Blackwater Lodge
Author's Note: This story was written for SOF Magazine (on their nickel). They failed to publish it because of pressure from other facilities of this type.

Where the trained get more training

Throughout the United States there are a number of facilities where one can go to learn combat tactics and to become proficient with a firearm. Some of them are very good, some are marginal. Blackwater is in a class by itself.

NOTE: Al Clark, John Matthews, and Dale McClellan have left Blackwater since this article was written. Al and Dale have formed a new company called Special Tactical Services and will be in the training business, big time.)


When Al Clark was in the Navy, he used to bitch about having to go all over Hell's half acre to get different types of weapons training. None of the ranges the Teams used had everything. The guys would have to travel far and wide to get pistol, rifle, shotgun, tactical entry and long range weapons training. He decided when he retired from the Navy, he'd build a facility where all of the different types of training would be available at one site. While discussing his plans with another Navy man, he was told of a young SEAL officer who was talking the same way. The two met, talked it over, and the rest is history. Al decided to leave the Navy instead of waiting to serve his 'twenty'. He got out after 14 years of service and has never looked back. Now Al has the facility he dreamed of and is thrilled with the way things are progressing. By looking at the training schedule, it is apparent that things are going well. As of November, the first half of 1999 was already booked. With the ranges having the latest in computer controlled targets, a great chow hall (I would describe it more as a cafeteria), satellite TV systems in the dorms and plenty of hot water in the showers, I would put Blackwater ahead of any of the civilian or military training sites I have visited.

Gary Jackson, a retired SEAL Warrant Officer, is the Operations Manager. These days he has his hands full. Juggling courses and figuring out who can fit where in the schedule is a full time task. Ordering supplies and insuring the correct ammo and sufficient amounts are in stock for the students is also part of his job description. I asked Gary if he thought Blackwater would be this successful this quickly. He only smiled, pointed at the wall sized calendar and shook his head as though amazed at the rapid acceptance of the center.
"I knew we had a good thing, but the word is out now and we have to work hard to get the pieces put together so that they fit. When several Teams need to train at once, it becomes a challenge to make sure that everything is laid out so that everything meshes properly."

Although some of the staff who instruct and operate Blackwater are former SEALs, that fact has nothing to do with the courses offered here. The staff at Blackwater has been chosen for their particular expertise with various firearms or tactical skills. As Al told us before we started the Three Day Tactical Shotgun Course. "My background is with the Teams, but I ask you, what does that have to do with anything? You guys have come here to learn to use the shotgun better than you presently can. I am here to make sure that happens." He was and it did.

We started out the first day with a brief personal introduction to the other members of the class. There were three Department of Defense weapons instructors, an Air Force Policeman, a police weapons instructor, two SEALs, a house builder, an employee of Blackhawk Industries (manufacturers of nylon web gear), a merchant marine engineer, and this writer. Al gave us our first lesson, a safety brief and description of the various types of shotguns, their features and capabilities. For the sake of trivia, we learned how the gauge size of shotguns is determined - it is based on the number of balls of lead the diameter of the bore of the gun that equal a pound of lead. Therefore 12 lead balls that will fit in the barrel of a 12 gauge shotgun weigh one pound. The only exception to this rule is the .410, which is .41 caliber.

After the short classroom session, those of us who needed ammo went to the storeroom to draw it - a combination of over 600 rounds of buck, bird, and slugs. Then we proceeded to the first range. It was here we learned the fundamentals of firing the weapon - - the RIGHT way, for those of us with limited experience with the shotgun. Our first rounds were fired from 7 yards into a paper target to show how the gun produces a pattern. My shotgun was a Vang Comp Systems ( modified Remington 870. By the time the echo from the first shots had subsided, Al had called the entire class over to look at the target where the bird and buckshot patterns had struck the paper. Where the birdshot had hit the target, there was a 6 inch diameter hole. Eight out of nine of the buckshot had hit inside the X block on the silhouette. None of the other barrels came close to having as tight a group. The rest of the patterns looked as though somebody had stood back and thrown a handful of shot at the target. I must qualify this by stating it was definitely not my skill that enabled me to do this, but the way the Vang modifications effect the ballistics and pattern of a shotgun.
"Does anybody here think they can miss a target with birdshot at 7 yards?" smiled Al . "Before this class is finished, all of you will realize it is easy to do."
He was right. We all missed on occasion in an attempt to get our techniques down and our speed up, but the misses came less and less frequently.

