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We all have to start somewhere. Everyone is a beginner once. Think back to the days of your learner’s permit” and Driver’s Education classes. When we first learn to drive, every aspect of the car and its operation is new and a little bewildering. I learned to drive with a standard transmission car. Talk about doing it the hard way. At first, when you go through Driver’s Ed, your instructor tells how to do everything. “Put the key in, depress the brake, turn the ignition, put the car in drive”, etc. Before you’re allowed out on the road, you go to a wide open, flat parking lot full of orange cones and practice. A lot. After a while . . .

you get pretty good at maneuvering around the cones and you’re finally ready for the challenge of the road. But no one goes straight from the cone slalom to their license exam. You need to learn to work in traffic, keep your eye on the other cars and deal with unforeseen circumstances.

When you think about firearms training, particularly with a handgun, the path toward mastery is similar to that of learning to drive. As you begin, every move you make is slow and deliberate, hopefully guided by an instructor. That’s how we master the fundamentals.

Unfortunately, far too many gun owners and shooters stop at the square range or what I like to call “the cones.”  The cones help you to become a safe operator. But if you plan to someday use a firearm in the most dynamic and dangerous situation ever – personal defense – you need to get away from the cones and learn to think with a gun in your hand.

Ballistic Problem Solving

The purpose and design of the Ballistic Problem Solving course (BPS) is to get the shooter out of their square range/orange cone comfort zone. During a rapidly developing and hyper-violent deadly force encounter, you won’t have a coach to help you work through the problem.

Too often, instructors will teach people to become shooting robots. The shooter can’t operate without specific commands within the square range structure. There are firearms instructors and institutions so afraid of armed students that they won’t allow shooters to make a move without specific instructions.

Yes, a brand new shooter needs detailed guidance, but we need to help people progress beyond that and move forward. Getting stuck in the cones doesn’t help a shooter learn to deal with the realities of carrying a gun in out in the world. The real world is has far more things in it that should NOT be shot than things that should.

Outside the matrix, in the real world, if you put a bullet into something that shouldn’t have a bullet in it there are some serious consequences. A bad shot can cost you money (attorney fees and fines), time (court and jail), or even your life in the most extreme circumstances.

When it comes to safety, rather than forcing people to become shooting robots, afraid to load their guns without permission, we need to provide the best training possible. One of the most profound and practical pieces of advice I got when I was learning came when I attended an NRA LE Pistol and Shotgun course. After going over the 4 Universal Safety Rules with us, the instructor advised, “all safe actions are permitted.”

He went on to give an example. “If you need to load, unload or clear your gun for some reason, move to a position where you aren’t muzzling other shooters and do what you need to do.  As long as you don’t violate one of the four rules you’re good.” I was impressed by the logic and simplicity of that guidance.

Thought Provoking Drills

After a shooter has proven to be a safe operator and understands how to effectively manipulate the gun, it’s time to take off the training wheels. If a person can’t be trusted to handle a firearm in a safe and conscientious manner they need to be dismissed. Guns aren’t for everyone.

The most dangerous thing you can teach a shooter is to fire their guns reflexively or without thinking. Snap shooting is a recipe for disaster. During the BPS course, students are put into situations where they have to discriminate between targets. Target images of various shapes and with different numbers are placed down range.  Rather than prompt the shooter with a preparatory command, they’re instead told to engage the shape or number the instructor calls out. The shooter doesn’t know what shape or number will be called until they hear it.  This forces the student to engage their brain and find the correct target before they press the trigger.

Other drills put the shooter in realistic and unusual positions. They might begin from a seated position in a chair or facing away from the target. No one begins a real gunfight standing flatfooted, facing the target with their hand staged like the quintessential western gunfighter. Before launching bullets, shooters have to move themselves into a position where the target can be effectively engaged.

Parting Thoughts           

Given the recent event where armed “professionals” fired at a single bad guy and struck nine bystanders, I think a serious discussion of target discrimination is warranted.  Square range qualification training just doesn’t cut it in the real world.

It’s been said that shooting is ninety percent mental and ten percent physical and I believe that’s true. A firearm is just a tool. It’s the mind or the brain that allows the body to use that tool effectively and efficiently. The world doesn’t need more shooting robots. What the world needs are people who understand how to think then shoot.

More information about the Ballistic Problem Solving course and other training can be found at .  To watch a video explanation go to StudentoftheGunTV on

Paul Markel © 2012


PHOTO Captions

111            Practicing to hit the right target.

112            Orange cones will only take you so far.

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  1. The major problem I see is many ranges within a trainable distance are square. No rapid fire, no holster drills etc. yeah I get the whole insistence thing but you would tonk they might setup training days where folks could come and do more advanced excersizes. Heck we would even pay more for the range time of we could work on different drills that fall outside your normal day to day rules.

    • I take living in AZ for granted sometimes.
      Yavapai Recreation League is just down the road from me and the Phoenix area has Phoenix Rod & Gun, Ben Avery and Rio Salado.

  2. A square range alternative “shoot house” just opened up near where I live in Southwest Ohio and I had the opportunity to practice “point shooting” in very low light at “surprise” targets. Much more realistic, though “house clearing” isn’t something one would actually do without a “team”.

  3. We had to go through a shoot/don’t shoot simulator for Afghanistan called EST 2000, which is like a big video game (rifle/pistols had a numatic recoil device). It ran you through a number of scenarios some of which you weren’t suppose to shoot at anything and all of them had innocent civs in the mix. This would be a perfect requirement for a concealed carried class, especially for anyone who hasn’t had to use their weapon to defend themselves before.

