Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Importance of Training

Last summer, while my family was out of town, I decided to fill my evenings by taking advantage of the training courses offered by Bill’s Gun Shop and Range in Robbinsdale, MN where I shoot. I took their three hour intermediate course followed by their 18 hour advanced course and then enrolled and have continued to take their tactical course. Along with these courses Bill’s also offers classes in hunter safety, concealed carry permit, basic handgun safety, AR15 basics, one on one instruction, home defense, retired law enforcement officer nation carry permit, and, if you really have a lot of money burning a hole in your pocket you can get private instruction in fully automatic weapons.
After taking the tactical course (a number of times) it is very apparent to me that anyone who buys a handgun for self defense is doing themselves a huge disservice if they do not take advantage of the training that may be available near them. I can shoot the center out of a bullseye at 21 to 31 feet with most any handgun while standing still and using a two-handed hold. However, add shooting with the weak hand or shooting while moving and those groups open up real fast. I quickly learned that very little of what I am able to practice in the average “open to the public” range is going to help me if my life is in danger and I must put my handgun to use. Now, don’t get me wrong; the basics of sight picture, trigger pull, and breathing are extremely important in learning how to shoot. However, in a real fight you may not have enough time to acquire the perfect sight picture, you will develop tunnel vision, auditory exclusion will probably set in, the body will pull blood away from your extremities so your fine motor skills will be diminished and you are not going to have the match-perfect trigger pull concentration that you have when you are standing still and shooting at stationary targets, and more than likely you are going to hold your breath, forgetting to exhale and inhale, until you shoot your pistol dry. As bad as all of this may sound it is still possible to shoot well under these circumstances…but you must practice under those circumstances in order to do so.

The advantages of advanced levels of training are twofold:
1. It allows you to practice in a more realistic manner and practice skills that you cannot practice in most public ranges.
2. It allows you to discover what equipment works best for you.

Let’s examine this further. Most of the things that I am going to discuss in this section are not allowed to be practiced on a public range unless you are under the watchful eye of a trained instructor. There are many “World Class” training institutes around the country, but at the present time I do not have the means to pick up and head to New Hampshire (SIG Academy and Lethal Force Institute), Arizona (Gunsite and Gabe Suarez), or Oregon (Thunder Ranch) for a week. Fortunately, most public ranges offer training classes where some of the necessary skills are taught and I highly encourage you to avail yourself to the training that is offered.
Things that you cannot do at a regular public range.

1. Work from a holster
This may seem basic and many people downplay it but during the training classes I have seen people get the pistol caught on their cover garment. I have seen people yank on their pistol forgetting to release the retention strap. I have seen two people draw their weapon and somehow eject their magazine (I did not have the presence of mind to find out if they had some sort of aftermarket extended magazine release affixed to their pistol). On the humorous side I even saw one attendee wearing a paddle holster draw his pistol and point it at the target with the holster still firmly attached. While all of these things may seem funny or even a little stupid, they happen. If they happen in an actual shooting situation it could cost you your life. If they happen during training you get to learn from it and figure out how to correct it. Then should it happen in an actual shooting situation you will have experienced it before and know what to do rather than becoming flustered, stopping in your tracks, and making yourself an easy target.

2. Shoot while moving
This is an extremely important piece of surviving an armed encounter. The first goal of being in a gunfight is to not get shot. Sounds simple but it isn’t and you’ll be hard pressed to do it unless you have practiced it extensively and it becomes second nature at the first sign of an attack. Let’s breakdown everything that is going to happen when a gunfight occurs; you become cognizant of the threat, you may panic, you may go into denial, you may probably start to feel confused. As the threat escalates into an attack your mouth is going to go dry while your sweat glands kick into high gear, you may feel a bad case of diarrhea percolating in your bowels, you begin to develop tunnel vision, your blood flow and heart rate change as the fight or flight instinct kicks in, the body instinctively pulls the blood flows out of your extremities causing you to lose the fine coordination in your fingers, your hand has to find your pistol, deactivate the retention devise holding it in the holster, and then negotiate drawing your weapon out from whatever concealment garment is covering it. Now you raise your pistol, obtain your sight picture, and pull the trigger. And…you should be doing all of that while you are moving off the line of the attack and not tripping over your own two feet. Doesn’t sound quite so simple anymore, does it? The only way to get beyond all of the pitfalls is to practice while moving. You must practice, practice, and practice some more under direction of a trained instructor who can tell you what you are doing wrong and how to fix it.

