I was shooting a defensive pistol match at my home club. The guy who’d set up this stage was clearly a masochist because the stage was designed to create an opportunity for failure. Defensive pistol matches are scored on the basis of the lowest time with penalties for misses and serious penalties for shots that hit "hostages." The course of fire required the competitor to fire two shots at three targets with only the head and shoulders of the USPSA target visible behind a hostage. This was repeated at three, five, and seven yards. This meant the only way to shoot the stage clean was to make head shots only.
As I waited for the sound of the timer, I distinctly remember telling myself that I must shoot slow and accurate and take my time. Even though I shoot ragged hole groups with pistols at seven yards when testing guns, I had three hits on those poor hostages out of 18 shots. Not a single competitor in my squad shot the stage clean even though every one of them was capable. There was just too much temptation to shoot fast when the beeper sounded. It was embarrassing.
We live in a litigious society today, and almost every personal defense situation will involve a lawsuit. Criminal charges for concealed carry citizens are rare, but civil lawsuits are a forgone conclusion. You’re responsible for every round that leaves your gun, so unless you’re in an isolated area, you must make sure you aren’t spraying stray bullets around the neighborhood. I’m fully aware that gunfights on TV involve dozens if not hundreds of bullets spraying around the set and I can’t remember a show with an innocent being a casualty in a crowded mall, airport, or carnival shootout.
In the real world, stray bullets can injure or kill innocent people. For law enforcement, a stray bullet hitting an innocent generally means a career change. For a civilian, shooting an innocent person will change your life forever, even if the wound isn’t life threatening. In the real world, failure is more than embarrassing.
The object behind automatic weapons is to put a lot of rounds in the air with the idea that some will hit their target and the rest will suppress fire from the enemy. This mindset has no place in the defensive use of firearms by civilians because collateral damage can potentially ruin your life, even if you win the fight. For the civilian, shooting faster than you can shoot well has no purpose. This isn’t saying there’s no value to shooting fast in a defensive situation; only that shooting fast is only an option when you’re certain every round will hit the target. As Clint Eastwood once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Therein lies the value of regular practice and competition because it allows the shooter to know his limitations.
This isn’t to say there’s no value in speed, but speed without accuracy is just noise. There are as many possible defensive situations as there are stars in the sky. No doubt the presence of a gun or sound of a shot fired can end a deadly force event and often does, but if your gun is fired, the best result is for every shot fired to be stopped by the body of your assailant.
Several years ago, there was a widely televised dashcam video of a confrontation between two law enforcement officers and two fugitives. Within the length of a blue Chevy Suburban, (less than seven yards) a gunfight ensued with a total of 54 shots fired, and not a single shot found its target. The video clearly showed the gunfight occurring in a residential neighborhood, and fortunately, no one else was hurt. Certainly, all parties involved were shooting plenty fast, but the gunfight ended with the two fugitives getting back into the car and escaping.
The secret to performance under pressure is repetition until proficiency is obtained. The ultimate goal is to be able to shoot accurately and fast, but accurate has to come first. It’s no surprise that people like to shoot fast; shooting fast is what we see on TV, and when your life is in danger, the adrenalin that courses into your system will speed up your shooting cadence. In the case of the aforementioned competition where I shot three hostages, the low-level pressure of a local pistol match amped me up enough to exceed my abilities.
When we learn to drive a car, we don’t attempt to drive fast before we learn to keep the car in the lane. When we learn to ride a dirt bike, we learn to avoid trees before we try to go fast. The same is true with shooting. I suppose it’s possible to begin shooting fast and attain accuracy later, but I’ve never known anyone who did. Certainly, it would require more talent than I have and more ammunition than I can afford.
Learn accuracy first, shoot enough that you don’t have to do a mental checklist of grip, sights, and trigger to accomplish consecutive accurate shots and then begin to add speed. Begin close to the target and increase distance as you improve. Once you can put all your shots in a three-inch circle at ten yards, come back to three yards and begin working on your speed and progress back. Begin your quest for speed with firing the first shot because it’s the most important one. Add recovery and fast follow up shots once you can shoot the first one accurately.
While the most basic shooting skills make you more likely to succeed in a deadly force event, greater proficiency increases your odds of prevailing. Develop safe gun handling skills as a conditioned response, work to increase your accuracy, know your limitations, and increase your speed, both in getting off the first shot and follow up shots if needed. Never forget that your ability to perform under pressure and stress can be the difference between life and death for you or someone you love. Ultimately, the solution is to train until you can do both, but accurate comes first.