Buying a guitar does not make you a rock star. Likewise, buying a gun does not make you a Navy SEAL. There are more than 100 million legal gun owners in the U.S. and I’ll bet less than half of us are properly trained to do what we think we can do with a gun.
What do you think you can do with a gun? And how do you know? Have you completed training prepared and presented by an experienced professional? Do you have a gun license? Have you visualized the scenario you think you can overcome so that your every move is already thought through, and when something does not work, you’ve visualized an alternate action as well? Have you practiced enough that you can load, reload, clear a malfunction and reload again in the dark, operating entirely by feel because you know your gun so well?
Tom Gresham of GunTalk Media describes it in a way I like very much. In my own paraphrase, he says we ought to be able to operate our guns with the same level of familiarity as we operate our cars. When we get into our car, we buckle the seat belt, put it into gear and operate the steering wheel, accelerator, brake, clutch and turn signals all without ever looking at any of them. We know it by feel and we don’t even think consciously about the actions we’re taking. We just do it. Can you operate your guns like that? If not, perhaps some training is in order.
Chris Sajnog, Navy SEAL Firearms Instructor (retired), literally wrote the book, and the rest of the program, on firearms training for our SEAL Snipers. He would tell you, again in my paraphrase, that top performance comes from completing an action correctly so many times that your neural pathways have created a groove so that when you take the action, your body follows that groove without having to think through it. You just do it.
Consider the five training levels outlined below that follow a training path along the line of practical handgun shooting. If we define “functional” as able to perform consistently well without having to think about it, at which level do you start to think, “I’m not so sure I’m really functional at that level?”
1. Basic Firearms Safety: I am functional with a proper understanding of how my guns operate, I can properly load and unload, I understand proper storage of my guns and ammo, I know the four fundamental rules of safe firearms handling and practice them consistently.
2. Fundamentals of Shooting: I am functional with the key aspects of shooting; a proper stance, draw, grip, sight picture, breathing, trigger control and follow through. (Yes, all 7 count! And Chris Sajnog would add an 8th of sight refinement following sight picture!) I do dry fire training. I practice visualizing what I want to accomplish with a firearm (the body won’t go where the mind has never been…).
3. Practical Handgun Shooting: I can identify a threat. I can identify cover and concealment (and know the difference). I can move then shoot. I am functional with tactical reloads. I am functional clearing a malfunction.
4. Advanced Practical Handgun Shooting: I can function when confronted with multiple threats. I can shoot while moving to cover. I am functional communicating with an armed team-mate during a gun fight. I am functional shooting with my support hand.
5. Scenario Based Training: I have participated in live force-on-force training. I am functional in a number of practical shooting scenarios due to live training experience and/or visualization through scenarios such as; a mass murderer in a church sanctuary, a parking lot kidnapping, a home invasion by two armed would-be murderers and other life threatening scenarios.
At what level are you able to perform consistently well without having to think through each action? Be honest.
OK, now you know where you are. Congratulations! So, where do you want to go and how do you get there? Since you’re reading this article you’d probably like to be a Level 4 or 5 shooter. Let’s walk through the different training approaches to consider and then I’ll offer my personal recommendations for the best training material from Level 1 to Level 5.
Books, Videos, Live Instruction and the Discipline of Practice
Books & Videos
A lot can be gained from books and videos. A well done book or video can teach the principles to help us “get it” when we enter a new territory of learning. Please keep three things in mind however, when it comes to books and videos.
1. Someone who can do it is not necessarily a good teacher. We need teachers who can help us understand and develop the skills we need. A good demonstrator and a good teacher are not always the same.
2. Don’t be a YouTube Commando. We can pick up some interesting tips here and there along the YouTubeisphere but much of what’s posted is just someone showing off. That is not a learning event – it is entertainment. Be cautious of the difference.
3. Books and videos by professionals are generally well worth it. Amateurs post videos to share their knowledge (or entertain) but professionals write books. Many professionals then also create videos to supplement their well thought out written material with helpful visuals. Stick with the pros.
