In the April 2011 issue of S.W.A.T., I wrote about the five-day Carbine Operator Course I had attended at what was then known as Blackwater (later named U.S. Training Center). That article begins, “Blackwater has been at the center of controversy and conspiracy theories ever since Erik Prince founded the company.” More on that later.
The course was everything I could have asked for. Professional and knowledgeable instructors conducted the training, and the facilities were better than most U.S. Military bases I’ve been to. Ever since I attended that excellent course, I’ve wanted to return and receive additional training from them in other areas. Unfortunately, the company Erik Prince founded has been sold, and is now being run by wholly new ownership under the name Academi.
Lead Instructor Billy Solares reads students’ groups and provides feedback.
When my friend Kevin Lippert of Jericho Defense enrolled in the Academi Precision Rifle course, I decided to return with him to Moyock, North Carolina to see how the company has changed over the years. I was pleased to see it is still focused on high-quality training for professional agencies and responsible citizens.
I half expected the new owners to reduce or eliminate training available to citizens, but they haven’t. It’s pretty obvious with the name and focus of the marketing material that they’re trying to reinvent the facility while distancing themselves from the name Blackwater. But they’re not retreating, they’re attempting to make a good thing even better.
Solares goes over fundamentals on TD1.
PRECISION RIFLE I
Precision Rifle I is a three-day course that teaches the fundamentals of operating a rifle meant for precision and distances that are beyond the capability of most weapons and shooters. I am not a stranger to the precision rifle. I picked up a Remington 700P back in 2008 and put about 2,000 rounds through it in a little over two years. I became fairly proficient with it and even shot it at distances over half a mile on a couple of occasions.
In recent years, I’ve shot less and less, and time available to handload ammunition and visit the range has decreased. So the opportunity to attend the Precision Rifle class at Academi with Kevin meant I could both reacquaint myself with the precision rifle and revisit an amazing training facility.
Instructor George Fretwell spots for Jericho Defense founder Kevin Lippert during basic spotter instruction.
Upon arriving at Academi, I could not help but compare the facility to how it looked when it was owned by Erik Prince under the Blackwater name. The aircraft hangars were still there, but gone were the helicopters and the massive Blackwater sign from the façade.
The road and off-road driving courses were quiet. The canine facilities were empty. There were some firing ranges in use, but overall the facility seemed much less busy than in the past. All the amenities that made Blackwater such a great facility for warfighters were still there, and even improved, but where were the students?
Solares explains basics of being a spotter.
TRAINING DAY ONE
The first day began with a few hours in the classroom going over fundamentals. The lead instructor was a Canadian Armed Forces veteran, Billy Solares. In fact, two Canadian military vets trained our class. Billy’s presentations were well polished and the concepts presented in a way that our extremely diverse group could grasp.
Our group of 22 students came from all walks of life, including military and private citizens, six dentists (think about that the next time you’re having your grill worked on), and one female Marine. Experience among participants was just as diverse. Some folks rented Academi rifles and purchased ammunition there. Others brought custom rifles and handloaded ammunition.
Much of that first classroom day was spent going over proper use of optics. Parallax was covered in detail throughout the course and proved to be a major factor in my own shooting. I had always been taught to adjust parallax so the target was clear, and that was good enough.
But the instructors taught us that in order to properly eliminate as much parallax as possible, you have to adjust your parallax knob (if so equipped) so the target shifts as little as possible when you move your head while looking through the scope, then you adjust your focus knob to clear up the image and recheck parallax. So here I was on TD1, already pleasantly surprised to be learning new things and clearing up old misconceptions.
Precision Rifle class on the 100-yard line at Academi’s long rifle range. Students worked their way to the 1,000-yard marker.
We hit the range after lunch and were split up into four-man groups with one instructor per group. Our group instructor was veteran law enforcement officer George Fretwell, who paid close attention to our form and made some significant corrections to my own.
