I’m going to try to scoot you guys across the finish line before you suck a bullet,” barks Larry Vickers, addressing his men with disdain. He was once among elite U.S. Army warriors, but today his troop is a ragtag assortment of two dozen male gun enthusiasts, predominantly white and beefy, on a sandy gun range in a rural South New Jersey abyss between Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
The men sport earmuffs and digital camouflage cargo shorts bought on clearance, and their beer bellies hang over gun belts stocked with pistols and extra clips. Lunch was at a diner where every overstuffed sandwich came with a side of soup—plus somebody’s wife made brownies. Yet they soldier through the cheeseburger-and-chicken-noodle fatigue.
At the sound of a beep, they stagger into grunting sprints, turn around and unload hell on paper targets. Next, to simulate the position they might assume in hiding behind a car door during a firefight, they drop to their knees—some go one-kneed but Vickers advises the “double-kneeling Monica Lewinsky” for stability—draw their pistols again and open fire, ejecting spent clips to the dirt and a spray of golden shells everywhere, including on each other. A shooter’s jeans rip down the side.
When the firing stops at one point, the air filled with the smell of gun smoke, Vickers trudges up and studies the targets closely.
His verdict: “You fuckers suck.”
Vickers lives in North Carolina but travels the country teaching classes to a loyal contingent. The students today include, among others, an IT guy, a software engineer, a dog breeder and a cell phone tower installer. They’ve come from all over the Northeast and paid $525 to receive tactical training from one of the best-known instructors in a burgeoning cottage industry that takes itself deadly serious.
Yes, there is prolonged giggling during bullshit sessions concerning Caitlyn Jenner—a favored subject of the class I observe—and Vickers warns prospective students on his website that “many of my quips and one-liners are now legendary.” But these classes, at least philosophically, are not about recreation.
They are about giving students the skills necessary to assassinate decapitation-happy terrorists; church, school and movie theatre gunmen—or “active shooters”, as they are termed by the FBI—and run-of-the-mill cretins starting shit at the gas station.
Vickers Tactical is just one in an insular and fiercely competitive crowd of outfits around the country offering tactical training to civilians, with names like Raw Combat International, Warriorschool and Extreme Seal Experience. A 2006 Washington Post story on the then-sprouting phenomenon tallied up 16 schools around the country teaching military or SWAT training to civilians. Today you could find a comparable number in Pennsylvania alone.
Texas’s Special Operations Systems promises that its graduates will leave the class “without the emotional baggage that comes with a constant state of fear and anxiety.” Ohio’s Tactical Defense Institute offers an “Active Killer – Shooter Training” on a website emblazoned with photos of the Columbine High School shooters. Tennessee’s Tactical Response warns that “the threat of a depressed student, disgruntled employee or Islamic terrorist is REAL,” and that their “Active Shooter” class “is not for everyone.”
Many of the tactical training instructors appear even more brash than Vickers. Tactical Response’s James Yeager is notorious in the industry for, among other things, a 2013 YouTube video in which he reacted to Obama’s federal gun control proposal: “If it goes one inch further, I’m going to start killing people.”
Rockwell Tactical, which offers classes in Pennsylvania, brags on its own site that it gives you “your first stress inoculation to prepare you for a real world fight.” When I emailed them to ask about observing a class, Kirk—who did not give a last name—turned me down and warned that “many in the industry may be reticent” to speak to me, “given the amount of hyperbole that often works its way into these type of articles.”
Instead, after some negotiation Kirk hooked me up with “one of the big guys”—the anti-reticence Vickers, who affirmed my request with three emailed letters: “RGR.”
Vickers says he’s established himself as a “household name” in the crowded field—separate from the fray of “scumbag scam artists” teaching classes despite no expertise—due to his extensive military training.
“They really don’t have the background I have,” says Vickers, who boasts that he was a member of the Delta Force team which rescued Kurt Muse from a Panama City prison in 1989 and participated in “other operations and activities that remain classified” during an Army career spanning more than two decades.
But there’s some Eastbound & Down mixed in with his Seal Team 6. His physique is now that of a late-career Tom Arnold, prompting Vickers to release a defensive YouTube video this March entitled “Why I’m Fat.”
The video doesn’t actually offer a concrete explanation of the weight gain, though it does culminate in Vickers declaring: “For the haters: Frankly, you can pound sand.”
That might be Vickers’s slogan, if he didn’t already have one which adorns his t-shirts: “This ain’t no dick dance.” To dick dance is to be such a fumbling idiot during a showdown with an armed enemy that your gun is rendered about as useful as your own penis. Vickers has an actual dance, in which he flops his arm around like a flaccid member, that he performs when his students fuck up.
During instruction in New Jersey, he tells his men that if they think that during a gunfight they will have time to carefully line up their pistol sights as they’ve been taught during more traditional classes, “get off that crack pipe right now,” he says: “ISIS is coming at you with a fucking machete and he’s going to behead your ass.”
