At the NRA Annual Meeting this past weekend, the NRA Education and Training Division conducted an update for NRA Trainers. The presentations and discussion rekindled my interest in the standards for students to pass the NRA Basics Of Pistol Shooting (BOPS).
In short, there are four levels of qualification (standards) offered to the students at the end of the Basics Of Pistol Shooting Course. The very first level is Red, for which they must shoot a five shot group into a four inch circle four times at 10 feet. The four times don’t have to be consecutive but the students must be able to demonstrate the skill repeatedly so they can shoot four targets.
Students who meet that standard are then offered the chance to attain three higher levels of achievement; White, Blue, and Instructor. Achieving Instructor level Qualification does not mean that they qualify as NRA Pistol Instructors but rather that they have shot to the same standard that NRA Pistol Instructors are required to.
While many experienced shooters will say this is ridiculously easy, I say “NOT SO FAST!” Having run over 100 shooters of varying skill levels through the NRA Marksmanship Qualification Program Defensive Pistol I course, I know it’s not as easy as it seems. The 100% standard for group is the kicker. Out of my 100 or so testees, only 1 person out of 10 was able to pass the MQP DP I Pro-Marksman test on the first try. That standard is five shots into a 12 inch circle at 7 yards (21 feet), four times. Repeatedly shooting a four inch group at nearly the same distance is obviously quite a bit more difficult.
Moving up to the Pistol Instructor standard, how many people practice shooting groups at 15 yards? Very few in my experience. A six inch group at that distance can be a major difficulty if you haven’t practiced it. Having one try at putting 16 out of 20 shots into a six inch group at that distance can be an eye opener about one’s demonstrable skill level.
To test myself on the requirements, today I shot all four levels with three different pistols; Walther P22, S&W SD9VE 9mm, and S&W 332 .32 H&R Magnum, which is my carry gun. The progression I used was as follows:
- Red BOPS – P22
- White BOPS – SD9VE
- Blue BOPS – 332
- Instructor – SD9VE
I was able to pass all the levels but it required some concentration on sight picture, trigger press, and follow-through. What a concept!
A PDF of all the targets is attached below. Print them out and take them to the range next time you go to practice. Your results may surprise you. Note that the targets print just a little small so if one of your shots is slightly out, as with my Blue #2, you’re still on the mark.
If you can’t pass at the Blue level, perhaps you should consider taking the NRA Basics Of Pistol Shooting Course. You can search for courses local to you at NRAInstructors.org.
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My colleague Grant Cunningham posed two interesting questions on his blog, which led to a lengthy Facebook discussion.
Question #1: “what are your biases or preconceptions?”
Question #2: “what have you changed your mind about in the last year?”
I gave a brief answer to #2 but I think they both deserve some elaboration.
Question #1: “what are your biases or preconceptions?”
I am very reluctant to design training for myself or others that is rooted purely in hypothesis or conjecture. I.e., I am very biased toward following the scientific method, as much as possible, when developing training paradigms.
The overall process of the scientific method involves making conjectures (hypotheses), deriving predictions from them as logical consequences, and then carrying out experiments based on those predictions. — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method
It’s important to note that testing is an inherent part of the scientific method. Testing implies some form of measurement. As a result, I believe that having performance standards is an important part of training. I think of training as ‘outcomes based’ rather than ‘input based.’
We have at our fingertips, via the Internet, an enormous amount of data available to us. At the top of this blog are links to a number of sources that I regularly read to gather information about armed encounters, shootings, gunfights, and gunbattles. I use each of those terms in a very defined way because I consider many terms used in the training community to be fuzzy and ill-defined. Fuzzy and ill-defined terminology does not fit particularly well in the scientific method.
One of the often parroted phrases I hear about gathering information from the Internet is “The plural of anecdote is not data.” I rebut this with the words of one of my accounting professors, “Accounting information is expensive to gather and is sometimes not worth it.” What he meant was that, at some point, you have to accept whatever information you have been able to collect and work with it to form an opinion.
