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Back to Basics: The fundamentals of combative pistolcraft

By Dave Spaulding

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I have great sympathy for those officers who either volunteer or are assigned to instruct in their agency’s firearms training program, because there’s a great misconception regarding the tasks an agency firearms instructor undertakes. Some will see the time away from routine duties as a nice perk, while others will be jealous of the special schools the instructor attends. While both are certainly nice, they do not really compensate for the amount of time and work the in-service firearms instructor must put in to create a worthwhile training program.

Note that I said worthwhile program—police officers need very little skill or talent to qualify. Hell, a monkey could do that. Qualification means the officers fire a set course and either pass or fail. If they experience difficulty, such as shooting a bit to the left, the qualification officer merely tells the student, “Shoot a bit more to the right, then.” Does this sound familiar?

A quality police firearms training program is not about marksmanship, it’s about fighting. All police officers must be able to fight with their gun, not just shoot it. Knowing the difference is the hallmark of the police firearms instructor and separates them from the qualification officer.

At the same time, some instructors tend to emphasize “high-speed” techniques, even when their officers cannot shoot. Yes, I admit it’s more fun to bail out of cars, run across the range from point to point, clear rooms and shoot on the move, but all of this is counterproductive if your officers cannot draw from their chosen duty holster and hit a paper plate at 20 feet in two seconds or less. How about exchanging magazines in less than 10 seconds, or shooting multiple shots with one hand?

While these skills seem rudimentary, a large body of veteran officers in this country works the streets every day who can’t perform these basic shooting skills in a safe environment, let alone under the stress of an armed conflict. It’s not the job of the instructor to entertain the officers in their program; it’s their job to prepare them for the realities of the street, to train them in the fundamentals of combative pistolcraft.

The fundamentals of combative pistolcraft include stance, grip, use of sights, trigger control, holster skills, reloading, malfunction clearances and the basic maintenance that keeps the gun running during a life-threatening event. Officers must practice these things in order to stay sharp, something that’s seldom undertaken by the majority of officers. Let’s be honest here: Most law enforcement officers or agents shoot their guns when they are required to do so by their agency—nothing more, nothing less. The national average falls somewhere between three and four sessions in a calendar year. I know of a few agencies that are proud of the fact they go to the range every month, and while this is certainly admirable and excellent, let’s put it in perspective. Would you bet $20 on a football team if you knew the quarterback only practiced throwing the ball once a month? Of course not, but we bet officers’ lives on 1–12 trips to the range in a year. Does this make sense?

In defense of police administrators nationwide, it’s impossible to get officers to the range at the frequency necessary to keep their shooting skills as sharp as they really need. Neither money nor time is available, especially for the agency that has hundreds, if not thousands, of officers who need to cycle through the firearms training program. Much of the responsibility to keep skills sharp falls upon the individual officer, which, quite frankly in my experience, seldom happens. For this reason, students must review the fundamentals of combative pistolcraft at the beginning of every training session. This not only bolsters the student’s ability to successfully complete the remainder of the program, it also gives the instructor an idea of where the student needs assistance.

Grip & Trigger Control

If the officer/student uses a shooting grip that does not help control recoil during rapid fire, they must correct and practice the correct grip or risk using the poor grip in a fight. Debates rage regarding the best shooting-grip configuration, and I admit to having my own preferences, but what’s most important is that the officer’s grip allows for quick follow-up shots. Whether the thumbs are forward or locked down is probably not as important as wrapping fingers around the front of the grip to help control muzzle flip and to make as much contact with the grip surface as possible. Far too many people try to shoot handguns using a cup-and-saucer grip that supports the gun but does little to help control recoil—not good.

If the officer slaps the trigger instead of controlling it, they must correct this habit and practice proper technique. Trigger control is the most misunderstood, but least addressed aspect, of combative pistol skills. Officers must receive solid instruction on how to separate the trigger finger from the rest of the hand, or they will never learn how to properly control the trigger. More often than not, officers who are not practiced with their pistol will squeeze the entire grip instead of pressing just the trigger, similar to the action performed while milking a cow (which is why the action is sometimes called “milking the grip”).

