Self-Defense Lessons from Concealed Handgun Carry Course

This article originally appeared on the Defend University web site and detailed a number of items which apply to everyone carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense from an instructional module in a high level executive protection course.

This particular course had representatives from the military, law enforcement and the security industry. There was also a very skilled martial artist taking the course as a way to get into the executive protection business.  Many of the students have experience at the highest level of the special warfare and special forces business.

The lessons learned by the experiences that happened during this course are the same that instructors will see time and time again — and they have direct applications for any one carrying a handgun for self-defense or for the defense of others. What this class presented to these students was a good dose of stress (much of it probably self-inflicted since they wanted to pass the shooting module to graduate from the course), movement and drawing from concealment.

My observations:

  1. Shooting a handgun quickly and accurately involves perishable skills.  All of the mechanics that go into smooth, effective and accurate handgun shooting are fine motor skills — and that means they don’t hold up well over time without practice.  I witnessed operators with world-class experience right out of the hottest combat zones having a difficult time presenting and shooting their handguns well. I’m not saying they were terrible — they were adequate, but I could tell visually that there was a lot of rust in their technique and it was not what you would expect from this strata of operators. Their comments to me indicated they were not happy with their performance. The comments were not so much an excuse, but more of an explanation like “sheesh, I’ve not really shot my handgun in the last 18 months” or a lot of head shaking and muttering under their breath. It’s obvious there was room for improvement. (To be fair here, it’s a whole different story with other courses I’ve done with active military personnel that involve carbines. Obviously, the M4 is their sword and the one that they spend their time shooting and not handguns.) All of the students’ targets improved significantly as the course went on, some from getting back into the groove of their potential skill level and other because they were benefitting from the instruction and coaching.
  2. Shooting is not a natural behavior. It’s a skill that requires putting together multiple actions over a short period of time. There is a grip, presentation, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger press and follow through. Then there are other aspects like ammunition management and the re-holster. That’s a lot of thoughts and actions in what should be a simple sequence. It’s a bit like golf in that regard. To become a superior golfer, you need instruction. To become a superior gunfighter, you need instruction. Practice and then get more coaching. Practice what you’ve been coached on. The most proficient shooters where those who have been taught an efficient drawstroke and delivery of rounds on target. They have practiced and can smoothly repeat the action over and over again. The self-taught and uncoached students were inconsistent and seemed to be searching for an answer to their inconsistency during the course. This second group of students did benefit significantly from the instruction (my point in #1 above), but they were still outshown by those who had good technique to begin with.
  3. Practice with your concealment equipment. This is probably the number one problem I observed during this course. A good number of the students have not regularly shot from concealment. Police officers and military members are almost always overtly armed and carry a duty rig that is configured the same all the time. Security personnel and citizens almost always do their shooting on the range. But carrying covertly or concealed means you will have some sort of garment covering your holster. In fact, many people carry a different type or sized handgun for concealment than they do for duty or the range. Many people then use a different type of holster for concealed carry than they do for duty, range or competition. Let’s look at this — shoot all the time on the range with one handgun and one holster on a belt, but now carry a different handgun in a different holster under a garment for self-defense. See where I’m going with this? I saw some serious flubs on draws caused by unfamiliarity with the concealed carry. I saw draws that got tangled up in shirttails. I saw two students fumbling with the safeties and magazine release buttons on unfamiliar pistols. I saw a student literally draw his holster — his paddle-style holster was still attached to the pistol when he drew it. It had come right out of his waistband. I also talked with one operator who carried a compact .45 semi-concealed on his plate carrier in Afghanistan only to find out one day that it had become rusted sometime during his deployment. Practice with what you are going to carry. Shake down your set up. Does it work? Does it work under stress? You should probably rethink your handgun system. Instead of having different types of handguns for different activities, take a look at having the same handgun in different sizes, i.e. duty, compact and subcompact. For Glock people that could mean a Glock 17 full-sized handgun for duty or range; a Glock 19 compact model for concealed carry or a Glock 26 subcompact model for deep concealed carry. In this example all of the models use the same caliber (9mm) and are the same size with the exception of shorter barrels and grips for the compact and subcompact models. If you are a .40 caliber fan, then you could repeat this system with a Glock 22 full-sized handgun for duty, a Glock 23 compact for concealment and a Glock 27 subcompact. Staying with one handgun system means the same manual of arms, the same sight picture and the same “feel” for all of the handguns.

Your super-stressful self-defense incident should not be the time to be figuring out your equipment. It should not be the time to find out that you haven’t kept up your skills.

There will be no warm up.

You will not have time to get ready — you will have to be ready.

Train like your life depends on it.

