Tactical Shooting vs Competition Training

Speed Without Thought


What comes to your mind when you think about a day on the range?

For many, it is the sound of Pro-Timers and shaving seconds off splits and reloads. Often it is running drills that are commonly found in a competition on IPSC cardboard targets or steel. The thought of burning down a drill that can be posted on YouTube for others to admire.

But what are you training?

What is your goal? What is your end-state? And are you actually improving your real world performance?


The End-State


It may sound counter-intuitive, but to know where to start, we have to know where to end. That is to say, not where our training stops- we should be constantly improving our skills. The end (or end-state) is what we are preparing for. It may be competition shooting, it may be hunting, or it may be self-defense. While some of these end-states may share similar skills, their application and focus may vary. Some of these end-states require more separate skills than others.


Training Methodology


Let me be clear- competition training can help in developing skills, AS LONG AS YOU MOVE ON. Fundamentally, there is one main difference between competition shooting and real world engagements. TARGET DISCRIMINATION. In most competitions, simple shoot/ no shoot targets are used by either reversing white and brown sides of IPSC targets or by spray painting hand outlines on them. In the real world, it is not so simple. Before pulling a trigger, we must decide if we SHOULD pull the trigger. Often the situations we find ourselves in when faced with a real world use of force scenario are not cut and dry. They may not be clean and they may not be obvious good guy vs bad guy. There are many shades of gray. You must have a thought process driving actions.

The thought process is one of the most difficult skills to train and many prospective elite military operators struggle with it. In order to decide to shoot the threat, we must first identify the presence of a threat through proper scanning/clearing, we must then discriminate the threat (a process I do not discuss on the internet). Once we confirm it is a threat we must locate the proper round placement (another topic I do not elaborate on the internet), then we must identify if a holdover is appropriate. This is the main difference between competition vs real world, and it is a huge one.  But why is this an important distinction? Can’t a competition shooter easily move on to this task?

Yes, and No. One of our constant struggles in shooting is managing our mental bandwidth. We have a finite amount of information we can process all at once. The less we are used to performing a task, the more we will have to focus on it and the more mental bandwidth we will use. This leaves less room to process other pieces of information and tasks. Speed affects our bandwidth as well. The faster we move, the faster we have to process multiple tasks. Now we mitigate this by getting used to performing tasks. TEACHING our brains how we want to process data, teaching it the correlation between what we SEE and what we want to DO.

What does this mean for the competition shooter? Hypothetically: if you are drilling say a steel challenge and we have you start facing away from the steel. We have you run the drill over and over again until you are shaving just 1/10’s of a second off your time. Then without you knowing, we move the targets around and change them- then initiate the drill again. What happens? The chances are pretty good that you instantly enter sensory overload. Why is that? Because you were not moving at a speed where you can THINK, and rightly so because it wasn’t necessary for your drill. This is where the rub is because the shooter has stayed at one level in the progression to real world training – they have become USED to moving fast. Once you are used to moving fast, it can be very difficult to force yourself to slow down.

I see this frequently in my Close Quarters Marksmanship courses with shooters that are competitive and have attended many professional shooting training courses. Often these shooters get their sights to the target very fast and their body is ready to take the shot immediately- however, their mind is not done with its tactical shooting tasks. In many ways the body and mind start fighting each other in a “I’m ready- No I’m not” argument that can often be visually observed. This results in not following the proper process and losing efficiency, shooting a no-threat target, or failing to engage a threat target. A good football analogy might be a quarterback who trains hard to take snaps, drop back and throw at a stationary target. He trains until he can perform the tasks perfectly and quickly. We then throw him in a real game with a full defensive backfield and we run 3 receivers. How do you think he does? I would propose that he does just as well as the speed shooter who is suddenly thrown into a scenario that requires a level of tactical shooting discrimination that he hasn’t trained for.




