Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Semi-Auto Pistol Grip: The how’s and why’s

I recently sat with a number of law enforcement firearms instructors and listened to them debate the correct grip for the semi-automatic pistol. One advocated thumbs forward and another pushed for thumbs up. One even made the case for the thumbs being held away from the frame, so they wouldn’t apply undue pressure on the side of the gun…pushing the muzzle off target. I sat quietly and didn’t get involved for several reasons. One, if I’m talking, I’m not listening, and it’s through listening that I learn and two, I don’t really think the thumbs matter when it comes to applying a proper firing grip to a pistol …at least doing what the “grip” is supposed to do which is to apply inward pressure. 

What Thumbs Do

Try something for me. Make a tight fist with your shooting hand and hold it. While retaining the fist, straighten the thumb forward and then up. Did the position of the thumb affect how tightly you could hold your fingers? I didn’t think so. The truth is, your shooting-hand thumb could be half gone and you’d still be able to grip a pistol provided there was enough thumb left to create a pocket for the grip, as the shooting hand applies pressure from front to back as if you’re squeezing a pair of pliers. The front and back straps of the pistol are what the shooting hand engages, leaving the side-to-side pressure to the support hand. This front-to-back pressure is both good and bad: It’s consistent with the rearward travel of the trigger, thus the index finger can efficiently apply pressure. This is the same reason that it’s bad. Because the hand is a sympathetic mechanism, it’s very hard to separate the trigger finger from the rest of the hand, and, as we all know, a convulsive grip of the entire hand as the trigger is being pressed will take the muzzle off target. Depending on the distance, this could cause us to miss our attacker completely.

The support hand applies side-to-side pressure, as if it’s squeezing a rubber ball.  The fingers are applying pressure toward the heel of the hand and, once again, the thumb doesn’t come into play. If the support hand is going to make maximum contact with the grip, the heel of the hand needs to make as much contact as possible with the available grip surface. Thus, it’s a good idea to vacate this area, allowing the support hand to be seated. This means that the shooting-hand thumb must be flagged or at least moved out of the way, which a normal thumbs-down grip doesn’t provide.

If the thumb is locked down and the support hand attempts to apply inward pressure, the thumb creates a gap in the grip that provides recoil a travel path.  By removing the thumb from the exposed grip panel, the heel of the support hand can fill the space left by the shooting hand with the support fingers wrapping around same. The support hand then squeezes inward on the grip and shooting hand, creating a 360° wrap on the gun’s grip with inward pressure all around.

The 360° Wrap

Why is a 360° wrap on the pistol’s grip important? Because it helps keep the gun on target through the firing cycle and the recoil that results. How do you now if you have good recoil control? The gun returns where it started! When the gun fires, it sends a bullet down the barrel and the slide assembly moves to the rear. Recoil actually travels backward, but the shooting hand applying forward pressure makes the muzzle rise as it seeks the path of least resistance.

By applying a continuous 360° wrap around the gun’s grip, which includes backward pressure to the gun’s front strap, and applying a forward lean by the upper body and arms into the gun, muzzle rise is greatly reduced or eliminated depending on the weapon being used. If a gap in the grip is evident, the gun will torque in that direction making it more difficult (read slower) to get back on target quickly for fast follow-up shots. Why are fast follow-up shots important? No one ever misses with their first rounds, right? In addition, the history of pistol fighting as revealed multiple shots are likely to create the level of incapacitation needed to stopa determined adversary.

How tight should the two hands be? After all, we’ve all heard of applying 60/40 or 70/30 pressure to the grip, meaning that 40/30% of the grip is applied by the shooting hand while 60/70% is applied by the support hand. Is this necessary? Not really. Try making a fist with your shooting hand, and hold it as tight as possible. Now release just your index finger and move it as of it were trying to work the trigger on your pistol. Notice how the other fingers loosen up a bit? It’s something that just happens, so don’t worry about how tight to grip the gun. Just apply as much pressure as you can and your shooting hand will compensate for the movement of the index finger. Just focus on proper trigger control, and the rest will fall in place. Also consider the convulsive interaction of the hand as you try to depress the trigger as discussed previously. Will having a loose firing hand help or work against this phenomenon? A tight grip is much less likely to tighten and then loosen.

