Tactical Shotgun Basics with Cougar Mountain Solutions

tactical shotgun

We’ve been getting a renewed appreciation for the tactical shotgun in recent months, and as such reached out to one of the best shotgun instructors in the country today, Erick Gelhaus of Cougar Mountain Solutions. We discuss his long career with the shotgun, his proactive vs reactive tactical shotgun courses, his advice for setting up and staging a shotgun, ammo selection, and more.

Q: Erick, thanks for your time. Can we start with a brief overview of your career?

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – Like many guys in the industry, my background is former military and former law enforcement. I did the Army from the Cold War to the Global War on Terror early on.  I then did a full career in law enforcement that spanned 29 years in a large California sheriff’s office in Sonoma County. 

I worked patrol, community-oriented policing, gang suppression, on a DEA task force, field training officer, a use-of-force instructor for almost 26 of my 29 years.  I was promoted to Sergeant late in my career and finished out running a patrol shift and supervising our use-of-force firearms and field training programs, along with a tactical team we had inside of our larger special operations unit.  

Academically – and this is something that I think sets me apart a little bit from some of my peers – I went as far as grad school, and all my work there was focused on training, evaluating, and explaining use-of-force issues by law enforcement. We looked at things like simulators, how we train administrators to evaluate events, and how we explain and talk about those events to the public. 

tactical shotgun

Q: When did you start instructing at Gunsite Academy, and when did your idea for Cougar Mountain come about?

I started teaching at Gunsite in 2000.  I finished the apprentice program there and became staff in 2001, and I have been teaching there since. As to how Cougar Mountain Solutions came to be, I was getting ready to retire, and I was starting to get approached about doing some teaching and giving presentations.  I needed a place to park that training side, and that need led me to create the company.

Q: Can you talk about your experiences with the tactical shotgun over your law enforcement career?  I can imagine with a career that long, you saw a lot of changes over the years.

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – I didn’t grow up hunting or shooting. I think I maybe shot a few times as a kid, but my first real exposure was going to basic training and what I did active duty while in the Army. Shotgun-wise, my exposure was in the police academy. We did a little bit of square range work with it and spent a day shooting clays.  When we got out on the street, it was either a handgun or a shotgun in the car. I decided to take a few shotgun classes on my own dime early on.  It was one of those things where I didn’t know what I didn’t know about the shotgun.

I became a firearms instructor about three years into my law enforcement career.  I was asked by the Sergeant running the program what I thought of everyone having their own shotgun.  At the time, aside from the few one-day classes, what I knew about the shotgun came from reading Louis Awerbuck’s book – talking about shotgun patterns, different types of barrels, etc.  I told him that it sounded like a good idea.  He responded, “Great, you’ll write that proposal.” 

I spent three years working on that project, going up and down the chain of command.  By the time we finally got everything approved and started letting everyone bring their own shotguns rather than whatever they were issued that day, I had been to Gunsite, I had taken Gunsite’s law enforcement shotgun instructor class, and I had been through the five-and-a-half-day shotgun class.

It was around 1996 that everything was signed off on, and deputies were allowed to supply their own shotgun as long as it was a right-handed 870, ensuring that everyone could run the gun the same way.  By the time a few years had passed, every one of our 300 deputies had supplied their own or had been given a shotgun, and they were shooting them a few times a year, both outdoors and indoors.

Q: That didn’t last, though, correct?

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – Fast-forward to 2004.  Patrol cars were starting to shrink due to things like computers in the vehicle taking up space.  We were confined to putting the shotgun in a rack between the seats, and the decision was made to go to 14” shotguns. We bought 300 14” 870s with ghost ring sights, side saddles, and slings.  We tried to get the office to buy lights, but they wouldn’t spend the money. 

We spent the next 15 years, until I retired, with those 14” guns.  Unfortunately, we got less and less time with those, and it got to where we were probably shooting them once a year.  We shot them indoors, so we couldn’t use lead – meaning we were not even shooting the ammo we would actually be running through the gun.

So, towards the end of my career, I found myself writing proposals to get everyone a patrol rifle so we could start taking the shotguns into a more specialized role, almost like how we treated rifles in the early 90s.  You had to want to carry one, and we weren’t going to spend the time and effort to teach you how to use the gun well. 

Q:  What was your experience with the tactical shotgun after retirement?

