Do you want put your firearm, your equipment, and yourself to the test? Do you want to know what works and what doesn’t work in tough conditions? Are you thinking of getting off the couch and taking a carbine class? I did. I attended the Carbine I class offered by Guardian Angel PMC in Greenville, Texas on Saturday, May 12, 2012. Robert Aiken got the name of his company from the philosophy of his commanding general in Iraq, who insisted that each unit in the field have protection from other units acting as “guardian angels.” The guardian angel units intervened quickly and effectively to save their buddies if anything went wrong. Wounded in Ramadi, Robert had to leave the service, but he banded together with some fellow veterans to keep his skills sharp and teach them to others. I am proud to say that they pushed my weapon, my gear, and me to the limit. If you want to do the same, I have some advice for you.
I’ve taken carbine classes before, usually with AR-15s. I know my AR-15 really well, so I decided this time I would go old school and bring a standard type AKM rifle with iron sights and no modifications. It’s a solid rifle, having proven itself to me through thousands of fired rounds. I built it myself, years ago, from a Romanian parts kit, Nodak Spud receiver, and a mix of quality USA-made parts. It has wood furniture, and a basic SKS sling. I like the SKS sling because its leather attachment points do not scratch the heck out of the gun’s metal and wood. The standard issue AK-47 sling uses metal clips that create big circle-shaped scratches as they swivel around. I used surplus-issue metal magazines painted with day-glow orange at the rear so they would be easier to spot in tall grass or mud, and they couldn’t be confused with mags from other AK shooters. I didn’t need to worry about that! Twelve shooters took the class; I was the only one not carrying an AR-15. Storms rolled through the night before, and as we surveyed the muddy shooting range, someone quipped that I was the smart guy for bringing an un-jammable AK. “Time will tell,” I said. “If your gun has never jammed, you haven’t shot it enough.” I was more right than I realized.
My philosophy when taking a class is, “Train as you would fight.” Since this was a fighting carbine class, I wore the tactical gear that I would wear to fight in a war. I have no delusions about being a warrior—asthma kept me out of the military. I’m 35 years old now, and overweight because I prefer food to exercise. However, I don’t spend what little extra money I have on guns and gear just for laughs. I want to be combat effective and I want to know that my stuff works. Sitting on my butt reading online reviews is not good enough for me. A carbine class is about putting on all of your Tactical Man Stuff at once, rolling around in the mud firing at the targets until something breaks down, then fixing the problem and doing it all over again. I found out almost immediately that I had a major equipment problem. I was wearing a Camelback style water bladder on my back. I have owned it for many years and often use it during a class or shooting competition with no problems. However, this time I was wearing an Eagle chest rig, and underneath that, an Eagle CIRAS plate carrier holding ceramic Level IV stand-alone plates. After doing some calisthenics, stretches, push-ups and sprints to warm up, we settled in to zero our carbines from the prone position. I discovered that I could not lift my head up enough to get a sight picture while prone. The camelback was in my way! The tight straps had positioned it very high on my back, limiting my head’s range of motion. I tried moving it out of the way by simply bashing my head against it, but it wouldn’t budge. Disgusted, I removed it and drank bottled water for the rest of the day. Does this mean camelbacks suck and you shouldn’t buy one? Absolutely not. However, for me, wearing this particular model in conjunction with all my other stuff is a no-go because I can’t shoot while laying on my belly. Lesson learned—a lesson that a hundred YouTube videos wouldn’t have taught me.
