Summer 2020 in Arizona wasn’t conducive to live-fire training, given the perfect storm of 115-degree temperatures, wildfire-related shooting restrictions on public land, COVID-induced range closures, and extremely high ammo prices. Rather than rely solely on dry-fire practice at home, I decided this was the ideal time to try out the state-of-the-art VirTra firearms simulator at the Haley Strategic headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona. Haley’s D7 Disruptive Performance course is a two-day program that’s limited to just five students, and it takes place without a single live round fired. I attended a D7 Carbine class, but Handgun and Handgun Lowlight versions are also available.
The VirTra system is no oversized arcade game — it’s a sophisticated simulator with an impressive degree of realism. Students use real BCM AR-15s retrofitted with VirTra internals that produce CO2-powered recoil and a laser flash with each trigger press. An array of sensors detect where the laser impacts on a projector screen, a computer calculates ballistic trajectory in the virtual environment, and the shooter receives real-time audio and visual feedback.
The D7 Carbine course began with a classroom portion that introduced Haley’s “thinkers before shooters” ethos, thoroughly analyzing the mental and physical aspects involved in firearms training. After discussing zeros and hold-overs for various distances, we stepped up to the VirTra 100 single-screen simulator, firing our ARs from a prone position at virtual targets from 50 to 500 yards. Our instructors, Josh and Robert, were able to instantly enlarge our targets and provide guidance based on our shot groups.
Next was a detailed discussion of shooting fundamentals, such as stance, trigger control, sight picture, and eye movement — the latter becomes especially important when dealing with multiple targets in a dynamic setting. Back on the single-screen sim, we ran various drills from low ready and high ready, maintaining an even cadence between shots and receiving one-on-one evaluation from instructors. We finished our first day in the flagship VirTra 300 simulator, testing our ability to pivot and transition between simulated clay targets across the 300-degree screen. On day two, we warmed up with the same transition drill, then returned to the single-screen sim for box drills that tested our footwork and ability to move forward, backward, and laterally between shots. The final classroom portion of the D7 class was taught by Travis Haley. It covered the powerful effects of a life-and-death scenario, such as the body alarm response (BAR) that dumps hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. Rather than attempt to resist this inevitable process, we must learn to anticipate and manage it.
Since firsthand experience is a powerful teacher, the D7 class culminated by testing each student’s performance inside the panoramic simulator. One by one, students were called into the darkroom and fitted with a belt-mounted Threat-Fire pack, which delivered a 10,000-volt shock any time we were hit by a virtual incoming round. The consequences of failure would be painful, and this elevated the sense of tension. Haley’s VirTra system includes dozens of scenarios, and each features branching paths and outcomes that can be controlled by the instructor in real-time. This made it feel like interacting with live opponents, rather than pre-programmed AI.
We experienced two scenarios, a mugging at an outdoor ATM and an active shooter situation inside a courthouse. These scenarios included multiple assailants, innocent bystanders, and ally first responders, as well as complications such as armored foes and hostage-takers — in the latter case, I was able to negotiate a surrender after an agonizing 90-second standoff. However, I didn’t walk away unscathed from the ATM mugging. Seconds after stopping the first threat, I was blindsided by an accomplice I had failed to notice. I returned fire, but got zapped and received a wake-up call about the dangers of tunnel vision.
This Haley Strategic D7 Carbine class was an incredible experience, and a powerful reminder that real defensive scenarios are far more complex than drills on a 180-degree shooting range.