Here comes the BOOM!

This poster showing the anatomy of the Remington 870 shotgun hangs in one of the classrooms of the Memphis Police Department’s Firearms Training Unit.  Look at that vent rib/Ghost Ring barrel!


I LOVE shooting shotguns.  Whether it’s at birds, paper or steel, no other gun is more satisfying for me to shoot.  The noise, the smoke, and the on-target effect is dramatic.

I spent two hours this weekend in a block of defensive shotgun instruction with Jedi Master Tom Givens, at the 2016 RANGEMASTER Polite Society Conference in Memphis TN.  I have trained with Tom several times in the past, and I really appreciate the utility of his courses.  Tom couples a rich curriculum with a thoughtful, entertaining delivery, that is completely, 100% bio available to the lone, armed citizen.  If you are looking for some high speed military door kicking shotgun course, or some LE, “Patrol Shotgun,” course, look elsewhere.  Tom’s class prepares regular folks for the eventuality of defending themselves from a life-threatening attack in their home or business, with the shotgun.  Make no mistake…the curriculum isn’t, “easier,” or any less valuable than the aforementioned genres of classes.  The mission of the armed citizen is simply different than the military or LEO user.

The target to Tom’s left has the pleural region obliterated by close range application of birdshot.  However, you’ll note the pattern of buckshot at the belt-line of the bad guy…which Tom sent from 25 yards away using the Federal Flight Control 12 gauge buckshot.  All nine rounds are still present on the bad guy.  The next target over to Tom’s left, with the tight shot group on the bad guy’s pistol, was fired from 15 yards, and it is still fist sized!  Amazing!

Tom’s approach to teaching the shotgun is very systematic and delineated.  There is an order of operations that must be practiced.  Tom said that unlike a handgun, which with careless use can cause an errant hole to appear in an unintended target, shotguns simply destroy things that are unintentionally shot.  Prevention is key, and that prevention is actionable through careful, regimented gun handling.  Safety was stressed throughout the class.  And, like Tom’s other range classes, Tom tells you exactly what he wants you to do (electronic ear protection is invaluable for training classes.  If you don’t have them, you need to get them) and then you do it.  It’s a game of, “Tactical Simon Says!”  If you keep up, and do things the way Tom tells you, you quickly see the majesty and superiority of the shotgun for close-in self defense scenarios.  The students that fell behind, or had trouble following directions, were coached back into the right algorithm by Tom or his wonderful wife, Lynn.

Although we only used birdshot for this class, Tom’s full shotgun course uses birdshot, buckshot and rifled slugs.  However, Tom demonstrated and explained the wonder of the Federal Flight Control OO Buckshot, at 5 yards, 15 yards, and 25 yards.  Even at 25 yards, all nine of the .33 caliber pellets were clearly present on the silhouette targets we were using.

Tom also talked about the rationale behind the shotgun.  Lately, in law enforcement (and in the civilian world, as a natural by-product of this) the trend for M4 or AR-15 type rifles use has become far more common than ever before in history.  M4’s, are mildly recoiling, and less intimidating to small framed folks, than the 12 gauge.  So many uninformed, uniformed folks feel, “better,” with an M4.  Even though engagement distances for nearly any domestic law enforcement and certainly any civilian self defense scenario are well within the range performance envelope of the shotgun, many people still opt for the carbines.  The, “non-standard response,” drill with the M4 dictates that 5-7 rounds are fired from the carbine into the bad guy to maximize the ballistic effect of the sometimes anemic and not always predictable 5.56x45mm or .223 Remington round.  Thus, a standard 28 or 30 round carbine magazine contains what Tom calls, “4-5 servings,” of projectiles.  From the shotgun, with Federal Flight Control ammunition (for example) a standard pattern 870 Express, Wingmaster, Police or Tactical has a tubular magazine that contains between 4 and 7 shells, each containing 9 projectiles.  This meets or exceeds the projectile delivery capabilities of the carbine!

