Maintaining Handgun Skills

Combative handgun skills are not really complicated, regardless of what some want you to believe. The skills needed to fight efficiently with a pistol are not magic or even mysterious; what makes the process difficult is trying to apply them while someone is shooting at you.

Have you ever heard someone who has prevailed (not survived…wrong message.) in armed conflict say "I don't remember drawing my gun" or "I had a malfunction, but I don't remember clearing it"? When I hear such exclamations I am reassured that firearms instructors are doing the right thing. Some call this "unconscious competence" while others use "decisive action without forethought."

I don't really care what you call it. To me it is "see-do," which is what I believe is required to win a gunfight—not shooting tight groups or fast double taps. Such ability comes from practice, repetition of the same skill over and over to the point that it is second nature.

Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can't get it wrong. Tall order, but it is what needs to be done to fight without orientation, it is necessary to enable a stressed individual to apply needed techniques at a subconscious level.

A prepared combatant needs to be able to draw, reload or clear malfunctions without having to consciously think about it. This frees the conscious mind to deal with the person or persons who are trying to kill you.

Many of the skills needed to fight with firearms contradict what our body does naturally. Skills such as trigger control, front sight acquisition, movement during conflict and the ability to use the fingers to "run the gun" are contradictory to our instinctual desire to focus totally on what/who is trying to do us harm. In addition, the crashing of cortisol and epinephrine into the system creates a chemical cocktail that can interfere with performance via tunnel vision, loss of digital dexterity, auditory exclusion and the like.

Practice and repetition is the prescription to combat these instinctive responses, and it should be further understood that skills are rapidly perishable. If you can't perform them without conscious thought, you probably will not be able to use them under the stress and duress of armed combat. The good news is that once you have them and they do atrophy, you can get them back rather quickly with, yes, practice and repetition.

Simultaneously, the skills needed should work in conjunction with the body as much as possible as this will make them easier to physically perform—what I call physiological efficiency. For example, I attended a pistolcraft workshop recently taught by a competition shooter. Part of his program was to bring the pistol up in front of your face to reload. His thought was you can watch the magazine go in so you don't blow the reload.

This is certainly fine when no one is shooting at you, but when someone's trying to kill you the only way you can keep this from happening is to watch what they are doing so you can counter their actions. If you run out of ammo in the middle of a fight and bring the gun up to your face to reload, you block your view of your opponent. Why would you do that?

Competition shooting is a great pastime and I have competed with great enthusiasm, but it is not fighting. Understand the big difference between combat and competition is rules. If there are rules it is a sport and these rules keep the competition on a level playing field. There are no rules in a fight and in a fight if you are not cheating, you are not trying hard enough to win. Period.

At the same time, training and live fire practice is expensive in both time and money but is essential if your desire is to prepare for an attack. For the law enforcement officer who is duty bound to seek out and interdict dangerous criminals, violence is not a possibility but a likelihood, so be prepared for it. A solid base of fundamental skill is the best way to prepare for conflict as there is no way to prepare for every possible scenario one may face. Seek training to achieve these fundamental skills, practice them so you can perform them on autopilot and then have the mindset. Videos and books can help bolster a solid set of fundamentals, but will never replace hands on training followed up by repetitive practice.

While most people think live fire when they think practice, an excellent way to practice the fundamentals of combative pistolcraft is with dry fire. In truth, you can practice most every skill needed with a regular dry-fire regime. Live fire will always be necessary for recoil and trigger control, but most other skills can be practiced dry.

Think a loaded gun will never "jump" into your dry fire practice session? All it takes is one momentary lapse of concentration and it can happen. One of my students, a very good friend, was dry firing in his bedroom when a loud bang occurred. He told me later he was stunned when it happened. No one was hurt, but his wife was less than pleased as the only damage done was a hole in the dresser as well as through their wedding picture. I'm guessing the wife was less than enthused with his choice of dry fire target. This officer is a skilled shooter and a sharp guy, so if this can happen to him, it can happen to anyone.

The best way to avoid this is by ensuring your pistol is truly empty. My favorite way to do this is insert a Train Safe rod into the barrel of my carry pistol. The Train Safe unit is less than $5 and can only be installed by field stripping the gun and placing it down the barrel. Once in place, there is no way a live round can be inserted into the chamber. Another good addition to the dry fire routine is dummy ammunition, available through Brownells and other sources.

Moving, using cover, working from a seated position, even using your vehicle in the garage can be part of your training program. Do not underestimate the value that dry fire can offer.

In the end, it's up to you as to how much value you place into your dry fire program. By inserting a Train Safe barrel rod and using dummy rounds, the limits of your real world training regime is only limited by your imagination. Don't let gun club range rules or liability hold you back. Understand and make use of the benefits of a solid dry fire training program. It's up to you.

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