One of the most common questions I receive from readers or students is, “What should I practice?” As a matter of fact, I received this question twice during last weekend’s course. It’s a legitimate question, especially with skyrocketing ammunition prices. Recently, I was at the local Wal-Mart buying some Winchester White Box 9mm ammo (the cheapest I can find) and paid 25 bucks for 100 round!. I noticed that .40 S&W and .45 ACP of the same brand was another ten bucks.
There is no doubt high ammo prices affects one’s personal training and the ability to keep one’s skills sharp while paying the mortgage, car payment, buying groceries, clothing and all the other things necessary for daily life. Since blowing up ammo needlessly is certainly recognized as expensive, we need to shoot our limited ammo supply wisely.
I’m a firm believer in essential skills (what most call fundamentals), and while many shooters get bored practicing basics, these skills are necessary to prevail in a fight. Bruce Lee said, “Advanced skills are the basics mastered,” and it is so true. My research into armed conflict along with my law enforcement experience has led me to believe pistol fights are not complicated affairs…they are quite straight forward, really. Seldom are barrel rolls and related acrobatics necessary, they are usually “go to guns” fast and furious with a bit of movement. Many USPSA matches are much more complicated. Thus, practicing basics is a great place to start.
Fortunately, most all essential skills are mastered without firing a shot. Dry fire is the best way to improve draw, reload, malfunction clearances (using dummy rounds), shooting around cover (with a mirror at the opposing side to see how much you expose of yourself), one-hand manipulation, unconventional shooting positions (kneeling, prone, on the side, “roll back”, etc.) and any other skill that doesn’t require actual repeated trigger manipulation. The purchase of a dry fire training aid such as the Beamhit unit can give first shot feedback via a laser fit into the barrel of your carry gun. In truth, repeated trigger and recoil control are the only things that require live ammo expenditure.
Before beginning any dry fire training program, make double, triple and quadruple sure that your gun is empty and that no live ammo is in the room with you. As a matter of fact, it is a great idea to make sure you are in the room alone and lock the door behind you, especially if you have small children. A capable dry fire pad, such as the one manufactured by Safe Direction, is a very good idea. An old body armor panel will also work. That way, if you suffer a “brain fart,” the round will be captured harmlessly and a valuable lesson learned.
The Real Deal
Now that we’ve narrowed the skills needed for live fire practice, let’s look at when we do need live ammo. Trigger control is the most important skill required for accurate shooting and the most difficult to master. In a nutshell, the index finger on the shooting hand depresses the trigger to the rear, working independently of the rest of the hand, without interrupting muzzle to target alignment. Think about how many times a day you open and close your hand, using the thumb and fingers in concert with one another. Then you can get some idea of how complex this action really is! You are actually trying to combat thousands of repetitions a day of an action with occasional range practice. Taking this into consideration, is it really hard to understand why shooters squeeze their whole hand when they shoot, something I call “milking the grip” as it reminds me of my feeble attempt to milk a cow in my past…squeeze and pull down. Sound familiar?
Independent trigger manipulation requires intense concentration and needs to be mastered before all other skills. It must be practiced regularly, as it’s the most perishable of a skill set that’s already very perishable. Luckily, recoil control isn’t quite as difficult and is really a function of upper body position and applying forward force to a pistol.
On the Range
With the previous thoughts in mind as I head to the range, I start out with a few timed drills to see where I’m at. I like to do these drills “cold,” as I believe they are a better indicator of performance than after I have shot for a while. Remember, it’s unlikely you’ll have just come from a practice session at the range when your gunfight occurs. You’ll more than likely be “cold” as well.
I shoot these drills at 20 feet on the 6 x 10 inch chest cavity overlay which you can print off my web site. Only hits in this chest cavity count. I consider live fire a confirmation of the dry practice drills. I do each drill twice—anyone can get lucky and perform a single session well. One after another is more telling.
These are the drills I perform:
• One shot from ready in 1 second;
• One shot from the holster in 1.5 seconds;
• One shot, reload, one shot in 3 seconds;
• Draw, two shots, reload, two shots on two targets in 4 seconds;
• “Bill Drill” of draw and shoot six shots looking for a consistent split between each shot in 3 seconds or less;
These drills take 15 minutes and consume 50 rounds. You may decide to shorten this test to conserve ammo. To me, they give an idea of where I am lacking and what to work on. But don’t shoot any faster than you can hit! A “lucky run” isn’t educational, only deceiving. These drills should be learning points, not ego gratifiers. Also, you have just spent around $25—make it worthwhile.
I then shoot several magazines focusing on trigger control, which, as previously stated, is one area where dry fire does not suffice. I start at 10 feet, shooting 3 x 5 cards, going agonizingly slow, trying to shoot one jagged hole. I focus completely on what my hands are doing, making them control the trigger and not milking the entire grip, find the reset point and then smoothly pressing through the trigger action. I also take note of my body position, making sure my shoulders are over my toes. I move back 5 yards at a time, shooting 3 rounds at each distance, trying to stay on the 3 x 5 card, concentrating on “sight, press.” I work my way back to 25 yards. By this time, I have fired 100 rounds, give or take, so if the ammo supply is low, I stop.
If I have additional ammo available, I then work on delivering the gun to the target from one of several “ready” positions, ensuring the delivery is consistent and feels smooth…no bounce at the end. The felt aspects of shooting are grossly under-rated. I then move to the draw stroke, making sure it’s consistent and direct to the target. Think of the draw stroke as an upside-down L with the gun coming up and out from the holster, directly to the target. A good draw is one that arrives where you are looking.
Lateral movement can be part of this drill and I try to move until I am ready to shoot…somewhere around 10 feet. I also work on picking up the front sight in my field of vision as quickly as possible. Make sure you practice with the same carry gear that you use daily, including a concealing garment. Add a few drills, which simulate combat conditions, while kneeling or from extreme close quarters, and you will have a reasonable 200-round practice session.
No, these drills do not account for all of what might happen in a gunfight, but understand there’s no way to prepare for every potential conflict. History has shown that the person who prevails in armed conflict is the one who can keep his head and decide which of their practiced skills will solve the problem at hand. The student that never practices is the one who will fail to decide. Stay safe, stay alert and practice your skills often. Oh yeah…thanks for checking in!