My go-to shotguns for home/office defense.  The stocks are cut down to 12″ LOP.  That way they can be used by anyone in my family.  As long as I remember to keep my thumb straight, I won’t clobber myself in the face…despite that I am actually 6’4″ tall and could run a slightly longer LOP.  The Magpul stock, with no spacers, gives a good, “usable by anyone,” LOP, and so does the Hogue short stock.  The 870 on the left in the above photo has the, “DEA Barrel,” but currently (and what I ran in the class) wears an 18″ bead sighted barrel.  I like sights that are low on the barrel.  That’s my preference, and yours may vary.  So I tend to gravitate towards the bead on the pedestal or the bead mounted to the barrel.

Tom covered the various ways that one can carry and transport ammunition for the shotgun and have it ready for immediate use.  The two ways that we examined were the stock (butt cuff) carry, or receiver (sidesaddle) carry.  Tom prefers butt cuff carry.  He feels that having a sidesaddle changes the handling characteristics of the shotgun, making it thicker than he’d like around the middle. He also doesn’t like the mounting system for most sidesaddles which can pinch the receiver excessively, causing difficulties for the action bars to properly traverse the race ways inside the receiver.  This can tie up the gun, and that is simply a non-starter.  The butt cuff (or, the modern iteration, a nylon and elastic strip, attached with vehicular grade Velcro to the stock of the gun) offers a less obtrusive solution to the sidesaddle.  Another feature of the butt cuff that I noticed was that the rounds tend to be less susceptible to the effects of recoil, and thus actually stay in the loops, instead of falling out after long strings of fire, since the shells are located further from the axis of rotation during firing, and hence less susceptible to inertia.  My sidesaddles have notoriously dumped rounds (if they aren’t brass, “up,”) with astounding regularity.  Nobody wants a garage sale of spare shells at their feet when they need their life-saving equipment close at hand.

There were several different shotguns present in the class, ranging from 28″ barreled 870’s that were meant for bird hunting, to a Winchester Model 1200 Defender.  A few students brought guns that were either obsolete for the class purpose, or simply unsuited for the user.  One student brought some iteration of the Taurus Judge, in .410, but in shotgun form.  The same student also brought an Ithaca 37.  Since neither of those guns can be easily combat loaded (that is, have a round dropped directly into the chamber, and run the action forward and be ready to shoot) Tom told the student to leave those guns in their cases and borrow one of his loaner Remington 870’s.  Another student brought a shotgun that was nearly as long, as she was tall.  She traded that out for another one of Tom’s loaner guns, a 12″ Magpul stocked 870, that was MUCH easier for her to use.  Tom lectured specifically on the length of pull of a defensive shotgun…and why too many people use shotguns that have a woefully long LOP that they really cannot use.  Tom recommended that any defensive shotgun have a LOP between 12″ and 13″.  However, most shotguns come from the factory with a 14″ OR LONGER length of pull.  While a stock that long might work great for bird hunting, when the shooter is bladed at a 90 degree angle from the target, in defensive shooting, when our stance is more squared to the target, a shorter stock makes wielding the weapon easier, and more ergonomic.  Thus, Tom recommended that if people keep a shotgun in their home or office for defensive purposes, than they should keep the length of pull short enough to allow any family member to use it.  Also, people that are very tall can STILL use a short LOP shotgun!

I am a lifelong student.  I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on private training tuition over the last 20 years.  And I’ve spent over $500K on my graduate education.  I know what good training looks like!  And while I am always open-minded in classes, there are things that I hear, or learn that I simply choose, “not to incorporate,” into my mental utilization schema.  I can honestly say, in the three live-fire classes and the seven classroom presentations I’ve taken from Tom, I’ve never heard him recommend a concept or introduce an idea that I didn’t agree with.  Tom’s material works!  He has had 62 students successfully navigate the muddy waters of self defense shootings, and he has continually evolved his curriculum to reflect the changing context of the urban environment, as well as adapt to new emerging threats.  Tom has been at this for 35 plus years now, and the impact he has made on the self-defense industry is IMMENSE.  I always learn something new when I am in Tom’s presence.

The Rangemaster Polite Society Conference is THE best training symposium around.  You cannot find a deeper well of knowledge for such a low price, anywhere.  The expertise of all of the instructors and the attendees is truly a sight to behold.  I have so enjoyed the two Polite Society Conferences that I have attended, that I modeled the Paul-E-Palooza Memorial Training Conference after the Rangemaster conference, and even many of the same instructors teach at both events!  As Tom said this past weekend, “I put on a conference to see all my friends!”  And that is very true for me, too.  Some of the greatest, most honorable people I know on this planet were in attendance, and a good weekend of learning and fellowship was had by all.

