Equipment-wise, nothing too startling. Pistols were striker-fired (with a couple exceptions), carbines were AR-15s.

TD1 (morning): The class started off in one of the main buildings, in a blessedly air-conditioned classroom. Some of the students were a little late, so the introductions were delayed a few minutes from the class start time. (Personal opinion: classes should always start on time. If people are late, they’re late, and missing out is their problem.)

Your three lead instructors, from left: Matt, Kill Cliff Fridge, and Johnny Topknot.

The instructors introduced themselves first, of course. Matt Dane is a former special operations guy, who apparently did some state-side contracting work with Johnny Miller, who is a former LEO/SWAT guy. Sean Smith is former military (I didn’t catch which branch – maybe a Coastie or a marine?) on disability who got back into the training game and also serves as SpartanCore’s marketing guy. Dumb as it sounds, I found him the most relatable due to his being a full-time dad (outside of the training thing, I guess). Matt’s got a bit of the hard-charger personality, Johnny seems a little more of the friendly supportive type, and Sean seemed like he was the guy trying to make sure everything went smoothly and safely in the background.

The student introductions were uneventful, except that one guy drove all the way down from Michigan for the class (everyone was in awe of that). I think one of the students might have been a minority partner in the company? I only realized that one later. Otherwise it was the usual smattering of cops, military, and random dudes off the street like myself. We did have a couple minors (14yro), but they were reasonably good pistol shooters, so no problems there.

This segued into a discussion of why we’re here. I never did get the full story, but apparently Matt had some sort of poor experience in a Walmart frozen foods aisle, and then had a series of bad experiences in Walmart parking lots, which led to the genesis of this class. People spend a lot of time around cars! I know this is true for me. I drive to work. I drive my kids to school (sometimes). I drive to the range. Knowing how to fight in and around cars is important.

Matt then said something which stuck with me, because I wrote it down: “safety is not my top priority.” (The flip-side was that learning was the top priority.) This was jarring, and to be honest, I vehemently disagree with it. If you’re running an open enrollment shooting class – and my readers know I’ve taken a whole bunch – I really, really want to hear that safety is your top concern. If we’re talking about a closed enrollment class where there has been more substantial vetting of who’s coming in – and I don’t mean “lol, they’re LEOs and military!” – I can see making that statement. Running around with guns entails a certain amount of risk, and running around with guns with someone next to you definitely entails a greater amount of risk. I can accept more of that when I know the guy shooting next to me is on point. Random guys off the street… I have more concerns. I stuck it out anyways because I suspected the other instructors might have a different take and that this was a bit of exaggeration, but my feeling is that safety has to be first; not just a close second. (Also, I’d suggest giving students more definite instruction about what’s a “safe” direction – I saw one too many instances of someone just racking one in the chamber while pointed downwards around other people, instead of walking ten feet to the berm to reduce risk. Doing it the fast way is acceptable in an operational environment, but why introduce unnecessary risk in a controlled class environment?)

Anyways, that rant aside, I was impressed with the desire for knowledge transfer both ways. There’s a certain humility that comes with that, and it was clear that the instructors were interested in improving the craft, not just being right. Obviously, I had nothing to add, this is still very new material for me and I’m just a random guy anyways.

The range at the start of the day

The shooting kicked off with a close range gross sight picture / point shooting drill at 3yds. I’m guessing this was the usual “let’s make sure everyone can draw safely” drill. We switched off in relays. It was a nice way to burn twenty rounds of ammo, but I didn’t get a ton out of it.

After doing this, we started talking about how to work around cars. The initial layout of three cars were spaced out at various angles. One of the instructors compared it to a very complex game of four square, which really resonated with me. There was also a discussion of how windows functioned in terms of semi-concealment. The instructors stressed one thing the most throughout the entire class: you cannot let yourself get pinned down in or around a car. You need to keep moving to make sure the other guy cannot trap and kill you. Whether this means a fighting retreat or a more offensive posture depends on the situation, but movement is key. (And, of course, if you have a working car, using that for movement is ideal.)

The first part of the morning was an exploration of how shooting into and through cars worked. We kicked it off with a couple runs of shooting through a windshield from the outside while trying to hit a target in the driver or passenger seat. Some downwards deflection was noticed, but pistols did a fairly credible job of landing some hits.

