Personal Defense Training Review: Alive Combatives’ Dirt and Steel Course

Courtesy Becca Spinks

I’ve reviewed a small number of training courses for TTAG here and there. I’ve been very blessed in the fact that I’ve somehow lucked into, been referred to, or found high quality trainers for all of my shooting and self defense training.

There have been no bad experiences at all so far, which not only keeps me developing as a shooter, but also reinforces my personal commitment to always growing and sharpening my skills.

That said, there is some training even among all the good ones that really stand out as changing my perspective in a significant way. One such training that I attended this spring was a course called Dirt and Steel, offered by Steve Miles of Alive Combatives in Salado, Texas, north of Austin.

Steve teaches knife, pistol, hand-to-hand and gunfighting, as well as a vehicle gunfighting course that I will be attending this coming October. He’s all about real skills practiced in a real time environment, drawing material from scenarios and videos from actual events where self defense was needed.

There are many good fighters who train with Steve, and his core student group is serious and dedicated, which makes for a positive and demanding environment when you attend any of his courses.

Dirt and Steel is offered to develop and test your skills in real life fighting situations where you or your opponent may have a gun or knife and are in a fight to see who can deploy their weapon first.

We used Nok training knives and plastic training pistols for the course. As students, we were given the chance to try out various ways of carrying our weapons to see how each would fare in terms of being able to actually draw and deploy it in close proximity.

There were also a variety of scenarios presented that we had to get out of, most of them involving being pinned to the ground in some way with an opponent on top of you trying to keep you from getting up.

Courtesy Becca Spinks

Steve’s goal was to show us the real life challenges involved in deploying even a securely retained concealed weapon in such scenarios, as well as to teach and have us practice basic techniques for getting someone off of you so you can draw your weapon.

As Steve said,

The personal defense world is filled with the “tennis shoe” defense; i.e, just run away or “don’t be there.” But of course that’s just a copout because we don’t get to pick the circumstances of a violent attack. Escape may not always be an immediate option.”

This day-long course was completely eye-opening in terms of both the efficacy — or not — of various conceal carry systems for both a gun and a knife. Basically, once a fight goes to the ground, the only two carry methods that worked for me were under the bust in the front (my preferred) or, if I could get my opponent off me, appendix carry.

These were the only two carry positions that allowed for fast enough access for my weapon to be drawn and properly deployed.

I can safely say that one day of Dirt and Steel caused me to re-think absolutely everything about conceal carry and what really works for me. Before this course, I had not thought enough about how much I take for granted that deploying a weapon in a dangerous situation would happen with me standing up.

When I mentioned this to Steve, he had this to say:

What you experienced as far as Dirt and Steel changing your thoughts about conceal carry is the power of presenting the context first in training. Without that you are training blind and making decisions about how/what to carry based entirely on someone else’s opinion/experience. That works for some things, but as you know everyone’s physical and life circumstances are so different that there are very few “one size fits all/best practices” in personal defense. Context first (run-crawl-walk-run) is one of the key differences in what I do vs. everyone else (crawl-walk-run), and it makes a huge difference in rate of learning.

Steve taught me that you absolutely can’t assume that and people who attack women, in particular, will often try to get us on the ground assuming that our less-substantial upper body strength will mean we can’t fight them off.

Courtesy Becca Spinks

The techniques he taught that day were simple enough to be learned by anyone and didn’t take that much practice to be effective.

I will say this, though: real fighting is exhausting. I don’t come from more than a minimal martial arts background, but even the experienced fighters were wearing down by the end of the day. It takes a lot of physicality to learn and practice these techniques over and over during the course of an entire day.

I also had the enormous pleasure of being partnered with, and having to escape from, the strong and ferocious Becca Spinks a handful of times throughout the day. I would say this: Don’t get into a fight with Becca. Just don’t. You’ll be better off for it.

I would highly recommend the Dirt and Steel course to all gun carriers interested in real time training with real world practice in close-range fighting and weapon deployment. It will probably change the way you think about personal defense.

comments

  1. avatar strych9 says:

    With regard to being taken down did they teach anything other than full guard (last picture)?

    That is, was butterfly, spider or rubber guard mentioned at all, or some other form? I just ask because it seems from my experience that with a full guard you’re going to have problems 1) keeping it because 99% of people are going to try to smash pass you immediately and 2) getting your weapon out while holding that guard.

    It just wouldn’t be my preference, especially against a knife, hence why I ask if they taught anything else.

