Pistol Under Pressure

The author shooting low light and working to the right around cover. Note the cross-wrist technique, which braces the pistol in a lock on the left wrist, Surefire flashlight held in left hand. Very st
The author shooting low light and working to the right around cover. Note the cross-wrist technique, which braces the pistol in a lock on the left wrist, Surefire flashlight held in left hand. Very stable, feels very natural, and you can shoot well that way. But it does not work as soon as you need to move left around cover or address a doorway from left. Instructor Tiger McKee points out that the majority of confrontations occur in low-light environments, so having the skills to use handheld or weapon-mounted lights is a must.author photo

I’m loading magazines on a bench in the pitch dark. The cicadas are yelling like the souls of the damned, lightning bugs whirling and arcing in the woods. A couple of 9mm rounds slip out of my sweat-slick fingers and hit the gravel near my feet. I grope for the rounds, and something stings me, hard, on the inside of my bicep, something meaner than a sweat bee, a yellowjacket maybe. Exasperated, I thumb the pressure button on my Surefire to see if I can find the rounds. Explosion of intense white light.

“That was exceptionally rude,” said Tiger McKee, quietly from out in the dark. “It will take somebody our age 15 to 30 minutes to get our night vision back.” I pick up the dropped rounds and thumb them angrily into the mags, say nothing about the stinging insect or the heat, or the fact that this night shooting exercise is kicking my tail. I’d been outside all day, working on clearing some old farm equipment out of a sweetgum and blackberry thicket. The temps had been in the 90s. I was worn out and chigger-bit, sweated through ten times over.

But, as Tiger and I walked down through the darkness to The Wall, where we’d resume our training session, I had this thought: If I ever need to call on this training, it won’t be when I’m rested and cool and ready. It will be something more like this, tired and irritated, in the dark, not so sure of myself as I’d like to be.

“Up!” Tiger says, and I draw the little Glock, brace my Surefire, and start addressing the steel targets on the other side of The Wall.

Handgunning’s Higher Level

I've taken classes at Shootrite nearly a dozen times over the years, both solo and in the company of other students—civilian, law enforcement, and military—shooting the Defensive and Combative Handgun courses, using both Tiger's guns and my own Colt Sporter. When I bought my primary hunting rifle, a Remington 700 LTR in .308, I took it first to Shootrite to truly get to know the weapon—we ran a short, 500 round version of what might be called "practical rifle" and when that day was done, I honestly felt like that rifle was a part of me.

And now I'm back for more.

We’re working next-level handgunning here tonight. We’re done (for now—no one is ever “done” with the practice of essential skills) with the manipulation drills, the malfunction-clearing, the reloading, the holstering and drawing. Although we’re old friends, Tiger still watches me like a drill sergeant watching a new recruit as I perform the safety checks and procedures.

A primary principle of using cover is creating distance from the object being used for protection.  This reduces the chances of being injured by the debris and bullet fragments that result when the th
A primary principle of using cover is creating distance from the object being used for protection. This reduces the chances of being injured by the debris and bullet fragments that result when the threat is shooting back at you and hitting the hard surface of your cover. Whenever possible you want to remain on your feet, but the cover may require firing from a kneeling position. The author notes that he’s a little too close to the window here, but that was required to clearly see the target. Perfect does not exist.author photo

Tiger has trained under the best there is, all across the U.S., attaining an expert rating in pistol and rifle under the old warrior-scholar battleaxe, Col. Jeff Cooper (which is something that less than 10 percent of Cooper’s students ever achieved). Then he brought it all back home to north Alabama and started his own academy. I try never to miss a chance to train here at his much expanded facility near Langston.

Handgunning is a lifelong study for me, an art that I may never master, and therein lies the attraction. I don’t train so that I will be ready for battle if the need ever comes, any more than I practice jujitsu because I want to choke or arm-bar people. I train at Shootrite and at home because I love the art of the pistol, and if I do ever have to use a pistol to defend myself and family, my love of the art will have prepared me for that unfortunate moment.