We then did some shooting from the sides through the side windows. There was a bit of scrambling to make sure the angles were safe for all the students; this was a thing brought up at the AAR after class, and the instructors acknowledged that it would need to be thought through a little further next time. I don’t think it was necessarily unsafe, but I do think there was the risk of a ricochet causing student vehicle damage if things went perfectly wrong.

But shooting through the side windows was an interesting exercise, and it led to our first revelation of the class:

Who said 147gr coated lead couldn’t do some damage?

The first penetration was from my lowly 147gr coated round nose 9mm reloads. These are not hot rounds – Jedi famously accused me of using cheater sub-minor rounds once – and they’re loaded middle of the powder range according to the Lyman load data. One of them managed to punch through the car’s siding and would have made life very unpleasant for someone crouched in the “safety” of the area behind the axle. Keep mind that this was only through one side of the car – it wasn’t a through-and-through shot. Your car as cover in a gunfight is imperfect, to say the least.

This is a lesson that was reiterated all morning; cars are squirrelly things to shoot through. They don’t always do what you expect. This was further reinforced by a demo of shooting 5.56 through the doors of a car. Standard FMJ wouldn’t reliably penetrate. M855 and steel-jacket fared somewhat better in comparison, and were able to punch through relatively reliably.

We then got a chance to try it ourselves. My Wolf Gold either didn’t make it through, or ricocheted/deflected enough that it didn’t hit the target, and my 9mm couldn’t make it through, either. After seeing that, I definitely had some new thoughts about ammunition selection. I’m not sure I’m convinced I need a bunch of M855, but loading up some barrier blind rounds “just in case” seems like a reasonable thing to do, perhaps using Hornady GMX bullets or similar. If I ever take the course again, I’ll have to haul out my 7.62×51 rifle or maybe an AK-74-alike with 7N6 ammo to see how those perform. I guess I was just shocked that my high-speed 5.56 couldn’t punch through both doors… not the expected outcome.

“This is called an SUV.”

After discovering mostly bad things about our ammo selection, we moved into the cars and did some shooting from inside through the windshield. As I’ve mentioned before, this strategy is close to last ditch, if not last ditch entirely. There’s an old saw that every round has a lawyer attached, and shooting through a windshield increases your chance that a round is just going to go in any damn direction imaginable. If you are OCONUS and engaging insurgents, alright, that may be more acceptable. If I’m in a Walmart parking lot, that is adding a lot of potential legal and moral liability to my defensive strategy.

Also, shooting through a windshield is hard. Doubly so when it’s spider-webbed completely and hard to see out of. We ran this drill using a plate rack at about 7-10yds, and some students simply couldn’t hit very much at all even after draining the better part of a magazine. I say all of this as a round-about way of expressing that we spent a lot of time shooting through windshields, which is a ton of fun, but is not seemingly a terribly good strategy. I am surprised we did not spend a little more time on the whole “shoot from behind the pillar of your door while seated” technique, which is a higher probability maneuver in terms of shooting. Perhaps the thought is that if you have to open your door, you have time to move? I don’t know.

Here is Dat leveraging the “shoot from the door” technique, with some success

The last set of drills before lunch were a series of “run around a car, maintaining cover behind pillars, shoot steel targets” drills for each car. This was pretty free-form – you could determine your own round expenditure. I thought it was a good exercise in getting you used to moving around vehicles and getting opportunity fire in on targets. To mix it up a bit, I did the first couple iterations with a carbine to pistol transition, deliberately running my rifle dry in the second run. Since each iteration of the drill was run on a different vehicle, you got a feel for how to maneuver around different sort of vehicles.

At this point, we broke for lunch. The class included lunch, but since I wasn’t going to be eating cheeseburgers, I munched on my own food and had some of the provided chips and drinks. We ate inside the air-conditioned classroom, which went really far in relieving some of the heat-related stress I was feeling as the day warmed up (and the sky cleared up). This was about an hour, and gave some good time for socializing and cooling down.

TD1 (afternoon): Once everyone was done digesting lunch, we moved on to the afternoon drills. More cars were towed in, creating a “parking lot” of eight cars in four rows and two columns. This creates a really dense piece of terrain for training scenarios, and really hammers home how much a parking lot of cars can obscure your vision of what’s going on. I applaud SpartanCore for really leveraging the capabilities of Crucible to enable these training scenarios.

