You attend training to learn defensive tactics and principles. Next comes practice, learning through repetition and acquiring the ability to apply these skills on demand and in defense of life. Going to the range to practice marksmanship is a worthy endeavor, but only one part of the “big” picture. You have to work on the fundamentals of the threat response: moving, communicating, using cover and shooting if necessary. During this practice you’re also developing the mental abilities to solve a defensive problem.
Moving is an immediate response to danger, whether you’re armed or not. (Remember that “unarmed” is a state of mind; there are always weapons available, even if that’s not the intended purpose of the item.) Moving gets you out of harm’s way. Escape or avoid the danger. You move to cover and the protection it offers. There are bystanders or family between you and the threat – moving creates a clear angle of attack. The threat is trying to hit/cut/shoot you. Moving makes it more difficult. Shooting while moving is definitely a skill that must be practiced.
You communicate with the threat. “Stop! Leave my house!” They may comply. Communication is required with family or friends. You tell them where to go or what to do. Communication connects you with an armed partner, coordinating tactics. Communicating under stress doesn’t come natural. Like any skill it requires practice.
There is very little “natural” about using cover. The first principle is to maintain distance between you and the object you’re using for protection. Distance prevents you from catching debris and fragmentation if bullets are hitting the hard surface you’re behind. Keeping some distance from cover lets you see more of the environment on the other side of cover, and puts more ground between you and the treat. You have to learn how to position your body to expose the least amount of your body necessary to locate, identify and if necessary engage the threat. It takes work to get this right.
Finally, we get to the “shooting.” Marksmanship is mandatory; shooting tight groups is good. But bulls-eye shooting is different from defensive marksmanship. You learn where to place your hits on the threat to stop them as efficiently as possible. Ultimately some form of reactive target must be used. Something that requires varying hits in different zones to get the “stop.” You work on close large targets, and smaller targets at longer distances. You learn what you can hit, and how fast or slow you have to fire to hit.
The only way to learn these skills – again: moving, communication, using cover and defensive shooting – is practice. These are not instinctual or natural. Instinct tells you to hug in tight and close to cover, which is not where you want to be. It’s natural to focus on the threat while shooting as opposed to the front sight. Instinct tells you to root to the ground when fighting; we want to be moving. The only way to learn the required skills is through practice. At the same time you’re overriding the instinctual part of the brain that’s screaming at you to do the wrong thing.
The best way to learn defensive skills, and to improve, is dry practice. With a dummy pistol you practice drawing, moving, communicating and using cover, working towards the thousands of repetitions required to learn and apply a complicated sequence of actions. For many, dry practice is the only way to develop these skills. A lot of “firing” ranges don’t allow you to draw from the holster, move, use cover or fire multiple shots quickly. With a dummy weapon you can safely practice at home, any time.
The next time you’re thinking about going to the range to burn some ammo consider staying home and working on your tactics for that time. Yes, shooting is good, but it’s nowhere near all you need to know. Put in some hard work, so when the time comes you’re assured of being ready.
Tiger McKee is director of Shootrite Firearms Academy, located in northern Alabama. He is the author of The Book of Two Guns, AR-15 Skills and Drills, featured on GunTalk’s DVD, “Fighting With The 1911 and has regular columns in Gun Digest and American Handgunner.