REAL match training

Back in 2005 I was the co-director of a competitive match that we put together to raise money for the Dana Farber Institute, one of the country’s leading cancer research organizations.  It was held in memory of Isabella deBethencourt, the infant daughter of Heather and Michael deBethencout who succumbed to cancer at 11 months of age.  We got a ton of support from the industry, Smith & Wesson lent us the use of their academy’s fantastic indoor training facility, and the local IDPA chapter volunteered as ROs.  Because neither of us had put together anything like this before, we naturally were caught flat-footed match day with resources.  Seeing this, several people who had shown up to shoot jumped in and did what needed to be done, foregoing their opportunity to shoot.  No one complained.  Shooters really are the best and most generous people.  We repeated the match at an outdoor venue the following year where we even had vendor-sponsored teams show up.  Several tens of thousands of dollars were raised at each match.

This was an entirely new kind of match, one designed to mimic reality as closely as possible with a single shooter shooting live ammo. It was also meant to drill home some lessons that traditional matches don’t.  It was shot entirely from concealment, and competitors were simply given two instructions ahead of time: show up with 1) a suitable carry gun and 2) any other gear they should have on them to be prepared for a true emergency.  Questions about anything else — and there were many from the competitors who were used to standard competitive venues — were met with an “I don’t know” from me or anyone else involved in running the match.

Memory is a little fuzzy now, but I believe there were five stages.  All were shot blind; there were no walk throughs; shooters were staged outside each range and allowed in only one at a time, and they left without being allowed to talk to anyone who hadn’t shot the stage.  In most cases the stage wasn’t even visible to the shooter before the start buzzer. Targets were photo-realistic ones with overlays for the hands so that any target could be made to be pointing a gun at the competitor or holding something innocent like a cell phone (example here).  There were several shoot and no-shoot targets on each stage.  I’ll describe the event, and the stages that I remember, as best I can.

  • The shooter is behind a curtain so they can’t see the stage.  At the start buzzer all  lights are turned off, plunging the entire range into total darkness.  The prepared shooters simply drew their lights and shot the stage; others groused that if they’d been told there was a low light stage they’d have brought a light.  They were told to see instruction 2.
  • The shooter is told their spouse is at the end of the range, represented by a 75-pound heavy bag.  They are first to go down range and find their “spouse”, then drag their spouse back to safety, only then unholstering and shooting whichever targets need to be shot while walking backwards and dragging their “spouse” with one hand.  (We had an RO walking backwards behind the shooter to brace against any falls or trips.)
  • The shooter is told that their child is trapped in a burning car at the end of the range, and that they have to shoot their way to him in order to rescue him.  Once there they were to free their “child” and bring him back to safety.  (We had a mannequin seat-belted into old shell of a car, and even a little battery-operated  fabric “flame” on the car for atmosphere.)  Well, the seat belt was non-operable; it couldn’t be released, and the mannequin couldn’t be gotten out of the car unless it was.  The clock was stopped once someone holstered their gun and snapped open a knife (in order to cut the seat belt).  Many competitors said, “It simply would never occur to me to destroy a match prop.”  Others didn’t have a knife with them, and were reminded of instruction 2.
  • The shooter was presented with a sea of targets, maybe 50 of them on the range.  Most were no-shoot, a few were shoot.  He was told that his child was in mortal danger down range at the berm (there was a doll there) and he was to get to his child as fast as possible without being exposed to a shoot target any longer than it took him to shoot it.  Most competitors did as we expected and moved as fast as possible in a tactical manner through the sea of targets.  But the winner of this stage, a federal LEO, simply started knocking them down rather than move around them.  Good lesson there!
  • Some stages had the competitor interacting with actual people who tried to distract or delay them.
  • I believe there was one stage in which the competitor had to move through a series of no-shoots to try and find the shoot target, in order to accomplish some task that we’d specified.  But there was no shoot target — they simply had to recognize that and get on with the task assigned.  This flummoxed many competitors.
  • In all stages safety was critical, and any unsafe gun pointing or handling was a DQ’ing offense.  Guns were to to be holstered at all appropriate times, including  during the middle of a stage, if so required.
  • At least one stage had extremely loud music start up when the start buzzer went off, to distract the shooter.  Really loud!
  • Some stages required the shooter to take out their cell phone and call 911.  Many shooters didn’t have one on them; others didn’t think to make the call.

