There is a problem associated with almost all training that you’ll receive on the subject of self-defense. Your training will not comprehensively cover all situations in which you might need to deploy the skills you are supposedly being taught.
This is in part because each person is different, and each situation/scenario is different, and so the correct techniques and tactics should also be different for every person and every situation/scenario.
Okay, so sometimes those differences mightn’t be significant, but sometimes they are huge. They can make the difference between, for example, shooting and not shooting. These differences might not only be starkly at odds with each other, but the outcomes you create, depending on which set of responses you adopt, can also be about as hugely different as is ever possible – your unharmed survival or your death; the need to shoot attackers or not, and so on.
Whereas there is presumably only one correct way to – well, I was trying to come up with an example of how there is obviously and only one way to do something, but I couldn’t. Maybe all actions have alternatives of varying degrees of adequacy, but choosing one method or another of putting your trousers on in the morning (eg do you put your left leg in first or your right leg, or do you sit on a chair and put both in simultaneously) is hardly likely to have life changing outcomes. On the other hand, choosing the wrong method to respond to a life threatening situation quite likely may have life changing outcomes.
When it comes to self-defense and firearms training, you have two challenges.
The first challenge is that if you’re in a typical training class, the instructor will necessarily and unavoidably be teaching a ‘dumbed down’ set of average actions that work acceptably well for most people, most of the time. He only has you for four or eight hours, or maybe even for only forty or even eighty hours, and he has to divide his teaching time among all the people in the class.
There’s no way he can give you the hundreds or thousands of hours of one on one tuition that you’d need to end up with a reasonably comprehensive understanding of what to do in varying scenarios.
The second challenge is that, unless he is unusually expert and experienced, he is also going to have an unavoidable set of biases that will cause him to focus on teaching you two sets of skills – the first set being those which he’s found, in the past, are easiest to explain to students, and the second set being those which he’s found have worked best for him.
Needless to say, what works best for him, and what is easiest for other students to grasp may not also be the best thing for you, or for any given situation you subsequently find yourself in.
Other training limitations exist as well.
For example, you might find yourself in a class where the instructor requires you to use a revolver, even though you don’t own a revolver and have no wish to shoot one. What is the point of learning to shoot a slightly different type of gun, experiencing a different type of recoil sensation, and developing a slightly different grip, and of course, having to learn a completely different approach to reloading and gun management, if it is a gun you know you’ll never own or use?
Instructors who do such things have lots of justification for why it makes sense, and maybe it does, for some people, some of the time, but it doesn’t do a lot of good to you if you’re not one of those people.
Ego and Marketing Issues
There are other issues at play as well. A particular school may have made a name for itself with a particular style of tactics, and this is their focus and all they teach. They’re not interested in considering other approaches, because that is not their part of the marketplace. It is like going to a Ford dealer and trying to buy a Toyota.
This is also true of big name instructors. There are three ways to become a ‘famous’ instructor. One is to have a distinctive twist or technique that you teach, the second is to be a shameless self-promoter, and the third is to be brilliant at teaching skills.
The sad truth is that most of the big name instructors are big names not because they are brilliant at teaching basic or even advanced level self-defense skills, but instead, due to some mix of the first two elements, and indeed, each feeds off the other. If you aggressively promote yourself, you need some distinctive thing to feature about yourself, which leads into the first aspect of how to ‘succeed’ as an instructor – having a distinctive twist.
Even if you’re at a school which is reasonably open-minded, they will still have some rules, procedures, and limits for simplicity and good order.
One example of this is the basic shooting stance they teach. It is rare to go to a school which does not have a standard shooting stance that is its ‘official’ stance. Some will mandate you adopt a form of (modified) Weaver stance, others a form of (modified) Isosceles stance.
If you’ve ever wondered ‘How can this perfectly sensible group of instructors all claim that a Weaver variant is the only way to go, while this other perfectly sensible group of instructors all claim that an Isosceles variant is the solution?’ then that’s a very fair question, the answer to which is the theme of this article. There is almost nothing
Would you like another example? How about something as simple as reloading your semi-auto pistol. Most instructors teach you to index the fresh magazine into the pistol’s magazine well at an angle against the rear of the magazine well. But some teach you instead to do this at an angle to the side of the magazine well.
Is one better than the other? Clearly some people think so, but which is the better solution, and why don’t all instructors agree on this.
Do you want another example. Here’s one that has nothing to do with the mechanics of shooting, but rather the tactics of shooting. Probably most instructors advocate you should do a ‘tactical reload’ any time the opportunity presents itself in a gunfight. But some instructors disagree, and say you should run your gun until it is empty and only then do an emergency reload.
There are arguments in favor of both approaches, but how often will you hear an instructor tell you ‘There are two ways to manage your gun’s ammo inventory during a gunfight, I’ll explain them both to you and you can then choose whichever you prefer’?
These issues don’t only apply to skill at arms. How many different types of unarmed self-defense are there out there? From long-standing methodologies such as Judo and Aikido through to modern systems such as Krav Maga, there are probably a dozen or more different approaches to unarmed combat, each claiming to be better than the others.
