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Fishbreath Hefts: ALICE (large) Hellcat Pack Review Part I

The year is 1975. The brand-new ALICE load-carrying equipment has been released, and it brings relief for American soldiers worldwide from a system of equipment which has its roots in the mid-1950s. Improved webbing, nylon for everyone, not just the men in Vietnam, better pouches, suspenders, and belts, and at last, a proper frame pack as part of the general issue kit1, with both a medium and large rucksack available.

ALICE generally, though it’s an interesting system and what I would call the first truly modern American load-carrying equipment pattern2, is not our topic for today. Our topic for today is, instead, the ALICE pack frame, its associated belts and straps, and the large ALICE rucksack.

First, the frame. Primarily constructed of tubular aluminum, it also has some flat aluminum crossmembers for rigidity. Some D-rings at the top provide a place for shoulder straps to attach, and the waist pad attaches through larger D-rings at the bottom. Some holes in the waist pad bracing provide bottom attachment points for the shoulder straps. The ALICE straps need no further attachment points, and accordingly, the frame doesn’t provide them.

Next, the rucksack itself. As packs go, it’s very large, but not quite as large as your average expedition pack. I’ve seen figures from 3800 to 5000 cubic inches cited (about 65L to 80L, for you metric fans/backpackers), which ranges from ‘enough for long trips with smart packing’ to ‘enough for long trips’. Curiously, given American experience in Vietnam, the pack itself is not waterproof3. There is a waterproof compartment in the lid, but it isn’t large enough to fit much or rated for heavy weights. The pockets and main compartment all feature drain holes to let out any water that gets in.

Speaking of external pockets, it has six: three large ones at the bottom, and three smaller ones nearer the top of the pack. The bottom pockets close by means of straps, as does the main pack; the bottom pockets, at least, feature snaps for quick-opening goodness4. The main compartment is divided in two; a smaller, secondary compartment on the frame side has inside compression straps. (It might also be a place to put a water bladder, if you have such a thing.) This compartment is absurdly spacious by backpacking standards; although it isn’t especially large in the absolute sense, the maximum cross-sectional area of the pack is significantly greater than your average modern backpacking pack5 of the same size. The outside of the pack is festooned with gear attachment points, loops of fabric through which you can tie, lash, or otherwise secure equipment to the pack. Of course, being a 1970s-vintage pack, it has none of the modern conveniences like bottom access, vertically separated internal compartments, a built-in rain cover, a dedicated hydration bladder compartment, zippers, a water bottle pocket… In the interests of saving space, let me say this instead. It is a large sack with pockets. That’s about all there is to it.

The large pack fits onto the frame by means of a large padded envelope at its top edge, as well as some retaining straps which attach to the frame near the bottom. The padded envelope at the top does double duty as the padding on the pack side of a more modern yoke. And, to be honest, it doesn’t do a very good job.

Let’s back up a bit first. I ordered an ALICE pack from an eBay surplus outlet because I wanted something I could take on backpacking trips (in particular, a camping trip for the upcoming eclipse) that I couldn’t break, and something which wouldn’t break the bank. Military surplus fits the bill on both accounts, and ALICE is cheaper and yes, more hipster than the current state-of-the-American-art, MOLLE6. Then I put it on, and realized that, although the frame and pack are solid, the parts you actually have to wear are not.

First: the shoulder straps. That’s literally all they are. Very little padding and no sternum strap. Nobody ever told the GI of the day that soldiering would be easy, but for a pack designed to carry a load of seventy pounds7, adding an extra eight ounces of softness in the straps seems like a no-brainer that the Army managed to brainlessly miss. The waist belt is a similar case: the padding reaches more or less from kidney to kidney; the official name for the padded piece is the ‘kidney pad’. It’s maybe three inches from top to bottom and eight across, and remember, behind the kidney pad there are two D-rings to hold it and nothing else. The pad has to isolate the wearer from a lot of force applied over a very small area. It doesn’t pay to skimp. Lastly, the padded envelope at the top of the pack does not do a very good job at keeping the frame off of the wearer’s back. I wore it for five minutes unloaded, and there was very little comfort to speak of. Something would have to change.

Fortunately, there is a solution. The ALICE pack is still popular among some ex-military who liked it during their days in the service, and also has a following among the prepper crowd8, as well as in the cheap-outdoorsman crowd (to which yours truly belongs). Someone from one or another crowd worked out how to attach the MOLLE yoke and waist belt to the ALICE frame, making what the internet calls the ALICE Hellcat9. Since I had foreseen the problems with the raw ALICE gear, I ordered some surplus MOLLE items at the same time. The MOLLE pack straps are a proper yoke, with padding for the upper back; the MOLLE waist pad is gigantic—it wraps around nearly to the front of my hips—and both stiffer and softer than the ALICE equivalent.

