Sentinel Concepts Practical Shotgun AAR, Oct. 28, 2016

Lead Instructor: Steve Fisher of Sentinel Concepts
Location: Great Guns Sporting near Nunn, Colorado
Date and Time: October 28th, 2016, from 8am to about 4pm

Note: for the duration of this AAR, “Yeti-isms” will be in Bold.


After taking ECQC with Shivworks this June, I hung around with some of my fellow students to unwind a bit. It was there where I learned that one of the students, Colton, worked with High Plains Tactical and Consulting LLC and that they brought trainers to northern Colorado on a pretty regular basis. Colton told me that they were bringing Steve “Yeti” Fisher of Sentinel Concepts to do a couple of classes in the fall and I decided that I’d do what I could to attend at least one of them.

I’ve taken a few pistol and carbine classes in the past but shotguns are still a bit of a mystery to me. When I heard that one of Steve’s classes would be for the shotgun, I decided that I should prioritize attending it. I wanted to attend the next two days of Fisher’s teaching (on pistol) but it wasn’t to be thanks to my budget and my work demands.

Training Day:

I actually woke up an hour before I’d intended to (i.e.: 4:30am, which is when I usually wake up from Monday to Friday). I guess I was so excited for the class that I couldn’t sleep even one more hour!

I got my gear together the night before and just needed to throw it in my truck: my gun was a Remington 870 Wingmaster that, according to the serial number, was made in 1959. A friend of mine lent me his newer 870 that has an 18” Cylinder-bore barrel (my Wingmaster has a 30” barrel with a Full choke) and a Scattergun Technologies magazine extension. I put the shorter barrel and the magazine extension on my Wingmaster for the class. My Wingmaster came with an Antoine custom-made trap stock and matching forearm. I took these off of the gun because the comb of the stock is far too high for anything but trap and the wood used for this furniture is really beautiful and I didn’t want it to get trashed by a troglodyte like me. I bought a set of Hogue furniture from a local gun shop with a short 12” length of pull. I had acquired a Remington-branded neoprene butt cuff at some point that I decided to attach to the stock too. I wasn’t sure if I’d need a sling or not but the Hogue buttstock and the Scattergun Technologies magazine tube both had swivel studs on them so I bought an eight-dollar set of sling swivels and attached an RCA-branded carrying strap (ostensibly for a 1980’s-sized video camera that would have been both heavier and bulkier than a 12-gauge shotgun) which I made extra secure with strips of red duct tape. I figured the strap would be worth a few laughs if nothing else. I brought my friend’s gun too, hoping that I wouldn’t need it.

For ammo I brought what I had lying around: Federal bulk-pack target loads, Remington 00-Buck 9-pellet buckshot, and a combination of Federal, Remington, and Winchester slugs. Nothing here was fancy in the slightest and was really just the cheapest stuff that I could buy off the shelf. The Sentinel Concepts website suggests that you bring 400 rounds of birdshot and fifty rounds each of buckshot and slugs. I exceeded these counts by a big enough margin that I could have probably supplied ammo to another student and still had plenty for myself.

I had been given a satchel/man-purse for Christmas a few years back. It is coyote brown, has Velcro-closed pouches on it, and I think is imported by Condor. I had no idea what the ideal way to carry shells was and I felt like a big-ass Bag of Doom (albeit, that I already owned) was probably a good way to go. If, after the class, I felt like I wanted to upgrade my shell carrying setup then I would do so guided by the knowledge that I’d obtained at the class instead of spending money blindly on things that just looked cool online.

I brought a can of chicken and a can of mixed vegetables for lunch. I also brought two servings of unflavored protein powder and a whole can of Gatorade powder for meals/snacks. I also brought a fork (which I’d forgotten at ECQC a few months prior) and my Leatherman Wave which has a can opener on it.

I brought my range bag which has more stuff in it that I could possibly list. Really, it has my ear-pro in it and that’s likely all I thought I’d need, but I almost never go to any sort of shooting event, no matter how casual, without this range bag. It has tools, spare parts, target-hanging supplies, and other stuff that really makes it a life-saver on occasion.

I wore my Condor tacti-cool pants (which I bought for about twenty-five bucks, fully expecting them to fall apart the first time I washed them) because I don’t care if they get dirty or destroyed. Surprisingly, they’ve survived thus far! I also wore my Bates boots (these have lasted almost two years which I think is phenomenal for a pair of boots that cost around $100), Original SOE EDC Belt, and a long-sleeved t-shirt with a Spartan Race short-sleeved t-shirt over top of it. The combination of shirts was to keep me warm and from getting sunburnt but I also have this notion that you should dress to ‘cross-pollinate’ your interests to help you meet like-minded people. Wearing a gun shirt to a gun event tells people nothing about you; of course you like guns if you’re at a gun event, a t-shirt isn’t really going to make that any more clear! Not everyone who shows up to gun classes is an obstacle course racer (even a very casual one like I am) but if one were to show up to this class that I was attending then I would have instant rapport with that person without even opening my mouth. I am not very outgoing or very loquacious so I rely on tricks like these to help me strike up conversations with people.

I also wore my work-issued Steiner-branded baseball cap. I work for Burris in Greeley and we make some of the Steiner rifle scopes there, including the T5X-Series. I figured that this could be my concession to “gun clothing” while also opening the door to talk about my work, if that’s what somebody wanted to ask me about.

I stepped out the door of my apartment to load all of my gear into my pickup when I stopped and noticed that it was *hot* out. Here it was, in the closing days of October, about two hours before sunrise, and it felt hot outside! I briefly considered going back inside to change into something cooler to wear but decided against it; this is how I would dress for most classes or other all-day outdoor shooting events even in July, so I should be fine in October, I reasoned.

The drive was uneventful and I knew where I was going (I am a member of Great Guns, even if I haven’t really used that membership much at all this year) so there was no drama there. I showed up plenty early, as I’d intended; I can’t be on time, for whatever reason, so I have to be early. High Plains Tactical had reserved a rather secluded part of the range to do the class on and we all parked around the back and sides of it, out of the way.

