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THE NAPKIN VERSION
THE QUICK-AND-DIRTY GUIDE TO EFFECTIVE TRAINING
‘GOT A PEN?’
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.
WYATT EARP ON ACCURACY AND SPEED
On Nov. 1, 1930,
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
IMAGE BY HERITAGE AUCTIONS,
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.
HITTING THE SOCIAL SCENE
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.
EXAMINE, PLAN AND ACT
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.
BEYOND THE ISOSCELES
ADOPTING A HOLISTIC FIGHTING STANCE
‘LIKE A WHAT?’
You often hear instructors say that your torso should “function like a tank turret.”
But is that really a good plan, and is the traditional isosceles stance really the best for self-defense training?
The isosceles stance is arguably the most commonly taught and used technique today — especially among private citizens. To the credit of its developers and promoters, the isosceles stance addresses several of the shortcomings of other popular techniques when applied to high-stress, high-adrenaline situations. For example, the Weaver stance, while proven effective in competition, is more difficult to master and relies on fine motor skills that evaporate under the adrenaline rush of life-threatening danger. The isosceles stance is easy to teach and easy to understand, making it a boon to instructors and new shooters alike, who may often have only a few hours together (at best). Still, the widely used isosceles stance suffers from major shortcomings. Even though it’s easy to grasp, it is rarely executed correctly, especially by relatively new shooters or those who shoot infrequently, thus magnifying its limitations.
Having taught shooting and personal-protection classes for decades, I have closely observed how both new and experienced shooters manage their firearms and how they absorb and respond to training. The isosceles stance, despite its virtues, suffers from a host of issues. In short, the isosceles stance is unnatural and thus destined to fail without constant training. While it seems simple on the surface, it is actually difficult to perform correctly, especially under stress, because it is counter to the body’s natural tendencies and attributes. Even when someone is practicing scenarios on the range, the isosceles stance has proven to lend itself to poor accuracy, poor gun-handling, poor recoil management, slow rates of fire and poor situation management. I have watched countless shooters start out on the range in the classic isosceles form, only to watch it fall apart within just a few rounds as nature takes over.
Even worse is that it is a poor choice in a real-world tactical encounter because it is unstable and severely limits both the threat area an individual can cover and his or her ability to move — whether to engage targets, find a better position or exit.
Despite any claims to the contrary, the isosceles stance is a static range shooting stance for limited target presentations.
At best, it allows a person to engage a stationary target, directly ahead, at close range. Adding a few closely spaced targets does not change that reality. It is inflexible, unnatural, unadaptable and immobile. It severely restricts a person’s ability to effectively maneuver, rapidly respond to a changing situation or multiple opponents, maintain accurate shooting, or develop the situation to bring it to a successful close by either exiting the danger zone or winning the fight. It is not a tactical fighting stance.
If we are to be effective in defensive deadly force encounters, we must do better.
Breaking down the “holistic fighting stance,” for lack of a better term, the first step is to embrace the concept of a stable fighting platform. Make it second-nature to instantly check your ability to move into one at any given moment. The stable fighting platform is at the heart of your primary stance. It is essential to sustained accurate shooting and to effective tactical response.
To get into the appropriate stance, crouch slightly and position your feet shoulder-width or slightly farther apart, with one foot a short-to-medium comfortable step ahead of the other. Your body weight should be shifted forward so that about 60 percent is over the front leg — as if facing a strong wind — and your upper body slightly forward or upright, with your weight slightly on the balls of your feet. It will become a simple second-nature act because it matches your body’s natural response to a perceived close physical threat.
Notice that it is stable and that knocking you off-balance would be difficult.
The isosceles stance is unnatural, which brings with it a whole host of issues for almost all shooters.
You can easily rotate in a great arc and move explosively in almost any direction. Should you place your right foot or left foot forward? It doesn’t matter, so adopt whatever is natural for you. I tell students not to think about it but rather to just do it. Some surprise themselves; I can push on them and not disturb them, which helps them realize just how stable they really are in this position.
Now let’s compare the holistic fighting stance to the isosceles stance. If a person correctly executes the isosceles stance, he or she is always on the razor edge of instability. (Most do not execute it correctly.) Your feet should be in line, shoulder-width apart, with your knees slightly bent. You should be leaning forward from the waist, with your arms pushed straight forward. Who stands like that?
The answer is nobody.
Stability is nonexistent, and the slightest push — let alone people careening into you during a real-world encounter — will send you reeling for balance or flat onto your back or face.
Your upper body rotation is severely limited, and forget about moving rapidly in any direction — especially at an angle from where you are. Most shooters begin to lean backward in a misguided (and unsuccessful) attempt to manage recoil, but that is a natural response induced by the isosceles stance itself.