(If you would like to learn more about the physiological and psychological effects of being in a gun fight I would highly recommend “The Bulletproof Mind” by Lt. Col. David Grossman and “Training at the Speed of Life” by Kenneth R. Murray.)3. Shoot multiple targets (and shoot them while moving)

The threat to your life may not only come from the random robber, carjacker, or “crazed lone gunman”; you may also be faced with some sick bunch of Columbine copy cats bent on mass murder or you may encounter the active shooter scenario with multiple terrorists willing to martyr themselves by killing a great many of the infidels as occurred in Mumbai, India a few months ago. Here is yet another skill to acquire. Your peripheral vision will be decreased so you will have to practice a 360 degree scan of your environment unless you are in an area of your own home where no one could enter behind you. Movement skills such as getting off the line of the attack, taking cover, reloading, and scanning for additional threats have to be practiced over and over and over so that they become engrained in your muscle memory allowing your body to perform them as if you are on autopilot. You need the autopilot function to kick-in when the denial, panic, and confusion sets in.
4. Shoot from concealment

Do you know the difference between concealment and cover? Do you know how far back from your concealment/cover you need to be so that the gasses from your shot and particles from the wall do not blow back in your face causing injury or temporary blindness? Do you know how to present the least amount of exposure when you take the shot from behind cover/concealment? Do you know how to “work your position” so that you do not show yourself in the same spot when you fire multiple times from concealment/cover? Unless you can answer “yes” to all of these questions you need training.
5. Shoot at targets that are partially concealed

This is difficult. It takes concentration and breath control to get hits in tight situations, especially when your target is partially concealed by innocent parties. You might be able to make these shots consistently in a no-stress, stationary shooting position, but add all of the physiological and psychological stress factors mentioned numerous time above and your abilities diminish unless you have repeatedly practiced these scenarios and have mastered the not only the concept of breath control but have mastered it’s application in a stress shooting situation.
6. Night shooting

Real life isn’t “High Noon” and you aren’t Gary Cooper going to meet the outlaws at the train station in the middle of the day. Statistics tell us that more than likely your deadly encounter will occur at night. So…have you practiced shooting in low light? Have you practiced in complete darkness? Do you know how to shoot and work a flashlight at the same time? Do you know how to scan with a flashlight so that you are not providing a “perfect target” for the assailant that is hiding in a darkened corner? And here’s a tough one: you have your pistol in one hand, your flashlight in the other, and you have to reload. Do you know how to accomplish this when both hands are full? Do you holster the pistol and keep your flashlight up so that you can see what is happening around you while you get a fresh magazine to recharge your pistol?
The correct answer is you turnoff and stow the flashlight while you are moving to concealment/cover and reload. Sounds pretty easy doesn’t it? Well here’s what I have seen in training. People get flustered and stand still for a few seconds, apparently waiting to get shot. People drop their flashlights and stand still apparently waiting to get shot. People put their flashlights in their pockets with the light still on thereby making them a perfectly illuminated silhouette for their adversary. Practice, practice, practice, practice until it becomes an automatic reaction.

7. Shooting multiple times and shooting rapid fire
Depending upon which magazine article or book I am reading by whichever expert has written it I find information saying that the assailant will go down with one well placed shot (with the author’s particular favorite caliber) or that you will need multiple shots of any caliber between .22 Long Rifle and .44 Magnum. So let’s split the difference and realize that:

1. You may miss with your first shot (or second, or third, etc.)
2. You may get a hit in your adversary’s extremity that does not stop them.
3. You may get a hit in center mass that that does not cease the hostilities.
All of which means you may have to shoot multiple times. (There are many clever sayings that the gun scribes and trainers have come up with such as “fire ‘till the felon falls” or “shoot them to the ground”. To me they are a little too cute for the circumstances, but if those little sayings engrain themselves into your brain then they have served their purpose very well.)