The score for each stage was some combination of score and time, and each match had a winner and other place-holders who got some really good prizes donated by our industry partners.  As PO’ed as some competitors were by a stage they weren’t prepared for or didn’t handle well, almost everyone made a point to tell me that this match was the very best training they’d ever had.

The bad guy with body armor problem

The recent mass killer in Dayton was wearing a bullet resistant vest.  While he was quickly neutralized by the police (disappointingly, there appears to have been no armed citizens nearby) this raises the question of how an armed citizen (or an on- or off-duty officer) can best deal with this situation.  The issue is that if their rounds are stopped by the BG’s armor then he can continue to kill until 1) the good guy figures this out and 2) goes to plan B.  So we have two issues.

How do we figure out that the BG is wearing armor?  I’ve harped a lot in these pages about the fact that we shouldn’t shoot any faster than we can assess what’s going on in front of our muzzle.  (This tactic has been picked up and come to be called “not out-running your headlights” lately in the shooting community.)  If a good guy is adhering to this tactic then they should notice if, after a round or two to COM, the BG hasn’t dropped his gun or gone to the ground — this is a pretty good clue that body armor may be stopping the rounds.  So the answer here is to only shoot as fast as you can assess, and to make sure you assess after each shot, both of which we should be training to do all the time anyway.  What’s new here is to recognize the signs of body armor.

What is plan B?  The traditional answer is the Mozambique tactic (two to the body/one to the head), or transition to head shots if COM shots aren’t working.  I’ve never been a fan of this tactic.  While the Mozambique drill has value on the range as a target and target-size transition drill, I’ve always thought it had little application in the real world for the vast majority of defensive shooters.*   The head is too small a target and in the real world it’s moving around.  It’s an even smaller target at angles, smaller still at distance (and in an active killer situation you probably will be shooting at distance), and the skull often does a pretty good job of deflecting bullets.  Because these things by definition happen in crowded spaces, if you miss the head you are likely to strike an innocent because the head shot will be aimed at head level…where a lot of other people’s bodies will be, right behind the BG.  That bullet’s gonna stop somewhere after all.

The second answer that I hear is to simply shoot whatever piece of the BG you can get to, thus diminishing him, and use that opportunity to get closer or to take the time for a neutralizing shot.  This is a great strategy, but recognize that it requires running towards the shooter.  You have to make that mental commitment before you consider anything else.

Now, hits anywhere can diminish the shooter, and all hits are good.  Hit him anywhere you can given his exposure, the distance, your weapon, your skill, and your composure.  Even hits on the vest will have some effect (taking a round on a vest feels like a hard punch).  But to the extent that you can manage to have some sort of aiming focus, I suggest that the pelvis is the place to aim.  It’s  likely to be the largest exposed, un-armored piece of real estate; in other words the pelvis likely becomes COM once you discount the armored chest.

Yes, many people dismiss pelvic shots as ineffective, but they also have a record as being effective.  Especially in pairs or threes.  Going to be hard for someone to take two or three pelvic shots and remaining standing.    (Heck, LAPD aimed at the exposed foot of one of the behind-cover bad guys in the infamous LAPD bank robbery shoot out…and it was successful in diminishing the him to the point where they could close and neutralize him.)  Compared to the head the pelvis is much easier to hit at distance: it’s bigger, and doesn’t move around as much. Also, if you miss a pelvis shot it’s probably less likely to kill an innocent because of the more-likely downward angle (misses still represent a very real danger, of course).  If you are aggressively closing with the BG as you shoot, you may be able to make more precise shots if you wish, including the head.

The way to train for this might be a reverse Mozambique — let’s call it the Dayton Drill.  Two to the body / assess / two to the pelvis / assess**.

None of this (distance) shooting will be practical with a small gun — you’ll need a full-size, or at least a G19-size, pistol to accomplish it.  So when you gear up you need to know if you’re equipped for personal defense (the most likely case) or you want to be prepared for the really bad case (extremely, extremely unlikely — but it happens).  Also, a spare magazine will be handy here since there will probably be beaucoup rounds exchanged.

Finally, I’d recommend that we train to do two things after the BG is down and not shooting.  1) stay or move away from him, and 2) yell at everyone else to get out of there.  Why?  Sooner or later we’re going to see an active killer wired with an IED to go off after he’s down (if it goes off sooner, that’s a different problem).


