I remember the first time my father taught me how to shoot in the basement of our house. I was twelve at that time. He took out an RWS pellet rifle complete with a six power scope. When he pulled it out of the case, I felt like I was taking a big step towards becoming a man. While all of the other kids were at home studying, my father passed down skills that would last a lifetime. Anytime I wanted, we went to the basement, and while I was shooting, he was reading. My father knew what he was taught, but shooting was not a way of life for him; he was an engineer who spent his days making seemingly impossible things for some companies, possible for dozens of them.
After a few days, my skills seemed to level off, so I embarked on a journey to the library to find anything I could about marksmanship. There, I found a book about high-powered rifle competition that I must have read a dozen times for a month. Every other day, I would be down in the basement, converting what I had read into reality. My groups were shrinking, and I was trying many of the different shooting positions in the book. I was hooked from that point on. However, after a while, shooting with the scope became too easy; that winter, I went from knocking tin cans over to shooting dime-sized groups in almost any position with iron sights.
As spring came about and in abundance, the birds with it, I decided to start hunting. I didn't want the neighbors to see what I was doing as being in the communist state of Massachusetts would make them probably call the police even if they saw a squirt gun. As this meant that I had to take my prey from inside the house, I learned how to set up positions all around it so that if anyone looked into the window, nothing could be seen. The only telltale signs were the bottom corners of the screens being peeled back just enough to allow a clear field of view into whatever tree I was watching.
By mid-summer that year, there seemed to be a no-fly zone around the house. Birds would not land on any of the trees; squirrels would not venture into the yard… It turned boring. I thought all there was to hunting was sitting and waiting in the right spot for an opportunity to present itself. Boy, was I wrong.
At the middle school, I went to, there was a man called "Psycho Janitor" who kids and teachers seemed to avoid. Some of the rumors were that he had been shot in the head, had a bomb shelter in his back yard, and was in general bat-shit crazy. One day when I was leaving school late and had on a BDU coat, I saw him out of the corner of my eye and did my best not to make eye contact. As I walked by, I could tell he was staring at me. As I passed, I heard him say: -"hey kid"… I thought I was going to "get beat." He asked what I was wearing that coat for and just told me I was out of uniform. The "Psycho Janitor" did not seem so mean after all.
The next day I stayed late again, and when he saw me out of uniform for a second time, I was stopped once more. This time and before he could chew my ass, I asked him what the difference between an M21 and an M25 was. I think this caught him off guard. He finally introduced himself and gave me a detailed answer, and then went back to work. I would then stop by after school every few days to learn more. Some weeks after, I asked if he would help me improve my shooting if I assisted him with his work. Tom (that was his name) asked my father to come to meet him first, and it turned out they had met each other many years prior.
My father gave him the green light, and I started helping my new mentor clear out the brush on his property during the weekends. After the first day I worked for Tom, we went to the local gun club, where he broke out his sniper rifle. Once again, I felt like I was about to get one more step closer to becoming a man. Out of the case came a highly customized Remington 700. He gave me a detailed class on the rifle, how it worked, how and why the scope functioned, and then handed it to me.
As I settled behind the glass, I felt at home. I applied pressure to the trigger, and just like a glass rod snapping, the trigger let loose, and a round departed the barrel and found its way onto my aiming point 100 yards away. The next few rounds were all over the place. Tom asked me not to be a pussy and not to be afraid of the recoil or muzzle blast. He told me I should disregard the outside world once I was behind the glass and "get the job done." I attempted to do as I was told, but the blast overpressure was too much at that time. Every time I pulled the trigger, I felt as if a bomb would go off in front of me.
I would help Tom at least twice a month, and in return, he would take the time to share his knowledge with me. In working with him, I learned he was an Army sniper and had been to several great schools during active duty and a few more while in the reserves. When I finally asked Tom if he could teach me how to be a put rounds on distant targets from concealed positions, he laughed, but he also saw that I was serious. It turned serious for him too. In the years that followed, Tom took the time to attempt and impart everything he knew upon me. One session at a time, I learned from one of the best.
By the time I was in ninth grade, I was old enough to get my firearms license, so I bought my own rifle (a Savage 110FP, that I still have), did my own bedding and camo job, and took pride in what I worked hard all summer to obtain. Once again, I was turning rather proficient at 100-yard shooting and wanted to shoot further. The only problem was the fact that I only had access to a 100-yard range. There were a few places in town where I could reach out to 800 yards, but doing so was against the law. That's when I began to carefully plan where I could gradually shoot further and further. A number of these locations would require me to set up near houses to thread my round out of my location, across the river, and through the vast open fields into targets located at the base of the hills. The hard part about doing this was getting out of the area after sending the round downrange. People would call the cops and report someone shooting nearby; thus, there would be an officer in the area looking for a hunter or the like. However, after stalking out of the tree line, I became quite adept at hiding things in plain sight. Who would think anything of a kid riding a bike with a large backpack on and with the obvious end of a fishing rod sticking out of it?
