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For many years, a good many people, yours truly included, have offered what is called "combat" or "practical" handgun instruction to the public. The approaches taken by the various instructors within the profession differ considerably, often even radically, giving rise to a good deal of controversy. Often, the difference is so extreme that the student can't help but wonder:

1) Why the disparity?

2) Who really knows what they're talking about?

3) Whose instruction is the most useful?

Although it cannot initially be obvious to the novice, many "combat" handgunning instructors are actually competitive shooters rather than "real-world" types. Thus, their entire philosophy centers around the competitive approach. They can't be blamed for this, because their exposure to -- and therefore their perspective on -- the subject occurred over a period of years and was the result of the various competitions they've attended. Still, virtually everything about even so-called "practical" (really a synonym for "combat") competition reflects a lack of knowledge about what the combat handgun is about and the nature of the environment in which it's used. This being the case, it should be not surprise that the techniques, tactics, scoring methods and even the targets they prefer, fail to address the issues so critical to surviving a real gunfight.

Not knowing this, many students are disappointed or even angry when they discover their instructor's true background, a situation often aggravated by the time and money spent by the student to enroll in that instructor's program. I know that I expect to "get what I pay for" and can certainly sympathize with those who have experienced this annoying problem.

Many observers of "practical" competition comment that there is little about it that is truly practical. In fact, the more astute among them go so far as to make the observation that what they see in such events is suicidal if attempted in an actual gunfight. I agree, but why? Simple. Competition is its own end, rather than a means to achieve a higher goal.

If not carefully controlled to keep it "on the track," any form of competition quickly deviates from its original path, quickly evolving into something bearing little resemblance to what it once was. This is what happened to "combat" competition. In the interest of finding better ways to do things, better techniques, tactics, etc., the concept of "unrestricted competition" became the norm. Given human nature, this led to its participants "fudging" from the original concept by using sub-powered ammunition for better weapon control, bizarre holsters for a faster presentation, guns that look like they came from a Hollywood set and tactically irrelevant courses of fire. For this reason, I discourage the competitive approach, except as a carefully controlled "stress simulator," because I recognize that this has occurred. And since defensive survival, rather than recreational shooting, is my specialty, I must make a clear distinction between the two.

Being among the few writers/instructors of combat weaponcraft who have actually "been there and seen the elephant," I have some strong feeling about life and death. Therefore, I naturally feel that confusion about competition's true focus might well cost someone his life. Simply stated, we need to know the difference between the two and that they represent endeavors that are diametrically opposed to one another.

Still, "practical" competition has been in full swing now for over two decades and has promoted a number of potentially deadly concepts we should know about. Among these are:

1) The use of highly specialized, even bizarre, guns, holsters, ammunition and ancillary equipment to gain an "edge."

2) Always firing two shots per target, regardless of the number of targets involved. This is a guaranteed ticket to getting killed if multiple assailants are encountered. While the quick two-shot response is indeed the best solution to a single assailant attack, firing two shots per target in a multiple assailant scenario takes far too long, giving at least one of your attackers plenty of time to kill you. A far better response is to hit each assailant once, bring the weapon back down to Ready, assess the effect of your hits and, if any of them continues to present a Deadly Threat to you, re-engage, but on a Failure To Stop basis, shooting them in the head, rather than again in the chest. If the initial trauma of being shot failed to neutralize them, subsequent shots to the chest will have little or no incapacitating effect because the nervous system has shut itself down in protective reflex.

3) Excess physical movement; so-called "assault courses" that have no tactical value, especially when handguns are involved. Movement to stimulate metabolic stress should be completed before the shooter begins to shoot, not as part of the shooting course of fire itself.

4) Over-emphasis on Speed Reloading; the unnecessary abandonment of magazines and ammunition.

