The following was written with the civilian handgun owner in mind but most of it also holds true for police and military personnel and for training with shoulder weapons. The concepts are based on Chuck Taylor’s thirty plus years of experience, both in the field and as a firearms and tactics trainer. Few if any of those currently offering firearms training can approach Taylor's hands-on experience in the area of anti-terrorist, military, covert or drug interdiction operations or have had feedback from hundreds of their students (military, police and civilian) that have been involved in and won gunfights. Taylor's background has given him a unique perspective on the subject and long ago he stated "Life and Death are Serious Business, Too Serious to be Taught by Amateurs". We believe this to still be true.
Training Myths and More
In the 1970’s, if you wanted “professional” training in the use of the handgun for self-defense Jeff Cooper’s Gunsite was pretty much your only choice. Today, a half-dozen or so well know schools and literally hundreds of lesser know instructors offer “combat training”. The range of shooting and tactical techniques advocated, as well as the instructional methods in use, vary to such a degree that selecting the training most appropriate for your needs/goals has become impossible without already possessing considerable knowledge of the subject. Additionally, over the last decade many, if not most, of the articles and books published on self-defense shooting techniques and tactics have been based on theory and conjecture, opposed to proven real world effectiveness. This has made obtaining an accurate perspective on which to base your decisions an extremely difficult task. (We will not even comment on the misconceptions and myths commonly found on the Internet, especially in the chat rooms.) While others are free to disagree, and many will, we believe the following should be considered in the selection process.
Many shooters today have been led to believe that the top IDPA/IPSC competition shooters are appropriate role models for self-defense training. The truth is there is a vast difference between using a handgun for competition and combat, so vast that many of the techniques commonly used in competition are in fact suicidal in a real gunfight and others are an open invitation to legal or civil liability problems. If your interest is competition, find an instructor who is a successful competitor and possesses good teaching skills. There are very many highly skilled shooters that fall into this category and the worst that can happen if you pick one with a second rate training program is that your score at the next match will be a bit lower than expected. Choosing an instructor for self-defense training that bases the techniques they teach on “competition results” can have much more serious consequences.
Now don’t misunderstand, we are not saying that anyone who shoots in competition is automatically disqualified to teach self-defense. What you need to know is where the techniques they will teach you come from – playing games or fighting? Nor are we saying only winners of a gunfight should teach, you don’t have to break your own leg to know how to set one. (Besides, many who have won gunfights have done so more by luck than skill and because they won, have failed to recognize the inadequacies of the techniques they used.) Instructors must be evaluated on an individual basis, including those trading primarily on having a police or military background. The truth is the military spends very little time training with pistols compared with other small arms, neither organization is known for their use of cutting edge techniques and much of what both organizations do is inappropriate or illegal for the average citizen. Time spent in one of these occupations does not in itself either make anyone an expert or disqualify them from being knowledgeable in the field. To repeat, it is the totality of the instructor's training and experience, along with his ability to select material that appropriately fills your actually needs, that must be considered.
Contrary to what the curriculum of many courses would lead you to believe, handgunning is the least complex of all the martial arts. Most handgun confrontations tend to be very close, straightforward affairs that are over in a couple seconds. When stripped down to its essence, it is usually the ability to quickly present the weapon (two handed) and hit a close range target that wins gunfights. These are the skills you must first master. While weak hand shooting, moving while presenting the pistol, moving to cover, shooting from odd positions, etc. are skills that should not be totally ignored, they are actually needed less often than many would have you believe. They should be pursued only after you have a very solid foundation of the basics and even then should occupy no more than about 10% - 15% of your training time.
Let’s be honest, training to develop core skills can become dull. It takes thousands of repetitions to master these skills and it takes a lot of self-discipline not to get side tracked. Unfortunately, much of the training offered today tries to take advantage of this condition and includes numerous techniques that are greatly entertaining but of dubious value to any but those already at a very high skill level. For those seeking to begin formal training we suggest use of either the “short list” or “inverse ammo quantity” rule as a quick gauge of a course - the longer the list of things you will be taught or the more ammo you are told to bring the less you will actually learn.
Even before you begin deciding between courses, make a list of your goals and honestly evaluate your current skill level. Terms such as basic, advanced, etc. have different meanings and expectations at different schools. When unsure if the course is suitable for you try the direct approach, talk to the instructors. Find out exactly what qualifications and/or previous training they expect you to have when you arrive. Ask where the techniques they will teach came from. Ask if there is a final exam that must be passed to graduate. Testing is good, a one or two day class is a bit short to allow for a meaningful test, but longer courses should include a skills test. Tests both quantify the results of your training and document it as it may prove beneficial in court someday. Be suspicious if you are allowed to start at the Advanced level, especially if the school is technique specific as ASAA is. A last word of advice is to remember the old saying among hot rodders and motorcyclist – If doesn’t go (fast), chrome it. Schools offer training courses to make money. Some attract students by offering good courses, some by offering flashy ones.
When talking about stances, lets begin by agreeing that any of the popular two-handed shooting stances is better than using one hand. Understand also that ASAA does not mandate any particular stance in the courses they conduct. Having said all that, we still believe, although out of favor with both competition shooters and the “new school” of instructors, that the Weaver stance is the best choice for most people when going into harm's way. It simply works best over the wide variety of situations one can encounter. The Weaver’s bladed/angled foot position and resulting rearward location of the weapon and holster makes it easier to defend the weapon from a disarming attempt. This position is more natural to anyone who has taken virtually any form of martial arts or defensive tactics training and is a more natural position when “searching”. The Weaver also allows most people better recoil control with less “lean-in” and to perform malfunction clearances both quicker and more positively.
