Speed, Timing and Firearms Manipulations
“I’ve never seen a stop watch in a gunfight” ~ Clint Smith
I think the jist of this statement is that in a real life-or-death situation, victory is not decided by “points” or the reading of a stopwatch as in shooting games, but that should not make anyone think that timing and speed aren’t critical elements in determining who prevails in a violent encounter. The purpose of this note is to discuss what “fast” is, what makes someone “fast” and how to become “faster” with your firearm. In keeping with the cornerstones of our training doctrine, I will talk about “speed” as it relates to mindset, mechanics and marksmanship.
MINDSET: Speed in mindset isn’t necessarily how fast you can think… it’s more about how aware you are when bad things aren’t happening. When you actually “see” your environment rather than just “looking” at it, you have more opportunity to recognize the patterns of dangerous behavior. Early recognition gives you more time for decisions, such as setting up verbal or physical “roadblocks” to an escalating situation or just making yourself scarce as a dangerous situation unfolds. This involves a higher than typical level of awareness, which truthfully is just slightly higher than that of your typical 4-legged grass-nibbler. If your eyes are always down and your nose is in the “dirt” (typically on some type of electronic device) don’t be shocked when you walk into an open manhole or get set on by thugs who “came out of nowhere.” Look, it’s OK to check your text messages and Facebook posts in public, just do it in small doses, preferably while standing still in a relatively safe area and taking an occasional look around to see who is paying unwarranted attention to you or getting too close. The rest of the time, if your eyes are up and your head is on a swivel actually taking in your surroundings, you already don’t look like an easy target and this behavior alone can help you avoid a good many bad situations. Even with a heightened awareness of our environment, you can still be ambushed. A little bit of awareness, however, can help you identify the threat sooner, come to terms with it faster (because we won’t be wasting time trying to overcome a state of denial), and take some kind of pre-emptive action such as clearing a cover-garment or initiating our draw.
MECHANICS: …for the purposes of this essay, refers to the physical manipulations of the firearm such as drawing, presenting, loading, reloading and malfunction clearance. Speed as it applies to these mechanics or manipulations refers to efficiency and simplicity of motion. I wouldn’t exactly say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but as I have said in previous articles, practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. I’m not ashamed to admit that my competitive experience often intrudes on my performance in more defensive exercises and causes me to assume the occasional traditional bladed stance instead of a more practical modern isosceles one. The point is: experienced students often have more difficulty grasping a new way of doing things. Case in point: in a recent class I had a student with over 40-years of firearms and shooting experience including verified active duty military combat experience. He had been there, done that, and had the photos to prove it. When preparing to shoot, he would take the firearm in his shooting hand, flip it over and place the slide in his non-shooting hand, mag-well up, use his strong hand to retrieve and partially insert the magazine, deal it a merciless slap a la Magnum P.I., then place the firearm in his strong hand and rack the slide. These manipulations took approximately 30-seconds, and the magazine was emptied at the target in approximately 7-seconds scoring 2 hits on paper and 6 new holes in the backstop. This individual is capable of much better marksmanship, but in this instance he rushed his shots. His assumption, which is a common one, is that we must shoot faster than our opponent because the first one to land rounds on target is most likely to prevail. That may or may not be true, just because you’re hit doesn’t mean you stop fighting, and just because you hit the bad guy doesn’t mean he’s out of the fight. So how do we shoot faster better? We spend less time physically manipulating the firearm, which gives us more time for the proper application of marksmanship fundamentals. On semi-automatic handguns, all critical manipulations can be performed without taking the gun out of the firing hand and while keeping the muzzle pointed in the direction of the target or threat… and if they can’t, your pistol is not optimum for defensive use, stow it and buy a serious defensive pistol. If your defensive gun is an autoloader, establish a firm firing grip while it is still in the holster, and then don’t let that grip go. Keeping the firearm in the firing hand with the muzzle downrange for all manipulations saves time… buckets of it. Revolvers, of course, are somewhat different and require more sophisticated movements to keep them going, so maintaining the firing grip while loading or reloading doesn’t always apply to them depending on your methodology, but efficiency of motion still does.
