Competitive Shooting

Training Scars — We All Should Have Them

Handgun being shot with fire coming from barrel

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.


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 (22)

  1. Dave,
    From reading your above post, you are apparently inferring something from my post that was neither stated nor implied. I haven’t learned everything perfectly from the beginning and I didn’t make it sound as if I did. The point of my post, which you didn’t seem to address, was merely that the title of your article was a bit questionable. Unless you are suggesting that people should learn things incorrectly so they can re-learn them later… with a training scar.

    “Training scares, We all have them.”
    I started out to state that I couldn’t have worded it better. Then after re-reading your post I got a great laugh when I realized that you put “scares” instead of “scars”. Yes, that would make a much better title since most of the training scars in firearm training that made a definite impression probably had at least some amount of a scare included.

  2. My scar that I remember the most happened early in my shooting experience. I inadvertently fired a .357 round into the dirt in front of me because I had the gun cocked and my finger on the trigger as i was bringing the gun up to aim. I think about that experience every time i start to draw my weapon now. i thank the Lord that nobody was hurt due to my inexperience and carelessness. My finger is never inside the trigger guard now until i am on target.

  3. @Dave

    This is an excellent article, confusing title aside. Your examples of ingrained mistakes were very subtle but very significant.

    During my first USPSA meet years ago one of the Grand Masters approached me and very nicely pointed out that I was dropping my muzzle a couple of inches when changing targets, and told me to keep it presented toward the targets. I immediately applied the lesson and my shooting times improved due to faster target acquisition. Something I could have never learned on a range.

    And yet, this basic technique seems to elude some so-called experts. I was watching on of the ubiquitous YouTube videos supposedly posted by experts, of a rifle Run and Gun demonstration. It didn’t take long to notice that the expert was dropping the muzzle of his rifle clear down to 45 degrees between some of his target changes. His results were not all that impressive, which he attributed to “not taking my time on some of my shots.” To me, it wasn’t so much a matter of not taking his time as it was of having to take a lot of extra time between target changes to raise his muzzle back to present it to the target. And this guy was presenting a “how-to” to people who were trying to learn something from him.


    1. Mikial,
      Thanks for the compliment, but it is misplaced due to my error. Bob Campbell wrote this article. I forgot to change the byline. ~Dave Dolbee

    2. Thanks Mikial, We appreciate your continued support and contributions as well! ~Dave Dolbee

    3. Dave,
      I wasn’t going to point this out except to say this is the best story you have written! LOL

      The editors does a lot of real work.


      Bob Campbell

    4. Sorry Bob,
      AS soon as someone complimented me, I realized it. I had your bio, just not your byline. That’s like 50 percent credit right? ~Dave Dolbee

    5. LOL
      I think that when so many good people bother to write concerning a training article we are onto something. This is the intramural equivalent of a Gallup poll in your favor. I interpret it as a popular uprising. Such writing is possible through the use of observation, instinct, luck and sometimes telepathy. i am going to attend more training classes as soon as possible.

  4. While I was in the military it was the US Navy and I was an airdale, so the closest I got to guns or “gun training” in the military was shooting old .45’s that were occasionally made available. The “training” at that time was, “here’s the gun, keep it pointed that way, want me to show you how to load the mag and chamber a round?” At 19 years old, having never fired anything but a .22 rifle in boot camp, I couldn’t hit crap with those old, rattle trap .45’s.

    Fast forward fifteen – twenty years. I was married, had children. I wanted some self defense skills. My first mistake: going out and immediately buying a 9mm Ruger. Great gun, bad idea at the time. I just blasted away with it, couldn’t hit sh#$ – again. Fast forward to about 12 years ago. I got serious and went to Front Sight in Pahrump NV. Good people and a good place to learn with instructors who are serious but kind and ready to tell you EVERYTHING you need to know. I made the same initial mistake again: before I went there I read a bunch of articles and bought another gun (somewhere along the line I had sold the Ruger), I chose an XD .40 subcompact. I bought some extended mags. I didn’t practice at all before going. Long story short they taught me how to shoot properly (start slow grasshopper), and after I had literally bled all over the place trying to do quick mag changes with the extended mags on that small pistol and repeatedly catching my right hands’ fleshy pad in between the butt and the mag and cutting the holy heck out of myself, they taped me up and gave me a full-sized Glock to shoot. What a difference! I actually did pretty well after that. I go back there at least once a year for advanced handgun / AR / shotgun self defense course. I haven’t bled out there for quite some time and I seen to be able to get good hits from concealment with my pistol and I can put one of those grey men down out to 200 yards or so with my AR or do some close self defense shooting with an “orange dot” reflex on the AR, I’m humming along pretty good for an old guy.