From the left, Cecil Burch of IMMEDIATE ACTION COMBATIVES, Caleb Causey of LONE STAR MEDICS, and Mark Luell of GROWING UP GUNS


Mark, Tom and I.

Nobody ever recounts a defensive gun use as, “I knew that day would be horrible!”


Let me take you back to the mid-90’s.  I was working full-time as an armored truck crewman while going to night school at the local community college.  I was a volunteer fireman/EMT at night and on the weekends.  I worked in Washington State, for an armored truck company that had three separate branches, each based in a major city, but we would drop off/pickup money and/or valuables from the same depositories.  So, despite our different schedules, we would still see the crews from other branches, fairly regularly.  If not face-to-face, then literally while pulling in or out of the roll-up doors on vaults.

One Spring day, my partner and I were working our route when we received word that one of the other branch’s trucks had been hit.  As the details of the incident were reported to us, we became really worried.  We were told that the 3 man crew (one driver, one messenger, one guard) were working an ATM fulfillment route (where the cassettes containing  some/no cash are swapped out of ATM machines and replaced with full cassettes) that consisted of around forty stops per day.  At some point in the day, the crew had left the truck, and the messenger was pushing a hand truck stacked high with the new ATM cassettes.  As they approached the location where the machine was (it was located at a walk-up, rear entrance ATM kiosk in a busy tourist area) a black SUV pulled up in front of them, and immediately two men, wearing all black clothing with ski masks, and carrying pistols and a shotgun, dismounted the SUV, and immediately shot the guard in the legs and groin, with the shotgun.  The guard immediately fell to the ground.  The messenger, knowing that he didn’t have a chance to draw against multiple armed gunmen, simply threw up his hands and said, “Here…take it.”  He surrendered the hand truck that had the ATM cassettes stacked on top of it.  The two robbers worked in tandem to load the cassettes into the SUV; one lifting the cassettes into the vehicle while the shotgun toting robber kept his weapon trained on the two guards.  After a few seconds, both robbers jumped back into the SUV, and drove away.

As we were told the story, over the radio, my partner and I looked at each other, and we were just shocked.  We knew the crew that had been victimized.  They were a tight group, one that was well known for their good tactics, and survival skills.  The messenger himself was a black belt level martial artist, and was huge in stature.  Not someone that I would consider an, “easy,” target.  The guard that was shot was a fit, young guy, with a keen stare and also a good set of defensive skills, having recently won a company award for marksmanship and for exemplary performance during a recent FATS (Firearms Training Simulator) inter-company competition.  It was the kind of news that made both my partner and I, immediately think, “If it could happen to them, it could happen to us!”

I was young at the time…I was the youngest guy at my branch, being only 21 years old when I was hired.  I had also recently won the inter-company top honor of, “TOP GUN,” for having a perfect performance on the required qualification course (300/300) and for the set of FATS scenarios I was run through.  My partner was twenty years my senior, and had recently retired from the US Army, as a combat engineer.  He and I started working for the company at the same time, and we became friends right off.  He too, was quite skilled with his Model 15 Smith revolver, and the Remington 870 shotgun, that our truck was equipped with (at least one shotgun, sometimes two).  We talked about, “What we would do,” if we were in a similar situation.  And then, after the conclusion of our shift that day, we went to the local watering hole to further discuss the details of the day, and talk about how we would change our SOP’s to better deal with what seemed to be an emerging threat of, “Getaway vehicles in places they shouldn’t be.”  See, the reason this particular set of goons was effective was how they drove in an area where nothing larger than a maintenance golf cart was expected to be driving.  Not even the armored truck itself drove where the bad actor’s vehicle was!  Nobody was expecting that to happen.

Fast forward to the next day.  I got up, and prepared for my work day as usual.  It was a beautiful day!  I stood on my deck and watched the sun come up over the North Cascade Mountain range, while I drank my tea.  I looked forward to what the day held.  I arrived at the branch office without incident, and my partner and I started our day as we normally did.  As was our custom, my partner and I would, “trade,” duties half way through the day, where he would become the messenger and I would take over driving, or vice versa.  On this particular day, my partner ran the first part of the day, and I drove.  Around noon, we switched jobs, and I started running.