A 400-Round “Refresher”

We’d started the week before, with a “refresher day” of five hours and 400 rounds through Tiger’s own stripped-down-to-the-essentials Colt 1911 .45. (I am traveling light on this trip and am without my Colt Commander, which is why I used Tiger’s Glock 19 for the night shooting session.) It was just before noon, and the thermometer on the range read 105 degrees. “This heat will give us something to work against,” Tiger said, throwing me a bottle of water. There is no illusion here that we are engaged in anything but the most intense and serious business—that of learning and practicing the martial art of the pistol. Our joking and reminiscing has stopped. A trauma kit printed with a list of emergency phone numbers is on the bench. Tiger carefully outlines his safety protocols:

Shooting at night, using a handheld Surefire on the left side of the rifle.
Shooting at night, using a handheld Surefire on the left side of the rifle.author photo

“All guns are always loaded. Never point the muzzle at anything you are not willing to destroy. Finger off the trigger. Always identify your target and what is behind and surrounding it.” He pauses. “These are not rules. These are laws. Rules can be bent. Laws mean you suffer real consequences if you break them. The thing that most people don’t connect—you can call it self-defense, or combat, or whatever you want to, but these laws still apply. If you are under stress, wherever you are, whatever the situation, you still have to follow them. You can’t let you finger creep down to the trigger. You cannot shoot if you cannot identify your target. You cannot let your muzzle sweep across innocent bystanders. If you ever have to fire your weapon, you have to identify your target and be 100 percent certain that you are legally and morally in the right before you shoot. You can support the castle doctrine and still understand that there are drunks out there who stagger into the wrong houses.

“We train so that these laws become second nature. In order to use a firearm properly, which means safely and efficiently, you have to train. We introduce the techniques then we practice the techniques, creating skills through repetition.”

I haven’t been shooting as much this summer, and I’m rusty. At first there is too much to take in: shooting from retention position, pistol held almost against my right ribcage, from a distance of two feet, is intimidating. But after a few magazines, it starts coming back. The hits are good, center of the paper target, and the blast and the recoil feels normal, feels right.

Then we step back to 12 feet or so. Aim—let your vision focus on the front sight. Hold. Pressssss. Follow through. Two rounds to center mass. Shoot the pistol dry, release mag, reload. Fire two rounds, move right. “By moving, we force our opponent to react to us,” says Tiger. “At first, we are reacting to our opponent—that is self-defense. No one can react as fast as someone can act. So we change the equation. Two rounds, then move. Don’t cross your feet. Shuffle step, wrestling step, strong base. Reload.” I’m getting it. Or getting it back.

I take a break for another bottle of water and to tape the web of muscle and skin between my right thumb and forefinger that is getting punished by the grip safety on Tiger’s 1911. I am in fair shape, used to the heat, have been fishing the backcountry in Montana this summer, but this is effort of another sort, intense focus combined with lots of, well, trying not to mess it up. I want the hits, I want to be good at this. Every time I remember the mantra “Front sight. Pressssss,” I hit. Almost every time I forget it, I miss. Tiger calls this the forgetting process: “Okay, I’m going to shoot now! I am anticipating the recoil with tensed muscles! Now I will slap the trigger!” I try not to do that.

The rifle is the Shootrite Katana in .223.
The rifle is the Shootrite Katana in .223.author photo

By the time we have burned a hundred more rounds on The Wall, crouching and kneeling, using cover, never looking down at your reload, never taking your eyes off the targets, I’m cashed. But for awhile I’m also shooting pretty well, with far more bangs on the steel of the targets than clouds of dust beside or behind it.

When I get my breath and another bottle of water, I notice that I’m having a real good time. For the past hour, I have not thought about one single thing beyond this pistol and those targets. Deadlines, credit cards, farm equipment, blown tires and a roof that needs replacing—it’s all been swept aside and behind me.

Such Zen-like bliss is not to last.