I won’t repeat the build instructions here; you can find them pretty easily by searching for ‘ALICE Hellcat’. After some time spent in assembly10, and some time spent with a kitchen lighter melting a frayed strap end back to something approaching integrity, I was ready to try it out. Most of my camping gear lives away from my apartment, so I had to improvise. A pillow on the bottom of the pack simulated a sleeping bag. A pair of ammo cans and a bunch of 7.62×39 simulated my heavy kit—rations, tent, mess and cooking equipment. Those ended up pushed against the frame by ‘clothes’, another pillow stuffed in the front and top of the pack. I cinched everything down, put the pack on, and tightened up up the straps. All told, the load was about 35 pounds, and the pack weighs five or six pounds itself.

And it was surprisingly comfortable. I’ve heard bad things about ALICE, even with the MOLLE upgrades, but in ten minutes of wearing the pack around my apartment11 with a fairly heavy load by backpacking standards12, I experienced neither the bounce and wobble people talk about (the MOLLE waist belt doesn’t quite fit the ALICE frame perfectly; it’s a touch loose) nor the frame digging into my back at any point. I should note that I’m very nearly ALICE-sized: the frame was designed with a 5’10” man in mind, and I am a 5’9″ man. Larger or smaller people may have different experiences. The MOLLE straps in particular are a worthwhile investment. Proper padding at the top of the pack is payoff enough for the price of admission. Beyond that, they also have a sternum strap and load-adjustment straps, so you can change the weight balance between hips and shoulders on the fly. Beyond the serious ergonomic gains, I now have some spare ALICE attachment straps I intend to loop through some of the lashing points for utility purposes. For instance, they may carry my Pattern 37 British canteen, so I have some water on the outside of the pack. In a similar vein, I expect I could use them to secure other parts of my Pattern 37 webbing to the pack if I need extra capacity.

That’s all the testing I did—or at least all the testing I’m going to report before the inaugural trip. “It works in my apartment” is not a ringing endorsement of outdoors gear, and there are some outstanding questions about this setup. Will my frame attachment straps hold? Does the pack provide adequate access to supplies on the march? Will the lack of waterproofing be a serious problem? The trip is in about two weeks, and although it’s only an overnight, it should provide a much better indication of how the Hellcat Light works in actual practice. Expect Part II after I return.


  1. It’s my understanding that frame packs were issued starting in about 1965, but they were issued alongside the 1956 and 1967-pattern load-carrying gear, rather than being part of either set. 
  2. I think a reasonable marker for modern load-carrying gear is, “Has an associated frame pack.” By that measure, the British didn’t have modern load-carrying gear until the Pattern of 1985 PLCE. 
  3. It may be that American experience in Vietnam suggested that making something with as much stitching as pack waterproof was doomed from the start. Troops were issued waterproof liners of various sizes instead. 
  4. Not as quick as a zipper, obviously. 
  5. The ALICE packs had to fit above a pistol belt, so rather than build tall, they built wide and deep instead. 
  6. It’s a shame we didn’t name our other web kit so creatively. BETTY in WW2, say. I suppose acroynm-sanity is a modern phenomenon. 
  7. S.L.A. Marshall wasn’t even dead yet, and he still would have been rolling in his grave. 
  8. Because it’s surplus, and preppers love them some surplus. 
  9. Technically, the standard Hellcat is a medium ALICE ruck on the ALICE frame. The medium pack rides high enough to put a MOLLE sleep system carrier beneath it, attaching to some of the pack lashing points. This makes for a pack about as large as the unmodified large ALICE rucksack in volume terms, with extra compartmentalization, which substitutes for bottom access. If ever I’m interested in a serious backpacking trip, though, I can still add the sleep system carrier and/or MOLLE sustainment pouches; doing both with the large rucksack makes a pack with something like 8000 cubic inches/130L of volume, which is more gear than I could carry for very far. 
  10. When connecting the MOLLE straps to the ALICE frame, the attachment straps make two laps. Once around the frame, once through the buckle, then repeat around the frame and through the buckle again. Otherwise they slip. 
  11. To my wife’s amusement. 
  12. I’m not an experienced backpacker by any means, but it’s my understanding that packs north of thirty pounds are out of vogue among the lightweight backpacking set nowadays. 

