Firearms course in Croatia

In the beginning

One of the great things about Ishin Ryu, is the people you meet, not only within your own club and dojo, but at events such as our Annual Shochu Geiko (Summer Camp) as well as at Martial Arts Seminars, etc.

As Martial Artists, we take the terminology to the full meaning of the words. Martial derives from Mars, the God of War, so the term Martial Artist literally can be translated as the Art of War.

In times past, Martial Artists trained with the weapons of their generation, whether it was the bo, or the bow, learning to use the ‘artillery’ of their age was always important, both as a weapon, as well as in defence, and therefore we embrace this ethos, utilising the skills of the ‘Art of War’ to our advantage.

Because of the regard in which Soke Kevin Pell is held, both in the UK and around the world, we are able to meet, through him, some interesting people, as well as be invited to join them and partake in a range of unusual activities. 

Being invited to join Soke Kevin Pell and a group of the ‘chosen few’ (later affectionately termed ‘Soke’s elite’) was both a privilege and an honour: a privilege as there were only a few spaces available (5); and an honour as we would be spending a week training, and being trained by people we both respect and admire for their abilities, their knowledge, and their experience. The opportunity to train with those who had fought in a war, and therefore could instruct from firsthand knowledge, as well as being current members of Special Forces in their country, meant this was a lifetime opportunity not to be missed.

Many of us have always wanted to train to shoot a real handgun with live ammo, but more importantly, we also wanted to learn how to use a handgun ‘properly’. Too many You-Tube clips show ‘alleged professionals’ shooting themselves in the foot or other extremities. So here was an opportunity to learn from those who do this every day (use guns that is, not shoot themselves in the foot!).

For some of us, this was our first time away with the club. Having heard stories of previous club trips, where sleeping under trees in shelters made from leaves and catching your own lunch de-rigueur was the norm, the un-initiated packed plenty of clean underwear (the kind insects could not climb up, you know what I mean) and warm clothing. If the weather in England was anything to go by, the fleece lined trousers and jumpers we packed would come in handy! Of course those, who bothered to check the weather forecast, took T-Shirts and Lighter trousers, but that’s just showing off!

The trip could not come too soon, and Friday Morning I was knocking on Sempai Ruth’s door, neither bright-eyed, nor bushy-tailed, but definitely on time. Turns out I was early and had disturbed the little sleep everyone else was trying to snatch. Note to self, do not awake people who shortly will be carrying handguns in your vicinity!

The weather in the UK was wet and dreary – if this was anything like what we would be experiencing we would be glad we had packed our winter long-johns!

Arriving at the airport we fortified ourselves for the flight ahead using the age old principle of requesting, from a trained aficionado, for the correct flight anxiety relief liquid as was available over the counter. Translation: Ask a bar-tender for as much alcohol available over the bar. I took a different approach. You see, I have a super-power, the power of sleep, anytime, anyplace, anywhere (can be a little inconvenient when you happen to be standing up at the time) but useful when taking to the air with other nervous flyers who have imbibed enough alcohol to knock out a baby rhino (sadly, as there were no baby rhinos present, the effects were slightly different!).

So we spent a booze/sleep-filled journey, with those of us still awake providing entertainment for the flight (there was no in-flight movie so someone had to!) Poor Sempai Tom was both sober AND awake, so had to suffer my snoring and the joviality of the rest of the group!

Upon arrival, we were pleasantly surprised due to the weather being positively balmy! (There goes half our luggage as no more than dead weight! But all was not lost, as sleeping rough they could still come in handy… right???)

We were met at the airport by our training instructors, who were the nicest people you could meet. They looked so gentle with their big smiles, and then you shook their hand. When the blood returned to your fingers, you realised you had to do the same over again with the next one.

