AAR of Spencer Keepers Handgun Essentials & AIWB Skillsets

Handgun Essentials: 

Spencer’s choice for the course name is purposeful. It’s not “Introductory Handgun” or “Handgun Basics”. The fact that he calls it the “Essentials” class very much intentional: these are the things you should know to be prepared for a use of force event as a private armed citizen. You shoot a decent amount in this class, but you don’t just turn cash into noise. Spencer makes sure that there’s a reason for every round you fire. 

Full disclosure, I took this class as Day 2 of a training weekend with Spencer, so I don’t know of the tempo/cadence/sequence changes if you take this as Day 1 or as a stand-alone class. 

Let me start of by telling you what this class isn’t:

  • This class isn’t if you want to pretend your some hardcore elite door kicker, doing God’s work at the tip of the spear
  • This class isn’t designed to work on your weapon manipulation or mechanics. (none of the strings we shot required a reload. Most of the reloading we did was either in the holster administratively, or topping off between strings)
  • This class isn’t scenario based training. All the drills can be extrapolated to real world concepts, but you’re not yelling “stop” and side-stepping as you draw. 

This class is to allow you to become intimately familiar with your handgun if you aren’t already. You’ll shoot enough, and with enough guidance that you’ll be able to identify where you suck and what you need to work on most. Spencer’s class isn’t a “familiarization” class, but it’s definitely an exposure class.

For someone like me who hasn’t really shot under time & accuracy standards before, I came to 2 very important realizations:

  1. Shooting accurately and quickly isn’t this magical voodoo that takes decades of zen-like study to understand, and 
  2. It’s sure as shit not as easy as it looks on Instagram either. 

So, here are the top 3 things taught in this class 

  • X-Grip: Many instructors try and teach either a “front-back & side-side” or “push/pull”. The way Spencer teaches it, your grip forces are forming an X through the middle of the pistol grip. It’s kind of hard to explain, so I’ve included a diagram for reference. 
No photo description available.
  • Target Transitions: Lots of the drills had you switching targets. Sometimes you were shooting at different reference points on the same paper, sometimes you were changing targets altogether. Some involved minimal movement, some involved a lot more. But rarely did you shoot more than a few rounds at the same spot. 
  • Balancing Speed & Accuracy: Spencer has spent a lot of time with Tom Givens, both as a student and Assistant Instructor. One of Tom’s observations is that people who have been shooting (at speed) for any period of time have a familiar cadence, a rhythm with which they shoot. It’s almost like “cruise control”. Your system is familiar with the task and sets into that pace, regardless of it’s appropriate or not. You may have more time (i.e. slow the fuck down and make better hits), or you may need to push the speed a little bit, because your target is a little bigger and the time constraint is a little tighter. This was best represented in some of the drills where we had the whole “head” of the “bowling pin” target as a hit-zone instead of just the 3×5 card that represents a face shot.

Top 3 things I learned

  • You literally cannot grip hard enough with your support hand: Before I took this class, I had been watching some videos. Primarily Paul Gomez’s “Tweaking the Grip”. Spencer’s method stops at the “thumbs forward” stage of that video. Reason being that it better complements the X-grip that he teaches. Now body mechanics and hand specs are all different, so it may not work for you specifically. I can tell you that I saw a dramatic improvement in my ability to shoot quickly and precisely, by going back to the traditional “Thumbs Forward” grip, and just absolutely gorilla-gripping the everloving shit out of my left hand. This was the first non-combative 2-day class that I walked away from sore. Arms, chest, shoulders, all of it. Granted that’s not all good, there’s some excess tension in there that I need to work out, but that’s beside the point. If you feel like you’re having difficulty controlling the gun, or if you feel like your grip is constantly shifting, just crank down on it. You may be surprised as to how many issues that fixes. 
  • Shooting fast isn’t nearly as daunting as I thought it would be: The only other time I’ve been on a timer was the shooting qual at MAG-40. Anyone who’s taken that class knows the goal isn’t to shoot fast. There just needs to be a measurable standard for your accuracy. Spencer’s class is completely different. You shoot fast. You shoot faster than you’ve shot before (if you’re like most folks who have lived their lives on a square range and have never competed). You’ll shoot faster than you’re comfortable with, and that’s the point.

