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I reckon most people who go to gun ranges on a regular basis suffer from borderline OCD. Every time they practice, the use the same lane, same guns, same drills, etc. Routine keeps them safe. It lets them “rate” their performance over time, which gives them a sense of confidence (and/or a constant challenge). It’s all very . . . relaxing. But the resulting “line” or “assembly line” hypnosis is extremely dangerous. If you slip into a spontaneous trance state and repeat a physical or mental action thousands of times, you program yourself to perform the same actions unconsciously when faced with the same “trigger.” A lot of gun gurus consider that a good thing, not a bad thing. Muscle memory and all that. I disagree . . .

For example, if you always empty your gun when target shooting, chances are that’s what you’ll do in a self-defense situation. Even if it’s strategic suicide. If you grab your empty magazine with your left hand in training—instead of letting it drop to the ground—that’s what you’ll do in a gunfight. Which makes your support hand an instant liability. If you pull in your gun immediately after a string, engaging a second target will be a much slower process.

The much vaunted concept of “muscle memory” (i.e. subconscious responses) can program you to make a stupid mistake that could leave you and your loved ones in the morgue. ‘Cause you have no friggin’ idea what’s going to happen in an armed self-defense situation. The event will be fluid. Dynamic.. Violent. Volatile. Unpredictable.

As the rabbi says, a gunfight is a fight with a gun. You could be on your ass. Your right arm could be out of commission. You could be bleeding profusely. Or hidden. You might need to run forwards. Or peddle backwards. You may be facing multiple attackers. You could be in a store, on the street or sleeping in bed.

So what exactly are you training for when you head to the range? Exactly nothing. Generally, you should be training to be able to respond to a wide variety of possible scenarios with as-accurate-as-possible lethal force. In other words, you need to be able to think in a gunfight. Strategy eats gun handling and marksmanship for lunch.

Here are three tips for avoiding “firing line hypnosis,” to increase the effectiveness of armed self-defense training.

[Note: safety first. Do not practice against the clock or compete on the basis of time. If you practice self-defense shooting at a range where you can’t do these drills, you need a new gun range.]

 1. Shoot consciously – vary your strings and target

It’s easy to slip into a trance state at the range. Load magazine, insert magazine, pull back slide (or click chamber into place), empty gun, examine target; wash, rinse repeat. Don’t do it. Make sure that you are aware of every bullet you fire. That every round is fired with conscious intent, aimed at a specific target.

Shoot variable strings. Sometimes fire one shot. Sometimes two. Sometimes—and this is crucial—none. There is no way to know how many rounds you’ll need to fire to stop an imminent, life-threatening attack. But you want to try to use only as many bullets as you need—morally, ethically, legally and practically.

Also make sure you vary the pace of your shooting. In the exercise above, I planned out my rhythm: a single shot followed by a double tap (a.k.a., closely paired groupings), another single shot, and then three more double taps. In other cases, I’ll decide as I’m shooting (varying my variations).

Don’t forget to slip in a random snap cap or two or . . . not. The trick: keep your head in the game by varying the firing sequence, pace and target (including distance) enough so that you have to concentrate on what you’re doing.

2. Vary your technique

Practice shooting from your “best” stance and from various awkward positions: leaning backwards, gun close to your body, shooting from the hip (where allowed), kneeling, sitting down, lying down, etc. Obviously, safety first. But know this: the chances that you’ll be able to engage a lethal threat from a perfect stance in a real world encounter are minimal.

By the same token, practice with both hands, single-handed. Then incorporate the “shoot consciously” variables. Imagine a self-defense scenario and devise a shooting position and sequence to suit. Mix it up. If you practice re-loading, add that in at irregular intervals. Don’t always load full magazines.

3. Buddy Up 

The buddy system is the best way to keep it real. As randomness is key, let your BSB (Best Shooting Buddy) choose a drill. And how the drill progresses. For example, your BSB could put up multiple targets and call out which target to shoot and how many shots to fire (including “don’t shoot”). Such as “two shots number three; no shots number two,” etc.

I’m not recommending the usual pseudo-military/police training I see at some ranges, where someone calls out a series of rote exercises and they’re judged on speed and accuracy. Again, you have to try to maintain the element of surprise by changing it up (safely). You can add physical and mental exercises as well. Some may consider shouting out math problems a dangerous distraction but I couldn’t possibly comment.

At the end of the day, nothing you can do at a gun range is as important for your armed self-defense as force-on-force training. But with a little common sense and creativity, at least you can practice at the gun range in a way that doesn’t lull you into a false sense of security and give you bad habits that can get you killed.

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  1. Just like the driving range in golf the firing range is a place to practice technique, not tactics. Muscle memory isn’t a bad thing, movements memorized at the range are. That is why the Army has something called advanced infantry training. That is where the individual soldier takes his basic single soldier skills, makes him a team player and teaches him to improvise adapt and overcome. Frankly, I don’t know where a civilian learns armed self defense tactics beyond the equally rote combat skills courses. Perhaps someone should modify games like Call of Duty to become training aids. Ultimately, armed self defense survival skills are a matter of instinct. Just carrying as much you can hones some of those skills. When I am armed I am much more focused than when I am not. Maybe I should follow my own advice and carry more often.