So, it was bags in the people carrier and ready to head to the furthest corner of the country, into some dingy shack in the mountains. Gear at the ready and tally-ho! Except… we were taken to a beautiful chalet with a delightful restaurant with its own vineyard.  Now here is where the true suffering began… a three course meal with the local wine, pink champagne and beer flowing freely, and great conversation… Terrible right?!! As a pesco-vegetarian (they had been warned beforehand it turns out) they had made a mushroom soup, and my meal was a delicious fish. For some reason, those enjoying the local fare were staring at my plate, no idea why. Throughout we were waiting for the catch, was this just to lull us into a false sense of security? Then masked men would come in, throw sacks over our head and drive us into a wooded glen… still, while it lasts, sigh.

Full, tired, and feeling like we had arrived in heaven we crawled into our beds looking forward to more of the same…

Next morning! Breakfast, all you can eat (so we did, and glad for it later), followed by a drive to our first day’s training.

On the First Day

Sempai Ruth woke up with a raging flu. Naturally we were all sympathetic and so avoided her like the plague (although some of us kinder folk kept her supplied with paracetamol!)  We were driven to the training ground, an old paratrooper training camp, complete with the kind of rusted equipment which would make you think twice about spending the night in the area for the squeaks and groans emitted. There was no electricity (any cables had already been stripped by others for profit and the power had been cut by the Central Ministry as someone had been electrocuted while stealing said cables!) Empty buildings in a state of disrepair, open ground all around with rusting equipment. This was more like it!

So first things first, we were given a lecture on safety. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and they were adamant we would have as much knowledge, as possible, to keep us safe. We were given our (unloaded) pistols and taught to strip them, and assemble them, again, and again, and again, and again and…

This was to be the theme of the training throughout, repetition, repetition, repetition. No different to any other training we do, as the point in all of these things is muscle memory. By the end we were able to assemble our weapon without looking at them. Each session commenced with us performing the task on our own and then as a drill with the instructor calling out the series of steps, 1, 2, 3.

The flu was making it difficult for Sempai Ruth to concentrate on the task at hand, so Soke Kevin Pell decided a pep talk was in order. If you have never had one of Soke’s booster talks you have not lived! Taking her to one side, he placed a fatherly arm around her shoulders and said “quite frankly, if you cannot get this right, you can forget about the rest of the day, and you will not be progressing into the rest of the week!”  Warm words indeed, which had the desired affect! She went around the back of the building, had a puke, took a couple more painkillers and knuckled down!

Then, how to check your weapon is cleared, once again repetition, repetition, repetition, but firstly plasters and tape for our fingers, and it soon became apparent why!  Twenty minutes later our fingers were bloody, and our thumbs’ skin worn to the bone.  “Sorry, just wrap more tape” and repetition, repetition, repetition!  Yesterday’s 3 course meal quickly forgotten as now it was down to work, and work we did, remove magazine, check grip, rack gun, again check ejection port empty, finger in grip (check you have not returned mag absentmindedly) point gun at target, pull trigger. Over and over and over and over again. Check, check, check.  Once again, the aim being to ensure that the basics are a habit before moving to the next steps.

By the time we stopped for something to eat, our hands were painfully stiff, but we all had huge grins on our faces! This is why we came – to learn how to do things properly, not just sit on a range and take pot-shots at targets, but to learn from those who had been there before – true Sensei in every meaning of the word, and us grateful for their knowledge. The instructors were impressed with our resolve, pointing out that many soldiers they had trained had baulked when their hands started to hurt and bleed, wanting to quit until they were healed. They were particularly impressed with Sempai Ruth’s resolve not to give up in spite of having to go behind the buildings a couple of time to chuck, but she was resolute that there was nothing on this earth which would stop her being part of the course from beginning to the bitter end!

The evening session took us into drills in stance. No longer is the Weaver Stance (side-on view) used, now the isosceles stance is de-rigour, and so we had to relearn how to stand. By the end our knees felt like they had been reformed! We practised turning into the stance from left, right, and full about turn. Incorporated into this was the ethos of breathing, in-out, at the right points – deep in, slowly out.  Holding our guns at our hip, to point them at the target in a two handed grip, holding the butt firmly, and thumb over thumb, until it became habit.

