Exclusive interview by John Oliver • Photographs provided by Chris Sajnog
When the opportunity presented itself to interview one of the lead Navy SEAL firearms instructors who is also an internationally known law enforcement and military trainer, we jumped at the chance. Meet Chris Sajnog, former Navy SEAL sniper instructor, author and founder of Center Mass Group. Sajnog not only has over 20 years of expertise with one of the most elite military teams in the world, he is willing to share his skills and insight with everyone willing and open to learning them. Our own John Oliver spent some time with Sajnog and here is what he had to say:
American Shooting Journal Hello, Chris. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about your background, where are you from and how you became a Navy SEAL?
Chris Sajnog I was born and raised in Wisconsin and grew up there with one brother. I didn’t get along with my parents and ended up leaving home early, by request. I worked full time because I had to pay for a place to live, and then I joined the Navy when I was 19. At that time, I didn’t even know what a SEAL was, and learned about them later. Initially, I was a Navy diver and did diving medicine, or undersea and hyperbaric medicine (UHB), and often supported the SEALs in that role. After working with them for a few years I decided that what they did was pretty cool, so I went to SEAL training. I had already been with the Navy for four years before I joined.
ASJ You’ve written a few books, and your first one was titled How To Shoot Like A Navy SEAL. What compelled you to write a book?
CS I truly love teaching other people. I used to run the sniper course and our marksmanship training for our SEAL qualification course, so I’d been teaching quite a lot and I wanted to continue. When I got out of the Navy, I started writing articles and in 2011 founded a training company called Center Mass Group. I received really good responses and a friend suggested that I transition one of my blogs that focused on marksmanship, and turn it into a book. With a little editing, expanding and adding extra chapters I was able to create the first book. This one covers the fundamentals of combat marksmanship, and boils down to being able to shoot under stress. That book did really well and was the number one shooting book on Amazon.com for a really long time.
ASJ It sounds like you haven’t stopped since your Navy days. Tell us a little about the courses you teach at Center Mass Group.
CS I’m actually getting away from running physical courses, although I still teach the military and law enforcement, and have started teaching online. The way I run training is very different than anyone else I’ve ever seen because I really focus on what I call “the new rules of marksmanship.” It’s a way of training where, to me, it’s more important how you train than what you’re training or how many rounds you shoot. Often, I’ll have a student shoot one round and if it’s not perfect, then I correct them immediately. I think every time you make a mistake you’re building neural pathways in your brain to recreate that movement again. It kills me to see people simply shooting to get better when it just doesn’t work that way. That’s one of the reasons I’m getting away from hands-on training, and moving to an online format where I present the information and teach people how to train on their own. It’s hard to run a course and have people shoot one round at a time. Nobody wants to pay to do that. I can offer a much less expensive way to learn by giving them the information online and the students conduct the repetitions on their own.
CS I have been married to my lovely wife Laura for 12 years, and we have two boys, Caden and Owen, who are nine and 11 years old. They’re smarter and more talented than I am already. Their mom’s a teacher, so they get their smarts from her, and their dad’s a SEAL. They’re both at the top of their sports teams, so that’s awesome.
ASJ From what I have read you are a strong believer of dry-fire practice. Why do you feel this is such an important component?
CS Definitely! Going back to building neural pathways, every time you do something, whether it’s right or wrong, you are building these pathways so that your body can do that movement faster and better the next time. Any time a gun goes bang, that’s a stressor. It may be a small stressor, but it’s the one thing that increases how ingrained those neural connections become. If you can first train perfectly without stress, you build up these neural pathways and insulate them with myelination (process of forming a myelin sheath around a nerve to allow nerve impulses to move more quickly), and that protects you from the chemical stimulus you’re going to get from stress. So when those hormones come rushing into your brain, that neural pathway is protected and you’ll be able to do it perfectly.
ASJ Your level of detail and scientific breakdown is impressive. Many instructors simply do not operate or consider these concepts. Aside from this, what would you say sets you apart from all of the other shooting instructors out there.
CS I think a big thing is I don’t teach people what they want to be taught. I teach them what I know is correct, and I don’t try to entertain them when I teach. Obviously I try to make it fun, but I don’t look for people who want to learn how to do a front flip and shoot like they did in The Matrix – I just won’t do it. When I teach a course, I don’t actually shoot at all. I can teach faster by standing and watching every move that somebody makes and correcting them instantly. I can’t do that when I have people behind me while I’m shooting. For me it does no good to show people I can shoot; hopefully, people will understand that I’m probably a decent shot from being a SEAL sniper for quite a few years. As I mentioned earlier, concentrating on how you train is very important. I focus on mental training, and teach meditation and visualization. As a SEAL, we were literally alotted unlimited ammo and were paid to shoot at the range.
When I retired I started teaching civilians and law enforcement the way I used to teach SEALs, and it just wasn’t working. Students would say, “I don’t have the time to go to the range every day,” or “I don’t have the money to buy all the ammo I need to shoot.” Even law enforcement units didn’t have the money to do that. I needed to come up with a way to teach people at the same level, but faster and cheaper.
