Sentinel Concepts Practical Shotgun AAR

I make no secret that I like to train with a diverse variety of instructors. I think this makes you a better shooter, and it also gives you a lot more perspective on what you see in classes. In this case, Green Ops was hosting Sentinel Concepts for a shotgun class. Sentinel Concepts is a one-man show run by Steve Fisher, who’s one of the biggest names in the tactical shooting community. Needless to say, I was excited by the opportunity to train with him, and signed up months in advance.

Was it worth it? Read on!

Disclaimers of Sources of Bias: I received no discounts whatsoever for this class. I suppose I might have slight bias due to my long-time relationship with Green Ops, who hosted this class, but I think that’s pretty minimal.

Class Title: Sentinel Concepts Practical Shotgun

Class Description:

An entry-level course where students are familiarized with their shotguns. This class is geared toward those with training outside the basic classes from novice to the intermediate shooter, looking to tune up some skills. Even at this early level, we expect students to have an understanding of various methods of reloading, weapon manipulation and most importantly muzzle awareness and safety.

From the website

Cost: $250 course fee, plus $30 range fee. Not one of the cheaper classes I’ve taken, but not unreasonable for a full day course by a visiting instructor.

Round Count: Round count was not given. We were told bring a minimum of 300 birdshot shells and 30 buckshot shells. I would say we probably shot maybe 125-150 birdshot, and 10-15 buckshot at most. Given current ammo shortages, going a bit under the ammo count isn’t so bad, but I would have brought a few boxes less if I had known.

Instructors: Steve “Yeti” Fisher. Steve is a long-time industry trainer, perhaps most famously being one of the people involved with Magpul Dynamics back in the day, and being a frequent guest on the Primary & Secondary podcast. He does a lot of private LE agency instruction outside of his open classes. You can see his full bio on the Sentinel Concepts website.

I’m not sure if this is going to sound like fanboyism, but based on my experience in this class, Steve deserves all the praise he’s given and probably more. He’s funny, he’s tough, he’s knowledgeable, and he’s damned good at what he’s teaching, but he’s also a shockingly nice guy behind that rough exterior. His interactions with the students balanced tough love with enhancing the learning experience and giving help when it was genuinely needed in just the right mix. I certainly learned a few things about teaching from him.

Location/Date: June 6, 2021, from 9AM-3PM. The class was scheduled to go to 5PM, but the hot and sunny weather was just wearing everyone down, myself included.

As mentioned previously, this class was hosted by Green Ops at the “Stone Quarry” range in Culpeper, VA. It’s a modestly improved range with some picnic tables and a couple porta-potties. A few tents were erected to help shield us from the sun, with some success. Given the amount of use the range gets, I am surprised that a more permanent shelter hasn’t been set up yet.

Weather: It started off fairly pleasant – 80f and cloudy – but then turned into a 95f scorcher of a day. Water breaks were frequent.

Equipment Details: I brought two shotguns with me: my 870 with Surefire handguard, Aridus upgrades, and Magpul stock, plus my MOA Precision-upgraded Stoeger M3K (no side saddle). I shot both quite a bit in class. I preferred the M3K quite a bit – I’m a semi-auto guy at heart. Ammo was some Winchester Super-X #6 pellets that I was trying to burn through since they’re not 3gun legal at my usual clubs. Both shotguns had slings – one a BFG Vickers, the other a VTAC upgraded sling. (I preferred the BFG.)

In terms of gear, I started off the day with the OSOE 12ga Micro Rig with H harness and hydration pouch (including a 72oz bladder). I had relative success with this in a previous class, but I had more problems with it in this class. The weight and heat really knocked me down (even with the ability to drink from the bladder, which I did), and I found that the sling on my shotgun really messed with the shell holders on my chest. I ditched it after lunch and borrowed a shell pouch from Yeti, which worked well enough.

Preparation Drills: Just weekly shooting practice with rifles and pistols at my kid’s SASP practices.

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 all white, but there were a couple women and a younger person (15?) there. Shotguns were almost all a combination of Remington 870s and Beretta 1301s. A couple iconoclasts like myself were running Benelli-action guns, but we were definitely in the minority. I was personally surprised at how many 1301s showed up, but I suppose you’re not signing up for classes with Steve Fisher unless you did a little research beforehand.

Experience levels varied. I don’t think most of the class had taken a shotgun class before. There were a few guys who ran their shotguns quite well, a few who were alright, and a few who consistently had trouble. Interestingly enough, no shotguns went down hard that I was aware of.

TD1 (morning): Before we really got started, Steve relayed some of the history of the class to us, which was that it had started out a four day LE course, which turned into a two day civilian course, which then turned into this one day civilian course. Fair enough. If I’m remembering the discussion correctly, he basically felt there were really four areas that you needed to figure out for basic proficiency with a shotgun:

  1. Patterning
  2. Recoil Management
  3. Loading
  4. Accessories

This functioned as our rough syllabus for the class. You can get a reasonable amount of teaching in for those areas in a single day. Obviously, more advanced topics like moving and shooting, short-stocking, and so on would have to wait for a different day.