Once the sun went down and we could no longer see, we began our travels back to base.  We had been invited back to the home of one of our instructors where we were entertained by the excellent cooking of his wife. Once again, it turns out, they do not do simple meals. We started with a most delicious clear soup with noodles.

I tucked in, and reached for a second helping, as I slurped away someone asked the host “This is delicious soup, what is it?”, he conversed with his wife in their native language and replied “Beef Soup”. My spoon froze halfway to my mouth at this point. You see, I am a vegetarian. It would have been rude to push the bowl away (remember note to self earlier about upsetting people with guns) so I simply shrugged my shoulders and continued until it was safe to push the bowl away… half finished (contrary to what anyone else there remembers).

Then for more home-made local cuisine. The main dish of Sarma, Pork balls wrapped in cabbage in a sauce (I did not partake – honestly – but heard it was delicious!) with both a French and a salsa salad (which I did eat), plates of meat, followed by a scrumptious assortment of homemade cakes, left us groaning. Her husband promised to bring the remaining cake to the training ground for us the next day, if we were good (AND he promised to bring her to England the next time he came, so she could cook for us – I heard him so it must be true!).

We once again rolled back to our chalets and prepared to sleep – the sleep of the just! Well, that applied to those who got their head down first and started the cacophony of snoring, being Darren, Sam, and I. Poor Sempai Tom (not a very good snorer, more of a whistle/whimper) could not compete with our practiced grating, grunting, and groaning (you know you snore badly when your own snores can make you wake up).

I have it on good authority that Soke is NOT a snorer (brown nose, my work is done) and as he had a room to himself he did not suffer our snorts and groans, and as for Sempai Ruth? Well she did want to be ‘with the boys’ but we heard she would have out-snored us all, and so, not wishing to be embarrassed into second place we also made sure she had her own room!

On the Second Day

A new day dawned early and soon we were back training, with a special treat, putting what we had learned into practise!!

While the rest of us lay in our pits, Sempai Tom (with his hellish Ishin Ryu Black Belt grading looming) went for a run and fitness training session. Seeing as we were at the top of a VERY steep hill (you know a hill is steep when the vehicle has to go up in first gear and groans from the effort) this meant falling down (you really cannot run down this hill) and running back up! It was an impressive feat as I attempted it later in the week and had to stop at the first bend (note, walking actually hurt as much as running up it so alternated between running and walking.)

We travelled to a live shooting range, and were led through the steps we had learned the previous day, starting with stripping and re-assembling our weapons, and then going through the stances. Once they were satisfied that we were performing confidently (and had remembered our drills) we were given our live ammo and, in pairs with the instructors standing behind us, put through the drill stances, but this time with the added thrill of taking live shots at the target. Take Position (Breathe In).  Point gun with arms extended (Breathe Out).  Fire! Finger out, check weapon, return to normal stance, perform drill again!

We were put through different drills from single to multiple shots, slow shots to multiple fast (the first one is always slow), aimed shots (looking down the sight) to bringing the gun to bear (pushing weapons arms out as though pointing at the opponent).  At the end of the session we had achieved new monikers:

Dead-Eye Darren

Rootin-Tootin Ruth

Target-Shredding Tom

Gun-Slinging Sam

Kill-Em Kevin

Pistol-Packin Pat (although I felt ‘Poor-Shot Patrick’ was more apt!!)

It was exhilarating, being able to put into practise what we had learned the day before, letting our minds flow with the movement so that the weapon  became an extension of our bodies. It became quite a natural flow and rhythm and we were all sad to have to end the session and return to the training ground to continue our non-live ammo training, but it helped us to appreciate the power and feel of the loaded weapon, which training without it could not provide.

More tape for our battered fingers and more drills, repeating again what we had learned the day before (always starting with a gun check, strip and reassemble), then moving on to new moves and combinations with the drawn weapon. As with learning any martial arts skill, the lessons from day one were building blocks for day two, blocks upon blocks. Our Martial Arts discipline holding us in good stead and we were quickly able to move unto the next phase of our learning.

