We recently sat down with Kris “Tanto” Paronto, author of The Ranger Way, co-author of 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi to discuss his experiences with the AR-15, the importance of training, having a winning mindset, and why he’s a firm believer in 300 Blackout…
Kris “Tanto” Paronto’s bio via his 14th Hour Foundation website:
“Kris “Tanto” Paronto is a former Army Ranger from 2nd Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment and private security contractor who has deployed throughout South America, Central America, the Middle East and North Africa. He also worked with the US Government’s Global Response Staff conducting low profile security in high threat environments throughout the world…Tanto was part of the CIA annex security team that responded to the terrorist attack on the US Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, September 11th, 2012, helping to save over 20 lives while fighting off terrorists from the CIA Annex for over 13 hours.
Q: Kris, thanks for sitting down with us. I’d like to start out with your unique background and how that helped shape who you are…
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – I started in the Army in 1995. I played football throughout my days growing up in high school and college. That’s how I paid for school actually, by having a football scholarship. That really gave me a base of physical fitness. My father was a football coach for Brigham Young, so I grew up around weight rooms and training. I grew up around players like Jim McMahon and Steve Young, guys like coach LaVell Edwards, who was just a tremendous leader and motivator…
My dad is a heck of a coach and heck of a leader too…or of course he wouldn’t have been there. This is back in the days when they were national champions. So, I grew up around them, and it was almost like the process of osmosis.
Kris “Tanto” Paronto on Positive Attitude
Unbeknownst to me, it gave me a great view of what working hard was…and what can happen if you work hard, even if you’re at a disadvantage. Just seeing these guys, I learned about pushing myself in the weight room, pushing myself in school, and about the importance developing a positive attitude…
Then being around someone like coach LaVell Edwards…they don’t make guys like that anymore. Seeing how he motivated his guys….he yelled at them when he needed to but he also knew how to mentor them.
Down the line, when I started to get into leadership roles, that exposure taught me how to be a good leader. I learned the importance of always pushing yourself…the never quitting, and never ever giving up.
Q: I imagine as a Ranger, you were around some great leaders there as well, correct?
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – That was definitely the case. When I got into the Army and into the Ranger regiment, just seeing these men push themselves to be leaders and push themselves to be the best that they could be…I was very, very lucky.
My first battalion commander was General Stanley McChrystal…he was a Lieutenant Colonel at the time. I’ve often thought how lucky I was to be around him to see how leaders act in the military…especially within the Special Operations community. I was able to learn and watch and be mentored by tremendous individuals.
Kris “Tanto” Paronto on Falling Down and Getting Back Up
Now, I did have some failures though. I got kicked out of the military the first time I was in because I did something stupid as I went through a bad point in my life where I went through my first divorce. I talk about it in my book The Ranger Way, so it’s out there…But from all that experience growing up…it pushed me to get back up and try again.
I went back to the military and back to Ranger element. I did it all over again…Basic Training and then back to Ranger Battalion…I served for a while, got my Ranger tab, was a team leader.
Kris “Tanto” Paronto on Keeping the Faith
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was really finding myself starting to drag. I would get sick for no reason. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on with myself. So, I fought through it for about two years. However, I actually had Ulcerative colitis…an inflammatory bowel disease.
I had just thought I was getting sick all the time. I figured I was pushing myself hard while just getting older…and my body was just starting to break down. Even through all that, I pushed through it and became an officer through the ROTC program.
After that, I went to 19th Special Forces Group, but there I had a major, major flare up with my colitis. It got very severe and I was hospitalized. I had to be fed with IVs because food would not stay in my body. As a result, I was medically discharged.
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – “I had no idea what I was going to do”
And again, it was a huge obstacle where I had no idea what I was going to do. I was planning on retiring from the military, going to Delta, or becoming a commander within the Ranger regiment, but instead I got this curve ball. And while this happened, I simply kept faith that things would work out. You just have to have that faith inside yourself.
