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10 Essential Skills You Need to Win a Gunfight

Prevailing in combat is about more than just shooting straight.

March 01, 2006  |  by Dave Spaulding

The great Bill Jordan once said: "There is no second-place winner in a gunfight." Even if you take nothing else away from this article, I ask that you train to win any gunfight that you become involved in, not survive it, but win it. There is no other option.

At one time, I bought into the notion that if you get into a fistfight, you should expect to get hit. If you get into a knife fight, you should expect to get cut. And logically it followed that if you get involved in a gunfight, you should expect to get shot.

But I've come to realize that that is a defeatist attitude. The object is not to get hit, cut, or shot. The goal of any defensive training should be to learn how to end the fight without getting harmed. Can you get hurt in a fight? Absolutely. And if you do, you have to keep fighting; there is no alternative. But if you go into a fight expecting to get hurt, I can guarantee that you will.

In 30 years of law enforcement I have both taught and attended many training courses, and I have come to realize that the best techniques are the simple ones. Techniques that can be learned quickly and retained a long time are the ones that will help you win a fight.

Despite the fact that you are constantly being bombarded with videos and courses purporting to reveal "the latest and greatest" in gun, knife, and hand-to-hand techniques from the SEALs, Delta Force, and Marine Recon, all of the great shooting and fighting techniques have already been discovered. What's happening is some enterprising instructors are putting new slants on old ideas and trying to sell them.

Another thing to remember is that just because a technique works for the SEALs that doesn't mean it will work for you. The members of the Special Operations community train for a living. If they are not engaged in a conflict, they are practicing their skills. How often do you get to train? Once, maybe twice per year?

When asked by POLICE to write this article, I decided to focus on the skills that the average officer needs to maintain to give him or her the confidence, tactical awareness, and weapons proficiency to prevail in a gunfight. Since simple skills work best and training time and money are at a premium, I reviewed the many armed conflicts that I have studied and I thought back to my years on the street to try to break down armed conflict to its most basic components. While I do not claim that this list is all-inclusive, I do feel that it will give you a good idea of what you should learn and practice to help you prevail in armed conflict.

1. Accuracy - Hitting what you are shooting at as quickly as possible is the most critical skill in a gunfight.

Accuracy comes down to the fundamentals of combative pistolcraft: grip, trigger control, body position (what some instructors refer to as "stance"), and weapon alignment. All of these elements must be in place to achieve accuracy. And this is true regardless of whether you are shooting with one hand or two, and whether you are kneeling, prone, on your side, or pivoting toward the target.

2. A Good Grip - A solid grip on your pistol is a must. Some instructors talk about shooters having a convulsive grip while others talk about a firm handshake grip. It doesn't matter. With practice, your hand will find what works for you.

Here's an exercise that will help you find your best grip. Make a tight fist with your shooting hand. Once you have done this, try to separate your trigger finger and work it back and forth like you are pressing a trigger. Note that your other fingers will loosen a bit as you do this. This is how you can find out what works for your hand.

3. Trigger Control - Everybody wants to argue about the efficacy of sighted fire vs. point shooting. Believe me, this is a worthless debate if you cannot achieve trigger control.

If you grip your pistol and jerk on the trigger like you're pulling a bell cord, the muzzle will go off target. The lesson here is that sights don't matter if the trigger is not controlled enough to keep your muzzle pointed at the target.

4. A Good Body Position - A lot of instructors call the position of your body when you shoot your "stance." But I quit calling it a stance awhile back because where your feet are located does not matter in a fight. It's all about the position of your body, not your feet.

If standing up, you need to keep your upper body over your toes to help control recoil. If kneeling, the same rule applies. If prone or laying on your side, you are well grounded enough to not worry about recoil moving your body.

5. A Quick, Smooth Draw - You need to know how to draw your weapon quickly while keeping a shooting grip and get it on target for a fast and accurate shot.

The history of gunfighting has revealed that the shooter who gets the first solid hit on his or her opponent usually wins. This is not always true but, far more often than not, the guy who loses is the guy who takes the first round. It makes sense. If you are shot, it is more difficult to concentrate on shooting at someone else.

Unfortunately, one of the trends in current American law enforcement holsters is making it harder for you to draw your weapon quickly and smoothly. When buying a holster, you have to balance your need to draw your weapon quickly against your desire for weapon retention.

Many retention holsters now on the market require you to push, pull, twist, or shove your pistol down while disengaging the thumb break strap prior to drawing. While I understand the desire for greater weapon security, you should be aware that it comes at a potential price of not being able to get the gun out quickly enough to become a factor in an attack.

If your gun cannot be drawn in less than two seconds, it will not be a factor in a sudden assault. I have seen officers take six, 10, and even 12 seconds to draw their guns from a Level III retention holster. That's unacceptable!

That's not an indictment of the retention holster. It's an indictment of the officer who carries it and hasn't practiced with it enough to learn how to draw his or her weapon quickly.

It comes down to choice. If you choose a holster with less security so that you can draw faster, then you need to take the time to practice your weapon retention skills. If you choose a high-security holster, then you need to take the time to practice your draw. You have to put in the time one way or the other.