His men get it. “If you’re going to take that shot, it better be one shot or two shots until the guy or gal stops moving,” says Andy Orechovesky, a 52-year-old Pennsylvanian who has attended seven Vickers classes. “It’s a shame but at the end of the day we don’t practice on human-looking targets for nothing.”
Besides President Barack Obama’s “anti-gun rhetoric,” which Vickers says has driven people to stock up on weapons and sign up for his classes, he credits another event for being a inadvertent marketing coup.
“9/11 was the thing that said, ‘You know what? I got to get my head out of my ass and understand that there’s bad people out there who want to kill me just because of who I am,” Vickers tells me. “When somebody kicks in my door in the middle of the night, or if something goes sideways at the mall, I have to be trained.”
But when I ask Vickers, who likes to boast that he’s taught 5,000 students over the last ten years, if any of them have ever told him they used his tactics in a real-life situation on home soil, he is circumspect for the first time. “Offhand, I would have to research that,” he responds. “I would say yes, but I can’t give you a specific example.”
John Schaeffer says that getting chased out of a Philly crack house was what brought him to Vickers. Forty-something Schaeffer, tall and lean and one of the class’s sharpest shots, installs cell towers on the tops of buildings for a living.
The armed inhabitants of this particular address were not eager to have him climb upstairs. He says he was chased from the house and forced to call the cops.
So he started carrying a gun—which he didn’t know how to use. “This doesn’t feel right,” Schaeffer says as he recalls the handgun he brought into fraught neighborhoods. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”
It was that same feeling which delivered Orechovesky to Vickers, though instead of hard cases in Philly driving him to pack heat, it was heavy artillery in Afghanistan. Orechovesky was a private contractor in that warzone, where by law he was not allowed to carry a gun.
“There were incoming missiles constantly,” says Orechovesky, also a U.S. Navy veteran. “I decided that if there was a firefight, I’m going to pick up a gun.”
When Orechovesky returned home and moved with his family to Pennsylvania, he started to carry a firearm for protection now that it was legal. He says he carries a gun when he goes with his family to “the city”—meaning Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
“We drive a pretty expensive-looking car, and we have season tickets to the Fulton,” Orechovesky says of the Lancaster opera house, “so we’re usually driving there at night. There are some shady people around that neighborhood.”
“Because morons legislate that stupid shit,” as Vickers says of gun control laws, New Jersey has an assault rifle ban and a 15-round limit on magazines. The latter makes things dicey for students like Orechovesky and Schaeffer traveling from Pennsylvania—which doesn’t have a magazine-capacity limit—with pistols that, unless permanently altered, become felony-grade material upon crossing into Jersey. A good chunk of the class is late, and one of the students tells me his own tardiness was because he didn’t want to speed with an illegal firearm in his truck.
In states with less prohibitive gun laws, Vickers teaches classes with assault rifles, sometimes using dummy houses to stage home invasions, and on YouTube he’ll demonstrate with live ammo how to use your pickup truck as a shield during a firefight with three aggressors.
Still, compared to his competitors—which, judging from videos of Yeager’s classes, offer military theatre that borders on live-action role playing—Vickers’s class is downright staid. Many of his competitors ask students to come loaded with 1,000 rounds for a weekend. Vickers might have his own students use half that, and he looks down on the Rambo crowd as inexperienced assholes making bank by marketing reckless technique: “Its profitable—I make a very good living—so you’re going to get scumbags coming to try to cash in.”
Not that Vickers’s students don’t get to run and gun and compete. He breaks the class into four teams named by their members—Team Caitlyn, Team Dick Dance, Team Lollipop (renamed Team Fucktard by Vickers) and Team Penis Pumps.
The students, who start by balancing pennies on empty guns while pulling their triggers to train against instinctively jerking their weapons, eventually become jittery and fatigued from running, kneeling and expelling loads of live fire during military drills with names like “The Humbler.”
The idea, says Vickers, is to build muscle memory and technique that won’t fail these students in the stress of an actual firefight. If every civilian were armed and so instinctively-wired, he says, people could regularly quell active shooters. “They’re going to what they see as a gun-free zone,” says Vickers of such mass murderers. “They’re not expecting people to bring the gun to them.”
Vickers says if he hears of a shooting at his son’s school, he’s going in armed. “Going on the hunt for the active shooter is the right thing to do,” he asserts. According to Vickers, his classes in Ohio have been attended by members of a “church security detail”—that is, congregants who are secretly armed in anticipation of an active shooter at the their house of worship.
Vickers believes that the Charleston church shooting illuminated a very real problem which reverses old prejudices: “Blacks, as a general rule, don’t shoot.” In his estimation, black people could protect themselves better from active shooters if they got deeper into gun culture.
There’s only one black person at the class in New Jersey—a burly gunsmith who goes by “Rip” and carries business cards featuring a portrait of a skull with a gun wound to its forehead—and Vickers immediately singles him out.
“See that black guy?” Vickers asks of the class. “Living unicorn. Only black gunsmith on planet Earth.” From that point forward, the class refers to him as “Unicorn.” Rip, whose calves are tattooed with portraits of the inventors of the M1911 pistol and the AK-47 assault rifle, doesn’t appear the least bit bullied.
