The Importance of Defensive Marksmanship

This is a reprint of an essay I wrote for on January 24, 2003. It deserves repeating here.

Every firearms instructor's basic shooting course will teach a new shooter a lot of things, but every student comes to class with different goals for the training. For our basic courses we most often get the following responses to the question “What do you expect to get from today's class?”

  • to learn how to shoot this gun that's been in the house for years
  • my spouse/partner has a gun and wants me to know how to deal with it
  • for personal protection
  • to get proof of training in order to qualify for a Oregon Concealed Handgun License

What is noticeably rare are those folks that are looking for pointers and brush-ups, to learn shooting from the ground up, or to get into competitive target shooting. Such answers used to be more common only a couple decades ago. These days half of our students have done some shooting before, and need a little nudging to unlearn some habits inferred from Hollywood or friends. The other half have never shot at all.

What is patently obvious is that these folks will need to learn the knowledge of, and skills for, defensive shooting, or in other words “shooting to save a life.”

(In addition, many of these people need to know more about the law, but we do not profess to be competent to teach that. We have a lawyer come in for two hours to discuss that in a later course.)

For this reason NWSAFE instructors most often offer the NRA FIRST Steps Pistol class. It covers safety and fundamentals in great detail, however, what bothers us is that many of the students don't seem to go on to practice their newfound skills or to seek further training on defensive shooting.

I'm reminded of the adage, “Marksmanship is a perishable skill.” Many of these students have acquired marksmanship skills that are eroding, and they haven't yet gone past the fundamentals into defensive shooting.

NWSAFE is adding to the class an additional hour of shooting from the standing, two-handed Isosceles position. While this position is not the best for everyone, the instructors feel that firing shots from benchrest is not enough for a new shooter to learn. A two-handed standing position is far more applicable to defensive shooting, as well.

However, I want to remind people that a bare hour of shooting while standing is not really enough, either.

I'm not trying to sell more classes, and I don't make money from the local ranges when they get more business, but I do want people to be safe out there. When we taught an NRA Basics of Personal Protection in the Home course recently, our students were amazed by the difference between target shooting and defensive shooting.

For most purposes, acceptable defensive accuracy is a hand-sized group of hits shot as quickly as such hits can be made. For practice of this, I suggest shooting at a sheet of typing paper mounted on the back of a two foot by three foot rectangle. Every time you shoot a group of six or so shots, examine the target and lay your hand over it, splayed out. If the group is entirely within your handspan, shoot faster. If it's larger than your hand, shoot slower. Avoid focusing on the target or chasing your previous hits. Instead center the sights on the middle of the paper and focus on your front sight.

Practice this a different distances all the way out to fifteen yards or fifty feet. Practice defensive shooting at least once a month.

Keep in mind that the most important aspect of shooting to save your own life (which necessarily means shooting under stress) is a reflexive focus on getting sufficient hits to stop a threat. Those hits have to be in an effective region to stop the threat. Aim at small things to miss by small amounts. If you aim at an imposing huge target approaching a yard on a side then your hits will be all over the paper. Instead focus on getting hits as quickly as possible in the center of the target area.

Shooters who first start this will notice an alarming tendency to pull low and to the opposite side of the target from their shooting hand. This is most definitely caused by trigger pull. Concentrate on a smooth, continuous pull of the trigger straight back to the rear without disturbing the position of the gun, and without changing the grip on the gun all the way through. It sounds easier than it really is.

To improve trigger pull, I strongly recommend dry-firing. Some guns may require the use of special training cartridges called “snap caps” to prevent damage to the firing pin or chamber, but most centerfire guns deal with it well. Remove all ammunition from the dry practice area, check the gun by sight and feel to ensure that no ammunition is present in it, select a target that is a safe direction, say out loud “I am performing dry fire practice with an unloaded gun,” and methodically practice the fundamentals of shooting, with special emphasis on consistent grip, good sight alignment, perfect trigger control and follow through for at least a second after each shot before recocking the hammer. Never just pound away shots like Hollywood, there are other drills for improving your speed. If you have a long double action, make sure the pull is smooth like zipping a zipper from the point where the slack is gone until the hammer drops.

Do not allow yourself to be distracted from the steps necessary to make the gun safe to dry fire. If interrupted, start over from the beginning. Avoid the urge to practice more than a few minutes each day, or when you are on the phone or watching television. When you are done, say it out loud and store the gun, not touching it again! If you dry fire with the same gun you use for personal protection, be especially careful to move to another room to load it, and say out loud that dry practice is over and you have a loaded gun. These habits help prevent accidents!

Dry fire at least one session a week. More often is fine, but be aware that any use of a mechanical system can cause wear. Practice all three of the safe gun handling rules, and the additional rules of shooting, especially “Be sure of your target and what is behind it.” Conscientious practice ingrains good habits that are less likely to fail under stress.

Finally, the greatest skill and confidence builders are found in additional training. No one instructor or class will teach you everything. While NWSAFE focuses on beginners, in every class we point out those additional area instructors who cover more advanced topics, and we even point out those schools on the web site.

The instructors in NWSAFE want people to be safe and conscientious shooters, and we also want people to be good shooters. We highly recommend practice, further instruction, occasional shooting qualification tests, and organized competition to hone your shootings skills.

Be safe out there!

Josh Poulson

Posted Thursday, Feb 17 2005 11:21 AM

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