This is why both my instructional endeavors and writing reflect the approach they do: when "the chips are down," it's fundamental skill that will save your life, not fancy guns, holsters, foot-racing, clever tactics or ambidextrous weapon-handling procedures. To teach weak-hand weapon presentation and shooting in a Basic course is a waste of time because the student isn't ready for it. He has his hands full learning fundamentals -- fundamentals that are the basis from which all subsequent skill-building will evolve. If he doesn't have complete mastery of the fundamentals, all the fancy guns, equipment and techniques in the world won't save him when his life is on the line.

In reviewing thousands of shooting case-studies, I found that in no instance did weak-hand presentation or shooting make any real difference. Thus, to provide the student with the highest degree of relevant skill and understanding, it should be restricted to higher skill-level courses where it belongs.

One writer even created a scoring system that requires the shooter to amass a pre-determined point score before he can consider his target neutralized. If he sees that his "score" is less than required, he then re-engages, shooting the target again in the chest, until his point total is sufficient. Sounds great because it forces the student to look at his target after shooting to see what has happened, right?

Wrong -- only rarely can you see bullet holes in a human being. And once the initial trauma of being shot is sustained, the human nervous system shuts down, making subsequent shots to the chest a waste of time. So, he feels nothing; nothing at all! If your initial hits failed to incapacitate him, you should be going for the head -- only a hit in the cranial (brain) or ocular (eye) cavities can guarantee a "stop" under such circumstances.

This is a good example of "The Firing Range Mind Set" -- the creation of tactics and techniques that work only under controlled conditions and reflect a lack of understanding of the true issues. A handgun fight does not take place under such conditions! In a real gunfight, you must look for the only thing you can -- target reaction. Did he collapse or not? Is he down, but still functioning? Is he still a Deadly Threat? Does he have friends? These are of far more importance than trying to determine whether or not your point total is satisfactory!

This are why I often find myself at odds with some of my colleagues -- sometimes on a friendly basis, sometimes not. But, doggone it, life and death are serious business, demanding a pragmatic, conservative approach. Fancy methodology is dangerous, as is theory that cannot withstand even a logical analysis, much less an actual field test, with people literally betting their lives on the outcome.

The sole reason for self-defense training is to save live, whatever it takes, regardless of who invented what techniques. Only a clear perspective of the nature of a handgun encounter, the handgun itself, its capabilities and limitations and mastery of its fundamental skills can accomplish this task.

Today, more than ever before, we have at our fingertips the most advanced level of weapon skill in history. Science has given us the technology to compile data on shootings of all kinds, in all environments. Without question, all of these things are important, for without them, analysis is impossible. On the other hand, technical data must be handled with care to ensure that it isn't misinterpreted. For example, science brought gave us the ability to determine kinetic energy.

Few aviation or space accomplishments could have taken place without it, but it has also been used, usually in error, to determine the efficiency of small arms. We have seen vast amounts of space in various publications occupied by such data, but, unfortunately, it doesn't always indicate what the inexperienced reader is led to believe.

How can simple kinetic energy be taken as a definitive measurement of handgun stopping power? What about the other aspects of the issue, like target composition, nervous system sensitivity, degree of assailant determination, water content, muscle bulk/tone, bone structure and even clothing? Obviously, all of these things exert significant influence on stopping power, but, because they can't be simulated, should we ignore them in preference to simple arithmetic?

What about bullet penetration through a human target? How much energy is truly transferred if it exits and continues downrange? Then there is the matter of how much time the bullet spends passing through its target. None of these things can be computed with any degree of accuracy because of the wild varying circumstances involved.

This is why experience is so important. It tempers consideration of raw data¸ to prevent jumping to potentially dangerous conclusions. It has been said that knowledge is like lumber -- it should be used until seasoned. How true! In the field of combat handgunning, if it is, people who shouldn't die as a result. Another axiom of importance -- the scientist's job is to explain reality, not create it! Amusing, yes? But also true.

The next time you see someone touting a particular gun or cartridge because it spectacularly blows up a quart can of tomato juice, watch out, because he doesn't know what he's talking about. Since when is shooting tomato juice indicative of what happens when you shoot a person? Or clay, duxseal, jello, water-jugs or wet telephone books?
When you hear otherwise, you're hearing assumptions based on a lack experience.