We fired slugs as a demonstration of now accurate the shotgun can be when properly used, and to give us confidence in the weapon. The accuracy of the weapon depended both on the operator and the type of round. Bernie, a DOD weapons instructor, nailed a tight two inch group of three rounds at 100 yards using Sabot rounds out of his 870. I was impressed. After a small amount of coaching, none of us missed the silhouette targets even at 100 yards, most striking center mass. We learned a method to rapidly drop into the prone position and crank off an accurate shot. Soon we had this time under two seconds. Not bad, as a few of us had to get coordinated enough to drop into the prone position without doing bodily damage to ourselves. The first few attempts were a scream to watch as we drove elbows or knees into the gravel, or almost ate our weapons because we didn't shove them far enough forward before hitting the deck. Most all of the drills and skills we learned were against the clock. Speed was secondary to accuracy, but as we became better shots and had the drills down pat, our times sharply decreased.

Al's assistant instructor, John Matthews, an Elizabeth City, North Carolina cop, elaborated as to how the majority of police departments in the United States and elsewhere are vastly under trained in the use of firearms. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but many people who are paid to carry a gun as part of their duties who are not even close to proficient. John says that North Carolina is about thirty years behind the times in the arena of firearms proficiency.

He went on. "Lack of consistent training and lack of embracing the modern times of examining shootings that actually happen and not covering the basics of fundamental marksmanship. We are in a combat role, why do we still shoot bulls eyes? That's my question. When you draw that pistol up, either you're gonna be moving or the target's going to be moving. The days of Wyatt Earp standing out in a dusty street - - I think we kinda left that a long time ago."

As Al Clark says, "The guy wins who screws up the least." We began to understand what that meant. Some of our class members would come in with a great time in the drills, but if we missed a target, we got a zero. No graduated scores. "Three fast misses don't equal one slow hit." Al reiterated. "Work on your moves and your time will come down. If you see the grass and dirt of the berm jump after you shoot, that is not a sign that the lead shot passed through the steel plate, you missed!"
We worked on accuracy and then just kept at it until we had shortened the times. I tried counting every move I made and then practiced until the count got quicker. That seemed to work for me, but everybody had their own personal method.

The Facility

To get there, drive down Route 168 out of Virginia Beach and take a right at the second traffic light after you cross the North Carolina Border. Then drive until you come to a gate and a sign with the Blackwater logo. It is a simple matter to continue along the dirt road for several miles until you arrive at the facility.

Be aware the area here is teeming with wildlife and it is not unusual to observe several deer crossing the road to the facility. An occasional black bear may also be seen - - still moving, unlike the one mounted over the fireplace at the Lodge.

When you turn the last corner and are able to see the buildings, it quickly becomes obvious that the operators of this center are quite serious in their endeavors and nothing has been spared to make this a top notch facility. The buildings are brand new (Ground breaking was June 16, 1997 and May 16, 1998 was grand opening.) and the place is well laid out and neat. Off to the right are the dorm facilities and the tactical house. Straight ahead is the main building which houses the classrooms, store, administrative offices, cafeteria, armory, and conference rooms, lounge, where tall tales may be spun and examples of taxidermy are displayed. A large black bear looms out at you over the fireplace and several other animals watch you through plastic eyes.

The gun cleaning area is off to the side of the main building where there is room for more than a dozen people to clean weapons. The benches are chest high and there are compressed air nozzles for blowing dust and dirt out of weapons.

The well-lighted rooms have four bunk beds in each with a spacious closet for each occupant. There are two heads (bathrooms to you landlubbers), each with several shower stalls. On both sides of the dorm building is a large room with a couch and several chairs. A TV in each lounge is fed by a satellite system. There is also a refrigerator and water cooler in each of these rooms. Magazines are there for the perusal of the guests.

Construction of the airfield and 1000 meter known distance range will begin soon, as will the skeet and trap range. The management of Blackwater feels there is a demand for a quality place to go and vacation and shoot sporting clays. This could be the place. There are some national class shooting competitions planned which will take place during 1999.

Hogan's Alley is operational and nearing completion. This is a most impressive structure where training in urban warfare can be conducted utilizing live ammunition. The Sim City portion of Hogan's Alley is under construction and will enable Tactical Units to shoot the Simunition® FX-Marker in force-on-force drills. There is a street down the middle upon which a vehicle can be driven for some of the executive protection and other types of training.

The tactical house is probably one of the best in the country. It is two stories and has all features required. There are areas of it that simulate a shipboard environment. The bar in the front can be used for a hostage rescue scenario, as can the rest of the building. All the walls are ballistic and can stop any round up to 5.56 mm frangible used in the house. There are walkways around on the top of the structure where the instructors are able to observe the action down below. To the East of the building is a lake that can be used by combat swimmers to approach the building using Underwater Breathing Apparatus and then they can assault it in a more realistic manner. Farther off is the drop zone where troops can be parachuted or fast roped in as part of the training scenario.

