I have seen quite a few firearms training images and videos that give me pause to consider the trainer’s intentions. They rank right up with the martial artists who chose a petite female student to hurl to the mat. Let’s pick on someone our own size, and train correctly.
Types of Training
Standing with your hand on the handgun, waiting for a whistle to be blown, isn’t a proper starting point. Firing slow fire at a man-sized target that is squared to you isn’t training for personal defense. You may be learning marksmanship, but that isn’t the same.
A certain level of speed is needed. We need to begin the drills from the same start that we would from a true concealed carry situation. Gunfights are fights not set-piece actions, and you must have a flexible training plan. Remaining planted in one place is a very poor plan. By the same token, hosing the target with a fusillade really doesn’t teach anything. I have noted in practice that students follow one of two schools.
One student will miss the first two or three shots, and the rest will be center mass. The second type of student will hit the first two or three times and then the shots will scatter. That isn’t the way to do it. You must learn how to control the firearm and get hits. Marksmanship and controlling recoil are equally important.
Some of the drills seem predicated by the choice of handgun. A high-capacity 9mm is the most common sidearm, and in quality examples, you are well protected. However, just because you have 15 rounds, does not mean you should put 15 rounds into the target!
Most gunfights are settled in less than six rounds. (I realize that averages are not always comforting, and we do not wish to be the man that drowns in a creek of an average three-foot depth.) A reserve of ammunition is a good thing, but we cannot rely upon missing often. The important thing is to put the bullet where it will do the most good.
Choosing a Proper Gun
A quick six-inch group at five yards will save your life. A good marksman has the advantage at longer range. At gunfight ranges, the individual who has practiced sure-and-steady gun handling has the advantage.
Then there is the fellow who showed up at my class with a .357 SIG and flinched at every shot. His wife, armed with an identical handgun in 9mm, aced the course and bested the husband by a considerable measure. Some calibers are simply not for beginners. Choose a caliber you can control — especially for your first handgun.
Training isn’t about the gun. It is about training and fighting. I have preferences in personal defense handguns and so do you. So long as you choose a reliable handgun of appropriate caliber, I have nothing to criticize. The bottom line is that there is nothing that may be accomplished tactically with one quality pistol that may not be accomplished with another similar handgun.
A SIG P226, Glock 17, Beretta 92, Browning Hi-Power, or CZ 75 differ and have strong adherents in each camp. If you can shoot and shoot well at normal combat ranges, one (quality) pistol is as good as the other. The SAR 9 or EAA MC 28 will serve well for shooters on a budget — although, I hesitate to call these Turkish makers with a long history of producing military wares ‘budget gunmakers.’
Master the pistol you have chosen. Compact semi-auto pistols are easier to carry and kick a little more, no revelations there. Revolvers have advantages as well. The smooth rolling action helps defeat flinch and revolvers are very accurate and useful. In most gunfight situations, the skill of the user is what matters. If you have built the wrong skills, you have a serious deficit when the brass begins flying.
Most training should revolve around getting the gun into action. Moving aside the covering garment, grasping the handle, presenting the handgun toward the target, and then aligning the sights are important. Smoothness counts for the most and speed comes with smoothness amplified by practice. The trigger press is done last.
Don’t always draw and fire, just draw and get on target. Practice re-holstering the piece as well. Practice until you become very smooth. Presenting the firearm leads into the firing grip. At very short range, one-handed fire should be practiced.
From what range will you be engaging the target? Common sense and a great deal of study tell us that three to five yards is the average combat distance — occasionally stretching to seven yards. While I like to think I would be able to successfully engage an active shooter at middle rifle range, that is a whole other skill that demands a different set of practice rules. Practice getting the pistol out and ready and firing at three to seven yards. Let’s just lope along until we are ready to run.
I am going off track for a moment to discuss hardware. You don’t need thousands of dollars worth of weapons and equipment. We are not traveling to win the open division of the Steel Challenge. We are practicing for combat at modest range.
Several humble, and relatively inexpensive, handguns will serve well. Look at the Taurus line of revolvers — if you favor the revolver. The Taurus G2C, Taurus G3X, and other handguns have much utility for personal defense.
The Glock always works and is a baseline for defense. If you pay less than the Glock, what have you lost? If you pay more, what have you gained? The caliber should be 9mm or .38 Special as a baseline. Let’s be real, the minor calibers will not do the work of the .38 Special or 9mm and have no place in personal defense save as a threat.
The tiny guns are difficult to get into action quickly and are not as reliable as a compact pistol based on a service design. If you choose a larger caliber than the 9mm, be certain to add at least 25 percent to your allotted training time to learn to control the pistol. For example, it will take about 50 percent more time and money to master a .45 ACP or 10mm when compared to the 9mm as ammunition cost is factored in.
Get Good Practice
So, how do we train? Practice the basics. At combat ranges, the strongest grip is the best. Grasp the firearm until the hand trembles. Back off — just a tad — if the sight wobbles too much. You are not going to fire a combat course when you are under attack. Instead, you will only fire a few rounds at moderate distance. You will not tire of this gorilla grip.
