Are You Practicing or Plinking?

You got your concealed carry license because you were concerned that you might need to use a firearm to protect your life or the life of someone else. And, as a responsible concealed carry license holder you practice with your firearm on a regular basis. You do, don’t you? If not, you might want to reconsider your priorities. Just as you make monthly payments on your auto, home, and life insurance policies, you should also be making a monthly investment in your self-defense by spending some time practicing with your handgun. Carrying a firearm is another form of insurance after all.

Learning how to defend yourself is not a one-time event. It is something that you must continuously pay attention to in order to be successful if you are confronted with a life-threatening violent encounter. Such an encounter will occur suddenly, with little or no advanced warning. It will be chaotic and dangerous, and it will be over within seconds — certainly well before the police can arrive to provide any assistance. (You don’t think the criminal will start an attack against you if they see the police are nearby, do you?) You may have only a second or two to take action to defend yourself. Most of that time will be taken up just figuring out what is happening and deciding what action to take. If you are carrying a firearm that action would likely be accessing your firearm — i.e. drawing it from your holster, pocket, purse, etc. — and then placing accurate shots in your assailant. Without regular practice, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to respond in the time needed to prevent yourself from being harmed.

As one of the first things that I do during my Advanced Concealed Carry I courses, I conduct an assessment of each student’s ability to access their firearm and deliver accurate shots on target. For the assessment the “goal” is to be able to draw the firearm from wherever it is normally carried and place three accurate shots on a target (a standard sheet of paper) that is three yards away within three seconds. The students do know what they are supposed to do before the assessment starts, so it isn’t the same as being surprised by an attacker, but they do not have an opportunity to practice drawing their firearm or shooting it before the assessment begins. I’ve only had one student that was able to do this within the allotted time. Indeed some students take as much as 15-20 seconds to do it — and by then the attack could well be over.

When the assessment is performed again at the end of the class, students typically show a lot of improvement, both in terms of being able to access their firearm and in being able to deliver accurate hits on target. But they’ve had a lot of practice between those two assessments, typically firing about 120 rounds of ammunition from their handguns and performing dozens of draws. As I tell the students, this level of proficiency will not remain if they don’t continue to practice the skills. Indeed if they tried the assessment again the very next day they would find that it will take slightly longer and the more time that elapses between practice sessions, the more time it will take. Drawing a firearm from concealment and placing accurate hits on target is a perishable skill that must be refreshed on a regular basis.

I think you can now understand why practice is important. But it needs to be practice with a purpose. If all you do when you go to the shooting range is see how accurately you can place your shots on a target you are not really practicing, you are plinking. Don’t get me wrong here, being able to accurately shoot is important, but there are many more things that need to be part of your practice. For instance, do you practice one-handed shooting with both your “strong” hand and your “weak” hand? You may have to shoot your handgun with just one hand if you are carrying something (or someone) or if your other hand/arm is injured.

Do you practice drawing your handgun from your holster, pocket, purse, etc.? WARNING — if you use a commercial shooting range they probably will have a rule that says you cannot do this because of a legal liability concern. So where can you go to practice accessing your firearm if your shooting range prohibits it? How about in your own home. You can practice drawing your handgun without actually firing it. “Dry Fire”—i.e. practicing with your firearm unloaded — is an excellent way to maintain gun handling proficiency. You can practice your aiming and trigger control using “Dry Fire” as well. Just make sure when you are engaged in “Dry Fire” practice your gun is unloaded and there is no live ammunition anywhere near you (preferably in a separate room). Reloading your handgun and clearing malfunctions is something else you can practice without actually firing live ammunition. You will need “dummy” rounds (i.e. snap caps, etc.) for this.

How about firing rapid follow-up shots? You will likely have to fire multiple shots to end the threat during a violent encounter so this is an essential skill. WARNING — again, many commercial shooting ranges have a rule that limits the number of rounds you are allowed to fire within a given time period, again for legal liability reasons. “Dry Fire” practice won’t really help you here, so you will need to find someplace where you are allowed to practice shooting rapid follow-up shots. Most advanced shooting classes include practicing this skill so that is one reason for seeking additional training beyond what you are taught in a basic handgun class.

You cannot practice everything that you need to in a single practice session. Therefore you need to decide which specific skills you need to practice before you go to the range. Put a plan together ahead of time and “budget” the number of rounds you fire to meet your specific goals. For instance,you may want to start out firing ten rounds using your normal two-handed grip and stance. Then you might want to fire five rounds with just your strong hand and five rounds with just your weak hand. Next you might want to practice shooting at targets at varying distances — 3, 5, 10, 15, 20 yards — with the most practice firing at the nearer distances. If possible, you might also want to practice moving and shooting. How about shooting from kneeling, sitting, or prone positions? Again, many commercial shooting ranges do not allow movement or shooting from anything but a standing position. Shooting at multiple targets at varying distances is also something you might want to practice. After all, there is no guarantee that you will be attacked by just a single assailant.

As you go through the various skills you need to be able to perform, focus your training on those that you are weakest in performing. However, don’t ignore the basics or the things you think you are good at. Your ability to perform any skill will diminish the longer the time between sessions when you perform those skills.

So once again I will ask—are you practicing the skills you need to be able to defend yourself? If you do go to the shooting range, are you practicing or are you just plinking?

Gary Evens is a NRA-Certified Instructor and Range Safety Officer.

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