My mother had also taken up the shooting sports, primarily for self-defense when working in downtown Boston. She took the required safety course to get her concealed carry permit, but the training didn't stop there. She wanted to become an NRA pistol instructor, and she did just that. My mother and I spent many days on the pistol range together.
By the end of the fall that year, I had reached my goal and made an 800 yard shot in a neighboring town. Hunting season was starting, and for the first time, I could go off into the woods with my own firearm and hunt alone. That season I learned that hunting with an accurate firearm in Mass didn't require much skill. It was all about watching patterns over time and getting undetected into an area that would give me the best chances of success.
That winter, I purchased my first bow and applied most of the fundamentals I had learned on the rifle to archery. I could practice with my bow in my backyard, so two or three weeks, I was making great hits out to 50 yards (which is a long way for a bow). Shortly after that, I started bowhunting. Rifles and shotguns allowed me to take game out to a few hundred yards if I had the distance available, but it was a different story with a bow. Bowhunting made me focus on patterns, reading light and terrain made me aware of all of my surroundings. These skills would end up saving a number of my friends' lives many years later. Tom had taught me how to read the terrain and plan stalk routes. This knowledge really helped when moving into areas. However, there was a downside to hunting with a bow: I was often too close to my prey, and it seemed that if I blinked, it would bolt as when you prep to make a shot, moving some major body parts is a must. Doing so is rather hard when under observation from animals whose sense of awareness is ten times what the hunters are.
By the time I was a junior in high school, I had taken up NRA high-power rifle competitions. There were not many in Mass, but my father's friend often let me borrow his AR-15 or joined me during the matches where I would take the time to ask the top shooters and the military shooting teams to share their knowledge. In one of these matches, I had a national champion all to myself. The data dump I got in 8 hours from this man is still ingrained in me today. From shooting pellets at 25yds in my basement, I had gone to hitting at 600 yards with iron sights. I had come a long way in a few years.
During my senior year in high school, I spent inordinate amounts of time bow hunting during fall and winter. I often skipped out of school early, around twelve, or even did not go if I wanted to get into some great hunting areas. Now and then, I was caught skipping and was given a one or two-day suspension for doing so. That was fine with me: "more time in the woods."
From the first time when my father took me down into the basement with that RWS until I was seventeen and getting ready to join the Marines, I never stopped learning about marksmanship and fieldcraft. In the summer of 1998, I found myself on the rifle range at Parris Island SC. For three weeks, the Marine Corps PMI's (Primary Marksmanship Instructors) dumped their knowledge onto us recruits. I came out of boot camp as the company high shooter and would be the company or battalion high shooter in every unit I went to after that.
Then and for two years after boot camp, I was in 29 Palms, CA, where it surprised me how little firearms training the Marine infantry actually did. During my first year, I was promoted to Corporal (E4) -nothing major-, but being an NCO meant that I could sign out the base rifle range on the weekends, the reason why most of them I found myself on the range at 29 Palms.
The wind conditions on that range are probably the worst to shoot in out of all the Marine Corps ranges. After a few weekends of shooting, this made me realize that my Savage 110FP and my Simmons scope had their limitations. That's when I purchased a rifle from a custom gunsmith and put some quality glass on top. I also started running hand loads as I had done in high school, and the combination of all made for a great long-range rifle.
One of the only downsides of the range at 29 Palms was that it was a known distance range. Once I knew the dope for a certain distance, it would only change if the weather did. My friends and I started to hunt coyotes off base. We would park the truck on the top of a hill and set up our positions. Spotting a coyote at distance, took tremendous observation skills. It's easier if they are moving, but if they are hanging around an area and lying low, it requires work to find them. Once we did, we had to do old-school range estimation and could not use laser rangefinders. The further out the prey, the more precise we had to be. The coyotes are small; thus, any error in the range at distance means a miss. To this day, I miss my time out there dropping coyotes at distance.
That summer, I purchased my first .50 caliber rifle. The rifle was a classic single shot bolt action developed for the SF community in the early '80s. I bought the rifle from an older man who lived out in McCoy. The guy was a strange cat who kind of pioneered low-drag monolithic projectiles. He got me set up with the correct loads for the rifle and took the time on many weekends to teach me the finer points of extreme long-range shooting. I can remember a few paychecks that went directly to buying .50 cal ammunition.