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – Once I got on staff at Gunsite, I was fortunate enough to teach some classes early on with Louis Awerbuck and Randy Cain. I’d also had classes with Bill Jeans and Scott Reitz on the shotgun, as well.  At Gunsite, I’ve taught a shotgun a fair amount over the years, and I know I have at least two or three shotgun-specific blocks of time at Gunsite in 2024 that I will be doing.

Many guys today are into teaching carbine, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I’ve done it as well, having carried them in the military and during my time in law enforcement. I just fell into the niche of teaching shotgun.

Q:  Earlier, you mentioned that you ‘didn’t know what you didn’t know,’ in regards to the tactical shotgun. Can you dive into that a bit deeper?

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – It wasn’t like a handgun where you had the same handgun with you every day.  We were getting a different gun every because of the way they were assigned to the cars early on.  You would get a different car and a different shotgun every day.  We didn’t have a good understanding of the patterning issue. It had never been approached at the academy.  It wasn’t until I started reading Louis Awerbuck that I began to pay attention to that.

The gun’s mechanics were also an issue – how to manage the recoil push impulse and how to manipulate the gun while doing it. Unfortunately, we still see folks struggle with this.  Thankfully, guys like Rob and Matt Haught have come up with an excellent solution for it.  The problem is that people will fire the shot, take the recoil impulse, and then, at some point going forward from that, they will cycle the action. Rob and Matt worked out something called ‘push-pull.’  It’s a technique I can do with a semi-auto shotgun, but it’s difficult for me, thought-process-wise, to do it on a pump gun just because I have so much time doing another method.

Q:  What method would that be?

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – Instead of a ‘push-pull,’ I call it more of a ‘pull-pull’ – pulling the stock back into the shoulder and loading the forearm with rearward pressure so that, as the shot breaks and the action unlocks, I am taking the recoil impulse and running the action of the gun under that recoil to take advantage of the recoil, helping me to cycle it.  I’m not going to say that I am the fastest at doing it, but with the technique, I find that I am not taking a hit from the recoil.

Q: Can you talk a bit about your tactical shotgun-specific classes?

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – Working at Gunsite, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with decent, normal human beings far more than with cops or military guys. I’ve always had cops coming through the shotgun classes, but they didn’t outnumber the other attendees. What we teach in these classes is using a shotgun as a general-purpose weapon, not necessarily focusing on any area. We shoot slugs at a distance because, for some folks, that’s what they have.  The shotgun with a slug is the long gun they can use for reaching out and dealing with distance or cover due to various stupid laws.  There are also places on the planet where a 5.56 carbine will not be effective against some of the natural predator problems – up in Alaska, for instance.

tactical shotgun

The manipulations are the same whether you are a decent, normal human being grabbing the shotgun out of the closet or a cop pulling it out of a rack in the patrol car.  What changes from there is how you are using that gun.  As such, I break the classes down between reactive and proactive. That was done to differentiate between law enforcement and those using the shotgun for home defense.  In the proactive class, we explore scenarios where you move up and approaching, like on a high-risk vehicle stop.  In the reactive class for a home or business owner, it’s going to be moving rearwards to cover and working the gun from behind cover.

Q: Can you talk about how you’d recommend staging a shotgun?

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – Rather than starting with the gun fully loaded to capacity with a round in the chamber all of the time, spend time working on the manipulations of how you get the gun into action from how you store it.

If you live entirely by yourself and you are not worried about anyone having access to the gun, and you choose to keep the gun with a round in the chamber, hammer cocked, safety on – fine, do all of your work that way. On the other hand, if you start with the action closed on an empty chamber with rounds in the magazine tube, spend time working your drills starting from that setup. 

This includes working with action releases, shell releases, and any safeties you have on the gun. You need to know how your gun works and spend the time to where manipulation is wired at the subconscious level so that your brain can focus on ‘alright, what’s going on at my front door?  What’s coming through the door right now?’ 

tactical shotgun at night

Q:  I’ve seen you use the term “closet ready” before.  Can you explain what that is?

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – The term “cruiser ready” doesn’t necessarily mean too much to those who are not rolling around with a shotgun next to their car seat.  They likely have the shotgun in their closet.  Historically, it means bolt closed on an empty chamber. 

I like to have the weapon cocked because I also like to have the safety on.  I don’t see folks chambering around and then putting the safety on.  I’d rather them have the gun on safe, to begin with.  As I mentioned previously, I like to have the magazine tube one round down because I don’t want to screw with the springs.  Then, if I chose to throw a different type of ammo in, I could.  