Review: Speed Marksmanship with J.J. Racaza

TSG signed up to take a course with J.J. Racaza called Speed Marksmanship held at the Clark County shooting facility in Las Vegas. Some of you might know the name from the television series “Top Shot” and some of you might know his name from the competition world.

J.J. Racaza instructing students at Speed Marksmanship shooting class.
J.J. Racaza instructing students at Speed Marksmanship shooting class.

But what most don’t know is that he has spent a substantial part of his career dedicated to the Department of Homeland Security in operating and training.

That combination of competition and practical firearms perspective made this course extremely interesting.

First things first: this a high-level class. It is not for beginners. The subtle concepts will be lost on those who have not attained an advanced level of skill. Seriously — if you are not willing to explore the advanced concepts of trigger control for 6 hours, this is not the class for you.

The exciting aspect of this course was the focus on breaking through the “normal” concepts of shooting and give you a doorway into the physical and mental aspects of the world’s fastest competitive shooters. It is designed to ruthlessly push your boundaries and force you onto a whole new level of shooting. And J.J. does this in a really, really engaging way.

That being said, J.J. emphasized the “marksmanship” aspect of the course title. It doesn’t matter how fast you are shooting if you are not hitting your target. He reinforced this concept during some of the competitive challenges during the course — only the times with hits were counted. In other words, students with extremely fast misses were disqualified leaving slower students who achieved hits as winners.

Here is a video from the course showing J.J. coaching Brad. The goal of the drill is to increase the speed of the shot transitioning from the near paper target to the far steel target.

As you can see, J.J. is saying Brad had a “delayed press” on the first string. He is coaching him to begin prepping the trigger even as he transitions from the paper target to the steel one about 15 yards beyond. The coaching yields a dramatically improved time for the second string.

Speed Marksmanship Course Concepts

  1. The fundamentals mastered.
  2. Trigger control.
  3. Presentation.
  4. Target transitions.

Class Pros and Cons

These are impressions coming from our experience for one particular day.  Remember that variables such as a different day, a different location or a different group of students can have an effect on the course experience for you. In other words, your mileage might vary.  Also take into account the yin/yang aspect of a positive aspect creating a corresponding negative aspect. Increased personal attention and coaching = pro. The corresponding drag on the rest of the class = con.  You decide what’s more important to you.

Pros

  • J.J. has an engaging personality and his teaching method is a good blend of friendly and firm. He’s the type of instructor who pushes you in a way that makes you want to perform.
  • Surprising amount of personal coaching and one-on-one time.
  • The concepts are extremely advanced which challenge you.
  • Instructor who DOES what he is teaching.  J.J. demonstrates the concepts giving you concrete examples for some very esoteric information. Demonstrating the drills and the concepts at a very, very high level also reinforces the credibility of the instructor. In this case, J.J. makes most of it look easy.  When he pushes himself towards the upper limits of his own speed, you start to see his accuracy degrading — just like students experience.  In business leadership, this expression of vulnerability (J.J. showing us he is human as he begins to “fail”) establishes trust among the group.
  • The concepts are measured. The shot timer is out and used religiously giving students a very real barometer of performance. This is important because some of the methods, particularly for transitions between targets, are perceived to be “slower”, yet the timer proves they are actually faster.
  • Friendly competition and making a game out of the drills adds to the fun and keeps interest.

Cons

  • The length of the course might challenge your concentration and attention for a skill  that demands concentration and attention.
  • The personal coaching time for individual students leaves the rest of the group with some down time. This is great for reloading magazines, hydrating, snacking. But it can make the overall course tempo feel somewhat slower — particularly later in the evening.

Cost

$250 for 9 hours of instruction and training.  Expect to shoot about 500 rounds.

Check out more background on J.J. in the video below:

Self-Defense Shooting Techniques for Low Light or No Light Scenarios

Chances are, your self-defense shooting will take place in an area where there is either low light or no light.

The estimates of shootings that happen in the dark range from 60% to an incredible 90%. I’m always leery of statistics because slight changes in methodology can have huge effects on the final results and the results are often skewed by what the party might be selling.
But, there is a preponderance of weight to the evidence suggesting that your self-defense shooting will most likely NOT be on the range during bright daylight hours (where we always practice). It will most likely be in your home at night, on the street when the vampires are out, in a parking garage or other dimly lit and dark areas frequented by predatory criminals.

Here’s a quick video with some of the highlights of self-defense shooting techniques in low light scenarios or in the total darkness:

There are numerous issues to deal with when engaging in this very neglected area of training:

  • First and foremost, we almost never train in the dark. That’s a bit of a problem — we rarely practice the very scenario we are most likely to face.
  • We gather 80% of our information visually. Anything that interferes with our sight has a huge impact on our performance.
  • Most of us are not used to manipulating our firearms in the dark or without looking at them.
  • Perceptions of time and space are affected by the lack of light or different kinds of lighting.
  • There is a natural fear of the dark that can distort your perception of the threat and play tricks on what you think you see and hear.
  • Perhaps most importantly, low light often makes target identification difficult or impossible.