In 2000 I was sent to Pakistan, where I spent a year with one of the Departments of States' most respected agents and one of the guys who stood up their mobile security division. We did not go to the range that often, but I had access to an electronic firearms simulator that was somewhat realistic. Since there was very little to do up until 9/11, I spent hundreds of hours running through the simulator's scenarios under his watchful eye. It was not until 2003, when I went back to the US that I could begin shooting regularly again.
When I moved to Jacksonville, NC, I lived right down the street from Norm Chandler Jr & Sr, who I had known for years. There, at Iron Brigade Armory, I immediately started assisting them during the weekends. My duty was to break-in and zero all the rifles leaving for customers. I would show up to the shop on the weekends, load up all the rifles that needed work, and spent the day at the range. I learned a tremendous amount from the guys at IBA.
At the young age of twenty-three, my primary job was as an infantry platoon sergeant. I was promoted to Staff Sergeant (E6) in four years, so when I went back to the fleet, I had over thirty Marines to train for war. Some of the Corporals were older than I was! I spent as much time as possible, imparting my knowledge onto them. If we were not busy running battalion and company level training operations, I would have my Marines out doing weapons manipulation drills. Some of them thought it was overly repetitive, but they later thanked me after using the same skills to save their lives overseas.
While in Iraq, I had a loaner M40A3 I borrowed from the SSP & would keep close by when on patrol or on the road. There were several instances where we would take fire from a distance, yet the only rounds effectively impacting our attackers were coming out of my bolt rifle. I was glad I had spent so much time on that windy range at 29 Palms because most of the areas my platoon found itself in were wide open and rather windy.
On April ninth 2004, I covered one of my squads effectively, later the platoon and company, as insurgents heavily engaged them from many city blocks away. Even though my spotter and I were under heavy machine-gun fire from fellow Marines, in addition to the fire we were taking from the insurgents, I just remembered Tom saying, "block it out, get the job done." The long-range precision fire from our position was able to thwart several flanking attempts by the insurgents and also kept two Marines from becoming POWs. I was hit by an IED that summer, which ended my third trip into a combat zone.
When I got back to the US, I had a lot of time off to recover, but I didn't want to sit around. Norm Chandler was running a sniper class at Blackwater by the time I arrived at Bethesda MD and asked me to come down and brief the guys on the AO they would be working in. So two days after getting out of the hospital, I was at Blackwater. The nice thing about that place was the vast amount of knowledge walking around the ranges. There was a SEAL sniper instructor cell there those two weeks, so each evening after the Marines were done training, I'd park my ass on the range with the SEAL cadre and fill the brain housing group with more information.
During the remainder of 04' and 05,' I made at least six trips to Blackwater. It was mostly to teach, but my primary focus was learning all I could after hours from some of the finest warriors the Navy had. During my time moonlighting at Blackwater, I could spend some quality time with MGySgt Ken Roxburgh. As people call him, Rox was a supply Marine by trade who spent about half his Marine Corps time on the rifle and pistol teams. He held a national record at 1000 yds that stood for over twenty years. The skills and techniques Rox imparted to me over the next eight years made me a better shooter and a better person.
After getting back to Camp Lejeune, the Division Gunner and head CWO (Chief Warrant Officer) in the Division in charge of all infantry weapons training and tactic development called me into his office. He needed an SNCO to start a new section at the DTC (Division Training Center). Getting a squared away SNCO to fill that billet at that time was hard. Most were busy with their respective units, but since I was in the process of getting medically retired, the Division did not have any issues following the Gunners' direction to get me orders over to the DTC.
The mission at the DTC was to stand up a new pre-sniper course to provide Marines, new to their sniper platoons, a three-week crash course specifically focusing on stalking and long-range shooting. Other skills included detailed mission planning, non-VHF communication, hide construction, small unit tactics, sniper employment, precision aerial gunnery, fire support, target detection & selection, observational skills, land navigation, surveillance, etc. would be weaved in between the stalk lanes and the range. Most of the skills we were asked to teach I knew a great deal about thanks to experiences in the Corps and those that reached back to my days bow hunting as a kid.
During the two years as SNCOIC, I had about ten sniper instructors working at various times. The information and individual experiences we shared with each other, and most importantly, our students made everyone better. Years later, some of my instructors had moved up and have become SNCOIC's of several Marine Corps sniper schools. Even some of my former students are now instructors! Another plus about that job was all the schools our cadre was able to attend. From counter-terrorism driving courses to advanced sniper courses, if we had time, the CWO would endorse and cut orders, and off we went!