Getting an officer to not milk the grip is actually a huge undertaking. Think about the number of times each day you open and close your hand to grab a door knob, shake someone’s hand, pick up a drinking glass, grasp the steering wheel, etc. All of these actions require the thumb to oppose the four fingers, and we do it without thought. Is it really hard to understand why infrequent shooters jerk their shots down to five o’clock (left hand) or seven o’clock (right hand) on the target? After all, they perform this same action hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day. Instructors must reinforce trigger control at the beginning of every training session.

Using the Sights

While use of the sights is controversial in some circles, to ignore training with the “trajectory indicators” on your particular handgun would be pure folly. That said, the truth is everybody point-shoots, they just don’t realize it. The gun’s sights do not come into play until the weapon is in front of the shooter’s eyes, which does not occur until the very end of the presentation of the gun to the target.

Anyone who thinks they can thrust their gun outward, chase down the front sight and get a quick and accurate shot is kidding themselves. The only way to get the gun on target reliably is to practice bringing the gun from ready (or the holster) the same way every time. By eliminating unnecessary motion, the presentation will be fast and the path to the target consistent. This happens by feel and has nothing to do with the sights, which only confirm what the arms and hands should have accomplished. To my way of thinking, using the body to point the gun towards the target is point-shooting. If you can acquire the sights, great. If not, and you present the gun to the target in a consistent path, the shot should still be on target.

This type of consistency is only achieved through practice, which training must address. Do not underestimate the tactile aspects of shooting. Make sure your officers know how it feels to shoot correctly, so they can duplicate the action without thinking.

Drawing & Reloading

The multi-level retention duty holster is used widely and for good reason. History shows if officers are disarmed, they will quite likely get shot with their own gun. Security holsters help combat this, but they are only an asset if the officer has practiced enough with the holster to draw quickly and efficiently. I have seen far too many officers take six, eight and even 10 seconds to draw their duty pistol, and this lack of speed and skill does not seem to concern them! To address holster skills, take each officer through the stages of the draw, one step at a time, in slow motion. Then instruct them to compress the time without allowing them to degrade into spastic, herky-jerky body movements.
While loading a revolver can take 8–10 seconds, reloading an automatic pistol should take just a couple of seconds. But all too often, officers take 10 seconds to speed-load their pistols because they really don’t know how to do so efficiently. Officers must address and practice this procedure during every range session.

Magazine exchanges are usually fouled-up for two reasons: the officer has a poor grip on the magazine, or the gun is moving while they attempt to insert the magazine. The poor grip typically happens due to the inferior design of most uniform magazine pouches. In an effort to protect and secure the magazine, most manufacturers offer a pouch that covers too much of the magazine body, making it difficult, if not impossible, to get the thumb behind the magazine. This causes many officers to just grab what they can (usually the very end of the magazine) and hope they can fit the wobbling piece of metal into the pistol. One remedy: Mount the magazine pouch on the belt sideways so that when the flap is opened, the thumb has access to the rear of the magazine, offering a more secure grip. Some magazine pouches have slots that allow you to mount them vertically or horizontally. Consider this when you choose your equipment.


The great thing about the fundamentals is that they do not require ammo or range time to perfect. Officers can master them through dry-fire sessions they can accomplish anywhere in the home. However, the officer should go to an isolated room, away from distractions. Make sure no live ammo travels into the dry-fire area, and when the session is over, it’s over! Never do “just one more rep.” That’s when accidents happen. Remember: Always check and recheck the chamber to make sure the weapon is clear. One of the most frequent reasons for accidental discharge is the mistaken belief that a gun is empty if the magazine is removed. Rack and rerack that slide to make sure the weapon is truly unloaded.

I do a set of drills to keep my fundamentals sharp. I also instruct my students to perform these drills. They provide a reasonable gauge to where you stand on the fundamentals of combat pistolcraft.

Stay alert, and check your 360-degree world often. Good luck!

Dave Spaulding is a 28-year law-enforcement veteran, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He currently works for a federal security contractor. Having worked in all facets of law enforcement—corrections, communications, patrol, evidence collection, investigations, undercover operations, training and SWAT—he has authored more than 600 articles for various firearm and law enforcement periodicals. He is also the author of the best selling books Defensive Living and Handgun Combatives.

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