What I am saying here is that we need to have a layered approach to our training, especially in tactical shooting. We need to make sure that we don’t linger at individual layers, unnecessarily. Once we can mentally cope with one layer and can perform it efficiently- we need to move on to the next. If it is too much, we move down a layer and then move back up when we are able to. Staying at one layer for weeks, months, or even years just to gain Pro-Timer progress does not efficiently progress us towards our goals. Simple efficiency is your goal at each layer. If you can perform the task smoothly and efficiently- MOVE ON. Once you reach the level of performing all of your tasks in the layered process in the most complex and complicated scenario within your end-state, and can do it smoothly and efficiently- THAT is the time to focus on doing things faster. Why? Because now you will know how you have to move and think at your end-state. You will understand how all the layers apply and will know what is important and what is not. You will know where you can push things and where it could be detrimental. You will not waste time focusing on something where you should be focusing on something else. You have to know where you end to know where to begin.

The 3rd Sight Picture

The 3rd Sight Picture: Tactical Shooting


Often in today’s training industry, much is said about getting a follow on sight picture after firing a preceding round. The common saying is that if you fire 2 rounds then you should have 3 sight pictures. If you fire 3 rounds then you should have 4 sight pictures, etc. Is this really true and why is it a contentious issue? I feel that the reason this is a popular topic is because it is another task that is being taught out of context. And because much of the discussion is over close range engagements- that’s where this article focuses.


The Controlled Pair


Due in much part to 15yd flat range warriors, there have been many falsehoods and mantras that have that have developed about the controlled pair in shooting training. In many senses, it has become a drill all on its own- often accompanied by a whistle and Pro-Timer. The DRILL becomes the GOAL. However, the controlled pair is not a drill on its own. So, what is it?

The Controlled Pair is a method for dealing with multiple targets.

            That’s right, the controlled pair is only PART of a process, which is to efficiently engage multiple targets through tactical shooting. This means that while progressively engaging through a close range threat scenario, we place two rapid (but aimed) shots on each threat. After this is complete, we RECLEAR and re-engage as necessary. So, while we are placing two rounds on the threat at first- it is not necessarily true that we only shoot the threat twice. To be sure- if we had a situation where we legitimately had only ONE small area to clear that only contained ONE threat, we would continue to engage until the threat is no longer a threat.


Eye Movement in Shooting Training


We all know what moves first, from one target to the next, while engaging multiple targets right? THE EYES. Why is this so important? Because driving a gun from one point to another is easy. What slows us down is THINKING and in order to THINK we have to SEE. So, we have a number of tasks to accomplish before pulling the trigger again. We must continue scanning rapidly to LOCATE the next target. We then have to DISCRIMINATE (decide threat/no-threat) the target, and then find the proper POINT OF IMPACT to place rounds for an incapacitating shot. Then (if necessary) we have to identify HOLD OVER. It is critical for all these tasks to be complete BEFORE your sights enter the target because your line of sight will establish where your sights will go to. If we are running a rifle with an optic at close range and we have not shifted our eyes to hold over before the sights arrive we will either place rounds low or have to shift the rifle to re-aim at the proper spot. (Note: while I will not cover the specific method of target discrimination on the internet, I will state that it is not done with your focus on the point of aim or holdover. So, if you were thinking that a lot of eye movement is not happening on the target- you are incorrect)

It is ingrained in almost every shooting discipline and tactical shooting training that when engaging multiple targets, after firing the required number of rounds your eyes should immediately shift to the next target. This shift ideally happens as soon as the last shot breaks. Now, of course we could talk in circles and attempt to validate the 3rd sight picture methodology by stating that your 3rd sight picture is on the next target. But is that really accurate? Does it fit what we are attempting to train? Are we confusing the process by attempting to apply a general rule?


Training Methodology


Too often we allow TASKS to become DRILLS. Using a layered approach to training, this should not happen but this is what has occurred in this case. There are times during the initial stages of fundamental training where we DECOMPLICATE things. We isolate as few tasks as possible to perfect them. Of course it is true that we should not build bad habits, and in a certain sense- not reinforcing proper follow through does build bad habits. But this is in the GROUPING stage. Of course we should stay with the grouping stage for a considerable amount of time. The problem is- most shooters don’t. This results in instructors having to correct deficiencies in fundamentals during a later stage in the training where they shouldn’t have to be doing so. Let’s unpack what I’m saying here with an example of a training approach.