By the time I retired from the Marines, I had already set my own training company into motion. I thought I knew a lot at that time, but the more schools I went to, the more I realized education is a lifelong endeavor. I started Tier 1 Group in 2006, and within five years, my staff and I had more SOF guys running through my facility than our biggest competitor.
To this day, I still seek knowledge anywhere I can find it and always remember Tom saying, "Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open, and you'll go far in life, kid." Looking back, I was fortunate not to have tree-hugging anti-gun parents, but ones who taught firearms responsibility and sent me down a rather fun road in life.
Semper Fi Steve
Most of you have heard of T1G (Tier 1 Group), but few know where the company came from. For those that don't know, here's the story.
After getting wounded by an IED in 2004, the Marine Corps put me on the path towards medical retirement. The process was a lengthy one. My unit was still in Iraq when the 2nd Marine Division's Gunner tasked me to develop the 2nd MarDiv precision marksmanship courses at the Division Training Center (DTC).
While at the DTC, my crew successfully conducted over 20 pre-sniper and 9 SAM-R courses. Due to Camp Lejeune's range and scheduling restrictions, we would often run portions of them at Blackwater in Moyock, NC. Blackwater at the time had over 6,000 acres of space to play in. Their facility allowed us to do more in a shorter period of time than we could on base.
Later that year, I started moonlighting at Blackwater on the weekends. At least once a month, I'd take leave to teach the longer precision rifle classes for them. One such weekend, the Blackwater tasked me to train two guys from NYC. Instructing with me there was another Marine, an MGySgt considered one of the greatest Marine Corps Rifle Team members in its long chain of champions.
On a warm spring evening, we met our two clients at a restaurant outside of Virginia Beach. Both guys were excited to start the training, which began the next morning at 07:00 after breakfast. They worked in the capital investment world, one of them being a former professional boxer—who even at his age, I wouldn't want to fight with. From the beginning, our two students (TK & SF) had many questions most people don't ask. Both guys were analytical and would often ask why things were being taught. They wanted to know the science behind the shooting.
By the end of the 1st day, they were accurately engaging targets out to 600yds and getting constant 1st round hits from unsupported shooting positions. Over the next two days, both of them became more than capable of 1st round hits in multiple positions, at distances out to 1000yds. When our students (who departed also impressed with the Blackwater facility) went back to their concrete jungles, I did not think I'd see them again until the following hunting season.
That fall, I received a call from SF. He wanted to get up to speed on land navigation, so he flew down to Camp Lejeune and spent four days tromping around the base with me. At one point, we were a good 5k into an area, when my aspiring student lollygagged right into the path of one of the largest cottonmouth snakes I have seen. I grabbed him by his collar and let the snake continue on his way. That would have been a hard one to explain to my command.
During our time on Camp Lejeune, SF noticed that the ranges and supporting facilities on the base were substandard compared to Blackwater's facility. The day before his departure to NYC, SF, and I discussed what a better Blackwater would look like, how it could run, and where it should be located on the road back to the hotel.
The weeks following his visit to Camp Lejeune, I did a lot of research on who Blackwater's primary clients were, what they wanted, and any issues they had with the facility. I presented SF with my thoughts and let him know I'd love to turn this idea into reality, so we worked out the details on my next trip to NYC. At that point, I had a few months left in the Marines.
At the start, we opened up shop in Sneed's Ferry, NC, just outside Camp Lejeune's back gate. I called the company Long Range Services, a name that would be changed to ATS (Aggressive Training Solutions), and later Tier 1 Group. My crew consisted of all Marines/Sailors out of 2nd Force Recon, which back before MARSOC was formed, was the tip of the spear for the Corps. We outgrew the office space in Sneed's Ferry, so we quickly moved to Jacksonville, NC. After a few months, we had leased a range where we could train clients on and had eight full-time instructors. The staff was on the range three days a week. They spent time honing their skills near to perfection, and in-between the range days, they would build curriculum and study up on adult learning principals.
After my #2 guy left for a GS job at MARSOC, I asked SF to send a replacement. The guy would be our company's token civilian—an MBA out of Mass with a 10lb brain, who would prove to be a royal pain in our asses (for good reasons), yet help transform the company into a lucrative business.