And if you listen, you could pay for it with your life.

There is more to combat weaponcraft than just shooting. It involves tactics, mental conditioning, the selection and modification of weapons and other equipment, stopping power, Law, the psychology of self-defense and shooting aftermath and, of course, technique. Experience teaches us that, past the point where fundamentals are mastered, it's the seemingly "little things" that count. It's easy to read gun magazines, of course, but remember that many writers simply paraphrase things written by someone else who is also paraphrasing it from another source -- which doesn't make it true. It's experience that allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff. Use your head when considering self-defense issues and be conservative in your decisions. Keep things simple, logical and get your training from someone who knows their stuff. The life you save will probably be your own.

Aimed Versus "Instinctive" Shooting

Although neither aimed or so-called "instinctive" shooting are new, the matter of which is best continuously surfaces. In fact, each decade seems heralded with a new wave of "revelations" on the matter, whether represented by some "new and improved" aimed-fire shooting stance or yet another version of the "instinctive" theory. Yet, in spite of all the rhetoric, nothing really new has appeared, nor has "instinctive" (really "point") shooting ever actually been proven superior.

Frankly, the sheer longevity of the controversy about the two concepts astonishes me. Why? Professional curiosity, I guess. Neither one is new or especially difficult to understand and can therefore be logically analyzed and competently discussed with ease.

I think that, first, we must dispel any confusion about the definitions of the two terms. "Aimed" means that the shooter is using his sights to align the bore of the weapon with the axis of his line of sight to the target. "Instinctive," or, "point" shooting means that the firer is looking at his target, rather than his front sight, and relying upon his natural "pointing" ability to align the bore of gun with its target.

Both concepts have their advocates, with some even recommending both as the best means by which to cover all the tactical possibilities. However, probably to no one's surprise, aimed-fire has by far the most proponents, among them most of the well-known experts in the weapons/tactics profession. This is possibly because the capabilities of aimed-fire are well known, documented in detail, and the easiest to understand. After all, don't most guns come from the factor with sights? There must be a reason!

In addition, it is irrefutable that if you correctly execute the fundamentals of sight picture, sight alignment and trigger control, you'll hit your target. This means that good results can be had with a minimum of practice time and effort. "Instinctive" shooting, however, is undeniably more abstract and complex and, as a result, achieving any degree of proficiency with it demands a substantial amount of practice.

Briefly, here are the "high-points" of the controversy. Aimed-fire advocates criticize "instinctive" shooting and claim it to be inferior because:

1) There really is no such thing as "instinctive" shooting in the first place; e.g. you're not born with a handgun in your hand and cannot, therefore, be born with an inherent ability to shoot. They say that shooting is a learned skill and that the whole idea of "instinctive" shooting is invalid.

They then continue by saying that "instinctive" shooting:

2) Is excessively complex for human though processes, particular under stress.

3) Exhibits no better performance than aimed-fire methods.

4) Takes far too long to learn.

5) Takes too long to develop skill to the point where you can reliably "bet your life" on it with any reasonable degree of success.

6) Requires too much time to execute under the conditions present in the typical handgun encounter.

7) Is critically dependent upon pre-known absolutes, such as the target being at known ranges, heights, sizes and angles, none of which actually exist in a real gunfight.

8) Are incapable of handling a wide enough variety of tactical situations, such as targets at odd angles, small targets, hostage situations, etc.

9) Is unsatisfactory when targets not directly in front of the shooter must be engaged, or when they're on a higher or lower plane than encountered on the training range where the initial skill is developed and conditioned responses built.

On the other side of the coin, "instinctive" shooters claim that it:

1) Really isn't too complex and difficult to use under stress.

2) Is faster than aimed-fire techniques and that this is the primary reason "instinctive" shooting was developed in the first place.

3) Doesn't take that long to master.

4) Does work under stress. Firing range demonstrations prove it.

5) Has a long history of success, dating back as far as the Old West.