The class began with student introductions. No big surprises here. Maybe the most interesting of them was one woman who had been taught by Steve previously at a women’s shooting conference and wanted to do some follow-up training with him. There were a couple people I knew from online and previous classes – the training community is big in this area, but it’s not that big.

This was followed by the medical and safety brief. If nothing else, Steve was crystal clear that muzzling would be tolerated under no circumstances, and that it would be an instant ticket home. His medical brief was… thorough. I don’t think I’ve ever had an instructor tell the class precisely how they would be treated in the case of an accidental gunshot wound, but Steve’s detailed and graphic descriptions were strangely encouraging. Thankfully, no such medical knowledge was required, and everyone left with the same number of holes they came with.

One of the things I liked about this class was that Steve was a realist, and really didn’t have a lot of dogma about what he taught. He advised us as to what he felt was best for law enforcement and regular civilians (and why), and didn’t really get worked up about ammo capacity or what exact model of gun and so on. According to him, very few shotgun fights for regular civilians go beyond 2-3 rounds, so it seems to follow that you need to focus on making those first 2-3 really count. Of the two cops we had at the class, one of them wasn’t even authorized to use lethal rounds in a shotgun, so the law enforcement context can also vary widely.

Steve went into one of his four syllabus items right away: a discussion of shotgun accessories. I’m not going to try to reproduce this point by point. I’ll say that one tidbit of knowledge I found particularly fascinating was some conjecture on why shotguns all seem to pattern differently. He noted, in particular, that barrel flex seemed to be a real contributor, and that the mil-spec Mossberg 590A1’s patterned tighter potentially because of the heavy walled barrel (and resulting less flex). He also wasn’t a big fan of ghost rings due to the failure rate on them – I love ghost rings, personally, but this did give me something to think about. He also expressed a lot more love for the KSG than I was expecting – apparently it’s a good choice for smaller shooters, even if the manual of arms may not be optimal.

After this accessories discussion, we moved on to shooting. The first drill of the day was a patterning drill. We shot our shotguns at 5, 10, 15, and 20 yds, and saw what happened with the patterns. In retrospect, I think I may have screwed this up and accidentally used some bulk buckshot for a couple of the shots (instead of just Federal Flite Control 8 pellet). Interestingly, even the bulk buckshot still worked out OK at 20yds with paired with an IC choke on my 870. But the FFC was like a laser close-in – just super tight patterns that were a single (big) hole. Other people got much, much larger spreads from their guns, sometimes missing the B8 target entirely by non-trivial amounts. I think it follows that if you’re going to use a shotgun for defensive purposes, you should really pattern the gun first (or maybe buy Federal Flite Control if that’s not an option).

One of the things you always notice with patterning drills is where your shot wads end up. Steve said something very interesting, which is that wads were potentially lethal, especially if you hit someone in the eye or something. I never really thought hard about where my wads ended up – I’m putting buckshot in people, not wads! – but perhaps I’ll be looking a little more closely in the future.

We had a bit more ammo discussion at this point. We had one 20 gauge user, who Steve recommend Remington #3 buckshot for. He also demonstrated the “old” Vang Comp barrels and their vertical dispersion with Federal Flite Control. To me, this sort of knowledge is what really sets instructors apart, even if it’s not something that personally applies to me. (Later in the class, he also posited that Federal Flite Control’s ultra small patterns at closer ranges would make you slower in a real fight due to the need for a more precise aiming point. Mixed feelings about that, but still thinking it over.)

At this point, we took a brief water break and had some discussion about whether birdshot is a viable load for defense, and about whether steel shot is usable as a defensive load. “Yeti”‘s answers surprised me slightly on these topics: he diverged a little from what I commonly read on the Internet, but his answers were intelligent and defensible, so I definitely learned something here.

Now, we moved into the recoil management and loading part of the class. Steve brought forward two recoil management strategies: aggressive full loading of the shotgun (eg, tucking it in tight and taking an aggressive forward position), and the popular “push-pull” that I had used in other classes. If you are not familiar with push-pull, basically right before you pull the trigger, you exert forward pressure on the front half of the gun (“push”) while pulling the gun into your shoulder. This is an old submachinegun technique, but it works great on shotguns.

A couple things he added that I thought were interesting was to try to position the shotgun in a softer area of your chest (eg, not the pectoral), and to be careful about wrapping your thumb around a traditional stock (since it could hit you in the face during recoil). In fact, I got sloppy and had my thumb hit me in the face during recoil, so #facts and all that. Steve demo’d recoil management quite impressively. His gun barely rose at all.

Port loading stressed bringing the ammo to the gun (and not the gun to the ammo) and ensuring positive control of the shotgun (not so unlike an AR-15 during a reload). However, Steve said something that really stuck with me was his rule of thumb about when to over the gun and under the gun when pulling shells randomly from a pouch or side saddle: if the brass portion of the shell is on your thumb, go over the gun. If the brass portion of the shell is on your pinky, go under the gun. I’d never quite heard it expressed like that before, and it’s something I’d like to practice at home to see how well it works for me.

