When am I ready? Stages of competence in defensive shooting

By Kjell Rosenberg MD, Rangemaster and NRA certified Instructor

Until recently most of the wisdom about winning a gunfight was passed down from gunfighters in the verbal tradition or the written word and consisted mostly of lessons learned in blood or the lack thereof.  Over the last several years due to increased surveillance and readily accessible data formats, there has been a dramatic increase in data-based learning.  We can now watch step by step analysis of videos in the thousands to draw conclusions about what is needed, what works, and debunk gun shop and cool guy myths.  

Students of the art are now applying human physiology such as average human reaction times, to self-defense tactics.  We have years of competition shooting to analyze and determine the maximal or near maximal human performance as well as the median, and average abilities of defenders and bad guys alike.  All of this information can be distilled and used to create drills and standards that are based in real life ability to win a self-defense gun fight.

One of the best books I have read on the subject is Karl Rehn and John Daub’s book “Strategies and Standards for Defensive Handgun Training.”   This work gives us a concise explanation and guidance to measure competence in the skills that matter.  It does a great job of creating a standard of what it means to be competent[1].

For example, the authors and their consulted experts, such as Tom Givens, list these as the most important skills sets to possess[2]: (paraphrased with commentary) 

1.  The ability to present your firearm to the target effectively.  This can be from a speed draw or a surreptitious draw.  Either one can be effective and is thus context specific.  

2.  The ability to get multiple meaningful hits. Instructor John Correia in his analysis of tens of thousands of videos has stated that one of the most important things to being victorious in a defensive gun fight is getting the first effective hit.[3]  An effective hit is a fight stopping hit.  Our goal as defenders is to stop the fight as fast as possible and this occurs best when we can concentrate fire into the upper chest.  Achieving five rounds in five seconds in a five-inch circle starting from the gun in the holster is suggested as the standard for combat accuracy.  Combat accuracy is defined as getting accurate enough hits fast enough to be combat effective.

3.  The ability to use your firearm with combat effectiveness with each of the following:  two hands, strong had only or support hand only.

4. Honorable mentions include empty gun reloads and malfunction clearing.  

It is not my purpose to add to or further elaborate on this list, but rather to understand the process in which a dedicated student learns these skills and their applications so that I can improve as a student and as an instructor. Mainly, what are the general milestone categories of defensive competence with a firearm that a learner needs to meet so that they can move from “novice” to “competent self-defender”? 

This is what I came up with:

1. General safety principles are understood and integrated into training and practice. 

2.  Acceptable accuracy is achieved:  i.e. being able to routinely hit a five-inch circle from 5 yards.

3. Accuracy with speed is achieved: i.e. getting five hits in a five-inch circle in under five seconds from the draw, or similar validated benchmark.

4.  Fundamentals of marksmanship and speed can be applied in context of multifaceted drills or exercises. A good example of such a drill would be the Casino Drill invented by Tom Givens which includes, drawing to first shot, target transitions, and magazine changes.  It can be made more difficult by changing the order of the targets or by having the student identify the next target on the fly by calling the next one out as they start the one before it.  Applying all of these skills or processes in the same drill and achieving the recommended par times are a measurable degree of firearm competence.[4]

5.  The fundamentals can be applied concurrently with higher level thought processes.  Decision making under pressure while retaining marksmanship and speed is not easy and it requires mastery of the fundamentals of shooting.

6.  We can still perform #5 under extreme stress. This is our ultimate goal and one that most of us are continuously striving to obtain or maintain.  John Hearne discusses the concept of becoming “overlearned” which allows us to retain skills more effectively in the face of impending danger[5].  In other words, we don’t allow our adrenal response to gum up our condition red response.

We, as students of the gun, often study and train the mechanics of speed and accuracy concurrently.  Many gun owners never achieve either. Which is more likely related to motivation than ability at this level of mastery since the above-mentioned standard is well within the norm for human performance.  Some achieve accuracy but never move on to develop accuracy with speed. (I’m not even going to consider those who are fast but not accurate as a legitimate category.) Rehn and Daub note that around 93% of Texans who own guns have never done any formal training[6].  It is reasonable to assume that we can extrapolate that data to most states within a standard deviation since Americans can move freely between states.  As those of us who train regularly with professional instructors know, it is difficult to achieve mastery without formal training.  Until one takes a course from a competent instructor, it’s unlikely that the armed defender has even a remote understanding of what they do not know.

I believe that a very small percentage of shooters acquire the ability to perform with combat accuracy.  While we cannot know exactly how fast or accurate, we will need to be if our number gets called, we do have evidence based standards developed by experts which we can aspire to meet which should indicate competence once met. 

Higher order thought processes combined with multifaceted exercises with as much added stress as possible are my final benchmark of competence (short of being victorious in a gun fight.)  What do I mean by this?  The ability to make decisions in real time.  Is this person a target or not?  Do I need to escalate to deadly force or not?  Which threat do I address first, and when can I move to the next? In my experience, and from discussion with master instructors, special forces veterans, and experienced law enforcement officers; this type of exercise is typically found in force on force training, live fire shoot houses, and similar activities.  It’s very difficult to do on a “square range” against static targets.  Application of skills in a context is the definition of “tactics” that I prefer to use. I propose that only at this stage in development are learners truly ready to assimilate tactics into their training with the desired outcome of combat effectiveness.  

Of course, we can always hope that we will get lucky and many gun owners have been lucky when their number was called.  That strategy, however, is not very sound, and is certainly not one that I am comfortable with.  It may be better to be lucky than good, but the better I get, the luckier I am.  As instructors regularly point out, when under extreme stress, we do not fall back to our highest level of training, but to the highest level of training that we have mastered.  

So, what does all this mean, and why did I bother writing about it?  First, because it is important for students who are serious about training to have not only benchmarks to hit but an organized training pattern to achieve them. Second, because it is important for instructors to know when a student is ready for the next level of complexity. Trainers should not be encouraging students to take more advanced courses if they are still struggling to get good hits on an appropriate target with an appropriate par time.  We shouldn’t be asking students to make decisions on target selection with live firearms if they cannot effectively perform a target transition.  That’s what separates real training from “entertrainment.”  The firearms training community now has the data, the experience, and the resources to root itself firmly in the process of optimal education. It is now up to us to apply educational science to our art.

Copyright Kjell Rosenberg 2019

[1]Rehn, K., & Daub, J. (2019). Strategies and Standards for Defensive Handgun Training(First ed.). KR Training LLC.

[2]Rehn, K., & Daub, J. (2019). Chapter 11 Framing the Problem. In Strategies and Standards for Defensive Handgun Training(First ed., pp. 70-80). KR Training LLC.

[3]Active Self Protection (2019, May 19). Brazilian Off Duty Steps Into Third Party Encounter. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hU6txyiiTbI&fbclid=IwAR3W1fE80EA2UdHF7C2A1XlAMVFVIUSTOr-jjTau2LeGT-bSn7_CbOz_tn0

[4]Rehn, K., & Daub, J. (2019). Chapter 22 Our Top 10 Drills. In Strategies and Standards for Defensive Handgun Training(First ed., pp. 145-147). KR Training LLC.

[5]Hearne, J. (2017). Chapter 1 Inside the Defenders Head. In Straight Talk On Armed Defense(pp. 20-36). Iola, WI: Krause Publications.

[6]Rehn, K., & Daub, J. (2019). Chapter 2 Getting More People to Train. In Strategies and Standards for Defensive Handgun Training(First ed., pp. 13-19). KR Training LLC.

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