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Zeroed In: Clint Smith – Meet One of the Godfathers of Tactical Training

This article was originally published in RECOIL, issue 22 in 2015.

Clint Smith is one of the founding fathers of the modern tactical training movement. Been to a tactical class in the last 40 years? Thank Clint. He and his band of contemporaries, including Jeff Cooper, Louis Auerbach, Chuck Taylor, Jim Cirillo, to name a few, were the fathers of the dynamically dynamic teaching schools and methods we all take for granted.

How the hell the 66-year-old legend has the energy to continue teaching classes is beyond us. But he does. Out on one of the nicest ranges we've ever shot at, we watch as Smith addresses a line of students at Thunder Ranch using a wireless PA system. The same system that was cranking AC/DC while he and his cadre set the range up for the class.

He carries a lighter gun than he used to, moves a little more carefully, but still commands his class with an incredibly deft touch that's half drill sergeant, half kindergarten teacher. And, you don't get to choose which one you get. Your target does.

Smith's adult life began when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967, knowingly bound for Vietnam. His career as a firearms instructor began shortly after in 1968 when he was assigned to the USMC Combined Action Program, whose mission was to reinforce and train the Vietnamese.

Vietnam 1969 serving in USMC CAP unit 2-4-3.

Vietnam 1969 serving in USMC CAP unit 2-4-3.

How did you get started in the firearm instruction business?

Clint Smith: I really began teaching when I was in Vietnam in '68. I was in USMC CAP Unit 2-4-3, a combined action platoon. The job there was to teach the Vietnamese how to use their weapons and tactics so I actually started teaching with the limited knowledge I had at that time as an 18-year-old Marine. I had gone to Vietnamese language school, but they only taught you proper things such as “where is the bathroom” when what they really need to teach was “load the damn machine gun and shoot there!” So when I was there I had to learn how to teach with some language barriers at first.

You did a couple of tours in Vietnam? We heard you were shot?

CS: I was shot in March of 1969. I had about 20 days left of a 13-month tour. We were setting up an ambush and we got in a lit bit of a bind. So we called in “Puffs,” what you know these days as Spectre Gunships. They were firing for us and we had some people in a bad spot so we turned the guns on and everybody was trading rounds back and forth. The problem was that our position wasn't very good. We were kind of in the middle, so we were getting fire from two different directions. I got hit in the right shoulder. What I remember most was the feeling like getting hit by a heavy boxing glove with a hot knife stab to follow. My right hand and arm didn't work. It wasn't because something was destroyed; it was more from the impact, like getting punched really hard. I remember the corpsman came over and tried to give me morphine and I was like, “No, man.” It was like 11:30 at night, so we had a long time to go before the sun would come up. And, of course, in that world, the sun coming up changed the whole dynamic of the fight. In the dark a lot of people could hide and do different things, but in the light it's really hard to hide from a helicopter.

When were you presented a Purple Heart?

CS: I didn't get the letter from the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the appropriate paperwork for the Purple Heart until 2002. When I got it I got a whole bunch of other stuff I didn't know about. I got a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, a Vietnamese Civic Action award, a Marine unit commendation… I can't remember it all, but I went from “I got a couple ribbons,” to “Holy Shit. I look like I'm a Nicaraguan General.”

I am and will always be grateful for everyone who helped me. After being initially treated on USS Hope, I was transferred to a naval hospital in Iwakuni, Japan. I was the only one in my 60-bed ward that had all their limbs. It's why I have never once told my students details of this. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was very lucky.

Smith is presented with the Purple Heart from USMC General Lew Walt. While he was presented the medal, the paperwork wouldn't catch up to Smith for decades.

Smith is presented with the Purple Heart from USMC General Lew Walt. While he was presented the medal, the paperwork wouldn't catch up to Smith for decades.

What did you take away from your first teaching experience, aside from the Purple Heart?

CS: There was a very steep learning curve there for my students. We had to teach them and then go out that night and use the skills I had just taught. The same desire to teach these skills exists today. I feel the same way today and I tell my students that I have no guarantee they will not be in a fight after class is over. I take it very seriously.

When did you realize you were going to make a living out of teaching people how to shoot?

CS: I came back and I was a cop from 1973 to 1980 in the Allen County, Indiana, Sheriff's Department. From '74 to '80 I did firearms training and worked on SWAT. So, that's when I really started teaching. I also realized I needed more skills. After attending several schools, I had a chance to go to Gunsite. In '78 I went for the first time and that's when I met Mr. Cooper. I went a couple times and took [Gunsite class numbers] 250 and 499. In '79 he asked me to be an adjunct instructor, so I did. And, in '80 he asked me to be full-time, so I became the operations officer for about three years. This was an awesome experience for because it allowed me to teach a lot of different people with many different skill levels from all walks of life.

What was it like at Gunsite back then?

CS: I was at Gunsite when they brought Louis Awerbuck there. He was brought in on a green card kinda thing from South Africa. I knew him well, taught with him. That was cool. There weren't a lot of people doing this kinda thing back then. It was still pretty new and Mr. Cooper was the catalyst for a lot of the firearms training schools we have today. I think Mr. Cooper documented pistol craft and was the smart guy who put it in to a format that we could teach.

