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What the 100-meter dash can teach you about a gunfight

Amateurs practice until they get it right — professionals train until they can’t get it wrong

I have raised and coached several distance runners, but for me, the most exciting and unpredictable race at a track meet is the 100-meter dash. Given a well-matched group of competitors, this race sometimes comes down to which runner can exit the starting blocks the fastest. Sprinters understand the importance of a flawless start and devote hours of training to these critical first seconds of a race.

A sprint has a lot in common with a sudden gunfight. Both can be won or lost in fractions of a second and the winner is often the participant with the most effective start. Unfortunately, there is little similarity between the time a sprinter spends perfecting his move out of the blocks and the time most officers spend developing the fast and efficient draw stroke.

The high-stakes nature of a gunfight demands that we, as law-enforcement officers and trainers, commit much more training time to this all-important skill.

A sprint has a lot in common with a sudden gunfight. Both can be won or lost in fractions of a second and the winner is often the participant with the most effective start. (AP Image)
A sprint has a lot in common with a sudden gunfight. Both can be won or lost in fractions of a second and the winner is often the participant with the most effective start. (AP Image)

Consider These Statistics
Law-enforcement homicides are up almost 25 percent over the past two years
Ambush and surprise attacks with firearms continue to account for the majority of homicides — accounting for almost 75 percent of all law enforcement murders by firearms in 2011
• Of the over 500 officers murdered between 2000 and 2009, fewer than 30 percent drew and fired their weapons before they died

Officers and instructors need to take these numbers into account and honestly assess the effectiveness of their training. In my opinion, if every officer was capable of a draw stroke that took less than two seconds, these sobering statistics would improve. But this is not going to happen with infrequent qualifications. Improvement requires regular training, including frequent dry practice on a series of movements that will develop an officer’s ability to draw from their holster quickly and accurately — every time. 

Your Formidable Start
50 years ago Gunsite founder Jeff Copper and other shooting enthusiasts developed the “Five-Count Presentation” described in the Modern Technique of the Pistol. Despite its long history and proven value, few officers spend the time necessary to develop a mastery of this critical skill.  This becomes obvious when officers are challenged with a shot timer or competitive shooting drill.

Under the relatively minor stress of a time limit, many will struggle with their holsters or revert to any one of several time-consuming and inaccurate draw strokes. However, when they are given the opportunity to understand and practice the Five-Count Presentation, most show significant improvement in the same day.

Five-Count Presentation
Much has been written on the Five-Count Presentation and on the equally viable four-count variation. You Tube also has a number of video demonstrations on this series of movements. Rather than repeat these descriptions, I will use this space to go over what I believe are the keys to training on these techniques. Before I start, I want to emphasize that you should practice these steps slowly for at least the first several hundred repetitions. As with developing any physical skill, proper practice is your first priority. Speed will develop naturally as you practice, but practicing too fast will invite bad habits.

Count One — Establish a shooting grip while clearing any holster retention
While under stress, officers often struggle with their grip or holster retentions. These issues can prove fatal in a sudden gunfight. It is crucial that you develop the ability to establish a proper shooting grip while simultaneously releasing any holster retentions without delay — every time. So practice Count One every day, at half speed and separate from the other steps. Just remember, to avoid an unnecessary call to your supervisor, practice Step One away from public view!

Your primary hand should move toward your pistol at the same time that your support hand is moving toward your chest or upper abdomen. Imagine that your hands are connected with a foot-long string, so that reaching for your pistol pulls your support hand toward your chest at the same speed.

Count Two — Draw your pistol
Draw your pistol straight up and alongside your body, high enough to clear your holster and to cause slight tension in your shoulder. This “high draw” not only helps you to draw under stress, it also sets up an accurate shooting position for Count Three.

Count Three — Drop your elbow and sweep your pistol’s safety, if applicable
From the High Draw position, simply drop your elbow. Do not crouch, squat, adjust the angle of your arm, or bend your wrist. These movements reduce your accuracy and limit lateral movement (which you should practice later, once your draw stroke is perfected). Just drop your elbow.

If you’ve done this step correctly you’ll end up with your forearm along you ribcage and your pistol pointing at the threat — preferably at the upper abdomen or chest. While you’re learning these steps, stop at step three from time to time and notice where your muzzle is pointing. Make adjustments to your form where necessary — in the forearm and not the wrist — to develop your ability to point your pistol accurately at the target’s “chest” on every draw. With practice you’ll soon master this skill, which is critical if you find yourself in a gunfight at such close distances that you are forced to begin shooting from position three. 

Count Four — Establish a proper two-handed grip
As I mentioned in Position One, you must find a consistent location for your hands to meet. Officers who do not regularly train on the Five-Point Presentation end up establishing a two-handed grip as their arms are extending or even after they are fully extended, which is far too late. This “slapping” of the hands together at the last possible moment can change your aim at the worst possible time — as you’re about to start fighting back.

Count Five — Move your pistol smoothly toward the threat while referencing your front sight to break your vision plane
You want to firmly “present” your pistol in Position Five, using isometric pressure to establish and maintain a firm, two-handed grip. If you “punch” your pistol out instead, you’ll find it difficult to locate and maintain reference of your front site. You’ll then waste valuable time trying to reacquire your front site reference, or fail to reference your sight at all. Each of these mistakes makes it more likely that your assailant will stay in the fight.

Given the speed of a sudden gunfight it is unrealistic to spend any additional time acquiring your front sight reference. But shooting without any confirmation on where your pistol is pointing can be equally ineffective. Again, statistics make the point — officers commonly miss their assailant far more often than they hit them, even at distances within ten feet. A suspect who is willing to murder you is not going to stop his attack until you stop him — or he mortally wounds you — so misses will also take up time that you cannot afford to waste.

You can reduce and even eliminate these misses by developing the ability to reference your front sight as you are moving from Count Four to Count Five — but this takes regular practice. 

Practice, Practice, Practice
The statistics are clear — most murdered officers continue to be killed in sudden and unexpected gunfights — fights in which so many of them never had the opportunity even to draw their pistols, let alone shoot back. The officer who is dedicated to training, skills-building, and regular practice on the Five-Count Presentation can greatly improve his or her ability to prevail in the race for their life. But you must have the dedication of a sprinter and the determination, backed by training, to never accept second place.

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