1. ‘Our Numbers Grow Every Year’
On a misty November morning just after sunrise, I pulled up to a shooting range in central Texas with a borrowed AR-15 and a few hundred rounds of dubious-quality Russian ammunition that I’d ordered over the internet. I followed a pickup down a gravel road and over two cattle guards to the far end of the property. Then I parked in a field ringed by trees whose bark was scarred by stray bullets.
A handful of men had already arrived, and they were loading ammunition into their magazines as the morning birds chittered overhead. After a while, a decorated US Army veteran named Eric Dorenbush gathered us into a circle and gave a short safety briefing—don’t point your barrel at anything you’re not willing to destroy, act as if every gun is loaded—then he asked us not to share any images or videos on social media. We didn’t want information falling into the hands of terrorists or other bad actors, he explained. Plus there could be social repercussions. “This activity is considered … off-mainstream,” one of my fellow students, an orthopedist from Indiana, told me.
We had all signed up for a two-day tactical firearms course, where we’d be learning how to shoot as if we were engaged in small-unit armed combat. Once the purview of law enforcement officers and military operators, these kinds of skills are increasingly being passed down to ordinary, armed Americans by a sprawling and diffuse industry. Gun ranges and private facilities around the country teach the art of tactical shooting, in setups that range from the fly-by-night to the elaborate: At a Texas resort, you can schedule a combat training scenario inspired by the Iraq War after your trail ride; at an invitation-only facility in Florida, you can practice taking down a mass shooter at the Liberal Tears Café; at Real World Tactical, a former Marine will teach you how to survive “urban chaos through armed tactical solutions.”
Under the aegis of his one-man company, Green Eye Tactical, Dorenbush says he trains SWAT teams and military contractors, but about half of his students are people who don’t carry a gun professionally. In recent weeks, he’d worked with a 22-year-old mechanic who’d been robbed at work, a teenage girl, and several married couples. “Everyone has different things they’re preparing for, different threats,” he said.
Even before the recent siege on the Capitol by men wearing body armor and carrying zip ties, the idea of civilians learning tactical skills may have conjured up images of militias and far-right violence—and not entirely without reason. The men who allegedly plotted to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer last summer prepared by running their own tactical training camp. In leaked private chats associated with the Boogaloo movement, a fringe group advocating for a second US civil war, a gun store employee brags about recruiting customers to join his tactical training group. “Everything is set up in order for our boog squad,” he wrote. “Our numbers grow every year.”
But the tactical shooting world also attracts a much wider range of people: gun bros and gamers, preppers and adrenaline junkies, LARPers who want to spend their weekends cosplaying as commandos, and crime victims seeking a particular flavor of empowerment. Women make up a growing proportion of students, and the industry is increasingly catering to preachers and teachers who want to know how to face a mass shooter. “We’re getting a lot of nontraditional gun owners, and some people who don’t want people to know they’re learning to shoot guns,” says Ken Campbell, the CEO of Gunsite, which claims to be the country’s oldest tactical training facility.
As we head into an era that seems destined to be marked by escalating vigilantism and political violence—or, if we’re very lucky, just the fear of them—it’s time to reckon with the whole of American tactical culture. For all its power to shape this moment, that culture has roots that long precede it. The tactical world is a byproduct of years of rampant mass shootings and of our nation’s longest wars, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a space where paramilitary ideas thrive and where ordinary gun owners learn to see themselves as potential heroes; but it’s also where many Americans have simply gone looking for a way to negotiate living in a country where there are more firearms than people. To try to understand it better, I spent this fall absorbing its mix of skills training, political indoctrination, and camaraderie. Sometimes it felt like CrossFit with bullets; sometimes it was more alarming than that.