Something I try to avoid is ‘cherry picking’ data that supports my hypotheses. Cherry picking is not always an intentional process, either; it can require a significant amount of intellectual rigor to avoid. I learned this years ago when I was Research Director of a large commercial real estate brokerage company. The brokers all worked specific geographical areas and the Vice President asked me to analyze the Zip Codes of their contact lists. As it turned out, only about 20 percent of the brokers actually had the majority of their contacts in their assigned areas, even though they thought they did. That was when I became a believer in writing things down and checking them periodically to eliminate unconscious errors. A while later, I created a database of five years of data from the Armed Citizen and found some patterns and trends I hadn’t anticipated.
To sum up my bias, I might say:
I’m not interested in conjecture. Tell me where your hypothesis originated, what data supports it, and how you measure the outcome(s) you expect your students to achieve as a result of this training.
Question #2: “what have you changed your mind about in the last year?”
My short answer to this question on Facebook was “The importance of manipulation skills vis–à–vis decision-making.”
I’ve been thinking about this for many years. In 2011, my presentation at the Rangemaster Tactical Conference was entitled The Myth of the Lone Gunman: Working with Family, Friends, and Significant Others.
At the Conference in 2014, my colleague Craig Douglas made the suggestion that I do a presentation about ‘Bad Shootings’ for the 2015 Conference. The results of my research changed me forever.
As many people know, I was part of the Rogers Shooting School for ten years, culminating with being Chief Instructor for five years. Rogers is the most elite and difficult shooting school in the world. Many police and military special units go there to train every year and get to eat a piece of Humble Pie every day of the five day Course. “We’re the best shooters in our Department, by far. Then we come here and find out we suck!” The Handgun Testing Program has no peer for difficulty in the entire training community. It is training on a level that only a select few shooters will ever get to experience. I am enormously proud of my association with the School and maintain a relationship to Bill and Ronnie to this day.
That being said, once I started doing my research on ‘Bad Shootings,’ which eventually morphed into ‘Negative Outcomes,’ I saw a vastly different set of priorities were important. Although I still believe performance standards are important, the level of those standards has changed in my mind. The NRA Defensive Pistol standards, probably at the Sharpshooter level, will suffice to solve almost every confrontation I have been able to find between an Armed Private Citizen and a marauding criminal. Truth be told, those standards would work for most police shootings also. The kicker about the NRA standards is twofold; 1) competence must be demonstrated repetitively and 2) the standard is 100 percent hits.
Once a person can shoot a pistol to a reasonable standard, it’s time to move on to thinking about the circumstances of personal protection and becoming proficient at decision making in that context. Decision making can be a very difficult task, especially when we are armed. Lack of proficiency, not just at marksmanship, but at gunhandling under stress, complicates this. Persons who are not Unconsciously Competent can easily become focused on the firearm rather the situation. Focusing on the wrong thing can lead to Bad Decisions, which in turn can result in Negative Outcomes.
These are the Negative Outcome categories I identified in my research. There are probably more.
- Chasing and shooting
- Downrange failures (shot an innocent while shooting at a threat)
- Lost/stolen guns
- Mistaken identity shootings
- Negligent discharges
- Self-inflicted GSW
- Unintentional shootings
- Police Involvement (arrests for non-shooting related incidents)
- Poor judgement
- Unauthorized access (generally by small children)
- Unjustifiable shootings
- Warning shots
As an example of one category, Unintentional Shootings, here’s a screencap of some of the stories I have collected.
Bad decisions have serious consequences and end up being punished in a variety of ways, some legal and some social. The legal consequences are obvious; the shooter goes to court and sometimes thence to prison. The social consequences of Negative Outcomes are less obvious. If a person accidentally shoots a family member, whether the criminal justice system gets involved or not, I doubt that family relationship will ever be the same. The particular incident I am thinking of occurred when a police officer shot his daughter, thinking she was an intruder.
