If you only had five minutes to explain how to optimize a new shooter’s defensive handgunning training, what — exactly — would you say?
If you’re a seasoned combat handgunner, you may want to just skip this one.
But as someone who spent 32 years with the FBI in firearms training, SWAT operations and other tactical specialties, I can honestly tell you the following: There has been a significant increase in the number of citizens who own firearms for self-defense purposes, but there has not been a corresponding increase in realistic training for those new gun owners.
In my experience, the majority of firearms training at both indoor and outdoor ranges is conducted with a shooter standing in one spot and firing at one target. The shooter is not moving, the target is not moving, and the shooter is not shooting against a clock. While this training is sufficient to teach someone the basics of marksmanship, it falls short of the training necessary to prepare a person to survive a fight for his or her life.
The philosophy behind self-defense firearms training is simple: When an individual is required to use a firearm to successfully defend himself or herself or another, that individual will be required to perform skills at a level necessary to win the confrontation. Whatever those skills are, the shooter should have learned and practiced them at the range and attained competency before the real-life confrontation. That’s as simply as I can break it down, and if you look at the matter through the lens of, “If I only had five minutes to tell a new shooter how to pursue quality training in the basics of defensive handgunning,” this is about how that conversation would shake out.


The ability to shoot under time pressure is critical. It does not matter how accurate you are if you are shot and incapacitated before you can stop the threat you’re facing. Time competency is hard to quantify since the time standard is not set by you but rather by your assailant: You must be able to stop that threat before it kills or grievously injures you. Since there is no set time standard, you need to practice making accurate shots as quickly as you can — and the key word here is “accurate.” You can never miss fast enough to have it count.
The best way to improve your speed is to shoot against a timer. There are many models on the market that are not that expensive, and they can be used both in live fire and while dry-firing.


On Nov. 1, 1930, The Saturday Evening Post published Part 2 of Stuart N. Lake’s three-part series of articles titled “Guns and Gunfighters.” In the article, Lake shared some important words of wisdom from Wyatt Earp about accuracy and speed. These tips from the legendary gunfighter are still applicable today:
“Paradoxical as it may seem, the most important lesson I learned from those proficient gun fighters was that the winner of a gun play usually was the man who took his time. The second was that if I hoped to live long on the frontier, I would shun all flashy trick shooting — what in these days would be called grandstand play — as I would poison.”
“I considered myself a fair hand with pistol, rifle or shotgun, and I could make a creditable showing in target matches, but I learned more about gun fighting from Tom Speers’ [marshal and chief of police of Kansas City from 1870 to 1893] cronies during the summer of ‘71 than I had ever dreamed was in the book. Those fellows took their gun play seriously; which was only to be expected, in view of the conditions under which they lived. Shooting, to them, was considerably more than aiming at a mark and pulling a trigger. Models of weapons, methods of wearing them, means of getting them into action and of operating them, all to the one end of combining high speed with absolute accuracy, contributed to the frontiersman’s shooting skill. The sought-after degree of proficiency was that which could turn to most effective account the split second between life and death. Hours upon hours of practice and wide experience in the actualities of the art supported the argument over style.”
“When I stress the fact that I learned to take my time in a gunfight, I do not wish to be misunderstood, for the time to be taken was only an infinitesimal fraction of a second that meant the difference between deadly accuracy with a six-gun and a miss. It is hard to make this clear to a man who has never been in a gunfight. Perhaps I can best describe such time-taking as going into action with the greatest speed of which a man’s muscles were capable, but at the same time mentally unflustered by an urge to hurry or the need for complicated nervous and muscular actions which trick shooting involves. Mentally deliberate, but muscularly faster than thought, is what I mean.”
“From my experience and from the numerous six-gun battles which I witnessed, I can only support the opinion advanced by the men who gave me my most valuable instruction in fast and accurate shooting — which was that the gun fanner and hip shooter stood small chance to live against a man who, as old Jack Gallagher [a frontier scout] always put it, took his time and pulled the trigger once … Isaw Jack Gallagher’s theory borne out so many times that I was never tempted to forsake the principles of gunfighting as I had them from him and his associates.”
— Frank Jastrzembski, Contributing Editor
You will have to start with the draw. While you may not necessarily be forced to draw quickly to save your life, history has shown that you certainly might be. Take, for example, Jack Wilson, who stopped an attacker at the West Freeway Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2019. He responded within six seconds — before the assailant had time to turn his weapon on the crowd of parishioners. That kind of skill takes practice, and to improve your real-world draw speed, you need to practice drawing from wherever you normally carry. Good technique is built by starting slow to make sure you employ proper form and only increasing speed once you are unquestionably executing your draw properly. Using the video feature on your smartphone to film yourself and then critiquing the results is an excellent (and inexpensive) way to make this a reality.


