Friday, August 7, 2015

The Hierarchy of Combative Firearms Training: Ascend the pyramid to achieve proficiency

 According to my Webster's dictionary, training means to instruct so as to make proficient. Instruct means to “teach, educate or inform”, while proficient means “highly competent, skilled”. Thus, combative handgun training means teaching a person to be highly competent and skilled to use a handgun for personal security. How much skill do you need to proficiently take care yourself? Who knows? For me, it's as much skill as I can develop because it will be my life on the line and my life is real important!

The reality: Very few police officers or legally armed citizens receive the level of training needed to be highly competent, skilled with their carry sidearm. Most agencies will require their officers to train one to three times a year, and while this sounds like a lot, it's not. (Some agencies qualify their officers and nothing more, which is not training.) Few citizens who have a CCW permit will seek training beyond what is required in their state to obtain said permit. That said, none of us would bet $5 on a football game in which we knew the quarterback had practiced with the ball only one to three times in the past year. If we wouldn’t bet a few bucks on such a game, why do officers and armed citizens bet their lives on the same odds? It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect…most feel they are far more skilled tha they really are.

Yes, it’s easy to blame the agency for not training enough or limited time and ammo availability, but this is a cop out. Most police departments can’t afford to get their officers to the range but a few times a year. The cost of ammo, the loss of man-hours and scheduling logistics make such training problematic at best. The armed citizen’s life is filled with many things they would rather do than go to the range and practice. The truth is, it’s up to each and every officer or citizen to prepare themselves to prevail in any conflict. After all, it will be your life on the line, not your chief s or sheriff s and if you are a citizen you might be defending the life of a loved one. Do you trust such important stakes to luck? Enough said.

I’ve come to look at firearms training as a three-tiered pyramid I call the Hierarchy of Combative Firearms Training. The tiers are 1) fundamentals (I call them ESSENTIALS), 2) combative aspects and 3) interactive aspects. You must properly train and anchor skills through each level before you attempt the next. For example, would you take a counter-terrorist driving course before you take basic driver’s training? Of course not! Along these same lines, you should not try to fight with a pistol until you’ve learned how to shoot it. Some think they are one in the same, but they’re mistaken. If you throw a punch before you’ve learned how to make a fist, your punch won’t be effective and will likely result in injury and failure.

Base Level: Fundamentals…no, ESSENTIALS!

The fundamental level provides what everything else builds upon. Compare it to placing your hands at 9 and 3 on the steering wheel when learning to drive. The fundamentals include safe handling, grip, body position (aka stance), sight alignment, keeping the gun running, loading and unloading, and, most importantly, trigger control. The grip should use both hands and cover as much of the grip as possible. Any area of the grip left open will provide an avenue for recoil to carry the gun off target, making quick, follow-up shots difficult.

I’ve quit using the term stance as it relates to shooting a handgun because it really doesn’t matter where your feet are situated. As a matter of fact, it’s quite likely they will not be where you want them when you need to shoot. What proves important is keeping your body in a position that allows you to deliver multiple shots in multiple directions without being thrown off balance. In general, this means you must keep your shoulders over your toes and your knees unlocked.

Clearing a stoppage or malfunction is a requirement for any piece of machinery, but in a gunfight it is a life-saving skill.  For auto pistols, you must be able to clear any malfunctions quickly and easily, which is not as hard as it sounds. Someone just has to show you how to do it. Revolvers are a whole different matter. A quality revolver runs under very extreme conditions, but when it malfunctions it usually requires a trip to the gunsmith.

While many wish to debate using sights versus point shooting, I’ve found neither is very important if the shooter can’t control the trigger. Without trigger control, the muzzle won’t stay in alignment with the target, and the shot will miss regardless of the system used. Only hits count, so while I admit I’m an advocate of sighted fire, I’m an even greater advocate of trigger control. Without it, everything else is a doomed to failure.

All of these skills are required to “keep the gun running in a fight” which is why I call them essentials. While some may consider one skill more important than another, one must ask which skills will be needed to win your gun fight? That’s right, you do not know so having a mastery of all will be required in order to rapidly adapt to the situation you are facing. The most essential of essentials is a combative mind, something that is not listed in the fundamentals of shooting.