Few maintain the necessary forward upper-body lean.
A great many people devolve from an isosceles into a “Frankenstein” stance: locked knees, locked elbows and an immobile position. Although not intended, that is almost its natural endpoint. To make matters worse, those same people will often shoot with unlocked wrists. A shooter will control his or her pistol like a fisherman has control of a fish on the end of the line: The fish might not get
away, but the individual is hardly in full control of the rod as he or she struggles to reel the fish in.
As shooters push their arms forward in the isosceles stance, watch how many fully extend them, with their elbows turned down and locked. The recoil is now focused entirely on their skeletal frames.
The stance is like the cannons of old in that, when fired, they roll backward out of position and their crews have to haul them back into place for their next shots.
In such a position, a shooter cannot rotate his or her upper body more than about 45 degrees to either side. Combine this inability to observe and engage with the inherent instability and immobility and you realize how poor a fighting stance the isosceles really is. Your body has skeletal, muscular and hydraulic (circulatory) systems that are your natural recoil-management tools if you use them correctly.
At full, locked extension, gun control comes only from the arm muscles, which rapidly fail. Here’s a simple test: Hold a dumbbell fully extended to either the front or side; your arm muscles rapidly get fatigued and fail. Move that weight just halfway back toward your body and it is much easier to maintain control for a much longer time. Now consider that at the end of that locked arm, with overstressed major muscles, you are trying to make small, very controlled movements with a minor digit (your trigger finger) using very minor muscles. The problems continue to compound.
For the holistic fighting stance, after you’ve learned a correct two-handed hold and proper trigger control, hold the handgun with the correct grip directly in front of your chest, with your elbows touching your body. You must have a stable fighting platform. Now, as in the isosceles stance, with both eyes open and your head up, simply push the gun toward the target, but stop the instant your arms want to stop moving. Having a stable fighting platform will make it easy to resist the isosceles stance’s unnatural-but-inevitable inclination to keep pushing your arms out until your elbows lock. Viewed from above, the arms form shallow “V”s, running from the shoulder to the elbow, then back into the gun.
With your stable fighting platform and effective upper body “turret,” you can rapidly turn to observe and engage over 90 degrees in either direction. Simple, small, natural foot movements add to this. As the upper body turns, the inside arm’s elbow naturally bends more and drops down, allowing the turn to continue. Swinging back, the arms smoothly and naturally assume their former positions, or anything in between. Your unlocked elbows and natural weight-forward posture make for effective recoil control and rapid, accurate shooting.
The holistic fighting stance provides rapid, stable, 360-degree rotation and coverage — the opposite of the isosceles stance. Let’s say you are left-foot forward in your stable fighting platform and a deadly threat appears to your right. Your natural body rotation lets you smoothly and easily traverse your upper body 90 degrees to the right.
Need more? Simply pivoting to the right on the balls of your feet lets you turn your stance 90 degrees to the right without disturbing your stability or fast, accurate shooting.
Need to turn completely around? Just a pivot on the ball of your right foot and a short step with your left positions you in the opposite direction from which you started — still stable, still shooting fast and accurately, and still fighting.
Need to go left? Pivot left on the ball of the right foot, make a short, sweeping step with your left foot, and you are still in your stable platform — still shooting effectively, now facing 90 degrees to the left of your original orientation.
At any moment, you can move explosively to another position. It would take at least four people in a defensive
square using the isosceles stance to match what you can do in the holistic fighting stance, and they would still lack your mobility and flexibility. In a deadly force encounter, you must dominate your personal battle space, and the holistic fighting stance provides you with the best chance to do so.
A HOLISTIC STANCE
A more natural stance allows for greater range of movement and higher endurance.
It lends itself to effective instruction because it can easily be taught, understood and practiced one component at a time before bringing them all together. Students find that it is natural and smooth, they tend to quickly grasp it, and they are soon able to execute it well and intuitively — which is exactly what we strive for in effective shooting and tactical response.
Today, the isosceles stance is widely taught and used, and for plenty of very good reasons. When he or she executes it correctly, a shooter can accurately engage targets to the front, and when performed correctly, it is more than enough for most shooting applications. But it is often not performed correctly and, while it seems simple, it requires regular training in order to be effective (and that’s if you have perfectly functioning shoulders). It can suffer from instability, immobility and limited fields of observation and fire, especially if the shooter in question experiences physical limitations. The holistic fighting stance is a system that is in harmony with the body and provides for rapid, accurate shooting and effective response in real-world tactical situations — not just higher scores on the firing line.