Was this about the time you came up with the urban rifle concept?

CS: No. I did SWAT for a lot of years in the '70s and that's where I started developing some urban concepts. I started the urban rifle thing in early '84, after I left Gunsite. The format was very simple; how to teach people to fight with a rifle inside what we'd normally consider pistol range. So, I laid the foundation for that. Some people say I did for rifles what Mr. Cooper did for pistols. I don't buy into that. What I was worried about was if we could really teach people stuff.

Smith with his Allen County, Indiana, Sheriff's Department SWAT teammates in the '70s.

Smith with his Allen County, Indiana, Sheriff's Department SWAT teammates in the '70s.

So, what'd you do after Gunsite?

CS: In 1983 I started my own business, International Training Consultants. My teaching continued and I was honored to be able to start the training division for Heckler & Koch America in '86. Before and after this I spent 10 years on the road teaching all over the country to students from all different occupations and skills levels.

Heidi and Clint Smith, the founders of Thunder Ranch.

How did you start Thunder Ranch?

CS: There was a transition period in the '90s when my friend, Mr. George Matthews, tried to buy Gunsite. But when Mr. Cooper found out that I was going to be the operations guy, he said no because I guess he was still grumpy that I'd left, and this was a decade later. He decided to sell the school to Richard Gee instead. Had they sold Gunsite to Mr. Matthews and me, there never would have been a Thunder Ranch, so it actually worked out cool.

When the deal fell through, Mr. Matthews asked me how long it'd take for me to design our own facility. I said about 20 minutes, because I'd been thinking about it the last 10 years. So, in 1993 with the help of Mr. George Matthews I was able to open Thunder Ranch Texas. We were there until November 2004 and then moved the business to Oregon where I have been teaching since.

It got weird between you and Jeff Cooper…did you guys ever work it out?

CS: Yes. Mr. Cooper came to the grand opening of Thunder Ranch Texas. He and I also taught a General Purpose Rifle Class together at Thunder Ranch in Texas. Heidi and I were also honored to take Mr. Cooper on his last hunt in Del Rio Texas for his first American Bison. A few months before he died we exchanged letters that will always be between he and I.

What is your take on the current crop of trainers?

CS: In the last 32 years I have seen a lot of people come and go. What you say about other people says more about you. The only thing I would do as a student in today's training world is try to find out who your instructor is for the class. Do they provide proof of credentials? A bio? Do they have insurance and do they ask for credentials from their students in order to participate in a class?

Do you approach open enrollment classes differently than MIL/L.E. classes?

CS: Loading the gun is loading the gun…there is no difference in a fight in your home in a hallway than behind a sand dune. It's all about understanding basic gun handling. But, there are subtle differences in some cases for my military students. For example, I teach military members that if you have shot the threat and have to move forward over them, I teach them to shoot the threat again as required. That is not what I teach to my civilian and L.E. students.

Clint Smith, left, and Jeff Cooper hunt American Bison.

Clint Smith, left, and Jeff Cooper hunt American Bison.

Is there such a thing as bad instruction?

CS: I think probably all training is good, but the key is to be smart enough as a student to understand what stuff is not applicable to you. The common thinking today is, you know, take the best tools from the instructors toolbox. Well, I don't need the student with a toolbox full of tools sorting through that shit in a fight. I need him to pick a wrench, pick a hammer, whatever, and go to work. So, a particular rifle or tactic may or may not be the perfect tool, but it's the tool you're fighting with.

What is the typical level of proficiency of your students when they come for the first time?

CS: Most people have shot a gun before coming to my classes, but most are still pretty green. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd say our novice shooters are level 1 to 3. Novices are usually the best students I have, especially women. They are thinking with their “big head” and not their small head. No macho crap. We like to have them at a skill level 4 to 5 when they leave.

Must you be a combat veteran to teach tactics?

CS: In the day, Mr. Cooper required that his instructors had been shot at, shot or shot back; or, in other words “seen the elephant.”

The way I feel about it that I would not want a knee surgeon working on my brain. I feel that training and certain life experiences can contribute to making a better teacher, but it's not required. That said, I would look for someone who can communicate information to our students. In other words I want a teacher, not an instructor and there is a difference. My wife of 18 years has been teaching firearms and tactics for 25 years. She is a Tactical Emergency Medical Support medic for our local sheriff's office. Has she had the requirements that Mr. Cooper required? No. But she is a teacher at heart with decades of firearms and tactics training. That is what I am looking for as far as my staff.

What's your take on backup iron sights?

CS: In my world I can't count on a scope working so I need to have a set of iron sights because in this apocalyptic zombie thing that everyone's into, in the end, iron sights will rule the planet. We're basically going to go from where we are to the 17th century. All this computerized shit will take a dump. Now, will that happen? I didn't say that. I've had people tell me, “Well you're paranoid,” and I say, Well, OK. I think you're stupid.” Here's the drill, I have a spare tire in my car and I haven't used it for a long time, but I still have it. Does that make me paranoid or prepared? I carry two, or three, or four, or five, or six spare magazines for a pistol, does that make me paranoid or prepared?