Most people I see at the public range fire one shot and then lower the handgun slightly to see where the bullet struck the target. I’ll admit that I do this too; I want the instant gratification of seeing what a skilled marksman I am. However, shooting one shot, pausing, and losing your sight picture can cost you a valuable second or two during which time your adversary can shoot and put you down.
So you need to master the art of continuous shooting without losing your sight picture. Rapid firing should be practiced as well (many public ranges do not allow this) if only so that you become cognizant of your limitations. You need to know how fast you can accurately shoot under a stressful situation.

8. Reloading
This seems almost too basic to even discuss, but under stress I have seen people drop magazines while reloading. Just a few weeks ago I jammed a magazine into the rim of the magazine well with such force that I became momentarily confused because the reload didn’t go right. I recovered quickly by dropping the magazine (I wasn’t quite sure why the magazine did not go into the well so fearing some sort of problem with the magazine I let it go) and grabbing another one. I was pleased that I recovered quickly and kept moving but was disappointed that I had discarded a fully loaded magazine.

In most public ranges you cannot practice a tactical reload as the range won’t let you work from your belt (either holster or magazine pouch). In all public ranges skills like reloading while on the move and getting to cover just cannot be accommodated.
There are also some things that you can practice on a public range but you don’t; things like shooting one handed and shooting weak handed. We don’t like to do things that we are not good at, but a training instructor is going to force you to do these things. You may have to deal with the occasional malfunction while on the pubic range but I bet you haven’t practiced the malfunctions drills enough to where you can do them instinctively in 1 second or less and I know you cannot practice moving to cover while you clear your weapon. All of these things are key skills that the range is not going to let you practice on your own, but probably will under and instructor’s supervision.

9. Stress Inoculation
Stress inoculation is an extremely important factor. The more you practice under a stressful environment the better prepared you will be, both physically, mentally, and emotionally, to operate in and survive an actual gunfight.

This is where the “World Class” training institutes really shine. They provide you the most realistic training environment. Most employ “force on force” type training where the students shoot at each other with simunitions (a gunpowder based cartridge that fires a colored marking capsule). Simunitions is much like paintball shooting except that the guns used are real, they operate the same way they do with live ammunition, and they go bang. It also hurts when you get hit with one. This creates a very stressful and realistic training scenario that is key to the inoculation process.

Less sophisticated training operations that I am aware of induce stress by the use of whistles blowing or other auditory distractions during the exercise, strobe light disorientation, or aerobic exercise prior to the shooting drill in order to get the heart rate up over the 200 beats per minute range, the same heart beat range that occurs during combat.
Discover What Equipment works Best

In this section I am going to discuss what I have found that works the best for me in the tactical shooting class in which I am participating. I want to stress that this is what works but me and may not be the best for you. The only way you are going to know is to get involved in some type of tactical training.
Now probably the first question to answer is whether or not to carry a revolver or pistol. Let me begin by apologizing to the legion of revolver fanciers out there but the pistol is the only real tactical choice if you are serious about your self defense. Even though the conventional wisdom for many years has been to start new shooters with revolvers I just don’t get it. For me, pistols are easier to shoot. Pistols balance better, they are slimmer, they hold more ammunition, they are easier to reload and due to the energy expended when the fired round causes the slide to retract there is less perceived recoil. Also, the pistol’s lower bore axis acquires the target more naturally (and thus faster than a revolver). Before anyone flames me over the revolver thing by bring up exceptions let me say that I recognize that S&W pro Jerry Miculek can reload his revolver faster than most pistols shooters can. However, first of all, neither you nor I are Jerry Miculek so we will be able to reload a pistol faster than we can reload a revolver. Secondly, when Jerry is shooting his big N frame model 625 he reloads it with 6 rounds of .45 ACP in a moon clip the size of a ripe Clementine while you could be reloading a Glock model 21 .45 ACP with a 13 round slim magazine that is less innocuous in your pants pocket than Jerry's moon clips or speed loaders. The next thing that revolver shooters will aver is that the vast majority of gun fights are over in 2 to 3 shots. Statically speaking, true. However, I don’t want to be in the left over minority of the shootings that go longer than three rounds and not have a weapon with the capacity or the reloads on hand to see the situation through. Just remember the Salt Lake City Trolley Square Mall shooting on Valentine’s Day a few years ago. A troubled teenaged male takes a shotgun into the mall and starts cranking off rounds. An off duty Odgen, Utah police officer is having dinner with his fiancĂ©e and runs to the sounds of the gunfire with his Kimber .45 ACP pistol. With the Kimber he is armed with an accurate weapon in a potent handgun caliber. Unfortunately he has no reloads and by the time the SLC PD arrives he has shot the Kimber dry.