Some Thoughts On DCS: Part I

Eagle Dynamics’ flight sim DCS World is, on its surface, an impressive achievement. It’s the most beautiful game in its genre of the modern era, and one of the most exhaustive. Only the big players in civilian flight sims surpass it in terms of aircraft and theater variety, and nothing beats the complexity of its flight dynamics and systems modeling.

And yet, it remains a niche title. Why? I have three reasons: the engine, the ecosystem, and the community. Today, let’s look at the first.

Wait, wasn’t the engine a big pro? You’ll note I said it was pretty, and nothing more. I will grant it’s also fairly easy on performance for what it is, provided you haven’t added too many planes.

It falls down on the job in four crucial areas, though. First, it has no ‘bubble’ system a la Falcon 4, and can’t handle especially large numbers of units. There’s no good way to build and populate an entire front with opposing forces, and the lack of a true front line makes large-scale war scenarios very hard to do. It also means that the enormous bomber boxes from Battle of Britain 2 are still contained solely to Battle of Britain 2. Lacking the capability for large numbers of units makes even excellent innovations like MBot’s lua-script dynamic campaign engine less enjoyable than the pushing-20-year-old competition.

Second, there are currently two versions of DCS. DCS 2.1 is the new branch, which supports the payware Nevada and Normandy maps. DCS 1.5 is the legacy branch, which only has the Caucasus/Georgia map, but is also more reliably stable. This is a terrible state of affairs. Third-party developers have to keep their code up to date against two highly distinct versions of DCS, and these third-party developers are to a man small indie-style shops. They don’t have the developer resources to support two branches and build new products, and it shows. (More on this later.)

Third, developers can’t release standalone module updates. Module updates, as far as I can tell, require a full DCS recompilation. If a show-stopping bug makes it out of testing, players are pretty much out of luck until Eagle Dynamics can scrape together a hotfix. I have no idea why this should be the case, in this age of dynamic loading and so on. I suspect one of two things: either limitations in the engine, which does date back in some places to the Lock-On Modern Air Combat days, or a misguided attempt to prevent unauthorized third parties from accessing the high-end flight modeling features. The first issue could be fixed by a little work, and the second is a bad solution in search of a solved problem. Code signing is a thing. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Fourth, the simulation engine is extremely creaky. We’ll start with the scripting system. Not only is it difficult to use (fortunately, there are some scripting frameworks which wrap the inscrutable API), the API occasionally changes with no notice, breaking old missions. The mission editor, which is a key piece of any game that doesn’t have a dynamic campaign, is clunky and poorly integrated with the simulation engine. Its support for scripting is basically nil, to the point that it’s dramatically better to edit mission scripts in Notepad than in the mission editor itself. It may be a bit much to ask for a proper lua development environment in a flight simulator, but a full-screen text editing window would be nice, at the very least.

The simulation engine also lacks some crucial features for the sort of game Eagle Dynamics is trying to make. Most of the major omissions center on radar and electronic warfare. A third party, Heatblur Simulations, fields the current state of the art in DCS radar technology with the Viggen’s ground-mapping setup. Eagle Dynamics is scheduled to come back to the forefront with the DCS Hornet, but that still leaves all their other planes using a lightweight system which dates back to the Lock-On days. Aspect is unimportant but for notching, jammers are simple noise which only protect your aircraft, chaff (and countermeasures generally) only affects missiles locked on you (so Vietnam- or Viggen-style chaff corridors are impossible). The list goes on. Certainly, radar modeling is hard, but that’s no reason not to do it.

So much of Eagle Dynamics’ attention has been focused on paying work—modules, engine upgrades, new theaters—that they’ve let their underlying technology fall by the wayside. In the long run, that’s unsustainable, and I only hope that they can find the time to fix what needs to be fixed before the ongoing, accumulated debt catches up with them.

(More) Testing the RMR and Irons

I’ve spilled plenty of virtual ink on slide-mounted red dots. Specifically, the RMR. When last we left the subject, I found it less than ideal for unconventional presentations. Of course, class being class, I’m not always getting good, apples-to-apples comparisons. And I’m not always able to get a chance to record data.