We sighted in our rifles by firing three shots, then adjusting our sights, repeating the process until we were on target. These were the first live rounds of the day and I would like to say that there were no issues. The truth is some AR-15s and some shooters began having problems with fewer than 10 rounds fired. Before attending a carbine class, you need to know the fundamentals of marksmanship and basic manual of arms of your rifle. These classes are expensive and there are only so many hours of daylight to work with. It is frustrating for other students to have to wait while the instructors patiently explain where the magazine release, safety, and charging handle are to a complete beginner. Would you spend the money to attend a racing school if you didn’t know how to drive a stick-shift? Well, you shouldn’t. You also wouldn’t bring a car without any oil or gas in it, yet I saw some AR-15s that showed up dirty and under-lubricated. Clearing jams was supposed to be taught later in the day, but some of us learned ahead of schedule. I had another equipment failure when my cheap AK sight adjustment tool broke as I tried to adjust my point of impact. I tossed the tool in the trash.
With AR-15s sighted in and a certain AK hitting just a few inches low, we began working on individual rifle skills. We shot from standing, kneeling, and prone. We shot while advancing; we shot while retreating. We shot controlled pairs and hammer pairs. Emergency reloads meant magazines dropped in the thick Texas mud. The mud stuck to everything like glue, weighing down our boots and smearing red dot optics. I soon removed my expensive Icom F4 radio from its pouch and set it aside in a concession to my wallet size—I don’t really want to find out how mud-proof it is. The instructors had to stop the class a few times between dry-fire and live-fire drills so shooters with mud in their muzzles could clean out their barrels. Fortunately, nobody fired a live round with an obstructed bore. Always be aware of your muzzle when going prone or kneeling! My SKS sling proved too short to use as a tactical-style two-point sling, so I had to use it conventionally. As the day wore on, I was grateful for my old gloves with the fingers cut off. The AK’s safety is a big steel lever that you have to swat from “off” to “on” using either your trigger finger or thumb. Manipulate that safety enough times and it will scrape skin off. The safety scratched my fingers a bit, but never drew blood. Others weren’t as lucky. Sharp plastic corners and picatinny rails left some shooters applying bandages to trigger fingers and knuckles.
Through all of it, we had a great time. The other shooters came from far and wide. Four of them were police officers from Columbus, Ohio who are patrol rifle instructors for their department. Their attitude served as an example of how to behave in a carbine class. Although each had years of training and experience, they were simply there to learn and have a good time. They followed instructions, were safe at all times, and encouraged the other shooters. They gave their best during the drills, pushing themselves and their rifles hard. They could flat out shoot, too. They managed to walk the thin line of being professional while still being just another one of the guys at the class. You don’t want to be the loudmouth who misses the target. Take a hint from the Columbus cops—listen to the instructors, chuckle with your fellow shooters, then let your shooting do all the bragging.
My best efforts with the AK were rewarded by good combat accuracy and speed. However, there is no doubt that the AR-15 is a faster, more controllable rifle than the AK-47. The AK’s sight picture was state of the art in the 19th century, but was obsolete by the time Mikhail Kalashnikov began work on the AK. Peep sights are far superior, but the Russians have yet to adopt them. Adding a red dot to the AR broadens the speed gap even further. The AK’s safety is also slower to manipulate than the AR safety. I was one of the slower shooters in the group, and I can honestly say I would have been faster shooting my AR-15. The AK’s rock-in magazine design is clunky for fast reloading. I did pretty well, only fumbling a few times. If I kept the spare magazines in my chest rig oriented the same way as I do AR-15 magazines, they were very difficult to remove from their pouches. Inside the pouches, the metal tabs on the magazines kept catching. If I had two mags stacked in one pouch, I would often pull out both at the same time while only grasping one magazine. The other would flop out into the mud. These are the things you learn at a carbine class—I switched my magazine orientation so that the rounds were facing upwards, placing the metal tabs outside of the pouches.
