May 1999

Investing In A Shooting School: Thunder Ranch Versus LFI

After you buy the gun, spending money to learn how to use it is smart. We think the Lethal Force Institute is a best buy.

Most of us got tired of going to school years ago, and the idea of voluntarily hitting the books again—and, in fact, paying handsomely for the privilege—is enough to make us laugh out loud. But what if the school in question was offering shooting instruction, gun-selection tips, and life-saving tactical advice? Would that entice you back into the classroom? We thought so.

We attended two well-known shooting schools to compare and contrast the quality of instruction, advice, and fun, they offered: Thunder Ranch, in Mountain Home, Texas, and Massad Ayoob’s Lethal Force Institute. Though both services offer the shooter a lot of bang for his buck, Ayoob’s LFI course taught us many sobering, eye-opening lessons about carrying and using guns in self defense that we hadn’t known before. If you can afford to attend both (see the accompanying sidebar for pricing), we recommend you do. If you can only afford one, then pick LFI, for the reasons we describe below.

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Lethal Force Institute
Massad Ayoob, the well-known gun writer and cop, has been expert witness in many courtroom cases, and he brings his legal experience to a classroom near you. Ayoob’s LFI course travels all over the country to population centers where he can gather enough students to make his time worthwhile.

Ayoob offers many levels of instruction, some for civilians and some geared toward law-enforcement personnel. To enroll, you must present some sort of verification that you are a responsible, law-abiding citizen or bona-fide law officer. This can be as simple as a letter from your local chief of police. Beginners must first take the LFI-1 course unless they have already had intense training at another of the big nationally recognized schools, like Thunder Ranch, Gunsite, or Chuck Taylor’s American Small Arms Academy. In addition, you’ll need a sound handgun, a holster, spare magazines or speed-loaders with their necessary carrying pouches, and 500 rounds of ammunition.

LFI-1 takes place over a three-day weekend, during which students spend up to 12 hours a day getting lots of lectures from Ayoob and his expert staff, seeing numerous video lectures featuring Ayoob and other experts, and doing some very intense shooting. The student is told to take extensive notes, and after the class these notes actually form part of the defensive package, if ever the student is involved in an actual shooting. One very important feature of the Ayoob presentation is that he brings a local judge or lawyer to the lecture to answer questions pertinent to your specific locality.

Ayoob’s courses are geared toward survival. That means survival at home, on the street and in the courthouse. Students are given vital information on securing their homes against intrusion, told what to do, where to go, and how to act if someone breaks into their home. They are made to learn specific, organized tactics how to dominate an in-house confrontation, including how and what to say and how to deal with immobilizing the intruder while phoning for the police.

Students are told the truth, which is not all that pleasant, about what happens after a shooting. Your friends, for instance, will never act the same around you. Society doesn’t take well to gunfighters, never mind that you were completely in the right and it was either you or the other guy. No other shooting school seems to do this as well as Ayoob’s.

You also get very good instruction in shooting. Rank beginners come out of the LFI class with the ability to shoot well enough to survive nearly any attack. It was reassuring to see a grandmother, who had never fired a gun before the LFI class, shoot the center out of her target during the last day’s shooting qualification test. The class was about far more than simply shooting your way out of trouble. It gave students hands-on demonstrations of real-life situations that most of us never would have considered to be a threat. One lesson was that all students were required to run a distance of 21 feet (7 yards is the FBI-determined average distance for gunfights) against the clock. The slowest runner, a man of age 75 with a bad leg, ran that distance in well under 2 seconds. Another man of age 60 with bad knees made it in 1.5 seconds. If either of these men had been an attacker with a knife, the best shot in the world would have had a tough time stopping him in that time. Until we students experienced this, not many of us believed we would be in danger from a knife-wielding attacker standing across a room.

During the video presentations we were given what were essentially police training films including shoot/don’t shoot scenarios in which we had to decide how to act. Some of these scenes were of typical holdup encounters. One scary number presented in the LFI class was that you have, perhaps, one second to decide to shoot or not shoot in a violent encounter. A jury, trying you, has much longer to think about it than you did.

Thunder Ranch
We also attended Thunder Ranch, in Mountain Home, Texas, a short time ago and took the entry-level class there called Defensive Handgun I. Clint Smith, proprietor of Thunder Ranch, also requires students to prove that they’re on the side of the good guys, via a letter from the local law. Thunder Ranch, like Ayoob’s LFI, is very busy, so plan well in advance. If you can’t spend five full days in Texas there is a three-day version of the course offered, but it leaves out some of the more important training, such as night shooting.