Decision making has many aspects to it that people don’t often consider. Where you point a gun anytime you handle it is a decision that has to be made. Consider that the next you’re in a gun shop; where are you going to point the gun as you pick it up to ensure that you don’t muzzle anyone? This relates to another reason I am not fond of the overhand method of slide manipulation. During administrative gunhandling, which happens far more than shooting, the overhand method simply does not give the same level of muzzle control that the slingshot method does. I regularly have to correct students about muzzling themselves when using the overhand method. Using the slingshot technique, not at all.
Note that the Decision Making Process starts long before an incident. For instance, having a flashlight and then practicing with it is a decision. Not having one and/or not practicing with it is a Bad Decision. There are many other possibilities too. Failing to devise emergency plans and then discuss them with your family is a Bad Decision.
Look at the list of Negative Outcomes. The category ‘Downrange Failures’ is the only one that is marksmanship driven. All the rest relate to Decision Making and gunhandling. That’s why I changed my mind.
Several Negative Outcomes were brought to my attention this week. One was yet another incident of someone shooting their spouse, thinking it was a burglar. She died as a result of one shot to the chest.
The husband told police it was an accident. He told officers he woke up around 4:15 Saturday morning and heard noises in his house … He told investigators he grabbed his gun and when he saw a light on and someone standing in the distance, he took a shot. He said the person he ended up hitting once in the chest was his wife.
This sad situation bolsters my contention that when we pick up a pistol at home, we have to pick up a flashlight at the same time. That’s why I made flashlight shooting an integral part of The Tactical Professor’s Pistol Practice Program. To get some repetitions in and reinforce the habit for myself, I went to the range this week and shot the entire NRA Defensive Pistol I marksmanship program using a flashlight.
As a curiosity, I also used a timer instead of going by the PAR times in the program. The pistol I used was a Beretta Jaguar in .22 Long Rifle. Many in the industry poo-poo the .22 as a defensive tool but .22s have worked for me. An aspect of .22s I like in the practice context is that shooting several hundred rounds in one session isn’t punishing, either physically or financially. I shot it at my gun club but the way Defensive Pistol I is structured, it can be shot at just about any indoor range. That’s an aspect of the program I really like.
What I did was to have my pistol, my flashlight, and the timer on a stool in front of me. The target was downrange at the specified seven yards.
When the timer went off, I would pick up my pistol and flashlight simultaneously, assume the cheek position, and then shoot the specified string of fire. For the phases requiring loading the pistol on the clock, I picked up the pistol and magazine, loaded it, and then picked up the flashlight. After each string, I recorded my times. The NRA provides a scoresheet but it is set up for Pass/fail scoring, so I made my own scoring matrix.
I checked the target after each string to make sure that I had the required 100 percent hits. At the end of each phase; Pro-Marksman, Marksman, etc., I marked the target with blue dots to cover my hits.
For most of the program, I used the cheek technique.
The Expert phase requires shooting around both sides of the cover. When shooting around the left side, I continued to use the cheek technique. When shooting around the right side, I used the Harries technique.
The Distinguished Expert phase doesn’t specify shooting around both sides of the cover. However, it does requires eight runs instead of four, so I shot four around the right side and four around the left side.
I was able to maintain the 100 percent standard and got a good idea of my times to accomplish each Phase.
Part I of this series focused on Dryfire Practice. Now let’s focus on livefire practice, especially for those who are new to pistol shooting. To learn, maintain, and improve physical skills, we have to practice them regularly. We also need a plan for how we are going to practice. In that regard, shooting a gun is no different from learning to throw or hit a ball.
The problem many people have is that when they go to the range to practice, they have no plan and use no structure. At least a motivated police officer has the course required for periodic qualification as a structure for practice. Competitive shooters have courses of fire, either for Classification purposes or something that was appealing in a match. Few Private Citizens have either of these, which is why the most common ‘practice’ is blasting 50 holes in a silhouette at 5 yards. Shooting a bunch of holes in a silhouette gives familiarity with recoil and muzzle blast but not much else. Something further is needed to develop skill.