We spent the first afternoon in our “laboratory” at the 100-yard mark. At this distance, wind has very little effect on your groups, so it’s a good place to nail down fundamentals and identify equipment issues. George kept having to correct my bad habits as they returned from time to time.
My biggest issue was that I thought I was lying directly behind the rifle, but in fact I was lying at an angle behind the rifle. This can push the rifle in one direction or cause you to overcompensate and pull shots in the other direction. Either way, it is best to lie directly behind the rifle and as flat to the ground as possible. Having someone there to watch your form helps identify problems that you could not otherwise see. The old saying applies here: Can’t see the forest for the trees.
Kevin Lippert takes aim at targets from 100-yard mark.
TRAINING DAY TWO
TD2 started back in the classroom discussing more advanced concepts, including bullet jump, chamber and bore construction, and the molecular mass of air. Throughout the classroom portions, Billy kept the class well informed of the day’s events and whetted our appetites with the possibility of shooting 1,000 yards on the final day, if we were up to it. We were also told a competition would start off TD3.
After lunch, we met back on the range and began working on our dope for longer distances. Billy explained that as the distance to the target increases, groups elongate horizontally due to the wind having a greater impact on groups than distance or the shooter’s ability. Billy and the other instructors helped fine-tune shooters to read the wind and gave basic instruction on how to spot for each other.
Instructor George Fretwell makes corrections to author’s form.
TRAINING DAY THREE
TD3 began on the range with the promised competition, which started with a cold-bore shot. We gradually increased distances and measured to see who had the tightest groups overall.
This kind of competition is a friendly way to challenge students and confirm all that had been taught. In the end, we did shoot at 1,000 yards, and although at that range there were a lot fewer hits, it was still the most fun part of the course. By the end of TD3, shooters and spotters were working well together and remarking about how much they had learned.
Throughout the course, all the instructors were very professional and proved to be a wealth of knowledge. One instructor shared his favorite books with the class and the dentists shared stories that nobody else understood. The students coalesced, built camaraderie, and had a genuinely good time.
Instructors pop smoke to illustrate effects of wind.
The class itself was fairly fast paced, with little to no down time or waiting. A three-day course is too short to waste time, especially with this subject. But at no point did we feel overly rushed or pushed.
With all the varying backgrounds in attendance and all the juggling of topics that must have occurred among the instructors, the class could have felt disjointed and disorganized. It never did. Academi may be a new facility, but the thing that made Blackwater so successful—the top-notch instructors—is still there. Underneath the new face beats the same strong heart.
ACADEMI AND BLACKWATER
I kept comparing the new with the old and even returned to my previous S.W.A.T. article as a reference. Despite the fact that the facility was less busy, it was actually a better experience the second time around. One of these days, the right agency will realize what a tremendous resource Academi is, and they’re going to make the facility very busy again.
As Kevin and I left the facility for the last time, we witnessed a mother black bear and her cubs walking along the edge of a field. I was reminded of the Blackwater bear-paw emblem that became a symbol of courage and a lightning rod for the powerful and ignorant elitists who attacked Blackwater over the years.
Even now I see false news reports of “Blackwater agents” supposedly having a hand in the unfortunate circumstances in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere. Blackwater doesn’t exist, and hasn’t for years, but the media can’t stop spewing lies and misinformation.
The fact that Blackwater augmented our nation’s military and saved innocent lives to include our own servicemen and women is woefully absent in the media. When the haters grow frustrated at their failed attempts to mar our military, they start throwing punches at ghosts. That’s what happens when you have people ignorant of military operations and affairs giving reports about military operations and affairs.
The media isn’t going to stop its senseless crusade against our military or Blackwater, but the bears at Moyock haven’t gone anywhere. They’re waiting for you to pay them a visit.
Whether you’re part of a government agency or a private citizen practitioner of the arts, you’ll be very satisfied with the quality of instruction and facilities given at Academi. The instructors are humble professionals working hard to provide the good guys with the skills they want and need.
My hat’s off to them.