All the targets are manufactured on site by Jim Dehart. Jim is also the grounds keeper and all around head of maintaining the facility. He served his last 15 years in the Navy managing and constructing the U.S. Navy's most comprehensive and sophisticated small arms range complex for one of the SEAL Teams. Jim is a genius when it comes to designing and building target systems and leads the way in developing individual steel target holders, sophisticated movers, turners and even complete tactical houses. Jim was looking for something to do when he retired from the Navy and Blackwater came along just at the right time.

Blackwater Target Systems (BTS) also offers for sale, targets and setups for other ranges. The Blackwater ranges can be leased by organizations that meet their specifications, so that training can be conducted by the group's own instructors. They also can be used for Field Training Exercises by military units. Ammunition may be purchased from Blackwater at am extremely competitive price.

On the second evening of the class, we went to the Rogers Range and fired at static targets using various methods of illumination. We used large hand-held flashlights, small-hand held lights, and weapon mounted lights by Sure-Fire. These were the best choice. I was able to fire on targets in rapid succession after a very short burst of white or red light. The physiological ability of the human eye to retain an image for about a tenth or a second - known as persistence of vision - makes this possible. The ports on the Vang barrel make the muzzle flash less of a problem with night shooting, but it is still a consideration.

The Rogers Range is designed to support a computerized reactive steel target configuration, custom designed by Bill Rogers. It can be used with pistol, shotgun, and submachine gun in daylight and night scenarios. We had the most fun here and it was also the most challenging of the evolutions. Several of us (yours truly included) took our fair share of ammo to qualify on this range. We had to hit three pop-ups that appeared and disappeared at the same time. Just a second after we hit the last one, a 'bad buy' appeared behind the 'hostage.' This guy had to be hit with buckshot without hitting the 'hostage.' As soon as that target was hit, the shooter would then take cover behind the doorframe and load two more rounds into his weapon in less than two seconds. One round went into the open breech and the other was shoved into the magazine tube. At this point, the shooter steps forward and fires at two pop up targets that have, hopefully, just appeared. These stay up for about two seconds. The whole scenario only lasts around eight seconds. Needless to say, I had to climb over a big pile of my expended casings to fire the qualifying rounds. However, it is a good feeling knowing you have accomplished something that you feel is damned near impossible.

In the words of Al Clark, "An instructor has about twenty seconds to gain the confidence of his class. I can stand here all day and tell the class what I want them to do, but when I get up there and demonstrate that it's possible to do it, then they realize what I am asking them to learn in the next hour is within their capabilities."

During training, each of us was given individual critiques, some of it harsh, but with good humor thrown in. Some of the more experienced members of the class would offer tips, based on Al's instruction. This made our learning speed accelerate and drew us closer together. At Blackwater each person is observed up close by the instructor to insure they are doing things exactly the way intended. Nothing is left to chance or the whim of the student. In one case, I was taking too much time with unnecessary hand movements in reloading. Al quickly pointed out what I was doing wrong and I was immediately able to cut my time in half, and later cut it some more. If you want to learn a weapon, you have to run a lot of rounds through it. It helps, however, to have somebody on site who knows the right way to do things and can pass that information to you with your complete confidence that they are doing it the right way.

Comments from students in the three day tactical shotgun course:

Bob (SEAL) "I was impressed with how accurate the shotgun is from one hundred yards in. It was pretty shocking to get seven rounds out on one target in that short time."

Paul (Air Force Security Policeman) "I would say that the biggest thing in the course was the confidence I have gained in the weapon and my ability to use this weapon. I feel now I would not hesitate to use the shotgun in a hostage situation if called upon to do so."

Mike (DOD Instructor) "We learned a new way to reload a lot faster and the need to expand our range to make it a lot more versatile."

Bernie (DOD Instructor) "Outstanding and exciting. Compared to all facilities I have been to in the past, I would give this a nine."

Chris (DOD Instructor) "We gathered some drills and picked up some techniques for teaching the reload speed."

Tony (SEAL) "No comment.Great training, great facility, I'll be back".

Jack (Merchant Marine Engineer) "I love the facility, but I think with Al's ability as an instructor, he could teach a course in a corn field."

Steve (SOF Writer) "Incredible. Best training I have had on a firearm. The shotgun just moved to the top of the list for my favorite weapon. It is versatile and accurate."

Staff: Some of these instructors are not on the full-time staff of Blackwater. When a class is scheduled, Gary Jackson arranges to fly the instructors here and take excellent care of them. They are able to get time off, either through taking leave, or comp time, and their employers are very cooperative as they realize the value of what these people are doing.