A very good starting point for new shooters is the NRA’s Marksmanship Qualification Program, which is really a marksmanship development program. This is a self-paced and self-administered program that the NRA has made available for decades. There are a number of different courses of fire available within the Program. The one I recommend for those who have just purchased a pistol for personal protection is Defensive Pistol I. DPI is designed to improve skills that contribute to a successful home defense.
Defensive Pistol I includes tasks such as:
- Hit a target to an accuracy standard
- Shoot within time limits
- Pick the loaded gun up from a bench and then engage the target
- Pick up and load an unloaded gun
- Move to a position of cover
- Shoot from behind cover
- Issue a verbal challenge
Something I really like about Defensive Pistol I and II is that the accuracy standard is 100%, not a fraction thereof. The allowable area and time limits are generous but you have to make every shot count. As I mention periodically, every bullet you fire in an urban area that doesn’t hit your target is heading for a busload of nuns and orphans being followed by a limousine full of personal injury lawyers on a conference call with the District Attorney. We have to get used to the idea that the only safe backstop for our bullets is the criminal’s body, period.
The target area specified for the NRA program is the 8 ring of the NRA D-1 (Bianchi Tombstone) or equivalent. The 8 ring of the D-1 is 12 inches in diameter. The shooter must place five shots in the 12 inch circle at 7 yards within a time limit of 15 seconds. Many shooters I talk to think this is a very simple marksmanship task. The reality is that because of the 100% standard it’s not as easy as people think. In order to meet the standard for the first level (Pro-Marksman) of the program, the task has to be done four times. Therein lies the rub. I have run over 100 people through the program and only about 10% have passed on the first attempt. What happens is that on one or two runs, one shot will not hit the 12 inch circle. Sorry, you didn’t make it.
The good news is that the four runs don’t have to be done consecutively. If you mess up a run, just shoot another until you have four that meet the standard. My experience has been that 10 percent of shooters can do it in four runs, another 40% will make it in five runs, another 40% will make it in six runs, and the final 10% need a lot of coaching to get through it.
While the Tombstone target isn’t available at all ranges, the allowance for an ‘equivalent’ means you can make a template of the 8 ring and apply it to whatever target is available. Just take your template and a marker with you to the range. I cut mine in half and then taped the halves together with duct tape so it folds and fits easily in my range bag.
Once you get to the range, outline the template on your target and you’re ready to go. Be sure to take some kind of tape or marker with you so you can mark each run. Marking each run is how you learn to shoot well. As a general rule, I mark my targets after no more than 10 shots. When doing this program, you should mark your target after each string of fire, i.e., each five shots.
A new shooter can structure their practice sessions in many ways. What’s important is to plan what you do before you go to the range so you don’t waste your time and resources. The NRA program appeals to me because it’s already made up, it contains relevant skills, and it’s workable at most indoor ranges.
There are also awards available from the NRA for participating in the program. NRA membership is not necessary to participate. The NRA Marksmanship Qualification Program Booklet explains the entire program in detail. It is available for download from the NRA Training Division’s website.
Owning a handgun doesn’t make you armed any more than owning a guitar makes you a musician.
Of all the things Jeff Cooper said, the above saying has become the most prevalent mantra within the firearms training community. It has been memed in many ways. The latest I saw was ‘Without training, you are just pretending.’ The original saying and its various memes allude to the need for gun owners to be trained, ‘regulated’ in the sense of the Second Amendment, in order to be able to effectively use their weapons for personal protection. Why, then, don’t more gunowners pursue training beyond the bare legal minimum, where required?
First of all, let’s confront the validity of the statement itself. We should note that there are quite a few capable musicians and singers who are self-trained. With regard to firearms, the firearms training industry has really only existed since the mid-1970s, when Jeff Cooper founded the American Pistol Institute at Gunsite. Before then, even many police officers didn’t receive much in the way of training. There were virtually no venues available for formal training for Private Citizens, other than the Boy Scouts or Camp Perry. Does this mean that in the 200 years of US history preceding the foundation of API, the American people were ‘unarmed?’ Of course not. Americans have a rich history of shooting predatory no-goods without a moment’s hesitation, even before the foundation of the Republic.