And very soon, I was contacted by Blackwater Security and Triple Canopy…I had no idea who they were…this was around 2003. They asked me if I wanted to be a contractor in Iraq. I told them that I didn’t know how to build houses and didn’t know anything about being a contractor. (laughs).
Back then, nobody had any idea of what it meant to be a contractor…they said, “no, no, no…we want you to protect diplomats in Iraq. We have guys over there protecting Ambassador Paul Bremer, and we want you to join that crew.”
Kris “Tanto” Paronto on a Career in Contracting
I said yes and I picked Blackwater simply because they had called me first. If Triple Canopy had called me first, I would have picked them. But from then on for the next eleven years, I pretty much contracted…
I actually started with diplomatic security…with the State Department. People don’t know that. That’s why when Benghazi happened, I could speak eloquently about the security failures of the State Department because I worked with them for a year and half. There I became a detail leader and protected ambassadors…I did that and then I did other stuff.
Now, I can’t talk about all of it, but I did some anti-piracy work, I did some work in South America and then I did various protection stints in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kurdistan, Libya and some other countries within Central America. And then Benghazi happened.
Kris “Tanto” Paronto and the 13 Hours
If people don’t know the story….basically we had three Marines, Dave “Boon” Benton, Mark “Oz” Geist, and John “Tig” Tiegen. Then we had Tyrone “Rone” Woods, who passed away. He was a former Seal Team 6 guy, Jack Silva, who was SEAL Team 5, and then myself…we responded to to the attack on the U.S. consulate there. We were not State Department. We were C.I.A. contractors hired directly to the C.I.A….
Bottom line, we tried to get over there, but we were told not to go. We disobeyed orders within 30 minutes after we were contacted after the attack…and from there, it was just an uphill battle as we tried to regain control of the situation against Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. Ansar al-Sharia later became ISIS. They were really the precursor of ISIS.
We fought pretty much for 13 hours. We were not able to save the ambassador. Ambassador Stevens died that night. We were also not able to save the Department of State’s Information Technology employee, Sean Smith. He passed away that night as well.
During the five firefights, the last firefight that we had…it involved mortars, which Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda had. They had 81mm mortar tubes and they really hammered us.
With those mortars, they killed Tyrone and Glen “Bub” Doherty, which was another GRS contractor who had actually commandeered a private plane to get over to us from Tripoli. By his actions, he actually saved Oz and Dave Ubben. Because that mortar attack, even though it killed Bub and killed Tyrone, it severely injured Dave Ubben and Mark “Oz” Geist by severing their limbs. They almost bled out. If we didn’t have that executive jet that Bub had gotten, we would have lost two more people.
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – “I knew where the assets were”
Afterwards, we then came home to the quagmire of political ramifications of Benghazi…and that was because the prior administration tried to lie about it. That’s really it in a nutshell.
I wish I could say that they didn’t really know what was going on. I wish I could say they had no idea and they had no assets, but I’m going to tell you that’s false. It’s been proven false. I knew where all the assets were. I was calling the assets.
They had no idea that guys like ourselves were on the ground that night. So they really didn’t do their due diligence when they tried to spin their narrative, because we were there. We knew what happened because we were fully involved with the whole quagmire. So, that’s it.
Kris “Tanto” Paronto on the Next Chapter
Now, because of our actions…we were fired, so I had to find some other work (laughs). It was then that I started speaking. I think it was just watching my father speak, and growing up around leaders who could speak to crowds. I quickly found that I was very blessed to be able to get up in front of a crowd and not get stage fright and be able to tell the story, and so that’s what I’ve been doing.
I also started training with my own company called Battleline Tactical. The reason I went to that is because even when I was contracting as a GRS operator, I would always come back to Blackwater and I was one of their lead instructors.