The FIRST stop we made on my half of the day, was a busy drive up ATM kiosk, located at a bank.  The ATM kiosk was the outermost lane, with four drive up lanes on the inboard side of it.  Concrete blocks and curbs encircled the ATM kiosk, and also the bank teller, “tubes,” that allowed customers to transact their business with the tellers that were behind the glass, directly in front of the lanes.  To access the ATM machine, I had to exit the truck, stack the fresh ATM cassettes onto my hand truck, and then head into a locked door on the back of the machine.  I would open the door, unlock the safe, removed the cassettes and replace them with the fresh cassettes, run a diagnostics program on the machine, then secure it all and leave.  One part of the problem was that I had to turn my back to the incoming bank traffic, to face the backside of the ATM machine.  The space I had to stand in was approximately the size of a telephone booth.  I also could not take the hand truck into the kiosk…it had to sit outside on the pavement, no doubt looking like easy pickings to the informed.  To attempt to eliminate some of my weakness in this position, I used to carry a 4″ diameter convex truck side mirror, with an industrial strength magnet glued to the back of it.  I carried it in a pocket in my vest, OR I would simply let it stick to my trauma plate (which was steel) of my body armor, and it would stay exactly where I put it!  I would put that mirror on the metal door of the ATM, or sometimes on the door of the safe, to give me a view of what was going on behind me, only by moving my eyes.

I had swapped out the cassettes in the machine, and closed the safe.  I then ran the diagnostics program, and prepared to close the machine and get back to the truck.  Just as I was finishing up, I heard the airhorn from my truck and the siren sound, and I heard a tire squeal.  I sensed some kind of ruckus behind me…the first thing that popped into my head was AMBUSH!  I drew my sidearm, a Smith and Wesson Model 681 (loaded with Federal 125 grain Semi-Jacketed Hollowpoints), and came out the door with the gun at what we now call a, “compressed ready,” (Being 6’4″ tall, at that point for several years, I just called it, “that position you use when you are really tall and in a telephone booth” and I was never trained to do it…but I had seen Steven Seagal do it in the movies) and came around the door frame as quickly as I could.  I saw a black SUV, with the passenger door and rear passenger door immediately opening, and two men dressed in all black, both carrying pistols.  I pushed my revolver out in front of me and aimed in on the guy closest to me.  We were about 15 feet away from each other.  I said nothing.  I had a clear sight picture, with the top edge of my, “White Out,” enhanced front sight squarely imposed over the bad guy’s upper sternum.  I planned to shoot him twice, and then shoot his partner twice, and then shoot the driver of the truck, if he was a threat to me, and if I had a good angle and backstop.  The entire scene played out in front of the Lexan windows of the drive through lanes.  All I heard was the continuous honking from the airhorn of the truck.  And then without warning, the SUV started to drive forward, hitting the curb and parking blocks of the lane they were in, and the doors on the passenger side were wobbling uncontrollably as the two gunmen attempted to stay in their vehicle and pull the doors closed.  They broke traction again, and sped out of the bank exit, immediately in front of them, and got onto the speedway!  I looked at my partner, and gave the, “Circle the Wagons!” hand signal over my head twice.  He nodded.  I secured the ATM kiosk and stacked everything on the hand truck.

I ran back to the truck pushing the hand truck in front of me.  I looked around and behind me as I ran.  Nobody seemed to care what was going on!  People were still waiting in line at the drive through tellers lanes, looking down at their deposit slips and checkbooks, apparently oblivious to the robbery that nearly took place.  I got to the side door of the truck, my partner opened the door, and I threw the equipment into the back with great haste, and jumped inside.  I finally felt safe.  My partner was standing in the middle of the driver’s cab, with the armored bulkhead door closed behind him.  He had the front gunport of the truck open, and he had the barrel of one of our 870’s sticking out the front of the truck.  As soon as I was in the truck, he dropped the shotgun onto the floor of the cab, and he put the truck in motion, and we immediately drove away.  He had already been in contact with our base via radio, and the base had relayed to 911.  We weren’t going to sit around and wait for LE to show up, so we got onto the, “safest,” place we thought we could be, which was the freeway.  As we drove, and I sat vigilantly perched in the bulkhead walkway between the cab and the cargo box of the truck, I started to feel lightheaded.  Then I thought I was going to puke.  I loosened one side of my vest, and turned on the AC.  I was feeling HOT, like my skin was on fire, and I felt like needles were dancing all over my back, chest and arms.  My partner handed me a lit cigarette, which I eagerly smoked.  It seemed to calm me down a bit.  We met up with local law enforcement, a short time later, in a more secure location.  After all, we still had a truck filled with money, and we didn’t need to be sitting ducks in a parking lot somewhere.

