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Hierarchy of Combative Firearms Training

Safely handling a firearm and improving marksmanship at the range is just the beginning for armed citizens and professionals. Follow this Hierarchy of Combative Firearm Training to understand what skills are necessary, and in what order they should be learned.

Hierarchy of Combative Firearms Training

You have to walk before you run. The Hierarchy of Combative Firearm Training includes Essential skills, Combative Aspects and Interactive Aspects that must be learned and practiced. You can't jump straight to the finale, each step must be learned before progressing. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

According to my Webster’s Dictionary, training is defined as “to instruct so as to make proficient.” Instruct means “to teach, educate or inform,” while proficient means “highly competent, skilled.” Thus, combative handgun training, in my mind can be defined as follows: Teaching a person to be highly competent and skilled in the use of a handgun for personal defense. How much skill do you need to proficiently take care yourself? Who knows? For me, it’s as much skill as I can develop because it will be my life on the line, and my life is really important!

The reality is, very few police officers or legally armed citizens receive the level of training needed to be highly competent and skilled with their carry handgun. Most agencies will require their officers to train one to three times a year, and while this sounds like a lot, it’s not. In truth, some agencies “qualify” their officers and nothing more, which is not training. Few citizens who have a CCW permit will seek training beyond what is required in their state to obtain said permit. Think about this, would you bet $5 on a football game in which you knew the quarterback had practiced with the ball only one to three times in the past year? If we wouldn’t bet a few bucks on such a game, why do officers and armed citizens bet their lives on the same odds? It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect — most people feel they are far more skilled than they really are.

Remington Range Ammo
A large expenditure of ammunition is not needed to keep your skills sharp. A box of 250 rounds can make for a very good practice session, or, if you have a dry fire regimen, it could be two good practice sessions. (Photo by Dave Spaulding)

Sure, it’s easy to blame lack of training on a shortage of time or ammo availability. But, in truth, police departments nationwide simply can’t afford to get their officers to the range. Many agencies work with minimal manpower, so the logistics of training are problematic. If cops are at the range they are not on patrol. The cost of ammo has always been a problem, but now it may be both expensive and unavailable. Really, it’s up to the individual officers to actively prepare themselves to face potential threats. After all, it will be their lives on the line, not the department’s accountants or administrators.

Outside of law enforcement, unless you are an enthusiast, the armed citizen’s life is filled with many activities more appealing than buying ammo and going to the range to practice. But they’d do well to remember why they’ve chosen to carry a defensive firearm – most say it’s not just about protecting themselves, but also safeguarding their loved ones. Don’t leave such important stakes to luck.

Hierarchy of Combative Pistol Training
The three levels of combative pistolcraft. (Image courtesy of Dave Spaulding)

Over time, I’ve come to look at firearms training as a three-tiered pyramid I call the Hierarchy of Combative Firearms Training. The tiers are: 1) Essentials (I prefer this term to “fundamentals”); 2) Combative Aspects; and 3) Interactive Aspects. You must properly train and anchor skills through each level before you attempt the next. For example, would you take a counter-terror driving course before you take basic driver’s training? Of course not. Along these same lines, you should not try to fight with a pistol until you’ve learned how to shoot and manipulate it. Some think they are one in the same but that is not the case. If you throw a punch before you’ve learned how to make a fist, your punch won’t be effective and will likely result in injury and failure.

Base Level: Essentials

The Essentials level provides the foundation for everything else to build upon. Compare it to placing your hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel when learning to drive. The fundamentals include safe handling, grip, body position (aka stance), sight alignment, sight picture, loading and unloading and, most importantly, trigger control. You know, all of the things that keep the gun running.

The grip should use both hands and cover as much of the grip as possible. The grip is the human contact with the firearm, place as much skin on the gun as you can. Any area of the grip left open will provide an avenue for recoil to carry the gun off target, making quick, follow-up shots more difficult. And follow-up shots may be needed to end the fight.

Essential Skills
Any skill that will help you keep your defensive firearm loaded and running — from a good trigger press to clearing malfunctions — is essential. Mastering essential skills lays the foundation for combative pistolcraft. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

I’ve quit using the term stance as it relates to shooting a handgun because it really doesn’t matter where your feet are situated. As a matter of fact, it’s quite likely they will not be where you want them when you need to shoot. What is more important is keeping your body in a position that allows you to deliver multiple shots in multiple directions without being thrown off balance. In general, this means you must keep your shoulders over your toes and your knees unlocked.

Clearing a stoppage or malfunction is a requirement for any piece of machinery, but in a gunfight it is a life-saving skill. For semiauto pistols, you must be able to clear any malfunctions quickly and easily, which is not as hard as it sounds. Someone just has to show you how to do it. Revolvers are a whole different matter. A quality revolver runs under very extreme conditions, but when it malfunctions it usually requires a trip to the gunsmith. Some would say this is an advantage of the revolver over the pistol — I will leave that up to you.

Foundational, Essential Training
Foundational skills training, more commonly called the fundamentals, is absolutely essential to proper skill development. Get good foundational training! Everything else builds on top of it. (Photo courtesy of Dave Spaulding)

While many wish to debate using sights versus point shooting, I’ve found neither is very important if the shooter can’t control the trigger. Without trigger control, the muzzle won’t stay in alignment with the target, and the shot will miss regardless of the system used. Only hits count, so while I admit I’m an advocate of sighted fire, I’m an even greater advocate of trigger control. Without it, everything else is a doomed to failure.