Also I was in charge of their OGA training program, so unbeknownst to everybody else, I’d been an instructor for 13, 14 years within the State Department system and the C.I.A. system, just vetting guys that were going over to do the job that I was doing. I was also teaching their case officers how to handle weapons systems, just to give them some familiarization….I was also a CQB and tactical instructor. So, starting Battleline Tactical seemed like a logical fit, and it has really helped me to stay fresh and get back on the gun.
Q: We really try to push training on our readers to help make them more effective and well rounded. Can you speak to the importance of training? There’s that old saying: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – I wish I could say I invented that saying. I heard that from one of my guys at Ranger Battalion when I was a private. We were told “hey, when the crap hits the fan, you’re gonna not think. You’re going to shut down. You’re going to be overloaded. You’re going to revert to your highest level of training.”
That’s not to say your brain is not working…your brain is always working, always assessing. Once you start training, your brain assesses, and when it has to do something, it goes back to habitual movements that you’ve done over and over again. Your brain doesn’t shut down…it just goes back to the easiest movement that you’ve been able to do repetitively.
That’s why when you train, you’re doing things continually, and yes, it can become monotonous. It can become boring. I’m saying to myself that “gosh, I don’t want to clear this room anymore…I don’t want to do ready-ups anymore.”
But when you are overwhelmed with adrenaline, when your senses are overwhelmed because of threats, because of the stress levels…your brain is going to say “OK, what do we do? What do I know how to do habitually? What is the easiest movement…and also, what have I done so many times in this situation or that imagined myself doing in this situation?” So, when we talk about why you need to get out there and train and train… that’s why.
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – “Do it until it sucks…”
Also, because of the adrenaline, unless you’re trained and you know how to handle it, you will go back to whatever movement you can do efficiently. That’s what we talk about out and that’s what we get into. You just train, get out there…do it until it sucks…then back off, then come back and do it again, until you get efficient and proficient at it.
It’s not always physical either. You have to go through things in your head too. What do I mean by that? This is not paranoia, but when I go into a restaurant, I look around. I ask myself “Where’s my exits? If someone came in here with a gun, what would I do?” I do that every time I go to a restaurant, or when I go to Target, or every time I get in a car, or I am walking in a parking lot.
I’m just preparing myself…I’m actually starting to habitually think “what would you do in this situation? What do I have access to? Do I have a knife or a gun?” But once you do it over and over again…it becomes second nature.
Q: For the uninitiated, what is training like at Battleline Tactical?
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – There’s myself and I have another great Ranger, Ben Morgan of Morgan Timing Systems, he’s one of my main instructors. if people want to train with Boon, he’s out in Florida.
What do people find when they come train with us? First of all, people see that I am exactly like the guy they see in the movie (laughs).
That’s not Hollywood…I’m that guy (laughs). The guy who played me in the movie, Pablo Schreiber, is still a very good friend, and his personality is straight jackassery…like mine. I’m not a “machismo” guy. I’m not out there beating on my chest. I smile and I have fun. Boon is the same way…Ben is the same way.
We also don’t come out there and say “hey we know everything and this is the only way.” We say “this is a way that we’ve learned that works. Give it a shot and see if it works for you.”
It’s not a machismo thing, so we get a lot of people who have different levels of experience, from a Fort Worth S.W.A.T. officer that I had at my last course to a course in Kansas City where there was a 70-year old man who actually carried his pistol in his pocket. (laughs).
Kris “Tanto” Paronto on Having an Open Mind
But they all learn something. We just try to have an open mind and we ask them to have an open mind. They see that we’re not out there saying “we’re the best of the best and we know everything”….because we don’t. We don’t…at all. We know some stuff, and we’re going to teach you what we know.
To me, that’s a good learning environment for when we’re doing open enrollment courses. Now, if you’re doing a vetting course or doing an indoc, yes, you’re going to push it. Which I would. You’re going to get in their face because you want to get the stress levels up…because you’re looking to see if they’re going to quit. They’re going to be going overseas. So I did that…but certainly not for open enrollment. They’re paying to come learn, so I want to make sure to give them that learning environment.