* Of course I do believe that it has real application for highly trained shooters who have also had a lot of experience in realistic simulations.  We’re talking in the realm of 50,000+ rounds per year coupled with serious force-on-force simulations.  We’re also probably talking rifles with optics.  None of this describes 99.99% of armed citizens or cops on the scene.

**  I’m suggesting that a controlled pair instead of a single shot before assessing, in this kind of extreme situation, would be perfectly justifiable.

(sigh) Why light triggers aren’t recommended

Every time I post something suggesting that you don’t want a light trigger on your carry gun, or that you shouldn’t lighten a factory trigger on a carry gun, I get all sorts of nasty comments.  I’m puzzled why this particular advice strikes such a nasty chord in people, but this subject brings it out like nothing else I’ve written.  Let me address the objections, which are basically of two kinds.  (Note that here I’m lumping SA and DA/SA triggers with lightened ones into the same category.)

It’s a training issue.  Well, no shit.  Everything is a training issue, and almost everything can be overcome with enough training.  The people objecting thusly clearly suppose themselves to have had enough training.  To which I ask, “How do you know?”  The answer will usually be something along the lines of them having carried and shot a light trigger – maybe a SA pistol, maybe a DA/SA pistol, or maybe just a damn light striker-fired pistol – for years.  Decades, even.  I’m not impressed.  Here’s how I’d know you’re sufficiently trained: you have many – not a couple – closely observed or video-taped sessions of high-stress force-on-force scenario training.  In this environment you didn’t ND the pistol, nor did you trigger affirm* (which is an unconscious action and not remembered – hence the observation or taping).  Lotsa trigger time on a range over decades don’t count.  (Alternatively, if you have lots of time in theater with a very active SF unit, or lots of dynamic events under your belt as a (SWAT) cop – and a light triggered pistol has been your primary weapon in those environments – then that qualifies, too.) Now, you combine trigger affirmation, the tendency to forget to work the safety when under the-most-stress-you’ve-ever-faced, with the distinct possibility of an involuntary hand contraction** if you’re startled, shoved, or bumped or you trip, and you can see why a light trigger stacks the odds against you.  That’s why I don’t like them.

This also, by the way, is why I call the 1911 (and the Hi-Power) an experts gun.  The fact that there’s lots of people carrying one who’ve never had an ND isn’t relevant – anyone can carry a gun and shoot it only on a range safely for an arbitrarily long time.

There’s no data to support that they’re dangerous.  Again, no kidding.  There’s no data because no one keeps data on this kind of thing.  There’s also no data to support that they’re as safe safe.  False argument.

Also, there’s the aftermath argument.  I’ve had the good fortune to train with some of the best-known instructors in the country.  I’ve met many more, and had interesting conversations, often over dinner, with a good number of them.  Now these aren’t your Gun Culture 2.0/YouTube/Facebook/Instagram “instructors” who simply regurgitate what others have told them.  There are people who’ve been instrumental in developing the doctrine that the rest of us teach, and who have long and regular experience (not a couple of one-offs) as expert witnesses in defensive shooting cases.  They know how the system works (and you simply don’t if you haven’t been there).  They will tell you that many shootings are gray affairs, with not all the facts known.  When the DA in a criminal case, or opposing counsel in a civil case, wants to paint the defender in a bad light, they grasp at things that should be irrelevant but that will paint you as a trigger-happy irresponsible gun nut…like a modified trigger or a “hair trigger”***.  Yes, this issue can sometimes be overcome, but that’s not certain, and it requires bringing in expensive expert witnesses, who may or may not be allowed to testify, and who may or may not sway the jury if they do.

And there’s no need – you gain nothing defensively from a light trigger.  Yes, you’ll look better and feel sexier on the range, but most civilian defensive gun uses are short-range affairs – the length of a car, and you usually have the whole of the bad guy out in the open.  It’s not a marksmanship problem!  Anyone who can’t hit COM in those circumstances with the most crappy factory trigger shouldn’t carry a gun at all.

I’ll leave you with this regarding lightened triggers: Andrew Branca strongly recommends against anything but a factory trigger.  When a guy who studies this sort of thing exclusively for a living makes such a blanket statement, you’d have to be a fool not to pay heed.  The extrapolation to light SA triggers (or SA/DA) should be fairly obvious.