Before reaching the point of controlled pairs, we should have already mastered the following:

  • – Safe Handling
  • – Load, Unload, Reduce Stoppage
  • – Marksmanship Fundamentals (Through Grouping)
  • – Weapons Presentation (or the Draw for Pistol)
  • – Trigger and Safety Manipulation

That’s a fairly realistic list of skills that should be mastered before getting more aggressive with tactical shooting training. Now let’s think about that for a moment. If we have mastered those skills, then HOW LONG do we need to spend on controlled pairs before MOVING ON to multiple targets? Not a lot of time at all, I would say. You’re just firing 2 rounds, instead of the 5-10 you were during grouping (If any of you chuckled and said it is done FASTER- you are wrong and I have an article coming soon just for you). This task should only take a couple of iterations if you have trained the supporting fundamentals of tactical shooting properly. Unfortunately, many shooting training sessions consist of dumping countless magazines in never ending Controlled Pairs, accompanied by Pro-Timer beeps and whistle blasts.

So, if we are only spending a moment at this point- how are we building bad habits? Of course, every repetition counts- but consider this: If our desired end-state is to get our eyes moving as soon as possible to the next target or to locate the next possible threat in our area, are we building bad habits by remaining on our sights during the follow through of our second shot? Think about that. If you have done training on multiple targets, how hard is it to train yourself to release that sight picture and get to the next target? It is very difficult and often very unnatural. This is because our core instinct is to be threat based. To stare at the one thing that is our immediate threat. It takes effort, dedication, and training to look away from it. Just like it takes effort to look for a path of drivable terrain to miss a tree, which often results in seeing a car wrapped around a tree or pole while there were clear paths on either side.




There are situations where you need to stay on your sights. Just remember that these are fundamental tasks that need to be progressively layered from bottom to top in a streamlined process. Don’t live your life on a flat range at one layer in the process. Don’t practice TASKS out of CONTEXT. Train the process and apply them properly to the specific scenario you find yourself in. Don’t let TASKS become your DRILLS, otherwise your DRILLS won’t meet your END-STATE.

Engaging the Safety

Engaging the Safety

            I’ve seen several articles on the subject of when and if the safety of a rifle should be engage. Much of this debate is centered around the reload and malfunctions process. At times the discussion can be very vigorous and heated. Unfortunately, some instructors also will call into the credibility of other instructors for opposing their viewpoint. Of course, if someone is advocating a technique that is not safe, then it should be questioned. But, in some instances I think we are splitting hairs. I have a slightly different take on the issue. I will say right up front, however, that I do not advocate running around with your safety off.

When Should the Safety Be Engaged?

            Whenever we do not have the weapon properly referenced towards a target that we intend to engage, right? That is the core safety rule that we teach students and strive for and at the fundamental level, we rigidly enforce that the safety is not disengaged until the sights enter a target you intend to shoot and it is re-engaged before the weapon is lowered.

There are, of course, points in the training progression that hard rules soften a bit. Not to say they go away completely, but understanding their importance and application we will modify them for a specific end state. For instance, if you have shaved all the possible efficiency out of your target acquisition and discrimination, weapons presentation, etc. AND you can demonstrate safety and awareness. At this time, it may be that we start sweeping the safety as the weapon is presented and we prep the trigger. Of course, we are still aware of our surroundings and the implications of our actions.

We may also not re-engage the safety between multiple targets. During CQB, the safety is not re-engaged after the first threat engagement until the room is clear. We also only attempt to sweep the safety during a rifle to pistol transition, unless you are actually going to clear that Failure to Fire malfunction before getting your pistol out.

