Timers, Competition, and Self-Defense, part I…

Recently, John Wallace at Midwest Tactical Solutions has written a series of articles titled “Things to Consider Before Chasing the Timer“.  In it, he discusses some aspects of practice that many people ignore, such as the size and composition of training targets, movement, cover, and target discrimination.  It got me to thinking, particularly as he used a quote from me in his discussion of cover, to wit:  “Thomas Howard of Precision Response Training recently told me, “If there is one thing competition shooters suck at, its using cover.” Since he is way better at and more into competitive shooting than me, I’ll trust his judgement on this.”

I completely agree with him in his contention that 1) many people practice on static targets of ridiculous size, 2) without practicing shooting on the move, 3) without use of cover, and 4) without even elementary factors in terms of target discrimination.  (I’d actually frame it more strongly and simply say that most people don’t practice, period.  And many of the ones that do go to the range do not “practice” in any way that resembles the meaning that I would give to the term.  Going out and plinking a bit is not practice.  It may be fun, but it isn’t practice.)

That being said—I’d like to comment a bit on some of the things John said, and give a different perspective.  John is coming from a background/viewpoint that regards shooting as a combat act, particularly with respect to the rifle and carbine classes that he teaches.  When I was at the skillbuilder seminar where I gave John that quote regarding competition, in return John talked about the fact that his focus is on tactics applicable to combat.

And while I believe that combat skills and tactics are applicable to self-defense training, I believe that there are just as many differences between combat skills and SD training as there are between competition skills and SD training.  Which, I’ll note, is why I’m perfectly good with people learning both combat skills and competition skills on their way to becoming competent at self-defense.

This isn’t to say that I think that either combat skills or competition skills (or a combination thereof) actually cover the full range of specific skills most important to citizen self-defense—I don’t.  There is, however, overlap in both cases.  (In a later post I’ll talk about what self-defense skills are lacking in both the combat skillset and the competition skillset.)

In the third part of his series, John talks about use of cover, and how competition shooters are really bad at it.  (Which they are, for the most part.)  He, quite rightly, discusses how cover can make a significant difference in your ability to stay alive in combat, talks about some ways to practice it, and lists some very good things to keep in mind.

Tanish Hanish, Team FNHAt the same time, I think that his commentary regarding competition shooter’s use of cover is a bit overly simplistic. He shows a picture of a competition shooter (Tasha Hanish) firing around a barricade with most of her body visible from downrange and with the muzzle of her rifle past the barrier, and asks “How many bad training habits being built can you spot in the pic below?”

My answer to that is:  It depends.  Do you normally use effective cover when you play baseball?  How about basketball?  Why would you then use or practice it in any other type of sport in which it has no value?  So why would you critically analyze someone’s actions in a sport in light of requirements that don’t exist in that sport?

How about putting it another way:  In slow-pitch softball, do we criticize the pitcher for not having a fast overhand cast?  No?  Why not?  Because that isn’t what the sport is about, and using one set of requirements to criticize someone operating under different ones doesn’t make sense.  Do you think that the pitcher CAN’T perform a fast overhand cast, just because we don’t see her doing it in a slow-pitch game?

In competition shooting (specifically, in USPSA and Multigun), there is no emphasis whatsoever on use of cover.  (In IDPA there is, and whether or not that is useful is an argument for a different day.)  As such, any wall, port, door, window, barricade, etc, is merely treated as a vision block where the competitor attempts to (within the fault lines) get their sights on target and get good hits as soon as possible.  For those sports, practicing using cover in a way applicable to combat or self-defense simply isn’t necessary, and wastes time.  As such, competitors, when practicing their sports, don’t do it.  (Just like slow-pitch softball pitchers don’t practice their curveball.)

And so, my quote was quite true:   “If there is one thing competition shooters suck at, its using cover.”   However, I should have added a followup comment, which is:  “Just like anyone else who hasn’t practiced using cover.

Most people HAVEN’T practiced using cover.  As such, they will suck just as badly as many competition shooters.

I, for example, suck at using cover when operating a carbine in the outdoors.  About the only time I shoot carbine is for local multigun matches, and since cover isn’t an applicable concept for those, I don’t practice using cover at all with a carbine.  As such, I suck just as much as any other person who hasn’t practiced using cover.

That being said, since I’m a lot more comfortable with my carbine than most people, can move it around easily, know how to handle it under a number of circumstances, and have shot it under stress while keeping my stage plan in mind—I’m pretty sure that if I actually took the time to practice use of cover with a carbine, I’d pick it up pretty quickly.

In contrast, I’m really good at using cover when I’m operating with a pistol–even though USPSA pistol competitions don’t use cover at all, nor is it a concept that has any value in that particular sport.  (You’ll never see me do it in a competition, at all.)  And yet—I do it well enough to teach it to others.

Why is that?  Because oddly enough, just because one is a competition shooter, doesn’t mean that one is ONLY a competition shooter.  (I’m not sure why, but many people think that shooters can only pick one training track–either you are a “tactical shooter” or a “competition shooter”—which is ridiculous.)  I have spent significant amounts of time practicing competition skills with a handgun.  I have also spent significant amounts of time practicing self-defense skills with a handgun.

Oddly enough, when I’m on a stage with an RO giving me range commands, waiting for a timer to start the stage, I have no problem focusing on a set of competition skills.  And yet, when in a self-defense situation (in which, oddly enough, I don’t expect to hear a timer go off) I have no problem using skills appropriate to the situation.  Why is that?  Because I practice those, too.