There are usually two criticisms of the Weaver – everyone reverts to isosceles in a gunfight and it is no longer used by any of the top IDPA/IPSC shooters. For our answer to the first challenge reread the first paragraph of Training Works above. As to selecting a stance, or a technique, for self-defense because it is popular with the top shooters in “Combat” matches both fails to recognize the abilities of these competitors and the difference conditions under which the two activities occur. First, the top shooters are winners because they are in fact fine athletes. Most have motor reflexes, co-ordination, eyesight, and upper body strength well beyond what most of us possess – we may quality for the company softball team but will never make the major leagues – same deal. Second, most of them shoot 30,000 to 40,000 rounds a year in training on top of dry practice. This both far exceeds the amount of training time available to most of us and is sufficient to allow one to get very good even using mediocre techniques. Third, they get to practice “the fight/match” till they get it right, we don’t. Last and most important, no one is shooting at them or trying to disarm them, which greatly changes the stress level – no one has the “relaxed” stance advocated by some instructors when people are shooting at them. All of these factors contribute to their decision on what stance/techniques to use. As their aim is to win matches not gunfights, they should not be role models for those concerned with life and death.
Techniques, whether to present the pistol, clear malfunctions, etc., should be chosen that are as simple as possible yet still perform the required task. As the stress level raises it becomes increasingly difficult to perform complicated functions or those that require the use of fine motor skills. The simpler the technique the less our ability to perform it will be affected. In addition, a single technique that efficiently performs multiple tasks is preferable to having to learn multiple techniques. The previous two sentences must be applied with some common sense; anything can be taken to an extreme. In addition, you should seek out techniques that have a real world track record. Some thoughts on specific techniques follow.
Chamber Checking – This is a good idea and should be performed to verify the weapons condition every time it is loaded/unloaded or has been out of your possession. Use of the currently popular method of placing the thumb and index finger at the sides of the slide just behind the muzzle and then using them to retract the slide far enough to see into the chamber is both inefficient and more importantly inherently dangerous. There has been more than one reported case of a shooter loosing fingers to this technique and we believe the manufactures/gunsmiths who install grasping groves at the front of slide to facilitate this technique are leaving themselves open to personal injury lawsuits for encouraging this dangerous practice. The technique taught by ASAA is both more efficient and safer.
Ready Positions – Chuck Taylor invented the ready position. It was intended to be a position at which certain tasks were performed or from which others were started. Those advocating additional ready positions seem not to have a full understanding of the subject. To begin with, you can really only program the subconscious mind with one ready position. Once you add a second or third position it becomes a crapshoot as to what ready you will assume, the subconscious is very good at quick reaction but lousy at decision-making. As to the “Retention” ready advocated by numerous instructors, it is not only harder to defend the weapon from attack in this position (assuming you don’t want to simply shoot the attacker which you can do just as easily from the original ready) but if you perform the normal after action scan to look for addition opponents, you have just proceeded to point a loaded weapon at everyone in the area. Not a good thing to do for a number of reasons.
Tactical Reloading – Although combatants, after using them in a gunfight, have been "bringing back to full capacity" multi-shot weapons since their invention, Chuck Taylor developed the modern Tactical Reload. The confusion on this technique by some parties is staggering. Taylor states that, for a self-loading pistol, sometime when there is a lull in the action (this is not hard to understand, i.e. after there appears to be no more bad guys to engage and before the police arrive) you replace the partially expended magazine in the weapon with one that is full and simply pocket the one that comes out of the gun. It’s done because as you are not 100% sure the fight is over a fully loaded gun is better to have than a partially loaded one. The partially expended magazine is retained because if the fight resumes you may need the ammunition in it. Most instructors, even when they understand the when and why, persist in using an inferior method to accomplish the task, usually the one Taylor started with and rejected. The normal claim is that their method is faster, what it really is is a demonstration of the competition mentality – speed is the only consideration not functionality under all operating conditions. You don’t normally run matches at night in the rain, but techniques that you bet your life on had better work under those conditions.
Speed Loading – The credit for inventing this technique goes to Ray Chapman. While designed for competition and seldom actually used in a gunfight it’s not a bad skill to have. We think our method, which allows you to still see your opponent during the speed load, makes more sense than today’s competition version that has you staring at a point six inches in front of your face during the half the operation.
Movement – The rage today in some schools is movement, if you don’t move when the gunfight starts you will lose. This should be taken with a grain or two of salt. Like most everything else in this subject its situational and a compromise. If you are being attacked with an edge or impact weapon and you can create distance or get off line great, movement may buy you some extra time to stop your attacker. If you are talking about an opponent with a firearm at average gunfight distance, you can’t move far or fast enough to make him miss and you are slowing your counterattack by being in motion. Fact is, as bad as some of these guys shoot, you stand as much of a chance walking into a bullet as avoiding one. Under these circumstances, you are better off either standing and shooting it out or if close enough, and you have the skills, move in and disarm him before he can use the weapon.
Moving to Cover – Another subject made over complicated. Again, it’s situational. There is not a lot of real (bullet stopping) cover out there. Try to get behind, or at least next to, cover before the fight starts. Use a bit of common sense, if you have some distance between you and your opponent and can step behind cover while presenting and firing do so. If your opponent is 5 meters away and its 30 to cover, what should you be doing? Using cover once you get behind it is a totally different subject.
There is much, more to the subject than we have touched on here, but no matter what level you want to take your proficiency with a handgun to, you should truly master the basics and obtain an accurate overview of the subject before attempting to move on. Failure to do this is to guarantee failure.
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