    A little blood on you hands can be a good thing if it wakes you up to the fact that you don’t know poo poo.

    1. @Sean

      I’ve always found that a little non-lethal blood can be an excellent training aid.

      And I’m a bit envious. Okay, more than a bit. I lived in the West years ago but didn’t know about Front Sight. Now I live in the East and subscribe to Ignatius’ email newsletter but haven’t had a chance to get out there. I would sure love to though. You are a lucky person.

    2. Sean, Your story about the XD compact brought to mind a similar story of my . I was scheduled to take an intermediate Pistol training class from a good local trainer. Went out the week before and bought a SA XDm Compact 9 mm for the class. All the while, ignoring the SA XDm full size .40 in my safe that had been my only handgun to that point.
      Went to the class having never shot the 9mm compact and struggled all day with changing my magazines. I had to literally pull the mags out as they refused to drop past the fatty portion of my palm. And, I had “lubed” them. I learned several good lessons that day.
      Take more than one gun to a class.
      Don’t “lube” your mags, it hurts not helps.
      Don’t take a gun to a class you haven’t trained with.
      Buy a gun that FITS your hand and work it to death.
      Compact may seem like a great idea for a conceal carry gun, but in fact isn’t always (I have carried a full size for years now.)
      Pick 2-3 training tips that you can show a cause and positive effect and train those til ingrained. Like yourself, I was given a tip by my trainer and shown how to practice that tip in training. It is well ingrained in me today.
      Train often. Every small thing done with a firearm can be “training”. The simple act of drawing my firearm from my holster at night is done deliberately and with thought. The gun NEVER goes into our out of my holster without complete thought and attention to what I am doing, EVERY time.
      Dry fire training is your friend. That football halftime show is a PERFECT time to train on one activity. NO excuse for not doing so.
      Thanks for your post.

  5. I have plenty of those scars after 28 military years and more than that since. Remember the M1 rifle, M1 carbine, M1A rifle all pretty much had to have finger on trigger or at least in the trigger housing to release the safety. Now the hard fast rule no finger in the trigger housing or resting therein until ready to fire. Those old ways are tough to overcome. I still think in terms of a long range rifle target with V ring. Good news – I never smashed a thumb in loading an M1 Garand thousands of times.

    1. “Good news – I never smashed a thumb in loading an M1 Garand thousands of times.”

      I did. Once. Although far from perfect, I like to think of myself as a fast learner. 😉

  6. Hum, my training scars that served me best are two bullet wounds. Also a head crease by an AK-47. The other was shot from .22 short that bounced off the pavement and hit me in the right shin as I disarmed the guy of his .22 short Beretta Minx.

  7. You might paraphrase to say

    No pain, no gain.

    Or everyone makes mistakes.

    I hope everyone gets past the title and reads this article. Hopefully it will get the blood going and get everyone to the firing range.

  8. “Training scars are bad habits or inappropriate actions that don’t have a basis in reality.”

    It is obvious, by the above statement, that you think training scars are a bad thing. Then why does the title of this article… “Training Scars — We All Should Have Them”… imply that they are something that are a desired trait?

    “We should all have them” and, if you don’t have any, you should get some!

    1. DonP,
      Actually, I would say that if you do not believe you have them, you have not looked into your own training enough. A scar is wound that has been healed, fibrous tissue that repairs the skin. Unless you can walk upon water, I would say your shooting and training experiences have a left a few scars. ~Dave Dolbee

    2. I actually had the same thought. A better title would have been “Training scares, We all have them.”

      I think we all have them and we all need to heal them.

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