Competitive Shooting

Get Real in Training

Man holding a handgun and aiming through a red dot sight

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 pistol, 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.

hand on hip drawing a revolver from a black leather holster
Do not walk around with the trigger finger in register! Always keep your finger off the trigger.

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.

Three revolver with additional speed loaders
Revolvers are very useful. They demand practice as any other handgun will.

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.

1911 pistol with a box of Federal Punch ammunition
As for the debate on personal defense ammunition, choose Federal Punch and relax.

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.

thumb position when shooting a revolver
The thumbs are locked down, and a solid two-hand hold controls recoil. The pistol doesn’t move when the trigger is pressed.

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, tells 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 – seven yards. Let’s just lope along until we are ready to run.

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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.

Bob Campbell holding his left hand in a defensive position while drawing a gun in his right
Presentation begins by moving the elbow to the rear and scooping the handgun from the holster.

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.

Bob Campbell holding his left hand in a defensive position while pointing a gun with his right
The pistol is brought to eye level. It may be fired with one hand.

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.

Bob Campbell wearing sunglasses pointing a gun at the camera
The two-hand hold is most stable and should always be used unless there is no other choice.

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.

Man wearing gloves shooting a pistol outdoors
Firing from a solid two-hand hold may yield excellent results.

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.

Keep Improving

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.

BoB Campbell moving laterally while firing a handgun
Get out of the fire! Returning fire while moving is a highly developed skill.

The draw 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.

pistol target showing a 7-yard group of bullet holes
This is an excellent 7-yard combat group.

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.

Bob Campbell shooting a 1911 handgun with green trees in the background
This .45 has just been fired. The sights are still on target because the shooter has a solid grip.

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.

Bob Campbell shooting a revolver one-handed
A one-hand point is useful but should only be used at short range.

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.

What kind of training do you do to “keep it real?” Share your answer in the comment section.

  • DeSantis Sky Cop holster
  • Hand holding an Alien Gear holster upside down to show the handgun will not fall out
  • 1911 pistol with a box of Federal Punch ammunition
  • Man lifting his suit jacket to expose a revolver in a Galco Hornet crossdraw holster
  • Man holding a handgun and aiming through a red dot sight
  • Three revolver with additional speed loaders
  • BoB Campbell moving laterally while firing a handgun
  • pistol target showing a 7-yard group of bullet holes
  • Bob Campbell holding his left hand in a defensive position while drawing a gun in his right
  • Bob Campbell holding his left hand in a defensive position while pointing a gun with his right
  • Bob Campbell wearing sunglasses pointing a gun at the camera
  • gloved hand holding a semiautomatic pistol with the shooter's index finger along the slide
  • hand on hip drawing a revolver from a black leather holster
  • Man wearing gloves shooting a pistol outdoors
  • thumb position when shooting a revolver
  • Bob Campbell shooting a revolver one-handed
  • Bob Campbell shooting a handgun with a two-handed group
  • Bob Campbell shooting a 1911 handgun with green trees in the background

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
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
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 (6)

  1. The ranges where i live are undeveloped and mainly on FS land. Often i will be thw inly person there for hiurs.
    I can use my vehicle to practice fire from cover. I can run up and down the hill to get my heart rate up, fire from behind trees, etc.

  2. Bob, I suspect you are about my age and a disciple of Jeff Cooper. When it came to firearms training, the late chairman had a disdain for certain words, one being “pull” and the other being “squeeze”. He always insisted you press the trigger of a handgun. I presume he regarded pulling as something one did with a shotgun trigger, making it somewhat akin to jerking the trigger. I’m not sure why he disapproved of squeezing the trigger. In high school ROTC my shooting coach, a retired Army NCO, used it all the time in rather colorful examples that I shall not repeat here. Whatever the reason, I adopted Colonel Cooper’s vernacular for many years until I realized novice shooters were sometimes confused by the word “press” which means (according to Webster) to act upon with steadily applied weight or force; to move by weight or force in a certain direction or into a certain position; to exert weight, force, or pressure. Webster states the word “pull” means to draw or haul toward oneself or itself, in a particular direction, or into a particular position. “Squeeze” is to press forcibly together; compress; to exert a compressing force. I can see where each of these words is applicable, provided the instructor clearly explains his meaning and intent. As for dumping a magazine into the target, that seems to be standard procedure these days (shoot until the threat goes down). I don’t like it and each time I see an ASP video of it I cringe in disgust, but since I’m not the one being shot at, I am hesitant to criticize the officer. He’s just following his training. Frankly, I don’t know if I would fire Cooper’s recommended two shots or ten. With regard to the Llama I had to chuckle. The very first 45 I could afford in college was a brand new Llama. It was not terribly reliable even with 230 grain hard ball. As soon as I could afford one, I bought a new Colt Commander for $200 and had it customized when I entered active duty. I still own it, but it’s now a vault queen. I got rid of the Llama and never regretted the decision.