Your Obligation to Identify Targets in the Dark

You have a legal and moral obligation to positively identify your target before you shoot. Shooting at sounds and fleeting shadows without knowing exactly who or what you are shooting is a disaster waiting to happen. This is where you hear the stories of the homeowners accidentally killing the drunk brother-in-law or the teenager trying to sneak in after curfew.

To avoid this legal and moral problem you need to know the difference between “sighted fire” and “lighted fire”:

  1. Sighted fire is what you normally use when you get a sight picture and align the sights on the target.  It can also include sighting with lit optical scopes, night sights (sights that glow-in-the-dark) or with lasers that project a dot.
  2. Lighted fire is what you need in a low-light or no-light situations where you must use an ancillary light source or a light source you’ve brought.  These can be weapon-mounted white lights or, more commonly, a flashlight (a ‘torch’ for our UK cousins) .

The sighting devices in #1 can all make it easier to deliver more accurate shots in the dark. But none of them address the problem of positively identifying your target. Even though EOTechs, Aimpoints and other lit-reticle optical sights, night sights and lasers are great at lining up your sights at night, they do not light up the target so you can tell who you are training your firearm on.

This is where you need to have a light. Seriously, if you have a firearm for self-defense you need to have a way to project a light onto your target to make a positive identification. The flashlight/torch or weapon light is a must:

  • It provides target I.D.;
  • It provides the light needed to line up your sights;
  • It can be used to startle and temporarily “blind” an adversary (by affecting their night vision);
  • It can be used to deceive an adversary of your location or movement by flashing or ‘wanding’ the light;
  • It solves the front/back lighting problems described below when using ambient light.

The flashlight also has utility as a tool:

  • It can be used as an impact weapon (providing you with a less than lethal force option).
  • It can be used as an attention-getting or signaling tool.
  • It can be used for way-finding or guiding others.

The Two Sides of Ambient Light

When you take a look at the video above, you’ll see a number of scenarios which rely on using ambient light.  One is using the illumination of car headlights and another which uses just the light from vehicle emergency flashers.  In these scenarios, you are using the lights from behind you to front light the target. Unfortunately, when your adversary is front lit like this you are back lit. Ambient light is like a coin with two sides — when you have one side your adversary has the other side. What you don’t see in the video is a scenario in which the targets are back lit, meaning you are front lit. Your training needs to address both sides of this ambient light coin so you can use the light — whether it be from the front or the back — to your advantage. This is crucial since it is often impossible to see your dark sights against the dark silhouette of your back lit target.

As I mentioned, the use of your flashlight can overpower either of these two types of ambient light giving you the advantage regardless of which position you are in. If he is front lit and you are back lit (the source of light is at your back like the headlight scenario in the video) your flashlight can now be used to provide a “wall of light” that originates in front of your body which masks your silhouette created by light at your back. Of course your flashlight also provides a bright front light on your target making I.D. possible and allows you to line up your sights.

 Weapon-Mounted Lights vs. Hand-Held Lights

You can either use a flashlight or a light already attached to your firearm to illuminate your target. There are pros and cons for both.

When you use a flashlight:

  • They are more readily available;
  • They are less expensive than a weapon-mounted light;
  • You have a impact weapon that you can use as an intermediate level of force tool;
  • You don’t have to point your weapon to search;
  • You can use different holds and methods for illuminating targets, rooms and pathways.
  • Any hold you make on your firearm with a flashlight is less stable than a two-hand hold;
  • They make weapon manipulation (administrative loading, reloading, malfunction remediation) more difficult since both hands are now occupied;
  • You are limited in ways to do things like open doors or use your cell phone;
  • It is very difficult to use one with a long gun.

When you use a weapon-mounted light:

  • They are always with your firearm;
  • You can manipulate the light with either your dominant hand or your support hand;
  • You can use your standard two-handed grip on the firearm;
  • You can still have your light on the target and keep your support arm free for defending against strikes, manipulating objects, opening doors, using your cell phone, etc.
  • Reloads and other weapon manipulations are “normal”;
  • You are muzzling everything at which you point your light;
  • Any intermediate force strikes will need to be done with your firearm and not just your light.

As you can tell from this post, this is an area which demands much attention, yet we almost always neglect it by virtue of training in the light.

Bottom line: you must become familiar with this subject for your self-defense. You must train in the environments you are likely to encounter.

Train like your life depends on it.

This post has been revised and updated since if first appeared on the Defend University website.