Zen and the Gunfighter
with Jeff Hall
The five rings and the pistol
You can’t do the cool stuff until you have mastered the basics
Any man who considers himself a “warrior” should have read The Book of Five Rings. Miyamoto Musashi is considered the kensei, or “sword-saint” of Japan. Musashi practiced the art of the sword, but his teachings apply to any weapon designed for mortal combat. If we think in terms of principles, rather than the weapon or the style, fighting hasn’t changed much in the 400 years since Musashi wrote the book. In this article, just substitute “gun” for “sword.” Musashi talks only in terms of killing — like the sword, we don’t shoot to wound, but if your P.C. flag goes up at the word killing, you can think “stop” instead.
I am new to the sword. I’ve spent 53 years pressing the trigger on various firearms, spent 30 years in traditional martial arts, and am just now becoming a good student of the martial Way. I’m the iemoto (head of school) of Hojutsu, but the more I study, the less I know. I’ve found, though, that principles are universal, whether applied to hands, feet, sticks, knives, or guns. I’ve trained hard, fought successfully, and am alive while better men are dead. This article will explain what I believe are truths. I didn’t invent them: I re-affirmed them in words written 400 years ago.
Musashi killed more than 60 men in duels. He began with the sword, but eventually used only a wooden training sword (bokken) when it became too easy to kill opponents. He won by both skill and tactics. He lived in a cave in a remote area, but the path to the cave was well known. Musashi, knowing that swordsmen would try to find and kill him, was known to ambush opponents before they got to the cave — good tactics. That he won in excess of 60 times is a testament to his weaponcraft.
“Development of technique is essential to understanding of purpose. Once a specific technique has been understood, the warrior stops using it on a conscious level because in combat having a conscious identity imposes limitations.”
Shootists today argue ad naseum about stance — Weaver or Isosceles. I’m a Weaver guy, but I’d never tell you that I’ll only shoot it in combat. Terrain and circumstances determine tactics and technique, and if I end up flat on my back, I’ll shoot from there. I may end up shooting with one hand, weak hand, or with the gun upside down. However, I’ve spent years perfecting technique, and will probably come close to my normal technique under stress. I won’t think about it, I’ll just do it, but I can’t get there without years of good, repetitious training. Those who advocate shortcuts are setting the student up for failure (if I could make you a gunfighter through a program you listen to on your iPod, I’d be a gazillionaire, not a trainer and wordsmith).
As I train students around the country, I see lots of students who won’t practice basics — they want to be “high-speed, low drag” but can’t shoot well. You can’t do the cool stuff until you have mastered the basics. You need “...a thousand days of practice for training and ten thousand days of practice for refinement.”
“The Way cannot be learned through frivolous contests in which the outcome is for the name of a school or a large trophy. It can only be realized where physical death is a reality.”
There are many teachers and practitioners of fighting with firearms. Some of them, like Chuck Taylor, Paul Howe, Louie Awerbuck, Pat Rogers, Scott Reitz, and Clint Smith have tested skills and wills in combat against other armed men. Others, who have never heard guns fired in anger, have spent their time competing in matches — three-gun, IPSC, IDPA, PPC, etc., and then try to teach fighting. I submit that those who have never fought can’t teach how to fight as well as successful fighters can — they can teach to shoot, maybe fast and well, but can’t teach how to fight. No man in the world can swing a metal club as well as Tiger Woods (or most recently, Phil Mickelson this weekend at Augusta) but he’s the last guy on the planet I’d hire to teach me to use an Asp.
When I’m going to spend my limited training time, money, and ammo, I’ll spend it at a quality school, where the instructors have real-world experience. Killing another human is a result of occupation, circumstances, truly bad guys, bad planning, or bad luck, but it does lend validity to the theories the instructor teaches. He will abandon, modify, refine, or embrace what’s worked in the “real world” and will teach his students those things that kept him alive.
