Thunderstick Summit After Action Report [2023]

Vang Comp Thunderstick Summit

The Vang Comp Thunderstick Summit is the preeminent training event for the defensive shotgun in the United States. Featuring some of the most well respected instructors in the industry, this three day event is the proverbial holy grail of shotgun training.

In 2023, Thunderstick was hosted in Las Vegas, Nevada. As a local, and devout student of the scattergun, surely I jumped at the opportunity to attend as a student, right? Wrong. Dragging my feet due to burnout with classes, I missed my chance, with the event filling up in under four days. Not one to lay down at a loss, I reached out to see if I could lend a hand in any way. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to act as a range safety officer, and an assistant instructor throughout the weekend.

Some parts of this piece may be more sparse here than in reality due to being more or less busy on and off the range during the event. This will be a non-traditional AAR due to my position in class, but it should still provide prospective students with great insight to the event.

Location

Pro Gun Club, Boulder City, Nevada

Weather

The weather throughout the Thunderstick Summit was surprisingly nice considering the previous October's weather. Temperatures were reasonable, allowing some shooters to stay in short sleeves during the day, with lightweight jackets being helpful in the early mornings. No rain or heavy winds reared their heads, with plenty of sunlight and occasional clouds.

Equipment

Acting as an assistant instructor throughout the weekend, my gear list is a little different than normal. My baseline starts with my lightweight carry equipment with a S&W 351C, ankle medical kit, along with eye and ear protection. A staple gun and spare staples attached themselves to my hip, with a pair of Oakley gloves kept in a back pocket for easy access.

Student's shotguns are primarily a mixture of the Remington 870, Mossberg 590, and Beretta 1301. A handful of Beretta A300UP, Benelli M1/M2/M4, Mossberg 500 and Maverick 88's, and at least one Mossberg 930 are present as well. Vang Comp provides loaner shotguns for students, allowing them to see what they're missing out on, testing various configurations before purchasing. Nearly everyone is using 12 gauge, with a few shooters opting for 20 gauge guns.

Spare ammunition is kept in a wide variety of loaders. Some work exclusively from shell bags and dump pouches. A few are running Safariland 085 and 080 loaders. The Wilderness Tactical Shell Belt makes a few appearances, and more work from pockets. Most shotguns are equipped with side saddles of various manufacturers, with some working better than others.

Personnel

Approximately 50 shooters are in attendance for the Thunderstick Summit. Of these, about half a dozen are female, with at least one being a high school student. Backgrounds range from current and former military/law enforcement, real estate agents, attorneys, and more.

Instructors include the following: Darryl Bolke, Erick Gelhaus, Greg Ellifritz, Mark Fricke, Rob and Matt Haught, and Steve Fisher.

Day One of the Thunderstick Summit

Setup and Administrative Tasks

I arrive early to the complex and begin helping the Vang Comp crew set up each range with targets and target stands, moving paper, steel, and other equipment to their respective places. Closer to start time, the instructors arrive and begin corralling students. Everyone fills out waivers, gets their badges, students receive some goodie bags from sponsors, and more. This is where students fill out class rosters, signing up for their courses throughout the weekend. Early arrival is rewarded on a first-come-first-served basis.

Vang Comp Thunderstick Summit
Students looking on during lecture

The day begins with Darryl providing an in-depth safety lecture. While this is always important, the destructive power of the shotgun reinforces these rules. Next, each instructor gives their introductions, and a brief explanation of what they'll be covering for the weekend. Finally, we learn of the sponsors who helped to make the event possible, followed by the weekend's expectations.

Mark Fricke - Ammo Selection

Mark Fricke kicks off academics with a lecture on ammunition selection. This covers gimmick loads, different forms of slugs and buckshot, wad technology and more. Students get the opportunity to see how technology has progressed over the past 100+ years, getting to where we are today.

From here, we all move to the range where Mark provides a patterning demo. We get to see a variety of 12 and 20 gauge loads, along with a few rounds from a .410 shotgun as well. Some students are shocked to see how tight, and loose, certain patterns are from different loads. I act as a squire for Mark, swapping out the barrel on his break-action shotgun between the 20 and .410 demos.

Erick Gelhaus - Shotgun Manipulations

Next, students who are less familiar get onto the firing line after clearing themselves of live ammunition. I distribute dummy rounds to students, ensuring everyone has a few to practice with. Erick then goes by the numbers to help students learn how to safely load, unload, and cycle their chosen shotgun.

Vang Comp Thunderstick Summit
A variety of shotgun shells from Mark Fricke's lecture

Common errors include failures to manipulate the action release on pump-actions, and the Carrier Stop on Beretta 1301/A300UP's. Everyone gets a few reps before I collect dummy rounds and we move onto the next event.

Mark Fricke, Erick Gelhaus, Greg Ellifritz - Patterning

Now that students are familiar with the operation of their shotgun, they step onto the line for their first live fire exercise. With such a large group of students, Greg and Erick take half of the group onto the next range over, and I follow along to lend a hand.

