Firearm Practice on a Budget

posted on April 23, 2018

To become competent with your defensive handgun, you must practice. But, practice consumes money and time. Training courses are a way to maximize your time and money because they’re controlled and conducted under the watchful eye of a capable instructor. This is why Gunsite Academy has been in business more than 40 years. However, few of us have a week or $1,500-plus lying around to take advantage of what such a school offers.

There is an affordable option, however, one that can fill the gap until vacation and greenbacks become available. You can drastically improve your defensive-handgun skills by developing a budget practice plan, and most importantly, by sticking to it.

Here’s a practical approach that will consume about the same amount of time as a five-day course, but spread out over a year. From a financial standpoint, the expenditure is substantially less, too. You won’t learn as much or become as proficient, but considering that most people who take a five-day course rarely follow it up with frequent sustainment training, this system has merit because it keeps your finger on the trigger.

Keep good records of each training session. This is how to remember what you have done and how well you did it.

1. Self-Evaluation
First, you must make an honest evaluation of your skill level. You’re not trying to audition for a SWAT team, so the examination is rather simple and focuses on the basic/fundamental aspects of defensive-handgun application. If you’ve never fired a handgun, this system is not for you. If you’ve received basic firearm training, understand how to operate your handgun and are fluent with the tenets of firearms safety, then you can use this system to improve your skills.

You’re going to need a shot timer and you can pick one up for about a hundred bucks (free app versions are not ideal for this type of training). You’ll also need about 50 rounds of ammunition. Targets are simple—just take a sheet of notebook paper and color in a 5-inch circle. You can use an old CD as a template or make and print one with your computer.

The drill evaluates your ability to engage a target from the holster multiple times and to conduct a reload. Run the drill five times to establish an average. Here’s how it works. Place a threat target with a 5-inch circle positioned center mass at 5 yards. On signal, draw from concealment and engage the target/circle with five shots, conduct a reload and engage the same target/circle with five more shots.

The fact of the matter is, when it comes time to fight, getting your handgun out and getting hits fast is what it all boils down to. Sure, there’s a lot more to mastering the defensive handgun. But, if you cannot get it into action and get hits on target fast, not much of the other stuff really matters.

The most-important step is next—where you determine your strengths and weaknesses. Look at the target. If you hit the circle 10 out of 10 times, you don’t need to work on accuracy. In fact, if you can put eight out of 10 shots into the 5-inch circle, you clearly comprehend sight alignment and trigger control.

Now look at your times. If your first shot was on target within 2 seconds, your draw speed is decent. If it took longer than that to get your first hit, presenting your handgun from concealment is something you need to work on.

If your split times (the times between your shots) average about six-tenths of a second or less, you can be proud of that—especially if your hit percentage on the 5-inch circle was 80 percent or better. These split times measure your ability to deliver accurate sustained fire. Higher split times mean you need to practice sustained fire.

Finally, look at the time between your fifth and sixth shot. This is how long it took you to reload your handgun. You should be able to reload a semi-automatic pistol in less than 3 seconds. If you cannot, then you’ve identified another area where you need to practice.

It’s also not a bad idea to score each run through the drill. To do this, multiply the number of hits by 10 and subtract the total time. A par score would be 90, and perfect would be 100. Since you can’t complete the drill in zero seconds, perfection is impossible.

Now, you want to address each weakness through a series of live- and dry-practice drills. In a five-day class, these would consume about 40 hours of your time. We want to spend that same amount of time practicing, but we want to spread it out over a year. We’ll do this with one 30-minute live-fire training session each month, and four, 10-minute dry-fire training sessions each week.

Look at the example score sheet. It shows an average draw time of 3.02 seconds. That’s clearly over par and something needing work. The average reload time is a bit slow, too. Some practice here is definitely in order. The average number of hits was eight. That’s not too bad, particularly considering it was noted that most misses were low left—which typically means the shooter was slapping the trigger, tightening the grip or breaking the wrist. This gives you something to focus on during training. As for the split time, an average of .727 is only a tenth of a second higher than par. These times will most likely improve as you progress through the program.

2. Dry-Fire Training

During any dry-fire training, you need to seclude yourself in a location where you can safely point your unloaded handgun and press the trigger, and where there’s no live ammunition present. You only need 10 minutes of seclusion, four days a week, so turn your cell phone off, lock the door and concentrate.

If accuracy is where you’re struggling, forgo the draw and concentrate on a slow trigger press while maintaining a good sight picture. Practicing for multiple shots out of recoil—improving split times—is a bit harder to do during dry-fire training, so that’s generally best left for live fire. However, as trigger skills improve, typically so do split times. Dry firing will help.

(l.) Instinctively activated lasers, like this one from Crimson Trace, can enhance your dry-fire training. (r.)Laser devices that insert into the chamber of your handgun can help with dry-fire training, whether you are using a laser target or just a spot on the wall.

To address a slow draw speed, you’ll want to practice your draw, finishing with a single trigger press, while maintaining a good sight picture on the target. Remember to do this wearing a cover garment. This will condition you to sweep the shirt, vest or jacket out of the way when drawing your pistol. Use the par-time feature on the shot timer. Set it for about 2.0 or 2.5 seconds—depending on your evaluation—and attempt to complete the draw and trigger press before the buzzer sounds. Reduce what constitutes the par time as you improve.