After everyone showed up, it was evident that this was going to be a pretty big class with a total of 17 students. Steve quipped that, to listen to denizens of the internet, nobody likes shotguns anymore as fighting tools, making the high attendance of this class tough to explain! We did a brief round of introductions which revealed that just about every student had some sort of class or another under their belt already. I was a little surprised at how many students were already trained to some degree; it’s been my experience that at any given class there will be a significant number of students who have never taken a class before.

We had a large number of former .mil guys there and at least four current deputies from an assortment of sheriff’s offices around Colorado. There was a guy from Magpul there, a student that had come all the way from Ohio, and another that had flown in from Hawaii (we gleefully informed this student that he was only a few miles away from Greeley, CO, a.k.a.: “The Exact Opposite of Hawaii)! Upon hearing how far those two had travelled, I was really feeling thankful that I lived only about 40 miles away from where this class was being held.

Many students were running pump guns but about equally popular were semi-autos. Most of the pumps were Remington 870s of various types but there were some Mossberg 500s (“Two hundred and ninety-nine dollars of doom”) and 590A1s too. One student had a Kel-Tec KSG. The semi-autos ran the gamut from a Mossberg 930 SPX (I used to own one just like it), an HK-marked Benelli M1 Super 90, a Benelli Super Black Eagle with a 28” barrel, a Stoeger M3K, and a couple of Remington 1100s. Three participants ran Beretta 1301s, one of which was a loaner from Steve’s collection. Steve also brought a Vang Comp-customized 870 which was borrowed by the student from Hawaii.

Ammo-carrying methods were also varied. Many students elected to just stuff their pockets full of shells while others expanded this concept with dump pouches or man-purses like mine. One student had a competition belt set up with Safariland 085 Shotshell Carriers and some sort of quad-load carriers too. Another student had an Original SOE Shotgun Micro-Rig. Steve said that he really likes the SOE rigs, his favorite one being the SOE Cop Rig. I have eyed these rigs in the past and just might have to invest in one after doing this class.

The most common type of shell carrier was often used in conjunction with one of the above-listed methods: side saddles. The tear-off Velcro type was the most common by far, though there was also some by Aridus as well, including on both of Steve’s guns.

Opening Lecture:

Steve’s teaching style is very relaxed and loose. He answered questions as they came up and threw in pertinent information as situations arose. It was very obvious that he wasn’t reading from a script or from rote memorization of one. It was a style that was so genuine that it almost seemed more like a friendly BSing session than a formal class. Between his relaxed style and his dry, sarcastic wit, I think that everyone was at ease very quickly and soaking up knowledge while laughing at Steve’s non-stop humor.

Steve believes that the shotgun is the most prevalent firearm in America. Lots of folks buy one and lean it in the corner for home defense, many hunt with them, and others have inherited one that sits in a closet, almost forgotten. Steve also contends that, paradoxically, the shotgun is the least understood firearm in America. I have no trouble believing this, since I have a lot better understanding of the carbine, rifle, or handgun than I do of the shotgun. I’ve asked many experienced shotgunners for more information on the shotgun and haven’t been able to get very cut-and-dried answers, which leads me to believe that there is a lot of murkiness where shotgun knowledge is concerned, even amongst people who “specialize” in shotguns.

Steve says that it is no better with police departments. Many departments have either totally gone away from shotguns these days and many others that have kept shotguns either issue nothing but buckshot or nothing but slugs for lethal applications, not both. The LEOs present at the class confirmed this and said that their qualifications were little more than blasting off a few rounds into paper targets at very close range with little instruction on the philosophy of the shotgun’s use accompanying the shooting session.

Whats and Whys:

A big question in this Age of the Carbine is “why would I choose a shotgun?” The answer to that, according to Steve, is that shotguns give you a bit of an edge in environments where there is bound to be some additional difficulty with getting precise hits: shooting on the move, shooting moving targets, shooting in low light, or some combination of the above. In other words, shotguns give you an advantage in virtually every likely self-defense shooting scenario.

Steve summed up the character of the shotgun: “It’s like a bad ex: it’s always hungry and violent. Treat that bitch as violently as it treats you.” Expect the shotgun to need constant loading and to beat you up in ways that a carbine never will. The low capacity and violent operation of the shotgun are what you have to learn to deal with if you’re going to get proficient with one. Many also add that the reloads are “slow” (“Tell that to Jesse Tischauser”) but really, when do you have to reload? Shotgun fights are usually over within about three rounds, in Steve’s experience.

Let’s talk gear:

There was a much bigger gear discussion in this class than in any other that I’ve attended. Normally this would cause me to view a class with suspicion since gear is pretty ancillary to the skills and philosophy that class time should be devoted to. In the case of the shotgun, however, my knowledge is rather poor all-around and there is a lot of misunderstanding about ammo and accessories for the shotgun so I was glad to get some light shed on all of the “stuff” that is available for shotguns.

Steve constantly brought up ammo in this class. Your shotgun’s capabilities will be determined by ammo selection more than anything else. Chokes, barrel length, back-boring, and other factors do play a role as well, but testing ammo and matching the ammo’s capabilities from your gun to your intended purpose should get you most of the way there. Steve promised that we would take a very detailed look at this subject later.

Sighting systems are something that I’ve been quite curious about on shotguns. This is another thing that seems widely misunderstood about shotguns and throughout the class Steve mocked the oft-repeated notion that “you don’t need to aim a shotgun”. It became rapidly clear to us that shotguns DO need to be aimed and several students missed pretty large targets at pretty close range when the stress level got turned up.

Steve says that no two sighting systems line up the same and that shotguns are bad for having the sight canted because of the relatively large amount of play in the barrel. Magazine clamps will affect barrel harmonics since they are difficult to always torque down to exactly the same tension on the exact same spot on the barrel. Additionally, many of these clamps shift around under the considerable recoil of the shotgun. The magazine extension itself can even cause issues since it doubles as the barrel nut, something that few people stop to consider. These are tough to torque to a repeatable spec and they can change their tightness under recoil as well.