  3. Good Article, Bob! Point of contention though, you state “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.” I disagree with you only as far as the .38 being advisable for the baseline. I wholeheartedly concur with what you call the minor calibers and would go further and state they absolutely have no place in personal defense. From what I have seen in hundreds of GSW cases, in the more than 30 years of working in busy metro ER’s, those minor calibers are more dangerous to the shooters than to the shootees. If you shoot someone with any gun and he lives long enough to kill you, either with his bare hands, or takes your gun away from you to shoot you with YOUR gun before he succumbs to his wounds (IF he succumbs to the wounds and that is much less than a 50% chance, in my experience) that is what I would call an EPIC FAIL.

    As far as the .38 special goes, from what I have seen, you have about a 50/50 chance either way. In my book, that is another FAIL! I want the odds far more in my favor than a coin toss. I realize that having taken part in years of seeing and treating GSW’s in just about every caliber imaginable, I might be a bit jaded, but what do I know? Just what I have seen in those over 30 years compared to those who have watched lots of movies and TV shows where those guns work every time. I will take real world experience over anything Hollywood tells us about guns in general. I mean, they gave us the westerns where the cowboys could shoot 20-30 times before they reloaded their six shooters.

    One thing that has always amazed me is there are so many people who have never been there, yet they seem to know more about what happens in a firefight than those of us who have, shall we say, experienced real incoming or have actually drawn a weapon to engage another human being in a legitimate hostile act. Defending yourself in a life or death situation is a legitimate hostile act.

    And I also agree that most people do not train with realistic expectations when it comes to preparing for any kind of firefight. The best way, just my opinion, mind you, would be to walk along a training path carrying a paintball gun (so nobody gets killed in a training accident) knowing of the existence but not the location of someone hiding from you along the way. And the first indication there is trouble would be when the other person set off an entire packet of black cat firecrackers (preferably inch and ½’ers) when you are least expecting it. Just about every single vet will recognize the “OH $#!+!” that will arise from the surprised victim. The subject is then called upon to shoot at the fast moving pop-up targets in a reasonable time frame. The first time some people go through this, they will probably get very angry or some will just lose continence. If you do something like this, the first time, you may crap your clothes, but if this is too intense for you, you probably shouldn’t be carrying a weapon.

    Lest you call foul, I would remind you that there are those of us who at some point in time in their lives (for me, it was about 50 years ago, I am now 71) where we had that kind of experience, only instead of firecrackers, there were real bullets, grenades, etc, being pointed in our direction. Remember, 50 years ago, there were a lot of us being shot at. And, contrary to what many people say, you can sometimes hear that bullet pass close by your head. Been there, done that.

    Right now, several of Murphy’s Laws of Combat come to mind. There are others and you can find them online.
    1. No battle plan ever survives initial contact.
    2. The enemy invariably attacks on two occasions: When they’re ready or when you’re not.
    3. Incoming fire has the right of way.
    4. Anything you do can get you killed, including doing nothing.
    5 It’s not the round with your name on it; it’s the one addressed “to whom it may concern” you’ve got to think about.
    6. When in doubt, empty your magazine.
    And one of my personal rules, 7. No contingency planned for will ever happen. Only contingencies not foreseen will take place. Adjust your plan accordingly.

    That last one is one that I wrote and have lived by for more than 50 years. As we said many years ago, Murphy was a grunt. Again, how do people who have never been there know more about what happens than those of us who have walked that path?

    When you have mastered the paintball course, and can function without losing it, then you need to focus on honing real gun skills, in high stress situations, like loud noise, people yelling and screaming, finding and engaging your target, not just standing at a bench in a semi-relaxed, prepared state. See those Murphy’s Laws of Combat above and do a search online for more of them. There is a reason they exist. They were written by guys like me.

    As Bob points out, “Most gunfights are settled in less than six rounds.” Yet, I have seen people who carry and so many of them carry two or three extra magazines for their high cap weapon. When I was overseas, nobody thought anything about carrying as much ammo as physically possible but we were in the Army. To those out there, I would say today, we are not in a real war zone in the US. Unless, you are a cop on a beat, you have no business venturing into a war zone, or, unless, you live in one. My question then, is where do you live? And how have you survived this long without ever having been in a firefight?

  4. Magpul use to offer some interesting, informative, training CD’s for handgun, carbine, shotgun, and my favorite, precision rifle, for around $30 each set (a set may have up to 5 CDs in it). I think they pretty well cover about any scenario one can think of. The precision rifle one had instructors from some of the other videos as students. Their first task was to attain ZERO at 100 yards. Once satisfied with their zero, the instructor then had them remove their respective scopes, and pass them to the student (also instructors) to the person to the right. Then they proceeded to fire at around 600 yards, and most hit on their first shot. Think about how impressive that is. The instructor, didn’t use any of the high tech “dope” stuff, he just looked through the spotting scope, judged the distance, the terrain, the wind, and suggested specifically what scope corrections they should use, like in mils or clicks. He was correct a lot. Very informative CD’s if you can find them.

  5. Great article! You fight how you train so make it as realistic as possible. I like to practice being pushed to the ground and drawing while falling, it’s a lot harder than it sounds. Speed is good, but accuracy is final.

  6. Thanks, Mr. Campbell, for an excellent, authoritative article on gun training. For me, it was quite a wake-up call. In Maryland, we are not allowed to carry weapons, so my focus has been on indoor range shooting & mostly target practice. Your article opens a whole new world of using a gun for self-defense. Thanks for the sage words & relevant illustrations.

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