By Rob Shaul
The beginning for MTI’s Range Fitness effort began with a comment from a USAF Combat Controller at the first tactical programming course I taught nearly 8 years ago now.
The programming course only addressed fitness and at its conclusion, this individual stated, “it would be great if you could design programming to improve accurate marksmanship under stress.”
My military time post Academy was in the Aids to Navigation branch of the Coast Guard – my first duty station was a buoy tender in Oregon, so while I had some shooting experience growing up as a kid in Wyoming, my military shooting experience was minimal.
Nevertheless, I was intrigued by this idea and began earnestly thinking about and developing programming, and more broadly, a system, for training accurate marksmanship under stress.
I called this system “Range Fitness.”
It’s hard to describe the huge investment in time and resources I deployed to develop MTI’s Range Fitness programming. We began with the purchase of a couple assault rifles, EO Tech sights and thousands of rounds of .556 ammo. As well as a couple Glock 17s, and a bunch of 9mm ammo.
We spend hours at the local shooting range in Jackson testing different targets, fitness stressor events, shooting positions. Myself and my interns/coaches were the initial lab rats. As well, when I would go to teach fitness programming courses to tactical units, I’d try to schedule in an afternoon at the range to test our developing theory, events, and system on actual tactical athletes.
We attacked Range Fitness in typical MTI fashion … research, design, test, evaluate, fix and re-design, re-test, re-evaluate, and on and on.
Early on we discovered that paper targets were not efficient. Athletes could not identify hits and misses at the time of the shot, and putting up new targets between shooters was a major time suck. We needed “reactive” targets and went cheap at first … pieces of wood, used frying pans, balloons, and cardboard, etc. and finally migrated to metal, reactive targets.
At first we purchased simple round targets and jury-rigged frames with wire to hold them up … only to find that the shrapnel from target hits chewed through the wire – causing the targets to fall. Eventually, I bit the bullet and purchased high quality but expensive, reactive metal targets with durable frame holders.
Another issue was the target distance. Through hours at the range and focused trial and error, we settled on 1 MOA target distance, which meant we were using 8″ round targets at 80 yards for our mid-range carbine Range Fitness events – or 10″ targets at 100 yards, etc.
I read everything I could about marksmanship, fine motor skills, and the impact of stress and increased heart rate on fine motor skills. Physical stress was the first stressor we put on athletes and our initial physical stress events included sandbags, barbells, kettlebells, and complicated mixes of sets and reps between shooting efforts.
We started cutting stuff and eventually settled on two types of fitness modes – simple burpees and shuttle sprints. As well, we learned we could also add additional stressors – a time limit, ammo limit, “hit” standard for marksmanship, and by running athletes side by side – a competition stress element.
Our initial range fitness events would run for 4-8 minutes, and soon we learned this was way too long, and began to cut duration significantly to where our longest event lasted 2:30.
We learned that by using a set time for each event, limiting ammo load, and manipulating the number of hits for each level of progression, we could run expert marksmanship alongside rookie shooters at the same time and have each pushed to his/her limit.
In our own testing, we found we would quickly plateau in Range Fitness achievement simply by doing the events. We had to step back, identify the marksmanship fundamental skills which counted most …. trigger control, follow through, and develop events to train and develop these. Ball and dummy drills became a key way we saw improvement.
Through our own testing, and attending other shooting courses we found that longer than 90 minutes of intense, focused shooting we became mentally exhausted and stopped learning and improving. We attended a tactical shooting course in North Carolina which boasted that students would shoot 1,000 rounds over two days, and discovered the same thing there …. after about 200 rounds, we stopped learning.
Eventually, we were able to put all of this together into focused, efficient training session which included a stress event ‘warm up,’ fundamental shooting drills including ball and dummy drills and follow through work, and concluded with an efficient, progressible Range Fitness Event. The entire effort could be completed in 60-75 minutes, and take just 100-120 rounds per shooter.
We then took what we learned shooting mid-range carbines (70-100 yards) and applied it to pistols and CQB Distance Carbines. We couldn’t use metal targets for our CQB distance carbines and actually designed and had printed custom paper targets which could be used by multiple shooters for several events so inefficient target change out was minimal.
Finally, after all this, we asked our community for unit volunteers who we would visit for free, and demonstrate our Range Fitness system in return for feedback. Over three weeks one October we worked with an FBI SWAT Team, Rangers at Fort Benning, a USMC MARSOC unit in California, and a full company in the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg.
Range Fitness worked awesomely! Excellent, experienced shooters in SOF and SWAT were all pushed by the system and training sessions and provided glowing feedback. They reported the system alone identified “holes” in their shooting/marksmanship fundamentals in everything from equipment choice to shooting positions to mental approach. Likewise, new shooters at line units saw first hand the application of marksmanship fundamentals to shooting success and across the board, they reported a preference for the Range Fitness system over their typical range training.
I was proud of building this system from scratch and thought we really had a solid, successful product on our hands.
We offered the Range Fitness Course on our website, and I build out an entire Range Fitness training cycle and waited for the orders to roll in.
Then …. crickets.
This was near the height of the Iraq Surge which was quickly followed by Obama’s Afghanistan Surge and units were flush with money for shooting courses, just not ours. We never sold a single Range Fitness specific course.
When I would go out to teach programming courses to active units I’d always try to schedule in an afternoon at the range to teach the system, and several units took me up on this – but it was essentially a free add-on.
Unit shooting instructors who participated loved Range Fitness! Several told me they planned to add the system to their own range instruction. The only negative comment I received came from a Border Patrol BORSTAR team leader who said the 1 MOA target distance was too hard.
But regardless, Range Fitness never gained traction. Why? It could be tactical athletes aren’t interested in learning marksmanship from an old Coastie – especially when it seemed at one time every retired Delta force or DEVGRU operator were starting their own shooting schools.
It could be our system didn’t have the “whiz-bang” of the slow motion, weapons manipulation Magpul videos at the time.
Honestly, I’m not sure.
I still own three assault rifles, three Glocks and thousands of rounds of .556 I’m not sure how to dispose of. But overall, have no regrets. I learned so much about testing, system design, and overall project completion from developing the Range Fitness system which I’ve subsequently applied to new projects within and without MTI.
As well, through our Range Fitness testing and work with tactical athletes, I got to meet and work with front-line individuals in LE and the military I may have never encountered. Those relationships have continued and we’ve relied on them for follow up research.
Finally, if you’ve followed MTI for some time, you know my interests and our work extend beyond physical fitness. Developing Range Fitness was my first concentrated effort to move outside fitness programming, and I’ve followed up most recently with our work in mission-direct research and Quiet Professionalism, both of which have enriched my work life, and enhanced our value to MTI followers.
For old times sake, below are some of the Range Fitness events and fundamental drills we developed.