Competitive Shooting

Drills for Unexpected Moments

man drawing pistol with arm out

There are three classes of weapons — edged weapons, impact weapons and projectile weapons — based on how they inflict injury.

Some firearms are best suited for home defense and area defense.

The handgun is a reactive weapon carried at all times to counter unexpected threats.

If we had an inkling of what was coming, we are not very bright if we don’t have a long gun in hand.

While the handgun may be used to strike out at ranges to 100 yards in skilled hands, most of its use will be at very close range.

Many threats will be at arm’s length, conversational distance, even intimate distance. A trained marksman has an advantage at longer range.

The skilled martial artist of the handgun has every advantage as close range. We should have skills in each field.

You should never fail to be aware of your surroundings. It is one thing to be surprised in a crowd on a street, another in a rural area.

The threat may not have been recognized as early as we should have or he may have closed distance quickly.

As an example, even an individual who is out of shape may cover 21 feet in about two seconds, and others more able may cover 21 feet in about 1.5 seconds.

That means you must recognize the threat, draw, take aim and make the decision to fire very quickly. It is simple, but it isn’t easy.

There is no second-place winner in a gunfight. The best outcome is for the attacker to turn and run, and this happens as much as half of the time.

But the scars I wear proclaim that the assailant doesn’t cut and run nearly enough.    

man drawing pistol out of holster
Practicing the draw often will lead to real smoothness. 

Proper Training

Training must be flexible. No matter what the problem, the firearm must be presented from concealed carry.

If you concentrate on the draw and do not block a knife thrust, you may be holding your guts in one hand and attempting to draw with the other.

If you don’t block the swing of a ball bat, you may be knocked senseless.

An acquaintance of mine once took two strikes to his arm in a violent confrontation.

He jokes three strikes and he would have been out — his arm is somewhat crippled as a result of these blows.

But he was able to keep the arm up in front of his head and fire with effect to save his life.

The off-hand is used to steady the firearm and recoil during long-range fire.

At contact range, the non-dominant hand is used to stop a strike by a knife or blunt weapon, or even deflect a handgun as you draw your own. 

Point Shooting Drills

I do not advocate point shooting any more than I would drive with my eyes closed, but at very close range the handgun may be fired below eye level.

At this range you cannot miss, as the barrel is practically in the assailant’s body.

At slightly longer range, the sights are used, but sometimes only the front sight is quickly aligned.

This makes for very good accuracy at close range and plenty of speed, but some thought must go into your tactics.

These drills must be practiced thoroughly. You must get off the X or get out of the line of attack.

You may have to give the assailant one arm while you draw with the other.

If the weapon brought to bear isn’t a firearm, then you have a good chance of creating distance by stepping back — just don’t fall while doing so.

Don’t underrate a stick or knife! Body movement is important.

If you have been a boxer, then you know what you are doing when you twist your hips or strongly plant a foot for stability.

Move the body toward the threat, using the offside to counter the threat as you draw.

If you are in a fistfight you will be hit, if you are in a knife fight you will be cut and if you are in a gunfight you may well be shot.

It doesn’t have to be the end of the world or your life if you fight back. 

man drawing pistol
When the hand goes for the handgun, the non-dominant hand must be up and ready to parry an attempt to grab the shooter’s handgun.

Retention Shooting Drills

The hand may be brought into what is called the retention position, tucked into the body so that the assailant cannot take the gun away.

Extending the firearm to a firing position is a sure way to lose control of the firearm.

The weak side hand should be up and protecting your head or fending off an attack. At very close range, there is no other alternative.

Two-hand fire isn’t indicated and won’t be needed. The heel of the hand should be against the body, but not the slide or muzzle.

Do not cover your body with the muzzle prior to fighting! Being in a gunfight and shooting yourself is more than possible.

Sight picture and sight alignment are no longer important, but using a body index is.

The trigger press is important, jerking the trigger may result in a miss at ridiculously close range. The grip is vital! Keep control of the grip.

Be aware of the location of other body parts and do not shoot yourself during your defense. 

man retention shooting drills
Firing from close-quarters retention is an essential, but seldom practiced skill. 

Practice the Draw

These drills are more about martial arts than about marksmanship.

Quickly drawing and getting the gun into action must be fluid, smooth, without any excess motion, and with sure movements and a good grip on the firearm.

If the gun’s handle is really too large for your hand or the pistol is too large to draw quickly, or if your holster is flimsy and moves about on the belt as you attempt to draw, your fight may be over before it begins.

Most of these drills should be practiced in the home dry fire. A fake gun approximating your own firearm is best.

If you use your firearm, then the pistol should be triple-checked and a snap cap or block should be in the chamber.

You do not need to actually press the trigger, presenting the pistol from concealed carry and not allowing the muzzle to cover the arm is paramount.

This is a good place for training with a laser. If the laser sweeps your body you have a problem with alignment!