    1. avatar Joe in San Antonio says:

      If it was only a 1 day course I doubt they went past that. It’s hard to retain technique if you learn more then a few moves in a limited amount of time.
      If someone catches me by surprise and has me on the ground with a deployed knife I am going to neutralize the knife 1st, I might never get to my weapon. I remember taking combatives in the army, 1st lesson was if your surprised and bad guy already has a weapon out neutralize the weapon before attempting to deploy yours, 2nd lesson was don’t focus on the weapon so much that you ignore your opponent.

      1. avatar John Boch says:

        +1. Address the immediate threat first.

        And don’t trade one threat for another.

      2. avatar strych9 says:

        The problem is that with a blade (two actually) in the fight this is a very, very bad position for her. She either needs to make space or stab that guy with her knife that she has in that icepick hold.

        She can make space by opening that guard and putting a foot in his hip and pushing off, changing what guard she uses, or she can pop it open drop a leg flat, shrimp her hips and scissor sweep to either side because he’s too high off the ground to stop her. In the latter case she has full mount, with a knife pointed towards his chest and his own knife pointed back at him, apply weight and he’s in real trouble.

        Staying where she is she basically can’t win, and all he has to do is start applying weight to bring his knife down or start standing up to open her guard. So I’m wondering where that guard is going. Because it’s a still photograph you can’t tell.

        Simply wrapping someone up in guard from the bottom “because it’s an attack position” doesn’t make sense once a weapon is being used. Unless there’s some actual plan you’re just putting yourself in a compromising position because it’s an “attack” position. Yeah, and a good one if you have both hands, but she doesn’t. So I’m asking what the plan is since I kind of assume that there is one.

    2. avatar Andre says:

      Butterfly is a complicated position with a lot of moving parts. And people will try to smash you from there, too. Try to get you shoulders down. Can’t learn how to address all that in a day.

      1. avatar strych9 says:

        I’m not going to get into a big discussion of butterfly guard, I’ll just say that IMHO, most people make it harder than it is by trying to be fancy. However, note that I’m not really a fan of butterfly guard personally and I’m certainly not a master of it. I use it when I have to but it’s not a go-to for me because my legs are usually long enough that it’s not the best choice, but hey, sometimes shit happens and it’s better than giving up a pass.

        I’m really just curious where that picture is going, as a transitional position it works and I sort of assume that’s the deal. As a static defensive position it’s pretty damn bad for her and a still picture just leaves me with that. OTOH his posture is just begging to get swept. Generally the way I’d go about, and also tell a new person to go about it (for a number of reason) it runs the risk that if the sweep fails because he backs out of coming forward either by accident or naturally realizing what’s happening to his balance, there’s a decent chance this ends up in a half-butterfly because there isn’t space for a full re-guard, which is probably something that should be noted before you end up in that situation IRL and have no idea what to do about it since butterfly is a bit unnatural at first.

        Again, I’m just curious where this one’s going. I look at that and see a decent number of options but not many I’d teach to a beginner and not that many that I’d be real hot to try myself.

        Against a knife I’m not going to try to hold someone in full guard. It offers some options but I’m not going to stay there and fight off my back because eventually you will lose that grip fight over the blades and then you’re in deep shit.

        1. avatar Steve says:

          It’s “going” wherever it goes because that’s the starting setup of one of our opposed context drills. Drill starts both opponents try to stab while not being stabbed, similar to sparring/rolling. Immerses students in the problem. You already gave one possible solution above. Thanks for taking a look at it.

  2. avatar Joe in San Antonio says:

    Its good to get training that changes your perspective. Mindset is a huge factor.

  3. avatar Ian in Transit says:

    My wife has attended a couple of partial day courses tailored for women’s self defense. My main problem with both of them was that after instruction they always paired the ladies with one another to practice and further instruction before moving on to the next technique. I don’t know how diverse sparing/training partners were in the class detailed above, but half of the techniques the two classes my wife attended assumed the attacker would be in her weight class. She was either not strong enough or her limbs were too short to apply half of what they taught to a 6’+, 220+ pound assailant. Granted not everything can be taught in every class and recurring training is the best way around that. Just something to keep in mind, particularly for the smaller framed of us. Even a great technique isn’t always a great technique.

    1. avatar Dude says:

      You really need to experience both. It’s hard to practice technique when you’re constantly getting whipped by a better / stronger opponent. It’s nice to go up against a lesser experienced opponent so you can implement what you learned and be offensive. At the same time you need to test yourself against someone much better to learn how to neutralize threats. It will also make you better offensively in future, when you’ve felt what it’s like on the receiving end.