The first drill of the afternoon was the “VIP protection” drill, with the VIP presumed to be a spouse or child. We partnered up, and ran the drill twice, switching off as the VIP and the protector.

I had some concerns walking into this drill. Running up range with loaded guns while trying to manage a second person is not a trivial task. And, no lie, there were a couple times where muzzle awareness dipped a bit with a couple shooters. The instructors were on top of it and called it out immediately. Maybe it would have gone better if we had done dry-runs first, but there’s really only so much time in the day. The intense heat and sun probably didn’t help, either.

However, I really must admit it was one of my favorite drills of the class. Trying to manage a second person while you’re weaving through cars is a real challenge across multiple skills – you’ve got to be able to keep your body on them, give them usable commands, plan your next move, and do all that while laying down accurate fire. Everyone seemed to get the message that holding your head way the hell down as VIP was the way to stay safe, so no close calls or anything like that. One student had brought smoke grenades with them, so they even lobbed one to provide ad-hoc concealment – clever. Not sure if it was extremely effective, but it was funny.

His hair was totally better with the topknot.

This was followed by a true dry drill – a game of cat and mouse, no guns, around the parking lot. One person was the aggressor, the other was the escapee. The escapee needed to try to evade and outmaneuver while keeping an eye on the aggressor. This was a really tough drill – lots of running around, hiding temporarily, etc. My partner hid under a car while I was the aggressor, which worked great until I found them – but it took a while. A few of the escapees did indeed manage to confuse their opponents enough to “win”, but most of the time, they failed – another good reason to not rely on running away as your sole tactic in a situation where you’re being chased.

When in doubt, pop smoke.

The capstone drill was a complex partner drill where you ran from barrier to barrier, jumped in the car, jumped OUT of the car, and then retreated backwards with bounding overwatch. Other than going braindead on movement commands, I thought we executed pretty well.

Once the smoke had cleared – literally – we moved the cars back to the parking lot, tore down the targets, and got some of the glass off the concrete pad. This was followed by a class picture. We then loaded up our cars, and drove back to the classroom building.

Class Debrief: The debrief was in the (blessedly) air-conditioned classroom. The instructors wanted critique, and they got a fair bit, which they handled graciously. I thought this was good of them, and, let’s be real, this is a new course for them, perfection wasn’t really in the cards. I’d also note they got a lot of compliments, and those were well-deserved as well.

Class concluded with handing out coins or T-shirts, as preferred. I chose a T-shirt this time; maybe I’ll grab a coin next time.

Photo stolen right off Facebook because I’m a true rebel

Conclusions: I always have trouble writing conclusions for new classes. By definition, they are imperfect. Instructors learn from running classes about how to run classes better. Expecting a super-fine-tuned experience like you’d get from the 50th iteration of a defensive carbine class in a first-run vehicle class is not realistic. I’m also not a subject matter expert on vehicle tactics, so I am not going to fault them for my own perceptions of what should or should not have gotten taught.

Here is what I’ll say: I liked the class. I’d recommend it for experienced shooters, because I really did get to practice some stuff I don’t do often (or ever). I learned more about gunfighting in a dense environment in a single day than I’ve learned in three years.

But the safety aspects need to be addressed aggressively, and if that means things run a little slower, that may need to be the price paid. There are parts of this AAR that are pretty critical, but none of them are impossible to fix. And for all my nitpicking, let me note that they were at the top of their game in terms of preventing heat stroke, and that is a huge deal safety-wise. Despite what was said at the beginning of the class, I do think safety was the prominent consideration; just the implementation of that needed tuning.

The SpartanCore instructors are cool dudes who bring their experience to the classroom, so to speak. I liked them, and am definitely interested in other things they’re teaching. They’re building a training firm that’s different than the others, and I think the Crossfit/Shooting niche has some legs. It was impressive and inspiring how many class participants were going to compete in The Tactical Games! They also have access to a facility that is almost incomparable to anything else around here.

You can check out SpartanCore’s upcoming courses at their website… and I think it is very likely you will see me at a couple.

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