Tunnel Rat: The Shooting Experience

Nogales, Sonora, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona, USA are connected underground by a series of clandestine tunnels that link with the existing, legitimate stormwater drainage system.

Select DEA, HSI, and CBP agents stationed along the Southern borders of California, Arizona, and Western New Mexico specialize in finding and, when necessary, clearing such tunnels. Their work is important, hazardous, and not for the faint of heart.

Insurgent detainees at Camp Bucca, Iraq dug a tunnel from their tent–not to outside the wire, but rather to a guard post with a machine gun. They might have succeeded in their plan to gun down their guards (and any prisoners from opposing factions) once they got to the adjacent guard tower. When the tunnel was discovered, Security Forces personnel had to clear it.

Those law enforcement officers (LEOs) and military professionals can trace their heritage to the Tunnel Rats of Vietnam.


Would You Have What it Takes to be a Tunnel Rat?

The ‘Nam Tunnel Rats were a select group. Whether they volunteered or were voluntold, they were usually shorter, skinnier guys, for obvious reasons. Less obvious in their selection process, be it a formal assignment or an or intuitive short-notice command decision, were a fell skill level and a fatalistic mindset.

One course of fire I’ve long dreamed of putting together would simulate that Tunnels of Cu Chi environment. Not for role playing fun, like SASS (Single Action Sport Shooting, aka Cowboy Action Shooting). Nor for nostalgia, as most of those for whom such a course might take them “back to the day” are getting a little old to be crawling around on their hands and knees. Rather, it would be to gain a deeper, more direct understanding of the challenges some of our forefathers faced.

Setting up such a course would be involved, but not too difficult, if you had a plot of empty land and a Ditch Witch or similar trench excavating machine.


Course Design

The layout would look something like a Scrabble game from above.

Dig a series of interlocking trenches about 2 – 3 feet deep. They should be wider than your widest participant, at the shoulder.

Depending on how much land and time you have (and whether or not you have a life), you could add a few “rooms” to the layout. You could also make parts of the trench deep enough to crouch in, but participants should have to crawl most of the time.

Cover your network of trenches with plywood, cardboard, pallets with tarps. or whatever, except for a few select “entrances” from above.

You can place targets sideways at tunnel junctions or ends. You could even work out a more elaborate series of slits into which a target could be dropped, like a side-pivoting version of a pop-up (more correctly in this context, pop-down) target.


Safety Considerations

Angles of Fire

Probably the biggest danger in live fire would be someone shooting at an angle above horizontal. Easy to do, considering most of the time the participant will be crawling along on his or her elbows, with a pistol in hand. Bullets angled upward could easily pierce the plywood / cardboard cover.

Mitigation could include:

  • Dry runs with dry practice crawling above ground, to make firing at or below horizontal habitual before “going in.”
  • Use of frangible ammo or Airsoft.
  • Course layout ensuring that bullets will always be directed away from above-ground people and structures, even if they do pierce the plywood.

You could cover the plywood with a few feet of the dirt you excavated from the ditches you dug, but that might complicate rescue should it become necessary.


The most common hazard in any excavation is collapse of a side wall. Depending on the soils composition, this could be more or less likely in your area. There are methods of shoring that may or may not detract from the realism, but the easiest way to guard against serious cave-ins would be to not dig your trenches too deep.

Making the plywood easy to pull up, and not letting people walk around (or resting anything heavy) too near the edges of the trenches, are other ways to ameliorate / mitigate the risks of trench wall collapse.


Between gun smoke and simply limited oxygen, it might be a good idea to install rain gutter downspouts, or the like, every so often in your layout.

Lead-free ammo can also reduce long-term hazards.


The ‘Nam Tunnel Rats had to deal with all kinds of deadly critters, but there’s no need for our participants to.

You should lift the covers and screen for snakes, spiders, and other of God’s creatures before each session.

Using plywood, rather than pallets with tarps, would provide fewer nooks and crannies for spiders. Regardless of your covers, it might be a good idea to leave them off the trenches when not in use.

To maximize the realism of your experience, you should do your runs through the tunnels during hours of darkness. If you live in an area where scorpions are a thing, you can screen for them beforehand with a UV light. 



Mandatory Equipment

  • A pistol. Preferably, a GI .45, but a Smith & Wesson Model 10 will do as long as you keep the forcing cone well ahead of your face. If you’re not sure what that means, read “Revolvers” in Mind the Gas Port.
  • Angle-head GI flashlight.
  • Field knife (preferably a Randall, Ka-Bar or M7 bayonet, but dad’s Ruana or Buck Bowie will do).
  • Double hearing protection–muffs over plugs. Shooting without ear pro in confined spaces sucks (the voice of multiple experiences speaks).
  • Eye protection. Muzzle blast will likely knock all kinds of particulates off the walls.

Optional Equipment

  • Cotton fatigues (or black pajamas; your preference)
  • Nylon or canvass sided jungle boots (or rubber sandals)
  • Packet of Lucky Strikes or Camels, zippo lighter

If you choose black pajamas, change “GI .45” in Mandatory Equipment to Tokarev T33, Makarov, or genuine Skorpion (not modern day CZ Scorpion re-boot).