John says:  “I also see competition shooters who think they are using cover, but are actually WAY overexposed, flagging their weapons beyond corners, through windows, hanging out in the fatal funnel, etc, etc.”

…I doubt they were thinking this in matches, because there is no value or merit to “cover” in a Multigun match.  As such, being overexposed means that you have a better view on the target.  Having the weapon extend beyond the barricade is fine when you have to move close to the barricade and not transition from one side to another, especially if you entered the barricade area from that side.  It is true that sticking the barrel through a window is a bad idea, but only because that means you have to pull it back out before you can move—and it is often useful to use the window frame as a support.  There IS no fatal funnel in a match–so that isn’t relevant either.

So if what he is talking about occurred in a match—then those shooters thought nothing of the sort.  They didn’t think they were using cover at all, nor were they attempting to use cover and doing it badly.  They were doing the correct technique for the sport in which they were participating.

Now, if those competition shooters were in a tactical combat class, and thought that they were using cover appropriately—then yes, they were seriously screwed up.  (I’ll note I didn’t have that problem in the carbine class referenced above—my problem was that I often didn’t move out from cover enough, and tended to clip the barricade. I sucked at using cover for the opposite reason.)

So—do I think John has some good things to say here, in his commentary on cover?  Certainly.  Do I think that using a competition shooter in a competition match where cover has no value creates effective support for his arguments?  No, not at all.

Is is true that most competition shooters suck at using cover?  Certainly—just as much as everyone else who hasn’t practiced using cover.

I will bet that competition shooters who HAVE practiced using cover will be just as good (probably better, but I’m biased because most competition shooters are better shooters than non-competition shooters, on average) as the “tactical” folks who have practiced using cover.

Stay tuned for my next post in which I completely agree with him about how “chasing the timer” is a bad idea, and offer some suggestions for pistol shooters in terms of how to maximize their ability curve while using a timer.

Additional note: I won the overall in that carbine skillbuilder class, that had a combat focus, which was run by John who has significant experience in simulating and teaching real-world situations (from his significant experience IN real-world shooting situations).  I didn’t win any of the individual competitions, but my skills were such that I consistently placed high, so that in the end I initially tied the person who had won several of the individual competitions—who happens to be a carbine expert, and who teaches carbine to others.  And then I won the shootoff for the overall title, because I could, under stress, do exactly what I needed to do while the other person instead, under stress, defaulted to how they’d been training instead of what they were told to do.

The guy who ended up second, by the way, is obviously a better carbine shooter than I am.  There is no doubt about that, and if you want to learn how to run a carbine with respect to military combat skills, David Petta of DCPrecision and John Wallace of Midwest Tactical Solutions are excellent people to learn from, because they have spent considerable amounts of time learning and practicing their carbine skills.

But I’m thinking that at the same time, people should think critically about what it means that a mere “competition shooter” should win the combat-oriented carbine skillbuilder seminar, even though I spend hardly any time with a carbine.   Just because someone practices for competition shooting doesn’t mean that is all that they do—and it doesn’t mean that they can’t learn anything else, or have built bad habits that STOP them from learning other things.

It is true, though, that most competition shooters suck at using cover.   Normal shooters suck at using cover because it doesn’t occur to them (if they haven’t trained for it) and they don’t know what they are doing.  Competition shooters suck at using cover because it doesn’t occur to them (if they haven’t trained for it) and they know what to do to get shots on target as fast as possible, which just so happens to be bad for effective use of cover.

4 thoughts on “Timers, Competition, and Self-Defense, part I…

  1. It depends what a person hopes to ultimately achieve as well. Cover, whether emphasized or not in a stage or discipline, if available, would be used by someone who wishes to practice the contortions and subsequent sight pictures experienced by using cover. Costs them time and points and may open them up to ridicule but as it’s said, different strokes for different folks. 🙂

    It depends. 🙂


    • True, it depends.

      But…if what they hope to achieve is practice at effective use of cover, they would gain competency much faster practicing it on their own in a more realistic fashion. There are plenty of stages in USPSA where you are “in sight” of multiple targets all simultaneously, where the smartest thing (if this occurred in real life) would be to run, and do so in a manner that minimized your danger. Thinking that practicing “cover” while dealing with such things is good practice—isn’t.

      And competitions aren’t practice—they are tests. Practicing cover techniques is something that requires repetition and analysis. On a competition stage, you don’t get any feedback regarding whether or not you did it well, you don’t have any idea if you would have gotten yourself killed because you missed something, and the stages themselves are normally set for multiple target views simultaneously–and you already know where the targets are. It pretty much disallows anything that would be considered good practice for cover.

      If people still want to do it—hey, they should have fun. But they also shouldn’t delude themselves that such actions are making them any better. I can see wanting to use your CCW (from concealment) in a match. Extra practice at carry gun skills under stress, sure. But tactical choices regarding use of cover? What part of that practice would actually improve your skills? You’d get better practice dryfiring around your home.


  2. Pingback: How to analyze your shots and fire your best group | pundit from another planet

  3. The context of situation matters and determines what makes for an appropriate tactic.

    USPSA shooters that score well in a match are tactical because they are choosing the ideal response in the specific context of their immediate situation. Same goes for the Emergency Response Team member making a rapid, dynamic entry barging into a room. Same goes for the lone shooter slowly and quietly scanning and “pie slicing” and NOT barging into a room. All of these “proper” tactics become improper if used in the wrong context. Learning about different tactics in different contexts doesn’t magically erase your ability to use and apply more than one.



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