So I thought I might spend a little time on my club’s new Quick Draw Range with a timer and some pistols. Out came the Glock 34. Out came the Glockblaster. Time for some work. I did two five shot strings with each pistols. A quick coin flip said the irons would go first. I alternated pistols between strings. All tests were from the 7 yard line, square to the target for the standard draw. I care more about the overall results, and the second strings, i.e. after I’ve gotten ‘warmed up’ for comparison purposes here. No test is perfect, but here’s my rather unscientific data:

G34 String 1GBL String 1G34 String 2GBL String 2
1.361.361.261.11
1.321.381.271.33
1.401.411.261.16
1.481.361.171.04
1.281.171.231.24
Avg: 1.37Avg: 1.34Avg: 1.26Avg: 1.18

Sigh. Okay. Let’s draw some conclusions from the data. First, I need to practice more. There’s a lot of variability in there. I need to iron that out. And I need to get faster. Further, we can see that the red dot pistol is faster on average, both cold and when warmed up.

As I said before, everything is a compromise. I think red dots are a good one overall, if you’re willing to put the time in to practice. I’d also like to get and try a frame mount. Frame mounts add bulk, but make the dot significantly easier to track in recoil. There’s an obvious shootability win there, but I’d have to see one in person to determine what I think of the increased bulk. Stay tuned.

PII: A Useful Cooperism

The Great Col. Jeff Cooper coined a fascinating and useful term, PII, ‘Preoccupation with Inconsequential Increments.” To wit, in his own words:

Years ago we coined the appellation, “Preoccupation with Inconsequential Increments,” or PII. This peculiarity lies in attributing importance to measurable deviations so small as to be meaningless. You see it in the people who shoot test groups in rifles, awarding a prize to a group which is only thousandths of an inch smaller than those unrewarded. One sees it in speed records awarded in one-thousandths of one mile-per-hour. One sees it in basketball scores which, nearing the century mark, are separated by less than three points. In all such cases Score A is “better” than Score B, but who cares?

An increment may be termed inconsequential when it has no significant relationship to the purpose of the exercise. Of course if the purpose of the exercise is in itself inconsequential some may not think this to be foolish. A very distinguished general at Quantico once caused the sign to be placed over the exit door of every office asking, in brilliant scarlet and gold, “What are you trying to do?” There was a man who knew more about human nature than most.

The Colonel knew what he was talking about. Know what one is trying to achieve. Beware the obsession with minutia that don’t really matter.

The enumeration of specific examples of PII is an exercise that I shall leave to the reader, who will no doubt find it enlightening.

Visible Lasers for Carbines

On pistols, I know many trainers who’ve had very good experiences with visible laser sights on pistols. The late Todd Green was a big fan, for example. Laser sights work well for target-focused shooting and shooting problems involving unusual shooting positions. They also reduce time to first shot, which is big from a defensive standpoint.

Do they make sense on a carbine?

Clearly, the answer is yes if one is using night vision devices. IR lasers are tops at night, if you’re hunting hogs or scum.

What about visible lasers? Visible lasers can be had for a lot less than IR ones. That much is obvious. Also, the nature of the laser means that a red dot or low power variable optic will make the most sense as the primary sight for most. If one had a gas mask on, the laser would be a much better choice as a primary sight.

This points to some of the use cases that might make lasers helpful. The laser will naturally make shots from nonstandard positions easier, because we don’t have to get all the way behind the gun to get a good sight picture. The laser can help.

We might also expect the laser to help on getting faster first shots, because we don’t have to get the rife all the way up before getting our initial shot off. I would love to test this in match conditions. And yes, this is a very gamer reason for a laser. Yeah, I’m a gamer.

Another thought for the laser is as a backup sighting device. We love backups. Normally, people mean ‘backup iron sights’. But iron sights are very different from a red dot or other optical sights. Lots of people have backup irons on their guns, but don’t practice with them. I’m pretty sure plenty of people don’t even zero them. Or, you could use a laser, which is going to give you a similar ‘colored dot in a tube’ as your red dot.

A brief word on sight models. As usual, there are some high end military type models available for quite a bit of coin. For experimentation purposes, I’m not going to be getting one of these. I’m going to start with a Crimson Trace Railmaster, which is a bit cheaper than a high-quality BUIS set. It’s not as durable as an ATPIAL, but it’s a lot cheaper. And it should let me evaluate the concept fine. Given my expected use cases, I’m not concerned about the relative lack of durability.

Red Dot Pistols In Class

I attended a pistol class this past Saturday. As ever, it was awesome. This time, I decided to try something a little different. I brought my Glock 17 with slide-mounted RMR. No compensator.

Knowing the instructors, I figured this class would focus on the short ranges typical of defensive handgun encounters for the CCW holder. I also knew this class would have plenty of unconventional presentations. I would not always start square to the target standing straight and tall. Plus, there would be plenty of mindset aspects that would ensure that I wouldn’t be focusing on my draw and presentation.

