AAR – Thunder Ranch Urban Precision Rifle
August 2016: back on the long road from Northwest Ohio to Southern Oregon for another pilgrimage to Thunder Ranch, this time for their Urban Precision Rifle class. This is my 8th time training with Clint and Co. It has been almost 3 years since my last visit, and it occurred to me while crossing the bridge on to the property that it has been far too long.
If you have spent almost any time training with firearms, you have heard of Thunder Ranch and you probably know that Clint has a well-deserved reputation as a living legend in firearms training. The facility is in a beautiful setting, meticulously maintained, and equipped with a plethora of challenging obstacles and targets. In short, it is a shooter’s Heaven.
I first trained at Thunder Ranch in March of 2007 when I made the fortunate decision to add some professional defensive firearms training to my repertoire, which up till that point in time had consisted of almost 20 years of competitive shooting including smallbore rifle, bullseye pistol, and highpower rifle shooting at the National level, in addition to a variety of informal shooting activities. Two important things happened to me in that initial class: first, I more fully realized the awesome responsibility of being armed for the purposes of self-defense. I needed to re-evaluate my entire philosophy on defensive firearms use. The second was that I became a training addict.
Now, almost 10 years and hundreds of professional training hours later, I was back for more.
The class consisted of 9 students, almost all of which had trained at Thunder Ranch even more times than I have. They were all exceptional marksmen (and markswomen), skillful firearms handlers, and all had a great sense of humor. They were the kind of folks it is a pleasure to be on the range with.
The weather in Southern Oregon was very hot, dry, and sunny. Staying hydrated took an effort.
Almost everyone was shooting some variation on a RECCE carbine: 16” barreled AR variants with Trijicon ACOGS being well represented, along with some Aimpoint/Magnifier combos. Everyone’s gear was sensibly configured and serious malfunctions were almost non-existent the entire class. I am a big fan of RECCE pattern guns, and own a few myself, but for this class I wanted to try something just a little different, so I opted to use a Mk12 Mod 1 SPR. The Mk12 is more of a Designated Marksman’s Rifle. Its 18” medium-contour stainless 5.56 match barrel made it a little longer and heavier than most of the other guns on the range, but gave it some extra accuracy capability, especially past 200 yards. I equipped it with a Minox ZP-8, a German-made 1-8X optic with exceptional glass, a first-focal-plane illuminated mil reticle, and .1 mil knobs. This configuration is definitely more suited to prone precision shooting than run ‘n gun, but as the Mk12 has a bit of a cult following among black rifle aficionados in my little corner of Ohio, I felt strangely compelled that this was the rifle for me to use in this class.
Other gear in use: only a few students used any kind of chest rig, most students had belt-mounted mag pouches or drop-leg mag pouches. Some carried spare mags in pockets. With all the controversy about “lowly civilians” (armed citizens) like yours truly using chest rigs, I began the class by carrying my spare mags and support gear in a small shoulder bag just to see it if was viable. I have to admit, at the first break, the shoulder bag came off, and my Bravo Company minimalist chest rig went on. My custom is to feed my rifle with mags from a belt-mounted HSGI “taco” mag pouch, which subsequently gets fed with mags from my chest pouches. This facilitated my mag changes immensely and more than one of the instructors commented on how slick my mag changes were.
Like most classes, this one began with a brief lecture. I have always admired Clint’s instructional style, which combines just the right mix of interesting and relevant historical anecdotes, statistics, personal experience, and humor. Before lunchtime we were on the range verifying zeros.
Now, the Mk12 is primarily designed as a suppressor platform and most of the shooting I do with it is from supported prone or field positions on a bipod. But bipods and suppressors add weight to the front of the rifle and in my experience; frangible bullets don’t work and play well with suppressor baffles. Consequently, I removed both the suppressor and bipod from the rifle the night before class, anticipating mostly offhand and position shooting the first day. I regretted that almost immediately, as we spent the first few hours of class verifying zeros and sight offset holds firing mostly from the prone position at 25,50, 75, and 100 yards. Before I had emptied the first magazine I was thinking wistfully of the ARMS-QD lever equipped, Harris ultralight bipod sitting quietly in my hotel room 15 minutes away at the Fremont Inn in Lakeview. My zero also changed from 100 yards to almost exactly 50 yards. I knew better… this is what happens when you start “inventing” stuff, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, it gave me the chance to get re-acquainted with unsupported prone position shooting. By the afternoon, this became irrelevant, as we moved on to shooting in the sitting, kneeling, and offhand positions, as well as working with mag changes and malfunction clearance. Communication with partners and covering each other’s movements was integrated, along with 360 scans. Speed and efficiency of getting into position was emphasized, as was taking time for good marksmanship fundamentals once in position – particularly natural point of aim and breathing.