All of the skills taught and practiced at the Essentials level are required to keep the gun running in a fight. That is why I say they are essential. While some may consider one skill more important than another, ask yourself, which skills will be needed to win your gun fight? That’s right, you don’t know. So, having a mastery of all will be required to rapidly adapt to the situation faced.

Ultimately, the most essential of essentials is a combative mind, but you won’t find that listed among the classic fundamentals of shooting or taught in basic marksmanship classes.


Mid-Level: Combative Aspects

Once you know how to shoot the gun, you need to know how to fight with it, which is easier said than done. You must be able to shoot in positions other than standing, at very close quarters, at long distances, with both the strong- and weak-hand only, at multiple adversaries at varied distances, at moving targets, while the shooter is moving and in less-than-perfect light conditions. It’s one thing to stand on the line and shoot at a stationary target, it’s another to have to punch the target while drawing the gun, moving laterally and delivering multiple shots at double arms-length accurately enough to save your own life!

Shooting from the ground
Shooting from a grounded position is something you want to learn before you end up on your back. (Photo courtesy of Dave Spaulding)

The ability to recognize cover from concealment is another essential combative skill, though whether something offers cover or concealment depends on what type of weapon your opponent is using. Do not underestimate concealment as it’s harder to be hit if you can’t be seen.

Shooting while moving is widely taught these days, and I have no problem with that. Just understand what your priorities are and be prepared to adjust as the fight develops. For example, don’t spend too much time trying to simultaneously shuffle-step and shoot accurately if moving quickly to cover will keep you from getting shot. I have found that moving quickly, planting and shooting accurately, and then moving quickly again to be more effective.

Shooting from a chair
Learning the shoot from a seated position is a good example of the combative aspects of pistolcraft. (Photo by Dave Spaulding)

Combative handgun training is nothing magical, even though many instructors will try to make you believe it is. It’s easier than ever before to see what actually happens in a gunfight. Re-create some of these situations on the range and learn how to fight through them. Example: Shooting while lying on the ground is not that difficult to do, it’s just something you need to work out in training instead of trying to learn in the middle of a fight. The ability to respond without conscious thought remains key to prevailing in any altercation. This means you must practice and refine the needed skill before a fight.

Upper Level: Interactive Aspects

Better known as force-on-force training, the ability to use mock weapons that allow students to shoot back at one another is underutilized. The majority of trainers will use Simunitions or airsoft guns for scenario-based training, totally neglecting combative-skill building. Don’t misunderstand me: Scenario training is needed, but only after the skills learned at the Combative Aspects level are reinforced. Such skills as drawing from the holster while moving, shooting at a moving target, engaging multiple targets, shooting from unconventional positions and from around cover will be better anchored if they’re used against a target who is shooting back. Take the drills you do using live fire and paper targets to build combative shooting skills and do the same drills with two or more people who return fire. This is the time to enable a shooter to find and use their front sight under the stress of conflict, if this is a desired skill. It makes sense to me to train in and anchor these skills under fire before attempting to use them in scenarios.

Interactive Training
A well-developed interactive training course will reinforce the skills learned at the Essential and Combative Aspects levels of training. (Photo by Dave Spaulding)

The main reason many police agencies don’t engage in such training is the cost and/or logistics of acquiring the gear. Simunitions and related products are the best way to conduct this training. Students need to wear protective equipement, but should not be so padded up as to make the hits (i.e., feedback) worthless. If budget constraints make Simunitions out of the question, airsoft is the way to go. I used airsoft technology in my “Interactive Pistol” course with great success. Unfortunately, it is the class I had to cancel most frequently as students, primarily armed citizens, seem to suffer “performance anxiety” — fear of being “shot” (you know, real pain!), making mistakes, or just not looking as awesome as they like folks to believe. So, despite the training’s effectiveness, I found that a week or two before a force-on-force course it was not unusual many student to develop “family problems” and bail out.

It's unfortunate because training is the time to make mistakes! Better than when the stakes are real! Funny how the human ego can’t comprehend this. I like to consider myself an advanced level instructor with a fairly vast knowledge pool, but every time I partake in interactive training as a student, I still make mistakes and get “killed.” These are learning opportunities that could save my life and the lives of my loved ones.

Some people shy away from professional firearms instruction for fear of making mistakes in public. Don't be that person! Better to fail in a controlled environment — with an instructor at the ready to fix what ails you — than to fail when the stakes might be much higher. Don't let your ego hold you back. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

The greatest benefits of interactive training are two-fold. First, it requires the student to make rapid decisions in a crisis environment. There is no observe, orient, decide and act; you see and do or you get shot! You learn to trust the skills you’ve developed at the Essential and Combative Aspects levels and use them to help you make these rapid decisions. Secondly, you gain confidence that your skills will work in a rapidly unfolding situation. Since the days of the Spartans it has been proven that confidence in skill is the single biggest factor in overcoming fear. And, conversely, fear is the single biggest factor in why people do not take action in a crisis.

Dave Spaulding
Dave Spaulding was a professional firearms instructor with 36 years experience in Law Enforcement and Federal Security. The recipient of the 2010 Law Enforcement Trainer of the Year Award from the International Law Enforcement Training and Educators Association (ILEETA), he operated his own training company that focused exclusively on "the combative application of the handgun." (Photo by Mark Fingar)

In the end, you must address all three levels of the pyramid to become properly skilled in combative handgun use, none can be skipped or short changed. All are required. Now go do it!

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