    Now I want to point out up front that at no point are you pushed past what you can do safely. There’s no instructor yelling at you and you’re never out of control, the closest analogy I can think of is it feels like the very first time you rode a bike without training wheels: the body mechanics and the machine you’re using are both familiar, and it’s something you’ve done hundreds of times already, but it’s unfamiliar enough territory to make you feel uncomfortable.

    The idea behind this is that, if you’re not missing, you’re not pushing yourself. If you’re missing inconsistently, or if you’re missing way too badly, then you’ll be encouraged to back it down to a level where you can consistently produce results, but in Spencer’s class missing is a good thing.
  • There’s a certain pace at which you’re still in control, but you’re going just fast enough that you can’t over analyze. This sort of melds in with the previous point. The idea is that, if you’ve mastered the basic mechanics enough, then you can start pushing your speed to see where your capabilities actually lie. Understanding that “good enough is never good enough” Spencer isn’t looking for perfection. He’s looking for pragmatic, functional results. The idea behind this class isn’t that you walk away a card-carrying master pistolero, but that you have a much better understanding of what you need to work on to get you to that level.

    During the course of the shooting strings, you start to feel what right feels like. It can be tricky for an instructor to help get you dialed in, simply because they’re not seeing what you’re seeing and not feeling what you’re feeling. A good instructor though, can help create an environment where you’re in tune with what’s going on, and is able to replicate things enough for you to recognize certain patterns. 

Top 3 things I’m going to change. 

  • I’m going to be a lot more attentive to my grip, and a lot more aggressive with it. Cranking down on my grip was the singular most productive thing I’ve done to my shooting performance in recent memory.
  • I’m not going to fear/mock the timer. You hear a lot of critics say “there’s no shot timer in a gunfight” which is a little myopic. Being faster certainly can’t hurt. That being said, it’s not the only thing that matters, but being able to get effective hits on target quickly is certainly not a bad thing.
  • I’m going to start a dry-practice regimen. My main focus for that dry practice (for now) is increasing my draw speed. 

*special thanks to Short Barrel Shepherd for this 3×3 format. 

AIWB Skillset:

This was actually the first day of our training weekend. The very first thing Spencer does when you train with him is take you out and have you perform a shooting evaluation totally cold. He does this for 2 reasons:

  1. It’s a reality check for you, because if you ever need those skills, you’ll have to perform cold, on demand. There’s no warm ups in “da streetz”
  2. It’s a good gauge for him of the ability of the shooters in his class. 

I’m not going to tell you what that drill is. I didn’t get a chance to practice it beforehand, so I’m not giving you that chance either. 

I always like to say up front what the class isn’t, to help manage the expectations and let people decide if this is a class they’d benefit from or not.

This is not just a shooting class. I honestly would almost suggest that Spencer change the name to “AIWB Lifestyle”, because he covers all aspects of AIWB. How to dress for it, how to live with it, and a bunch of gun handling considerations. 

You get a pretty great crash course in holsters. Spencer goes over a lot of the “industry standard” designs, and then walks you through the logic of why they’re not well suited to appendix carry. He of course has a few examples of his design as well, and is able to effectively articulate the why behind each of his design elements.

One thing I can tell you right off the bat is this: I’ve worked in sales in one capacity or another for the last decade, so I can sniff out a sales pitch from a mile away. This isn’t Spencer’s timeshare presentation; he’s not suckering you into a holster sales pitch under the guise of a pistol class. Now don’t fool yourself, he believes in his product, and he’ll tell you why his is better and why everything else comes up short, but if you run one of his loaner holsters (assuming he has one that fits your gun) and then come to the conclusion “you know what? It’s not for me”, you won’t hurt his feelings.

Most of the shooting drills are geared around familiarizing you with the access and presentation from the appendix position. There are some off-hand/support side/ whatever the trendy new term is for the hand you don’t write with drills. The main purpose of them, at least that I took away, was to show how beneficial appendix carry is for off-hand weapon access, and how important a good holster is for one-handed weapon manipulation.