Kris “Tanto” Paronto on Physicality in Training
I will say that when you come and you train with us at Battleline Tactical, what you will find is that there is a lot of physical stuff we get involved with. I always try to push people physically…to at least get their heart rates up, depending on the level of the course.
You’re not coming to a PT course, but you do need to have that heart rate up a little bit so we can figure out where you may be deficient. You can also figure out just how hard it is to shoot when you’ve got sweat in your eyes, your heart rate is going crazy, your shoulders are aching a little bit. You learn a bit about how you’re going to get that gun up and keep it steady and how you need to concentrate on the fundamentals of marksmanship when your body is a little bit fatigued and stressed.
All that said, the most important thing I want to reiterate is that we have a lot of fun. There’s a lot of smiles and a lot of laughter…When it’s time to get busy and do business…we do business. But in the meantime, we try to make it relaxed. We don’t want any egos on the range.
Q: Are there common mistakes you see while conducting your training classes?
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – The most common mistake is the rifle is not zeroed. We tell them before they come to class that the rifle should have some battle sight zero to it…preferably we want it 50 meters to 100 meters, but students will come to the class and the rifle is not zeroed. Sometimes they don’t know how to zero the thing…especially if they have an optic on there.
It just blows my mind because that is some basic stuff…I don’t know if people are just too proud to say they don’t know how to zero their gun, or maybe they just don’t know what a zero is. Perhaps pride gets in the way and they don’t want to admit that they may not know something. It doesn’t anger me and I don’t get mad at people, it’s just kind of disappointing because there’s no egos…there doesn’t need to be.
Kris “Tanto” Paronto on Knowing Offsets
When it comes to zeroing optics, as the optics change and as you get more and more optics coming out, you just have to be well versed in how to zero those things. Also people don’t know what the offsets are. People don’t know what an optical offset is, especially at close range where you have to aim a little bit higher because your optic is a little bit higher than your muzzle.
That is something that I don’t expect someone will always know. They can learn it here…but if you’re going to come to an AR course, make sure you come to the class with a zeroed weapon system. Otherwise, we could spend half a day getting your rifle zeroed, when we could be doing other, fun stuff on the range.
Q: Can you talk briefly about your background with the AR? Would you have started with the M16A2?
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – I went into the military in 1995 and my first rifle was the Colt M16. The Colts were reliable. I loved mine…and yes, it was the M16A2.
Now, there were some A1s that we got to shoot, and I thought they were cool as well. But I was always looking and paying attention to the rifles because when I got to the 75th, our team leaders all had the little Colt carbines. I remember excitedly thinking, “wow those are cool…I gotta get one of those” (laughs). But in my experience, all of the Colts were great. They were fantastic and I loved them. To me, they were the standard by which everything else was judged.
Now, 20 years later, I’ve used various different ones. I had that old Frankenstein rifle. Some of your readers may have seen that article in Ballistic magazine about that rifle that I built out of an old Bushmaster.
I used that old Bushmaster a lot. (laughs) Now I put a Maxim Defense buttstock on it which was worth probably more than the dang rifle itself (laughs) but the upper was the same, the lower was pretty much the same…and that’s the rifle that I used for many of my vetting courses with the Agency. I think I bought it for 700 bucks…and it was awesome.
I don’t think you need to spend a ton of money on a rifle…you just need to take care of it. Then you can put some attachments and different things on it if you want to. So, it was an old Bushmaster and I also had an EOtech on top if it. I hope your readers will forgive me as I don’t remember which EOtech it was, but it was one with a longer nose on it…
Q: Now, I’d imagine after Benghazi, people started seeking out your thoughts on different rifles and accessories?
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – Certainly after Benghazi, people started giving me stuff saying “hey can you try this out?” (laughs), so I’ve been very blessed that I’ve gotten to try different platforms.
But as far as what I like personally…I still really like that Maxim Defense buttstock. I truly think that’s the best CQB buttstock in the world…Maxim Defense…can’t beat it. They also have the new PDX pistol in 7.62 x 39 and it’s incredible…I think that’s the best AR pistol out there at the moment.