Obviously, somebody is wrong...but whom?

Let's take each point one at a time. First, is the "instinctive" concept valid? Well, as of the last time I checked, we aren't born with a gun in our hands. Thus we cannot possibly have an "instinct" for shooting. It is my belief, though, that its advocates actually mean something else -- that we are born with the instinct to point our fingers at things. Taken from this perspective, their claim is true. But, it cannot be successfully argued that shooting isn't a learned skill because it is, a fact that can easily be proven on demand. And, the "icing on the cake" is the fact that pointing a finger and pointing a handgun aren't the same -- not even close!

Next, let's deal with complexity. Here, the claims of the aimed-fire school of thought are maybe too strict. Complex? That's not the right word -- "abstract" is more like it. Simple logic dictates that abstract concepts are more difficult to grasp than finite ones and I think this is really what the aimed-fire crowd is trying to say.

Do "instinctive" techniques take too long to learn and require more effort than aimed-fire methods? Do they requires longer training periods to become good enough to "bet your life" on them under stress? Are they really faster than aimed-fire? Are the results they produce any better?

My experience has been that they do take a long time to master, far too long to bother with when we consider how much more efficient and tactically versatile one can become using aimed-fire techniques. Time and time again I have seen "instinctive" shooters who are supposed to be good defeated by Basic-level aimed-fire shooters. This tells me all I need to know! How about you?

Why does it take longer? Because you have no mechanical assistance (sights) upon which to depend. Instead you've got to develop a "feeling" for alignment of the bore with the target, which, obviously, is a highly refined process, requiring a long, long time to complete. Yet, the easily-grasped idea of sights allows a high-degree of proficiency in perhaps one-fifth the time spent training, maybe even less.

"Instinctive" shooting may well be faster than aimed-fire, but not if getting hits is your goal! And isn't getting hits, under the widest-possible variety of tactical and environmental circumstances the whole point of combat shooting? Any review of gunfights, including those of the Old West, discloses that aimed, not "pointed," shots struck their intended target far more often, bringing the fight to a successful conclusion more quickly and with fewer shots fired and less risk to bystanders. Nothing has changed today -- this requirement remains the same.

If we include partially obscured targets, hostage situations, targets at odd angles, targets higher/lower or to one side or another of the shooter, forcing him to turn to respond, the idea of "instinctive" shooting quickly falls to the wayside. Demonstrations on firing ranges mean little here because a range is controlled, whereas gunfights are not. And the record shows that "instinctive" shooting fails miserably when attempted in the real-world. Would you want to be a hostage facing someone trying to take your captor out using "instinctive" methods? Or would you prefer aimed-fire?

Those who recommend using both are "hedging" their bets. The two are diametrically opposed philosophically and cannot be accomplished with equal skill. Thus, if you implant conflicting sub-conscious "programs" in your mind, don't be surprised if, in an actual conflict, confusion in the decision-making process occurs. The subsequent "sorting out" of which concept to employ under the conditions present at the time takes time -- time you simply don't have in a handgun encounter, where bullets are flying around your ears!

So, logic and documented history shows "instinctive" shooting to be more of a stunt than a useful, effective concept. Sure, you can "get by" with it a very close range, but you can perform just as quickly and with a higher degree of certainty of getting good hits using aimed-fire. Don't believe it? Come to any ASAA course and I'll prove it to you -- or, more correctly, you'll prove it to yourself!

With virtually any modern technique, aimed-fire is far more accurate, just as fast at close range and faster at longer ranges. It's also more tactically flexible, easier to learn, can be developed to a higher skill level in a shorter time with less ammo expended.

However, to be fair, I must also say that the idea of "instinctive" shooting came about due to concerns about the slow speed and lack of weapon control of techniques that existed at the time -- many decades ago. But, those techniques are long gone, replaced by methods producing results so superior that they sometimes require a demonstration to believe!

This being the case, I strongly recommend aimed-fire in preference to "instinctive" shooting. In what follows, you'll see why, if you haven't already.





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