Is your range time meaningful?

Posted on September 26, 2011 by


How long has it been since you went to the range? And I don’t mean went to the range to bust sporting clays (and don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with that!) or zero in your hunting rifle. When was the last time you took your personal defensive carry handgun to the range and spent some time with it? Hopefully, it’s been within the last month or so.

If it hasn’t, then you need to consider whether you are maintaining the skills necessary to use that platform responsibly. But that’s really a post for another day. Let’s assume you’ve been recently.

Here’s my question: The last time you took your carry gun to the range, what did you do with it?

I spend a lot of time at the range and I spend a lot of time getting to know range people. And I see a lot of paper-punching: Shooters standing locked in isosceles, Weaver, or other popular shooting stances, shooting round after round into an x-ring or bulls-eye target.

This kind of shooting is fine for what it is worth: developing and sharpening fundamental marksmanship skills. It’s also a lot of fun. If all we were going to do in the future was bulls-eye competition or some other kind of target shooting, then this kind of paper punching would be sufficient.

But the point of any defensive shooting practice should be to equip us to deal with an unprovoked, unforeseen violent encounter with three-dimensional threats in a complex environment in which we may need to be able to quickly distinguish between friend and foe. Therefore, in order for our range time to be meaningful, it needs to incorporate a certain level of stress, require a certain amount of mental exercise, and equip us with a skill set that allows us to solve real-world problems.

With that in mind, here are some questions to ask yourself about your next range trip.

Are your techniques reality-based? Are you using a specific marksmanship technique or stance that allows you tighter shot groupings, or do your stance and the techniques used to manipulate your gun reflect an actual dynamic critical incident?

At the range last weekend I witnessed a former law enforcement officer and long-time shooter assuming a shooting stance that involved angling his body almost entirely away from the target and resting the elbow of his shooting arm on his abdomen, reaching his supporting arm across his torso – sort of a modified Weaver stance. He felt the stability of this stance allowed him a greater level of accuracy and thus tighter groupings than he would have been able to achieve otherwise.

Whether this is true is not really the point. In the event of an ambush or other critical incident, your body will instinctively orient itself toward the threat. Training with a stance that will be almost impossible to assume in a real fight not only invalidates your practice (at least, invalidates it as defensive practice), but it results in a false level of confidence in your ability to handle the situation.

The same can be true for how you reload your handgun during practice. Do you reload from the shooting bench, or do you reload from magazines or speedloaders carried on your body in the same way that you carry them when you go out? If the former, you may be training your brain to look for a reload on a non-existent wooden bench during an emergency.

Are you focusing too much on accuracy? I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard or even been guilty of the phrase (or something like it): “He’s dead!” or “That oughta do it,” after a shooter finishes a shot string that results in a nice tight little group in paper.

Precision and accuracy are the two most rewarding, most readily quantifiable aspects of shooting. Thus, we often wrongly associate our ability to shoot tight groups into a static, two-dimensional target as actual fighting skills. What we want to be focused on is combat accuracy. While there are many definitions of “combat accuracy,” most authorities on the subject agree that any hits to the thoracic region are acceptable, as are hits to the spinal column or head.

Among other things, this means that a 6-8” grouping fired in two seconds is almost always going to be better than a 1” grouping fired in five. Put another way: If you’re shooting nice, tight groups, you probably need to pick up the pace.

Let me give an example. Any of the 5 groups in the photo below are tight groupings by anyone’s standards, especially given that they were fired from a snubnose revolver at a range of seven yards:

While these are groupings any snub shooter might be proud of, they probably indicate that the shooter isn't shooting as quickly as he should be.

The rate of fire in this particular case happens to have been 0.9 seconds between shots. This is really too slow for an experienced shooter as demonstrated by the shot groupings, which are tighter than they need to be in order to be combat accurate. Using the same ammo, the same shooter could easily dump all five rounds the snubby holds into a 6” grouping within less than 2 seconds – and in a fight, that’s almost always going to be more desirable.

Of course, you can shoot too fast, and at some point your accuracy will pass an unacceptable threshold. And obviously, as distance (or the need for precision, i.e. a necessary headshot) increases, speed must decrease. That’s why it’s so important to practice regularly and be confident in your own balance of speed and precision at a variety of realistic distances and circumstances.

Bottom line: When those groupings start getting under 3 inches, it’s time to add some form of speed or pressure to your training regimen. If you don’t, you’ll have an unrealistic view of what you can do. Because the bad guys probably aren’t going to wait for you to line up your sights and control your breathing.

Are you thinking like a warrior or thinking like an athlete? Most shooters are, on some level, athletes. They are training for a specific physical skill set (in this case, shooting a gun at a target) under a specific set of controlled circumstances (at the range on a firing line or possibly in a competitive shooting event). What this means is that they will tend toward a set of skills and equipment that function well for that given setting.

For instance, the hardcore competition shooter may practice with a firearm that is too large or too specifically modified to be practical for everyday carry. They may also (and almost always will) spend their time practicing with ammunition that is significantly less powerful (and thus softer-shooting) than defensive ammunition.

Likewise, the confirmed target shooter will be likely to use firearms that are comfortable and accurate to shoot – if not always practical for their daily carry needs. And they will adopt stances and techniques that are suited to getting tight groups on paper and impressing their buddies.

There is nothing wrong with either of these approaches – but we need to be careful not to think that this sort of training or range time will be useful in an actual deadly encounter.

The warrior takes a different approach than the athlete. The warrior is primarily interested in preparing for battle. The warrior trains with his battle-gear because it is a matter of life-and-death that he be familiar with it. The warrior trains for the scenarios he is likely to encounter based on the demands of his life, and this includes developing skills (such as intuitive or “point” shooting) that may not necessarily be the most conducive to tight groups on paper.

One of the easiest things you can do to enhance your training is to simply envision the sort of scenario you are likely to face if you are ever to be violently attacked, based on your lifestyle. Then, prepare for that attack as much as possible, through the use of live-fire, dry-fire, and force-on-force techniques. When you shoot, visualize the threat, as well as the emotions and instinctive processing that your mind will be going through. This is a technique that research has shown to be effective in increasing actual performance under pressure.

Obviously the goal here is not to discourage target practice. Target practice is infinitely preferable to no practice at all. But for most of us, after a few regular range trips we will get more or less competent at bulls-eye shooting. At that point it’s time to press on and make sure our range time is truly meaningful.