On the other side, there are some that think they are saving time in a CQB environment by keeping their weapon OFF safe. Big nope right there. You are actually saving 0 tenths of a second and increasing your risks by an order of magnitude. This is because it takes you longer to DECIDE (target discrimination) to shoot than it does for you to apply pressure to the safety that your thumb is already on. You have more than adequate time to sweep the safety between deciding TO shoot and then deciding WHERE the proper point of aim is. So, to be real clear here- at no point of this article do I advocate moving around with your weapon off safe- other than AFTER engaging a target in a room while moving to a point of domination or while closing on the target. After which, the weapon goes back on safe.

But, wait, isn’t that a lot of contradictions? Isn’t our application of the safety supposed to be an automatic response? I think this issue gets confusing because the application of the safety is tied to the wrong sequence of training.

Skills in Context

            Most of the time the use of the safety is grouped with standard weapons manipulation drills, and rightfully so. When we take new students, it is imperative for them to not disengage the safety before they see their sights on a target they wish to engage. It is equally important for them to re-engage the safety BEFORE they begin to lower the weapon. If these standards aren’t rigidly enforced, then training can quickly become dangerous.  But, what about malfunctions?

Engaging the safety during the reload and malfunction process is a heated topic. Let’s break this down a little. For each action we train- we expect a result- which aids us towards an end state, right? Question- how many malfunctions have you had where you CAN place your weapon on fire? Does the application of the safety aid you in the troubleshooting process? The true answer to these questions does not support the rigid answer of “we must apply it all the time”. Most emotional responses along these line fall back to this without better explanation, why do you think that is? Because we are attempting to push a task that isn’t taught in proper context. Let’s talk about the context a little:

Up front, I teach that it is not necessary to re-engage the safety during a reload or malfunctions correction, AS LONG AS: you intend to re-engage the target, the weapon is kept oriented towards the target, AND you can control the weapon. Why do I do this? Because I tie actions to end states. Let’s look at a couple of hypotheticals for a moment:

First one: I’ve entered a room as part of a CQB situation. The room is large and there is a hostile at my point of domination. While moving down the wall, I fire one round then get a click/ no bang. I am not carrying a pistol. The subject falls and begins to stand back up. I increase my speed towards him while correcting the stoppage with the intent of either shooting him again or beating him to death with my rifle if I reach him first.

Does my rifle need to go on safe? Why? When you look at the scenario, was the application of the safety necessary? I would say no, it isn’t. Now that mental calculus would change if I had a pistol- at which point I would attempt to sweep the safety before dropping or guiding the rifle to hang.

Second one: I am engaging a hostile target from a covered position. While exposed to engage, I incur a malfunction. I pull myself back into cover and correct the stoppage. I then re-expose myself to continue engaging.

Does my rifle need to go on safe? Why? I would say that you should attempt to apply the safety before you pull yourself into cover.

What is the difference between these two situations that elicits a different response? THE ENDSTATE. While I intended to re-engage in both scenarios, I was not able to keep the weapon oriented towards the target in the second scenario. This is because in the first scenario, I was involved in the CONTINUOUS act of engaging a hostile- even though I was working through a stoppage (or reload). In the second situation, I was no longer in a continuous act of engagement- I moved to a covered position to work through the issue.


          But what about reloads? In my opinion, there is a bigger deal made about this than there needs to be. Is applying the safety a good thing? Sure. Is it always necessary? Depends. If I am in that CQB scenario, closing with a target- I could honestly care less about it. But in the covered position scenario- I absolutely care about it.

          If you don’t train the task all the time, you won’t perform when it counts. Is that statement correct? Variations of this idea are tossed around when it comes to safeties and reloads. Again, I believe it is because the action is tied to the event at hand, not the end state. Let’s unpack this by looking at another skill that is taught out of context:

Range robots preach that you must do the left, right and between the legs look all the time or you won’t do it in a “gunfight”. Do those same people do their little range ballet after they just fired a 5-10 round string while zeroing in the prone? Nope. But, wait- if they don’t look up, down and twirl after firing a zeroing group, how can they possibly perform in the real world?  The answer here is that we layer our approach to training. We start by isolating tasks, by focusing on as few factors as possible to perfect them in as an uncomplicated manner as possible. We then layer on more tasks and factors, IN CONTEXT. This is very important. If I’m layering on scanning techniques, then I do it during multiple target. THE TASK MUST BELONG TO THE CONTEXT AND IT MUST DRIVE US TO THE ENDSTATE.