Mid-Level: Combative Aspects

Once you know how to shoot the gun, you need to know how to fight with it, which is easier said than done. You must be able to shoot in positions other than standing, at very close quarters, at long distances, with both the strong and weak hand alone, at multiple adversaries at varied distances, at moving targets, while the shooter is moving and in less-than-perfect light conditions. It’s one thing to stand on the line and shoot at a stationary target, it’s another to have to punch the target while drawing the gun, moving laterally and delivering multiple shots at double arms-length accurately enough to save your own life!
he ability to recognize cover from concealment is another essential combative skill, though whether something offers cover or concealment depends on what type of weapon your opponent is shooting. Do not underestimate concealment as it’s harder to be hit if you can’t be seen. Shooting while moving is widely taught these days, and I have no problem with that. Just don t spend too much time trying to shoot accurately while shuffle-stepping if getting out of the way of incoming fire fast is what you need to keep from getting shot. I have found moving quickly, planting and shooting accurately and then moving quickly again to be much more effective and history has born this out.

Combative handgun training is nothing magical, even though many instructors will try to make you believe it is. Police gunfights are fairly well documented, and certain things tend to happen time and again. Re-create these circumstances on the range and learn how to fight through them. Example: Shooting while lying on the ground is not that difficult to do, it’s just something you need to work out in training instead of trying to figure it out in the middle of a fight. The ability to respond without conscious thought remains key to prevailing in any altercation. This means you must work the needed skill out in training before a fight.

Upper Level: Interactive Aspects

Better known as force-on-force training, the ability to use mock weapons that allow students to shoot back at one another is underutilized. The majority of trainers will use SIMUNITIONS or Airsoft guns for scenario-based training, totally neglecting combative-skill building. Don t misunderstand scenario training is needed, but only after the skills learned at level two are reinforced. Such skills as drawing from the holster while moving, shooting at a moving target, engaging multiple targets, shooting from unconventional positions and from around cover will be better anchored if they ‘re used against a target who is shooting back. Take the drills you do using live fire and paper targets to build combative shooting skills and do the same drills with two or more people who return fire. This is the time to enable a shooter to find and use their front sight under the stress of conflict, if this is a desired skill. It makes sense to me to train in and anchor these skills under fire before attempting to use them in scenarios.

The main reason many police agencies don t engage in such training is the cost and/or logistics of acquiring the required gear. SIMUNITIONS are the best way to conduct this training, provided the students are NOT so padded up as to make the hits (i.e., feedback) worthless.  If budget constraints make SIMUNITIONS out of the question, however, Airsoft is the way to go. I use Airsoft technology in my Interactive Pistol course with great success. Unfortunately, it is the class I have to cancel most frequently as students, primarily armed citizens, seem to suffer “performance anxiety”. Initially they think it is a great idea but as the class draws near they begin to think about being “shot” (you know, real pain!), looking bad in front of others, making mistakes and for the “big talkers” not looking quite as Ninja as they like folks to believe.  A week or two before the course, it’s not unusual for over half the class to develop “family problems” and bail out.

Training is the time to make mistakes so you do not die in the street! Funny how the human ego can’t comprehend this.  I like to consider myself an advanced level instructor with a fairly vast knowledge pool, but every time I partake in Interactive Training I make mistakes and get “killed”. I consider these a learning opportunity and not a failure to save face. Do I want to live to see my family or die because of embarrassment?  Up to you…

The single most important aspect of interactive training, however, is two- fold. First, it requires the student to make rapid decisions in a crisis environment.  There is no observe, orient, decide and act you see and do or you are shot! You learn to trust the skills you learned at the previous two levels and use them to help you make these rapid decisions. You gain CONFIDENCE that your skills will work in a rapidly unfolding situation and we have known since the days of the Spartans that confidence in skill is the single biggest factor in overcoming fear and fear is the sig le biggest factor in why people do not take action in any crisis.

In the end, you must address all three levels of the pyramid to become properly skilled in combative handgun use…none can be skipped or short changed.  All are required… 


  1. I had no idea what I was doing on my first driving lesson, also I told the coach from Port Macquarie Driving School that maybe he should get us out of a narrow street. He obliged and drove us a few blocks away.

  2. Another winner from a true Master!...I use many of Dave's pithy insights in my CHL classes. And, of course [he] is right-on with this article...I probably have 2 students out of every 500 who make the commitment to pursue intermediate level instruction. The majority believe the 15hr basic CHL class is "good enough"...I sure am glad my Surgeon did not feel Med School was "good enough"!...or that Residency Training prepared him/her for Cardiac surgery!
    Folks...listen up...if you have your CHL you don't have to spend 1,000's of $ on equipment & instruction...but train with someone who can help you anchor the basic (Essential) skills, and then re-enforce these skills with periodic training until you feel ready to advance, at your own pace...remember the life you save may be your own, but could also possibly be mine!