  2. For me, that was spot on.
    Been target shooting for some 25 yrs.
    Had the attitude that punching a hole in the bulls-eye was what I needed to know.
    Got serious since ’bout three years got my CCHL, realized that is not the case.
    Don’t live near trainers, but have a good idea what needs to change.
    First time I tried a quick draw point and shoot my thumb immediately went to push the safety on my 1911, not good.
    It is an outdoor range where I go over that and did some of the things like those suggested.
    Muscle memory, automatically pushing that safety thingy, and knowing when to not do it.
    Oh well, that is my tale.
    Practice different things now, wish I though of it sooner.

    • Outdoor ranges are the best. Especially the unsupervised just–you–in-the-woods ranges. I didn’t know how I would do with my shotgun in a home defense situation. I used to go to an indoor range all the time in Ohio. I would shoot a target, hit a target, rinse, repeat. Since coming to Oregon I have shot at clays up in the mountains ( I haven’t shot clays in my life before then). Now I know that even though walking up and down on unstable ground for half the day, perched on the side of a mountain I can hit 90% of tossed 90 mm quail clays. Simply put: I now know that if someone is in my home and my BP is up and the stress is on – shooting down that straight and narrow hall (at what I now deem to be a huge target) will go favorably for me in the self defense department.

      Get outside and get rough. It pays off.

  3. I know that it looked for all the world that RF was doing pushups at the range, but I was there and can tell you that he was just practicing a new way to police his brass.

    BTW, we’ve all seen videos of 7-11 owners who were able to put bullets on target in the heat of battle with no training, and cops who couldn’t hit the ocean from the beach if their life depended on it. What does that tell us?

    First, to be sure of winning a gunfight, don’t get in one. Avoid, avoid, avoid. I don’t mean back down, roll over and play dead. I mean maintain awareness and be somewhere else when the trouble starts. We’re not cops, so we have that option.

    If that doesn’t work, treat it like a day at the range. Put bullets onto target faster than target puts bullets onto you, and don’t stop until the threat is over.

    Great training is absolutely great and will enhance skills and safety. That’s for damn sure. Unfortunately, people can’t learn to be brave and can’t learn to detach from the situation long enough to be calm or pissed or whatever it takes for them to undertake the ugly task of shooting into the body and head of another human being. They will, or they will not, and they won’t know which is which until and unless it happens. That’s my Yoda thought for today.

  4. Protip: don’t do pushups at your local range. There is lead dust on the floor which can be absorbed through your pores. I get enough lead from this job already that I don’t need to voluntarily get more.

  5. “Avoid, avoid, avoid.” is some of the best advise you can give someone. I know plenty of people who have carry permits and others who only keep their guns at home. NONE of these people want to get into a gun fight or shoot anyone, (even though the TROLLS believe that we’re all gunslingers looking for a fight) and I’m sure they’ll all agree (except for the TROLLS) with Ralph that you should do your best to AVOID a gunfight unless you have no other choice. I love guns and it’s fun to go to the range with your friends, but the last thing I ever want to do is shoot anyone.

    • Agreed – The phrase “You carry a hammer long enough and eventually you will find a nail” has no place at all in the mind of a person who carries a lethal weapon of any sort.

      Avoid the situation if at all possible is always the best course of action for me and my family. Can sting if I have to, but I would really have to be 2 minutes away from the possibility of death for that to happen.

      …Still it makes sense to train and become proficient with my firearm.

  6. RF said: “If you practice self-defense shooting at a range where you can’t do these drills, you need a new gun range.”

    And now back in the real world… I don’t know of one that allows even drawing from a holster, much less actually moving while firing. Maybe some of your Northern VA contributers could offer me a clue.

    • Bob:

      The only ranges close to me are your basic indoor shoot down the lane kind of place. The NRA range (50 yards) and Blue Ridge Arsenal (25) yards). The Quantico Gun Club is strictly long guns and you have to be connected to DoD, the IC or a Federal LEO to join. Clark Brothers in Warranton is like the Wild West of Ranges. It’s “free”. You just have to buy your ammo there.

  7. Don’t overlook the benefits or role playing, walk throughs, and visualization techniques.

    Think about the kinds of threats you might encounter – unknown home intruder at night, dirtbag rapidly approaching in the parking garage, etc. Then you and your buddy (or buddies/spouse/family) play out the scenario using practice weapons.

    The first time you try starting from the dark, getting out of bed, retreiving your weapon, and/or flashlight, checking on the kids, getting everyone into a safe room, working the cell phone, etc… I all but guarantee your heart will be pounding through your chest from the realization of just how bad it could be in real life. Have your spouse wake you up from a deep sleep and annouce a practice drill and it only gets worse.

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