There’s no substitute for professional training, but there’s a lot you can do to keep your skills fresh when school’s not in session.
We’ll repeat again, for emphasis: There’s no substitute for professional training. Receiving quality instruction from knowledgeable teachers is, hands down, the best way to instill the proper mindset and critical skills vital for self-defense. Period. Full Stop. Learning how to do things right the first time will save far more over your shooting lifetime than winging it and doing it wrong.
But in the real world, there’s any number of reasons (some, like our own Sheriff Jim Wilson, would say excuses) why you can’t receive that instruction as often as you’d like. Sure, there’s expense—maybe the CFO in the family can’t spare the cash for tuition, air fare, hotel and ammo this year. Equally precious is time: at a minimum, a training session is going to last an entire weekend, necessitating putting off the honey-do list and missing the baseball games, scouting trips and other family commitments we relegate to our “free” time.
Whatever the reason, most of us don’t have the means or time to attend a professional training session every month. This doesn’t mean you can’t be training; far from it. There are many options available for training in the privacy of your own home, at night or whenever you have a spare moment. What follows is hardly an all-encompassing list of options, but simply ideas for developing your own training curriculum in between professional tutelage.
A caveat for safety’s sake: A good rule of thumb for safe dry-fire practice is to dedicate one room or area solely to dry fire. Remove all live ammunition from this area and have a safe direction to aim when dry firing. Placing a piece of armor plating, thick steel or a commercial, reinforced aiming point will add to the overall safety of your practice. And, above all, remember Rule One: All firearms are always loaded. Even when you think you’re ready to start dry firing safely, check once more.
The simplest, cheapest training we can perform is dry firing. Safety is always paramount, so make sure the pistol is unloaded (ideally use snap-caps or other such inert rounds) and aimed in a safe direction. Practice the fundamentals of good trigger discipline and a successful trigger pull with your preferred self-defense firearm—look to the “Skills Check” and “The Fix” columns in Shooting Illustrated for tips on perfecting your technique.
But dry firing is boring. Click. Click click click click click. After a couple dozen times of hearing that click, you’re ready to move on to the next administrative task, something more engaging like dusting off the reloading bench or cleaning the 10/22. When a routine doesn’t hold our attention we lose interest and stop doing it; that’s basic human nature. So make it more engaging—rather than a snap cap, toss in a laser chamber insert and aim for a laser training target. Focus on that perfect trigger press with a clean break and minimal movement, and be rewarded with a bullseye.
Take advantage of the numerous laser training devices and software systems to make dry-fire sessions more productive. LaserLyte makes a number of different training targets specifically for this task. From the company’s Training Tyme Target that scores your hits to the fun Plinkin’ Cans (laser-activated plastic cans that tip over when hit), there’s something from LaserLyte to make your in-home training fun. The SIRT system from Next Level Training offers a familiar polymer-frame practice pistol that utilizes a dual-laser system: one laser is activated when pressure is placed on the trigger, the other laser flashes when the shot breaks. Training should ensure the first laser is always on and stays in one place throughout the shot so the second laser dot (the “shot”) hits the intended target.
It’s a technologically advanced take on the “penny on the slide” trick: to check that your trigger pull is consistent, balance a penny on the top of your pistol’s slide (or revolver’s barrel). Throughout the entire trigger pull, strive to keep the pull even enough that the penny does not fall off the slide. Another way to perform this drill is by way of a laser sight—aim the laser at a defined point, then observe movement as you pull the trigger. Train to keep that dot in as small of an area as you possibly can throughout your dry-fire practice.
Study at Home
There’s still more you can do in the privacy of your own home. Read through those back issues of Shooting Illustrated and run through the “Skills Check” drills. Work on the proper trigger press with the Wall Drill and others in “The Fix.” As you practice your dry-fire drills, make use of many instructional videos available either as stand-alone pieces or offered on YouTube. There has never been a better time for learning at your own pace than right now, with many technological opportunities available.
Obviously, vetting your sources is important, but that goes the same for a physical training course with which you are unfamiliar. Without a frame of reference—recommendations from friends and other shooters, reviews from trusted sources or other support—it can be challenging to separate good, quality instruction from the latest fad. Look for videos produced by known trainers and institutions, and/or in conjunction with industry partners. SIG Sauer Academy, Gunsite and other top-shelf training institutions have YouTube channels and instructional videos direct from their websites.
One treasure trove of video resources is the “Make Ready” series from Panteao Productions. This series covers a wide range of subjects, from dry-fire practice to armorer skills and everything in between. Subjects are covered by recognized experts in the field, with instructors like Mas Ayoob, Paul Howe, Louis Awerbuck and Pat Rogers holding court in their areas of expertise. Seminars are also available for a fee through Panteao’s website (panteao.com) for live streaming, so you can watch one whenever you have internet access.