Steve likes optics for shotguns (both of his sported Trijicon RMRs) but he says that you don’t necessarily need one (unless you have a vision issue that prevents you for effectively using irons). In addition to the RMR, he is also a fan of the Aimpoint Micro series for shotguns. An additional benefit of these “tube-style” optics is that if your battery dies “Just fill the [optic’s] tube with meat and press the trigger”.

For more economy-minded optics, Steve suggests the Burris Speed Bead with the caveat that it isn’t as durable as he’d like and that the placement of the optic might cause you to position your shooting hand’s thumb so that it hits your nose under recoil. Steve also says that, surprisingly, the Bushnell TRS-25 seems to work rather well on a shotgun, in spite of its very low price.

Steve believes that ghost ring sights generally suck unless they’re on a shotgun that will only be used for slugs (this is a situation that crops up in police departments where they issue shotguns with slug ammo only). If you have a ghost ring setup, Steve suggests cutting the top of the rear sight down to create a buckhorn-style sight instead. Steve particularly dislikes the Scattergun Technologies rear sight due to the maddening zeroing process that it requires.

Steve says that notch-and-post sights are a decent way to go if you open up the rear notch with a file for faster acquisition (this modification is akin to the Rifle Dynamics version of the AK rear sight, the utility of which I can vouch for). Steve suggests matching this setup with a tritium front sight. If you can, also check the barrel out to make sure that the rifle sights haven’t been soldered on crooked, which is known to happen. He also cautions that even if your sights were installed on the barrel properly, they can still become canted when you torque down your magazine extension.

Steve believes that the classic bead sight is a great way to go for a home defense shotgun. Steve contends that “[XS] Big Dots are for blind people and people who can’t shoot” but he makes an exception for the shotgun. Steve thinks that the XS 24/7 Big Dot that sits on top of a standard bead sight and is held on with epoxy is a must-have for a defensive shotgun.

Steve took a moment to talk about cleaning as well. Just like aiming, shotguns also need cleaning, internet ‘experts’ notwithstanding. Plastic fouling from wads gets built up badly in shotgun barrels and this will affect patterns as well as slug accuracy. While Steve didn’t bring it up, I also remember hearing of a moderately well-known competitive shooter blowing a choke tube out of his Saiga 12 at a match due to plastic fouling buildup which increased pressures to dangerous levels. Steve recommends using a 10-gauge brush for 12-gauge barrels and a 12-gauge brush for 20-gauge. The tighter fit of these brushes helps to really clean the fouling out of the barrel like nothing else can. Remember to clean choke tubes too! Tornado Brushes from Hoppes are Steve’s preference.

If you’re going to have a slotted accessory mounting system, Steve says “Hey, motherfucker, M-Lok! Get with that shit!” A number of things were repeatedly brought up for some jovial mocking, Keymod being one of the more common ones, as Steve has repeatedly witnessed things working loose of the Keymod slots.

Steve is a big fan of side-saddles for ammo management and he has seen a number of them in his classes. He says that the Tac-Star brand of side-saddles break too easily for his tastes. The Mesa Tactical side saddles take longer to break, but when they do, it’s their replacement trigger-housing pins that snap. This not only causes your side saddle to fall off, but also for your trigger group to fall out of the gun!

Steve said that the 3 Gun Gear side saddles are a great way to go and so I went home after the class and looked them up online. Perhaps my Google-Fu is just weak, but I couldn’t find evidence of this company having a working website. Additionally, I found a lot of forum posts where people were complaining about 3 Gun Gear not shipping orders, charging credit cards incorrectly, and other shenanigans. I hope they’re still in business and getting their act together because I’d like to at least take a look at their offerings.

Steve had Aridus side saddles on his guns and it looks like a really solid system. They are machined from aluminum and can be popped off of the bracket that is mounted to the receiver by hitting their release latch with another saddle, kind of like reloading an AK. The rigid nature of these side saddles allows them to be carried in M4-style magazine pouches easily. This is something to consider if you already have mag carriers for your AR15 lying around. The Aridus side saddles are not for the budget-minded, however; the system for the 870 is over $150 and extra carriers cost over $40!

For the more budget-minded, Steve suggests the Velcro-style side saddles like SKD Tactical and Original SOE make. These are not only of good quality but are cheap enough that they can be simply replaced when they start to wear out. Most importantly, they attach to the gun with a piece of stick-on loop tape, not by replacing trigger housing pins or other OEM parts of your gun that are critical to the reliability and function of the gun.

Slings were discussed too. Steve thinks that slings have a place on a duty or hunting shotgun, but there is no need for one on a home defense gun. Firstly, you aren’t probably going to have a pistol to transition to in the classic “bump in the night” response scenario and secondly, even if you did have a pistol and you did have to transition to it, just drop your shotgun on the carpet and get your pistol into play. Steve said he was willing to have anyone there refute his logic but nobody took him up on it.

If you do get a sling, Steve says that single points are “gayer than two boys in a sleeping bag at church camp” on a shotgun. If you do add a single point to your shotgun Steve adds: “I hope you have a good chiropractor!” The great weight of the shotgun makes them rather unsuitable for single point slings.

Steve suggests the simplest two-point sling you can get for your shotgun. He is a fan of the military-style nylon parade sling that comes with many AR15s. Many people throw these slings away but he thinks that they should be kept for shotguns. Steve prefers to put the rear swivel stud on the pistol grip of the shotgun stock since that fits him better.

Steve says that many of the ‘quick-adjust’ style of two-point slings have extra webbing that can be accidentally grabbed when working a pump-action shotgun. He doesn’t necessarily think that they don’t belong on a shotgun but that this should be taken into account when considering one of these slings.

Steve moved onto furniture next. He said that it is important that a shotgun’s stock fit you correctly. This is not only good in a general sense, but it can actually be harder to pump the action if the stock doesn’t fit you. Shorter is generally better, but you can get “too much of a good thing” here (more on that later).

Steve thinks that the Magpul SGA stock is hands-down the best shotgun stock out there. He emphasized that he wasn’t just saying that because he’s a former Magpul employee, but rather because it is such a super-tough, very ergonomic, and fully-adjustable stock that he thinks it’s unbeatable.