In short, this would be a great test of the RMR in conditions that wouldn’t be in its favor. To make this test as focused as I could, I used the same holster and weaponlight combo that I would normally use on my Glock 34.

I found that the RMR was, as expected, disadvantaged by class conditions. I found myself slower when I didn’t have a chance to focus on a good presentation, and when I wasn’t starting from the ‘standard squared-up draw’ that I practice a lot. Overall, the Glock 34 worked better in these class conditions.

Why is this? And why does the RMR work a lot better in the competition setting? In the competition setting, you get a draw once per stage, and there are many subsequent shots. These shots may be against very small targets, or targets at significant range. Here, even a slide-mounted dot can provide a noticeable advantage. Also, the draw is usually from a conventional, reasonably-squared off stance. So, in a competition setting, there’s a net advantage to the dot, even if your presentation isn’t perfect.

Clearly, I need some more practice with the red dot. Or, maybe everything is a compromise, and the dot may not always be the best choice for everyone all of the time.

Parvusimperator Talks on the Value of Competition

Near the Many Words HQ is a monthly (at least from April to November) two-gun match. Both Fishbreath and myself have found it tons of fun. There are lots of great other competitions out there, including USPSA and IDPA and IPSC. They’re lots of fun too.

Do these competitions have some training value? Sure! They get you out of the rigid, fuddy rules you find at most square ranges. Here you can move and shoot and apply your firearms skills to various problems. Excellent! Plus, you get to talk to other shooters about approaches and gear. All of which is highly valuable.

Further, matches introduce a stress component, which will cause little things to become a problem. Little things that you would not have noticed before. And it helps you to become inoculated to stress to practice having to deal with it. Note that I am not claiming that match stress is the equal of combat stress. I haven’t been in combat, and the comparison is probably disingenuous at best. They are different animals, but some work under stress is certainly better than no work under stress. Giving you some stress to work under in a safe environment can do nothing but help.

Now, there are those who complain about gun games. They will tell you that real targets don’t always present themselves in convenient normal silhouette orientations, they don’t stand still, they do shoot back, and (at least the clever ones will mention) that for the concealed carrier the decision to draw or not to draw is the hardest part. I would respond that all of these complaints are completely true. But what would you have us do?

Well, you could not have fun and not go to a match, and ignore all of the helpful things I’ve mentioned. That’s an option, and you’re welcome to it, if you’re an idiot or if you hate fun. You could also insist on MORE REALISM! but that way can get dangerous. Remember, a competition needs to be safe. And it needs to be accessible. And it really ought to be fun, or else people won’t come and then you won’t have a match. So let’s think critically about these complaints.

Targets should shoot back? How, pray tell, should we do this? Force on force? Fair enough. It’s the most dangerous kind of training, and most people don’t have simunitions guns, and have never done it before, and you’ll need lots of supervision, and you’ll have to use a specialized shoot house since you’ll need to contain any errant rounds, and it’ll take a lot of setup, and you’ll need to find people to be the “bad guys” and get shot a lot all day. I wish you all the best of luck in this. It’s a lot easier to set up an ordinary match with ordinary steel and cardboard targets on an ordinary range.

Targets don’t move? Well, nothing says we can’t make steel and cardboard targets move. It just takes a little effort. Lots of matches I’ve been to had some moving targets. And usually, people in a fight won’t move all of the time, because they might want to shoot back, and shooting on the move is hard.

As for the decision to draw, ok, you got me. To do this right, you need those simguns again, and experienced roleplayers to set up scenarios. Those people can be hard to find, and they have to be willing to get shot with simguns (read: paintballs) a lot. Plus, it’s a shooting match. Spoiler alert: there’s some shooting involved.

Really though, matches are fun. Go shoot them. You’ll improve your skills.

Carbine Class Lessons: Equipment

A couple weekends ago, I went to a Carbine 1 class. I had a great time. Classes are a great way to build skills. And, also a good place to test equipment and compare notes.

I brought Bridget, with a couple modifications. Bridget is admittedly a competition gun, but that’s my primary AR-15 use case. When I do drills, she’s the carbine I’ll be grabbing, so I figured it was good to get a baseline with her. I swapped out buffers, moving to an H2-weight buffer, and switched to a Springco Blue buffer spring, which is heavier than standard. These on the recommendations of Mike Pannone, who has an excellent treatise on maximizing AR-15 reliability.

