| January 8, 2015

Manly Skills, Tactical Skills

Strengthen Your Tribe: A Report on the Atomic Athlete Vanguard

atomic athlete vanguard review

It all started with an email:

Hi Brett-

We have an event coming up that I would like to personally invite you to called the Vanguard. This is essentially 36 hours of learning all of the man skills your daddy never taught you or you may have forgotten over the years.

– Tod

I clicked on the link he included that gave the rundown on the event: Animal butchering. Pistol shooting. Tactical medicine. Knife combatives. Rope skills.

I had to go.

So I flew down to Austin, Texas to spend a weekend with members from the Atomic Athlete gym at an event they called the Vanguard.

Below I share a report of the experience. While Tod waived my entrance fee, I paid my own travel costs and he didn’t ask me to do a write-up. I wanted to do so on my own accord, for reasons I’ll discuss in the conclusion.

36 Hours of Man Skills

Founded by Tod Moore and Jake Saenz, Atomic Athlete is a gym located in Austin, Texas. Their mission is to make their athletes “Stronger, Faster, and Harder to Kill,” and they accomplish this through CrossFit-style workouts. They’d be quick to point out, though, that while their workouts are similar to those of CrossFit, they’ve created their own unique program.

Atomic Athlete decided to put on an event to give its members an experience related to its mission, outside the usual focus on physical fitness. 2014 was the inaugural year for the Vanguard, and the event was held at Reveille Peak in Texas Hill Country, just an hour outside of Austin. It started on a Friday night and lasted until Sunday morning.

tents in field atomic athlete vanguard report review

Forty-five people were in attendance, about 90% of which were dudes. The atmosphere was very casual and relaxed – much like a weekend camping trip with friends. Everybody slept in tents they had brought and set up themselves, and except for an awesome feast on the last night, the food was typical camping food — oatmeal for breakfast and a MRE for lunch on Saturday. There was also plenty of beer and soda for the nightly pow-wows around the bonfire.

After we all set up our tents on Friday evening, instruction began right away with land navigation. The rest of the weekend had a quick pace; the only time we weren’t learning or actively engaged in something was when we were standing around the bonfire at night or sleeping.

Here’s what was covered over the course of the weekend:

Land Navigation

men gathered around topographic topo map land navigation

Plotting points on our topographic map for the land nav course.

The first night we had a hands-on class on land navigation using a topographic map, compass, and protractor. I figured I’d be an old pro at this because I had spent an entire morning at the ITS Tactical Muster a few weeks earlier shooting azimuths and counting paces. But when we had to start plotting points on our map, I realized that I had forgotten quite a bit, so it was nice to get a refresher and a humbling reminder that these types of skills degrade quickly if you don’t practice them.

Animal Butchering

man field dress butcher rabbit strung up

Brandon Willin from Tandem Farm Co. demonstrating how to harvest a rabbit.

This session was the one I was looking forward to the most. I’ve never butchered an animal and then eaten it, but it’s been something I’ve wanted to learn how to do because, well, you never know when you could use a skill like that. Plus, I think it’s a shame that most modern folks (me included) are completely detached from where their meat comes from.


Learning how to to clean a rabbit for eating.

Brandon Willin from Tandem Farm Co. taught the class on animal butchering. He brought several rabbits and chickens from his farm so that each team could harvest, clean, and butcher their own animals.

Brandon spent a good deal of time talking about the importance of humanely harvesting any animal you plan on eating and ensuring that you only butcher healthy animals to avoid getting sick yourself.

plucking a chicken men gathered around a table

Plucking a chicken.

He then went right into the demo on harvesting and butchering a rabbit and chicken before giving each team their own animals to practice on. As a suburbanite who had only eaten the kind of meat that comes neatly wrapped in plastic, I thought I would be a bit squeamish about killing and taking the guts out of an animal. But it was surprisingly natural. Didn’t feel weird or gross at all.

Brandon put our harvested rabbit and chicken meat in coolers when we were done and used it to create a giant feast for us all that night.

Knife and Gun Self-Defense


Tim demonstrating defense from a knife attack

This was another session I was looking forward to. I was surprised to learn when I arrived at the Vanguard that the knife combatives session would be taught by Tim Kennedy, a Green Beret sniper and #7 UFC midweight fighter. Tim ran us through the different types of knives one could use for self-defense as well as what you should do if someone ever pulls a knife on you. We then used dummy knives and practiced disarming knife attacks.

