This was written in response to a conversation on a forum I follow called Primary & Secondary, a webpage that focuses on firearms and expertise. The topic of the discussion was the dangers of people attending classes with ‘unusual’ training methods, specifically ones where people learn to shoot near classmates or from unstable positions. It’s dangerous as hell and the discussion prompted some thoughts that turned into the following article.
For those who don’t know me, I used to teach dance in college. I got into swing dancing to meet girls (it worked), and over the years I learned quite a bit of Latin and ballroom style. (FWIW: No man card should be considered stamped unless you know how to take a woman on a dance floor and make her feel like Ginger Rogers, fellahs.)
Something I noticed in both firearms instruction and dance classes is that people have a bad habit of not wanting to study the fundamentals. We all want to learn the cool, high-speed shit; we want to learn just enough basics that we can justify learning to do standing backflips.
It’s not so bad in the dance community, because being a skilled dancer isn’t considered ‘manly’ (and most wives are just happy if you show up and feign some enthusiasm). But on the shooting range, where we have a strong alpha mentality and egos on the field, there’s a strong temptation to make a dangerous lie: ‘I got it’– so you, and the rest of the class, can forge ahead to the next lesson plan. We’ve all done it, and we’ve all seen someone say ‘I’m fine’ when in fact, they’re saying ‘I’m too embarrassed to admit I need more practice here’.
This unfortunately can feed a mentality where we start to think fundamentals aren’t the most important part of any lesson plan. Because we spend so much time glossing over fundamentals, focusing on the drill instead of the components of success, people start to think ‘I’m not good at fundamentals, and they’re boring anyway. I’m just going to skip ahead to the next lesson’. So you see people trying to do Instructor Zero backflips or pull off Miculek-style speed shooting when they don’t even have the essentials of grip, posture, or trigger manipulation figured out yet.
How do I know this is what happens? Because I see the same cycle among people learning how to dance. They take a lesson or two and learn the basic step patterns. Then they find it’s not as impossible as they thought, and learn a turn or two. Then, usually after about the 10th lesson, you see them start doing Hollywood dancing– lots of inefficient shoulder movements, literally kicking heels up, looking away– all things that ‘look’ fancy, but actually make them substantially worse dancers, because they’ve stopped worrying about their fundamentals in exchange for trying to look cool.
On the dance floor, the risks are of course a bit lower (though I have seen a few dislocated elbows on soon-to-be-ex girlfriends after a bad turn technique). On the shooting range, the risks are immeasurably higher. If you take someone who hasn’t thoroughly mastered trigger discipline, putting them in a position where they could faceplant and have an ND is inviting disaster. Telling someone not to use their safety switch hugely increases the chances of them fumbling a loaded weapon and discharging it. Unless someone has turned their manual of arms into a reflex like breathing, where safety and operation are second-nature, these challenges do nothing to improve them as a shooter and invite tremendous, even needless risk into a training environment. There is no hard and fast line for when someone’s ready for this. It requires a truly exceptional, insightful teacher to look at someone and say ‘You’re ready to push your limits more’.
Unfortunately, the words so many people pay big money to hear is ‘Good enough– now let’s do something cool’.
Shooting sports, like many martial arts, tends to attract strong egos. Some are too impatient to learn fundamentals, too stubborn to admit they haven’t got them quite to a lock yet, or too arrogant to admit that fundamentals are more important than flashy showmanship.
Correcting this takes social pressures that resonate through the entire firearms community. We need to constantly, and at all levels, emphasize the mastery of fundamentals as the pinnacle of martial expertise. Grip, posture, trigger control. Everything else comes from this, and instead of building a skills pyramid from these fundamental tasks, we should consider all others skills as niches radiating out from this innermost circle of expertise. I’m not a great shooter, but I’m a very good coach, because literally all I focus on are fundamentals, and I’m good at recognizing the points of disconnect between the shooter and the platform. I was a very good dance instructor for the same reason– I can’t do the splits, but I can tell you why you and your girlfriend aren’t on the same beat.
I was very lucky early on in my career to get ‘serious’ about shooting, in that I found a phenomenal shooting coach, Zach Irwin. His credentials as a shooter are impressive, particularly because he’s largely self-taught. He’s a very humble person and nothing he ever tried to teach me was flashy or predicated on anything but making me the most efficient shooter I could be. I can’t do backflips, but I can draw and hit a target headbox in about 1.00 on demand at five yards–and of the two skills, that draw and hit is far more likely to save my life than ninja acrobatics. And I’ve never shot at or near any of my friends while on the range.
So there it is. I’m lucky enough not to think that every instructor should be Zero, or every lesson should be Miculek style 1000 yard shots. Lessons should be about reinforcing fundamentals and using them to build towards the objective of the day, and breaking down that big task (like an El Pres) into individual components (turn, draw, timing, reloads, transitions). I might not ever be a fancy shooter, but I feel very confident that I can go on the clock against anyone and not embarrass myself.