From here students get to pattern their guns from seven to twenty-five yards. Once patterning is complete, slugs are also employed, allowing students to check zero, and comparing that to their shot pattern. The importance of patterning reinforces the safety rules from earlier as some students begin to have pellets come off target as distance increases.

Next, students move into smaller groups as they head out to their assigned blocks of training. As such, there is much following this segment that I will not see. Instructors teach simultaneously across the three ranges, meaning neither myself nor the students will get to take every available block. With that in mind, you may want to make Thunderstick a habit to catch everything across the years.

Darryl Bolke - Shotgun Manipulations

I come with Darryl to assist with shotgun manipulations. This is a fairly low-speed course, acting as an introduction for students new to the gauge. Those who have taken his Hardwired Tactical First Responder Shotgun will recognize the early stages of that class here. Due to limitations of Range 3, everything is done with birdshot.

Vang Comp Thunderstick Summit
Darryl explaining close quarters shotgun techniques

Darryl has students work "up" drills from various ready positions. This helps shooters learn how to effectively mount the gun, finding their sights before pressing the trigger. Keeping the gun topped off is another aspect heavily hit upon, which will become more important as the weekend progresses.

I occasionally step in to help students when stoppages pop up, or to explain directions that may have been missed due to noise or distractions. Students progress quickly, learning the basics of the gun before heading onto their next blocks.

Greg Ellifritz - Close Quarters Shotgun

The final block of my day is non-firing course. Shotguns are relatively long weapons, and many find moving with them around structures to be cumbersome. That doesn't have to be the case, and Greg is here to show us how to ease that process.

We start by rendering all of our guns safe, in an unfireable condition. From here, Greg starts simple, using our targets as improvised walls, demonstrating how to effectively navigate the corners. Using a variety of ready positions, we work through varying levels of tightness to the target, finding a technique that works no matter where we may find ourselves.

Vang Comp Thunderstick Summit
Greg explaining how corners work

Next we work on what happens when a threat manages to grab your shotgun as we move through structures. Greg gives students a handful of techniques that work for different angles of attack, with follow-up actions for each. This is a great block, and something I've not seen taught outside of this course. While I was familiar with some of the material, it was excellent learning for both myself and the students. This closes out the day, with students collecting their gear and heading home.

Day Two of the Thunderstick Summit

Much like day 1, the second day of the Thunderstick Summit begins with a safety briefing. Next, the instructors provide expectations of the day and the structure of events. As things progress, safety is reinforced, as the Summit is structured building-block style, with each day being a little more intense than the last.

Finally, the instructors debrief the group on some notes they had from the previous day. This includes reattacking ready positions, and commending students on their dedication to safety.

Darryl Bolke - Shotgun Manipulations

I start the morning with Darryl, running students through another iteration of his shotgun manipulations block. At this point some students begin having stoppages, primarily due to lower quality ammunition. During these times I pull students off the line to work on a side berm, trying to get guns back into action.

Vang Comp Thunderstick Summit
Mark going over the details of a pattern

Most guns come back to life without much issue. For those who don't, Vang Comp employees are ready to fix any issues that arise, with loaner guns available for the interim.

Greg Ellifritz - Close Quarters Shotgun

Much like with Darryl, Greg provides a repeat of his Close Quarters shotgun course for a fresh group of students. A few questions are asked about when the appropriate time is to manipulate the safety of the shotgun. The answer is an "it depends", with Greg going into detail about different schools of thought and his personal preference. After that we get a quick look at the short-stocking and underarm assault positions, which will come into play in another block.

From here we break for lunch, consisting of tacos provided by Mossberg. During this break myself and a few other staff members transport railroad ties from one range to another, which nearly wipes me out after a long morning in the sun. I sit for about 20 minutes, which will be the longest I'm off my feet over the three days.

Darryl Bolke - Low Speed Movement

After lunch I head to Darryl's range to help with his movement class. While this isn't as dynamic as some other courses, it certainly adds another layer of difficulty, especially as class speeds up. Things start simply, with one step in a given direction. Students work with empty shotguns at first, getting familiar with range commands and moving with a gun in their hand. Soon we go hot, and gradually Darryl speeds up his commands.

Vang Comp Thunderstick Summit
Students working the Underarm Assault position

Occasionally a shooter will get out of sync, especially as round counts rise, and the pace increases. When this happens I swoop in, taking them safely off the line without interrupting the larger group. Students are free to return once there's a pause in the action, ensuring everyone stays safe without missing out on material.

This course is where the efficacy of different loading methods shines, as some work better for a quick top-off, while others are more suited to more rounds.

Darryl Bolke - Individual Work Block

There's a break in the schedule as instructors wait for the sun to fade before beginning their low light blocks. During this time Darryl and I stay on the range. Students are able to come over to get assistance in a smaller group, working on things they feel weak on. The primary focus is on movement and loading techniques.

During this block and the previous we run into a few more issues with ammunition, with me helping them to clear stoppages or get them prepped to head to the Vang Comp crew.

Closing out Day Two

As the sun goes down a few groups of students gather for low light courses. At this point my work is complete for the day, so I return home to prepare for day three.