While a lot can be gained from books and videos, nothing beats live instruction. Where books and videos can help us understand a concept, live training makes it tactile and, let’s face it, shooting is extremely tactile. Our level of functionality increases exponentially when we get our hands on the gear and have a professional observe and correct us.
That professional instructor does require more money than any book. The financial hurdle of getting into a good training course affects most of us at some level. With this in mind I have two questions for you. How important is it to you to be fully functional in protecting your family? Can you bear having to say, “Kids, I’m sorry I couldn’t protect your Mom. I just couldn’t come up with the money to learn how to handle it any better.”
Yes, I know that’s a painful and extreme scenario but our topic is extreme isn’t it? Every time a murderer invades a home and takes a life, that above comment could be spoken by a survivor. Don’t let that be your family! Make the time. Find the money. Instead of buying another gun, buy some training instead!
A lot of training is actually quite affordable anyway. For those of us in New England, the go-to place is Sig Sauer Academy. Have you ever heard the rumor, “Oh I’d love to go to Sig Sauer but it’s like $1,500 for a course.” I’ve heard that one many times and it is complete bologna. They have multiple practical shooting, concealed carry, close quarters combat courses, and others, in which you can spend a day with an instructor in a small class for $500 or less, including the ammo! If you want to spend a week you can go from Level 1 firearms basics on Monday and by Friday you’re doing advanced drills. Now that will take you to somewhere closer to $1,500 but you blaze through multiple levels in a very short time. Personally, I think it’s better to take a one or two day course at a time because you will learn things that you need to practice before moving on to another level. This brings us to the final portion on the discipline of practice.
The Discipline of Practice
“Pave your Path to Perfection” is the concept and slogan we hear from Chris Sajnog for those of us who are familiar with his training material (and if you’re not, you should be!). When we have practiced our draw correctly and perfectly so many times that a physical pathway is developed in our neural system (sometimes referred to as muscle memory) we become functional as defined above; doing it correctly and smoothly without having to think through it. We need a functional draw, a functional sight picture, a functional trigger pull, etc. Becoming functional in these actions requires the discipline of practice.
I recently took a practical handgun, one-day course at Sig Sauer Academy and came away with a couple key things I knew needed improvement; grip and tactical reloads. Using the concepts I learned from Sajnog’s book, Navy SEAL Shooting, I worked through the disciple of practice:
Bought hand grips to strengthen my hands and forearms and solidify my grip.
Dry fire practiced with a perfect hand placement on the holstered pistol up to presentation with a focus on grip and support hand placement.
Did the above with my smart phone video at the range so I could see from an objective point of view exactly what was happening and make corrections.
Completed many slow and perfect repetitions from draw to presentation.
That was my range session that day. No ammo fired.
The next week I did all the same things but the focus was on tactical reloads. Again, just slow perfect repetition. For this I did use ammo only because I wanted to include the slide lock in my neural pathway development.
The next week, I brought out the targets and ammo to confirm my improved grip and reload skills, having also continued to strengthen my hands with the grip exercises. As expected, I experienced massively improved accuracy! I now “naturally” grip my every-day-carry pistol with greater control and stability than ever before. I don’t even think about it.
This is not a “hooray for me” boast but only an example of the effectiveness of disciplined practice under the guidance of a professional. If I can do it, believe me, anyone can do it!
How to Get There
I’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as advanced firearms training, only the basics mastered and applied to different situations. I agree with this. However, for the purposes of clarifying training recommendations at increasing levels of experience, I am going to organize recommendations into 5 levels anyway. The below resources are personal favorites and I am confident you will find them just as valuable as I do.
Level 5 scenarios include knowing how to fight without a firearm. We all need to know how to fight for protection purposes when a gun is not available. If it’s not in your hand, it’s not your primary weapon! This is another scenario I believe rightly fits into Level 5.
So what will you do now? You know where you are in this 5 level structure, you have multiple resources laid out for you. It is up to you to decide what is the right level for you to pursue and then to take a small step toward gaining that training right now. Click a link and buy a book or sign up for a training class. Get started right now! Go for it!
Stay safe and enjoy the training journey!