Steve likes wood stocks since they’re easy to cut to length. If you have a synthetic stock, you can trace out a piece of wood with the butt after you cut the butt to length, cut out the traced piece of wood, and then pin the block of wood into the hollow synthetic stock. A ground-down recoil pad can then be screwed into the piece of wood securely.

Pistol grip stocks (i.e.: buttstocks that have a vertical pistol grip too; not pistol grips only) have some severe limitations. In Steve’s experience, these stocks always have incorrect comb heights which result in the shooter looking *below* the sights when a proper cheek weld is established. I had a Mossberg 930 SPX with the Choate pistol grip stock in the past and had this exact experience. I chalked that up to the Choate stock in particular being poorly designed or perhaps just not a good fit for the SPX’s tall sights but apparently many shotguns suffer from this shortcoming too. That said, Steve did single out Choate stocks as being particularly bad.

Even high-end pistol grip stocks seem to be included in these complaints: Steve told us that he’d had a Benelli M4 whose stock would rotate accidentally after much use. For what the Benelli M4 costs, I would have expected them to at least get the stock right!

Steve asked the students if anyone had brought a Knoxx recoil-reducing stock for their gun and no hands were raised. Steve breathed a sigh of relief and said that it was a good thing that word was finally getting out about the Knoxx, but didn’t elaborate as to what in particular is wrong with them. He also said that he’s not a fan of the Speed Feed stocks without elaborating much further since there weren’t any of those at the class either.

For forearms, Steve is a fan of the Surefire forearm but acknowledges that it is expensive, heavy, and available for only a few different guns. Steve also isn’t a fan of the newer generation of Surefire shotgun forearms at all, citing their great weight and complexity. Steve suggests picking up an older Surefire forearm and upgrading the light itself. I wrote down the P3X Fury in my notes but Steve assured us that there are many other good, common Surefire lights that will work as upgrades to these forearms.

Wood forearms are kind of nice here since you can buy a cheap section of Picatinny rail and attach it to the forearm with screws and epoxy. I imagine that this would work with a standard synthetic forearm too. Steve likes the Magpul forearm since it is affordable and M-Lok compatible. He had one on his Vang Comp 870 and he pointed out that he’d stippled his.

The discussion on forearms led smoothly to the topic of lights and mounts. Steve does not advocate barrel-mounted light mounts as they are too far away to be easily reached, especially in awkward shooting positions. I had borrowed such a mount along with the barrel from my friend and I could barely reach the light even with the 12” LOP stock and my long arms. Steve said that there is no need to be a baller when it comes to mounting a light, adding that “Duct tape, hose clamps, and ranger bands fix everything but herpes.”

Steve likes the Surefire X300 pistol light for shotguns, but he was quick to add that this isn’t an endorsement of this light for carbines; Steve feels that the limited range of the X300 diminishes the range of the carbine too much. Steve said that the Streamlight TLR-1 is not a bad way to go on shotguns either. One student asked how many lumens Steve wants on a weapon light to which he replied “All of them!” If forced to give a number, Steve says that about 500 lumens is a good place to look.

Other accessories were discussed next. Benelli M1 users should consider an upgraded spring kit (or just get used to the idea of only shooting full-power ammo). There are some gas-operated guns that can have a second O-ring added for reliability with low-recoil ammo. Porting of the barrel does make the gun shoot flatter but it doesn’t get rid of recoil, per se. The porting work done by Vang Comp also tightens patterns with cheaper ammo. Chokes can be an asset for fine-tuning patterns but anything tighter than a Modified choke should be avoided. Enlarged safeties are an asset that should be considered, especially the offerings from Vang Comp.

Types of guns were gone over and the more common ones had some things to consider about them: newer Remington 870s have rough chambers that may need polishing for reliability. Steve is a very big fan of the Remington 1100 and likes that they’re also affordable. The Benelli M4 is very heavy, is easily accessorized (which makes it even heavier…), and heats up quickly. Steve thinks that the Benelli M2 and the Beretta 1301 are both better guns overall than the Benelli M4.

Steve wishes that every shotgun manufacturer on the planet would just pay Mossberg royalties to use their tang-mounted safety design. He also said that the best shotgun he could imagine would be a Remington 870 or 1100 with that Mossberg safety.

Pump or semi-auto is a personal choice. While a pump-action will shoot anything reliably, it is the shooter that is often “unreliable”. Short-stroking a pump-action is overcome when you treat the gun angrily and violently! Steve demonstrated how fast a Remington 870 could be run by shooting his Vang Comp 870 as well as a stock 870 as fast as most people can run a semi-auto. Later, I would note that the Stoeger M3K shooter was actually outrunning the action speed of his gun. Strangely, it seems like a semi auto’s advantage is that it can be more reliable than a pump and the pump’s advantage is that it can be faster than a semi-auto!

12- or 20-gauge is another question where both answers are right, by Steve’s estimation. There are good defensive loads for both and anyone who can shoot a 12-gauge fast can shoot a 20-gauge faster! Steve also contends that as you age and your old injuries add up, you will be glad to not have to put up with the brutal recoil of the 12-gauge during training sessions.

Home On The Range:

Steve was able to fly through the medical plan quickly due to the large number of LEOs there (who had very reliable comms with medevac helicopters out of Loveland) and the presence of a Paramedic at the class too. Steve had his own medical training and kit and said that, starting in 2017, he plans on making a good BOK a mandatory piece of gear to bring to his classes. Maybe I’m biased since I already have several BOKs, but I rather like this policy!

The safety brief had the Four Fundamentals of Firearms Safety uttered during it, but what was really emphasized was the principle that you, the shooter, are the ONLY one controlling your gun and the ONLY one responsible for where and when it shoots. Steve said that he would give you a warning for doing something that was borderline unsafe but egregious violations of safety would get you ejected from his class as well as blacklisted with every trainer that Steve knows in the industry (which is to say, every one that is worth a damn). If there was a questionable shot in the class, then you shouldn’t take the shot. The fate of the Free World doesn’t depend on that piece of paper or steel getting shot! The class lasts all day and you’ll get lots of opportunities to shoot later so be safe.