Get a tight, thumbs-forward grip on the pistol. Keep a tight grip and do not flex the hand when you fire. The hands are locked on the handgun. The only flexible digit is the trigger finger. Align the sights on the target and press the trigger straight to the rear. You will have a hit. You must master simple marksmanship before moving to combat skill building. The range should be 5–10 yards for practice.
Far more important than learning to hit targets at long range or executing speed loads is to learn rapid presentation from concealed carry. This may be practiced at home with a triple-checked, unloaded handgun. The elbow shoots to the rear. The hand comes up from under the holstered handgun. You affirm a solid grip on the handgun. As you do so, the handgun is raised from the holster. The arm moves forward, and the hands meet in a firing grip, pressing the handgun toward the threat. The head doesn’t lower to meet the sights. Instead, the sights are raised to the eyes. You are on target.
Later, you will practice retention drills with the handgun held close to the body. In the beginning, you will go into the two-hand grip in all drills. The one-hand drill is also important, but get the two-hand drill down first.
On the range, practice this drill until you are comfortable drawing a loaded handgun. As you get on target, focus on the front sight and fire. Press the trigger to the rear and control trigger compression. Do not relax your hold and allow the trigger to reset during recoil. Do not fire again until you have aligned the sights.
The cadence of fire is never set by how quickly you can pull the trigger. Instead, the cadence is determined by how quickly you can regain your sights and fire again. This is the basic drill, the default.
Next, practice the draw and firing with one hand. The range should be three yards, progressing to five. Finally, after good results at the shorter ranges, move to seven yards. Begin practice by firing two shots quickly together. Each shot is a separate event. Don’t call it a string of fire. Get the grip correct as you draw get on target and press the trigger.
As your skill progresses, it is important to consider getting off the “X” by moving from your initial point on the firing line. As you draw at close range, move to the right or left. The opponent will seldom be squared to you, he or she will be to one side or the other. The opponent may present a small target.
The draw stroke and movement conflict, so draw before moving or move and do not draw during the initial drills. It is important that you get out of the line of fire. It only takes a second and very few opponents are skilled at hitting a moving target.
Always use your sights. I would no more engage in point shooting than I would close my eyes to drive. Even if the sights are not aligned exactly, you will place the front sight on the target. Not to cry foul, but a friend pointed out an article that was actually published. A fellow who fashions himself a trainer was discussing firing from the hip. He felt this was viable at close range as you watched the hits on the target and stitched up or down as needed. I kid you not!
You cannot see the hits on an adversary — a fact this fellow did not realize. This is a bad example of range mentality versus street reality. Firing below eye level is a very bad idea, unless the adversary is inside arm’s length.
The emphasis on training is to get an accurate first shot. If the first shot doesn’t do the business, follow up. Folks with police and military backgrounds are usually the best trainers. Some of the rest just don’t get it. Passing an NRA basic handgun and safety course is an excellent idea. All NRA instructors receive the same training.
Proper Training Gear
Gear is important. When you are on the range drawing and re-holstering, you will quickly discover the limits of cheap fabric and plastic holsters. Genuine Kydex, and well-crafted leather, allow the gun to be drawn sharply. The holster must not collapse after the pistol is drawn, or you will not be able to re-holster.
Quality holsters are available from Alien Gear, Bianchi, Blackhawk!, DeSantis, Galco, Safariland, Versacarry, and 1791 Gunleather (to name a few). These makers offer good quality gear at a fair price. You may also rethink your carry method. A tuckable holster may conceal well but the draw is terribly slow, even awkward.
If an attacker is bearing down on you with a knife or blunt weapon, will you have time to present the weapon and fire? Probably not. You will need more than one holster for different times of the year and weather conditions.
I have seen folks show up at training classes with terrible choices. A fellow showed up with a 1960s Llama pistol. They were none too good in the first place and age had not helped his jam-o’-matic pistol. Others fail to bring spare magazines. One hapless fellow had his action locked by a key and left the keys at home. Others have brought the wrong caliber ammunition to class.
I will get back to the handgun for a few lines. Get real about your handgun. A quality handgun is essential. Caliber is important. Those who tell us that ‘all calibers’ are the same have not attended the same church as I or looked over after-incident and after-action reports as I have. Not to mention arriving on the scene just as the smoke cleared.
A realistic minimum caliber is the .38 Special or 9mm Luger. Choose a loading with a good balance of expansion and penetration. Choose a loading from a reputable established company with good R&D behind it. Don’t believe inflated claims and hyperbole. Get real and use the logic ladder as you make choices. Train as if your life depends on it because it does.
To sum it up, you must first learn the basics of grip, stance, trigger press, and sight alignment. Don’t be smug about your rapid advancement in marksmanship. This is only part of the equation. These basics are applied to all advanced skills. For some this is competition. For others, it is hunting game at extended range. For self-defense shooters, the basics are applied to speed drills and drills at relatively large targets at short range. Shoot, move, get hits, and find cover. The life you save may be your own.
Do you keep up with your training? What kind of training do you do to “keep it real?” Share your answer in the comment section.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March of 2022. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.