These drills are lifesavers if done properly.

man firing pistol drills with one hand
The Applegate drill is a fast and effective short-range technique. 

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is vital. I have traveled in many countries and felt perfectly safe.

I have spotted several problems before they became insurmountable.

The incidents that led to injury all occurred when I was in uniform putting myself before the criminal and the public.

Take time to address these drills and practice hard. The life you save may be your own. 

Another choice — if the assailant is rapidly approaching but not yet at contact range with an edged weapon or armed with a pistol, the Applegate drill is a lifesaver.

This drill calls for more accurate fire and is very useful at five to seven yards.

The handgun is drawn and the shooter steps toward the threat, planting the foot solidly forward of the shooter.

The pistol is aimed using primarily the front sight. As the pistol sight breaks the plane between the shooter’s eyes and the threat, the pistol is fired.

This drill is both brilliantly fast and accurate at modest range — given sufficient practice.

What drills do you practice? Let us know in the comments section below!

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (8)

  1. Great article Mr. Campbell. I cannot think of any point you made that I disagree with. As a retired cop and firearms instructor that doesn’t happen often.

  2. It has been my experience to train for muscle memory. Then train some more. I have a Browning 1911 380 as carry weapon for a couple of reasons: 1) it doesn’t kill my wrist to shoot. Thereby allowing me to not ‘jerk’ the trigger trying to avoid the recoil (pain in my wrist). 2) I feel very comfortable with the 1911 frame and carry a Taurus 1911 45acp when I am out in the field (woods, desert, mountains, etc). The full size 1911 is simply to big for a concealed carry weapon for me, with the 1911 380 being 2/3’s the size of the 1911 45 it works great -for me-. Being a retired firefighter/AEMT, I am painfully aware of ‘situational awareness’. I have been involved in to many bar fights (as a medic going to help somebody who has been injured) and have dealt with individuals who have been shot, stabbed, beaten severely and the perpetrator was still standing there with weapon in hand.

    When I was in the Navy, I/we were taught that a knife was a last resort option, and yes: you were probably going to get a purple heart if you were in an altercation with a knife in your hand: no matter what the other person had as a weapon. I have a knife inflicted scar on my right knee as a constant reminder of an altercation with a knife wielding assailant. Being aware of my surroundings kept me from being cut from bottom to top. I don’t think that I would have had time to pull a concealed pistol, knife, or anything else when the incident occurred: it was less than a second, and muscle memory is the only thing that kept me alive in that first 2 or 3 seconds of a 15 second altercation. Again: training. Training. and then TRAIN some more.

    I was fortunate growing up in rural Arizona: my father was an Army combat vet from WW II, south Pacific. He had 4 rows of medals, and was one of the troops that helped liberate the Philippines. He took the time to teach us “boys” from the time I was seven and received my first rifle (a single shot 22). I am now fast approaching 68 years old, and I still remember his teachings, then re-enforced by the Navy, then even more so in self defense classes I have taken over the years.

    In the end, I think this was a very good article.

  3. Thank you for a very well written article on very pertinent topics. I would only like to add that scientifically conducted studies have proven that it takes in the range of 350 CORRECTLY EXECUTED repetitions of a movement to attain muscle memory or body mastery (whatever you wish to call it). AND, if you have already practiced something incorrectly for 350 repetitions it will take ten times that amount, 3,500 CORRECTLY EXECUTED repetitions to erase the bad technique and replace it with the good.

    Like you, I absolutely endorse practice with a laser cartridge but it must be with a complete inventory of movements. For instance if you carry a 1911 cocked and locked you must release the safety on every draw and fire and if you carry a first shot double action pistol of any type the practice shots must be with a double action trigger. Only Perfect Practice Makes Perfect.

  4. Excellent article! When I’m in the woods of North Idaho and NW Montana I am always armed with at least a .357 revolver. Since I am not a young man anymore and not as steady on my feet as I once was I always use a sturdy hiking stick as well. I acquired mine from a surplus store in Alaska many years ago. It is a Swiss Army hiking staff about 5.5′ long of straight-grained ash wood with a metal ferrule and heavy steel spike point. In other words, it is a hiking stick that doubles as a spear. I have gotten so used to carrying it that I feel unbalanced without it. In a “situation” it would be my first line of defense. I try to avoid urban environments where the feral humans reside but If I had to go there I have a couple of stout canes I can carry without looking too obvious. So my “manual of arms” consists of a striking/stabbing weapon first and a firearm second. An edged weapon would be a last resort.

  5. Bob,

    We are all students until we can no longer learn. When we reach that stage, it means we are on the wrong side of the curve. Unfortunately, there are some who choose to no longer learn and are unaware of how much they do not know. There is much about which I do not know, but I mostly know that I don’t know anything about those things. Even things I am considered well versed in, occasionally require revisiting in order to keep me up on the topic. That is one reason I read this blog. There are some blogs out there for whom the moderator would have us believe they are the be-all, end-all grand expert, on the topic, and when they tell me things that I know from experience to not be as hard and fast as they would have me believe, I go elsewhere; especially, when I am able to find resources aplenty which contradict many of their hard fast held concepts. When I find someone who has consistently stated things that can easily be shown to be factually inaccurate with a minimum of research, I no longer bother to look at anything that individual has to say.