* Look it up if you want to have this argument. 

** Some people still even dispute this!  Anyway, here’s a link – one of many I could provide.

*** I know it shouldn’t be.  Yet, it is.

Competition will get you killed on the streetz! Well, might it?

Every time someone posts a story or video of someone with some competitive shooting experience who prevails in a street attack, the comments section comes alive with the sarcastic comment above.  Well, no one with the intelligence of a pubescent chimp would argue that competitive shooting doesn’t build useful skills.  I’ve written many times that there’s few other activities that hone your marksmanship and unconscious gun-handling abilities so well.  It also induces some stress into your shooting – something that regular range practice doesn’t – and even this small amount of stress often reveals some bad habits (like trigger affirmation*) that people swear they DO NOT have…because, you know, they’re so well trained.

Back to the comp guy (or gal) prevailing.  If the (presumably justified) situation called mostly for fast, accurate fire, then sure, the competitive experience was undoubtedly a big help in their win.  Good on them.

Now, what I don’t read about is a competitive habit that got someone hurt.  This might seem to argue that it never does, but that’s not a logical conclusion.  1) It’s unlikely that a  a press report or a video would indicate if the shooter was a competitor or not, unless they were a very well known one.  2) It would be in no ones interest – neither the unfortunate competitor nor their friends – to draw attention to the fact.  3) Shootings about which we have much detail are a small subset of shootings, most of which involve untrained people anyway.  (If anyone has some actual data here, I’d like to know about it.)

Because what little data we have is hardly dispositive we need to resort to logic, based on what we do know.

One thing we know is that in short-duration highly stressful events we don’t do a lot of thinking – we resort to our strongest instinct, or if we have training, our strongest training.  And what amplifies the effect of training?  Answer: repetitions, and performing an act under stress.

A competitive shooter is likely to have thousands of repetitions of a competitive   technique or tactic.  Further, these techniques and tactics will have been performed under what’s likely the most stressful thing they’ve ever done with respect to firearms: competition.**

So what’s likely to come  out when the real-world bad thing happens?  Answer: whatever they’ve been doing in competition.  Which is great if what the situation mostly calls for is a fast presentation, and fast and accurate fire.

But not so great if that ingrained response is something that is dangerous in the real world.  Techniques like not really using cover; tactics like standing and delivering rather than seeking cover; decisions like shooting rather than dis-engaging; failures like not effectively identifying the person you’re shooting.  Included here are also failures from not addressing the things that competition doesn’t even pretend to address (I’ve written about them here) but for which you might not feel the need because you’re spending all your time gaining so much shooting skill.

Now to be fair, some top-level competitors are also active SWAT cops.  I once had a conversation with one and he made it clear that his entire mind-set and mental process is different when he had his competition gear on vs. when he was kitted-up in tac gear.  Recall that neither competitive training nor tactical training are right-here-right-now events – both require preparation, so his argument that he could set his mental process on the appropriate channel ahead of time makes sense.  Also realize that these cops spend a lot of time in SWAT training, so they have a very strong set of tactically correct ingrained responses to complement their competitive ones.

All of this leaves my advice for most people, including myself, where it has been for decades.  Spend time becoming a reasonably good shooter.  Then spend time honing all the rest of the things you’ll need more than better shooting (see the hyperlink above).  And in the mean time, shoot some competition, even at just the club level, even just informally, because it really does make you a better shot.

*  Look it up if you don’t know what it is.  Not trying to be a dick, but everyone who owns a gun, let alone anyone who has an opinion what constitutes appropriate guns or firearms training, needs to understand this.  Unfortunately, few have even heard of it.  It’s real.  Seen it with well trained people, and even more often with those that thought they were.

**  The extremely rare, seriously experienced, real-world operators, some of whom do compete, excepted of course.  With regard to less experienced competitors: even if that competitor has actually engaged in some realistic force-on-force scenario training – which most haven’t – it certainly constitutes a de minimis percentage of their training, even of their training involving stress.

Why I don’t use the “best” ammo

Handguns are all pretty pathetic as one-shot, right-here-right-now manstoppers.  All of them.  Nonetheless, the gun geeks spend countless hours going through the shooting data (such as it is) and the ballistic data (which is plentiful) to arrive at the best wonder round with which to stoke their carry gun.