3 major topics covered

  • AIWB gear considerations: Obviously the holster is a top consideration. What you learn is that a lot of manufacturers take the same holster body they’ve been making for other carry methods, and just change the attachment point to make it an “AIWB” holster. You quickly understand why this is a less than ideal solution. Next is the belt. Spencer recommends an “infinitely adjustable” type of belt; his preferred being the Wilderness Frequent Flyer. The ride height of your pants also factors in to the equation. This may come as a shock, but Spencer isn’t a huge advocate of skinny jeans. In all seriousness, he breaks down where the waist of your pants should fall on you to best position his holster for maximum concealment. This guy really boils every element down to its most important elements. 

Once question I had for Spencer that’s been a big challenge for me up to this point was “How do you carry in dress clothes, especially given that your holster isn’t tuckable?” His answer was almost maddeningly simple, and I’m a little annoyed with myself that I didn’t think of it sooner: wear a vest. *Insert Dope Slap Here*

  • AIWB specific drawstroke: The way Spencer teaches the drawstroke, and specifically clearing the cover garment is zen simple. Grabbing the bottom of the cover garment with the curled fingers, and simply bending the arm at the elbow. The reason for this is two-fold:
    1. It helps to ensure the drawing pistol doesn’t become entangled in the cover garment
    2. It helps make sure that you don’t hang up on the fixed blade, center line knife that you’re likely carrying if you’ve had any exposure to the Shivworks curriculum. 
  • AIWB specific reholster technique: aka “The Lean”. It’s somewhere between a limbo move and an obscene gesture. The basics of it are you push your hips forward, causing the muzzle line of the holster to be angled even further away from the body. The logic behind this is that even if the pistol discharges it’s pointed in the safest direction possible. Ballistic Radio did a good video of this technique with a cutaway holster and a T-gun. Look it up on YouTube. The other part of the technique that Spencer teaches is capping the back of the slide with your thumb. Now this only works if you’re running a hammer fired gun, or a Glock w/ a Striker Control Device (aka Gadget). Reason for this is, if the trigger moves during the re-holster, you’ll feel the hammer/gadget move. Not only will your thumb help resist the movement of the firing controls, but it also is a tactile alarm for “stop what you’re doing right now!”

3 things I learned

  • My carry gun & holster are too short: When I first entered the AIWB arena, I started with my Glock 19 a $20 Vanguard. My logic was it wasn’t a big financial risk, in the event that I didn’t like it, I hadn’t just burned a bunch of cash on another holster I’d never used. I was an immediate convert. I tried repurposing a couple of my old holsters, and it didn’t work too well. I finally bought a specific “AIWB” holster, but I was still having printing issues, so I went with a 26 for a shorter grip. I kept the same holster (which turned out to be my only saving grace), but still had issues. It was because the muzzle end of my holster wasn’t long enough. The more holster you have riding below the beltline, the more the holster can lever the grip of the gun in towards the body and keep it concealed. It also means a wider footprint and less digging. 
  • I’m not moving my hands fast enough: Spencer’s biggest criticism of my technique during the class was that I wasn’t getting to the gun fast enough. I knew this to be true, because I was scared of going too fast and fumbling the grip. Now don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t berating me to go faster, just encouraging me that I have the capacity to go faster. I need to get past the block that there’s a difference between getting to the gun and building the grip.
  • Face-shooting paper isn’t as hard as I thought it was: No I was by no means the best shooter in the class. Most of the folks that took this course shoot a lot more regularly, and some even competitively. But even with the accuracy and time constraints that I’d never been presented with before, I never had a “wow do I suck” moment. Every failure, every missed shot had a reason behind it. Something quantifiable that I could identify and work on. I was able to walk away from this class feeling a lot better about how good/bad a shooter I am, because I have a game plan now.

3 things I’ll start doing differently

  • I’m buying a Keeper: Spencer had a loaner that I was able to run the whole weekend. There were times that I almost forgot I was wearing it. It was amazingly comfortable, and didn’t shift around as much as any of the other holsters I’ve tried. Part of that is because of the giant loop he uses on the holster body. Even if you don’t buy his holster specifically, if you’re buying an AIWB holster, buy it for the duty-sized/longest barrel version of your pistol. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.
  • Dry- practice regimen: For the time being I’m going to start off with just getting to the gun. Once I’m there, I’ll work on the draw itself.
  • Over-exaggerating “the lean”: It can’t be done. You cannot over-exaggerate that lean enough. There’s no such thing as overdoing it. I make sure to keep that in mind whenever I’m going to the holster now. 

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