Other than the bipod, and zero shift, some other complications I experienced on day one included an unusual number of flyers on shots that I considered “good calls,” which I also initially attributed to ammo. Let’s face it, the rotation from firing those 45 grain poly/copper powder bullets out of my 1 in 8″ twist 18” match barrel was probably pushing their structural integrity.
By the end of the first day, however, I managed to tighten up my groups, and the last string of fire was my best… which is odd considering that upon removing my rifle from the case back at the fiddle table at the end of the day, I felt my scope tube move. The front scope ring had loosened and the scope could actually be wiggled slightly. Thankfully, a set of levels indicated that the scope hadn’t rotated out of “plumb” and the eye relief hadn’t changed. That explained some of the flyers. After I re-torqued the screws properly I was good to go for the rest of the class. The cause of this, by the way, was purely my fault. The ADM mount that I use is a strong, durable mount, but the screws on the bottom need to be tightened first, before the screws on top, otherwise the scope can shift and loosen.
Day 2 started with confirming zeros, (this time with a bipod and a tight optic for me) then straight on to lots of shooting on a dueling tree, steel hostage swinger target, some barricade work, and several runs through the “Terminator” and “Thunderville” firing from loopholes at modest targets. With each run, the instructors… let’s say “gave encouragement” to move and shoot faster, with strong emphasis on muzzle control, safety, and efficiency of movement.
Day 2 ended with intermediate range shooting on the Adam Brown Memorial Range, which isn’t a “green” range, so I was able to remount my Allen Engineering suppressor and switch back to the conventional 68 grain Hornady open tip match rounds that my Mk12 seems to like so well. We engaged targets out to approximately 300 yards, which is where my rifle really began to shine. Being able to dial up to 8 power and use my normal holdovers enabled me to get easy and consistent hits. The AE4 suppressor is an amazingly quiet can, and got a lot of attention from the other shooters on the line. After the prone shooting, we got back into run ‘n gun mode a little by shooting from a series of simulated field conditions such as from roofs, through holes in walls, around rock piles, fences, and even a platform swinging from chains that presented some very difficult shots.
The highlight of my day was scoring a first round hit my second time on the swinging platform, witnessed by the whole class, which involved a great deal of good luck, but I heard someone behind me say “he makes that look easy,” which made me feel immensely proud of myself and my rifle anyway. After taking time to clean and stow gear, shower and freshen up, the class reconvened at Mario’s Restaurant in downtown Lakeview for dinner, joined by Clint, his awesome wife Heidi, and his outstanding cadre of assistant instructors. A good time was had by all.
Day 3 started with zero confirmation again, followed by some multiple target drills, simultaneous shot drills, and several Terminator and Thunderville runs. After lunch, it was back to the Brown range for more obstacle course runs, some barricade shooting with a few curveballs thrown in to make things more interesting, and runs down a “jungle lane” with some interesting shots at targets only partially visible or obscured by brush.
My initial impression of this class was that if you could only afford to take one Thunder Ranch class – this is the one to take, it has a little bit of everything. I have loved every Thunder Ranch class I have taken, and have learned so many valuable lessons there – even when I didn’t realize I was learning them at first. As an instructor, I found this class both impressive and inspiring, and for me it has set the standard by which all other classes will now be judged, a very tough act to follow!
I was very happy with the way my gear performed. The Mk12, despite being somewhat longer and heavier, particularly with the suppressor attached, enabled a greater level of precision marksmanship and gave me some advantage at long range. The Minox ZP-8 functioned flawlessly. If you are looking for a very versatile optic and you don’t mind spending a few bucks, definitely check them out.
At the beginning of this article, I remarked how great the facilities and ranges at Thunder Ranch are, which is absolutely true. Even better is how these facilities are utilized. Students are put into shooting positions and situations that realistically mimic the types of shooting positions and situations they could foreseeably encounter on the 360-degree range, whether they are dealing with Hunting, Law Enforcement, National Defense, Home Defense, or Self-Defense. Every drill was well thought out, and reflects Clint’s instructional genius, not to mention his years of experience. The Thunder Ranch cadre was excellent, very observant of safety protocols, and kept the program running smoothly. I can’t say enough good things about this class.