On an almost daily basis, we read and circulate reports of Armed Private Citizens defending themselves, their families, and their neighbors with firearms. The vast majority of these incidents are successfully solved by people who have not one bit of formal training. What this means is we trainers can’t have our cake and eat it, too. Every time we celebrate a successful defense, and rightfully so, we essentially invalidate Cooper’s saying.
What are the reasons a gunowner might cite for not taking training, assuming it’s available, which is a separate issue? There are any number of reasons, such as:
- Lack of motivation
- Lack of incentive
- Lack of understanding
Time and expense should be discussed together because they are both personal resource constraints. The time demands on most people are extensive, especially in a single parent family. Similarly, money is tight for the majority of Americans. The question “How much is your life worth?,” another popular meme in the training community, is moot when the rent is due tomorrow and your kids want to eat.
Accessibility and scheduling are another pair of related issues. According to the US Census, 80.7 percent of Americans live in urban areas. Where are most training facilities? Out in the boonies, in what the Census describes as ‘rural areas.’ While there is some instruction that goes on at indoor ranges, my experience is that it is best described as ‘familiarization’ rather than training. This is a huge disconnect. The location of training facilities is a factor that impacts the time issue I previous mentioned. If a person has to budget several additional hours or days, just for travel purposes, that becomes yet another resource constraint.
To its credit, the NRA Training Division is trying to address this issue through the use of a ‘Blended Training Model’ of both online and in-person training. The result among the NRA Instructor community has been mostly anger and serious pushback. Much of the dissension is based on pure economics. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about that.
With regard to scheduling, when do trainers tend to schedule training mostly? I submit that we schedule when it’s convenient for us, not for the students. That’s one reason I have gone exclusively to short evening classes and one day only weekend classes. Asking people to spend both days of a weekend, out in the sticks, is simply an unreasonable demand on their time.
Lack of motivation, incentive, and understanding are allied factors, as well. About them I will say we in the community simply haven’t made a good case for what we teach and why we teach it. This is especially true in light of the regular reports of people who successfully defend themselves and their families without any training. Although we trainers spend a certain amount of time talking about what we teach, we still haven’t made a good overall business case for “What is the value of training?” Until we do, folks just aren’t going to come. I think the training community might benefit from some Dale Carnegie training for itself.
While I was teaching a private lesson last week, my student was struggling with improving his times, while maintaining an acceptable degree of accuracy. I could tell by the size of his groups, which were quite small, relative to the speed he was going, there was a fundamental that he didn’t understand. The front sight does not have to be perfectly aligned in the notch to produce good hits. So, I had him do a drill to demonstrate the acceptable degree of sight misalignment that will still result in hits on target.
The drill is to fire the pistol with the front sight on the target but with the rear notch deliberately misaligned. It is conducted in four parts consisting of two shots each.
- Front sight half way above the top of the rear notch,
- Front sight lowered so that its top edge is half way down in the rear notch,
- Front sight pushed to the right so that its right edge is touching the side of the rear notch, and
- Front sight pushed to the left so that its right edge is touching the side of the rear notch
This is the diagram I drew to show him what it should look like.
The front sight is aligned correctly on the target with the misalignment done to the rear sight. I prefer to use a dot as the target to get the most graphic result. In this case, I used a 1 ¾ dot. There’s no magic to that number; it just happens to be the size of the template I had.
I had him shoot the drill at seven yards. This was the result. His group measured about four inches at that distance. For many people, trigger manipulation issues will have a greater effect on their accuracy than will sight alignment.
Once he understood that he didn’t need a perfect sight picture, the speed of his shooting picked up and his accuracy remained well within acceptable limits. As long as the front sight is close to the center of the target, a certain degree of misalignment will still produce a good hit. Not worrying about getting a perfect sight picture will result in a noticeable increase in speed.
Incidentally, this drill is a part of the NRA Personal Protection In The Home Course. Experienced shooters like my student usually think they have nothing to learn from NRA Courses. Often, this is a misconception on their part. [Thanks to those who pointed out that I had misremembered the NRA Course the drill is part of.]