Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What Should I Practice?

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.

Dry Fire

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.

Trigger Focus

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.

More Practice

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!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Trendy Crap: Use what is effective, not what looks cool.

I'm often startled when I wake up and realize how old I am. It seems like just yesterday that I was a young cop wanting to confront bad guys at every turn. In those days, I used to look at the older guys and think they were out of touch, with nothing but old and out-of-date information to offer. How wrong I was!! Just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s out of date. Often, it means that it's proven in battle, and I’ll take a proven technique or tactic over something new and noteworthy every time.

Why? As I age, I place a higher value on my life. I want to be around to watch my kids become parents and watch my grandkids become adults. Although I don’t want to pick a fight with the younger generation of combative shooters, I see an interesting trend toward techniques that look cool, what many call “tacti-cool”, but aren’t necessarily proven to win a fight or are used out of context of their original intent.

Remember… Fighting is final! If you engage in combat, you run the risk of being hurt or killed. It’s not a video game! There is no way to engage in nice fighting…there is no room for politically correct in this arena. I fear that some American cops and armed citizens have reached a time when force is preferably minimal instead of reasonable while on the other end of the spectrum, some want to use military-style, battle zone tactics in domestic conflict. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in several landmark cases that force must be reasonable based on the circumstances at hand, but how many cases do you know of in which police officers used reasonable force only to get thrown under the bus? Don’t think it would happen to an armed citizen? I have a brand new bridge to sell you in my home town, fantasy gunfighter…

Old Is New

Crucible Founder Kelly McCann, a former Marine Special Missions Officer, has said, If you want to learn something new, read an old book. If you read the old books written by such men as John Styers, William Fairbairn, Eric Sykes, Rex Applegate, Ed McGivern and Elmer Keith, you will find some variation of the techniques currently being taught as “new”. The fact is there are only so many ways to shoot a gun, throw a punch, a kick or swing a baton. If some instructor advertises a course as having the latest, state-of-the-art technique based on real-world situations, it’s unlikely it's truly ORIGINAL, which is different from new. New is something you have never seen before but it does not mean it is original…it probably is not. It’s merely been recycled or reinvented as a large number of folks are trying to make a living conducting firearms training and to get your attention, they’ re trying to be different from the rest. But are they really?

 I recently visited a range facility in South Florida where I hope to conduct training next year. The owners were very friendly to me, but said they have put a halt on outside instructors. “Every guy coming back from Iraq wants to be a tactical firearms instructor and some of the stuff we have seen them teach is not only silly, it is unsafe!!  We had to stop one guy last week in mid-course because he had students swinging guns back and forth across one another…he told them this was “real world firearms training”. Maybe in a war zone, but not here at this facility and certainly not for armed citizens in America”. Being “different” is not the same as being “effective”…know the difference! Also keep in mind what may work in the battle zone environment might not be appropriate in a domestic confrontation no matter how cool it looks.  If you doubt this you will likely “be cured” by a journey through our criminal justice system…

A number of years ago, I created a quick test anyone can use to evaluate any tactic or technique to determine if it’s worth learning, practicing and anchoring. I call it the Three S Test. First, is the tactic or technique simple to perform? If it's not simple to do on the range or training mat, do you really think it's going to get easier during a fight? Remember, we default to the level of training we have anchored, not just experienced. This doesn't mean all complicated techniques are bad; it just means they’ll require more time and effort to anchor. Decide if it's worth it. Simple techniques are easier to learn, practice and master to keep sharp.  Does the tactic or technique make sense to you? You're likely an adult with a wide range of life and job experiences, have formal education and task-specific training, maybe you were in the military or law enforcement and saw conflict. Maybe you are the victim of a violent crime and have adopted a “never again” attitude… If a technique doesn’t make sense to you, listen to your gut and ask the instructor about it.  Is the tactic or technique street proven? The instructor must be able to give you examples of where it's been used in real-street combat. One incident isn't enough, a trend is MUCH better…you know, PROVEN! Be careful if the technique is named after the instructor, or the technique is the hinge pin of the entire program. No one should be a lab rat for someone s whim or effort to make money.