Safety on the Range Sacrifices Safety in Real Life
Let’s look at another challenge that interferes with what in theory should be taught to you. Range safety. And here’s a strange contradiction. Instructors will chant the mantra ‘You must train how you’ll fight’ and quote great examples of how people have been killed in confrontations due to inappropriately but automatically/instinctively performing their range training routines rather than the combat routines (things like carefully saving their spent brass while reloading, for example).
But then these same instructors turn around and modify the actions you must take in a gun fight due to range safety issues.
Here’s a very clear example. There are many different ways to hold a pistol when you’re not actively sighted in on a target and shooting. One way is called ‘low ready’ where your arms are reasonably outstretched but angled down, with the pistol pointing ahead and towards the ground at about a 45° angle. Another is called ‘retention ready’ where your arms are close to your chest, with your pistol pointing straight ahead, parallel to rather than angled down to the ground.
There are pro’s and con’s to both ready positions, and there are different scenarios where each might be the better position to hold your pistol. But the same instructor who has, just a short while earlier, been going over the four gun safety rules, including Rule 2 about never pointing your gun at anything you’re not willing to destroy, and Rule 4 about being aware of what is in front, behind, and to either side of whatever you are pointing your gun at; may forbid you from using a low ready position on the range, requiring you to always use the retention ready position.
The thing is, a retention ready position has your gun pointing straight out, and in most environments, somewhere in the mile or so of danger range the gun has, there will probably be something your gun is pointing at that you truly don’t want to shoot.
A low ready position means that any accidental discharge of your gun is going to go relatively harmlessly into the ground a short distance in front of you, but the retention ready position means the bullet you didn’t mean to fire is going to go somewhere you didn’t mean to hit – a gross violation of gun safety.
So why do instructors forbid you to use low ready when training on the range?
Because, on a range, the safest place to point your gun is straight ahead – ie, towards the backstop at the far end of the range. Pointing the gun at and accidentally shooting the floor might do a very very small bit of damage to the floor, which of course the range owner doesn’t want to happen, even though he has (or, at least, should have) built the range to be bullet proof in all directions and angles from where you are standing.
In other words, the safest direction on a range is the exact opposite of the safest direction in real life. So, in most cases, what is most convenient for the range owner takes precedence over what is best for you to learn and safest for the people and things around you in the real world.
One more example of range training compromises. In real life, your ‘after action drills’ involve you doing a complete 360° scan all around you; indeed, in real life, you should be as focused on what is behind you as what is in front of you. Unseen bad guys are as likely to creep up from behind as they to jump out in front of you with a good-natured shout of ‘Surprise!’.
But on the range, instructors – with obvious and good reason – get extremely nervous any time you shift your attention and posture from facing more or less directly straight ahead. There’s no way you can turn 360° without muzzling other students, and the instructor(s) too. So you are taught to restrict your after action scanning to just a narrow band a little each side of straight ahead. You are training in a way that is safe for other people on the range, but which would be dangerous for you in real life.
What to Do – How to Get Effective Instruction
Yes, there’s little that is black and white in self-defense. But, just to make things more challenging, you may also notice that a common characteristic of many instructors is to be apparently close minded and very insistent that their suggested procedures are the best method to adopt, and that all other procedures are inferior.
So, here’s the unfortunate bottom line. You have to put what you’re being taught in context, and you have to see past your instructor’s forceful advocacy of what he is teaching you, and you have to decide what will be best for you.
To make it even more difficult, sometimes the ‘best for you’ thing is not the same as the ‘easiest for you’ thing. Sometimes you’ll have to force yourself not to take shortcuts and to train to do a more complicated and difficult thing.
We have several concrete suggestions for you as well.
First, test your instructor to see how rigid and closed-minded he may be. For example, ask him why he is teaching a Weaver or Isosceles stance – ‘But don’t a lot of schools teach the other stance instead? Are they equally good?’
What you’re looking for is an admission that his preferred methodology is much the same as other methodologies, or only very slightly subtly better, and a willingness to consider and discuss other approaches. You want an instructor who not only admits to shades of grey, but who is willing to discuss and debate these shades of grey.
You also should separate your training into different categories. The first category is to master basic skills – the ability to shoot well from a standing position at a static target, and the ability to ‘run your gun’ – to keep it fed with ammo, and to diagnose and clear any malfunctions as and when they may occur.
But once you’ve achieved a level of competency at these basic fundamental skills, you then need to start your ‘real life’ training – training that starts to add movement and realistic constraints and requirements on what you do and how you do it. These skills – sometimes named ‘combat’ skills although that’s an aggressive term that sounds bad when portrayed as such to a jury – are the skills that will give you the edge and help you to both survive and succeed in any encounter where you’re required to use deadly force.
Developing these skills may require more costly instruction by a truly competent instructor, and in small group sizes (or even one on one). Mass market classes are too restricted by all the factors mentioned above to truly teach you the full survival skills you’ll need in a real life encounter.