The steel “piss pot” helmet was not typically worn below ground, even though it was less prone to nose-diving in prone than the PASGT “Fritz” helmet that replaced it.

The brim of a boonie hat could likewise block your vision. You could go with a ranger rag as a bandana, field cap turned backward, or nothing at all on your head (other than eye and ear pro). But be mindful that one reason brimmed hats are mandatory in shooting schools is to keep brass from landing in the gap between the top of your eye protection and your forehead. In a 3’x3′ trench with plywood over the top, brass is much more likely to bounce back at you.

Maybe you could pin the front of the boonie cap up, which would afford some protecion from brass without blocking your vision.


Authentic Shooting Methods

I’ve not yet read (or if I did, it was decades ago and I’ve since forgotten) what shooting methods the Tunnel Rats used.

Most pistol shooting in those days, even on your feet, was one handed. With a flashlight in your support hand, that makes it even more likely you would have used one handed fire, likely from an elbow supported prone.

Rolling up on one’s side might be useful in some situations, especially at tunnel junctions.

Supine might also be useful in some situations to free up the arms (rather than propping one’s self up on her or his elbows), but probably would increase the possibility of angling the shots upward.

There are still some men with genuine Tunnel Rat experience, leaning on bars in VFWs. For a beer or two they might be able to give you some first hand accounts. They might even be willing to serve as technical advisors during your construction and operation.


Any Gender Would be Welcome

There were plenty of ladies in the tunnels of ‘Nam. They were Charlies (short for Victor Charlies, Viet Cong), or NVAs (North Vietnamese Army).

This should not preclude female participants who don’t want to wear black pajamas from crawling through the course, with a view to understanding more about their Grandpa the Tunnel Rat, and what he went through.


Additional Ambience Considerations

Generally, the Americans and ARVNs (Army of the Republic of [South] Vietnam) would roll a few grenades in before spelunking. Their fathers would hit up Japanese cave and tunnel complexes in places like Iwo Jima with flame throwers instead.

Flash bangs / artillery simulators would likely kick up a bunch of dust and perhaps weaken the walls of your trench. If you want to smell the smells, toss in a few small firecrackers before your run-through.

Sometimes, they would use smoke or tear gas grenades in Viet Nam to flush out the Charlies, or find additional entrances. We do NOT recommend using smoke, unless you have self contained breathing apparatus, which would get hung up in there. Regular gas masks filter air but they do NOT replace missing oxygen that has been used by combustion or displaced by other gasses.

Consider leaving a large bag of potatoes or rice right around the corner of a tunnel, or have one drop on participants from above. The idea is simply to have it be close. Participants can practice stabbing it a few times with their field knife. The real Tunnel Rats had to be prepared to do some wet work if they stumbled across someone–or got jumped–down there.


Why the Tunnel Rat Experience?

Setting something like this up would be a great deal of hassle for a series of experiences that would be transient at best. Why bother?

Heloderm teaches many esoteric skills I would describe at “niche” techniques: something useful only in limited circumstances, but very handy skills to have beforehand, should you find yourself in that situation. For example, Paul Castle taught Center Axis Relock (CAR) as a complete, go-to system for all situations. We teach CAR as a niche technique, say if you are moving on a rearward oblique and the threat is behind you off your support side; or if you are pinned in your automobile and bad guys are moving in for the kill from 7 or 5 o’clock.

The Tunnel Rat Experience is not really to teach you niche techniques, unless you are in the business of conducting armed confined space rescues or clearing operations in cross-border tunnels, or in certain corrections environments.

But it would be more than just a lark, unless you run some sort of adult adventure theme park like Arizona Tactical Adventures.

Rather, to me, the Tunnel Rat Experience would be a way of appreciating the challenges faced by an under-appreciated generation of oft-reluctant but willing warriors who went where Uncle Sugar sent them. They did some hard, nasty soldiering in service of their fellow Americans and the people of South Vietnam.

Similarly, one day I’d also like to ride in an old B-17 or P-51 warbird, just to have some inkling of what the men of the Army Air Forces experienced in WWII.

I don’t have many original ideas, but this concept is one. I’m sharing it, and my thoughts about how to execute it safely and successfully, with you, in case you have the means and wish to do so.


Any Takers?

Heloderm LLC has not yet set this course up. Currently, we lack the real estate and the trenching equipment to do so.

If you live in Baja Arizona (or even anywhere near So AZ), and have access to those two things (land and excavation equipment), I’d be more than happy to help you.

AZ state law (Arizona Revised Statutes, or ARS, 13-3107) specifically exempts “shooting in underground ranges on private . . . property” from the otherwise criminal negligence of discharging firearms within the limits of any municipality or within a mile of any occupied structure.

Please reach out if we can offer advice or help you with your project in any way.

–George H, lead instructor, Heloderm LLC 

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