This is where it can get difficult to find a facility that will allow you to train in a realistic manner.
One part of winning a gunfight is hitting your target. But another part is not getting shot by your attacker. As such, movement needs to be considered — the shooter moving as well as the target moving. If, during an attack, you are in the open and unable to get behind suitable cover or concealment, make yourself harder to hit by moving. You don’t have to necessarily move a great distance, but if you can be moving when your assailant is trying to shoot you, there is a better probability that you will not be hit. Landing an accurate shot while moving is by no means easy, but it can be accomplished with practice. As with everything else in self-defense handgunning, the time to learn how to accurately shoot while on the move is not in the middle of a gunfight.
Besides becoming a competent shot while moving, you will also need to build competence in hitting moving targets. There are a lot of videos available online of actual shootouts, and very few show the assailant standing still waiting for the defender to shoot back. This is a skill that takes practice but can be accomplished without too much trouble, and successfully shooting moving targets is far easier than accurately shooting while moving.
First, get your sights on the target and keep the firearm moving the same direction and speed as what you’re trying to shoot. This essentially makes the target stationary in relation to you. Second, during and after the trigger press, keep the muzzle tracking with the target — by which I mean do not press the trigger and then immediately stop moving. A good way to practice this skill is to triple-clear your firearm, hang a tennis ball or softball on a cord in your garage, get it swinging side to side, and then practice tracking the ball and dry-firing with proper follow-through. Even a few sessions of this a month will pay dividends if you ever find yourself in a circumstance under which you have to shoot a mobile attacker.


The best way to protect yourself from being shot is to be behind adequate cover (something that stops bullets) or, failing that, concealment (something that hides you from your attacker’s vision). Cover is the first part of the equation, while the second is being able to accurately shoot from behind it. Your shooting stance will vary somewhat, as barricade shooting entails leaning around the object to keep as much of your body behind it as possible. With practice, this will feel more comfortable, but without practice, you’re likely to step away from the barricade to get a good stance, which will put most of your body in the line of fire.
One-handed shooting is another reality of armed self-defense that all too often gets lost in the training shuffle. It’s entirely possible that one of your hands or arms will be injured and out of action, but you should be able to shoot with one hand while the other hand is occupied doing something else too. This could be as simple as holding a cellphone while calling 911 or as complex as moving a loved one out of the line of fire.
Mastering these basic skills will take time — and a lot of it. But as you move forward and close in on mastery of the basics, you will ideally start building additional skills that are not true essentials for basic defensive handgunning but are nevertheless very important. These skills include shooting from positions of disadvantage (such as on the ground after you have been knocked down), low-light techniques, engaging multiple targets, weapon retention, malfunction-clearing and more.


If at all possible, your training should include scenarios. Scenarios depicting what, you ask? Well, they should cover anything that is reasonably foreseeable, such as shooting while you’re seated in your car with your seat belt fastened and drawing and getting on target on either side of your vehicle. This can all be done dry fire, as actually shooting out of a car presents more than a few logistical issues. (Boy, if you thought ranges didn’t like you drawing from a holster...)
If you normally secure your firearm in a locked container, begin each scenario by moving to that locked container, retrieving your sidearm and getting it ready to fire. Another easy-to-run scenario is to start seated and then engage your target from every type of chair in your residence. Speaking of which, if you have children in the house, set up a scenario that takes your responsibilities for their safety into account. If you need to move down a hallway to get to your children to protect them, you should practice moving down that specific hallway. Your scenarios should also require you to identify “shoot” and “no-shoot” targets and make other tactical and legal judgments. If you press the trigger every time you draw your sidearm in training, don’t be surprised if that’s what you do in a real self-defense situation. These types of scenarios should be set up by an instructor or another shooter so that the situation is a surprise when you encounter it.


I have good news and bad news, whether you’re brand-new to defensive handgunning or you’re just looking to bump your training up from recreational to real. The good news is that much of your training can be done in your home without burning a single grain of powder; you can do this, and — yes! — you can do this even when ammo is expensive and hard to come by. The bad news is that no matter how much dry-fire training you do, you will still eventually need to go to a range to shoot live fire to validate what you’ve trained on at home.
As mentioned earlier, shooting ranges that allow you to engage in realistic training are in the minority. But they do exist, and most of these ranges will have competent, experienced instructors ready to assist you. So take a hard look at your current training regimen. Whether you just adopted the responsibly armed lifestyle or you’re realizing maybe most of your trips to the range have been a little more casual than they need to be, the time to get proper training is before your life depends on it.