The drills related to this were the usual port loading and then multi-shot drills. I did the port loading drills, but started feeling my heart rate rise and my stomach start to become upset, so I took a breather, used the porta-a-potty, and drank some more fluids in my car in the AC. Yes, your beloved author was on the verge of heat stroking out. This is not really the most manly thing you can admit to, but I’d rather have a damaged ego than become a heat casualty, and I think I made the right call.

I suspect that my OSOE 12ga Micro Rig was a prime culprit in causing this. Functionally, it’s not a bad chest rig, and there are things I really like about it, but like 8 lbs of gear and water on you in 90f heat plus carrying a heavy shotgun around really takes its toll on you even if you’re hydrating like crazy. I dumped the chest rig after lunch for a dump pouch and didn’t have any problems for the rest of the day. Lesson learned… need to start working out in a plate carrier (or perhaps working out more period).

Anyways, I got myself back together, headed back out, and got there basically in time for lunch to be called.

TD1 (afternoon): After enjoying my gourmet slice of leftover pizza and a diet Peach Snapple, I emerged from my car ready to get down to business. I borrowed a dump pouch from Steve, filled it full of birdshot, and grabbed my Stoeger M3K to see how I would enjoy that semi-auto life.

We started the afternoon off with a call-out drill, which, if I’m remembering it correctly, was basically a “shoot X, load X” drill. Unlike everyone else who was trying to do a port and then a tube load, I was able to just stuff shells straight into my tube when the gun locked back and get it straight into action without futzing with a port load or even my bolt release. I really cannot stress enough how much of a game changer this is in terms of comfort and reliability, and I was shocked at how much difference it made with “tactical-style” loading. Throughout the afternoon, I felt like I was loading faster than nearly anyone else in the class when my support equipment was set up correctly. (I’m sure the port being opened up a bunch didn’t hurt, either.)

This was followed by a rolling thunder drill. Rolling thunder drills are a thing in shotgun classes, and basically dude #1 fires a shot, dude #2 fires a shot, and it goes down the line like that. But then when the last guy fires and calls “out”, dude #1 is supposed to immediately fire 2 shots, dude #2 shoots 2 shots, and so on. This repeats until everyone’s shot 6 shots in a single “wave” (roll of thunder?). The trick here is that you’ve got to shoot fast and then reload while the other guys on the line are still shooting. If you’re loading while the guy next to you is shooting, you’re holding up the train, so there is a real element of stress involved. I enjoyed the drill, and didn’t hold up the train much at all.

The last technique of the day was strong-hand loading with your gun controlled on your shoulder. This is a very popular 3gun shotgun reloading technique (albeit weak hand reloading has become more in vogue lately), but Steve presented it as a way to enable white light use while executing reloads, which is really quite a clever application of a gamer technique into the “real world”. I practice strong hand reloading, albeit not from a side saddle or dump pouch, so this was kind of an interesting experience. I didn’t love it from the 870 side saddle, but I also don’t really practice this with my 870, either… Steve posited that the standard for normal people should be to reload one round per second, which is fast, but not unattainable. Just takes practice.

The final drill was strong-hand reloading rolling thunder. This went very well for me with my M3K, even pulling shells randomly out of a dump pouch. Full runs of rolling thunder burned 35 shells each, so you can start seeing where the round counts could escalate dramatically with more repetitions. Steve referenced an even higher round count variant of this drill where you burned 60+ shells, which I’m sure would have been quite a challenge (and probably where the high minimum ammo count for the class came from).

We wrapped up class a bit under 2 hours early due to the heat. After concluding our shooting, we stowed our shotguns and did some brass (plastic?) policing and tore down the range. A rake was used to collect the spent shotgun shells, which GREATLY aided in the speed of clean up. Neat trick, and I wish it worked for brass.

Class Debrief: We gathered around, talked about our final thoughts, and then got a handshake and challenge coin from Yeti. There was a little discussion about the follow on to this, and it sounded like maybe we’ll get a level 2 version of the class next year.

Conclusions: As a long-time P&S podcast listener, I had always been very interested in training with guys like Steve Fisher, Bill Blowers, Chuck Pressburg, and so on. So when Steve came to town, I definitely wanted in on that. But I also know there’s a reason that the saying is “you should never meet your heroes”, so I walked in with a bit of trepidation. Thankfully, that turned out to be an ill-founded worry. Steve lived up to his reputation in every way and proved to be an excellent instructor. I thoroughly enjoyed this shotgun class, and I learned a lot from it. I highly recommend it.

I also, frankly, need to get my shotgun situation in order. The 870 isn’t a bad home defense option, but pumping it all day at a class sucks, and I should get a 1301 Tac or Comp when gun prices normalize. Heck, even a Stoeger M3000 properly worked over by MOA Precision would have done what I needed. My shell carrying rig didn’t hold up well with a sling or a hot summer day. I think a battle belt with HSGI Tacos and Aridus Q-DC “cards” would have been a much faster, easier mechanism for quick loading side saddles back up (if not rather more expensive).

Also, kudos to Green Ops for hosting this class. Between Sentinel Concepts, Contact & Control Techniques & Tactics, and Modern Samurai Project, they’ve really enhanced their offerings in this area. Also, Luke has really bumped up the head gear game for the entire organization, just look at this fantastic hat:

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