Defensive Handgun Training – What we’re doing wrong?
by Richard Mann

There is no shortage of variations in the training methods and doctrines employed when it comes to the defensive handgun. These differences apply to not just the doctrine that is taught but also to the methods of instruction. The point of this article is not to offer one method or doctrine as the best, but to point out some common shortcomings of traditional shooting classes and suggest additional or alternative ways to improve your shooting skills.

Shot Counts

Some shooting schools advertise that you will shoot a lot of ammo if you attend their course. Hey, this sounds great, right? We all like to shoot. However, there is a problem with this. Experience has shown that after firing somewhere between 150 and 250 rounds in one day, most shooters will reach the point of diminishing returns. Their bodies get tired, their arms ache and their grips lose their rigidity. I know of a training course where you will fire as many as 400 rounds in one day. Now, if you shoot a lot, like hundreds of rounds per week, you can probably hang in there. But if you are an average person looking to get quality instruction and improve your skills, shooting 400 rounds per day is not the way to get there.

Actually, you can vastly improve your shooting skills by only shooting 150 rounds per day [or even much less.] Controlling recoil and dealing with the constant explosion at the end of your pistol’s barrel wears on your physical stamina and your mind. You can pull the trigger twice as many times during dry practice before you experience the same level of fatigue. In addition, you can also use dry practice to develop other skills like reloading, presentation and movement. If you enroll in a defensive handgun training class, don’t be discouraged if the instructor says, “We are going to do a lot of dry-practice.” It could very well mean that you have chosen the right class to spend your time and money on.

I believe it is a mistake to shoot more than 250 rounds per day while conducting defensive handgun training unless shooting a defensive handgun is something you do almost every day.

Movement

Have you ever tried to shoot a moving target? It’s not that hard if the distances are short, but it is harder than shooting a target that is not moving. To steal a line from my friend Sheriff Jim Wilson, “In police work this is something we call a clue.” And the clue is that if you are moving you are a harder target to hit. If you are ever confronted with an armed assailant, you should shoot and move or move and shoot but you should never stand in one place, all Wild Bill Hickok like, and shoot it out. Where should you move to? Preferably cover. In the absence of cover, choose concealment. In the absence of concealment, choose anywhere. How should you move? As fast as you can. Yes, you shoot more accurately when you’re still, but when you’re done shooting and start the assessing process you should also be moving. Once you have mastered sight alignment and trigger control and are proficient with presenting your handgun and reloading it, every drill you conduct should include movement. You should move either before you shoot, after you shoot or while you are shooting, and I’m not talking about taking a single step, though even taking one step is better than standing still. When you start a drill, you should have various cover and concealment options at your disposal and you should utilize them every time.

However, most defensive shooting schools incorporate minimal movement into the training. Why? It’s not because they are stupid and think movement is not important. It’s that most defensive handgun schools train with a group of students on the line at the same time. From a safety standpoint, you cannot have students running all over the range shooting at the same time. This would lead to two things: somebody with an extra hole and a lawsuit. Therefore, you will most likely have to train with your instructor in a one-on-one situation to make sure you don’t put other students in danger while you are moving. The problem is that at a shooting school this process would seriously bog down training. The answer is to take a tutorial or a one-on-one training class. Gunsite offers tutorials like these, and yes, they are more expensive. However, the return for your investment is much higher. Alternatively, at least when you are practicing on your own, make sure you incorporate movement.

I believe a defensive handgun training program of instruction that is not based on movement is lacking.

Scanning

Scanning – looking to the left and right after you engage a target – has become the en vogue thing to do on the range. On its face it makes sense. In a real defensive situation you’d best be looking around – 360 degrees around – before you holster up. When it gets bad, it generally gets bad all over. The problem is that on the range we are never looking for something that might actually be there. We just move our heads from left to right acting like we are looking for something we know is not there. We fight the way we train. The worst thing we could train to do is to turn our head this way and that and not actually look. Are we building a conditioned response that is prudent in theory but reckless in reality? The solution is really simple but difficult to facilitate on your own. We need to scan, but we need to scan and sometimes see things that drive different reactions.

If we are conducting drills to improve our gun handling and marksmanship skills, then let’s not muddy the waters with a reckless, conditioned response. My brain is smart enough to figure out that when I look left and right, I’m not going to see anything I need to address, so there is no reason to twist my head except for fear a range officer will fuss at me. With no possibility of seeing things that will dictate different responses, scanning is about as meaningful a politician’s promise.

Short of pop-up shoot / no-shoot targets, with just a little creativity you could position targets to the left and right with numbers or colors on them. A training partner could call out a color or number immediately after you engage the primary threat. Then you could “scan” for that color or number and react as needed when and if you see it. You may not have a training partner, so you need something else to look for. Gunsite Instructor Dave Starin gave me a good idea when it comes to scanning. After you engage a target and consider the target neutralized, look around – with your handgun following your eyes – for something. What kind of something? Well, that depends on where you are. Look for other targets, bugs, empty cases down range, red leaves, flowers, zombies; it really does not matter. Look for something.

If you don’t see what you are looking for, proceed as the training situation dictates. If you do see what you are looking for, then have a predetermined reaction. You could say, “bang” or “stop” or you could re-engage the target. Just mentally and physically acknowledge that you have searched your immediate area and did not see what you are looking for. Instructor Chris Wear conducted an experiment during one of my visits to Gunsite. While working with turning targets, Chris wrote numbers on each target. After the drill, he asked the students to tell him the number on the target to their left. No one – I repeat – no one could do it and everyone had scanned as they had been instructed…They just did not see anything.

I believe that defensive handgun schools that have you scan and look for nothing are teaching a conditioned response that is dangerous. Scanning is not done to look cool, it is done to see things.

If you cannot afford to attend a quality training course, you can still conduct meaningful training on your own.

Fixing the Problems

As far as shooting schools are concerned, fixing some of these problems is a hard hurdle to get over. Shooting schools primarily exist to make money. Those not in the business of collecting a tuition, like the military and the police, still have financial considerations. They need to get as many trainees through a course as fast as possible so that they can maximize the taxpayer money they have been allotted. Neither of these approaches is conducive to providing the best training possible. That leaves you with two options; seek out a one-on-one tutorial or work through these problems on your own. The first would be preferable but will require deep pockets and with the cost of life these days, not many of us have pockets deep enough to even get all of a hand in there.

Keep this thought in mind: shooting a lot of ammo and learning how to look cool as you do it has nothing to do with the quality of instruction you will receive from a defensive handgun school. Common sense and the school’s ability to teach it do. Choose your training wisely; in the end it could make all the difference.

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