Book Excerpt: Building a Better Gunfighter
Improving Marksmanship, Mechanics, and Mindset
Unlike most “shooting” books, I will not presume to tell you what gun to carry, nor the specifics of how to shoot it. At various points in my career I have tried almost every shooting technique and eventually came to a conclusion most “experts” are loath to admit. Almost any shooting technique can and will work.
Almost 29 years ago as this is written, I attended my first session at a major training site and learned the Weaver shooting stance from none other than Jeff Cooper. No matter what you think of the late Colonel Cooper personally, if you deny him as the progenitor of all the various schools of thought we now see in modern firearms training and practical competition, you deny reality. In my limited time around him, I found Cooper to be both highly opinionated and, at the same time, extremely curious about serious alternatives presented by those around him. Jeff Cooper clung to the Weaver stance not because he was unwilling to consider other options, but because he hadn’t seen anything dramatically better.
As I evolved as a shooter and as an instructor, I looked honestly at each of the “newest” shooting techniques as they came down the pike. Often, these “new” techniques were little more than a re-hash of something we’d used 20 or more years previously. I finally came to understand that most aspects of shooting are cyclic, repeating every generation or so as new shooters think they’ve discovered something original, only to find out their great idea is little more than an old technique that had fallen out of favor. The newest iteration of the Isosceles stance I learned in my youth is refined a bit through reincarnation, but it is certainly nothing new.
My theory of training gunfighters is simple. Show them a couple of variations of grip and stance and let each student sort out their own way to shoot. You can coach a new shooter into better performance, but you cannot get inside their head or muscles and program them with your own way to perform. Adults learn by listening, observing, trying, failing, and then re-trying until they perfect their own personal way to accomplish a task. A good trainer judges a student’s performance by their results, not their technique. Some techniques a student may try are clearly wrong for reasons of safety or incompatibility with other aspects of the overall program. But, if the new shooter develops a style that is safe and productive, let them be. If their technique does not look exactly (or even remotely) like yours or mine, but it works for them, LET THEM BE.
As I will submit in this section of the book, the most important aspect of building a gunfighter is to program them mentally. With proper mental programming the physical part of their performance will be able to survive the stress of a gunfight. If you concentrate too much on the physical aspects, you will degrade the mental side of the equation. All shooting styles will degrade to some extent under stress, so focus on managing the stress and let the physical technique take care of itself.
If you are like me, you will approach any book purporting to train the art of gunfighting with a bit of skepticism. Who is this guy, who thinks he has the answers to one of life’s greatest potential hazards? What gives me the right to tell you how to prepare for a fight?
I have not personally experienced a gunfight. I have never shot another human being, nor fired a shot at one. However, I came within “one pound” of trigger pull on two occasions as a police officer.
In both of those cases, I was armed with an AR15 rifle, responding to a “gun” call. In the first case, we were advised a man was holding a woman hostage in a basement apartment. Another officer arrived first, taking up a position behind a large tree with his shotgun. As I exited my vehicle with the rifle, the other officer told me the man was in the basement doorway, holding a handgun to a woman’s head. Being familiar with the building, I moved carefully around a retaining wall, knowing it would soon bend, putting me within 20 feet of the doorway. Catching my breath for second, I shouldered my rifle and stepped around the wall, putting the sights on the man’s face from less than seven yards. The woman was in front of the man’s torso, being held in place by his left arm, and I saw the revolver in his hand, which was then hanging rather loosely at his side. The man froze as I ordered him to drop the gun, and the woman ran quickly away, to my right. I remember lowering my sights to the man’s chest when the hostage fled (probably reverting to my training to aim for center mass – the biggest target). I again ordered him to drop the gun and I’ll never forget his wide eyes and trembling hand as he replied. “I’m trying to drop it!” The man was literally paralyzed with fear. My partner had gathered up the hostage as I directed the suspect out of the doorway for handcuffing and searching – he had managed to quit shaking enough to drop the .357 magnum.
A few months later, the call came from a sergeant trying to serve an arrest warrant at a residence (alone – foolishly). The woman he was seeking had armed herself with an eight inch .44 Magnum, forcing the officer to step away from the doorway, trapping him in a pocket of the building. His only avenue of escape would have forced him to run straight away, giving the woman a straight shot as he ran down the narrow sidewalk. The first backup officer beat me there, the same guy, again in his familiar position behind a tree with a shotgun. I claimed another nearby tree, again with my trusty AR15. The night was pitch black, but the interior of the house was well lit. The woman was sitting at a small table, directly in line with the open front door. She had the .44 in her right hand, waving it in various directions, while she slugged down an occasional mouthful from a whiskey bottle. My sight picture was very clear, at a distance of about 25 yards. I told the other tree-hugging officer to “call her out,” telling him I would fire if she pointed the big revolver out the door in our direction, or towards the pinned officer, a few feet to the left of the doorway. The situation seemed to last forever, but was probably over in less than a minute. The drunk woman never pointed the .44 in our direction and eventually put down both the gun and bottle, keeping her hands up in the air as instructed. As I covered her, the pinned officer made a mad dash away from the doorway, breaking hard to my left as soon as he cleared the hedge. The woman eventually walked out to us for another uneventful capture.
In either situation, I would have been justified in using deadly force against an armed and dangerous individual who was threatening the safety of another (1- civilian hostage and 1- now more tactically aware sergeant). Indeed, in both incidents the sights had been on target and the trigger was only the “final break” away from firing. I questioned myself after both incidents. Was I truly ready to fire or had I hesitated when I should have fired? With many years of reflection, and several other dicey situations in between, I’m confident my actions were right. While I could have legally and morally ended either suspect’s life, not doing so was by far the better choice. At that point in my career, I was already an experienced firearms instructor with a great deal of first-class training under my belt. I am convinced it was that excellent training which gave me the presence of mind and confidence to wait the few extra seconds it took for each felon to understand and comply. If either had chosen a different ending, I’m confident I would have taken the next step, operating on “automatic,” consistent with my “programming.
With these two incidents as my baseline reference, I have had the opportunity in my career to interview dozens of gunfight survivors. During the course of several research projects, common gunfighting issues have become apparent to me. Adding to my database, have been the hours spent with some of America’s finest trainers, many of whom were also experienced gunfighters.
So, while I cannot claim to have personally “seen the elephant,” I’ve extensively studied those who have. As my personal training philosophy developed, I kept reaching back to my experts to see if a new idea fit into their real world experiences. The resulting training philosophy is not mine, but the combined knowledge and experience of all the gunfighters I have met. Their lives have proven the effectiveness of what I present here. I am merely the scribe.
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