Tim also brought some dummy guns and went over some basics on what to do if someone pulls a gun on you at close distance, after which we were able to practice on each other.

self defense disarming an attacker with gun drawn

Me practicing disarming an attacker who draws a gun on you in close quarters.

This was an eye-opening session for me. My practice partner had a dummy knife while I held a dummy gun, and we started off 15 yards apart with our weapons concealed. We then did our best to create as much of a real-life knife attack scenario as possible. My partner would approach me slowly, calling me names, making verbal threats, etc. When he closed about half the original distance between us, he’d pull out the knife and start rushing to stab me. I figured it would be super easy to get off a pretend shot before he got to me, but I’ll be darned if it didn’t turn out to be more difficult than I thought.

I died several times of knife wounds.

And this was in a situation where I knew what was coming! I can’t imagine how much harder it would be in an actual knife attack where you don’t know it’s coming and adrenaline is pumping through your veins. The class taught me that in a close-quarter lethal encounter, your gun shouldn’t be the first thing you go to. Maybe Sean Connery got it backwards: don’t bring a gun to a knife fight.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for Self-Defense


Donald Park demonstrating some BJJ for self-defense. He’s a top notch instructor and BJJ practitioner- Pan American Champion, Gracie Worlds Open Weight Champion, and Gracie Nationals Champion. He has an AB in Economics from Princeton and in MBA in finance from the University of Chicago to boot. Brains and brawn.

Donald Park, a champion Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter and a head instructor at Gracie Humaita in Austin, taught a session on using BJJ principles in a self-defense capacity. We practiced holds, mounts, and guards.


Tactical Medicine


Justin Hurzeler demonstrating how to use a tourniquet.

Justin Hurzeler, an EMT-P field paramedic and training officer for Williamson County Emergency Medical Services, taught a class on tactical medicine. We learned how to use a tourniquet, how to create splints and treat broken bones, and practiced plugging knife and gun wounds using a big ol’ slab of pork as a stand-in for injured flesh.

treating bullet wound on slab of pork atomic athlete vanguard

Learning how to treat a bullet wound on a piece of pork.

Obstacle Course

man doing obstacle course atomic athlete vanguard

The ranch we were staying at had a giant obstacle course. I’ve done several courses in my day and you usually see the same sort of obstacles. This one, however, had ones I’ve never seen before. They were pretty hard, but I was able to get through them all…except the last one.

atomic athlete vanguard man hanging from rope over mud pit

The point at which my arms felt like they were about to fall off…

It was a rope across a big pond. You could either traverse the rope using a ranger crawl, which puts you on top of the rope, or a monkey crawl, which puts you on the bottom. I went with the monkey crawl because it’s supposed to be the easier of the two.

Things started out great. I thought I was making good progress, but then the proverbial battery acid started filling my veins. I figured I had to be close to the other side. Nope. I was halfway. I clung on with every bit of strength I had left, gritting my teeth in hopes of making it over with my dignity intact. My grip finally gave out just a few feet from the other side.


…. and there goes my manly pride. We will meet again rope over a pond!

Well, at least it taught me that I need to work on my grip strength – which I’ve been doing with my Captains of Crush!

Pistol Training

pistol training at shooting range atomic athlete vanguard

Jake Saenz doing some pistol coaching.

Tod and Jake (who is a former Army Special Operations Soldier), along with their friend Cal Reed, owner of Coyote Run Tactical, led a class on pistol shooting. They started off with the safety rundown and basics, and then shifted into dynamic move and shoot drills. We’d run 50 yards — pistol holstered, of course — and then make two hits on a steel target. Getting your heart pumping like that definitely makes accurate shots a bit more difficult.

The next morning Jake and Tod took those of us who didn’t have to hurry home back to the range for some more shooting. Jake did some “ball and dummy” drills with me, where he’d load my magazine with a combination of live and dummy rounds. The purpose of the drill is to reveal whether you’re anticipating recoil and jerking the trigger. If you’re practicing good trigger control, your gun should remain perfectly still when you get to the dummy round; if you’re not, you’ll see yourself jerking the gun. I, of course, had some serious jerkage going on. Ball and dummy drills are going to become a regular part of my pistol training now.