Are the thumbs important for combative shooting? I think so, but it has nothing to do with applying inward pressure to the grip. I like the thumbs forward, as they offer a secondary sighting device when trying to get the gun on target during the pandemonium of armed conflict. They also help apply greater pressure to the front strap and help lock the wrists. Point your thumb at the wall and open your hand. Note how the fingers point down towards the floor? Place a pistol in this open hand and wrap the fingers around the grip. The fingers will apply rearward pressure to the front strap, camming the muzzle down. Do you tink this could come in handy when te gun fires?

Another Experiment

Take your empty hand, and hold it as if you’re gripping a pistol with your thumb straight forward. Separate your index finger, as if it were on the trigger face. Look at an item on the wall 15–30 feet away, and point your thumb at it, as if you were extending a pistol to shoot. Notice how the gun comes naturally into your eye/target line? The felt aspects of shooting are grossly under-rated.

What do I mean by this? All too often, shooting is made into a visual exercise with instructions such as, “look at the front sight before pressing the trigger” or “you won’t be able to see the front sight due to stress; you’ll focus on the threat.” The problem is that the eyes have nothing to do with shooting the gun. Shooting is a kinesthetic exercise and it should be thought of as such.

In reality, we all point shoot even if we are sighted shooters. What do I mean by this? When does the front sight come into play when shooting a handgun? At the last moment before the trigger is pressed once the gun gets to the eye/target line. What got the gun to this point in the process? Physical manipulation that must be consistent and practiced so it can be accomplished without conscious thought. Would this not be a form of target focused or point shooting?

Proper Body Manipulation

Does anyone really think they can thrust their pistol out in front of their body, chase down the front sight and get a quick and accurate shot by relying on the front sight alone? Even the father of front-sight focus, Jeff Cooper, stated, “The body aims, the sights confirm.” It’s practiced body movement and manipulation that gets the gun to the eye/target line quickly and accurately. By using the felt index of the thumbs-forward grip, the accuracy of this movement is merely enhanced.

Am I advocating point shooting? Not really, as I don’t see a big difference between the two techniques. If a person practices using their front sight to confirm proper body manipulation when delivering their pistol to target, but then during the actual event they focus on the threat, does it really matter as long as the gun arrives where it’s needed? The truth is that it’s more likely that the shot will be missed due to improper trigger control than to sight alignment. It is also wise to keep in mind it is VERY difficult to pull our eyes away from something that is trying to kill us.

In Sum

The handgun is controlled by two things: a proper grip applied to the pistol in a 360° full-contact fashion and the straight rearward travel of the trigger. Sights are nice to confirm that the body did what it should’ve done, but they’re not critical in a close-quarters gunfight.

Should you use them if you can? Hell yes! But if you can’t, proper body motion will likely get them there for you if you’ve taken the time to note how it feels to properly deliver the gun to the target. Recreating that feel is worth practicing and, if front-sight focus/confirmation helps anchor this, then what’s the harm? Obtaining a proper grip on the gun, proper trigger control and forward body position are all kinesthetic exercises and must be practiced correctly or they’ll do you no good when you need them. These are basic skills, what many call fundamentals…I prefer to call them ESSENTIALS. Remember: As Bruce Lee so eloquently said, “Advanced skills are the basics mastered.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Trigger Control: More important than you think

More attention should be given to one of the most essential shooting skills… trigger control. I've come to realize that trigger control is not well understood by many. In an article on a gun forum, for example, the author stated that trigger control was not at all important. According to the author, police gunfights occur at such close ranges that worrying about trigger control is unnecessary.