The black SUV was apprehended shortly thereafter.  The total crime tally of that particular crew was extensive, and they had been on their jobs for awhile.  They had also robbed at least one bank successfully, during their run.  The other crew’s messenger, eventually returned to work.  The other guard that had been shot in the legs and groin, left the job completely.  I do not know what the legal results or sentences of the badguys were, as by the time that was adjudicated, I was worried about other threats that were always developing in our area.


  1. INCIDENT REVIEW.  I think that there is great value in reviewing the experiences of others and putting your own brain to work on that particular problem.  Some people call this, “Monday Morning Quarterbacking,” but I feel that if you do it with a level of understanding and compassion, without the bravado, it can be valuable.  In a team situation, I think it is absolutely VITAL to your survival to have a, “game plan,” once everything comes down.  You have to remember, back in the mid-90’s, there wasn’t a lot of private training going on.  I always WANTED to go to Gunsite, but for a poor community college student, making $9.00 an hour on the streets protecting someone else’s money, all that seemed like a dream, or at the very least, obtainable by only the very rich.  There was the Firearms Academy of Seattle, but I couldn’t afford them either.  There were only a few books on the subject, by the, “Deans,” of the industry, some of whom are still around today.  The internet was in its infancy, and I don’t even remember having an email address at the time.  I learned everything that I knew from a few different sources:  a.  Listening to the, “Old Guys,” talk.  I worked with guys that had fought in the desert, and some that fought in Vietnam.  They knew things I didn’t.  It was to my benefit to listen to them.  b.  I read everything I could get my hands on…every book by Massad Ayoob, Jeff Cooper, Bill Jordan and every gun magazine article by Dave Spaulding, and the books, “Street Survial,” and, “The Tactical Edge.”  c.  I had been a Police Cadet through the BSA Explorer program, and I had attended the Reserve Police Officer Academy, and been a, “bad guy,” for the Officer Survival and Patrol Tactics portions of other Reserve classes.  I learned about placement, ground fighting, and gaining the advantage in many situations that weren’t exactly analogous to the armored truck industry, but there was enough overlap to have value.  d.  I visited the sites of a few armored truck robberies/murders in my area, talked to guys that were there/worked with the crews that were affected, and even saw some of the bullet holes that were left from the fray.  That cemented in my mind, early on, that this wasn’t a game.  Today, I really look forward to seeking out the incident reviews provided by Tom Givens, Claude Werner (The Tactical Professor), Massad Ayoob, Gail Pepin and the PROGRAMS PODCAST crew, and Greg Ellifritz.  Reading the scenarios and thinking, “How could I solve this problem?” is a valuable thought exercise.
  2. YES.  I HAD A REVOLVER.  Remember, this was the 90’s.  I was a child of the, “Crime Bill of 1994.”  I wasn’t a Doctor then…I didn’t have the money to buy, “Pre-ban,” magazines, at 100 plus dollars each.  I bought my 681 for $225, used.  I bought a Bianchi Judge holster (used) that was a turn in from the Mount Vernon WA PD, for $12.  I had a set of used speedloader carriers, a set of loops, and I bought my Sam Browne Belt for $75 with the keepers.  I also bought a Galco Ankle Glove, and a (new) Smith 649 Bodyguard (for $450) as an ankle gun.  I bought Federal 125 grain SJHP, in a 500 round case, that I used for duty ammo.  I would swap out ammo every Daylight savings time change, because the ends of the projectiles, being soft lead, would get, “hammered,” closed by being in the plastic cups of my speedloader carriers, while I was running around the streets of Washington State.  I was also issued a Smith Model 15 by the company, with Pachmayr grips, that I used strictly for dry-fire practice, that I did for ten minutes a day, daily.  I didn’t know what Snap Caps were at the time, but I used fired shells to keep the firing pin wear minimized.  As far as multiple suspect engagements, I had a plan.  I would shoot every bad guy twice…and I practiced that weekly, on the range.  