Targets—size DOES matter…

This is not the post (referenced in the last entry) “in which I completely agree with [John] 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.”

I’ll get to that one later.  In this case, I need to vent about something I saw at the range this past Sunday.  And have seen in the past…

John Wallace, in his series of posts on “Things to Consider Before Chasing the Timer,” started off by commenting about targets—specifically, that “If you train for these small presentations, or “worst case scenarios” then you are prepared for them, as well as getting sure hits on the idiots who stand in the open (giving you full presentations).

He also commented that a number of people practice on huge, open targets.

I was at the range the other day, and observed one male individual “teaching” a tiny woman  how to shoot a handgun.  He was there in his 5.11 pants and operator polo, full war belt (including multiple pouches and a huge drop bag) with a drop-leg holster.  (She was wearing shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops.)  I’m not sure what the gun was as I was quite a distance off, but it looked like a regular full-size handgun.  (I hope he wasn’t teaching her on a .45 or a .40, because I could see that this was probably the first time she had ever held a handgun.  Of course, he wasn’t actually fixing anything about her stance or grip, so maybe it wasn’t her first time and she’d been shooting with the leaning-back stance and teacup grip that he had taught her for quite some time.)

The target was a full-torso, full-size silhouette.  It literally was larger than the woman.  And it was placed all of 5 feet in front of her.


A year or so ago, I was on a bay practicing my transitions, and monitoring a couple of people who were with me working on their basic accuracy.  A couple of guys drove up, and started to unload their gear on our bay.  There was a discussion about that, and after the RO had a talk with them, they decided to wait until we were done.  (They did say the famous line “You are doing that competition stuff, we are practicing for COMBAT” which they thought excused the fact that one of them swept all of us as he walked up to our firing line swinging his handgun in one hand.)

As we were leaving, I saw them setting up a target approximately 10 feet in front of the shooting table (in a 50-yard bay).  It also was a full-torso, full-size silhouette target.  As I watched in fascination, they began shooting slow fire (resting the gun on the table between each shot) while sitting at the table.


My personal favorite, however, is the guy who brought his girlfriend (wife? not sure) out to “teach her how to shoot” (I will explain why I keep putting those all in quotes in a different post).  He took one of the range barrels, placed it 12-15 feet downrange, and commenced shooting at it to (and I quote) “show how it’s done.”  (No, he didn’t staple a target to it.  The barrel itself was the target.  At 15 feet, tops.)

I wish I could give you that quote in the self-satisfied tone in which he delivered it.

We then had a little talk about shooting the range equipment, and he decided to stop.


Why do people think that shooting at huge targets helps them at all?

When I teach someone completely new to shooting, I start with a standard-sized paper plate at 15 feet.  Using a .22, a newbie to shooting can quite easily get all shots on a paper plate if they are taught correctly.  After that, we move to 12″ steel plates at 10 yards—which they can ALSO do perfectly easily.  (And everyone loves hearing that “ding” of a hit.)

The target is big enough so that with a modicum of discipline, they’ll hit it every time.  At the same time, it is small enough that they actually have to use correct fundamentals to get those hits, plus they can work on shooting groups smaller than their target.  (I realize they can do that on any target, but if the target is huge and irregularly shaped, it makes it harder for new folks to actually center a group in the middle of the target.)

Why anyone would start a newbie on a huge target at such a close distance that hits are meaningless is beyond me.

And as for experienced shooters—WHY?!

Yes, I do occasionally practice on open targets at 5 yards—but that is when I’m timing transitions (and shifting gears) from near to far targets.  Or working on correct gears for draws to close targets versus far targets.  Or working on shooting on the move and finding the correct movement speeds at different target distances.

But when I’m practicing 1) the fundamentals of accuracy in a direct, singular fashion, or 2) self-defense related drills and scenarios, a wide-open target at close distance simply doesn’t make me any better.

Sure, it is interesting to see how fast you can get your draw-to-first-shot from concealment.  But once you can do a consistent 1.0 second draw on the upper half of the lower A-zone of an IPSC target at 7 yards, there are other drills that will be more useful to your self-defense ability than working on cutting that extra .15 from your draw in a very unrealistic scenario.

Sure, in real life often you really DO get an open target in citizen self-defense situations.  However—sometimes you don’t.  And even if you do, a peripheral hit most likely won’t stop the attacker.  Using minute-of-IPSC-target as your accuracy level simply isn’t good enough.  And if you are disciplined enough to practice in the first place, perhaps you should practice on targets chosen to increase your skills.

I’m not saying you should only practice shooting dimes at 10 yards.  (Though it is true that periodically, working accuracy on 1-inch dots at 3 yards, then 5 yards, then 7 yards, then 10 yards if you manage it, REALLY teaches you the importance of front sight focus and trigger control.  Or it gives you practice at dealing with a lot of frustration.  Or both.)  But instead of open targets, overlay a credit-card-sized box on the head as a brain box, a 2-inch column from the brain box down to the upper thoracic, a 4″ square centered at the height of the top of the heart, and force yourself to hit it every time.  Have one day be a “headshot-only” day.  Put targets far away.  Turn targets at an angle, and add a line of tape showing where the hardcover blocks any hits below a certain point.  Make the target something that requires you to shoot well to hit it.

If all you do is practice on the easiest target possible, well—-at least you are practicing.  But if you have the discipline to practice in the first place, use targets that actually help you get better.  Yes, you should periodically use targets of different sizes and shapes, some of which should be full-size.  And yes, you should periodically use target distances of different ranges, some of which should be nearby.

However—for the most part, you should practice on targets that match (or slightly exceed) your current skill level.  So quit using easy simple targets that don’t help you get better.  You are practicing to increase your skill, not merely make yourself feel good about your 0.85 draw and 0.14 splits on a 3-yard open target.

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.