Al Clark: Director of Training (Al Clark has formed a new company, SPECIAL TACTICAL SERVICES with his partner Dale McClellan)  Al served over 11 years as a SEAL, earning numerous combat decorations and becoming a senior weapons instructor while serving with numerous SEAL Teams. During his career, Al has focused on advanced weapons instruction and tactical employment methods. He possesses a broad base of experience on which to draw his knowledge.

James G. Smith, Milwaukee Police Department
James has over 17 years street experience in urban law enforcement and training police officers to defend themselves and control subjects. He is currently assigned to the Milwaukee Police Department. James is one of the nation's leading developers of unarmed control systems training programs for law enforcement. He served as a defensive tactics consultant to a variety of federal, state and municipal agencies. He is a certified trainer of instructors for the State of Wisconsin Standards Bureau, and a unit production manager and technical advisor for the award winning training film "Surviving Edged Weapons", by Caliber Press, Inc.

Todd Jarrett, Current World Practical Shooting Champion
Todd, during the past decade, has won dozens of matches and, most notably, three National Championships. At Blackwater, Todd will teach the latest techniques in the sport of competitive pistol shooting. Todd has been a Gold Team Member since 1990, the winner of the U.S. Nationals in 1991, the Miller Invitational 1991-1993, "A First;" 10 Major Championships in a row, USPSA National Champion 1997, and many more achievements.

Al Baker, Lieutenant S.A., NYPD-Emergency Service Unit,(retired)
Alfred Baker is presently the Director of Training at Armor Holdings, Inc. and the international tactical trainer specializing in ballistic shields. An Army veteran, he has 25 years with the New York Police Department working directly with hostage-barricade situations and managing violent, emotionally disturbed people. He invented the use of tactical robotics, is an authority on ballistics protection applications from vest to rifle-threat barriers. Al commanded the NYPD-ESU Specialized Training School and co-founded the Emergency Psychological Technician Certification Course at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is a member of the NY State Expert Training Committee and the recipient of over 42 departmental awards and commendations. Al also has a BS degree in behavioral Science, NY Institute of Technology, Summa Cum Laude.

Kenneth A. Thatcher, Los Angeles Police Department
Ken is a highly decorated officer with 27 years on the force wit the LAPD. Twenty-one of those years were spent with the Special Weapons and Tactics Team. he is currently serving as an Element Leader with the LAPD SWAT, Metro Division. He a recipient of the Medal of Valor & Police Star. He's provided security details to presidents and heads of state visiting Los Angeles. Ken has served hundreds of high risk warrants and participated in two years of specialized tactical training in preparation for the 1984 LA Olympics. He is an international lecturer and member of the SWAT Training Team.

James R. Attaway, Firearms Tactics, & VIP Protection Instructor
Having over ten years experience as an Army Delta Force Operator, James has served as a team member, Team leader, Training Instructor, and Troop Sergeant for three assault teams. He is extremely knowledgeable in the planning of tactical operations involving vehicles, buildings, and aircraft. He was the Primary Instructor of US Army Delta VIP Protections training for two years. James led and trained a six man Delta Force assault team for four years, supervised and trained two 20 man protective security details for U.S Ambassadors and high level cabinet officials in high threat areas overseas. James was Shift Leader of General Schwarzkopf's security detail during the Gulf War. He has also designed a specialized course of instruction in CQB for the U.S. Secret Service Counter Assault Team.

Al Zitta, "Z-Man", Recognized Expert Within the Firearms Industry.
With over fifteen years of experience, Allan Zitta is known for quality workmanship. In 1982, he invented the "Accu-Wedge", a device know the world over for taking the rattle out of the AR-15/M-16 rifle and enhancing its performance. Al is also a Vietnam Veteran, having served during 1966 and 1967. he also builds custom rifles, pistols and racing pistols for the top world class shooters. His development and creativity is well respected in the firearm community. His class is a "must attend" for all levels of armorers.

Sharon Zaffiro Edington, Champion Ladies Pistol Shooter
Sharon began shooting in late 1983 and became competitive in three gun competition in 1984. She competed in the first U.S. Nationals in 1988. Colt, C-More Systems and Bianchi International presently sponsor Sharon. She is two-time National Rifle Association Bianchi Cup Ladies National Champion (1996/1997) and three-time IPSIC/USPSA Ladies National Champion (1994/1996/1997)

She is also a four-time champion of the Soldier of Fortune Magazine, Three-Gun Ladies National Championship (1986/1987/1988/1991/1997). Sharon is the IPT Ladies Champion and has many other achievements.

Story and photos by: Steve Waterman

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