Let’s take the example of my recent student who took 37-seconds from picking the gun up to the last shot fired, scoring 2-hits, and reverse the priority. If he had spent only 7-seconds on smooth efficient manipulations of the firearm and 30-seconds on marksmanship, that would have given him almost 4-seconds per shot… plenty of time for accuracy, even for most novices. So…what’s the difference between 8 shots in 37-seconds with only 2 hits and 8 shots in 37-seconds with 8 good hits? The difference is eliminating unnecessary and inefficient manipulations of the firearm.
The good news is that good “mechanics” can be developed very rapidly and essentially for free. Unload your firearm, check it… double check it… have someone else check it… check it one more time to make sure… and when everyone down to the family dog knows that the gun is empty and you have no loaded magazines on your person or anywhere nearby, practice smooth, efficient manipulations in front of a mirror. We aren’t practicing marksmanship or trigger squeeze, actually, your finger should almost never be on the trigger for this practice. Begin by slowly obtaining a firm firing grip with the gun in the holster, practice disengaging the retention mechanism if applicable, pull the gun straight up keeping the elbow tucked in, not stuck out like a chicken-wing. When the muzzle clears the holster, drop the elbow and rock the muzzle up towards the target, disengage any manual safeties, but YOUR FINGER SHOULD BE OFF TRIGGER AT THIS STAGE. Bring the hands together beneath the dominant eye and establish a proper 2-handed grip. Extend straight out to the target… don’t sweep the gun upwards to the target, this isn’t bowling, don’t “cast” the gun downwards towards the target… this isn’t fishing, we are practicing fighting. “Punch” the gun straight out to the target. On the way out, the finger begins taking the slack out of the trigger. When the targed is acquired, the trigger press is completed, “click,” and the shooter follows-through getting the second site picture, and slowly releasing to practice trigger reset (although unless your firearm has re-strike capability, you won’t get a trigger-reset). Sights off target, finger off trigger… pull the gun back in to a chest-ready, also called “3rd Eye” or chest-retention position keeping the muzzle between you and the threat. Scan then check your 360 without letting the muzzle sweep left and right off target, then safely re-activate your manual safeties as applicable, re-holster and engage holster retention mechanisms if present. Practice this maneuver again and again and again. Use the mirror to diagnose problems in grip, balance, stance etc… This isn’t an ego exercise; the mirror is there to help you find problems, not to show you how awesome you are. Go slow; the muscle groups you are training don’t really know the difference between slow movements and fast movements. Train them to make smooth movements efficiently and consistently every time, and when you need to do it fast, adrenaline will do the rest.
MARKSMANSHIP: is the skillful application of the fundamentals of marksmanship. We don’t fire our pistols to make noise, we don’t fire them to scare an attacker. A handgun is legally described as a weapon capable of causing death. Every time we pull the trigger with the intention of stopping a threat, we must accept the responsibility and possibility of that action causing the death of another human being. Such an act should never be performed carelessly or haphazardly, but should be done precisely, deliberately, and with intent. Take an adequate amount of time in practice to aim every shot. It may take 5 to 10 seconds to get a good sight picture, minimize the arc of movement and apply a correct trigger squeeze in the beginning, but practice this correctly and take as much time as you need. Remember; the muscles and neural pathways remember the movements we practice, not necessarily the speed. If we practice wrong or sloppy movements, we will perform wrong, sloppy movements under stress. If we practice slowly, smoothly and deliberately, we will tend to default to those habits. The two most important marksmanship fundamentals are sight alignment and trigger squeeze. We can screw up everything else, but if we have a good trigger press with a good sight picture, we will put rounds on target. Here is a good way to practice this: with an unloaded firearm, obtain a sight picture on a small target in a safe area. Place a coin or metal washer on the top-strap of the firearm and while maintaining aligned sights, squeeze the trigger without the coin or washer falling off of the pistol. If you are a double-action only or revolver shooter especially this drill should be practiced often to develop good double-action trigger control. You probably notice that I haven’t said much about increasing speed in marksmanship… well, the only way to do this is to practice a lot, but marksmanship is about getting hits, not pulling the trigger fast. Save time with proper mindset, save time with smooth efficient manipulations, save time by taking the time to make every shot count… misses just waste more precious time in a violent confrontation.