Guidance & Control

Any technique that will be used to save your life must be applied without a great deal of concentration and effort. In a situation that will last but a few seconds, there isn't time to observe, orient, decide and act (OODA). Col. John Boyd's OODA loop has become a mainstay of combative training in the U.S. but, at times, it's applied incorrectly. Many believe you must cycle through the entire loop, which isn't true. Boyd created the loop while training jet fighter pilots who may very well engage in the ultimate gunfights. After all, these combatants fight with missiles and large caliber weapons that are designed to bring down an airplane. They're also traveling at speeds in the hundreds of miles per hour. Do you really think they have time to orient to the situation they’re facing? In reality, these pilots must see and do, knowing what action they must take based on what is unfolding in front of them. According to Boyd's original diagram (it’s not really a loop as often times shown), they're able to accomplish this through implicit guidance and control, which brings us to a quality training program. The best explanation of the OODA Concept I have heard comes from former Special Forces soldier and lead instructor at the Rodger’s Shooting School Claude Werner.  Claude offers some fantastic information via his web site (www.tacticalprofessor.com)... check it out!!

Few law enforcement agencies give officers enough training time to achieve this level of skill and I believe the same thing can be said for the armed citizen. Keep in mind there is never enough time to give the number of repetitions needed to truly anchor a skill in a 2-5 day training program.  What instructors hope to achieve is a solid understanding of what is learned so the student can return home and PRACTICE the techniques to an anchor point. The training time given to fighter pilots, special operations troops and full time SWAT teams allows them to see and do…a huge commitment of time and money!  How many times per year will you train? The national average for law enforcement agencies is between two and three times, but is that enough? Are you willing to train on your own? After all, each and every one of us needs to be an active participant in our own rescue.  Would you bet five bucks on a football team that you knew the quarterback and practiced with the ball 2 to 3 times that year?

Many of us who consider ourselves combative firearms enthusiasts have read about the training conducted for the British SOE and American OSS during WWII. Trainers like Fairbairn, Sykes and Applegate trained a sizeable number of people to parachute behind enemy lines and conduct covert operations against the Germans and Japanese in America s first Shadow War. This training program is well-chronicled and it’s clear that they didn’t receive the amount of training time that is currently committed to today s police cadet in the basic academy. The difference was that great pains were taken to eliminate anything that wasn’t needed and to keep what was taught straight-forward and simple. Again, simple is easy to teach, practice, master and maintain with minimal time and effort. As is often the case, less is more. 

When discussing use-of-force skills (e.g., firearms, baton, knife, hand-to-hand, verbal skills), I view simplicity as “physiologically efficient”. Physiology deals with living organisms, and efficiency is defined as producing the desired result with the minimum of effort, expense or waste. To me, this means using the living organism (human body) to accomplish a goal with the least amount of effort, expense or waste possible by eliminating unnecessary motion. It is a term from track and field where proper technique is of critical importance. “Just because a technique is faster doesn’t mean it’s more efficient” some say. But if it’s faster and accomplishes the task, then it's more efficient, period.  Recently, I have had several internet snipers “correct” my terminology telling me “you mean biomechanical efficiency” and no I don’t.  It may mean the same thing but the term is not mine and I use it as originally intended. For those who have nothing better to do than troll the internet and look for this type of stuff to raise their profile, I will say FUCK OFF! There…I feel better…

Simple Isn't Necessarily Better Depending on your Goal

Simplicity sounds like a great idea, right? The problem is that simple isn’t always minimal, at least as far as the use of force is applied. Example: Fighting techniques, such as face rakes, hammer fists to the nose, knees to the groin or spearing elbows to the chest, are all effective and simple to learn. They are also proven techniques that certainly meet the Three S Test. The problem is they aren’t minimal in their application; they hurt people, and that is something many can’t stomach, regardless of whether or not they are legally reasonable. Thus, we spend time and effort trying to learn complex techniques such as arm-bar takedowns, joint manipulations and pressure points, because they are less brutal.

Look at the Taser, an effective tool that’s now under fire because its use isn’t as “clean” as many thought it would be. Many thought it would be a nice way to disable someone: They’d be shot with the Taser, freeze and drop in place. What happens to a person’s head when they are suddenly incapacitated and gravity takes them to the ground? Oops! Also reality set in… People started dying and, even though no death has been directly linked to the Taser application, the country is aghast at how “inhumane” it is. In reality, it’s not inhumane; it’s merely force, and the use of force will always be ugly, destructive, brutal and bloody. It will never be clean and antiseptic…you know, NICE way to apply force and people will get hurt …some will die. Make sure you are using it appropriately whether cop or armed citizen…cool looking techniques might not meet this standard.


Too many instructors go off to a school and return to teach what they learned for no other reason than the course was fun and they learned some neat stuff. With so much on the line, there is no room for the trendy, only the proven! Proven techniques save lives, which is the primary goal of any training program. Anything less is clutter. Because our training time and ammo is minimal, thus precious, we need to evaluate what we’re currently doing and ask, is this program really answering our needs or are we just teaching what appears to be “new”?