If you intend to carry a gun in the public space, it is imperative that you spend time on the range practicing with that gun. Most armed citizens who carry with any frequency understand this. The problem I see as I walk up and down the range on any given weekend is that most people don’t really know how to make proper use of their range time. There is a drastic difference between deliberate practice with the goal of skill development in the context of personal defense and simply “plinking”. Unfortunately, most people spend a majority of their time doing the latter even though they may believe they are preparing themselves for a defensive shooting. Below I will outline the difference between the two and offer some suggestions on how to get the most out of your range time.
“Plinking” vs. Practice
What I see most shooters do with their “practice sessions” is go to the range with a box of ammunition and simply shoot at a target until that box of ammunition is empty. When they run out of ammo, they may or may not take the time to tally hits and misses on their target. Regardless, they do little more than dump ammunition into the berm from a couple of stationary positions and see how many “bullseyes” they can get. While this may be an enjoyable use of range time, it is not actually practice for defensive shooting. This sort of range session is what my grandpa would commonly have referred to as “plinking”, which is essentially just having fun shooting your pistol with no particular goal in mind. While there is nothing wrong with plinking; it is not useful if you intend to prepare yourself for a defensive shooting. At best, it will give you some reps at the mechanical aspects of shooting; but it certainly will not develop any skills that are relevant to anything outside of the square range. On the contrary, deliberate practice starts with the goal of developing a certain skillset within a certain context. When you are practicing, you should be working toward the goal of improving your execution of some skill you have learned in training. This of course implies that you have sought out some form of training whether it is through online resources or a formal class with an instructor. This missing prerequisite is why most armed citizens make such ineffective use of their range time; they simply don’t know any better. This drives home the importance of taking the responsibility of personal defense seriously enough to seek out quality training from a reputable instructor. Once you have done that, you can start practicing efficiently by following these simple principles.
The Skill Development Cycle
Before you load your range bag into the truck, you should have already decided what the goal of your practice session is going to be. The best way to do this is to consider the most recent skills you have learned. For instance, let’s say that you have just learned how to efficiently present your firearm from the holster. Since that skill is what is newest for you, you should invest a bulk of your time up front in your next practice session working to master it. When you get to the range, dedicate the first several drills you do to working on your presentation from the holster until you feel that you have become proficient at it. At that point, you can move from practicing the skill to assessing the skill. To aid in your development, it is always good to have a training partner to tell you what you are doing wrong and make corrections. Any training session is going to be enhanced considerably if you have a training partner with whom you can alternate the role of student and instructor in order to “fix each other” as needed. If you feel comfortable with the results of the assessment phase, you can then move on to learning the next skill or practicing skills that you may have already mastered from beforehand. The principle is to always “front-load” your practice so that the most recent thing you have learned is what you focus your efforts on until you have mastered it. This skill development cycle allows each successive skill to build upon the previous skill in an incremental fashion by spending time developing a new skill to a level of proficiency before moving on. It also allows for constant refreshers on the fundamentals at appropriate intervals. Learning defensive shooting skills is the same as learning algebra or anything else; you must work problems and do your homework every time you learn something new, or you will fail to master it.
Practice in Context
Once you have established what your goals are and have implemented a plan for your practice sessions based on those goals, you need to run drills that put your practice in as much context as possible given the obvious limitations of the square range. There are 3 basic principles you can follow to ensure that the drills you use for practice achieve this goal.
First, you should endeavor to put yourself as off-balance as possible prior to executing a skill. In a worst case scenario, it is likely that you will not see an attack coming regardless of how aware of your surroundings you may be. In accepting this reality, it is important that you understand that your level of anticipation just before needing to respond to the attack and apply your skills is likely going to be very low. There are things you can do within the controlled environment of the square range that are designed to put you “in the zone” so to speak. When I am shooting in a competition, I put my hands in places and stand in such a way that when the buzzer goes off, I can move as fast and efficiently as possible because I know that I need to shoot. Since none of us likely walk around the public space with our center of gravity forward and our hands hovering over our holsters expecting to get into a gunfight; we probably shouldn’t do this in practice either. Use drills that require you to be not in the zone as much as possible just prior to getting the command to engage a target. While there is always going to be some level of anticipation on the square range, you can do things to minimize it and more closely mirror what it will be like in the real world. Just simply relaxing and standing like a normal human prior to getting the command to fire is a good start.
Second, you want to make sure that you are forced to process information prior to shooting. Defensive shootings do not happen in a vacuum. There are a ton of factors in play from your body’s natural reactions, the varying chaotic circumstances of the public space, the presence of bystanders, etc. that will have an effect on your ability to apply your skills. With this in mind, any drill you do should require you to think before you shoot. One way to do this is to have different targets of varying sizes that require different levels of precision to hit. In the Combat Focus® Shooting program, we use a target that has different shapes, colors, and sizes that can be called out randomly such that the shooter does not know what their target will be from one command to the next. This forces the shooter to think before they shoot, which mirrors the context of an actual fight. You can achieve this goal with spray paint and magic markers on any type of target if you don’t have targets specifically designed for this purpose.
Third, you should be required to move dynamically prior to shooting. Since there is going to be a given amount of time between recognizing a threat and having the ability to shoot it, you want to be doing something during that time that affects the threat’s ability to hurt you. Explosive movement perpendicular to the line of attack while presenting your firearm from the holster or the ready position is an efficient way to accomplish this goal. There are other drills you can do that have you walk with your gun holstered prior to receiving the command to engage a target that have the effect of closely resembling your normal movement in the public space. Whatever drill you choose, if you find yourself constantly standing stationary and shooting at the same thing every time, you are in plinking territory and are not actually practicing for a defensive shooting.
You now have some simple rules of thumb that you can use to get the most out of your range time. Your next logical step if you haven’t already would be to get to a class and learn some skills, set goals to develop those skills, and develop them in as much context as possible. For some great articles and training videos that give you specific drills you can do on the range, check out the Personal Defense Network.