As well as the weapons training which we were undergoing, a specialist K9 team were working their dogs through search and rescue training in another part of the training grounds. Showing us the skills of one of the dogs, the handler had the dog sniff one of the rucksacks and then search us, until it found the owner and stood in front of her barking. The cuts from Sempai Ruth’s hand the previous day had left trace amounts of blood which the dog was able to detect and pinpoint her! It was impressive!

But no time for frivolities! Back to work on stance and movement. The Instructors calling out to us in a series of steps, getting shorter each time so we had to remember larger parts of the sequence until we were performing the whole in one command. To say we were sweating and tired from the concentration would be an understatement. However, to say we were having the time of our lives would be the understatement of the century!

The smiles were so big we did not need the light to see, but alas, the day had to end when the sun went down. Returning to our chalet for a wash and change of clothes we were back in the restaurant for a well deserved rest and relaxation over a pint and some wine and good food. Once again there were envious stares at my meal of a cauliflower soup starter with roasted vegetables and mushrooms in breadcrumbs for my main. There were even comments that I was getting preferential treatment, to which I deny all charges!

The day did not end there, as the instructors had one further treat for the night, the cleaning of the weapons! We sat around the table, stripped our pistols and cleaned and oiled them, removing the residue from the shooting earlier in the day.

The treat continued when they showed us some of the other weapons they owned, from shotguns (including a FRANCHI /SPAS-12 as it is otherwise known) as well as WWII, and modern sniper rifles.

Then to bed with snores aplenty (as well as the pre-requisite whimper from Sempai Tom, bless!)

And on the third day (we rose again…!!)

Another early start (we were packing four weeks basic training into a few days, so no rest for the wicked) with Sempai Tom, running down and up the hill (turns out he also ran into the village as well before running back up the hill).  Then back to the training grounds again for more drills, combining the movements. Everyone was buzzing to learn more from these wonderful instructors – watching them demonstrate was poetry in motion as they displayed what they wanted us to perform in each drill sequence.

Now we incorporated the turning with drawing the weapon from the holster, as well as having the weapon already drawn, moving on to running and stopping. The weapon position while running is very important, including the ability to stop in a manner providing the best position to allow you to balance the weapon when potentially taking a shot or just sighting on the opponent. Now we included mag changes into the combination, as well as going from guard (standing) to knee, and moving left & right. And now for stress tests, Physical exercise and then on your feet, commands to Run, Target! (Down!)  Knee! Change Mag!  Guard! Change Mag etc…

We then practised multiple targets and multiple colleagues, being conscious of where our colleagues were in relation to the target, so we did not shoot them if they were moving into the line of fire. Moving left to right, forwards and turning to targets. This was then combined with being pushed or pulled/grabbed, to simulate the effect of a crowd and being pushed/pulled by civilians in the ensuing melee.

This was followed by tests against each other, facing an opponent, and having to do the same thing as called out by the instructor. Target! (Down!) Knee! Guard! Change Mag (drop to knee again). Pitting you against someone else gave the training a whole new dimension, and bought out the competitive side in all of us, wanting to complete the movement first (especially changing the mag!).

The key to all this was to be able to do this without having to look directly at the weapon, keeping your sight on the target at all times during the exchange, using your hands to automatically be in the correct place to perform the necessary interchange between magazines on your belt and the one in the grip. It was an exciting challenge which due to the practise and drills, we were able to pull off!

A short lunch break and then back into more drills, repeating everything from the two earlier days, checking at the start of each session the weapon’s safety (the key is to always treat your weapon as if it is loaded, and therefore with respect) taking out the magazine, checking the grip is empty, racking the gun to ensure there is not a round in the chamber, checking that the chamber is empty visually, and then pulling the trigger at the target (safe) area.