I also decided to switch triggers. I love the Geissele SSA-E, but I happen to also have an AR Gold laying around, and that trigger is the trigger of choice for a ton of high level multigun competitors, including Kalani Laker, Daniel Horner, and Jerry Miculek. The AR Gold claims to duplicate the feel of a well-tuned 1911 trigger, and I’d say they’ve done their job. Other than the geometry being different, with the AR-15 trigger having a pivot. There’s a very, very short take up and then a light, crisp break. And then a very short reset. It feels a lot like the trigger in my Springfield Professional.

I also brought a more traditional Colt 6920 as a backup gun. Always bring a second gun to class, just in case your primary goes down. Then you can keep right on learning.

Pretty quickly, I learned that I had done a really good job when I built Bridget. I had no malfunctions. She ran great. Everyone who picked up my rifle commented on how light it was, how easily it pointed and transitioned. Being a four-person class, we all got to try each other’s rifles. Bridget got top marks for weight, and top marks for lack of recoil. Even with mediocre technique, the muzzle really doesn’t rise at all. And with good technique, you can shoot as fast as you like and keep your rounds on target.

Of course, all of this comes at a price. Bridget was the loudest carbine by far. Angry SBR loud. .308 loud. Wear your earpro.

Also, light weight has its downsides too. Bridget is less stable. She’s easier to disturb accidentally, which was a bit noticeable in some of the marksmanship portion. She really forces you to focus on a good prone position.

The trigger was also really good. On the one hand, the light, short reset means you do need to focus if you’re trying to let the trigger out to the reset point and stop. But just like a good 1911 trigger, it was basically impossible for the trigger pull to disturb the rifle sights. Even when I tried to go fast and slapped the trigger around. The slow point in drills was transitions and my fatigue, not trigger control.

I added a sling attachment point for the purpose of the class. I also got some keymod rail covers. These were welcome. That aluminum-magnesium rail got very hot to the touch. Note to self next time: wear gloves.

Of course, I never come out of a class not wanting more stuff. One of the guys had some Crye Magclips. These are a really great way of easily adding a few extra magazines to your loadout. They’re not super secure, but they don’t have a big footprint, and they’re pretty cheap. Perfect for carrying a little extra out to the firing line.

Also, for probably the millionth time: knee pads. Very helpful for kneeling and prone. Very, very helpful. If your instructor is wearing kneepads to class, you should too.

New though would be elbow pads. Pistol classes don’t do a ton of prone shooting. Rifle classes do. It’s nice to have something to protect your elbows from errant rocks or recently fired spent brass. Ask me how I know.

My equipment was not all perfect. I found that my Elcan 1.5x/6x was noticeably slower on drills than my Aimpoint Comp M4s. The Elcan was also kind of obnoxious for switching between standing and prone shooting. Another shooter had time on an Elcan in a class setting (and had also brought an Aimpoint to this class) and we both figured it was a combination of a smallish eyebox and relatively short eye relief that makes the Elcan a little more awkward for this type of transition-heavy shooting. On my list of optics to go for next is probably the Swarovski low power variable, because it has a much bigger, more forgiving eyebox and better eye relief. I’ll report back here with my findings.

One more lesson, this from observing another shooter. If you’re going to use an adjustable gas block, be sure you can access it without removing your handguard. Removing handguards is a pain, and it can be very difficult in the field. We had a shooter who noticed his gas block was coming unset from where he wanted it, but was unable to access the adjustment valve with the handguard he had on his rifle. And he wasn’t able to remove that handguard with the tools he brought with him. He switched to his backup gun for the remainder of the class.

TTPs: The Scan and Assess

One of the most oft-derided things to come out of tactical training is the scan and assess. It’s also a great illustrator of why watching a bunch of tactical videos on youtube is a bad idea. Taken out of context, both good and bad ideas all seem stupid. Or brilliant. Or both. With proper context and explanation, one can determine if something is actually good or if it’s dumb. And let’s face it, the scan and assess is really easy to mock.

But let’s talk about it, because it’s got a lot of value if done correctly.

Everyone says they ought to have Situational Awareness (TM). And, everyone claims to have great Situational Awareness. Like driving, most people suck at situational awareness. It’s not something you can quickly switch on, or something that’s easy to teach. It’s the kind of thing that you have to practice, usually with drills.

When you’re shooting, you get focused on the target (and your front sight). That’s what you’re oriented on. And it’s really easy, especially under some stress or when the goal is speed to focus on the drill too much. Maybe run things by rote. Supposing we’re thinking about training for something defensive, this tunnel vision will get a bit counterproductive.