“The long sword should be taken up with the thought that it is something for killing opponents. Let there be no change in your grip even when slashing opponents; make your grip such that your hand does not flinch. Your grip when cutting something to test your blade and your grip when slashing an opponent in combat should be no different, gripping the sword as you would to kill a man.”
Back when I competed in PPC, it was common practice to draw the revolver, stop half way, grab the barrel/cylinder with the weak hand, adjust the grip, then settle down to shoot. Times were generous, making this possible, but I thank all the gods that I never got into a pistol fight in those days — I might have done that in the fight. An old captain I competed with watched me thumb-cock my Model 19 for 50 yard shots and told me to trigger-cock it instead, saying that my grip would remain consistent. He was right. I improved by ten points.
I recently attended a class where the instructor advocated changing the grip once out of the holster. Most trainers I know, however, teach to establish the grip on the stocks in the holster, defeat the snaps, and present in a smooth motion. The grip never changes. In two-handed shooting, the shooting hand grip never changes; when I shoot one-handed, the strong hand grip is the same. If it’s consistent, it’s more accurate.
“Whatever guard you adopt (there are five guard positions in Musashi’s book), do not think of it as being on guard; think of it as part of the act of killing.”
Low ready, guard, high ready, high compressed ready, “tactical” ready…too many shooters, regardless of the ready, collapse and relax when going to guard.
When I learned the low ready years ago, the front sight, rear sight, wrist, and elbow stayed locked; isometric tension was maintained, ‘cuz the fight might not be over yet. Everything taken out of the arms has to be put back in to shoot, so relaxing is a bad thing. Think of guard as a pause in the fight, not the end of it, and stay ready until you’re sure it’s over. You can rest at the slop chute later, not when you’re training or in a fight.
“There is no time or place for thought in combat; the sword is the mind.”
One of the classes I’ve developed is Integrated Fighting. The student has baton, OC, TASER, hands, feet, knives, and handguns available to resolve the problem. I often see hesitation in the students — they’re trying to select the right option to use. With all of the force charts out there, are we over-engineering fighting? All of the above options are good, all work some of the time, but I think there are too many that each officer has to consider.
I’m seeing a trend to make the continuum simpler and the tools fewer. When I joined the Troopers, the force policy was to use “that force necessary”, and we carried revolvers and wore sap gloves. We were able to resolve the problem quickly and within policy with no hesitation- maybe its time to re-consider the complexity of the policies and the options we make the copper consider when faced with a bad guy. I just read an article where Idaho cops stopped a guy who had just shot his wife — they tried to TASER him, even though he had a gun in his hand! Note to all coppers: TASERs don’t belong in gunfights!
Jeff Cooper once wrote that when you were confronted by a goblin, you’d be looking at him over the sights of your pistol — how the pistol came to be there is something you never thought about, it was just there, based on years of practice.
When the trained shooter has a fail-to-fire, he taps, racks, and assesses without thinking about it. The Japanese word is “mushin,” which means “no mind” or “without conscious thought.” If we have to think about what we do, the fight is over and we’re a part of the crime scene diagram. The presentation, manipulation, and accurate shooting of the pistol has to become an unconscious process- the only thought should be is do I shoot or not-the rest is automatic. We can only get there by training and practice.
I’m learning the Batto set of eight sword forms. Form five is step forward, cut down; step forward, cut down; pause, with the sword held high (haso), evaluate the opponent, then step and cut downward a final, vicious stroke to finish it.
Sounds like a Mozambique (failure drill, body armor drill) drill, doesn’t it? Two to the chest, pause, and then a head shot to finish it if the first two shots didn’t work. This goes back to universal principles being...universal.
There is nothing new in fighting or in shooting- front and rear sights in alignment, centered on the target, press the trigger; quality training, years of practice. “Point,” “instinctive,” “intuitive,” and C.A.R. all may have a place, but only after a solid foundation has been built. There are no shortcuts, and from The 300 to Musashi, spear to sword to 1911 to a Pulse-Plasma rifle in the 40 watt range, there won’t be.