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Inside the Mind of a CIA Contractor: A Conversation With Shawn Ryan

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by Greg Chabot

Shawn Ryan the founder/CEO of Vigilance Elite is a former US Navy SEAL and contractor for the CIA. He enlisted in the United States Navy at the age of 18 with the goal of becoming a Navy SEAL. Upon his successful completion of BUDS, Shawn served with SEAL Teams 2 and 8 deploying to multiple conflict zones around the world.  He saw combat in OIF (Iraq) and OEF (Afghanistan). After leaving the Naval Special Warfare Community, Shawn continued to serve as a contractor with the CIA in clandestine operations worldwide. Now he runs the Shawn Ryan Show, dedicated to preserving history through the unfiltered stories of heroic events and current world issues by honoring the real experiences of the men and women who lived them. 

Shawn Ryan

During his 14 years of combat service as both a Navy SEAL and CIA Contractor. Shawn completed over 20 deployments to combat zones in 14 different areas of operations that  focused on this country’s fight against Islamic terrorism as it expanded from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban to The Islamic State (ISIS). Shawn left the Special Operations Community to pursue a new career and bring his unique skillset to the home front.

As the fight against terrorism increasingly found its way to the United States, Shawn founded Vigilance Elite in December 2015 to provide training to both the civilian and law enforcement sectors. Vigilance’s purpose is to teach and instill the unique skills and mindset of a Navy SEAL to those who want to learn to defend themselves and their families against imminent threats.

Ryan chatted with me for this feature in Soldier of Fortune. 

Chabot:  What inspired you to leave contracting and start Vigilance Elite?

Ryan:  I didn’t leave contracting to start Vigilance Elite. The Idea came to me about six months after I left contracting with the agency. What inspired me to start teaching was watching the news. We have seen active shooter after active shooter in the media. Almost every time we see this happen, there is footage from someone’s phone released to the media. After watching the footage from several incidents, I started to realize, a large majority of the public had no idea how to act or know what to do when these unfortunate incidents happen. They didn’t know where to go, how to move, what to look for, or where to hide. They just looked helpless, I think it was the terror attack on the airport in Brussels that made me want to start trying to teach people how to think and act when incidents like this happen.

Shawn Ryan

I started off teaching people simple things they can do in their home if someone were to break -in. I also gave classes on mindset. However, that never really took off, so I changed my focus and asked myself. “What did everyone want to see?” They wanted to see operators like me shooting guns. So that’s what I did, I started teaching people how to shoot and to use tactics. After my first class, I realized that most people carrying guns (regardless of what they think.) had no clue how to use them, which made tactics way out of the realm. I then made the decision to concentrate on the fundamentals. Everyone else I saw was teaching so called “high speed shooting” tactics. I would get students in my classes wanting to do all the “tactical stuff”. I would notice they couldn’t hold a pistol correctly. So, the fundamentals became my main focus.

Chabot:  How is Vigilance Elite different from other training companies?

Ryan:  Vigilance Elite is different from other training companies because we like to have fun out there on the range. I have watched videos from other companies and noticed three things.

  • A lot of the guys teaching are making things up as they go. People are buying into their BS because they don’t know any better.
  • The Instructor knows exactly what he is doing. But he scares the shit out of his students. He is under the false impression, everyone attending the class is going downrange tomorrow. Students end up being overwhelmed before they even get started.
  • The Instructor is teaching things that are far to advanced for the audience they have in front of them. And none of the information will be retained.
Shawn Ryan

I decided to take a different approach. I would only teach advanced shooting/tactics to students who are at a level that is safe, and they can actually learn what is being taught. If they are still learning to do a mag change. They should not be doing shoot, move communicate drills. I also make it fun. I don’t yell or scream and throw a fit if my students do something wrong. I want everyone comfortable and at ease, so they learn effectively. It works like a charm, students learn at a fast pace. They understand and retain everything I teach them.

I have a client who told me he liked how I taught. He had trained with multiple instructors with a background similar to mine.  They had treated him like they were getting ready to invade Baghdad tomorrow. He said I had the most laid-back attitude he’s ever seen, and it made him comfortable. He stated “Man, I’m just trying to learn how to protect my family in church if I have to. I’m not planning on going to Iraq.” That stuck with me ever since.

Chabot  What is your goal with students? What can they expect to learn?

Ryan:  My goal is to get students as proficient as possible with their firearms and retain the information. I take great pride in watching them progress. Which is why I have so many repeat students at my classes. They can expect to learn muscle memory meaning they will learn to manipulate the weapon with confidence without thinking about it. Like walking, you don’t think about it, you just do it. This is how effective my clients get with shooting and weapons handling. I take the same approach with my students during the tactical portion of a course.

Chabot: What do you expect from students?

Ryan: I expect students to listen and at least try my methods. I always tell clients there is a difference between being comfortable with a gun and knowing how to use one. A lot of gun owners think they are an expert because they have been shooting since they were a kid. If you’re comfortable that’s great, half the battle is getting comfortable. Now, I want to get you to know how to use it the right way. Please, just hear me out and give my methods a chance because they work. If it doesn’t work for you after you have given it your all. Then by all means, go back to your old ways. This has never happened though. All I ask for is to give me an open mind.

Chabot: What mentality do you try to convey to students attending a course?

Shawn Ryan

Ryan: I try to convey that by remaining vigilant, you can get out of the majority of threatening situations that could happen. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you must constantly look over your shoulder. Or drive around town with a load out ready to take out a terror cell. You can keep yourself safe by knowing fundamentals and being a minimalist. You don’t have to be the meanest, scariest gunfighter in the world. You can be proficient and that’ll put you ahead of 99% of everyone else.

Chabot:  Do you see Vigilance Elite growing to meet the demand for quality instruction in shooting and tactics?

Ryan: Yes, I absolutely do. I realize I can’t be everywhere all at once and there is a very high demand for my courses. My goal for this year is to get the fundamental courses online. So, people can learn anytime they want. I’m also coming out with a series of drills that will keep you proficient and doesn’t involve 500 rounds a day and an outdoor gun range. You will be able to keep proficient anywhere.

Chabot: As we know, gear and weapon systems are a personal choice. What are some of your choices?

Ryan: I get that question quite a bit. I personally carry a Glock 43, damn near stock. I have night sights on it and use a mag extender so I can get a full grip. That doesn’t necessarily mean that is the best gun for you. My advice is to stick with the brands that have built a good reputation for reliability and you’ll be fine. Just go with what is comfortable for you. The Glock 43, M&P Shield and Sig P365 are my top choices. Don’t get wrapped up in the aftermarket parts game. You don’t need them and most of them are crap.

Chabot: What is the one piece of advice you would give to a new shooter?

Ryan: Don’t get ahead of yourself. Tiger Woods didn’t learn how to play golf after one lesson.

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Photos from the private collection of Shawn Ryan.


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Greg Chabot served in US Navy Seabees from 1988-1993,
and the Army National Guard from 2002-2005.

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