The idea of the scan is to look around and break out of the tunnel vision. Notice I said look. Not shake your head around with a neck spasm. Look. See things. That bad guy you shot. Is he out of the fight? Does he need more shooting? What about around you? Does he have some friends? What about you? Are you hit? Does your gun need some ammo management?

It’s really easy to cheat the scan, flip the head around a few times, call it good, and then get back to growing that tactical beard. You’re missing the point. Like reholstering, there’s no prizes for doing this fast.

It’s a lot more fun to do this with a friend. Have a friend stand behind you. Maybe have that friend hold up some fingers. Or hold them out at his sides. And then check if you actually saw those fingers. Do you know how many he held up? Did he have something in his hands? Was it car keys? Are you looking?

Looking around slowly and breathing is a great way to start to bring those stress levels down. If you’re training hard, you’ll sometimes need a breather. Make it work for you.

Is there anyone in the parking lot? Maybe your buddy’s coming to test his new blaster. Maybe some sketchy guy is looking to score a free gun. Are you looking?

In addition to your surroundings, you might need some minding. You might have been hit and not know it. Your weapon has less ammo than when you started. Maybe you should see to that. Especially in classes, or if you’re working timed drills, executing the drill as written is important. If the drill doesn’t require a reload, and you haven’t been doing it with a reload, then a reload is going to throw off your times.

Someone is going to be along to quote the importance of a reload to me. Fine. Nevermind that actual CCW permitholder gunfights and the vast majority of Officer Involved Shootings don’t involve a reload. You’re going to have to reload, so you should learn to do it right. And there are plenty of drills that call for a reload, just so you can practice it. But if you’re doing some Mozambique drills, and you’re looking at by the book par times, those don’t count a reload. So keep your gun prepped. It’s a good thing to do in class too, if you’re not drilling reloads, for the same reason. Keeping that gun topped off lets you execute the drills as instructed. Are you looking?

What Is Acceptable Handgun “Stopping Power”?

Well now isn’t that a loaded term. “Stopping power.” Right now, I’ve got my Glockblaster on my hip, loaded with 16 rounds of Speer 124 grain +P Gold Dot rounds. These are commonly held to be ‘good’ handgun rounds. Let’s look at why, and what we mean by ‘good’.

First, let’s get some things out of the way. Handguns are terrible at stopping people. All of them. Long guns are way better, but I can’t concealed carry an M4 around all day, and I’m not guarded by a battalion of Marines. Pistols are concealable, and we have to deal with that. I’m using the colloquialism “Stopping Power” because it’s convenient and fun to say.

Second, no, I do not want to get shot by any of the rounds discussed here. Or any others. Getting shot sucks. Lots of people will say “I wouldn’t want to get shot with…” about all kinds of rounds. And that’s true. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to get shot by a rubber bullet or a paintball gun either. That shit hurts. And yeah, the rubber bullet has a chance of killing you if it hits you wrong.

But all of this is missing the point. Yes, some people will stop whatever they’re doing when they’re shot. With anything. Yes, some encounters between concealed carriers and would-be criminals are ended without a shot fired. Would you just carry a convincing fake gun, and figure most problems will be solved with brandishing?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Third, stopping power is not kinetic energy. Don’t let idiots try to convince you otherwise, regardless of what unrelated degrees they have. As an example, consider a 230 lb lineman, sprinting at 25.5 feet per second. That works out to 2,020 ft-lbs of energy. Now, consider a 7.62 mm, 190 grain bullet fired from a Remington 700, moving at 2,200 feet per second. That’s also 2,020 ft-lbs of energy. One of these is a lot more likely to kill an elk (or a man) than the other. Can you spot which?

If you said the bullet, you’re right. Energy is merely the capability to do work. We’ll need energy so that the bullet can function as designed, but energy alone is not the answer.

For a stop to work here in the real world, we need to get the brain to shut up and stop working. There are a few ways to do this. Obviously, we could hit the brain and ruin it. We could hit the central nervous system, i.e. the spinal cord, and that would get the brain to be unable to send instructions to the body. Or, we could disrupt blood flow enough for the brain to be unable to function. This is nominally done with blood loss, which comes from tissue damage.

When a bullet strikes living tissue (or a similarish medium like calibrated ballistics gel), we get two kinds of damage: the temporary wound cavity (this is the big thing that blossoms dramatically in the high-speed video) and the permanent wound cavity. For handguns, the temporary wound cavity doesn’t matter, because there’s not enough energy in the handgun bullet for the tissue disrupted by the temporary cavity to matter, so only the permanent cavity matters.