My thoughts: If you don't properly control the trigger, the muzzle will go off target and you will miss. TRIGGER CONTROL IS WEAPON CONTROL! On the street, when an officer draws a gun and shoots, it's to defend their own life, not an innocent citizen. They place themselves between the criminals and the citizens. Thus, they must be able to shoot well enough to save their own lives. If not, they may be killed; it's as simple as that. For decades now, we have known the hit ratio for cops is between 17 and 23%...maybe lack of trigger control is a culprit here?

Get a Grip

The history of gun fighting has shown that the person who gets the first solid hit (a vital area of the body) usually wins, which is why many hate the long, double-action trigger standard on many service-grade guns. The hand is a sympathetic organism; what one finger does, the rest will do, which makes it difficult to isolate the trigger finger. The most common mistake shooters make is squeezing the whole hand instead of just the trigger finger, which is why competitors like short-trigger actions. Me too!

The "dipping" caused by whole hand convulsion, is often attributed to anticipating recoil or "pre-ignition push," which I believe is true for new shooters. However, once it's realized they can control the gun's recoil, I believe experienced shooters shoot to 7 o'clock (right hand) or 5 o'clock (left hand) because they're trying to fight how their hand wants to function, i.e. the whole hand squeezing as one unit.

Example: Consider how many times a day you've turned a door knob, grabbed the steering wheel, shook someone’s hand or picked up a glass…hundreds, maybe thousands of times? Then, imagine trying to press the trigger on a handgun without squeezing together the rest of your fingers. I once called this "milking the grip" on a TV shooting show and was ridiculed on the Internet.  I was referring to the whole hand downward squeeze as if milking the teat on a cow. I also received a bunch of mail from people who told me they knew exactly what I meant because it was “verbally/visually descriptive”. If you squeeze the whole hand (a convulsive grip), the gun's muzzle dips off target and will cause a miss.  Its that simple, but I feel as if it is my responsibility to give the internet idiots something to harp about…so you are welcome!

One method I was taught to correct this was called a "committed shot" in the early 1990s. Today it's called "slack out," and it's a method of depressing or prepping the trigger as the gun travels to the target so that when it stops, the shot is fired. The forward movement stabilizes the gun while pressing the trigger, and it works. Instructors teaching this say it should be used only when you're "committed to shooting" (thus the original name), and you can stop at any time by releasing the trigger.  When using a long trigger pistol like the Beretta 92 it is a real asset.

However, I always wondered if we're anchoring a skill in which a shooter will slack out the trigger and fire a shot every time they extend their gun? When being taught this technique, shooters under take hundreds of repetitions to become familiar with it and I've seen negligent shots fired in training when using slack out. Also, doesn't slack out violate a cardinal rule of gun safety, "Never place your finger inside the trigger guard until the sights are on target and you're ready to fire?” 

Please understand that I'm not bashing the slack-out method. I'm merely offering a few thoughts so you can determine if what you're teaching/learning is potentially problematic. Its called “critical thought” and every student of the combative arts should undertake it. If nothing else, it would be wise to include shoot/no shoot training to combat negligent sympathetic discharges.

It has been my observation in FATS training and on the street that police officers seek the trigger during times of high stress, so teaching them to seek and apply pressure to the trigger seems unnecessary to me. I have my students apply pressure once the gun is on target, and this method has worked both on the range and on the street.  As long DA triggers become less and less popular, slack out has aso become less popular. These days, there seems to be two methods of trigger control:  shoot to reset and catching the link. Shooting to resent as the shooter let the trigger out no further than is required to set up the next shot, while catching the link allows the shooter to lift their hand all he way off the trigger and then re-apply pressure to the trigger face to the moment of reset and the apply “controlled” pressure.  Some call this “trigger slapping” but it really isn’t as the pressure applied to the trigger is not out of control.