Besides the awesome obstacle course, Reveille Peak also has a giant rappelling tower. Atomic Athlete member Koby Crooks, lifetime climber and owner of outdoor equipment shop Alpine Cowboy, taught a class on the basics of rappelling. Justin Hurzeler — the tactical medicine expert — is also trained in tactical rappel and helicopter fast-roping, so he showed us some cool rappelling skills that you’d see in the likes of Call of Duty. Rapelling is something I hadn’t done in a long time so it was great to get the refresher.


On Saturday night we had a giant feast made from all the animals we had harvested in the morning. Brandon from Tandem Farm Co. made us rabbit stew, roasted chicken, and mashed potatoes. The food was fantastic. It was the first time I had eaten rabbit, and it was delicious! We all chowed on the meat we harvested while sharing war stories from the weekend.

Big thanks to Brandon and his wife for cooking the great grub while we were out having fun rappelling and shooting guns.

All in all, the Vanguard was an awesome experience and I had a great time.

Concluding Thoughts: Strengthen Your Tribe


Because I had just attended the ITS Tactical Muster a few weeks before the Vanguard, I was in an interesting position to compare and contrast two events with similar missions but different set-ups. I honestly can’t say that one was “better” than the other. Both were great; they were just different.

I learned (or re-learned) many skills at Vanguard that I had learned at the Muster, but each respective event also had unique classes. The Muster was five days long; the Vanguard was just 36 hours. Because it was shorter the Vanguard was cheaper — $300 vs. $900. The Muster was attended by guys from all over the country; the Vanguard was almost entirely made up of members of the Atomic Athlete gym.

The Muster is structured, tightly-run, and well organized. Its founder, Bryan Black, and his wife spend all year planning it. This makes for an awesome, incredibly immersive experience for the attendees, but putting something together like the Muster is not something anyone can do – it has to be an integral part of your business.

For that reason, I think there’s some virtue in the Vanguard’s approach. After I shared my report of the Muster, I heard from a lot of guys who said things like, “This is so cool – I want to start something similar where I live.” While executing something like the Muster would be difficult if not impossible to accomplish if it’s not your main focus, creating something like the Vanguard is really doable. Tod and company put the event together in only a few months and kept it pretty loose and casual.

And that’s actually really why I wanted to highlight the Vanguard here on AoM. As someone who thinks the world needs less networks and more communities, I’d love to see more gyms and other groups start holding these kinds of events. Obviously the chance to learn new skills and become more useful and competent is invaluable (and we were able to learn quite a bit in just 36 hours!), but the chance for bonding is just as important.

While the Muster creates awesome camaraderie amongst the men who attend each year, after it’s over the guys go back to their homes around the country. The advantage of something like the Vanguard is that it’s an outgrowth of a group that’s already physically rooted in a place. That’s where community thrives.

Folks these days need help taking their acquaintances outside the walls of the gym or work or church in order to forge real friendships. An event like the Vanguard is a great way to do this. Almost everyone there was a member of Atomic Athlete. These were folks who were already buddies, and the weekend gave them a chance to deepen their bond over shared ideals. Thus, an event like the Vanguard is an excellent way to build something modern men really need – a tribe.

So the big takeaway I got from my weekend was that with just a bit of initiative and some planning, other men could do something like this in their own neck of the woods, with their own tribe. It doesn’t even have to be an outgrowth of a gym or church, although that would work well. You can also simply look to your circle of friends and see what sort of skills you all possess. Maybe one of you knows first aid, maybe another has some expertise in combatives.

Commit to a weekend where you all get together for some camping and teach each other these skills. That’s what Tod and Jake did. All of the instructors were friends and members of the Atomic Athlete gym who volunteered their time to teach their fellow tribe members.

If none of your friends have expertise in a skill you want to learn, then have everyone pitch in some money and hire someone in your area who does have that skill to come out and teach you.

It doesn’t have to be perfect or highly regimented. Keep it relaxed and fun. You just have to take action.

Really. It’s that simple.


Big thanks to Tod and Jake and the rest of the Atomic Athlete crew for letting me share the experience with them. If you’re looking for a new fitness program this year, I highly recommend the Atomic Athlete’s online programming. I did it for the last three months and the workouts smoked me.

All photos copyright of White Blaze Media (Brian Flannery- who also happens to be a solid dude)

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