Note also that this is why long guns are so much better at terminal ballistics. In general, long gun bullets have enough energy for that temporary cavity to actually damage tissues enough to matter. The temporary cavity is much bigger than the permanent one, so this means more blood loss.

So if only the permanent cavity matters, how can we measure that, and what is ‘good’? Let’s look at a case study. On April 11, 1986 the FBI engaged in a shootout in Miami with two felons, Platt and Matix. Platt was an ex-Ranger who had served in Vietnam. He was a hardcore guy with a lot of will to win. Two FBI agents would lose their lives in that gunfight: Ben Grogan and Jerry Dove. Five other agents were wounded. Both Matix and Platt also perished.

The shot that would eventually kill Platt was fired by Jerry Dove. It hit Platt in the upper right arm as he attempted to climb from his car, and penetrated the chest. This shot collapsed his right lung, damaged the blood vessels of the right lung causing the chest cavity to start filling with blood, but stopped an inch from his heart. Despite this wound, Platt was able to keep fighting and moving, and was able to subsequently kill agents Dove and Grogan after advancing on their position. During the course of the battle, Platt was wounded 11 other times before succumbing.

Let’s look at that shot by Dove, scored relatively early in the fight. Dove’s gun was the FBI SWAT issue gun, a Smith & Wesson 459 9 mm semiautomatic. The FBI 9 mm duty round of the time was Winchester Silvertip, 115 grain. At the time, a big concern was overpenetration–that a round would go through a criminal and hit a kindergartener playing somewhere behind him. So, the Silvertip was designed for good expansion and limited penetration. It worked as intended, though not as Dove would have desired.

So the FBI did a number of things to try to fix the problem. One of them was to try to come up with a repeatable way to test bullets. Let’s get scientific. So they worked up a test protocol involving calibrated ballistics gel1, and a number of initial barriers, including four layers of denim and auto glass. They wanted to simulate different things in the human body, like bones, not just muscle, and also simulate clothing or cars that agents might have to shoot through. The minimum acceptable amount of penetration, even with barriers, was set at 12″.

Why 12″? Shades of Platt. You don’t know that the criminal will obligingly square up with you, arms at his sides, like a B27 silhouette target. Maybe he’s moving. Maybe he’s turned. Maybe his arms are up, with a gun of his own, and maybe your bullet has to go through those. Remember, there are very few areas that will actually make a person stop if he doesn’t want to.

Ok. So the FBI, with it’s big juicy federal budget, developed a test protocol. And we now have plenty of rounds developed that will pass this protocol. Clearly, I won’t even consider a round that the FBI hasn’t tested and given a passing grade to.2 I also look for the round to be issued to some police departments, preferably large ones, and I want no complaints from its terminal performance on the street.

Offhand, three rounds come to mind as having passed the FBI protocols, being in common use amongst police departments, and having a good record in street fights: Winchester Ranger-T, Speer Gold Dot, and Federal HST. Since I mentioned the Gold Dots in my pistol before, I’ll talk a little more about them here. The 9 mm 124 grain +P load is used by a whole bunch of large police departments, including the NYPD and Las Vegas Metro PD. Both departments have used it in plenty of Officer Involved Shootings, and it has performed very well. And it passed the FBI testing. I can’t really ask for anything else from a round. I also mentioned the others, because sometimes I can only get one of the three, and that’s ok. I currently have a bunch of Gold Dots, but I’d also be happy with 9mm HST or 9mm Ranger-T.

I don’t really deal with other chamberings for defensive ammo. I don’t see the point. I see no reason to deviate from orthodoxy on the matter. There’s lots of snake oil out there marketed to concealed carriers because it’s rare that we’ll be able to prove them wrong.

If you’re looking for other brands of good defensive ammo, look up the work of Dr. Gary K. Roberts, who has done a lot of ballistics testing. He’s got a list of good ammo that has passed the FBI test protocols.


  1. It is paramount that the gel tested is properly calibrated, or else the test is not relevant. Lots of internet bullshitters shoot at “gel”. To the best I have been able to determine, only Shootingthebull410 shoots actual calibrated ballistics gel, i.e. only he conducts tests properly. 
  2. I tend to carry guns with plenty of barrel length. As does the FBI. They issue Glock 19s and 17s in 9mm. If you carry a gun with a barrel length of 4 inches or more, you’re fine with reading the FBI test protocol results and calling it good. If you carry something with a very short barrel, like one of those new “Pocket 9mm” subcompact single-stack guns, check the performance of your round from that sort of short barrel length. Again, Shootingthebull410 is a good source for short barrel tests. Rounds that do well from longer barrels often don’t work as well from short barrels.