First, ballistic data is from gelatin blocks, which are homogeneous, non-motivated mediums, and thus very much unlike human beings.  True, if you want to see how much destruction a round is likely to do on average in many actual shootings over time, they can provide a rough correlation.

But we don’t care about damage; we care about causing the bad guy not hurting us.  And here we are dealing with actual, motivated human beings.  We want them to break contact (to quote Claude Werner), not die.  I believe that most of the serious researchers have come to the conclusion that there’s almost no difference in handgun calibers towards this end (breaking contact), which means that there’s almost no difference in the particular round you carry in a particular gun.  See the articles here (by Claude), and here (by Greg Ellifritz) which have influenced me on this matter.*

So I don’t obsess over the particular round in my .38 snubby or my 9mm pistol.  In fact, I don’t really want what the data would tell me is the “best” – which usually means the most destructive – round, because this round is likely to be one that’s either exotic or not in widespread use.  Instead I want a round that is in widespread use, particularly by law enforcement agencies, and issued by my state’s state police if possible. I don’t want an unusual round in my gun for the same reason I don’t want handloads.  This just opens the door to a slimy prosecutor arguing, “The rounds that our state police carry weren’t deadly enough for Mr. Mroz – he had to manufacture his own super-deadly rounds in his basement [or seek out exotic super-deadly rounds from the merchants of death that sell such things].”**  If I’m in court, it’s because either the facts of the shooting weren’t clear (as they often aren’t) or because the prosecutor is out to get me (as they often are, either to make some bones or because they hate guns).  In either case I don’t need to give them extra ammunition (pun intended) by my choice of it.

Every justified self-defense shooting involves survival of two kinds: during the fact of the attack, and after in court.  If there’s almost no  difference in round effectiveness in the former (breaking contact), why stack the deck against myself in the latter?


*If I’m misrepresenting these gentlemen, I apologize and will remove the references.

**Thanks to Mas Ayoob for pointing this out to so many of us.


“Traditional” double-action pistols are neither traditional, nor double-action…

…nor useful, or even smart.  They are at best an unfortunate design that can be worked around.  More likely — not even in the worst case — they are clunky, undesirable, unnecessary, stupid designs that are downright dangerous.  And yet, like polyester bell-bottoms, they are making a comeback, for no reason that I can discern other than people are tired of writing about useful, workable, practical handguns.

They are not traditional – actual DA handguns had been around for nearly a century prior.  They aren’t even DA – they are DA/SA.  The only reason that they are called “traditional DA” is because the manufacturers needed to call them something other than “obsolete” once the striker-fired polymer-framed pistols started kicking their butts.  “Traditional DA” is a stupid term – “DA/SA” is the original and accurate term – and you look stupid if you use the stupid term.

Yeah, I know the SEALs used them for a while – the SIG P2XX stuff.  My understanding is that their selection had nothing to do with the DA/SA operation and all to do with reliability.  Which brings me to the fact that while the DA/SA transition is, in Jeff Cooper’s words, “a brilliant solution to a non-existent problem”, it can certainly be mastered to the point where it doesn’t matter.  No question.  Got it.  But that last time I discussed pistol training with an ex-SEAL, he casually mentioned that they’d fire thousands of rounds before lunch on training days.  Ernie Langdon has made a career out of shooting DA/DA pistols.  Both he and SEALs shoot way more than I do, than you do, and that probably either of us could afford to even if we had the time and wanted to.  I mean, I gotta a dog to feed and tofu to buy.

In the hands of someone that, literally, doesn’t train exclusively with them to the tune of, oh, say 10,000 rounds a year (mo’ less), DA/SA pistols are, by design, meant to screw up your shooting and cause you NDs.  Every instructor that I know reports the same sequence when students use DA/SA pistols (Ernie Langdon and SEALs aside): Up! Miss-Hit-Hit-Hit.  Decock/holster! Up! Miss-Hit-Hit-Hit.  And so on.  That first long hard first shot goes into the dirt (or 5-zone), while the remaining easy SA shots go where they’re aimed.  To the surprise of absolutely no one.

