Phil Strader was the firearms instructor for the U.S. Capitol Police for eight years, won the Steel Challenge three times, has been on two U.S. World Shoot teams and has won more than 40 state, regional and national shooting competition titles. Yet very few people outside the competitive shooting community even know who he is. Perhaps this is because he's so unassuming about what he's accomplished. He's usually the first person to poke fun at himself.
"It wasn't until mid-1997 that I learned how to hold a pistol correctly," Strader likes to say. "I'd been holding a pistol wrong for€¦forever. Todd Jarrett took me off to the side and showed me how to hold a pistol correctly. It was literally a learning experience--when the world champion tells you you're holding the gun wrong, I don't care how good you think you are, you listen."
As a rookie police officer, first with the Danville, Virginia, police department, Strader had very little money for equipment or ammo but did the best he could with what he had.
"Dry-firing was the key. I dry-fired 30 to 60 minutes every day seven days a week for three years. That's all I did."
He practiced reloads so much he cracked a steel mag well, and he'd run through stages he set up in his tiny apartment.
"My girlfriend, now my wife, she would 'beep' for me because I couldn't afford a timer. If I didn't have her, I would have the TV on, and every time the camera angle would change, that would be my start signal.
"I learned my mechanics, moving into and out of positions, the draw, the reload, all from not shooting. I don't shoot a lot, never have and probably never will, but I do a lot of mental visualization. Local club matches are great, if you go into them with the right mindset--like each one is the national championship."
Currently Strader is the director of competitive events at the U.S. Shooting Academy in Tulsa, one of the largest private ranges in the country. He also teaches classes to competitive shooters as well as law enforcement and military units. Between his day job, his wife and his young son, he finds himself in a position most people are very familiar with--not enough hours in the day to do what needs to be done. So who has time to practice?
"Practicing is a lot like working out," Strader says. "You can't 'fit it into your schedule'; you have to make time to practice. I don't think there's any substitute for taking 30 minutes out of your day to dry-fire--that means doing a few draws, doing a few reloads. It depends on what your dedication level is. If you want to get better at gun handling, that can be done without firing a round."
As a former police officer, Strader believes that while competition doesn't build tactical skills, it's great for gun handling. The more comfortable you are handling your gun--how it works, how to fix it when it doesn't work--the more effective you'll be in a self-defense environment," he says.
"The more you shoot, the more you compete, the more you do drills and work the gun under stress, the more consistent you'll be, and that's the key in a self-defense situation.
"There's never enough training that can prepare you for an actual gunfight, but the worst thing you can do is purchase a pistol, take a concealed carry class and think you're good to go."