When I am asked to give a recommendation for a duty holster, I suggest a Level II standard rotating hood holster such as the Safariland 6280. This type of holster dispenses with the traditional thumb break for a rotating hood that must be pushed down and then forward. Most officers can learn how to draw from them very quickly, and the holsters provide a good level of security. Note: I would recommend that you stay away from the Safariland Level II holster that's designed to fit a pistol with a gun-mounted light. There is room enough between the side of this holster and the weapon to allow a finger to be inserted into the trigger guard and fire the gun while it is in the holster.

Now that we covered the need for practicing with your holster, let's talk about the draw itself. A fast draw does not come from spastic muscle movement. Work to make your draw smooth and consistent so that it is the result of one continuous motion.

And remember to practice in all positions: standing, kneeling, and prone. If you do opt for a high-security holster, make sure that you can draw from it in every conceivable position. You don't want to find out that you can't draw your pistol because you happen to be lying on your back.

6. The Fast Reload - There are two elements to keeping your duty weapon operable in a fight: reloading it and clearing malfunctions.

Loading and reloading a semi-auto pistol is a fairly simple process, unless it needs to be done in a hurry or under great stress.

There are two basic reloads that are taught in the majority of shooting schools. They are generally known as a speed load and a tactical (sometimes called "administrative") load.

A speed load is essentially getting the magazine out of the grip as fast as possible and getting a new magazine in place so the fight can be continued. With this load technique, what happens to the spent magazine is not a concern. A tactical or administrative reload is done when there is more time available and you wish to secure the spent magazine. Since I believe in simplicity, I've come to think of these two actions as the fast reload and the slow reload.

Just as you need to practice to learn how to properly draw your weapon, you also need to practice to learn how to quickly and surely draw your spare magazines. It's important that you learn how to do this by feel. During a gunfight, it is going to be important to keep your eyes on your adversary, so that if he moves you can keep track of him.

7. Clearing Malfunctions - Your duty pistol is a machine and, like any other machine, it's prone to breaking down when you need it most. Know your tap-rack-target drill. It can effectively clear stovepipe jams.

If your weapon double feeds, then you have a much more serious problem. Even the best practitioners of pistolcraft require about five seconds to clear a double feed. Since most gunfights last less than five seconds, your best bet when you have a double feed is to go to your backup gun. When you don't have a backup, find the best cover you can and clear the double feed by unloading and reloading your weapon.

8. Learn to Recognize Cover - Incoming fire always has the right of way. So the best place to be in a gunfight is behind something that will stop bullets. That's the definition of cover: It's anything that will stop bullets. But always remember, cover is caliber dependent.

For example, there are a lot of objects that will block a 9mm, but very few things provide cover from the 7.62x39 AK-47/SKS round. I have seen this bullet punch through telephone poles and medium sized trees.

When trying to sort out what is and is not cover, think about the hardness of the material and whether or not it is hollow. Additionally, think about whether or not the cover material will stand up to multiple hits. A brick is a solid object, but a cinder block has hollow spaces and it will crumble as it is hit. It's not hard to see why one makes better cover than the other.

The best readily available (commonly found) cover is an automobile engine block. This will stop almost every small arms round. However, there is a problem with using an engine block as a shield. The problem is that it's low cover, which means you are exposed if your opponent has any elevation.

One of the worst things you can choose for cover is a mailbox. It's essentially a hollow tin box. And strangely enough, a standard U.S. Postal Service mailbox is a common cover option on many police training ranges.

Incorporate shooting around, under, and over cover in every practice session. Train to seek cover at the beginning of hostilities. Learn to draw while moving to cover, reloading while moving to cover, and seeking better cover when possible.

9. Become Invisible - Never underestimate the value of concealment. It is very hard for your opponent to shoot something that he cannot see. Concealment is not the same as hiding. The difference is that concealment allows you to see your opponent when he can't see you.

10. Fire While Moving - One of the problems with standard police firearms training is that it's way too static. If you want to develop skills that will help you in a real fight, then you need to learn to move and shoot and move to cover and shoot.

If cover is not available, removing yourself from the path of incoming fire is a real good idea. Standing in the middle of the street and shooting it out like Marshal Dillon on a TV Land repeat of "Gunsmoke" is, well...stupid! It's a good way to get yourself shot.

If you are caught out in the open at the beginning of a fight, don't stand there. Move! A moving target is much harder to hit.

But don't move just for the sake of moving. Move only when the movement offers some type of protection or tactical advantage.

Also, don't just move. Shoot while moving. Sometimes sending lead at your opponent to force him to move, alter his aim, or suppress his fire may be the only cover you have or it may be the only thing that gives you a chance to safely reach real cover.

Practice shooting on the move. Shoot while moving forward, backward, laterally, and diagonally. Learn to shoot while getting up and while going low. Practice reloading while moving, as this may be needed if you are caught out in the open and your gun runs dry.

And don't just sling lead; place accurate shots while moving. It can be done. It is even possible to be reasonably accurate while running, but it requires practice.

Dave Spaulding recently retired as a lieutenant from the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office in Dayton, Ohio. He is a member of the Police Advisory Board and the author of "Defensive Living" and "Handgun Combatives," both available from Looseleaf Law Publications, www.looseleaflaw.com.

Tags: Firearms Training, Sarariland, Holsters, How-To Guides, Tips for Success, Gun Battles

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