The AR-15s began to experience worse malfunctions. With bolts sticking just out of battery, shooters had to choose between mashing the forward assist and doing a tap-rack-bang drill to get their guns back in action. Opening stuck actions sometimes required mortaring the rifle, whacking the stock on the ground while pulling the charging handle as hard as possible. A buttstock castle nut came loose, and that AR nearly lost a spring and detent as a result. I was growing concerned about my AK’s ability to handle the abuse too. My mags and ammunition were filthy with mud. Then, the thing I feared finally happened. The AK didn’t fire but I knew the magazine shouldn’t be empty. I tried to remove the magazine but it was stuck tight! With the gun still to my shoulder and pointed downrange, I rotated the gun to look down into the receiver. A live round of ammunition, halfway out of the magazine, was pinned underneath a casing stuck in the chamber. With my left hand, I wrenched away the magazine and the half-fed live round fell with it. I rotated the gun to the right to let gravity help me eject the round, and reaching underneath, I yanked the AK’s charging handle three times. I felt it catch just a little bit each time, and I knew it was game over. The extractor had simply ripped off the section of rim it should pull on to extract the round. I yelled an F word that was not “fudge,” put the rifle on safe, and pulled myself off the firing line.
I had not brought a long cleaning rod with me. After all, AK-47s never jam, right? The standard cleaning rod stowed under the barrel is not long enough to tap out a stuck casing. I asked around, and one of the instructors produced a three-piece cleaning rod. I didn’t know if the stuck case was still a live round or not, despite a firing pin indentation in its primer. I put the cleaning rod down the barrel and proceeded to poke a tree with it as if it were a bayonet. This way I wasn’t touching the cleaning rod at all. If a round discharged, the bullet and cleaning rod would impact the tree, as opposed to blowing my hand off. I am ashamed to say I didn’t think of this technique myself, but at least I was humble enough to accept another shooter’s suggestion to do this. The casing was empty and soon came out, along with big flakes of mud. Unfortunately, the very next round fired stuck in exactly the same way. Two rounds, two stuck casings. Until I could properly clean my chamber, this AK was done.
I had to finish the class using my second AK. It is an underfolder I built on a Polish kit using an Armory USA receiver. Like my fixed-stock rifle, it has fired thousands of rounds with excellent reliability under normal conditions. However, we weren’t shooting in normal conditions, and I’m sorry to report that my underfolder also experienced stuck casings. In all, I had four jams, two with each rifle. Before the final qualification course, I cleaned the chamber of the underfolder and oiled the interior rails, resulting in flawless reliability as I qualified. I am aware of two types of AR-15s that went the entire day with no issues. One shooter brought a pair of LWRC piston-driven carbines, each costing twice as much as many quality direct-impingement AR-15s. The other flawless gun was an M16A1 shot by one of the Columbus, Ohio officers. Shawn “sh*t hot from 17 feet” Lingofelter had a knack for keeping his old war horse out of the muck, and it rewarded him for his efforts.
Guardian Angel designed the final qualification course to test all the different skills we had practiced during the day. Condensed into one course of fire, this 20-round drill proves that you don’t need to use up a lot of ammo to demonstrate a wide variety of skills. The students qualified in two waves. We started the qualification course on patrol 130 yards from our targets. An instructor yelled “Contact right!” and we responded by sprinting 30 yards to the 100-yard line, where we fired four rounds from the prone position. Next, we advanced forward at a run and fired four more shots from 75 yards distance while kneeling. Sprinting to the 50-yard line, we fired four more shots from behind blue plastic barrels, and then advanced to the 25-yard line, where we fired three rounds into the heads of our paper terrorist targets. Finally, we had only a few seconds remaining to advance the remaining distance to the targets, expending our remaining five rounds of ammo while rapid firing on the move. Jerking the trigger pulled two out of three headshots to the left of my terrorist, but otherwise I did well.
Get off your butt and take a class with good solid instructors like those at Guardian Angel. Know your weapon and gear and make sure they are ready to go before you show up. Make sure you can take care of yourself with more than enough water, and basic medical supplies to clean up small boo-boos. If you have a medical condition like my asthma, take your medicine in the morning and bring more with you. Leave your know-it-all attitude at home and bring a healthy dose of never quit to the firing line. Bring quality tools and a spare rifle if you are fortunate enough to have one.
Bring a cleaning rod too, because even AKs can jam.