If reloading is where you’re struggling, you’ll need some dummy rounds for your magazines or speed loaders. Point the unloaded handgun at the target, press the trigger, conduct a reload and then make another deliberate trigger press on target. You can use the par-time feature again to set a goal, but your focus should be on form—as your form improves, your speed will, as well.

(l.) Trigger manipulation, in conjunction with sight alignment, is the key to accurate shooting. Both can be practiced during dry-fire sessions. (r.) To conduct dry-fire practice that will improve your skill at reloading you must have some dummy rounds handy.

Let’s assume you’re not very skilled at any of these aspects of defensive-handgun shooting. If that’s the case, start with accuracy and worry about drawing your handgun and conducting reloads once your live-fire sessions result in improvement in your ability to get hits. You’ve got 12 months to work through this, so take your time; don’t try to fix all the skills at which you stink at once.

3. Live-Fire Shooting
To conduct live-fire practice, you’ll need 100 rounds of ammo per month. That totals 1,200 rounds or about $360 a year. After a month of four-nights-a-week dry-fire training, head to the range. While there, practice the same skills you’ve been practicing during dry-fire training. Use no more than 70 rounds for this. Once that’s complete, conduct the evaluation drill three times to establish an average. Then, compare the results—specifically the results associated with the particular facet of defensive-handgun application you’ve been working on—with your initial evaluation.

(l.) You don’t need high-tech or expensive steel targets to train with a defensive handgun. A simple 5-inch circle painted or colored on a target is just fine. (r.) Don’t overlook the importance of practicing like you carry. If you cannot efficiently draw your pistol, you cannot rely on it in a fight.

Keep good records of your progress. You’ll want to jot down times, make notes, etc. during each live-fire session, so you’ll know what to work on during the following month’s dry-fire practice sessions. At year’s end, you’ll have a reasonably comprehensive look at your progress in your ability to draw your handgun and get a hit, how well you can get sustained hits and how well you can conduct a reload.

Your ultimate goal should be to complete the drill managing 10 hits in less than 10 seconds. If you can do that, it doesn’t mean you’re John Wick, but it does mean you can manage a defensive handgun better than the overwhelming majority of Americans, including a great many who get paid to carry a firearm. In other words, it means you’re on the better side of average.

(l.) Learn to reload your handgun swiftly. It is how you stay in the fight after you have shot your pistol dry or have a stoppage. (r.) Establishing and maintaining the proper sight picture through the trigger press is the underlying secret to hitting your target.

4. Use Practice Tools

At the end of the year, you should have improved a great deal. All told, you’ll have spent only about $500 and 40 hours of your time. Granted, you’ll not have learned all the stuff you would’ve learned at a course like Gunsite Academy’s 250 Pistol. You’ll not have learned how to pie a corner, make tactical turns, deal with multiple threats, clear stoppages…the list goes on. What you will have learned is how to draw your handgun and deliver accurate, repetitive fire to center mass on a threat target.

If the world around you deteriorates to the point you need to resort to gunfire, those are invaluable skills to have. If your budget is a little larger, here are some cool tools to help with the process.

a. Instinctively Activated Laser Sights
Not only can an instinctively activated laser sight be a tremendous advantage during a self-defense encounter, it can also be a great training aid. When you’re conducting dry-fire accuracy exercises, watch the laser on the target for movement during your trigger press. The laser also helps with your draw stroke by showing where you initially point your handgun as you present it to the target. Crimson Trace Lasergrips and Laserguards sell for between $199 and $369;

With the MantisX training device and smartphone APP you can keep track of how well you pull the trigger from training session to training session.

b. MantisX

A relatively new training device is the MantisX. This device mounts to your handgun’s accessory rail and senses the movement of your handgun immediately prior to trigger break/hammer fall. By doing so, it can graph this movement as it relates to your point-of-aim. The cool part is it transmits that data to your smartphone, making it easy to comprehend and store. The app even has a feature to help diagnose shooter error. The MantisX can be used for dry or live fire. It retails for $149.99;

Laser-training devices provide verifiable feedback to dry-fire practice.

c. LaserLyte Laser Target
LaserLyte manufacturers a variety of laser-sensitive targets that will record hits from a special inert laser pistol or laser inserts that fit inside the barrel of your handgun. Though you might think it more of a gallery game, I conducted a test with my wife and son to see how beneficial it might be. I had them establish their accuracy skill level by firing three, five-shot groups at 7 yards. For the next five days, they conducted a minimum of 25 trigger presses per night using the Laser Target. On the sixth day, they conducted the same live-fire test. Their accuracy improved by an average of 37 percent. Regardless of how you feel about laser-training devices, they can make you more accurate. MSRP: $109.95 to $349.95;

Practice is Not a Substitute for Training
Training and practice are not the same thing. When training, you’re learning something new. When practicing, you’re increasing your ability to perform the things you’ve learned. Practice is not a substitute for training, but it’s necessary to maintain and improve skills.

What a bargain-practice program like this can do is help you develop and maintain basic skills until you can take a suitable course. It should leave you ample time to help the kids with their homework while not breaking the bank. It might even help you save enough money to get to Gunsite sooner than you think. Hell, it might even save your life.


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