      “I will say this, though: real fighting is exhausting.” Rolling burns a ton of calories and uses muscles in ways lifting never will.

    2. avatar Elaine D. says:

      Hi there Ian,

      The participants were mixed in terms of size and weight, from Steve himself who is 6’ plus to a couple of women smaller than me. I got to fight with both women and men at different levels of strength and size. Steve’s core group is well trained and strong, so it was a real challenge.

      I’ve also asked Steve and his students to feel free to comment here and correct or clarify anything I’ve said since hand to hand is not my strong suit.

      1. avatar possum, destroyer of arachnids says:

        Howdy there ElaineD, Long time no see Yes I thinking about you, 😈

        1. avatar Elaine D. says:

          Good to see you too Possum. Y’all will be seeing more from me this summer – in the writing groove again now!

  4. avatar John Boch says:

    Good training is priceless, but you can’t learn even the fundamentals of ground work in just a few hours. Well, you can, but it won’t stay with you long. It’s something you have to practice until it becomes almost natural.

    That last picture looks like a great place to execute some Krav techniques to create distance, and make his mouth a Pez dispenser before kicking him away.

    1. avatar Knute(ken) says:

      The best one is ever going to teach about ground fighting in one day is that sometimes people will try to take you down to the ground, and why it is much to an armed person’s advantage to not let them do so.
      That might well involve starting in the bottom guard position(or wherever), but not to so how to get out of it. More to let the student get the feel of the position and learn how fast everything will happen, and how both will notice wherever the hands and feet of the opponent are just by feel alone.
      Nothing one can teach a newbie in a few hours will do the student any good at all. Ground fighting takes a long time to learn to deal with. In just a few hours, the best one can do is impress upon them how they really need to develop the mental scanning (Cooper’s color coded condition scale) ability to not be caught in condition white by surprise from a larger attacker, because if you do, there’s little that can be done about it then, armed or not. Much better to not let yourself be taken in such a way in the first place. And that if that one is really worried about that scenario, then they had better be prepared to dedicate some serious time to some real unarmed training, like Ryu Te or Krav Maga.
      But that won’t stop some instructors that will make absurd claims just to generate profits. Not that this guy is one those. Knowing nothing about him, perhaps that was the real takeaway from this class. The author did not say how she left the class, other than tired. If she took away the attitude that ground fighting is really difficult and dangerous (whether weapons are involved or not), and she’d be much better off learning how not to end up on the ground wrestling with an attacker bigger and stronger, then job properly done.
      If a newbie leaves a class a couple of days long thinking they can ground fight a bigger and stronger person, just with a couple of tricks that the instructor showed in five minutes, they’re barking up the wrong tree. That class just did the student more harm than good.

  5. avatar Texican says:

    If I were a woman of whatever size, I’d be carrying a whole bunch of weapons that I could reach with either hand. A small woman is at a total disadvantage to a man who outweighs her out reaches her and out means her, etc. Her only option is weapons. And best not to go anywhere where you can’t see stuff coming and be situationally aware enough to get your weapons out should the need arise.

    1. avatar SoCalJack says:

      Speaking of size, my kids, in their Taekowndo class, learn to use their strong loud voice against bad adults trying to grab them. They yell, “stop, leave me alone!” But thats after they deploy a variety of combo strikes going for feet, shins, groin, neck ears and eyes. They practice this weekly.

    2. avatar Joe in San Antonio says:

      +1, I am a relatively healthy, semi fit 6 ft + middle aged male that generally keeps to myself. I have never needed to deploy my hand gun. My wife and small children have been in those situations. Predators usually don’t prey on the strong they look for the weak, infirm and young.

  6. avatar Steve B says:

    Interesting article and great comments everyone. I have been conceal carrying for 8+ years and have taken many defensive firearm classes, decision making w/firearm in an SD encounter and even some shoot house classes. I’m 54 and wrestled in HS and college. In my stupid younger years, I also had many scraps with others, but back then and in those types of fights, you didn’t much have to worry about a weapon being used by the other guy. It was more of an honorable code almost. Those days are far gone now. That said, I have been toying with taking up BJJ now. I’m still in very good muscular and cardiovascular shape from working out, but I do fear for my upper body flexibility limits with BJJ.