So how does this relate to applying the safety to reloads? The answer is that the re-application of safety really has nothing to do with the reload. The end state of the reload is to get bullets back in the gun. Does the safety aid this effort? No. The re-application of the safety is tied to the action of MOVE. When we train barricade drills to simulate use of cover, we of course train to not DISENGAGE the safety until our sights are on a target, but we do not RE-ENGAGE the safety until we are ready to move back into cover (or when we have cleared our sector and the engagement is complete). The application of the safety is part of the step-by-step drill while moving on the barricade. Another example is Individual Movement Techniques (IMT). In addition to the standard barrier steps, we must perform a weapons status check before moving to the next position. This includes checking the safety, as well as that the weapon is ready to fire before I run to the next location.

Does this viewpoint make sense? The general guidance of safety application being: you intend to re-engage the target, the weapon is kept oriented towards the target, AND you can control the weapon. These are guidelines that conform to the end state. As you could see in the hypothetical situations, they make sense to the required end state. I’m a firm advocate of repetitious exercises to build proficiency in tasks, I just feel that tasks need to be associated with the proper context and end state to aid in the tactical problem solving

The Training Process

          I think one of the other reasons people get so emotional about flat range drills, is that is all they do. When many think about training they picture themselves at a 25yd flat range, standing in front of a target. They never progress past that. So, the argument that we need to drill safety manipulation during malfunctions and reloads because we don’t want people moving around others with the weapon off safe doesn’t really fit. To train people not to bound around others with the weapon off safe- we need to train them to put the weapon on safe before moving. It is that simple. Of course, if we never attend courses where we move, then this becomes a little difficult….

Let me use Unit training for example: when I went through OTC, no instructor cared if your weapon was on safe or not when you were doing flat range drills and conducting a reload or malfunction clearance. They did care that your muzzle was oriented safely, that your finger was not on the trigger and that you met the time and accuracy standard for the drill. Why is that? Because it wasn’t important in that context and you weren’t creating an unsafe situation. On the other hand, if you were being trained on barrier drills and you were pulling the rifle back behind cover with the weapon off safe- they did care. Why? Because it was important in the context and you were creating an unsafe situation. Another example is CQB: after entering a room, your weapon stays on fire after identifying and engaging the first threat and does not go back on safe until you reach your point of domination and have re-cleared your sector- at which point, your weapon’s safety is engaged. This is because you train to take specific actions based on the context you are performing. We train guys during multiple target engagements to leave the safety off while moving from target to target and mitigate risk by removing our finger from the trigger well if there is a non-threat in our path. We train guys to engage the safety before pulling into cover. We train guys to engage the safety after re-clearing our sector in a room. We train guys to check their safety before bounding to the next position. We train the skill to the context.

“But, that was Special Operations, not LE, civilian, prepper, insert your own reality here, etc relevant training”- you might say. Sure it is. What I’m driving at here- is not to say that one method is right or wrong. What I am pointing out is that we should be unemotional and analytical with our training process. We should always be critical of our process, but it is absolutely imperative that we analyze our techniques AS THEY APPLY TO THE ENDSTATE. If something doesn’t make sense, it may be because we are trying to force a general rule. Sometimes general rules stand up when we look at them in context, but sometimes they don’t. If a certain task doesn’t make sense or doesn’t aid us while performing a core task, but the it does if we apply the core task in a different context- then perhaps the modification of that task should be taught during context specific training.

Just something to think about. Many of us have different methods. It is ok to be different. Question your reality, be critical of your training process and application, continue to evolve, but when in question- of course always err on the side of safety.