And on the Fourth Day

Soke Kevin Pell woke up with a big grin on his face (do not ask how I know, but I move very quietly for such a big guy…), which is always worrying for the rest of us, “what has he planned for us today?” “Walking a tightrope single file while carrying your gun, or doing an assault course?” but in this instance his grin was due to him having arranged a day of live ammo shooting!

We would be incorporating all of our training moves at a shooting field, as well as using some of the weapons we had been shown by the instructors from their ‘Personal’ equipment!

Excitedly, we picked up the targets from the training ground and proceeded to the field where we would be shooting, setting up the targets and weapons and going through our drills (safety checks etc).

Once again, in groups of two so that each person could be watched by an instructor for that all important 1:1 coaching, we went first through the basic point and shoot principles we did on day 2, then moved on to more complex draw and shoot, multiple shots, mag changes and shoot, left and right turning as well as 180 degrees left and right. Now we were putting into practice all of the skills we had learned, using our muscle memory to automatically check the weapon between each sequence of shots, changing the magazine without looking at the weapon etc.

When the fun with pistols came to an end, we moved on to using the shotgun and the rifles, as you do!!  The Franchi making sizeable holes in the targets, made it a joy to use, especially when Sam shot an upturned 2lt water bottle twice in succession, the first shot making it spin in the air, and the second shot taking it while on the move. Impressive!

Now that the boards were full of shot, balloons were tied to them, and we moved further up the field to make use of the rifles and sniper rifle.

Set both in the prone and standing positions, using a world war II weapon as well as a more modern rifle, it was interesting in the difference in their feel, but in all cases were very satisfying, especially when one of the balloons you were aiming at popped (not so satisfying when you realise it was your friend on the sniper rifle who had fire the shot JUST before you fired yours!)

All too soon the sun went down and we had to return to our chalets to… yes… clean the weapons! The joy of cleaning had not worn off, and so we set to it with gusto!  Once cleaned, some went back to the chalet to dream of guns, while the rest stayed up with bottles of beer and talked late into the night.

And on the fifth Day, we rested

If we had only gone to the country and trained with the weapons we would have been happy, but we also got to see something of the country as well, and this was especially exciting because of its history. We were privileged to be taken to one of their National Parks (the second most beautiful in Europe may I add – another hardship we had to endure!!) where the conflict in the region had begun. One of the instructors had not been back since the war, and therefore we were honoured that he would return with us to this place which held such difficult memories.

We were first taken to a museum of the war, where we saw buildings which had been shelled during the conflict, as well as some of the vehicles used to defend their country. Many were museum pieces forced back into service as they had very little weaponry of their own at the start of the conflict. Others were agricultural equipment, retrofitted with armour to make them personnel carriers. The ingenuity of the welders evident in the strength and design changes made. Then, on to the National Park.

It was a most beautiful location, which due to the time of year, was not overrun with tourists, and so we were able to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the lakes and mountains surrounding us. Although we did not see any bears (it is purported that there are as many bears as people living in the county of the national park) we did see lakes teeming with trout, waterfalls, and beautiful caves.

Eating lunch in the National Park, we stayed until the sun went down and returned to our chalets to wash up for the evening and prepare to return home, heavy-hearted that a good time had to end, and we would return forever changed by the people we had met and their stories.

Journey Back


The next morning, bright and early, we were driven to the airport where we met more of those who train under our instructors for the four days (you could tell by the handshakes!).  It was sad to say goodbye (both to them, the country, and the appeal of continuing our training) but all good things must come to an end…

On the plane, the flight anxiety relief liquid flowed liberally (thank you BA) and we settled in for our journey back to Blighty, greeted by the cold and rain as expected.

We would like to thank our Croatian Ju-Jitsu family for their hospitality, their training, and professionalism. We appreciate the time and effort they put into making our stay both interesting and informative.

We would also like to thank Soke Kevin Pell, without whom, this adventure of a lifetime, would not have been feasible. It is only through his commitment to forging relationships with those who share his ethos in Combat Training, that we civilians, are able to partake of the kind of training and expertise normally reserved to Special Forces personnel.