Any time you visit a range for some practice, you probably notice two types of shooters.
One type has tiny bulls-eye targets way down range at the 25 yard line or somewhere similarly distant, and are taking very slow deliberate aimed shots at the target – and often hitting dead center with truly impressive accuracy.
These types of people are generally considered to be ‘competition shooters’.
Then there are other people who are shooting at big silhouette targets up really close – no more than 10 to 20 ft. And if you watch carefully, you might notice that some of them are either shooting as fast as the range rules will allow them to shoot, or they are shooting from ‘strange’ positions. Off-handed, strange stances and positions, and so on. Their rounds may land all around the target, but they seem pleased about that, even though the target shooters look at them with derision.
These types of people are generally considered to be ‘combat shooters’.
Which is the better approach for you when training to be able to respond to a self-defense situation that calls for the use of deadly force?
Somehow, many people seem to think that being a combat shooter is a more ‘macho’ (or simply a more fun) thing to be, and it also has the benefit of allowing a person to shoot relatively poorly and not be embarrassed.
Now, we’re all in favor of having fun and enjoying our practice and our training, but for it to be of value, it also needs to give us real-world skills we can benefit from.
Some people have a mental picture of a concealed carry gun only being used when a bad guy is standing straight on to you, and at ‘bad breath’ distance. In such a case you’ll draw your pistol from wherever it was concealed, and probably start shooting as soon as the pistol has cleared its concealment/holster, and rapidly fire multiple unsighted shots into the center of mass of the bad guy. Your shots may be plus or minus a foot in accuracy, but it won’t matter so much at that range. This is the main type of scenario the combat shooter trains for.
Other people have a mental picture of a hostage situation where they’ll need to draw their concealed weapon and take out a bad guy sheltering behind a hostage, with only a thin sliver of the bad guy visible, and the risk that a missed shot will hit/kill the hostage instead. In such a case, accuracy becomes essential. This is closer to the type of scenario a target shooter trains for.
While both these scenarios are possible, there are also many other scenarios in the middle between these two extremes. Indeed, don’t just take our word for it – have a look at the video of this self-defense shootout, where an armed citizen fired between four and six shots, and registered perhaps two hits, neither of which stopped the two attackers (although for sure, it did cause them to run away!).
Don’t you think that a bit more accuracy on the part of the citizen in this case might have saved him the need to spray so many bullets around a densely populated area, and if the two attackers had taken cover and returned fire rather than turning tail and running away, don’t you think that accuracy in the ensuring exchange of shots would have been a major issue?
So, don’t sell the need for accuracy short. There’s never a downside to being ‘too accurate’, but there’s often a downside to being not accurate enough. For example, read this account of how two NY policemen fired sixteen rounds at a person outside the Empire State Building, and managed to hit nine innocent bystanders while doing so. Not prominently mentioned in the linked report, but subsequently revealed, was that perhaps the police didn’t need to open fire in the first place, something that the nine innocent but injured bystanders would doubtless have appreciated greatly.
What Distance to Train At
Same as us, the police sometimes need to shoot at bad guys in self-defense, ie to save themselves personally. But sometimes they also need to aggressively shoot at bad guys just because the guy is bad and they need to take him down before he does harm to others. In that latter case, they will shoot from any distance at all where they feel they have a reasonable chance of making the shot.
But you are (probably) not a police officer, and you will almost never be justified in taking down a bad guy to save others. Okay, there are exceptions to this, but in general, we urge you not to become a ‘vigilante’ but to limit your involvement in deadly situations to only those cases where you have no choice in the matter.
So you should only ever be shooting at a bad guy when he poses a credible immediate threat of doing grave harm to you or your loved ones. What sort of distance is that likely to be? That depends on many things, and in particular, on the weapon he has. If he is fielding a scoped sniper rifle, then he could pose a credible threat, even half a mile or more away (on the other hand, at that range, there’s no way you can do anything in response with a handgun!). But if all he has is ‘only’ a knife or baseball bat, at what point does he become a deadly threat?
The answer to that question depends on several factors, but let’s just say that anyone who is within seven yards/21 ft of you is a deadly threat and you better have your handgun in your hand and pointed at them, ready to fire. If you don’t, then no matter where or how your pistol is holstered, they can be on top of you before you can draw, present and fire it at them. This has been enshrined in the phrase and concept known as ‘the Tueller Drill‘.
As a very rough rule of thumb, if someone is within 21 ft of you, they may be a deadly threat, armed or not, so if the circumstances force you to do so, it is time to start shooting. On the other hand, if they are further away than that, then unless they have a gun pointed at you, they are not yet a threat, and you should attempt to avoid rather than resolve a confrontation.