Thunder Ranch is located just outside Mountain Home, Texas, which is a short drive northwest from San Antonio. There are a few cabins at Thunder Ranch at which the student can stay if he makes arrangements well in advance, but he’ll have to bring his own food. Students can also overnight at one of the motels in Mountain Home, but they’re about fifty miles from the ranch. We chose to stay at the nearby YO Ranch, which provides a packed lunch every day. There are no food facilities at, or near, Thunder Ranch, so the YO solved our midday eating problem.

The range and shooting facilities at Clint Smith’s Thunder Ranch are as good as any available anywhere in the world. Many government spec ops units train there, as well as individuals from all over the world. In addition to several isolated and berm-guarded outdoor firing ranges for handgun, rifle, submachinegun and shotgun instruction, Thunder also has a building called the “Terminator,” which has movable internal walls so that many different scenarios can be set up for house-clearing drills, and the student never sees the same setup twice. There is also a five-story tower for more specialized instruction, and also a “town” or street scene, neither of which were used in our basic class.

The first day of the Thunder Ranch Defensive Handgun One course began with a lengthy but never dull lecture, delivered in Clint Smith’s rapid-fire and very intense manner. Smith, an ex-Marine and survivor of two tours of Viet Nam, keeps the students’ full attention at all times. In addition, during the five-day class there were many on-range lectures as well, including demonstrations and question-answer sessions. We students who had traveled to this remote area of Texas usually got together in the evenings to discuss what we’d learned. That’s not easy to do with a traveling show such as LFI, for example, when students go home at night. The entire five-day Thunder Ranch event had self-defense discussions as the main and background themes, even during lunch periods at the range.

As the students’ skills advanced during the week, so did the requirements made on them by the teachers. It was eye-opening to see the progress and increase in self-confidence of the most inexperienced shooters over the five days.

After three days’ experience in full sunlight, we did some shooting at night. This was, for most of us, entirely new. We had to identify and hit the target in full darkness with the aid of a flashlight or from the brief flash of car headlights well behind us, in conditions much as we’d see on the streets. One of the more stressful lessons involved a house-clearing drill in the Terminator building. During his walk through the Terminator the student is accompanied by an instructor and must “clean house” of the targets placed here and there within the many rooms. The targets must be engaged until they drop. Like real-life situations, some of them won’t go down until they are “terminated” properly, and the student must use what he’s learned in class and on the range to do so. There are some no-shoot targets along the way, so the student must think his way through the event. One’s adrenaline is definitely up, stress is high, and clearing the house is not easy.

Over the five days, each student fired well over 1000 rounds. With all of this shooting and with the malfunction drills that are mandatory for preparation, some gun-related problems cropped up. Our representative discovered he had a faulty magazine. The solution? Throw it away. New magazines are inexpensive life insurance. All of the students at Thunder Ranch used semiautomatics. Some students found problems with their guns, and several students realized just how poor their handgun or holster choices were, and made plans to get better equipment. Malfunction drills left some students with bleeding hands from poorly designed self-defense handguns. Lots of students borrowed files to work on their guns overnight.

On the last day at Thunder we had a qualification exam, during which we had to show how well we had learned to shoot, and also perform malfunction clearance drills. We were also able to evaluate the instructors, and they all rated high marks. One student actually complained about too much stress during the week. He had come to have fun shooting, but really missed the point of the intense instruction.

Gun Tests Recommends
How do you choose between such closely-match shooting services? Here are a few points to consider: You have to travel to Thunder Ranch; LFI comes to you. Thunder’s facilities offer more interesting and varied shooting setups, including moving targets and in-house shooting, which is a close approximation to what you might one day have to face; LFI’s offers adequate instruction in learning how to shoot. Both Thunder Ranch and Ayoob’s LFI teach the student to avoid a fight if possible, particularly if we were carrying a gun. Thunder emphasizes shooting, LFI emphasizes the law. Both schools do wonders to increase the students’ attitude of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

We came away from Thunder Ranch with one central thought: use logic. It’s logical to avoid a fight in the first place, but if you are pressed, it’s logical to win the fight any way you can. Thunder Ranch goes a long way toward teaching you how.

Although it’s important to know how to shoot, we feel it’s more important to know when to shoot and to be aware of how to handle yourself in the aftermath of a shooting. Ayoob put it very well. He told us that if you shoot someone in self-defense and win the fight, your troubles have only just begun. He has been in many courtrooms acting as an expert witness in shooting trials, and has the experience to discuss what actually goes on as the opposition tries to make a case against you, the supposed legitimate shooter. He taught us enough about shooting so that we’d probably win the gunfight, taught us what to expect afterward and, most important, how to prepare for that. This led us to conclude that if we could take only one course in self-defense handgun instruction, Ayoob’s LFI-1 would be it.