Swift | Silent | Deadly

AAR: Gospel of the Gauge with Sym-Tac Consulting Shotgun Skills

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Last weekend I had the opportunity to take Sym-Tac Consulting Shotgun Skills (2-day). I have been an acolyte of the gauge for quite some time. I attended a class with Tim and Ashton a couple years ago, but this was my first time getting the good news directly from Rob and Matt Haught. Short-story: this is a shotgun class par excellence. If you want to improve your capabilities with the shotgun, train with Sym-Tac. Read on for the details!

Disclaimer: I paid full price, out-of-pocket for Sym-Tac Consulting Shotgun Skills because it has been on my wishlist for a long time. Travel, ammo, and course cost were on my time and my dime. This review was not coordinated in any way, nor do I have a financial relationship with the Haughts or Sym-Tac. The thoughts here are mine and mine alone.

Sym-Tac Shotgun Skills

Sym-Tac Consulting Shotgun skills has been on my short-list of classes for a long time. Unfortunately their classes seem to sell out quickly! This year my long-time friend Neil was battling insomnia one night and noticed a class had opened up in Xenia, OH, about an hour from his house. He signed up immediately and shot me a text. This was his second time taking the class – a very strong endorsement – so as soon as I saw his message, I signed up. Travel being the hidden cost of training classes, being able to stay with Neil and avoid the cost of a hotel was hugely helpful.

The class was held at the Xenia Police range.  Lon Etchison (Lon posted an excellent review of the class HERE) was a student and the range host. Lon is one of those rare police officers who is a phenomenally good shooter, competitor, and guy who trains. Funded by drug bust money, cops in the local area have a range facility that hosts some of the nation’s top trainers, including the Haughts, Tom Givens, and plenty of others. Lon also told me that seven of his department’s firearms instructors are Rangemaster-certified. It’s awesome to know there are some small departments that are incredibly well-trained. I truly wish all of them were!

The range facility was very accommodating. The air-conditioned classroom had bathrooms nearby, as well as a cool place to eat lunch. The range was ideal for two relays of shooters, so special thanks to Lon for hosting the class. The class started out with a safety brief, instructor introductions, then we hit the range.

Instructors and Students

The instructors for the class were Rob and Matt Haught and Bob Medford. Rob Haught has a very impressive resume, having spent a number of years as a high-level pistol competitor on Team Beretta. Rob has also had a 30+ year-long career in law enforcement. Additionally, he developed and taught a shotgun program to a top-tier federal team for many years. He has also taught numerous other LE agencies, military outfits, and thousands of armed Citizens.

Rob Haught in the classroom.

Rob’s son, Matt is impressive in his own right. First, he is a serious competitive pistol, two-gun, and safari rifle shooter. He is also a serious student, having trained with the likes of Hackahtorne, Givens, and many others. Matt is also an outstanding instructor. He impressed everyone by memorizing their names by lunch on day one. Matt also told me something you’ll almost never hear an instructor say:

Try it and it doesn’t work, go back to what you’re used to.

Matt and Rob were accompanied by Sym-Tac senior instructor Bob Medford. Bob is a retired WV State Trooper with a deep well of knowledge and excellent instructor presence. Though Rob and Matt’s names are on the class, Bob work just as hard, was just as good an instructor, and is a hell of a nice guy!

Matt Haught (foreground) demonstrating the short-stocking technique while Rob explains and Bob Medford (background) looks on.

The students in the class were equally impressive. There were a number of firearms instructors from other schools. The largest contingent was from Gunset, an Ohio-based training company with some very talented shooters. Zach from Apache Solutions was there, as well as a couple of instructors from TDI and one from Midwest Shooting Center. There may be one or two others I’m failing to mention and if so, I apologize. Overall this was one of the most competent groups of students I’ve trained with anywhere, and the instructors pointed this out repeatedly.

The obligatory shot of shotgun shells littering the grass.

Let’s get into the class. I’m going to mention most topics covered but believe me, reading about it is no substitute for doing it!

Sym-Tac Consulting Shotgun Skills Day 1

The range day started with a discussion of the push-pull technique. If you’re unfamiliar with the technique it involves pulling the gun toward the shoulder with the strong hand, and pushing (hard!) against it with the support hand. Imagine trying to “stretch the gun,” as Rob told us. This has the effect of dampening recoil and muzzle rise significantly. If you haven’t trained this technique, it’s a game-changer. It tames recoil and will drastically improve your relationship with the shotgun.

We worked a number of “push-pull development drills,” firing one around at a time up to five rounds at a time. Next we learned Sym-Tac’s two ready positions: a high-ready called outdoor ready and a low-ready called the close-quarters ready. We broke for lunch around 12, then came back ready to shoot some more.

Students doing 180-degree turning drills.

After lunch we got into pivots and turns. As Rob said, “we live in a 360-degree world.” We practiced 90-degree turns to the left and right, and 180s to the rear, turning both left and right. We began moving forward and backward on the range. This was followed by moving laterally, left-to-right and right-to-left, firing on command.

Students practicing lateral movement.