I have seen shooters use both methods quite well…but I have also FAR MORE shooters “spank” the hell out of the trigger. Missing the whole target as close as 15 feet!  In my classes, if I have a shooter come all the way off the trigger but are hitting, I leave them alone as they obviously have the technique down pat. That said, I am a member of the minimal trigger crowd and teach my students to shoot to reset knowing they will not be able to do it when shooting fast.  What this technique does accomplish, however, is keeping the shooter in contact with the trigger face so they don’t spank the trigger and take the muzzle off target.  My thought is if I can get the trigger finger to move minimally, the shooter is less likely to open and close the remaining fingers, which will help keep the muzzle on target. Those shooters that can come all the way of the rigger and then re-apply pressure without moving the est of their fingers are a rare breed and I am not one of them.

Hitting to win the fight

Handguns are not efficient fight stoppers regardless of caliber. Cops and armed citizens carry them because they're portable, not because they're effective. Handguns are distance weapons that can be carried continuously, drawn quickly and used with reasonable effectiveness if we do our part and place the shots well. It was once said, "It's not important that you hit something; it's important that you hit something important." Violation of vital organs is key to incapacitation, but no small weapon can be counted on to incapacitate quickly every time. The human body is easy to kill, but it's difficult to stop quickly, and handguns are terrible at this. The areas most likely to bring about rapid incapacitation are:

•The high chest: This area is about eight inches in diameter , provided the attacker is facing you…half this if they are bladed) and contains the heart, major blood vessels, spinal column, etc.

•The brain vault: A brain hit will bring about rapid incapacitation, but it's well armored under the skull and is normally in a constant state of motion. Unless you are very close, head shots with a pistol are difficult.  That said, at close range the head might very well be THE TARGET to shoot for!
Both of the vital organs in these two zones are about the size of a 3 x 5 card, which is why I shoot a lot of 3 x 5 cards in my classes! Hitting a vital area while you and the suspect are moving is problematic, especially under the stress of a gunfight. But it can be done and has been countless times. Police officers and armed citizens have prevailed by keeping their cool and shooting accurately, which means they controlled the trigger.

So how important is all of this? Read on and see how much one-eighth inch of muzzle movement means to bullet impact:

•At 15 feet: 4 ".  If you were aiming at the center of the 8-inch high-chest region, you just moved out beyond its edge.

•At 21 feet: 6 ". You have now moved from the center of the chest to the edge of the chest cavity or armpit.

•At 30 feet: 8 7/8".  A hit in the arm or maybe armpit…if the attacker is bladed you just missed them!  By the way, 30 feet/10 yards is not a long pistol shot as many claim. The world long jump record is 29”4 ½” …there are men who have run and jumped this far so do not consider it a long shot!

•At 45 feet: 1' 1". You have just missed the suspect's torso and sent a round down the street. (I hope something stops this bullet other than a child on a tricycle.)

Stay in Control

To control is to regulate or direct a mechanism. Trigger control means how much you allow it to move. Thus, to my way of thinking, the less we move it, the less likely we are to move the muzzle.
If we can minimize the movement of the trigger finger, we're less likely to flex the whole hand. Therefore, I believe in beg minimal” on the trigger for the vast majority of us. For you folks who can pen your trigger finger without affecting the rest of your hand, God bless and go for it! I once had a famous competitive shooter tell me this was the method he used and was the best method for all shooters. When I asked what he based his opinion on, he told me, "In my millions of rounds of shooting, I have found that I …" I held up my two hands in the classic "time out" formation and asked, "How many people will ever shoot millions of rounds? You are not the norm. You are the gifted exception. You are he same as an Olympic sprinter. Everyone can run but few will make it to the Olympics. You cant compare yourself to the masses.”

I'm not convinced we should emulate the well-practiced shooter on the competition circuit. No disrespect intended, but we're talking about moderately trained police officers and armed citizens, not the gifted. I am convinced for those f us who are average the best way to control any object is to stay in contact with it. Example: When you're driving a car, would you "slap" the steering wheel in order to direct the vehicle where you want it to go or would you stay in constant contact with it so that you can actually feel how far to turn the wheel to steer the car?  Contact means control…

It's true that reset is different for every gun, and some claim the need for a "battlefield pick-up" makes practiced trigger control unwise, but how likely is it in U.S. law enforcement or as a legally armed citizens you'll pick up and use an unfamiliar gun? In all of the gunfights I have reviewed I know of three and all involved off-duty cops carrying five shot snubbies and no reload.  IN addition, domestic pistol fights last but a few seconds…when will you have the time to seek out a gun lying on the ground and retrieve it? Should you? After all, why is it lying there?