As far as other stuff, I also like Spikes Tactical…then as far as suppressors, when Gemtech was Gemtech, I thought that they made some of the best suppressors out there. Gemtech got bought by Smith & Wesson, and it’s no longer the same people. I’ve also used some of the Veritas Tactical stuff as well.
My main gun right now is my (limited edition) Tanto’s Toolbox that Maxim Defense made me. It’s a 300 Blackout with a DRD upper and DRD lower (quick take down). Now, DRD has had some problems, but the gun that I have…It’s the gun that I use for all of my training courses and I’ve had no issues with it. It’s a fantastic little rifle. That said, I know that DRD was having problems and I don’t even know if they’re in business anymore.
As far as putting together a gun…If you’re going to look at a build, you cannot go wrong with a Maxim Defense buttstock. Then, take a look at Spikes Tactical as far as your uppers and lowers, and look at Veritas as well…And then of course you have the big boys you can look at…But my current home defense guns…one is the Tanto’s Toolbox and the other is by Spike’s Tactical. Both of those guns are 300 blackout.
Q: What’s the status of your Frankenstein gun? Did you retire it?
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – People ask me about that thing all the time (laughs). I finally shot out the barrel. The Bushmaster lower with Maxim Defense buttstock now has a 2A Armament’s 16” upper on it with a Burris red dot optic on top. They make great uppers…they’re out of Boise, Idaho.
Q: Why the switch to 300 Blackout?
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – In Benghazi, and then also with my time in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were times where you’d get a hit with that 5.56 NATO round and guys would get up. They would not stay down. That bothered me.
Yeah, they’re going to bleed out eventually. They will die…but I’ll tell you this – people die when they’re ready to die. Bad guys, terrorists…they quit fighting when they want to stop. If they’re high on tar heroin or something else, they’re not going to stop. They’re going to keep fighting until they bleed out. That could be another minute. That’s a long time in a gunfight.
I’ve shot someone with NATO 5.56 green-tip…and they got back up. That’s a terrible feeling. Because I’m like “Gosh, I hit that guy and I need him to get out of the fight, and he’s not.” If that happened to me in my house with an intruder where I hit him 3 or 4 times and they kept fighting, that’s not a situation I want to be in. To me, I want that person down NOW. I don’t want them to fight another minute.
So, I like the 300 Blackout. Now, the round can get very expensive, and I’ve been blessed that I am sponsored by Fort Scott Munitions, but it’s a round that is very effective. They can also be built so small and compact. It’s almost like keeping a Glock 19 next to your bed. Well, instead you have a 300 Blackout pistol next to your bed. Or, you can put it in a bag if you need to take it with you in your vehicle. You have the ability to move the gun around and have it where you need it.
Q: Final question…where can we learn more about what you’re up to?
Kris “Tanto” Paronto – It’s Battleline Tactical…or you can go to https://www.kristantoparonto.net/ or you can go to www.battlelinetactical.net. My foundation that I started is the 14th Hour Foundation. You can check that out at https://14thhourfoundation.nationbuilder.com/ or the 14th Hour Foundation on Facebook.
We help everybody. I did a lot of speaking engagements where foundations were specific to certain groups. The Navy SEAL Foundation only helps SEALs. The Lead the Way Fund helps Rangers…and I love that. It’s wonderful. I don’t disagree with any of that, but I wanted to do something that helped everybody.
It helps first responders, military, and law enforcement. It helps contractors…because there was not a lot for contractors out there. We’re doing pretty good and we’ve raised quite a bit of money and been able to help some people…I don’t take a dime from it. That’s not what it’s for. I don’t take any money from it…I don’t take a salary from it, because that money needs to go to people who need it. I’m doing fine…I want people out there to know that. I just really, really enjoy helping people. If I can help them, that’s what I feel like I am here to do.
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