Next, we got into reloading the shotgun. Covered were emergency reloads, going over and under the receiver, and “violin loading.” We ended the day with a drill called the “Scoot, Shoot, and Load Boogie.” I’ll let you figure that one out by taking a class!

Day 1 Round Count: 180

Sym-Tac Consulting Shotgun Skills Day 2

Day two began with some lecture about zones of employment for the shotgun. Next, we jumped into a warm-up. The first thing we did was Rob Haught’s School Drill – a 25-round practice session to get the most out of a box of birdshot. I’ll explain more on the School Drill in a bit, and probably do a video on it soon. After the warmup we were taught the “CQB Technique” or “short-stocking.” This technique allows you to collapse the shotgun down and make it a shorter weapon.

A line of shooters performing the CQB Technique.

I had been exposed to this technique through Lucky Gunner’s video (as I suspect many shooters have been) and Tim & Ashton’s class, but really refined it in class. One key point that I was missing was to thrust the gun forward toward the target upon firing. Matt told me to, “bayonet ’em with buckshot” and this analogy really made sense. The rest of the morning was spent on utilizing the CQB Technique in various other iterations, including turning and moving. After lunch we ran the Shotgun Skills Gauge – more on that in the next section.

After the Skills Gauge, the afternoon was taken up with patterning and some “advanced” material. I always get pretty excited about patterning for some reason. Several students did demo runs of a couple different buckshot loads and Matt and Rob provided insight. The advanced stuff…well, that is sort of course dependent, so I’ll not go into it here. Toward the end of the day we shot the Haught School Drill with buckshot. The last event was a man-on-man event that I did very well in, making it to the next-to-last round before Lon sat me down.

Day 2 Round Count: 165 (including 25 buck/5 slugs), 345 total

The Shotgun Skills Gauge

One of the events I was most looking forward to at the class was the Shotgun Skills Gauge. The shotgun skills gauge is a test of shotgunning prowess designed by the Haughts. It involves two IDPA targets: one at three yards and one at ten. It requires five slugs. On the buzzer the shooter fires one round from the short-stock position at the three-yard target. From there, the shooter fires three rounds at the body of the 10-yard target. The gun runs dry and the shooter conducts an emergency (chamber) reload, then shoots a head shot to the 10-yard target.

Matt Haught demonstrating the shotgun skills gauge.

Shooters managing a clean run can earn a coin by shooting the Shotgun Skills Gauge under a prescribed par time. The par for a pump shotgun is 6 seconds and the par for a semi-auto is 5 seconds. Matt said that anything under 10 seconds represents a “fairly proficient” shooter, under 7.5 is “really solid,” and under 6/5 represents “master or expert level of skill.”

L-R: Rob Haught, Bob Medford, me, and Matt Haught after my coin run.

You guys have seen me shoot the Skills Gauge on video before, but shooting it on video is not the same as shooting it under the pressure of the clock and other students watching. I was curious how I would do. Turns out I did pretty well, shooting a clean run with my pump gun in 5.48 seconds and earning Sym-Tac Coin #11. No one else in the class earned a coin, but a lot of guys came really close. And following on to my earlier statement about the quality of students, Matt said that overall the students in this class were collectively about a second faster on the Shotgun Skills Gauge than most classes.

Shotguns & Equipment

I know everyone reading this will be interested in the guns. The breakdown is pretty simple. Of seventeen students, 14 used Berettas. Most of the Beretta shotguns were 1301s, but there was an A300 or two in the crowd. Additionally, I believe all of the autoloaders were equipped with optics. There were a variety of Aimpoints, Holosuns, and one Trijicon SRO. Regardless of platform the Magpul SGA stock was on almost every gun.

My 870 and a typical 1301 at the class.

The remaining three shotguns on the line were pumps, and all were 870s. One shooter (Bob) had an Aimpoint on his 870, but the other two were using iron sights. Many shooters brought pumps as backups. One – a 20″ Mossberg Maverick if I’m not mistaken – made it up to the line when the shooter’s Beretta went down, but autoloaders dominated almost 5-to-1.

Not a representative sample of the guns in the class by any means!

My shotgun was my circa 2008 Scattergun Technologies/Wilson Combat 870 which I recently (and legally) converted to a short-barreled shotgun. Some of the modifications to this gun include ghost-ring sights, a one-shot magazine tube extension, and an OD-green Armor-Tuff finish. Currently it is wearing a heavily modified Streamlight TL-Racker forend. Though the Streamlight is bulky and doesn’t allow you to optimize push-pull, the I find the Surefire DSF-870 forend far too heavy, bulky, and complicated. The search continues for an ideal pump shotgun forend/lighting solution.

Ammunition Carriage

Shotguns are hungry beasts. One piece of kit that was nearly common-to-all was the shotgun card. If you aren’t familiar, these Velcro-backed cards carry spare ammo in elastic loops. Once depleted they can be stripped away and a new, full one placed on the gun. Velcro cards from ESSTAC and Vang Comp were about equally split, and one shooter had shotgun cards from Browncoat Tactical. I have used ESSTAC cards for several years, but will be switching to Vang Comp Shotgun Cards from now on.