Final Thoughts

Like many things firearms related, trigger control will continue to be debated, but I'll stick with what's simple and proven. Understand that trigger control not only means how much you allow it to move, but also knowing when to place your finger on it. The secret to trigger control is training and practice. There's no substitution.

Remember: We all must be active participants in their own rescue, which means hitting what we are shooting at. And trigger control, more than any other aspect of shooting, will determine how successful you will be when the time comes to save your own own life. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Essentials for Combat

When it comes to engaging in interpersonal conflict (i.e. a gunfight!), cops and armed citizens want to believe they know how the fight will start, finish and how their opponent will engage.

Always having a plan of attack is sound. But we all need to remember the fight will never progress according to plan so we all need to have contingencies. Making assumptions will put you at a disadvantage before the fight ever begins...especially if the fight does not follow what YOU have planned for it. 

Over the years I’ve taught many courses and in these courses, students always share their plan of attack (or counter attack) with me. This is true regardless of whether they are law enforcement, military or armed citizens. Most will say: “If someone kicks in my front door, I’m going to get my gun while my wife calls the cops.” Or, “If I roll on an active shooter call, I’ll clear my carbine from the rack before I arrive on the scene.” These plans will work fine provided the suspect(s) performs exactly as visualized in the student’s mind. The problem: We have no idea what any criminal will do. As I’ve said many times before in this column, they don’t think like we do!

The truth: Good guys and gals don’t have the experience to “think” like the bad guys. Why? Simple…We haven’t had the same life experiences...we did not grow up the same way...

Sometimes I question the tactics and techniques developed during interactive training (Simunitions, UTM or Airsoft) because the people playing criminals are cops or legally armed citizens and they’ll behave in scenarios as such—not as a criminal would. You will do as you are trained and few have been trained to act illegally...ruthlessly, selfishly and without control. In the examples above, what if the suspect comes through the back door instead of the front? What if the officer wrecks his cruiser while responding because his attention was directed at the carbine? It’s been said many times before…no good plan survives first contact with the enemy.

It’s certainly important to “war game” any plan, but it’s also imperative to have several plans. When plan A doesn’t work (and it probably won’t), we move to plan B, and if that fails, plan C is instituted without hesitation. Yes, it’s a tall order, but it’s essential. Attempt to consider all the possible variables in conflict and then plan for the worst possible situation. That way, when things don’t go as planned (they won’t), you’re still prepared with other options.

The Unexpected

It’s always possible something will happen that we never considered. You can think a problem through a million ways—when, where, how and why—and still not come up with all the potential situations that may (will?!) occur during a fight. The harsh reality: You can’t possibly train for every potential situation you may face. This is why fundamental (I like to call them essential) skills should be practiced and mastered, because the person who will win in armed conflict is the one who can adapt to the threat and use the appropriate essential skills!

Threats will always be situationally dependent...you know, circumstance dictates... and we need to embrace this reality. Practice the critical skills—movement, communication, accurate shooting, manipulation of the weapon, using cover and concealment, etc.—so that you can run on autopilot in any type of attack. If you have to "orient" to the situation, you might not respond at all. Doing so also prepares us for the unexpected, which is darn near guaranteed in any fight. Let me give you the secret to winning a gunfight: its the person who sees the situation for what it truly is FIRST, adapts accordingly by applying the required essential skills to the problem! Easier said than done...

You should also never make assumptions regarding how an attacker will respond to your actions. Again, they don’t think like we do, so how could you possibly think such assumptions would be correct? The only control you’ll have over the situation you’re facing is what you will do—there’s no way to know your attacker’s actions or intentions. 

