After some 45 years of firearms training, begun in a simple setting under the watchful eye of my grandfather, one would think I would be approaching training burnout. But it isn’t so. I have yet to be all I can be. I was never the boxer my father was, the shotgun shot my grandfather was, or the climber my other grandfather was, but I learned survival skills that served me well. Incidentally, I learned how to be a man.
I have counseled many young people who feel the job they have entered (police, military, medical, fire service) and the corresponding training are overwhelming. Sometimes, a number of difficult call-outs precipitate a period of soul searching. Occasionally, general discontent is a factor, but with good officers and staff it is something deeper. Sometimes they are scarred by their training and education.
Training scars are bad habits or inappropriate actions that don’t have a basis in reality. Unfortunately, these training scars become evident during training and even operations. The results of bad training become a serious problem as we try to shed such deadly combinations. I have often stated that prior training is the single most reliable predictor of survival in combat. If this training isn’t relevant, you have a serious problem when the ball goes up.
Training should include accountability and an honest appraisal of skills and shooter development. A training program should reflect as closely as possible how you will perform in personal combat. After all, the bottom line is that we are training to shoot under stress. How you train is more important than how many rounds are fired. You cannot simply keep shooting to become a better shot. It is about creating muscle memory and a system that results in more speed and accuracy.
When you commit to recognizing training scars, you can fix them and replace them with something that works. I’ve observed a number of problems during training that required considerable personal development by the shooter to resolve. One student had picked up a crippling habit in personal practice. He unloaded his pistol by hitting the magazine release with the support-hand forefinger and loaded the pistol by using the support-hand thumb. I suppose, given its own devices, even a monkey would eventually unload a handgun. This student’s digits were of a normal length and dexterity, and there was no reason for this set of movements. He held himself up from development as well as slowing the class.
This is the type of thing the student must address with mental rigidity and physical determination. The student must devote hours of dry-fire manipulation to mastering the handgun in the proper manner. You will fight the way you have trained. If this student were caught in a situation in which he had to reload under fire, he would have frozen or panicked with the support-hand unavailable. Often, training scars intrude upon the very basics.
Another student grasped the pistol, reaffirmed his grip and moved the pistol about in the holster as if to loosen the holster before I blew the whistle. I stopped him and informed him that we actually executed a presentation in this drill. He seemed surprised. When the whistle blew, he shifted the muzzle in three directions and moved away from the target, then toward the target before firing. In real life, I believe he would have been DRT (Dead Right There).
Some poor training is self-imposed, but there are many who instruct without real qualifications. Their crowning achievement is a four-day course somewhere, and they have enough conceit to fill a small-town council meeting with enough left over a mayor’s race in Podunk County, USA. This type of instructor has given himself much unnecessary credit for his perseverance and regards his work from an artistic viewpoint.
I don’t think he quite understands that a study of the adversary is as important as any introspection he might do. Since he has not faced the adversary, he does not understand him or the problem. He has drafted a resolution from a committee of one to become a trainer. When the social atmosphere becomes charged and needs cleaning, this isn’t the man you should have trained with.
When we execute a drill or demonstrate a skill, we do so with the hopes of measuring speed or accuracy to improve our performance by setting forth valid criteria. The limitations of the range or the experience of the trainee—and the trainer may be the shooter as well in lone practice—often results in poor training and the buildup of mental scar tissue. When we shoot, the trainer cannot simply tell us to concentrate on the front sight; he must understand how to teach focus.
I have corrected experienced peace officers on a common fault—putting the gun under the arm with the slide locked back after a firing string. When one burns the arm with a hot barrel, reinforcement is valid. I run across this once or twice a year. Lowering the slide and holstering the firearm safely is the correct drill. It is more difficult, however, so it is avoided. Some department training is strict and very good; others is good ol’ boys at best.
A good, solid IDPA match with a safety officer present is an excellent means of getting rid of safety-related training scars. And while “combat shooters” may feel competition is irrelevant, the combat shooter stakes his range out at 5-, 7-, and 10-yard increments of fire. It’s the same range every time, as if it were a dart game… or a state-mandated qualification.
Another terrible training scar I run across is the shooter who fires, evaluates, then resumes fire. I thought this was invalidated 20 years ago, but it seems not, as these are young shooters. If the threat remains, you need to keep firing. Do not fire and evaluate. It will be obvious if the threat has fallen or is still firing. Address your sight picture, sight alignment and trigger press, but keep firing.
Given enough repetitions, the old training scar becomes part of your muscle memory and is very difficult to program away. Even if the training has been only occasional and informal, new training taken rigorously only slowly replaces it. Remember, eliminating training scars isn’t building upon good skills but elimination of poor movements. We must be certain to include stress in the program to allow these training scars to pop up and be removed.
Another training scar is firing from the open when cover is nearby. Firearms skills are open as to distance and movement. It isn’t like a game of darts, where the target is fixed and the skill builds over repetition, nor is it exactly like archery, with target archery versus field archery. Firearms control and combat shooting are skills that demands complete flexibility. The more our training reflects fixed skills, the less effective it will be. The training scars are less evident because they work in a less challenging environment. When the shooter himself sets the pace and the level of skill he aspires to, he is placing limits on performance.
We all need a good trainer to observe our movements and isolate these training scars. Only by doing so will we be able to progress and measure this progress. As the trainer does so, he must also help maintain the shooter’s mindset and attitude. The shooter must measure results and, after analyzing the results, organize and isolate both strengths and weaknesses. The shooter must measure these results against later ones to measure improvement. With these good training habits in place, you are able to isolate problems and eliminate them.
The major problem seen in training is a failure to move before, during, and after shooting. For example, the shooter does not move to cover or into a favorable firing position. He does not move out of the line of fire. He does not scan for other threats after firing. The shooters must also understand the difference between a drill and a scenario. A drill is a physical or mental exercise that helps perfect certain motor skills.
Intermediate skills are important and are built with such drills. Drills are not tactics. A scenario incorporates a measurement of both skills and judgment. How you use your basic skills, progress to tactical movement and use judgment to solve a problem are tested in a true training scenario.
The local IDPA match is a great test for skill. Safe handling is stressed, and the drills and scenarios are challenging even to those who have trained. It would be a great improvement to get most shooters out to the range and to practice on any kind of a regular basis. Instead, I see shooters who focus on the lightest gun, forgetting wound potential; the coolest gun from a second-rate maker; the most comfortable holster and damn the balance of speed and retention; and doing the least they can to get by. This is intolerable in both a moral and defensive sense.
Get to the range, train hard, gauge your success or failure, make some mistakes, and erase a few training scars. You will be the better for it. Are you up to challenge? Share your training scars in the comment section.