The method we were shown for running a cross-bolt safety was new to me: the firing hand’s thumb reaches *beneath* the gun, around the bottom of the trigger guard, and then engages the safety. It is rather like the motion that you’d use if you had a pistol grip on the gun, rather than a conventional stock. This method reduces the odds of the trigger getting pressed by mistake when reaching for the safety button.

The next gun-handling hack that Steve showed us was the push-pull method for recoil control. The front hand pulls forward on the forearm and the rear hand pulls back on the grip, as if the shooter is trying to tear the gun in half at the front of the receiver. Steve had us line up and try this technique with birdshot, then a shot without the technique, then one more shot with the technique. Not only was the felt recoil diminished with this technique, but observing others shooting with and without the technique allowed you to see the difference in their muzzles’ rise. Another part of this technique was incorporating an aggressive and ‘athletic’ stance that puts your weight forward and right behind the gun. Carbines spoil us with their low recoil and let us get away with sloppy, lazy technique. Students that had gotten used to a less aggressive stance were frequently rocked back on their heels from the recoil of even low-brass target loads.

The class proceeded immediately to loading techniques. The first type of loading technique gets called “Port Loading” since a shell gets dropped directly into the chamber through the ejection port. This is also called a “Combat Reload” or “Emergency Reload” by some. The Port Load requires you to get the gun braced on your body so that not just your arm is supporting all of the gun’s weight. This also brings the gun into your peripheral vision so that you can see what your hands are doing without looking down, away from the action downrange. Next, a shell is retrieved from whatever ammo-carrying method you use and the shell’s orientation is confirmed, ideally by feel. You CAN load a shell into your gun backwards under stress and it’s NOT an easy or quick process to get it back out again! Once the orientation of the shell is determined, you will reach either over or under the receiver and flap your hand over the ejection port to make the shell go inside. If the rim of the shell faces your pinky finger then going under the receiver is more natural. If the rim faces your thumb then going over is more natural. Steve said that both techniques work and that it’s personal preference and shell orientation that guides which method you’ll use.

This technique really makes side-saddles shine as an ammo carrying option; as long as you put all the shells in the saddle facing the same way you can basically skip the step where you have to orient the shell in your hand, provided that you always grab the shells the same way. The close proximity of the side saddle to the ejection port also speeds up the Port Reload quite a bit. Whether you put your shells into side saddles with the rim up or down is a personal call, but you should test your side saddle to make sure that it will retain your shells with the rims facing down if you choose that method. Some side saddles need the rim to keep the shells from slipping down under recoil and ultimately falling out of the bottom of side saddle.

A student asked about orienting some shells up and others down to differentiate between differing kinds of ammo. Steve believes that this method is too prone to error and recommends against it. Also, Steve is a proponent of just using a good, proven buckshot load to keep things simple.

I felt that the “over top” method was slightly more natural than going underneath but I didn’t feel that one method was drastically better than the other. I also started out trying to run shells from the butt cuff that I had put on the new stock but found that it was difficult to reach after trapping the gun “in the workspace”. I quickly got frustrated with the butt cuff and abandoned using it in favor of loading from my man purse.

Pattern Theory:

Once we’d gotten the hang of the Port Load we put our birdshot away and brought out buckshot. All I had was some Remington 9-pellet 00-Buck that I’d bought long ago. The pattern was very large and I was starting to have pellets leave the target by the 20 yard mark. Admittedly, this is probably ok for home defense use since my apartment isn’t that big but for use outdoors I’d probably want something that shot tighter.

Steve demonstrated the ways that different ammo can pattern drastically different from the same gun. Some loads shot patterns at 10 yards that were just one big hole whereas other ammo covered almost the whole target with the pattern! Steve also used students’ guns to show that one type of ammo could pattern very differently from one gun to the next.

So what does all this mean? I’d tested buckshot before and made note of its abilities at various ranges but I didn’t understand what I should be looking for, given my needs. Some people told me that the tighter the pattern, the better since you are legally and morally responsible for every projectile that you fire and so a tight pattern makes it less likely that you’ll have an errant pellet that could endanger a bystander. But if that’s the case then shouldn’t I shoot slugs? Or maybe a carbine? Isn’t the point of a shotgun to have some spread?

Steve really did a good job of explaining that “the best” pattern is really going to depend on your intended use for the shotgun. Steve likes to use a hand span (the approximate area that you can cover with your fingers splayed apart) as the ideal pattern size. The range at which you should see this pattern is the maximum distance that you can expect to shoot in your area of operations.

Example: let’s look at my apartment which allows for a thirty-foot shot, assuming that I stand in the far corner of my spare bedroom and look out the spare bedroom door, across to the far corner of my living room, to my front door. If my shotgun is for home defense, that means that I should look for a load that makes a hand span- sized group at 10 yards. That said, the above scenario is a lot less likely than me shooting from my bedroom door towards my front door, the range of which is 22’. That might mean that I would do well to select a round that gives me the hand span at that distance since it’s a far more likely shot for me to have to take.

The hand span isn’t just an arbitrary thing: this is about the size of an adult’s central thoracic cavity from either the front or the side. For those concerned with never shooting a pellet that doesn’t hit your intended target, this also gives you a better chance of keeping all your shot on an adult’s torso from the broadside or with a headshot from any angle.

Consistency and evenness of the pattern was something that Steve explained to us as well and these were terms that I hadn’t heard discussed with shotguns before. Consistency is kind of self-explanatory (the pattern is always roughly the same size) but the evenness is a little different. The pattern should have a consistent shape (if it sometimes strings horizontally and sometimes vertically then that can be an issue) and shouldn’t have big gaps or too many flyers in the pattern. Shooting multiple shots into the same spot should create a pattern that is about the same size and shape as the first shot, but the pattern should just become more and more saturated with each successive shot.

Steve brought up Federal Flight Control very frequently since it has all of the above desirable traits. About the only thing that can be an issue with it is that it can be too tight in terms of pattern for some people’s uses. Steve showed us patterns with Flight Control 9-pellet 00-Buck as well as 15-pellet #1-Buck. #1-Buck is the smallest buckshot that meets the FBI’s 12” penetration standard in ballistic gelatin, making it popular for home defense. Both of these loads made impressively consistent and tight patterns out of almost any gun that it was fired from.