Vickers, who says his classes are growing in popularity with women, would like to see more black people sign up. “You’ll see some Hispanics, you’ll see Orientals and whatnot, but generally you don’t see blacks” in attendance, he grouses to me.
I ask if people of Middle Eastern descent take his class. “That’s the one area we watch like a hawk,” Vickers replies. “Everybody is very wary that Abdul Sheikh Muhammed or something wants to take the class. Generally we’ll tell them thanks but no thanks. We’ll tell them the class is full.”
Asked how he weeds outs these potential participants, Vickers says he does it by name alone: “We don’t want them to take our training and find out that they are a member of ISIS or a sympathizer.”
Joining the civilians taking Vickers’s class are another somewhat surprising contingent: cops. At least five off-duty law enforcement officers have shown up today including officers from a rural New York force and that of a township in New Jersey, and a Philadelphia city cop who shoots sideways with a Batman logo stickered on the butt of his service weapon.
Law enforcement officers sometimes get their tuitions reimbursed, or their ammunition taken care of, or get no cooperation from their department at all when taking Vickers’s classes.
The officers who agree to speak to me have a distinctly bleak outlook on their job. “They scream at you, spit at you,” says the Batman-loving Philly cop of the denizens of the precinct he patrols. Young and buff and decked out in a department-issued bulletproof vest, he says he works in Southwest Philly. “Oh yeah, they’ll shoot at you.”
However, the officer himself has never been shot at, and says that fortunately, he’s also never had to use deadly force. “I’ve never even had to hit anyone with this,” he tells me, unsheathing his baton.
Also wearing a department-issued vest, and ballcap, is an officer on what he calls “the frontline” at a New Jersey township department. (Ed. note: TPM is not naming the beat officers so they avoid punishment at their departments.) “I’ve never been taught how to properly shoot,” he admits. He says other cops had told him about Vickers’s classes. Like his fellow cop in Philly, he’s never fired his service weapon, though the possibility of violence weighs on him.
“You can go to a simple dog-barking complaint and get a gun pulled on you,” says the Jersey officer. “You’re always walking into the unknown.”
In an era of highly-publicized questionable police shootings, nobody on this gun range is surprised by the notion that officers may be poorly trained in tactical situations.
“Believe it or not, cops are the worst at handling guns of anybody,” remarks Bill Romanowski, an instructor at the South Jersey Shooting Club, where the class is taking place, and an official competitive shooting expert. Romanowski is a mammoth dude with sparse chin hair, eating an oatmeal cookie. “To cops, it’s just another two pounds they gotta carry.”
Even a guy whose job it is to train cops to shoot guns acknowledges that many officers are poorly trained. Darren Lomonaco, an instructor at the Camden County Police Academy, observes Vickers’s class from under a tent near a berm, his arm in a sling following a slip in a grease fire.
“I wish I could give all the guys I work with this kind of training,” says Lomonaco as Vickers runs through a drill. He says departments don’t commit to giving their officers enough regular training, citing incidents in which New York City officers hit multiple bystanders while unloading on suspects: “When you have officers who aren’t trained as well—which New York City is a prime example [of]—it’s a perishable skill.”
Vickers says that cops, who “are thrown into these stressful situations with minimal training,” do not deserve recent ire. He blames “anti-cop” Obama for fanning the flames by criticizing a Ferguson officer’s shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, who Vickers calls a “fucking thug.”
“What about cops who were killed all over the country, and you make no effort to reach out to them?” says Vickers of Obama. “But you’re talking about Michael Brown, who is a piece of shit?”
Not every student of Vickers is out to better kill their enemies. “There’s only one reason,” offers “Brainiac”—so nicknamed by Vickers because during the penny exercise he used a quarter—a big, perpetually smiling fellow with tattoos of male and female devils adorning his calves. “Fun as hell. I don’t carry a gun, and I don’t think about shooting nobody.”
And, strangely, a major element of the camaraderie in a Vickers class is getting berated by the gun-world celebrity himself—being loudly humiliated for having a “shit” plastic sight on your pistol or being a terrible shot, or being excused for being a “fucktard” because you’re from New Jersey, or having it be pointed out to the class that you’re “shaking like a dog shitting razor blades” while shooting. The pleasure the men get from the abuse is a bit surprising considering we’re not in a basement and nobody’s wearing leather.
In the afternoon hours, Vickers’s crankiness intensifies. After riddling his own target from afar during a drill, Romanowski—the shooting instructor—asks Vickers politely how he managed such accuracy when one can barely aim from such a distance.
Vickers stares at him with exasperation before responding: “Yeah, I’m applying the fundamentals, fuckstick.”
Lead photo: Larry Vickers (right) schools his men on a finer point of his anti-dick-dancing curriculum.
Gus Garcia-Roberts is an investigative reporter at Newsday and co-author of Blood Sport: A-Rod and the Quest to End Baseball’s Steroid Era.