2007 turned into a busy year for us: we changed the name from ATS to Tier 1 Group, had our 1st clients (2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion), and looked at several properties near Camp Lejeune. However, anytime we started to conduct due diligence on a property, word quickly spread in the local community. With it, the protesters came out in droves. We had a few community meetings where the locals showed their true colors. One such meeting took place in Jones County, NC. There were over two hundred people in attendance who we briefed on our plans. Their reaction could make me sworn the cumulative IQ in the room was 10 (ten)! We even had one lady stating that if the cows heard a gunshot, they would jump OVER the fence and escape—it's not surprising that Jones County NC is still one of the poorest counties in NC.
We then looked at a great area near Goldsboro, NC, and really got into the weeds planning the facility layout. Once again, the protesters came out. One old man who lived near the property said anytime hunters were on the property, his house physically would shake when they fired their rifles. I wanted to call the old man a loony toon. Instead, I told him we would conduct a sound study and get back to him with scientific independent third party results. $15k later, we had a sound study done; we fired 5.55mm, 7.62mm, .338lm, and .50bmg rifles, and measured the sound levels at fourteen spots on the property line. It was not surprising the only shots that could be slightly detected were the .50 cal. We also completed the sound study of the F-15s on their final approach to Seymour Johnson AFB, which sent the needles off the charts! However, it seemed the locals enjoyed the money the base brought into the area and didn't mind these fighters' sound. Yet, our rifles gravely concerned them to the point we even had someone from the local civil war society say our gunfire was going to interrupt their annual battle reenactments!
By the time 2008 rolled around, we had acquired a medical company in Florida and started T1G's medical training division. It really took off as the Marine Corps had just mandated that some deploying infantry forces receive a five-day medical course before deploying.
That spring, I learned that Blackwater had asked my friends who ran the precision rifles courses to no longer conduct said courses on Blackwaters' behalf. I suspected my friends' involvement with SF's company had something to do with my friends being asked to leave. I called Blackwater's # 2 man (Gary Jackson) and met with him the following morning. I asked upfront if their involvement with SF's company had led to his decision, and he said they had their own reasons. He inquired about my goals for T1G and told me he had had several guys like me who had all failed, sit in his office and tell him they had the ability to build something better than Blackwater. He wished me luck, and after talking with Erik Price, I left Blackwater for what I thought would be the last time.
In mid-2008, when one of our competitors Olive Group in Marion, AR, which had got into some hot water overseas that lead most of its business to dry up. By the time they put the for sale sign on their facility, T1G had a great reputation for training, even without our own site. That spring, we made a few trips to Marion to look at it. Our conclusion: the facility was a good base to start from, but it needed to be redone to take it to the next level. That summer, we bought the place for pennies on the dollar. By the time we had the Marion AR site (T1G Memphis) under construction, Blackwater was in hot water. SF was interested in acquiring a part of it, and his investment crew flew down to it for a meeting with its corporate staff. Sitting next to me was SF, and the MGySgt; across the table sat Gary Jackson, rather surprised to see me again! However, the deal never went through, as someone on the Blackwater side had leaked news of the deal to the press.
We sent a skeleton crew down to T1G Memphis to start operations at the new facility. It took a few months to close on the property. Once it became ours, my instructors (some of whom are also heavy equipment operators) spent 14+ hours a day for months, transforming the site into a place where our special operations forces would want to train.
Construction at T1G Memphis would be non-stop. Over the years, we added lodging for over 350 people, chow halls, more ranges, dedicated medical training areas, landing zones, and several certifications from various government agencies—the company went from a small start-up to an industry leader in just three years.
Over time I became friends with SF, and I must say he's one of the most patriotic and caring men I have met. When he first met me and saw how my face had been disfigured from the IED blast the year prior, he offered to fly my wife and me to CA to one of the country's best plastic surgeons. A similar situation occurred in another training event where I had with me one of my instructors from the DTC, who had a respiratory condition from Iraq—SF offered to set my friend up with the best doctors in the country and take care of him.
SF didn't fund my company to make money; he did it to support the troops. The funding we required would be considered a rounding error of his multibillion-dollar investments.
I left T1G in 2011 after looking at SOCOMs budget for FY12-17. I started another company whos focus was aiding in the development of advanced technology programs for a government agency. I didn't cross paths with SF much from until 2016 when his friend was elected President. From that November onward, the world became a smaller place. My "job" at the time had shifted into other areas, and SF was selected to join the PIAB (President's Intelligence Advisory Board). Later that year, Blackwaters founder began pushing a very well thought out Afghanistan plan to the WH. Before one of the WH meetings, I picked him up at the entrance to one of the buildings. As we were taking the elevator up, he remembered who I was yet again and just laughed. Things got interesting after that, and for that matter.... they STILL ARE!