It would be great if suspects always responded to verbal commands or immediately became incapacitated from one round fired from our handgun, but all who are reading this should know such things are fantasy. Handguns suck as “man stoppers,” which is why cops carry carbines and shotguns in their cruisers and handguns see little use in war-fighting. The miss ratio in police shootings is also quite high, so the idea of one round fired ending a fight might be the biggest fantasy we face in our “art”. Yep! I'll ay it out loud...you will probably miss the shot required for the "one shot stop". 

Armed conflict is rapidly evolving, ever changing and certainly unpredictable. Even if we do have plans A, B and C, the suspect(s) might do something that makes us skip over plan B to move to plan C and then maybe return to B. Who knows! Clint Eastwood was certainly correct in the movie Heartbreak Ridge: We must be prepared to “improvise, adapt and overcome.”

Train to Win

It’s been my experience that a size-able percentage of police officers dread in-service training—in some cases, they even think it’s stupid. But it’s this training that prepares each officer for the conflicts they’re likely to face. The job of an LEO is to seek out law breakers and place themselves between said criminal and the citizens they prey upon.

With this in mind, what are the chances a cop will become involved in a serious, life-threatening conflict during their career? Will they be ready? The search for and introduction of new techniques and the skill building via (limited) repetition during in-service training helps equip all to respond effectively in these conflicts. If we haven’t mastered the tactics and techniques needed to fight these threats, it’s very possible we’ll be overcome, injured or even killed—and that’s unacceptable. I have spoken to many an armed citizen that would LOVE to get the in-service training many cops dread. 

There are many aspects of armed conflict that are essential: dynamic but meaningful movement, communicating threats to others, deciding what to use as cover, accurate shooting as required and instant decision-making skills. If your personal practice or in-service training doesn’t include these critical components, it’ll be all but impossible to perform them under the duress of armed conflict.

Keep in mind there’s no such thing as a fair fight. The difference between competition and combat is rules. If there are rules governing what transpires, we call that a sport. But in a fight, if you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying hard enough to win. Use every skill, tactic or technique you possess to your advantage. Do the unexpected! 

In his book The Principles of Personal Defense Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper outlined what was needed to prevail in armed conflict: alertness, decisiveness, aggressiveness, speed, coolness, ruthlessness and surprise, the most critical component. Erich Hartmann, the Nazi Ace who killed 352 enemy pilots during 1,000 combat missions, laid out the importance of surprise when he said, “The man who sees the other first already has half the victory!” You can’t fight what you can’t see or don’t know about.
In reality, combat isn’t just about accurate shooting, movement, tactics or techniques. It’s about continuous problem solving under the stress and duress of someone trying to do you serious physical harm, which could result in your death. It’s about one fast, crisis-level decision after another. 

• Which tactic or technique should I use?
• Should I move, stay, shoot, reload, take cover, retreat or engage?
• Are there non-hostiles in the area?
• Am I justified in shooting?
• Where are others in the battle space?
• Where is the suspect?

These decisions will arrive in rapid fire and the truth is you won’t move through “observe, orient, decide and act” as smoothly as water being poured from a pitcher. If you can’t see, then you might very well freeze in the orientation phase. Considering all of the information that’s pouring in and colliding with personal bias, reluctance and disbelief, it’s a wonder orientation can occur at all! But it can and does for the truly prepared.

Final Notes

Your tactics and techniques must be “trained in” (what the motor learning community calls "automaticity") so that you can run on autopilot during a conflict. Additionally, it’s a very good idea to keep your skill set(s) as simple as possible. Simple techniques might not look as cool as others, but “tacti-cool” seldom wins the fight and can certainly get you killed.

In the end, it’s not about how tight a group you can shoot on the range or if you can win the local shooting competition, it’s about whether or not you can hold your shit together during the most stressful event you’ll ever experience and take the actions needed to prevail—not just survive. A quote I’ve used many times sums it up: “Right now someone is training so that when they meet you, they beat you. Train hard and stay on guard.” Amen…