So…I will start this discussion on “What Works Best for Me” with the shooting platform that I have chosen and then break down my rationale for this selection by discussing Grips, Grip Frames, and Shootability, Sights, Trigger Action, Do-Dads (both factory issue and custom), Holsters, Magazines, and Ammunition. The overall platform that I have found to work the best for me in a tactical environment (and by now you may have figured it out) is….Glock.
This was a big surprise to me and probably to many of you who have followed this blog. Glocks came out in the mid-1980’s and it took me almost 20 years to pick one up and four more years to truly appreciate what they have to offer. I have been a 1911 shooter since 1977 and until I worked my way through the tactical class I would have told anyone that the 1911 is the best handgun for self defense that has ever been devised. Let’s breakdown my rationale by the eight categories mentioned above:

Grips, Grip Frames, and Shootability
I define shootability as the feel of the handgun and whether or not it easily becomes an extension of your hand and arm. At first I did not think the Glock fit these criteria. They felt thick and I did not like the grip angle (remember I was raised on the 1911). My feelings began to change as I realized that the Glock had a low slide to frame axis and allowed me to get a higher grip on the pistol. This means that the slide sits low against the top of my hand which gives me more control during recoil. The increased control offered by the Glock’s low axis not only helps manage recoil but allows me to deliver faster follow-up shots. Slow motion photography has shown that the polymer frame of the Glock actually flexes during recoil which absorbs energy thereby decreasing the felt recoil.

Once I understood the engineering advantages of Glock’s low bore axis the grip angle became less of an issue for me. In fact, after finally achieving the proper high grip I found that the grip’s angle improved the pistol’s overall pointing ability.
The grips frames on steel, aluminium, or scandium pistols are skeletonized and covered with grip panels or stocks (as a few people refer to them). The grips panels are wood, rubber, aluminum, pearl, horn, stag, ivory, mammoth tusk etc. They can come in different widths and some have the grips contoured with palm swells and other refinements that really allow the shooter to alter the feel of the pistol. Polymer grip frame pistols do not have grip panels or stocks attached; you grip them by their solid grip frame. Lately changeable backstraps have become all the rage in polymer pistols; the Smith and Wesson M&P, HK, and Ruger SR9, as well as many others offer the ability to change the feel of the grip. Glock has not gone down this path and rightly so in my opinion. I have not seen that any of the changeable backstraps have truly altered the feel of the pistol’s grip in any significant way. For me, the best grip is found on the CZ 75. Oh, if only Glock could find a way to copy the sleek contours of the CZ….

Trigger Action
Pistols are made with three types of trigger actions:
1. Single Action
2. Traditional Double Action
3. Double Action Only

The Single Action trigger is most commonly found on 1911 style pistols as well as a few others. These pistols are carried with the hammer cocked in the rearward position and locked back via the slide safety. The advantage of the single action mechanism is its short, light trigger pull. This is an advantage in bullseye shooting as the short, light trigger pull allows for very accurate shooting. Because the hand and finger movement required to fire the pistol is so slight the pistol is not pushed or pulled in any direction by the act of pulling the trigger. The disadvantage to the single action mechanism is also its short, light trigger pull. In a stress-shooting situation the decrease in fine motor skills could cause negligent discharges when using a single action pistol with a short, light trigger.
In a traditional double action pistol the hammer rests all the way forward when loaded. SIG, Beretta, CZ and many other pistols exemplify the traditional double action mechanism. The first round is fired via a very long and sometimes heavy trigger pull. When the first round is fired the slide retraction cocks the hammer and subsequent shots are fired in the single action mode. Once again the pistols advantages and disadvantages are the same. The long double action pull on the first round fired makes is less likely that a stressful environment will cause a negligent discharge.