Though more expensive, these cards have some real advantages. The elastic is much thicker. It retains its form well, making loading the carrier itself easier. It holds shotshells securely but releases them when needed. the Vang Comp card also does a good job of staying flat when full…mostly. I will be investing in a few of these as soon as they are back in stock. Several Beretta guys were running the Aridus Industries QD-C aluminum sidesaddle, a functional equivalent to soft shotgun cards.

I learned a couple other ammo carriage tricks. First, a fanny pack can hold a lot of shotgun shells and they can be accessed really quickly. The shotgun shell belt also works really well. I always thought these were kind of gimmicky (why would you need that many shotshells?), but now I’m pretty much sold. You need that many because you drop shells when under pressure. Matt says treat your shotgun shells like popcorn: bring plenty and if you drop some, leave ’em on the floor. The shell belt can also be quickly donned above a duty belt making it really handy for law enforcement officers. The one they recommend is the 25-round Heavy Duty Shotshell Belt from Wilderness Tactical.


Beretta shotguns experienced quite a few malfunctions – way more than I expected to see. Many of these were operator induced, but some where not. Near the end of Day 1, one shooter had to swap out his Beretta for a backup pump gun because the firing pin would no strike the primer. This was determined to be the fault of carbon in the firing pin channel. A couple other shooters also had light primer strikes. One shooter was surprised when Matt walked up holding his charging handle. It had broken off, unbeknownst to the shooter, and fallen to the ground.

The shotgun has fed our families, patrolled out streets, defended our homes, and fought our wars for over 100 years. ~ Rob Haught

Operator malfunctions with the 1301 were more common. These mostly occurred when reloading. A seemingly common issue seems to be the shooter’s hand impeding the charging handle when releasing the bolt. This results in a bolt that is not fully seated and a click instead of a bang. Again, this is operator-induced, but it was exceptionally common, especially under stress.

One thing I like about a pump shotgun is that there’s not a whole lot to go wrong. That said, I did have one malfunction – the first I’ve ever had with an 870. I had a shell that stayed in the chamber when I racked the shotgun. It easily was pried out and life went on, but this would be a terrible malfunction in a defensive situation. Additionally, I wasn’t immune to operator-error, and short-stroked my gun a couple times. To my knowledge neither of the other two 870 shooters had mechanical issues with their guns.

What Did I Learn at Sym-Tac Consulting Shotgun Skills?

I learned a lot. Internet stuff is good, but first-hand instruction in the push-pull and CQB techniques are absolutely invaluable.The class provided plenty of reps to solidify skills. One of the best pieces of information given was the Sym-Tac School Drill: a 25-round practice session to keep you tuned up on the gauge. The school drill only requires a box of birdshot and about five minutes of you range time. I plan on doing this at least monthly for the next year or so.

Every shot you fire is a separate event, with a separate sight picture, separate push-pull, separate trigger press! ~ Rob Haught

The school drill is as follows:

  • 5 rounds of a single shot from outdoor ready or CQB ready,
  • 5 rounds of two shots (10 rounds total)
  • 5 rounds “click,” emergency/chamber load 1, shoot 1
  • 5 rounds single shot using CQB technique

Most importantly, I gained a high degree of confidence in my shotgun and capabilities with it. When everyone began un-casing weapons, I told my friend Neil, “I feel like I’m showing up to a pistol class with a single-action revolver.” By the end of the class I was perfectly happy with my pump-gun. Not only did I earn a coin, I made it to the next-to-last bracket of the final man-on-man showdown. This includes getting really lucky and beating Adam from Aridus Industries – a feat I’m particularly proud of because that dude is so damn good! The bigger, more universal lesson is probably something along the lines of: the gun matters much less than the user. If you’re willing to put the work in, you can be formidable with just about anything.

Closing Thoughts

Even as LE forsakes the scattergun for the carbine, the shotgun is experiencing a bit of a resurgence. Savvy armed Citizens are quickly realizing the virtues of the gauge as a fight-stopper. Frankly, there is no other commonly available gun that releases so much power with a single pull of the trigger that is remotely suitable for home defense. Many LEOs (again, like Lon) either never let the shotgun go, or are warming up to it once again.

It’s not hard to hit that target with a shotgun at this range…but it’s real easy to miss! ~ Rob Haught

Still, myths about the shotgun persist, and they are many. “All you have to do is rack it and the bad guys will go running.” Or how about, “just point and shoot – you don’t have to aim!” And of course, “the shotgun kicks like a mule!” There is perhaps a kernel of truth in some of these, but if you’re going to produce a shotgun, you’d better be prepared to use it. If you’re prepared to use it, you’d be best served knowing how to use it well. And if you’re going to use it well…for that you’re going to need training.

There are some top-notch shotgun instructors out there, and one of the best is Sym-Tac Consulting Shotgun Skills. It covers everything you need to know to run a defensive shotgun. The push-pull technique, reloading, ready positions, turning and moving, and the CQB Technique: master these techniques and you will be incredibly effective with the shotgun. I recommend this class without reservation.

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