  6. Excellent! Thanks for reading and I am saving your comments for future reference!

    Thanks very much. At this late date I am still a student and always will be. Thanks for your instructions.


    Bob Campbell

  7. Good article! One thing the author stated that definitely caught my eye was: ” Don’t underrate a stick or knife! Body movement is important.” This stood out to me because this was a premise that was driven home to us when we were being taught Combatives, also known as Hand-to-hand Combat, or sometimes Close Quarter Combat, oh, fifty years, or so, ago in the Army.

    I am not going to focus on a knife as a weapon, other than to say, our instructor told us that if the SHTF, and we were using a knife for self-defense, the first thing we needed to do is come to grips with the fact that, if it were really a life-and-death knife fight, we were going to get cut and it would be bad. He went on to say that most people who use a knife as a weapon and has not resigned himself to being cut badly, will probably lose the fight if they are cut first, because, well, being cut like that, hurts like hell and is traumatic, so it generally does not end well at all if one has not prepared himself for that eventuality. More so than a gun, a knife requires considerable training if it is used for self-defense. We were told, more than once, that a knife is a last ditch, there is nothing else to use, self-defense weapon, and a poor one, at that. That was just before they taught us how to use a knife as a weapon. Talk about a pep talk.

    What I want to comment on is using a stick and not regular stick but a stick pen. Back then, we were told about the importance of using whatever is available as a weapon, and that included things as mundane as a stick pen. There was instruction about using an implement, such as a pen to quickly stab your opponent in places like… their eye. We were taught to use a fast poke and withdraw just as quick. That is one of the harder things to defend. If your opponent had a weapon such as a firearm and we were close enough, we were taught to sweep the weapon to one side with our non-dominant hand and stick the pen, stick, whatever, (even our fingers would work in the absence of any kind of implement) in the person’s eye with our dominant hand. We were promised that if we stuck a pen, etc., in their eye socket, it would be a bigger distraction than that person had ever been exposed to at any point in their life prior. So, I can promise you, even if your opponent is much bigger and stronger than you, if you imbed a pen or a stick deep into their eye socket, he will be distracted, possibly enough to take any weapon away from him and terminate any discussion with his own weapon. This training was decades before the advent of the tactical pen.

    Anyway, I bought one, actually more than one, years ago and I have one that is part of my EDC, on my person, one in my truck, etc. That being said, I have seen a number of tactical pens, and many of them depart from what we were taught to look for in such a tool for self-defense. Some of them are ridiculously expensive and do not meet what I was taught to be essential in a weapon for self-defense. Your tool should have one end that comes to a point which will enable penetration into where you may have the opportunity to insert said device. Another criterium for the tool is to have a blunt end with which to hold against the heel of your hand when you attempt to introduce your “little friend” to your opponent and inside your opponent. Using a pen with two sharp ends increases risk to yourself and may end up being your downfall as if the thrust is deflected and strikes something that is resistant to the tool, your own hand may be impaled by your own weapon. Not good to have a weapon that is more dangerous to you than to your opponent.

    I have seen tactical pens online which could not be deployed immediately without possible considerable damage to the bearer. It is important to be able to deploy the weapon without having to take a cap off or readying it to bring it to bear. Some of these have one end where neither end has a flat surface. You have a writing end and the other end is liable to hurt you if you thrust it into something that has no give. If it is not flat on one end it could cause damage to the user’s hand. Back then, a mere 5 decades ago, the BIC pen was a perfect self-defense tool and mentioned by at least one instructor. It had a blunt end and the cap was pointed enough that if inserted into someone’s eye socket, your fight would be over. We were also cautioned against using this in a less than life or death situation as we probably would be charged with intentional maiming as the subject will be blind in that eye. Meaning, they didn’t want us using this technique in a barroom brawl and going to prison afterword.

    The next thing one needs to do is practice sparring with your shadow to get an idea what you need to do to use if effectively. Anything you have that might be used as a weapon has certain techniques that need to be practiced. You would not deploy a gun with which you were not familiar in a crisis, at least I hope not. The same is true with a tactical pen.

    I have met a number of people who proudly pointed to their recently purchased survival kit or first aid kit, still unopened. They had no idea what was in there, except for what was written on the package. When I suggested that open it up and see what was in there, several have refused because they felt they needed it to be intact. They have never practiced using any of the tools or equipment inside and most likely, in a crisis will, either not use anything or use it incorrectly if they don’t practice with it beforehand.

    So, if you get a tactical pen, practice sparring with your shadow jabbing toward the unseen face, imagining there is an eye socket in the space in front of you. That is just as important as any practice with any other weapon.

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