Now, that’s on the range on a nice sunny day with no one trying to kill you.  What’s going to happen to Johnny Citizen or Mary Q. Public when they have to use that DA/DA pistol for real?  Here’s what: they will miss the first shot, just like they do on the range.  But they will also likely ND the subsequent SA shots.  You know: stress.  And adrenaline.  Plus they never trained under stress before (1% of the 1% of serious gun owners have).  So at best they fail to defend themselves; at worst they shoot someone innocent.

And all this risk…for what?  To own a pistol that’s more difficult to shoot well than a striker-fired one?  “Let’s make training much harder, let’s make it less likely that we’ll be able to defend ourself, and at the same time dramatically increase our chances of shooting some innocent person.”  There’s a winning strategy!  I’d say it’s Darwin at work except for the shooting innocent people bit.

The DA/SA design was introduced because manufacturers were trying to get around the real disadvantages of the SA 1911…which truly is an experts-only gun.  But instead of designing pistols with a reasonable DA trigger (which I concede may have been difficult with a hammer-fired pistol)  they came out with the DA/SA abortion.  Striker-fired pistols were already in production, to good reviews, in Europe.  Instead of doing the smart thing and putting design resources on that track, they cheaped out, and a generation or two of shooters (and cops) suffered as a result.  Glock changed all that for the better, and then the manufacturers had to get off their butts and compete.

But because writers and internet training “gurus” need something fresh to peddle every new year, we now have a resurgence of interest in this putrid design.  “Hey, take my new course on the ‘fighting traditional DA pistol’ “.  Just make sure to wear your polyester bell-bottoms.

In light of the above, it may be surprising that a few years ago I actually considered buying one of the then-new CZ polymer-framed 9mm pistols because I loved the feel in the hand.  They were only available in DA/SA then, and I seriously contemplated putting in the hours and rounds necessary to get competent with it (under stress).  But I wisely decided against it because I realized that despite the fair amount of training that I was willing to do with it I still didn’t believe I’d get to a level of comfort with the risk it represented.

Instead I bought another DA/SA pistol that has an even better feel in the hand: the S&W 3913.

But I had it converted to DAO.



Loud noises don’t end fights. Except they often do.

I didn’t start this blog to be the guy arguing against every macho trope out the in the gun world.  But since I’m exclusively focused on what’s a practical and efficient use of my training time, I seem to be.  Because…data.  Also logic.  If I was based in a more dangerous place (outside the United States), I’d certainly be coming to some other conclusions.

“I carry a .45 because they don’t make a .46”; “Bigger holes are better than small holes”; No one ever stopped attacking because of a loud noise”.  These last two are not true if you believe in the scientific method (and to be clear, only idiots and barbarians don’t).

What got me started on all this is Claude Werner’s latest post on the far greater popularity of the .380 over the .38 snubby.  Claude: “.380 production for 2017, 376,304 units, was 80 percent greater than all their other centerfire autoloaders combined.”  Wow!

So obviously the gun-buying public doesn’t care much about the silly stopping-power arguments that so titillate the rest of us gun nerds.  And in fact, despite their general ignorance about such things, they are right.  I don’t get paid to write this blog so I’m too lazy to track down and link the data sources that I’ve been reading for years, but it turns out that among good-guy victors in gun fights here in the U.S., there is no statistically significant correlation between caliber and outcome.  (If someone wants to provide links to data sources , please do so in the comments.  Thanks in advance.)

So Marcus Wynne naturally had some great perspective on all this.  (Note that Marcus used to run with some of the top CT pros – he wasn’t always the Clark Kent-like gentleman author that he is today.)  Marcus:

I’m reminded of what my late friend Rich Smith said when I asked him what he thought of the whole American (he was Rhodesian) obsession with caliber, like the 9mm vs .45 debate.  “Well, in the Commonwealth, Marcus,” he said, “we never really had time for that debate.  We were too busy killing people with 9mm.”


Not to malign our troops [and cops], because we do have some excellent ones, but talk to anybody in training about their overall caliber, and the lack of “fight experience” in terms of even schoolyard scuffles let alone serious bar fights or whatever, is a much overlooked and very serious deficit in the mental platform. And some think they can make up for it with gear, or a bigger pistol.

Now to be sure, if the bad thing happens tomorrow, I’d like to have a .308 pistol that I’m bringing up on target, but I won’t really be worried if it’s a .380 Bodyguard in my hand.  Because I might just actually have that .380 with me.