I was also experiencing the same thing myself because now I had a wife, children, soccer games, trips to the grocery store, just like everyone else. I started looking outside of the shooting community to see how to best train people.
I knew that if I could teach people in general, I could make it specific to firearms training. So that’s what I did. I looked at how did the greats get to where they are, how they practiced, how they learned and stayed on the top, and how they did it so quickly. I used those concepts while researching neuro sciences, how the brain actually works and how we learn physical skills and implemented them. I put these all together in a training method I call the new rules of marksmanship. Things like mental training and, most importantly, knowing why you are training are exemplified. If you just want to be good at shooting, you may not wake up in the morning and work on dry firing, but if you’re training to protect your family, you’re probably more likely to put in the time.
Rather than telling students to look at their front sights, I teach things such as how to focus, how to look at the front sight and how the eyes function. I give students specific techniques to work on for each separate aspect. Also, teaching students how to dry fire and to plan their training using a GPS analogy is part of my curriculum. “G” is for gathering information, understanding where your skill levels are, and where you want them to be. For example, if you don’t know where you are or where you want to go, you can drive all day long and never get anywhere. “P” is for planning. Just as a GPS will show your route, you need to plan out those steps. The last one is “S,” and the one most people fail: Start!
Students will often have the information they need but starting is the hardest part. This is why part of my training is simply motivating people to actually do the training.
ASJ Once your new book is out, what’s next for you? Do you have anything on the horizon?
CS Well, my wife will quickly tell you that I have too many projects going on. I’m building a membership site where people can sign up and they get video training using my new rules of marksmanship. This is where I teach people how to shoot and train, and how to do it at home while learning faster and easier. Of course a big part of it is safety. I will also offer full webinars throughout the course.
ASJ That’s interesting. So you won’t just be running video training, but people will be able to interact with you via the live course?
CS Yes, the course is going to be run for a month, so once a week people will get a module of information, which includes videos, outlines and quick-start guides. They will have some time to digest the information, practice it and then ask questions during the once-a-week webinar. I have other courses that I am still working on; one of them is an audio course called Mental Marksmanship, and it focuses on mindset, meditation and visualization. How to use your mind most effectively when shooting. A TV show is also on the way, but that is a still a few months out.
ASJ Will the TV show be based around you and your teaching method?
CS Yes, it is, but it is also quite unique. I don’t want to divulge too much, but I would describe it as action instruction. I can promise you that it is not me standing on screen explaining “This is how you hold a gun.”
ASJ What are your favorite guns for different uses?
CS My favorite handgun is the Sig Sauer P226. To me, this handgun set the gold standard by which all other combat handguns are measured. I’ve fired so many rounds from this gun it would be impossible to count, yet I can hardly remember a single malfunction. In and out of water, sand and mud – pull it out of its holster and it’s going to fire. You can find plenty of higher end pistols on the market today, but you’ll never find one with the combat-proven track record of the P226.
For close-quarter combat, the HK MP5n. This 9mm submachine gun was what I learned CQC (close quarter combat) and maritime boarding operations called VBSS (visit, board, search and seizure) with. The “n” stands for Navy since it was developed for our use, and is an extremely effective weapon for short, quick engagements. It has virtually zero recoil due to its unique delayed-blowback bolt system, firing from the closed-bolt position. Fun to shoot and fun to transition to your pistol by whipping it over your shoulder like a guitar in an old-school music video.
For sniper operations, the .300 Winchester Magnum (M91A2). I’ve used and taught every type of long-range weapon out there. Yes, there are some that can shoot farther, but this is the most versatile of the bunch, and can reach out and touch someone over 1,000 yards with a flat trajectory past 100. If I could only have one sniper rifle, this would be the one I would choose.
ASJ Everyone has a favorite fallback carry weapon – what’s yours?
CS Glock 26.
ASJ Do you prefer a specific brand or type of ammunition, and why?
CS Black Hills – I’ve shot it more than any other brand and it goes bang when I need it to.
ASJ Favorite holsters and slings?
CS zZz Custom Works Holsters. If you want to get the same results as everyone else, get a holster like they have; otherwise, get custom holsters and mag pouches from zZz Custom Works. You can have a holster built to your exact specification for the same cost as one off the shelf.
I also like the Magpul MS3 Sling. It’s comfortable and switches between single and two-point sling.
CS Talon Grips, no question.
ASJ What do you do to relax? What are your hobbies?
CS I like to work out and stay active six days a week. I do crossfit-type workouts or high-intensity training. Family is very important to me. I enjoy hanging out with the boys playing baseball or soccer, and I just bought an awesome ping-pong table that they don’t know about yet, especially my wife. She definitely does not know about it! I like learning new things and am interested in acupuncture so that helps me relax, but I also meditate each day, and have a little area set aside for that.
ASJ Thank you so much for your time, Chris, it’s been a pleasure.
CS You too, John, anytime! ASJ
Editor’s note: If you want to know more about Chris Sajnog, you can visit him at chrissajnog.com. If you are interested in his latest book, check out Navy SEAL Shooting at Amazon.com.