    1. avatar Hush says:

      Situation awareness becomes even more important with age. I am 76 and can’t begin to do what I once could and running is out of the question; therefore, I try to stay aware of my surroundings at all times. Also, the idea of avoiding places where danger may lurk becomes more relative with age.

    2. avatar Elaine D. says:

      Steve B

      I have had extensive conversation with a student or two of Steve’s who studied BJJ for quite some time before starting to study with him. They said that the way in which he teaches real world practical applications of fighting improved them in ways that BJJ classroom instruction never could, in particular his Core Skills workshops.

      I’ve seen so many BJJ shoulder and rotator cuff injuries as a Feldenkrais practitioner that, at 50, I decided not to go down that path. It’s a great form but also has highly predictable injury patterns over time. Shoulders don’t heal well past a certain age.

    3. avatar Knute(ken) says:

      For you guys in Texas, this might be a good choice:
      https://sites.google.com/site/amarillokempokarate/
      It’s in Amarillo, so way up by OK. Perhaps there are others closer, but probably not likely. There are few of us students of Taika Oyata left around any more, but this school claims to be one of them. I have no personal experience with the instructor, never having met him. Perhaps we might have crossed paths at Oyata’s yearly “summer camp” that used to occur in Kansas City, but if so, I don’t remember him. In any case, he advertises knowing the Katas, and the Kobudo, and has Bogu Kumite. So he checks all the proper boxes.

  7. avatar possum, destroyer of arachnids says:

    The best training I’ve had came from dealing drugs and being an outlaw. It’s free until you get caught, not recommended

  8. avatar Frank Vazquez says:

    I find it odd when I see people, usually women, training bare foot for scenarios where they are damn well going to be wearing shoes and regular clothing, not spandex pants or yoga outfits.

    Naturally, training has to involve some safeguards less we injure, maim or kill the students or instructors before they are done. That would certainly defeat the purpose of learning how to keep oneself safe and how to fight off or neutralize and attacker.

    I think that there are a lot of training programs and lessons being taught where those paying to learn are taken with being fashionable and looking tough, but not really focusing on the reality part of why they are training.

    I am not saying this school is one of them. I’m sure it’s good training which is why I am not even questioning the photos or text. It’s the other gazillion places and instructors who teach a few cool moves or create a chic atmosphere where students can delude themselves into thinking they are now trained killers or a bad ass that can handle any attacker that comes along. Poor training, cool clothing and an obnoxious attitude is not life saving self defense.

  9. avatar Duane says:

    No training course is perfect.
    If one attends one and picks up a couple useful ideas or techniques.

    That you can incorporate for your personal use it is a win.

    Short training courses have lot more to do with making you think how and what one might do.

    Instead of making you into a dedicated fighter.

    One has to have the personal fortitude to train and practice what you learned on your own.

    To become proficient with any skill or techniques you were shown.

  10. avatar MIO says:

    Kudos to you for getting training and continuing the journey!!

  11. avatar BusyBeef says:

    Even if the techniques are simple, you still need to practice religiously.

  12. avatar Ardent says:

    I’m a smaller man, 5’8 and 140. I’m strong, very strong for my weight…but there in lies the problem. Much larger men have a tendency to treat me like a woman: attempting to brute over power me and put me on the ground. I can scrap, can strike, and I can stuff a poor takedown. I can toss a larger but poorly skilled man around and take him down almost at will…but a much larger, stronger opponent who is determined to ground me is very likely to do so. When was introduced to BJJ in the mid 90s it was a godsend. I learned to improve position and survive on the bottom until I could…and I learned to carry a second pistol on one ankle and a knife on the other…my primary pistol and knife may end up either inaccessible or become a liability if accesed while on the bottom, but those weapons on my ankles are really handy (and blind to my opponent) from that position.
    It might sound a bit extreme, but my experience both with BJJ and on the street convinced me that having weapons available on my ankles is a huge advantage. I EDC a g19 and knife at waist level and a .380 bodyguard and knife on my ankles. One is for standing up, the other is for a fight from the bottom. The thing about a technique with weapons located that way is that it only ever has to work once per opponent, and in practice I’ve never failed to be able to bring one or the other to effect. The surprise factor of a hand that went behind the opponent and comes back with a blade or pistol is such that, at least in training, the opponent is mortally wounded before he realizes a weapon is in play.

    Such preparation surely isn’t for everyone, and these days it’s merely an artifact of a different life I used to live even for me…but if you go into harms way and suspect you may end up on the bottom, a decent guard and ankle carry weapons may well decide the outcome in your favor.

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