I was enjoying my vacation in Sardinia, Italy, when an old friend texted me. Dennis asked if I wanted to go out to the range with him and his guys, a group of counter-piracy contractors, in a few weeks. The range was about three hours south of Milan in Castel Del Rio, the site of a major battle between the US Army and the Nazis during World War Two. As I came to find out, you can still find belts of MG-3 machine gun ammo and Thompson sub-machine gun magazines by scouring the countryside. Of course I was down for it, busting some caps sounded like the perfect way to wrap up vacation.
When I met up with Dennis, he was on the phone as usual, talking business. EMT course certifications, weapons certifications, and every other thing you can imagine. Since I met him years prior, Dennis has been hard at work getting his group of private security contractors, called the Orion Group, off the ground. They have achieved some great successes and are one of the few groups of Italians who had conducted counter-piracy missions, standing guard in merchant vessels going through the Gulf of Aden.
In reality, it is very rare for these ships to come under attack, but it did happen to Dennis on one of his trips. He told me the old Ukrainian ship captain grabbed a rifle and was ready to shoot himself a pirate. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. Today, piracy is way down off the coast of Somalia. Nigeria uses their own people for security against the Niger Delta Avengers, with just a few Westerners there in a unarmed supervisory role. With that said, business is down and Dennis is looking for other security contracts.
We arrived at Castel del Rio late at night and I met up with rest of the contractors at a local bar before driving up the range. This place is out in the middle of nowhere, on a 140 acre plot of land called Dark Horse Ranch. In the past, the property had been used as a milk and cheese factory, now partially converted into space for classrooms and barracks. There was even a fireplace for our BBQ the next night.
I didn’t fully grasp the size of scope of the range until Dennis took me for a tour during the day. Dark Horse Ranch is a very, very unique training facility. Several open areas serve as flat ranges, others can be used to shoot and maneuver on. Because it used to be a factory, there are large oblong buildings with overhead cover. One has already been converted into a sort of open air range with a rooftop, the others will be in the future.
The property has other unique training opportunities because there are a number of abandoned buildings as well, including a massive villa straight out of a WWII movie. With tables, chairs, and other furnishings still present, and the villa itself tucked into the pocket of a valley surrounded by trees; it looks like the type of place that a mafia don would use to hide from the authorities. Dennis has plans to acquire realistic airsoft rifles so that students can practice room clearing and even do force on force training. Nearby, is also an abandoned chapel and a two more buildings that were for groundskeepers.
Other abandoned buildings on the property allow snipers to shoot targets inside windows from their hide sites on high ridge lines from 400-800 meters away. With some forethought, there is no reason why ranges cannot be established for high angle shooting or much more long range engagements. It was all very exciting to see. Both Dennis and his partner Matteo know they have something special here.
After a light breakfast, the ten or so of us walked out to the range. The guys were kitted out with the latest weapons optics, Crye Precision helmets, plate carriers, and all the bells and whistles. I held my breath for a moment. Were these the type of guys who are obsessed with guns and cool gear, or are they serious? Conducting real combat training is a totally different animal than civilians learning on the flat range these days. Flat range drills are about speed and accuracy. Soldiers should be so lucky, they have to contend with terrain, cover, concealment, working together as a team, knowing where those teammates are, communicating with them, making difficult shots and awkward firing positions, and a dozen other elements that constitute a real, no bullshit, firefight.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the Orion Group begin to shoot, move, and communicate. They had been working on small unit tactics for a while and it showed. Dennis, a former Italian Marine, had been mentoring them while Matteo, an expert marksman, had sharpened their weapons handling. These guys were legit, and without having to worry that they knew the basics, I moved them on to some fairly advanced maneuver drills which included live fire. Although the tactics I was teaching were new to them, they grasped the concept immediately.
At the end of the first day, Dennis asked me what I wanted to do now since I was the guest instructor and I should have some fun too. Well, I had noticed that the guns and gear had already gotten a lot cooler since I left the Army six years ago. I wanted to shoot Dennis’ Glock 17 which sported a holographic reflex site. After shooting steel targets for a bit, we moved on to shooting three cardboard e-type targets. The drill was to place one bullet in each target, then do the same heading back to the first target you engaged for a total of six rounds. I started off with the “trusty” Beretta M9 that I so despised in the Army.
My time was pretty dismal, around nine seconds. I can’t entirely blame the pistol though as I don’t get much range time these days. That is was one of the things I truly miss out on because I live in New York City. Then I shot with Dennis’ pistol and immediately cut my time in half. The math doesn’t lie. I had heard that JSOC operators had been using reflex sights on their pistols for years and now I can see why.
We finished the day by trying to shoot our pistols long range. All of us managed to hit the 100m target, a few hit the 200m target, but only Dennis nailed the 300m target and did it on his first attempt! He told me afterwards that he aimed about five feet above the actual steel target.
Now it was time to eat and the guys (much like my buddies in Switzerland) do not mess around with food. They cooked pork ribs, eggplant, sausage, and also had tuna in mayonnaise sauce. Afterwards, I was so tired and full that I passed out almost immediately.
The following morning we woke up and I continued to take the guys through their paces on the range, teaching them how to maneuver in a live fire environment in which they had to negotiate terrain. As security contractors, it is important for them to learn specific drills for their job but also to have a strong understanding of basic drills. From there, they can grow and adapt as individuals, changing the tactics to fit whichever specific situation they find themselves in.
By afternoon, we walked down to the empty villa and began doing (dry fire) room clearing. Suffice to say that the villa was way too big to effectively clear with a 8-man element in a real world setting, but the building was full of great training opportunities with winding staircases, large corridors, multiple connecting rooms, attics, and a massive open dining room. To switch things up, we then moved into the groundskeeper’s house to get the guys clearing rooms that they had not seen before.
Finally, we went back to the range and Dennis set up the final exam that he puts his guys through before sending them on maritime contracts. While taking place on a flat range, Dennis made the drill fairly dynamic and realistic by using the assets that he had available. Various types of cover were put out on the flat range that the shooters had to bound between and engage steel targets at 100-300 meter ranges. The targets were numbered and Dennis would call them out on the radio. What I liked about this drill was that you were behind cover, there was foreground (steel beams that hold up the overhead cover), and then targets and multiple ranges spread out laterally across the range. This forces the shooter to think about every shot and move his body position around to engage targets at different locations.
The next element Dennis worked in was having one shooter run up to the second floor of one of the factories and shoot the targets from an open window. This was to simulate a maritime contractor crawling up into the superstructure of a ship to get a better vantage point against incoming pirates. Finally, the last element added was having two guys go inside another building and engage targets from open doors and windows, another realistic setting. In the end, the entire team was firing at the targets from the ground, from indoors, and from an elevated position. It was a hell of a good time!
After two days in the boy’s secret tree fort at Castel del Rio, I was sorry to have to go. The Orion Group guys were wired tight and I think they will continue to make great strides, especially with such an outstanding training facility, one that I’m sure Dennis and Matteo will only improve over the coming months and years.
Until next time guys!