  4. All fun and games. I would love to do something like this someday, but lack of funds and living in a deep blue state don’t help any.

    But realisticly, that’s all this is. Fun and games. It’s like playing video games, but with real guns. The odds of being involved in any type of scenario like the kinds all of these “tactical” schools are teaching is beyond astronomical.

    If you avoid stupid people, doing stupid things at stupid times of night, even money says you will probably never have to even draw your gun on anybody.

    These John McClain, terrorists taking over the local put-put, fantasies are just that, fantasies. All they are good for is to fatten the wallets of all of these “gun experts” and “gun fighters” and keep their classes full.

    But hey, do what you will. If anything, it helps the economy.

    • If “probably” is good enough for you then so be it.
      “Probably” why you choose to live in a deep blue state and I don’t.
      I know someone that was involved in a DGU that happened in the early evening, about 6pm. Is that a “stupid” time of night?
      Personally I’d rather live in a free state where I can go out whenever I choose.
      Way to blame the victim though with your blanket judgments of when to go out and when to cower inside your dwelling.

      • Dramatic much? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling anyone what to do with their time and money. I’m not calling for a ban on anything. I am 100% behind the 2nd amendment the way our founding fathers intended it to be. If the military has it, then I should be able to have it.

        However, I think a lot of us “gun nuts” are taking this “tactical” sh!t a little too far. Read up on DGU’s. Look at videos online of DGUs.

        BTW, way to make blanket statements about me cowering in my house. I don’t cower for anyone, especially internet tough guys. When I go out, I go armed unless I’m going somewhere I can’t. However, I live in an affluent community. I don’t do drugs. I stopped hanging out with losers years ago. Can I be targeted by a criminal or be caught in an unexpected situation? Abso-freaking-loutly. That’s why I’m armed. Is a van load of Armpitistan terrorits going to take over the local 7-11 forcing me to clear it? Unlikely.

        • Well I’m glad you’re one of the moneyed Elite.

          Some of us aren’t.

          Some of us have to work jobs in less savory parts of town. Some of us may even need to return a movie at 1800.

          You can take your “let them eat cake” attitude and shove it, Ms. Antoinette.

          The DGU I’m talking about happened with a store full of people in the early evening. A customer drew a small pistol and put it to the clerk’s head. CCW holder directly behind her in line shot her and probably saved the clerk’s life.

    • It’s fun and games until something happens. (And heck, life is short, if you enjoy taking these classes that’s sufficient justification right there.)Then it’s insurance. Like the vast majority of insurance or safety precautions we take- useless wastes of money. Gambles you don’t want to win.

      The Brits have a term they use in flying- ‘spare capacity’. That ability to deal with the more complex situations and have increased SA you develop from training. Initially, as in the driving example above, you have very little spare capacity to deal with the complex. Many things that will eventually become automatic require concious attention. Like focusing on where the weapon is pointed at all times. This over time becomes second nature. Leaving you more spare capacity to deal with noting what is in the background of your target etc. So, if you actually are considering carrying a weapon for self-defense (I like you sadly cannot, I am in a deep blue dis-arm the victim for greater dependence on the state area) developing spare capacity is more than fun and games. It is another insurance precaution so that you can deal with the complexities of self-defense which are far more involved as admirably outlined in the article. Any DGU, in the US, is outside the statistical norm. We’re far less likely to be victims of violent crime than places like the UK. So, training in an environment more complex than you are likely to face will develop additional spare capacity for the hopefully far simpler situation which, while still unlikely, is more the ‘norm’.

  5. “No one begins a real gunfight standing flatfooted, facing the target with their hand staged like the quintessential western gunfighter.”

    You know, I’ve heard that more times than I can count.

    Yet in the exactly two times i’ve drawn my pistol and been prepared to use it…guess what? Thats almost exactally how what could have been gunfights started.

    I was standing face to face with some one maybe 20 to 25 feet away. I was pretty damn sure that I was going to have to shoot some one, but not quite sure enough that I wanted to clear leather and actually put rounds down range, one time. Another, I was almost certain I was going to be attacked, and drew down on him.

    I had been walking home from the corner store. I had been out all evening dancing, and I was dressed much nicer than most people in the nehiborhood where I used to live. Some one had been hanging out right by the alley next to the store, smoking a cigarette. I remember everything in slow motion. He looked me over. He threw the cigarette down, stepped on it, and waited just a second so that he could get behind me, and follow me. I still dont know 100% what it was, but I immediately knew I was in danger. Body language, or the way he waited to fall in behind me, something.

    My path would have taken me through a narrow, dark alley that came right around the corner to my apartment. He may have even seen me come out that way, earlier. So I detoured through a parkig lot, set my bag down on the hood of an old station wagon, and turned to face him. He wasn’t looking at anyone else. He was tense, moving very quickly, head angled down, fists clenched. He was looking directly at me. I asked him what was up.

    Then he put one hand into the back of his waist. He said nice car, and asked if he could bum a smoke. I lied, and said I didnt smoke. He kept coming, so I drew, and held center chest, and told him to get away from me.

    He paused for a second, and looked at me. I was maybe 20 feet away, on the other side of that wonderful, magnificent, worn out old station wagon. I could almost see him weighing his chances. He ended up shooting me the bird, and calling me a psycho and walking off. But only after he adjusted what ever had been in his waistband.

    I guess maybe I noticed things before other people might have in my particular circumstances. But it tickels me to hear that old peice of advice.

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