I was fortunate in that my boss would give me 250 rounds of commercial 38 reloads, that were hot loaded analogs of the 158 grain lead hollowpoints.  I would shoot those, and return the empties, weekly, and get a new box to use.  The great Tom Givens has said, “A 1911 is a one-badguy-gun.”  I tend to agree…I was really trying to squeeze two more bad guys out of a one bad guy gun!  At the time, I ran what I had, because that was the best that I could do.  Years later, after the Crime Bill expired, I upgraded my sidearm to an HK USP .45 and then a Glock 22.  I kept the Bodyguard on my ankle.  I never worried about what I carried.  I felt that I was adequately armed and prepared, but that superior tactics and preparedness would carry me through the day, regardless of what I encountered.  Now, 20 years later, I feel a bit more apprehensive of a multiple suspect engagement when I’m only armed with a pair of revolvers, but I think that I could still do it if I needed to.
  3. AS AN ADJUNCT TO REVIEWING the experiences of others, it is important to do what Dr. William Aprill calls, “Creating a parking spot in your mind,” to be able to mentally condition yourself to prepare a pre-planned, and practiced response to a set of circumstances.  When I heard the air-horn and the siren sound on my truck, I knew it was time to move.  That was really my first recollection of having that kind of, “programmed,” response to danger.  About the most harrowing thing I had done before that was perform CPR on a neighbor!  I would go on to perform CPR about 500 more times in my life, but I would only get into a scrape with robbers, one more time (knock on wood).  In each occurrence, the response time/mental parking spot was already open, and ready to receive.
  4. I’m not a determinist, of any kind, but I feel that doing everything you can to maximize your advantage, and minimize the badguys’ advantage, is a good thing.  I think that YOUR fate is ultimately in YOUR hands.  I think that if the bad guys had been driving a subcompact car that easily negotiated the drive through lanes, and had my partner not been aware (I watch the current batch of armored truck personnel I see…far too many are more worried about drinking their Starbucks coffee and fiddling with their smartphones) of something horribly amiss going on, I would have been WAY behind the 8-ball.  As it happened, these guys ended up half-high centering their large SUV on the curb parking block, which immediately screwed up their ingress AND egress plans.  That made the tire squeal, and that was what triggered my partner to sound the alarms.
  5. Bad stuff can happen ANYWHERE.  This bank is in a relatively affluent area.  Next door to it is a large filling station complex, and a HUGE chain supermarket store, and numerous fast food restaurants.  Like I said earlier, from the look of the other civilians in the area, NOBODY HAD EVEN NOTICED WHAT HAPPENED.  When I have visited the sites of other armored truck heists, they are in similarly serene locations.  There is nothing in the immediate environment that would make your, “Spidey senses tingle.”  Everything seemed quite normal and safe.  So just because the terrain reads right, and everything seems relatively quiet, it isn’t necessarily.  Again, as Tom Givens has said, “Street crime is a misnomer…what we are really talking about is parking lot crime.”  There was A BUNCH of parking lot there, that day.
  6. Nobody ever recounts a defensive gun use as, “I knew that day would be horrible!”  The sun was shining!  I fully expected our day to be routine, and aside from the stress associated with navigating a 37,000 pound armored truck through I-5 traffic, I expected it to be completely boring.  It was anything but.  We came face to face with evil that day.  And, fortunately, we were victorious.  Had I not thought through the incident that happened to the other crew as much as I had, and mentally prepared my response, the bad guys had gotten the drop on me, and I probably would’ve been shot, since I decided long before that day, that I would never die with my gun in my holster.  I may get killed in the process, but I’m not going to quit fighting while I still had air in my lungs.  Drawing against opponents with guns at the ready can be a workable tactic, too.  After all, the bad guys are expecting compliance…they want you to yield to their whim, and I refused to yield.

IN MEMORY OF MY PARTNER, MR. KEVIN C. LEE, BADGE NUMBER N107.  See you further on down the trail, Kev.