Steve told us that buckshot can be lethal out to about 65 yards and that this was an important figure to remember for later. We went out to 30, 40, and (about) 50 yards with buckshot to see what it could do. At these ranges, of course, not all of the pattern was hitting the target but even at 50+ yards about half of the pattern was staying on target, making it potentially effective against an attacker at that range. Getting hit with four or five .33-caliber pellets might not blow an attacker out of his shoes, but it might very well change his priorities! If that attacker decides to flee instead of pressing his attack because of the wounds he suffered, then the buckshot did its job of stopping the attack. If those few pellets didn’t do their job, then that consistency and evenness of pattern will allow you to keep on making hit after hit via saturation. Enough hits like this are bound to disrupt, if not destroy, an attacker in short order.

Steve constantly asks for questions as he teaches and at one point a student asked about birdshot as a home defense choice. Steve doesn’t think birdshot is the best choice for home defense but he says that sometimes there is someone who is incapable of handling the recoil of buckshot who really can’t shoot anything other than birdshot. If you do use birdshot, aim for the attacker’s face since this has a better chance of blinding or otherwise disabling him. Also, if you can take the recoil of buckshot, load the rest of your magazine with that in case the birdshot doesn’t end the fight (a distinct possibility).

The point of all of this patterning was that you need to do a little research when it comes to what ammo you should buy for your shotgun. Ammo selection is the key to making your shotgun perform the way you want it to. You need to define your purpose for your shotgun, including range and acceptable pattern, and then you need to get out to the range and start testing ammo in your gun.

Getting Loaded With Steve Fisher:

Once Steve was satisfied that we knew what our ‘homework’ was for testing buckshot, he told us to switch back to birdshot so that we could practice more loading drills. We had already covered the Port Load and now we would practice the Magazine Load or the Tactical Reload for the shotgun. The Tactical Reload is done when there is already a live round in the chamber and there is an opportunity to slide more shells into the magazine. The technique for doing this is not very involved but there were a few pointers here, mainly that you should take care not to catch your thumbnail in the loading gate and that you should make sure to fully seat your shells into the magazine, lest they get kicked out again by spring pressure. On some guns (mainly Mossberg pumps) this results in the shell just getting thrown on the ground. On guns with an actual loading gate (pretty much everything but Mossberg pumps) this causes the shell to get shot into the lifter which can tie up the gun to a degree when you try to cycle the action.

Steve also suggested trying to index the shell off of the front of the trigger guard to make the loading more smooth and natural without having to take your eyes off of the action downrange. I did try this method a couple of times but it really just felt slow and unnecessary. Perhaps it is helpful to some but I found that it was easy enough to just find that great, big loading port without extra help.

The Tactical Reload is so simple that Steve had us launch right into a drill called “Rolling Thunder” to practice it. It’s a very simple drill but it’s still extremely fun to do. Eight students were put on the line (we split the class into two relays) and each student faced a 12”x12” steel plate. All students started with an empty gun at high ready. When Steve called a start to the drill, the student at the far right end of the line loaded one shell and shot his target. The shot being fired was the signal for the student to the shooter’s left to do the same and this pattern repeated all the way down the line of students. Once the last student on the line fired his shot he shouted “Out!” which was the signal for the line to start shooting again, one shooter at a time, from right to left, but this time two shots were to be fired. The student could start loading the requisite number of shells as soon as he fired his last shot. This process was repeated, adding one shot to the count until we were shooting six shots apiece. Since it takes longer to load than to shoot, the loading time leading up to your next turn on the longer strings of fire tends to become very stressful! One or two students had guns that couldn’t hold six shots so they had to load whatever they could and then Port Load the difference.

After doing Rolling Thunder from right to left, we did it left to right. Then we did a variation where an odd man was placed in the middle (making for a lineup of nine shooters) and the order to shoot rippled outwards from the middle! Another variation was much like the original left-to-right or right-to-left version but the shooter shot every plate from left to right (or right to left) as well. This gave us practice transitioning between targets in addition to all of the other skills we were learning.

During Rolling Thunder I experienced a lot of failures for my Wingmaster to cycle. I fixed many of these by driving the butt downwards while thrusting my right knee upwards. The resulting knee strike on the butt pad did force the action open but after a while I began to hypothesize that I would be the only student in the class to have a bigger bruise on his knee than his shoulder! When I jokingly mentioned this to Steve, he suggested that I kneel down and ‘mortar’ the butt on the ground instead. I tried this technique after that and found it to work really well and I like the idea of taking a knee to fix a malf too.

Steve used me as an example of why he hates the Hogue Overmolded furniture: the rubber-coated forearm included with this furniture set contacts the barrel of the shotgun if the forearm gets twisted to even a minor degree. The great amount of friction that ensues due to the rubbery nature of the coating on the forearm dragging on the barrel makes the pump very hard to work, especially when the barrel gets hot. In a drill like Rolling Thunder the barrel does, indeed, get very hot too. I touched the barrel accidentally after a drill, but only once! Steve says that if you won’t ditch the Hogue forearm, that you can instead freeze the forearm really, really cold and solid in your freezer and then grind it down so that it can’t contact the barrel anymore. If you don’t freeze the forearm before grinding, it will not grind neatly and will just turn into a big, melted mess. This sounds like a ton of work and I think I’ll just sell my Hogue furniture and replace it with a Magpul forearm.

I found that between doing the push/pull recoil control technique, running the pump action, clearing frequent malfunctions, reloading one shell at a time, as fast as I could, and just holding that heavy, steel shotgun up all the time (as well as a satchel of shells hanging off of my body), I was getting really fatigued throughout the day. I think that once I get rid of that Hogue furniture and once I get used to the push/pull technique, then I won’t be wasting so much energy on fixing malfs and unnecessary tension in my shoulders.