With this in mind, it would seem that the best distance to train at would be to have life-sized targets in the 12 – 21 ft sort of range. Any closer than 12 ft and the need for aimed fire diminishes, and any further than 21 ft and the justification for shooting diminishes (plus, the greater the distance, the more opportunities you have to escape/evade rather than to stand and fight, and escaping/evading is almost always preferable to standing and fighting).
In theory, you could also practice with smaller sized targets closer to you (the smaller target size compensates for the shorter distance), but we would recommend against that. Practice as realistically as you can, and by having ‘real’ distances, that helps you get an instinctive feel on the street for when people are getting too close and when you have to start to think about urgent solutions to pressing problems.
Now, how about practicing at longer ranges, too? Surely there’s no such thing as being ‘too accurate’?
Well, that is indeed true, but we’d suggest that instead of shooting at bulls-eye targets at long ranges, a more practical type of practice would still involve life-size targets at the ‘real’ ranges you’d be shooting at. But practice for aimed head shots rather than not-so-aimed center of mass shots. Or use different silhouettes with people side on to you (much smaller target area) or with arms in front of their chest (once termed ‘the poor man’s armor’), or poking out from behind a wall, or in some other way presenting smaller targets.
Certainly, as you get better at speed and ‘combat accuracy’ (ie being able to reliably and quickly get shots into the target center of mass) you then want to move the targets out closer to the 21 ft point, and you want to then start shooting not just for center of mass, but for specific locations within the target blob.
There is also one exception to when a person is a risk only within 21 ft. That is if they are inside your home, and are headed towards where your children or other family members are located, or have already challenged you and exchanged fire with you. In such a situation (happily unlikely but not impossible) then you’ll be trading shots with them any time you have a clear sight picture. What are the typical maximum distances that apply within your house or apartment? Probably these distances will be less than 21 ft, but why not go around and measure.
Furthermore, in such cases, they might be sheltering behind some cover, so you’ll not have full body shot opportunities (indeed, in the real world, you seldom or never do). You want to get reasonably accurate at hitting smaller targets at those sorts of distances, and at ‘snap shots’ because they won’t stick their head out and hold it still for you to slowly shoot at.
Speed vs Accuracy
Which brings up the tradeoff between speed and accuracy.
For most of us, we have to choose between speed and accuracy when shooting. Sure, we can try to make like a wild west fast draw gunslinger, yank our gun from its holster, and get that trigger pulled very quickly, but if the shot goes wild, have you actually achieved anything (except probably causing some damage to someone’s property, and possibly even wounding or killing an innocent bystander, unseen/unnoticed by you, a block or two away, and/or inside a nearby house.
Surprisingly, the answer to this question is actually as much ‘yes’ as it is ‘no’. If you get the first shot off, then you have the initiative and you are – sort of – controlling the situation. The bad guy is now forced to respond to your actions rather than able to pick and choose his own gambit.
As we saw in the video example above, the ability of the armed citizen to surprise the bad guy and open fire first caused the bad guy to give up the fight and run away. In this case, surprise and initiative won the day.
In the military, troops are taught about the benefit of suppressive fire. Very little battlefield shooting is actually carefully aimed shooting – much of it is semi-random, fired in the general direction of the bad guys, in the desperate hope that maybe some rounds might land on their targets, and in a desire to keep the bad guy from shooting back. While the bad guy is keeping his head down, he isn’t able to shoot back, and he probably also can’t respond to your side maneuvering into a more advantageous tactical position (either to better press the attack, or simply to, ahem, run away yourselves).
But in the military, the troops seldom have to worry about the consequences of where their rounds end up, and usually a conflict has multiple good guys working together in a trained manner, all with plenty of ammunition and fully auto weapons.
Things couldn’t be more different in real life. As the saying goes, ‘every bullet has an attorney’s name on it’. You need to be careful and sparing of your ammunition and where you are shooting (unless, alas, you are members of the NYPD it seems).
There’s one more important difference between a military conflict and a self-defense situation. The bad guys aren’t being paid or tasked with killing you. Whereas enemy soldiers are being paid to do that, and in a firefight, both sides are supposed to hold their ground and advance on the enemy if at all possible, and to accept some casualties in return for winning the battle, that is not the case with you against the local bad guys.
We don’t know the exact statistics, but we’ll guess that more often than not, if the bad guy simply sees you draw your weapon in a determined and authoritative manner, he’s going to flee the scene as fast as he can (especially if he is alone). A very very few may choose to ‘call your bluff’ – more likely if there are two or more of them and only one of you (and also more likely if you look panicked and irresolute); not only because they have the benefit of numbers, but also because their social/peer pressure makes them each unwilling to be the first person to be ‘a coward’ and run away. In those cases, you’ll need to shoot the most threatening person, and the chances are that as soon as they hear the gun shot, the whole group of them will run off.