Day Three of the Thunderstick Summit

Much like day two, day three of the Thunderstick Summit begins with a safety briefing and the day's expectations. Students grab their gear and head towards their respective ranges.

Darryl Bolke - Low Speed Movement

On this second offering of Darryl's Low Speed Movement course we see some familiar faces, along with a group of new shooters getting the block for the first time. Before going hot, Darryl reminds everyone to keep their wits about them, as fatigue is beginning to set in after multiple long training days. Heavy guns with not-insignificant recoil add to this, with us taking more frequent breaks to help offset any potential issues.

Vang Comp Thunderstick Summit
Me creeping up behind Greg

During this block we see one student get a small injury while loading their gun, requiring a simple Band-Aid to fix things up. Shortly thereafter I pull one shooter off the range for a break after a tripping during movement and nearly falling. After this we move to the shade for rest, water, and a small bit of lecture before the next block.

Rob and Matt Haught, and Greg Ellifritz - Close Quarters Shotgun Live Fire Techniques

While Greg's previous close-quarters class focused on movement with the gun, this block is all about the actual shooting aspect. Greg begins by showing historical techniques, going back to WWII era movements such as the Underarm Assault position. Students get the opportunity to try these in live fire at various distances, seeing how effective (or not) these older methods are for themselves.

Vang Comp Thunderstick Summit
Matt Haught demonstrating his signature move

Rob and Matt Haught take the second half of the block. They teach their signature Short Stocking, or Short Sticking, technique. This involves pulling the gun up onto the shoulder, thereby shortening the overall length of the gun, allowing for easier use in close quarters. Most students are unfamiliar with the technique, and we begin working it dry to get the manipulations down. Live fire follows this, and after a few adjustments, most students are working it with ease.

My role is assisting a less experienced student, ensuring they get techniques locked down to avoid injury. Keeping the gun topped off is also a focus, occasionally holding it while they retreive more ammunition.

Afternoon of Day Three of the Thunderstick Summit

We begin the afternoon with BBQ provided by the Vang Comp staff. From here, students are able to move to one of two ranges. On Range One we have the Haught's offering their Shotgun Skills Gauge, with challenge coins on the line. I help to set and reset targets, along with ensuring shooters are properly staged. Adam Roth, of Aridus Industries, earns his second coin, this one with a pump-action, during this time. I fire my first rounds of the weekend during my attempt, which is an utter failure for a multitude of reasons.

On Range Two we have industry representatives offering demos for students to try. Vang Comp has several guns on display, with Kick-eez recoil pads, and Chisel Manufacturing tricking out a few guns for testing as well. Near the lunch area Woox sets up a hatchet throwing booth for people to test their skills outside of the gauge as well.

Vang Comp Thunderstick Summit
Students observing the squire equipping the lord

After this we reconvene for a Q&A panel from the instructors. Questions range from ammunition selection, modifications to shotguns, slug use, and more. Feedback is solicited, thanks are given, and then students begin to make their way home. Myself and the Vang Comp crew stick around until 6:30PM cleaning up the range, ensuring things are better than we found them, and nothing critical is left behind. They account for loaner guns, close out business with instructors, then head to their shop to unload as I head home.

Things I Didn't Cover

As I said previously, there was a lot going on during the Thunderstick Summit that I didn't get to witness. Some of these include less lethal ammunition taught by Mark Fricke, a more dynamic movement course taught by Steve Fisher, and more. Promotional videos are filmed on breaks with the instructors, as are interviews.

I found myself zipping around keeping targets refreshed, repairing falling targets, setting up blown over stands, answering questions, and more. There's a lot that goes into an event like this, and I can only begin to cover everything that happened over the weekend.

Final Thoughts on the Thunderstick Summit 2023

My experience with the Thunderstick Summit was a relatively unique one for sure. It was an incredible opportunity to work on the other side of the firing line, and I'm thankful to the instructors and the Vang Comp staff for having me. Even though I wasn't there as a student, I still learned tons, and had fun despite the hard work. Cody and his staff did a fantastic job organizing the event, with things running smoothly across all three days.

Students grew significantly over the course of the weekend, with everyone leaving far more confidently than they arrived. The material taught is fantastic, and there were several blocks I wish I could have seen. I definitely plan on making my way back to the Thunderstick Summit in the future. If you are a dedicated shotgunner, or just have a burgeoning interest, I highly suggest you sign up yourself.

You can find Vang Comp and the Thunderstick Summit >>HERE<<

Below is where you can find the instructors to get training outside of the Thunderstick Summit:

Sentinel Concepts

Cougar Mountain Solutions

Symtac Consulting

Hardwired Tactical

Active Response Training

American Firearms Training and Tactics

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About Daniel Reedy 379 Articles
Daniel holds instructor certifications from Rangemaster, Agile Training & Consulting, and the NRA. He has received training from Craig Douglas, Tom Givens, and Steve Fisher among others. He also has experience competing in USPSA, CAS, 3 Gun, and Steel Challenge. In his free time Daniel enjoys petting puppies and reading the Constitution. His work is also published by AmmoLand, Recoil Concealment, and Air Force Times. Daniel has also written and edited for The Kommando Blog.

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