Clint Smith, 2015

If you could only have one firearm for the rest of your life, which would it be?

CS: I'd probably just take a bolt gun. Anything in .308 would be fine. I'm not in any hurry to shoot. As I get older, I'd rather shoot well. I tell people, “Don't shoot faster, shoot better.” We're kinda in an automated, machine gun, fill-the-sky-full-of-lead time, but there's nothing more frightening in a fight than having some guy who hits you with a single round. Some guy who looks through glass or irons and fires one round that hits you? That's some scary shit. That's a guy who's like, “I got you and you're mine.”

Got any suggestions for a first rifle?

CS: Remington 700 LTR in 308 Winchester. I'm telling you right now, though, the magazine inside sucks. I'd put the best bases and rings on I could get, like Badger or Seekins. And then I'd put the best scope on it you could afford, say a Leupold M5, 4-14 with a mil or even a TMR reticle. What I'd do is shoot that until I got pretty good at it. If I wanted an upgrade, I would have George Gardner put Badger bottom metal on it so I could use AI magazines and that would eliminate the internal magazine problem on the LTR. That would be a really good starter rifle. There's a lot of .308 parts out there, too.

What is it like watching the next generation learning gun-fighting?

CS: I'm not a fan of discussion forums and blog input from @ssholes who have no idea what they are talking about who often put people in danger without even signing their proper name. I think logic should be applied by the new shooter.

Smith's office at Thunder Ranch. When your man cave is your office, you've arrived.

Smith's office at Thunder Ranch. When your man cave is your office, you've arrived. Photo: Rob Curtis

Got a nickname?

CS: “Smoke” or “Smokey.” I was named after my dad's best friend Clinton Aaron Serby…His nickname was Smoke. He was the top gunner in a B-24 along side my dad who was a nose gunner in another plane. Smoke and his crew were killed over Iwo Jima October 1, 1944.

What did you think of Glock pistols the first time you saw them?

Skull's abound on Smith's 2010 Dodge Challenger SRT8 in PCP (Plumb Crazy Color) with a 6.1L Hemi and an E-Force Edelbrock Supercharger.

Skull's abound on Smith's 2010 Dodge Challenger SRT8 in PCP (Plumb Crazy Color) with a 6.1L Hemi and an E-Force Edelbrock Supercharger. Photo: Rob Curtis

CS: I was working for HK when the first Glock came into the U.S. My boss came down and told me to go shoot it and give him my thoughts. I have and have always been into steel guns. This was plastic. I shot it. I took it back up and told them that I was not impressed. Shows you how little I knew at the time. Mr. Gaston Glock is flying around the world in a jet and I am driving a Ford pickup.

Are law enforcement officers taken for granted in our communities?

CS: Absolutely. How you would feel if you were asked to work a 10-hour shift and then be on call for 14 hours at $2 dollars per hour…how many people do you know who would show up to a hostage situation for $2 per hour?

How can people help the officers in their communities?

CS: Here is the way to look at it…I want you to write a check for what it would be worth to you to have an officer come in and find a bad guy in your home at 3 a.m. to save yourself and your family. Give your local law enforcement officers what they need, from training to gear to a raise and good health insurance.

Clint Smith's Everyday Carry

Pistol: Jason Burton Colt Series 70 1911 with ivory grips. “I like the a small ambi safety because it doesn't get caught up like the big competition safeties.”

Magazines: Wilson Combat. “I only load them to seven because John Browning would have made 8-round mags if he wanted 9 rounds in his gun.”

Holster: Milt Sparks Summer Special: “This one's for inside. For outside I use an Erik Little.”

Rounds: Corbon DPX 200-grain. “They're like flying ashtrays.”

Light: Olight S10. “It's got a cool magnet on the tail. It comes in handy.”

Knife: Benchmade Infidel. “It was a gift from Johnny Noveske.”

April 2020 Update: Check out Clint's newly released signature Rifle Dynamics Thunder Ranch AK.

Recoil would like to pay tribute to Mark Edward Boone, 54, who took his own life on August 29, 2015. He was a Lakeview Town Police officer and a member of the Thunder Ranch family. He was a firearms instructor for the police department and an assistant instructor at Thunder Ranch. He will be missed. Donations in Boone's memory can be made to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund by visiting


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One response to “Zeroed In: Clint Smith – Meet One of the Godfathers of Tactical Training”

  1. j taylor says:

    If clint was wounded ‘Nam in 1969 there were only two navy hospital ships the Repose and the Sanctuary There was no ship off RVN called Hope Look on wikipedia and you will find the USS Hope was sold by navy before 1965. Anybody who was a patient on either ship should remember their names I was on both in 1968 and 1969. Shook hands with Rev.Billy Graham when he was on board Sanctuary with Commandant Walt and they popped into our ward That was a memorable day

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