After viewing a training video, try combining dry-fire exercises with the skills you’ve just seen. View the drill once or twice (or as often as you need to fully understand and integrate the motions and direction), then put everything into practice with your (cleared and safe) firearm. Watch, practice and repeat as needed until the drill has been committed to memory. Refresh as needed, and keep these specific drills in mind when you can get to a live-fire range.
Another source of in-home training is no farther than your smartphone. Many different apps exist to help fine-tune your shooting skills, from simple shot-timers to specific dry-practice apps that provide countdown timers and signals for starting and stopping. Practicing in your sanctuary with dry fire means you don’t have to listen for beeps and starting signals over the chaos and noise of a traditional firing line.
There’s no reason that you can’t run some live-fire drills as part of your personal tutorial. Dry fire at home, train with instructional videos until you’ve mastered the basics, then hit your local range to put everything into practice with your firearm and live ammo. Every range is different, and not all ranges allow shooters to perform certain actions (shooting on the move or drawing from a holster come to mind immediately), so be sure to check with your local range safety officers first.
Even in ranges with restrictions, live-fire exercises can be executed and bring your training to the next level. Dry firing at home builds the proper skills needed for a perfect trigger press, but doesn’t include the recoil—specifically, the anticipation of recoil—that messes with how you shoot on the firing line. Quite often, that perfect sight picture and textbook trigger press can turn into a jerky mess when your brain realizes loud noise and violent motion are imminent. If for no other reason than to reduce that flinching reflex, getting to a live range and sending rounds downrange is valuable. Plus, little beats “recoil therapy.”
Most modern ranges will have some form of “active” target. Even if it’s as simple as a target that turns to face you at random intervals, having that uncertainty in your training regimen provides a powerful learning tool. Standing at a static firing line and shooting at a paper target that never moves will help build fundamental skills, but it lacks the stress of real-life encounters. Having a means of introducing a dynamic event—even if it’s just a target turning 90 degrees to face you—will assist your training greatly in teaching you how you react to sudden changes.
Whether you’re shooting at a standard B-2 pistol target, silhouette or the latest and greatest computer-generated zombie target, remember the videos you’ve watched and drills you have practiced at home. Focus on putting those skills to work while on the firing line, but start slowly. The important thing is to perform everything properly—get the technique right before you speed things up. Remember the adage: Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. Practice doing everything right; once you’re putting everything into practice correctly you can start pushing down on the accelerator.
Human beings are amazingly competitive creatures. It’s the reason sporting events are hugely popular—there’s something hardwired in our brains that makes us want to choose sides. Adding some form of competition to your training will dramatically improve your reaction times and attention to details. It’s also a lot of fun. Whether it’s a friendly “grudge” match at your local range with a shooting buddy, a dueling tree at an informal range or a bowling-pin shoot at the local gun club, introducing the element of competition will help hone skills in ways static shooting cannot.
The first time I shot with a timer I was at Smith & Wesson Academy for the release of the Bodyguard series. We were given scenarios taken from the Backup Gun National competition to run through with the Bodyguard in .380 ACP as well as the .38 Spl. revolver. Literally nothing had ever prepared me for the rush of adrenaline when I heard the beep of the shot timer propelling me into action. Later in the schedule was a “friendly” competition among the gunwriters, and the drive to do well (okay, in my case, it was a desire to not come in last…) does interesting things to fine motor skills.
Going head-to-head with other shooters introduces stress, time constraints and the need for accuracy. “Good enough” isn’t—not when your shooting is scrutinized and scored. Deficiencies in your practice regimen can be more easily identified, and areas needing further practice or study become instantly apparent. If you haven’t been practicing your reloads, you’ll know it when the clock ticks ever on and your score drops while you fumble with a reload.
Putting your skills up against other skilled shooters is arguably the best test of how you’ll perform in a real-world scenario. The rush of adrenaline brought on by the competitive spirit is certainly different than the fight-or-flight response to danger, but it’s the closest approximation we are likely to face as civilian shooters. Going up against a clock and being scored on our accuracy forces us to admit that both speed and precision are necessary components of our training regimen. There’s a reason clichés like “You can’t miss fast enough” and “There is no second place in a gunfight” exist.
Because we think it’s so important, it’s worth saying again: There’s no substitute for professional training. All of the tips above are meant as a supplement to regular, quality training provided by established instructors. The single-best thing you can do to improve your shooting—pistol, carbine, shotgun or long-range—is to take regular training classes with qualified professionals.
I fell victim to the “self-taught” mentality for many years, and my time on the range only reinforced the bad habits I’d taught myself. It is much harder to “untrain” years of bad habits than to learn how to do things properly the first time, and if I were to sit down and add up the monetary cost of rounds I’ve expended practicing the wrong way, chances are I’d have spent enough for several trips to a quality training course.