On the last Thursday of September, I made a religious pilgrimage to one of the holiest sites in Shootingdom.  The monastery of gunfighting, Thunder Ranch.

The course I took was Perfect Storm.  It was three days, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, all focused on handgun shooting.  This is considered the apex of Thunder Ranch pistol courses.  It is taught primarily by bajillion time world champion pistol shooter Rob Leatham, and the Michealangelo of 1911 builders, Jason Burton of Heirloom Precision.

Saturday started in the classroom with Clint Smith going over the philosophy of Thunder Ranch and why he teaches, as well as range policies and procedures.  His vision is very self-defense oriented.  Rob and Jason spoke next.  The reason they came in as instructors was more of the technical nature of shooting.  This class wasn’t just defensive drills, a lot of it was shooting faster, shooting better, and shooting with precision.

After the classroom, we went to the range.  It was cold and wet, and I very much under-packed for the weather.  Rob started us out on the wall drill.  Pointing towards the target, touch the trigger and pull until you feel “the wall” where the trigger is just about to break.  The whole point is to learn your trigger.  Then we drilled on controlled jerking of the trigger.  It’s the idea of pulling the trigger then releasing so you don’t feel for the reset.  The point is to get off the trigger and let it reset as fast as possible so you can get back on and to the wall when your sights come back to target so you can get the next shot off as fast as possible while still in control of the gun.  As past as possible while still in control was the theme of the first two days.  How fast can you shoot and still put rounds where you want them.  A good portion of Saturday afternoon was establishing people’s skill levels so Rob and Jason could help you.

Sunday, we started at the range.  It was still cold and overcast, but at least the rain stopped.  This is when we really started to get into the shooting drills and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone for speed and accuracy.  It was very intense.  If you weren’t shooting, you were reloading.

Sunday lunch we went up to Clint’s house and ate there, where we met his wife Heidi and his sister Sue.  Clint joined us for a little bit.  He is a very nice and funny guy.

The videos on YouTube of his gruff and profane directness are his training persona.  He reminds me of the General George Patton quote “When I want my men to remember something important, to really make it stick, I give it to them double dirty. It may not sound nice to some bunch of little old ladies at an afternoon tea party, but it helps my soldiers to remember. You can’t run an army without profanity; and it has to be eloquent profanity. An army without profanity couldn’t fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag. As for the types of comments I make, sometimes I just, By God, get carried away with my own eloquence.”

After lunch the sun came out and so did Clint to run us through the first series of defensive drills.  Clint would run us through drills, calling out shots, e.g., “one pelvis, two chest, one head.”  Clint is a big advocate of the pelvic shot.  Going so far as to demonstrate by having us track parts of his body with our thumbs to see which moved the most or least, head, chest, and pelvis.  We were expected to react as we would in a defensive shoot.  Yelling at the target to not move, show your hands, etc.

After Clint left, we began flashlight drills.  How to hold and shoot with a flashlight in the support hand.  The point was driven home, weapon lights are great, but in almost every low light defensive shooting (including with police), it starts with a handheld flashlight.

At the end of the day Sunday, we were walked through the famous, Terminator shoot house.  We did a no-gun instruction on room clearing with one of Thunder Ranch’s former LEO instructors.

On Monday, the weather was beautiful.  Each of us, in turn, got to go through a scenario in the shoot house.  Each one was different.  Mine was two guys had broken into my home in the middle of the night and the police response time is an hour.  Even having done a walk through the previous day, it was a nerve-wracking experience.  You can thing about clearing your house all you want, until you try it on two static targets, you have no idea how much more difficult it actually is.  That was probably my biggest learning experience and worth the cost of the trip.  While each person was doing that, the rest of the group was working on one handed drills.

Lunch on Monday was at the house again, and I gat to sat and listen to Clint talk.  I did have the opportunity to give him a patch and tell him about the blog, but I didn’t get a chance to take a picture of him with it.  He thought it was cool.  Rob and Jason got patches too.

After lunch, Clint came out again and did a second round of defensive drills.  These were tougher than the previous day.  He stressed accuracy, with our target being a two-inch circle drawn on the center of our cardboard target.  All hits were supposed to be inside of that.

After our second round of defensive drills, we had fun.  We did some plate rack challenges, I won that among the students.  Then we did a drill called “all you can get.”  Everyone started with seven rounds in the mag and one in the pipe.  On the beep, draw, fire, reload, and keep firing.  Every hit on a steel silhouette at 10 yards was a point until your first miss or the second beep after 10 seconds.  I tied for first at 25 points.

Rob jumped in a scored 21. Granted, he was shooting a single stack and my reload was 20 rounds, but I’m going to go with I beat Rob Leatham.  The other guy I tied with and I did a head-to-head tie breaker, and tied again at 21.  He missed the 22nd shot and I bumbled my reload by holding down the slide stop in a death grip and having to rack the slide instead of dropping it from slide lock.

The last challenge was a quickdraw elimination.  On the beep, draw and fire on a steel silhouette.  Anyone who missed or the last person to hit was eliminated.  Out of 16 shooters, I was the third to the last to be eliminated.  That said, the three of us shot half a dozen times where Rob couldn’t tell who was last.

Once that was over, we picked up brass.  We picked up brass every day.  Clint keeps a very clean range.  Then we went to the classroom for graduation.

In three full days I shot about 1,500 rounds.

It was an amazing experience and I’m glad that I went.


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By J. Kb

3 thoughts on “Thunder Ranch”
  1. Nice!

    On the flashlight bit: I read a while ago a suggestion that a handheld flashlight should be held away from your body (say, at full arm’s length out to the side). The reasoning was that a bad guy might shoot at the light. Did anything like that come up?

    1. Yes, we did that, and that was mentioned as the advantage. But the disadvantage is that you only have the accuracy and control of a one handed grip. There are times when each is appropriate and we drilled in multiple flashlight grip techniques. The cigar or syringe hold was by far the most accurate with the pistol.

  2. Good write up and review.
    Makes me want to head out there and do some “period of mild stress” training. (And, I am sure you will agree, when you have that caliber of trainers watching, you are under mild stress.)
    Interesting comment about the shoot house run through. It is good to be reminded that no matter how many times you practice at home, and you run through it in your mind, actually doing it is entirely new. All of your prep seems to disappear. How many people freeze up, regardless of their training? (pretty much everyone.)

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