Why would they not? Surely it is better for them to run away, safely, and to exercise more care in picking a defenseless ‘soft’ target for their next act of violent crime! They understand that perfectly clearly. They are lazy and don’t want to risk their lives; they want safe easy soft targets and will do all they can to avoid people who don’t have ‘victim’ stamped invisibly on their foreheads.
So from this point of view, speed is important and beneficial.
On the other hand, don’t sell accuracy short. A recent FBI study into the ‘best’ handgun calibers and cartridges concluded that all caliber/cartridge combinations were remarkably similar in effect (in terms of stopping power and lethality), and the most important factor in the outcome of any gun fight was not the caliber/cartridges being used, but rather the accuracy of the shots.
Quickly getting ten rounds out of your pistol, and hitting the bad guy once or twice in non-vital areas will do nothing more than empty your gun and cause damage/destruction all around you. On the other hand, a single aimed shot into a vital zone will end the fight instantly, and just as surely if you’re firing a .22LR round out of a target pistol or if you’re firing .44 Magnum rounds from Dirty Harry’s famous Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver.
So, the real issue here isn’t whether you should focus on speed or on accuracy. Sorry – you need to get good at both. You want to get the first round off fast, and have it land where you want it to go.
Accuracy and Ammo
An upside to being accurate is that you are less likely to run out of ammunition.
The police average about one hit on target every four or five shots, so to get two shots onto a bad guy requires 8 – 10 rounds of ammo, (and the time it takes to shoot that many rounds). If your pistol only has six rounds in it, which is better? Needing to pause half-way through to reload, or shooting accurately and only requiring (perhaps) four shots for two hits?
At the risk of making an unfair comment, it could be observed that the police response to this solution was to trade in their older six round revolvers and seven/eight round 1911s, and replace them with higher capacity 13 – 17 round semi-autos. That’s for sure one ‘solution’, but it is not the best solution for a private citizen. Not only is a full size semi-auto larger and heavier to carry, and more difficult to do so concealed, but you don’t have the city/county/state/federal government standing behind you and sparing you the civil and criminal liability risks that each ill-aimed round you shoot may create.
As a private citizen and with a smaller sized concealed carry pistol, for all reasons you need to optimize your effectiveness and accuracy with your chosen pistol.
The chances are that you’ll be carrying (concealed) a pistol with only a limited supply of ammunition in its magazine – probably no more than ten, and possibly as few as six or seven. And the chances sadly are that if you get into a situation where deadly force is warranted, then as likely as not, it will involve two or more aggressors, and will be in low/bad/no light.
It will also be at close range, so if you haven’t managed to do something to solve the problem in the first couple of seconds, the bad guys will probably be physically on top of you and you’ll lose control of your pistol. So you need speed to get shooting quickly, and you need accuracy so that the shots are effective.
Although you should always carry at least one spare loaded magazine, the chances are that when the brown stuff hits the fan, you’re not going to have time to reload in the middle of what goes down. You need to solve your problem with only the bullets in your gun at the start of the situation, and so you can’t afford the high rate of misses that even well-trained police officers experience.
One more thing. On a typical ‘square range’ (ie a line of shooters at one end, a line of stationary targets at the other end) neither you nor your target(s) is/are moving. But out there on the street, there’s a good chance that your attacker is moving, and you should be too.
Indeed, studies show that one of the key survival skills when in a gun fight is the ability to be moving yourself – to be moving between shots, and, if the situation and your competence allows it – to be moving while shooting, too.
This adds a massive extra level of complexity and skill development required in order to become truly competent at defending yourself with your handgun, and with few ranges allowing for shooters to be moving, and with few ranges offering moving targets, it is difficult to acquire the extra skills needed. Joining a shooting club and participating in IDPA or IPSC type matches is probably a very good way to acquire familiarity with movement – both yours and your targets.
Accuracy is very important in any situation. Even if your attacker is terrifyingly close to you – at ‘can’t miss’ range – you might still find in the stress of the moment you do miss if you are untrained and unfamiliar with your pistol.
In addition, due to the woeful inadequacy of any and all caliber/cartridge combinations in terms of being able to give you instant single shot stops, even at very close range, you want to be able to land your shots not just blindly and anywhere in the attacker’s torso, but as effectively aimed to vital areas as possible.
Your accuracy needs to be balanced with your speed. Typically there is a trade-off – you can be accurate or you can be fast; training will help you to become both faster and more accurate.