However, that long double action pull may also cause the shooter to muscle the trigger back causing a right handed shooter to pull the rounds down and to the left. After the first shot is fired the pistol reverts to the short, light trigger pull in the single action mode which allows for faster follow-up shots. Unfortunately because the first shot was long and heavy, the shooter may be expecting the same pull on the second shot and, again, the stage is set for a possible negligent discharge.
Double Action Only pistols, as the name implies, offer the same length and pull weight for each round fired. This provides consistency for your muscle memory but, depending upon the handgun it can be a blessing or a curse. I have had a few double action Smith & Wesson revolvers where the trigger pulls were 12 or more pounds. These heavy pulls made it virtually impossible to obtain my desired level of accuracy as the trigger action required too much muscling to make them fire and the muscling pushed or pulled the revolver off of the original point of aim.
Fortunately the double action, striker fired Glock comes with a trigger pull set at 5.5 pounds and this pull weight is not too heavy and not too light. As Goldilocks would attest, it is just right. Now there are those who say that the Glock trigger is too mushy…I used to be one of them. Once you get used to the trigger the “mushiness” at the beginning of the pull reminds you that you are pulling the trigger, so if the pull is a stress response you may catch yourself before a negligent discharge occurs.

Another advantage of the Glock trigger is its short reset. Specifically, after the round is fired and you let the trigger back out, it only needs to move 1/8 of an inch in order to reset and be ready to fire again. This allows for very fast follow-up shots. Some models of SIG pistols come with a short reset trigger. These are usually their premium models. On Glock pistols is it standard.
Many pistols come with a lot of Do-Dads on them (External Safeties, Slide Releases, de-cockers, magazine releases, tactical lights, lasers, etc.). For extra money you can get the standard Do-Dads enlarged or you can get even more Do-Dads. Bill’s gun range has a peg filled with packages of small bayonets that will attach to the accessory rail on most pistols for the low, low price of about 35 bucks. Call me old fashioned, but I have no idea what earthly good a bayonet on the end of your pistol would do. Beware of the Do-Dads. They get in the way, they fail, and they make the pistol more complicated to use. Let’s run them down. A pistol with a frame or slide mounted safety is just one more thing you are going to have to remember to deal with when you draw your pistol. Whenever I take a 1911 to the tactical class I will inevitably forget to remove the safety two or three times out of the 150 rounds we fire. This mistake could cost me my life in an actual shooting situation. The Glock’s safeties are internal and passive that do not require you do remember to do anything in order to fire your pistol. Additionally the Glock does not have a grip safety. These are not needed. John Browning did not originally design one on the 1911 .45 ACP until the Army requested one. People have had such a time not getting the grips safeties fully depressed that many custom and semi-custom shops build up the grips safety to make it uglier, but easier to activate.

Traditional Double Action pistols do not have a slide or frame mounted safety but they do have a de-cocking lever that safely lowers the hammer and makes the pistol ready for the first long and heavy trigger pull. The good news is that you do not have to mess with this lever when you draw and fire. You only have to remember to use the de-cocker after the pistol has been fired and the hammer is cocked. The bad news is that, if you forget, you will be putting a cocked and UNlocked pistol into your holster where you will then be a sitting duck for a negligent discharge. The Glock does not need nor have a decocking lever.
Every semi-automatic pistol needs a slide release lever. However there is a trend that began among competition shooters to make the slide release and a lot of the other Do-Dads larger (the slide release, the slide safety, magazine release, etc.) in hopes that they would make the Do-Dad easier to find and activate or deactivate. Unfortunately some of this non-sense has spilled over to the world of tactical pistols which results in some negative effects. First of all some of them make the pistol wider and less easy to conceal. A larger magazine release may make it so easy to find and activate that you are finding and activating it before you want to; a mistake that could render you out of ammunition and quite possible, dead. Similarly, the large, ambidextrous slide safeties run the risk of being deactivated if you bump them into something. This leaves you with a cocked and unlocked pistols which is another invitation to disaster.
The standard slide release lever on a Glock pistol is pretty flat so it is the only standard Do-Dad that I replace. As you can see in the photo below, even the enlarged slide release is still a pretty minimal attachment.
I want sights that are rugged but I also want to be able to move them laterally if needed. Glock makes this pretty easy as all of their fixed sights can be tapped left or right once you loosen the set screw.
I also want night sights. I have run into a lot of gun gurus who profess that night sights are not only not necessary, but distracting. I have not found this to be true and I have found night sights to be invaluable when working in low light or complete darkness.
All of Daddy’s boys wear night sights. Now, I will grant the gurus this: if the rear night sights are brighter than the front night sight then your eye will be drawn to the rear and this is not where your concentration should be focused. If you cannot find a way to subdue your rear night sights then black them out or have them replaced with the standard rear sight.

