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10 common mistakes in self-defense firearms training

There may not be a ‘right way’ but I can promise you there are many wrong ways. Here are 10 of the most common mistakes


Christine Caldwell, left, receives firearms training with a 9mm Glock from personal defense instructor Jim McCarthy during concealed weapons training for 200 Utah teachers.

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By Shannon Thrasher
The TacticaList Contributor

As a firearms instructor of police and civilians, a firearms store owner, and a longtime ‘gun guy,’ I like to think I’ve seen it all when it comes to firearms techniques: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And while I’ll argue that there isn’t a ‘right way’ when dealing with self-defense firearms training, I can promise you there are many wrong ways. Here are 10 of the most common mistakes I’ve come across:

1. Taking Bad Advice
If I had a dollar for every student I had to re-train because their friend the “gun expert” had taught them bad habits, I’d retire right now. Just because someone owns a lot of guns or is a police officer or veteran does not make them a firearms expert. Find competent, knowledgeable instructors. Check instructor’s references. Talk with people who have taken the class you’re thinking of attending.

2. Allowing Suboptimal Student-Teacher Ratio
Teacher-to-student ratios of 30 to 1 might work in high school, but when you’re paying for training that could save, or cost you your life, you deserve near 1 on 1 attention. If the class you’re looking into has more than five or six students per instructor, you’re probably not going to be training in a safe or effective learning environment. This doesn’t mean you have to be in a four-student class, but if there are 20 or 30 students in the class should have a few assistant instructors or range safety officers present.

3. Getting the Wrong Training
I have trained soldiers, police officers, and civilians. The bottom line is they use different tactics with different firearms to achieve different goals and therefore need different training. A police officer or civilian risks prison using tactics that are acceptable on the battlefield. A soldier would be unconcerned with civil lawsuits while returning enemy fire from 200 yards away.

4. Choosing the Wrong Gun or Caliber
I’m often asked by husbands shopping in my store, “What’s the best gun for my wife?” Well, Sir, how the heck would I know? There is no perfect gun, perfect caliber, or perfect combination. If there was we’d all have one. Determining the right gun requires assessment of factors including body size, hand size, experience, and most importantly, what you want to do with it.

5. Believing “This is the right way to do it”
After you get some good quality professional instruction, go out and get some more - from someone else. Each skill you learn should be compared and contrasted with every other skill. Some will work better in certain situations. Some will work better for you personally. There is not one way to do it. If an instructor tells you “this is how you will do this on my range,” respect his position and the fact that there may be a safety or liability issue involved. If an instructor tells you “this is the only way to do this,” find another trainer.

6. Failing to Do Dry-Fire Drills
Ammunition is expensive. Practicing dry fire drills saves time and money and can be done in the comfort of your own home. Obviously, safety must be paramount. Not only should “practice” guns be unloaded and double checked but any ammunition should be stored in another room. Most accuracy issues can be traced back to trigger control, and dry fire practice can help — without costing $20 a box. You can practice drawing from a holster — either open or concealed — during the same training session.

7. Doing Too Much Repetition
Though one skill or tactic should be practiced if not mastered before moving on to another, this can be taken to the extreme. If you always practice the same drill, you may not be able to adapt to the varying situations of the real world. Mix up your practice sessions. Maybe this time you work on close, rapid fire and next time you work on longer, slower shots. This time you practice on multiple targets and next time you concentrate on single threats. It’s better to be well-rounded in your skills than to be a master of one or two tactics. If an instructor is spending too much time on one “drill” it might indicate he doesn’t know much else.

8. Believing Square Ranges and Paper Targets Prepare You for a Lethal Force Encounter
Every self-defense shooting incident is different but they all have some things in common. They don’t happen on a square pistol range, the threat won’t be a two dimensional stationary paper target, the threat will be trying to hurt or kill you, and you won’t get to run the drill again if you’re not prepared beforehand. Practice shooting from multiple body positions and angles. Practice shooting, loading and reloading with your non-gun hand from multiple positions. Whenever possible use 3D targets and put clothing on them to get used to shooting at real threats and understanding that your hits will not appear as clean round holes in white or black paper.

9. Failing to do Force-on-Force Training
Whether teaching police or civilians, I tell them that the point of my training is so that they will never see anything in a gunfight for the first time. If you never train with force-on-force drills then you will see the entire incident for the first time. Airsoft guns and gear are cheap and add the ability to shoot at “bad guys” who are shooting back at you. Force-on-force training will drive home the simple point that it’s more important to not get shot than it is to shoot the “bad guy.”

10. Thinking All You Need to Carry is a Gun and a Holster
There are several items that I consider mandatory for anyone who carries a gun for self-defense:

At least one spare magazine or speed loader (yes, it’s okay to carry a revolver).

A cell phone to call the police and your lawyer.

Less lethal weapons such as OC sprays or TASERs not only provide you with force options but could help you in court. Prosecutors will claim you shot the “poor innocent” dirt bag because you had no other options. Being able to testify that you had a knife or a can of pepper spray but that their use was not the proper lifesaving response to the encounter may get you out of a tight legal spot.

A good flashlight will help with positive target identification. Most shootings occur in low light.

Other items will vary depending on you and your environment.

Lastly, if you decide to carry a firearm for self-defense, carry it as often as the law allows. Just like a seat belt that must be worn on all trips — since we can’t predict a car crash — your self-defense gun should be carried at all times because we can’t predict when you will be attacked.

Shannon Thrasher is an Alabama-based police officer and owner of Athens Guns. An Army veteran with over 20 years of experience in law enforcement and private security and other ten in the firearms world, guns are his specialty, to say the least, and instructing civilians and officers is his passion. He’s an FBI-certified firearms instructor, use of force instructor, Alabama POST-certified Tactical Operator, SRT Commander, police sniper, and tactical medic.

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