At one of the frequent breaks for water, cooling the guns down, and questions, I asked Steve if it’s possible to have a stock that is too short. I felt borderline foolish to ask such a thing, since the internet experts have assured me for so long that shorter stocks are ALWAYS better for tacticalness, but I found that when I got aggressive with the push/pull technique that I would actually pull the butt pad off of my shoulder to a degree, which didn’t feel right at all. Steve pounced on this question to demonstrate why having a properly fitting stock is so important: he had me stand in front of everyone and shoulder my Wingmaster with it’s 12” length of pull Hogue stock. Steve pointed out that not only was my position quite awkward, but that the angle of my head in relation to the barrel/sight plane was quite severe; I was tilting my head downwards to get a cheek weld and rolling my eyes up in their sockets to see the sights which really cut down my peripheral vision. Steve then had a student with a Remington factory-spec 870 trade guns with me. I shouldered this gun and found that the longer stock let me raise my head quite a bit. From the “Ahhs” emanating from my fellow students, I could tell that they had instantly observed that my head position was quite a bit more erect. Finally, Steve took the OEM 870 from me and handed me his personal 870, this one fitted with the Magpul SGA stock. If the Hogue stock is a 1/10 for head position and the OEM stock is a 5/10, the SGA is a 10/10 for comfort and positioning. I think I was actually giggling a little bit at how much better the SGA was than the other two options. I know what my next purchase for the Wingmaster will be!

On one of the last iterations of Rolling Thunder I got two blisters on my left hand from running the pump and clearing repeated malfunctions. One blister was on the palm of my hand (thenar eminence area) and the other was on the middle knuckle of my middle finger. The latter blister ripped open and was very tender and painful which caused me to hold and run the pump a lot more delicately than before. Interestingly, I stopped getting malfunctions when I did so. I guess that I stopped torquing the Hogue forearm against the barrel when I relaxed my grip. I brought this up at a questions period and Steve said that torquing forearms is common on pump guns when the stress gets amped up but that’s why good-quality pump guns have twin action bars. Mossberg Mavericks have only one and strong shooters can actually bend or twist the action bar when running them violently, binding up the action.

At some point we stopped for lunch. I had brought a spartan meal of canned chicken and vegetables but the crew from High Plains tactical brought out the grill and cooked us hamburgers and hot dogs! This was a nice surprise and a lot tastier than what I’d brought along. Additionally, they brought out some bottles of water and Gatorade, which was very welcome on that bizarrely hot late-October day.

It Turned Into A Slugfest:

Steve seemed annoyed that his website designer had put slug ammo on the ‘required gear’ list but decided that if we had brought slugs (everyone had) that we had best put them to use. Steve admitted that he’d had a part in developing the slick-looking (but very complicated) slug-changeover drills on the Magpul DVD. Steve now thinks that in the time that it takes for you to switch over to a slug for a longer shot, you could just start pelting a bad guy with buckshot (again, assuming that you’ve patterned your loads and you have selected your ammo wisely) out to about 65 yards and destroy the bad guy a lot faster that way.

That 65 yard figure was brought up at the start of the class and was revisited here. The problem that most people seem to have with the long-range buckshot idea is that out at longer range pellets start leaving the target, potentially endangering bystanders. Steve set up three targets at 50 or so yards and placed them one foot apart from side-to-side. Steve shot the middle target with several loads of buckshot and while pellets did leave the middle paper, not one hit was scored on the two pieces of paper to the sides. Basically, if bystanders are more than a foot to the side of your intended target they are probably safe from your properly-patterned buckshot.

The next concern is targets that are beyond/behind the intended target. This is a potential concern, but remember that 65 yards is about the maximum lethal range of buckshot; if your bad guy is 50 yards away and a bystander is more than 15 yards beyond that, there is a lessened chance of them being badly hurt even if they are struck by an errant pellet. Still, angles should be changed to reduce the odds of this situation occurring, if that is in the cards.

The other thing to take into account is that the scenarios that get brought up where slug changeovers are said to have merit are often in the context of stopping a mass-murderer or other violent felon in a public place. In such an example it might be less dangerous to shoot buckshot near bystanders if your shot distracts or disrupts the mass-murderer than to let him continue his evil work. Similarly, the two or three seconds that you use to change from shot to slug could be all the time that a bad guy needs to get one more kill, perhaps a kill that he wouldn’t have gotten if he’d been struck by some buckshot before he could pull the trigger again.

In the interests of showing us how to change to slugs properly (since we’d all bought some for the class anyway), Steve showed us the most simple method that he could come up with. In the case of a fully-loaded gun, shoot the chambered round at the bad guy (and run the action if it’s a pump). If this doesn’t stop him and you think that a slug is the answer, Tactical Load a slug into the magazine (now that there is room for it, thanks to a shot having just been fired). Shoot the next chambered round (still buckshot) into the bad guy and chamber the slug. Finally, shoot the slug.

The thing with this drill is that you’re likely to finish the problem with buckshot, obviating the need for the slug at all! When we got on line at 50 or so yards and tried this drill, many students (especially those running bead sights) found that when they walked up to their targets that the slug had either missed completely or caused just a peripheral wound… but that the target was hit numerous times with buckshot. Hmm…

Finally, in the event that your slug and two loads of buck actually don’t get the job done, then you’re still in a fight with a gun full of buckshot! At the end of the day, buckshot is probably what is going to win the fight. If it can’t, then it’s tough to see that switching to slugs would make a very big difference.

As great as bead sights are for buckshot, they are lacking for precision with slugs; I missed both times that I tried the aforementioned drill. Additionally, there is no way to adjust beads so you get whatever you get. If you feel the need to shoot slugs then perhaps you should get a gun with rifle sights, ghost rings, or a red dot as those sights have adjustability for zero, unlike a bead.

In the interests of fairness, Steve did point out that one really nice thing about slugs is that they all seem to hit about the same point of impact, even if they are of different makes. Steve picked one student out who had a good set of sights with a really solid zero. He gathered up four different makes of slugs and had the student shoot all four of them at his target, one after the other. All four hit roughly center-mass on his target in spite of them all being from differing companies. “Makes it easy to see why Louis [Awerbuck] liked slugs so much, huh?”