There is one other advantage to the night sights. When you hear breaking glass at two AM those glowing sights will make it easier for you to locate the pistol on your night stand.
Holster may take some getting used to. Unless you were a police officer you are going to find any holster to be uncomfortable and you are going to be just a little self conscious about wearing it as you will think that everyone can see it. Well, if you have done a poor job in selecting a holster or your cover garments you may have reason to worry. However a good holster and an adequate cover garment will keep your weapon concealed and no one will be the wiser.
For outside the waistband carry I prefer the Blackhawk Serpa.It is one of the most comfortable polymer holsters I have found. You can easily adjust the cant of the holster using by loosening the screws on the reverse side and then tightening them back up when you are happy with the holster’s placement. The pistol is held in place by use of a spring loaded retention lever that extends through the trigger guard. When you place your hand on the butt of the pistol to draw it your trigger finger naturally falls on the retention lever. You depress the lever and the pistol draws very quickly as the interior of the holster is very smooth.
For deeper concealment I like the inside-the-waistband DeSantis “Tuck This” holster. The one pictured below is for the Glock model 19 but it also securely holds just about every pistol in my safe including the small Model G36 as shown below. I like just about everything about this holster, especially the fact that it carries your reload right along with the pistol and allows you to adjust the placement screws and obtain the cant that is just right for you. The lightly padded ballistic nylon holster is the most comfortable inside-the-waistband holster I have ever worn. The “J” hook that comes up under your belt is made of spring steel rather than plastic so it isn’t likely to break off. The The upswing on the hook is also a little more pronounced than the hook on other holsters so it is able to hold onto the belt better than other holsters I have tried where the “J” hook eventually works its way back underneath the belt. In doing my due diligence on this holster before buying it I found several people online who did not like it because the spring steel “J” hook fits very tightly and they claimed that it crammed their waist band down when they tried to put it on. What I don’t think they realized is that this is another feature that keeps the holster securely affixed to your pants and belt so that when you draw the pistol the pistol comes up and the holster stays put! Because of this it is difficult to put this holster on if you already have your pants and belt on. If this holster were easier to slide into your waistband it would also be too easy to slide out. It is best to attach this holster to your pants before you put them on. This allows you the ability to use both hands to open up the crimp in the “J” hook, slide them over your waistband and position the holster properly. I have no problem concealing my G36, G38, or G19 using his holster and covering it with a loose, dark polo shirt.
This one is easy. I like the “American Handgunner”. OK that was a joke (although it is my favorite magazine). In terms of pistol magazines always go with factory made mags. They are built to spec and are reliable. This is my standard except for 1911 magazines in which case the mags built by Wilson Combat are far superior to the factory originals.
This is another easy one. I have had great success using the Speer Gold Dot Hollowpoint ammunition. Now I have absolutely no experience that would allow me to endorse their terminal capabilities but I can tell you that they have never choked any of my pistols and all seem to provide above average accuracy. In 9mm I prefer the 124 grain +P GDHP ammo. It has good weight and good speed. In .45 ACP pick the bullet weight you prefer and you will be find.
So there you have it. This is undoubtedly the longest posting I have ever put on the blog but I hope it has motivated or challenged you to get some advanced training, put your handguns to the test and find out what works best for you.


Matt G said...

Joe, all the skills you said people needed to train on are all found in IDPA. I have just started competing and have found out that things you never even thought of become very evident when a clock is on you. Great post.

Matt G

Average Joe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Average Joe said...


I am glad you liked the post. IDPA will definately help with the skills mentioned and provide some of the stress innoculation. Modern gunfighter Jim Cirrillo often commented that the police officers who were most likely to be successful in a gunfight were those who shot in IDPA.

Now you have me interested, what handgun and holster do you use?

Bob said...

Just came across this. Excellent write up and very true, right on the money Joe. I agree with the IDPA comments by Matt G, I shoot IDPA regularly as well as a couple of combat training course.