To put the gun into action, whether a pump shotgun or semi-auto shotgun, hit the action release on a pump gun or the shell release on the semi-auto.  On a pump gun, this opens up the forearm and allows you to move the forearm to the rear so you can cycle and chamber a round.  On a semi-auto, the shell release trips the round into the carrier.  You can then use the charging handle on the bolt and let it go forward.  Now, the round is chambered and it is on safe. 

I set my guns up this way, call it either “cruiser ready” or “closet ready” because, while I don’t have kids of my own if my nephews were over and had gotten into the guns, they would have had to do a bunch of things to make the gun go bang.  Likewise, if someone gets into my house that shouldn’t, they are going to have to do things to make the gun go bang.  If they don’t know the manual of arms, they will not get the gun working.  That’s why I have them set up that way.

Q:  Can you talk about some common mistakes you see? What should a gun feature be when taking it to a tactical shotgun training class?

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – On a shotgun, I want people to have sights they can see, whether iron or electronic optic sights.  They should have a light that should at least reach out to the limits of the gun.  If you use 00-Buck, have a light that will at least go out to 25 yards. 

As far as mounting the light, some mounting systems will put the light at a 6-o-clock position, but when you are in a lower-ready position, that can cause some barrel shadow.  That can lead to someone cheating the muzzle up to get the light where they want it.  I prefer a mounting solution that puts that light somewhere around one or 2-o-clock on the righthand side of the gun or at 10 or 11 on the left side.  I do not have to worry about barrel shadow when working from that lower-ready position.

Do you need a sling for a home defense shotgun?  Nope. Is it helpful to have one for a class?  Yes, but they are not a requirement. Do you need a whole bunch of extra ammunition on it?  No.  The good news is that most home defense problems will be solved with a few rounds of 00-buck, or #1 Buck, now that it’s coming back on the market. You’re not going to need a whole bunch of ammo.  I can remember early in my law enforcement career, going overboard and adding on the far side of two pounds to my gun due to ammunition.  (laughs) Today, I also like to leave the magazine tube one round down just for the springs’ reliability, allowing you to load a slug or two into the gun reasonably quickly.

I do think it’s a good idea to have a way to have some extra rounds on the gun.  I like a 3, 4, or 6-round sidesaddle…I want to keep rounds off the stock as if you’re doing things from the support side; it can make things uncomfortable.  No, I’m not a big fan of switching the shotgun back and forth, but there could be a time when you need to shoot it on the other side.

tactical shotgun

Q:  Can we talk a bit about tactical shotgun ammunition for home defense?

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – The #1 Buck is starting to come back.  Federal is making it, but they are not making it with a FliteControl load.  When I can find some of that and validate it for my guns, I will probably switch to that for the house because of the number of projectiles going downrange. It’s more pellets, more damage, more wounding. Barring that, I’d run 00-buck because of distance and home construction.

I can see a case for slugs if you have a rural property with a lot of space between you and the gate or the driveway.  If you’re truly worried about folks who may be wearing body armor due to a home invasion situation because of what you do for a business or what you have in your house, a slug will not penetrate soft body armor, but it will put a significant dent on the backside of it.  That could be an argument for it, but for most folks, opting to use a slug inside a house isn’t going to make sense.

I would stay away from birdshot because it is not designed to stop people and does not have the depth of penetration.  If you even start to mess around a little bit with patterning, you may not be able to put the projectiles where you want them, and they will not be as effective wherever they hit.

Q:  What are some brands of ammo to look for?

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – Federal FliteControl is the favorite load for some folks, but it can almost get too tight.  I am a fan of Hornady Black or Hornady TAP Light Magnum load, which uses a similar shot cup.  Either of these loads is going to be good.  I like the Hornady load because it is a little bit of a looser pattern, meaning it’s a little more forgiving if you do not have a perfect sight picture. If I couldn’t get the Federal or the Hornady load, the Winchester Ranger Reduced Recoil 8-pellet is surprisingly good for not having that kind of shot cup. It’s a very impressive load.  At 10 yards with any of those loads, you’ll get a pattern that is, at most, six inches.  

Q: Finally, where can people go to learn more about you and your schedule?

Erick Gelhaus, Cougar Mountain Solutions – www.Cougarmountainsolutions.com, and I am also on Facebook and Instagram


tactical shotgun

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4 months ago

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