During the slug phase we did little shooting (and most of it was actually with buckshot) and I was actually kind of relieved. When we were given a few minutes to grab our slug ammo I mooched a Band-Aid off of a fellow student and secured it with a strip of duct tape to my poor middle finger. I was really not looking forward to running that pump anymore that day with my finger in the condition that it was in.


Steve brought us in to do a final discussion on what we’d learned that day. He summed things up very nicely: “The shotgun is as simple as you make it. Just load it and shoot it and load it and shoot it!” There is a little work to be done with patterning and ammo selection prior to trusting your life to one, but once you’ve gotten this out of the way, Steve’s quote pretty much sums it up.

Even with accessories there is no point to going overboard. You certainly need a light but not much beyond that. A magazine extension and/or a side saddle are not a bad idea and sticking a Big Dot over your front bead helps but everything else is optional.

Steve strongly recommends getting some inert shells to practice the different loading techniques with. He prefers the kind that actually have shot and a wad inside of a real hull with inert powder and a dead primer as these perfectly mimic the weight and balance of live ammo, unlike the shell-shaped pieces of plastic that some people use. This kind of dry-practice is especially useful for city dwellers (or that guy from Hawaii!) who can’t just got out and shoot whenever they please due to their geographical location.

Steve handed out Sentinel Concepts challenge coins to every student and told any of us that had questions to contact him via email. While I might think of some minor ones, I feel like my understanding of what the shotgun is and is not has grown quite a lot. The philosophy of the shotgun as a martial tool is quite a bit clearer to me now and I really feel a lot more comfortable with it.

This class has also made me excited to learn even more about shotgunning. I have a membership at the Great Guns range, which allows me to use their world-class sporting clays setup and I really want to do so now. I’m tempted to try my hand at hunting with the shotgun to try and expand my comfort with it and understanding of it. I have several friends who hunt birds and I know they’d be glad to show me the ropes.

Finally, I now can put that shotgun beside my bed and know what to expect of it should I ever have to fight with it… after I figure out what buckshot it likes, of course. It really feels good to be able to look at a gun that I own and see potential instead of uncertainty.

What Went Right:

- Nobody got hurt. While this is the norm at classes and other shooting events in my experience, there is always a potential for accidents to happen when a lot of strangers gather together with lots of guns and ammo. Even something flukey like a ricochet can cause an injury and considering the vast number of #7.5 birdshot pellets that we fired that day, there was lots of potential for someone to get hit. But since that didn’t happen, yay us.
- I set out to learn about the shotgun and that most certainly did happen. I don’t know all that there is to know by any means but I feel like my knowledge has taken a quantum leap forward.
- I got to hang out with a great group of people. I was really impressed with the turnout for this class (especially since it was just for boring ol’ shotguns) and for the amount of experience that all the students had. I also want to take my hat off to the guy who came all the way from Hawaii; that’s dedication right there!
- I “stayed in the fight” when my Wingmaster kept giving me fits. More than one student complimented me on my “mortaring” routine and I did make sure to keep that gun running and treat it like the proverbial violent ex.

What Could Have Gone Better:

- I took lots of notes for the opening lecture part of the class but kind of slacked off after that. I should have taken notes non-stop.

Stuff I Had That I Was Glad For:

- My man purse. It is a cheap and simple way to carry lots of shells. All you have to do to recharge it is open another box or two of shells and dump them inside!
- Water. It was hot that day!

Stuff I Had That I Wish I Didn’t:

- Hogue furniture. The too-short LOP was annoying but the forearm actually caused malfunctions. I hope that nobody suffers a malf in a life-or-death confrontation because of this forend.
- A neoprene butt cuff. I think I dislike the concept of the butt cuff in general after using one in this class, but the neoprene on this particular one was especially floppy and insecure.
- A barrel-mounted light mount. I get a bit of a pass on this one since it wasn’t actually mine, but I’ve advised my friend to invest in something better for his gun. After measuring the scratch mark that the mount left on the barrel, I figured that it slid forward over 3.5” during the course of this class alone.

Stuff I Didn’t Have That I Wish I Did:

- Magpul furniture. It just seems to do everything right, from fitting properly, to mounting stuff securely, to allowing the gun to run correctly.
- Side saddles. These things are The Right Answer for ammo management.
- An oversized safety. I missed the safety more than once and while I blame a lack of familiarity with the gun more than I blame gear, I think that the larger safety would have helped to remind me to disengage it.
- Gloves. I could have prevented ripping up my hand with a cheap, simple glove.
- A Flexi-Tab loading gate. This is the tab that makes the type of malfs I was getting a little easier to clear, I’m told. Anything that increases reliability is probably worth adding.

Stuff I Didn’t Bring That I Was Glad For:

- Stuff that looks cool but that I didn’t actually understand or need. I was excited for this class and my brain kept wandering to “what should I buy for this class?” I fought those urges down and kept from buying anything until I actually knew something about shotguns. The price of tuition of this class will probably pay for itself just by helping me avoid buying a bunch of crap that I liked the looks/idea of but that now I know won’t actually help me!
- Warmer clothes. Well, I did *bring* them but I’m glad I wasn’t wearing them since it was so hot out!


I wanted to learn more about shotguns and that’s exactly what happened at Sentinel Concepts’ Practical Shotgun. If you’re a little confused about where shotguns fit into the scheme of things here in the 21st century then this might be the class for you. This class has got me thirsting for more knowledge about shotguns and I think I’ll be spending a lot more time with my Wingmaster in the future. Sentinel Concepts has a “Critical Shotgun” class that I am now adding to my list. I’m looking forward to seeing Steve in Colorado again next year!
That's quite the AAR. I enjoyed this class. It was fun to get the shotgun out after being mothballed by my department. My 1100 runs like a sewing machine. I'll take more time to go over the details of you AAR when I get home tonight.
Good AAR. I took the class that Mr.Fisher had up in Northern IL recently and am looking foward to taking another shotgun class with him. It is worth the time and effort.

"Steve wishes that every shotgun manufacturer on the planet would just pay Mossberg royalties to use their tang-mounted safety design. He also said that the best shotgun he could imagine would be a Remington 870 or 1100 with that Mossberg safety."

Amen to that!