Drills Designed to Unnerve

When I return to Shootrite later that day, we start the low-light and night classes about an hour before twilight, to get accustomed to the manipulations of pistol and flashlight. As long as I’m moving and using cover to my right, I can use the grip I know best: Surefire in the left hand with thumb on the switch, left wrist underneath and bracing my right, left wrist cocked up hard so that the back of my left hand provides a stable opposing platform. I’ve practiced this a lot, and it works for me. I’m getting the hits on the paper.

Then, the drill is to move left, using the cover. Now, the light shines hard, but my target, as soon as it gets dark, will be invisible to me. I swap position, using my left fist to hold the light and bracing against the pistol, my fist under my right thumb. Immediately, I start missing, consistently right of target. I relax and quit pushing so hard with my left fist, concentrate on using the light and pressing the trigger, and my shots come back towards center.

At full dark, we walk the short distance down to The Wall. Tiger explains the tactics of low light shooting. You cannot, in any real fight, leave your light on for more than three seconds, he says. “And when the light goes off, you better be on the move, left or right, because your opponent is going to be shooting at that light.” He demonstrates the old FBI-style of illuminating a threat, with the light held high over the head to draw fire away from vital areas, then holds the light far out left, for the same goal. “Any way you do it, you can’t just stand there with your light on.”

Shooting from retention position for close-quarters threat situations. Often times a situation may occur when the threat is too close to extend the handgun out to a normal firing position.  In this ca
Shooting from retention position for close-quarters threat situations. Often times a situation may occur when the threat is too close to extend the handgun out to a normal firing position. In this case the “retention firing” position is used. The body actually aims the weapon to put hits on the threat. The strong hand is braced against the ribs for a stable platform for the pistol to operate against. The left hand (not visible) is holding the shirt.author photo

The Glock is equipped with an XS 24/7 Express sight – “just dot the i” with a Big Dot Tritium front sight. It’s a great system--just two points to line up. But at somewhere over the next 200 rounds, I forget that there are only two points. I’m unconsciously putting the big front sight beside the rear sight, trying to bracket it as I would with my own standard-iron sighted 1911. The steel targets stop clanging. In my bursts of light, I can see dust flying to the left of the target. This goes on for quite awhile. “Finger straight! Safety on!” Tiger says from the darkness. I shroud my light with my hand to keep it from blinding us, and turn it on. “You see the sight, yes?” Tiger says. “You know what it is you are doing wrong?” “Yes.” I say, looking at the Glock. I am worn out and ready to quit, but there’s no way we’re quitting on a failing note. “Up!”

The Weapon Alone Will Not Protect You

There is no substitute for instruction from people who know better than you do how to do something, who have devoted years and years of practice and training to learn something that you want to know, even if you only want to know it well enough to do it at a fairly basic level, and be able to do it under pressure or stress. There is no substitute for practice, for those 3000 repetitions that some say are required for our muscles to perform an action without conscious thought.

Tiger and I sit in the darkness after the class and talk. “A half-assed solution applied immediately is better than the perfect solution applied after the world has fallen down around your ears,” says Tiger. It’s a philosophical ramble through the culture of personal responsibility, of accountability and duty to family, self and other people. And it all comes back to practice. “I’m lucky, in that I always loved shooting and guns,” Tiger says. “But I know there are people out there who buy a firearm, take it to the range and shoot it a few times, then seem to be convinced that they are ready to defend themselves or others with it. It’s a belief that seems to be unique to firearms. Nobody tries to sign up for the UFC because they bought a pair of MMA gloves at Wal-Mart. Having a weapon and never practicing with it is like buying a rabbit’s foot and believing it will protect you.

Shooting from retention position for close-quarters threat situations. Often times a situation may occur when the threat is too close to extend the handgun out to a normal firing position.  In this ca
Leaning right, trying to keep pistol as level as possible, keeping as much of the body behind cover as possible while engaging the targets. The author points out that he began poorly, as evidenced by the dust plume to the left of the target, got better at it as the afternoon wore on…then worse…then better again.author photo

“I want to be clear on this: My ultimate goal is to get as many people out there aware of what they actually need to use their firearms safely and effectively. It doesn’t really matter to me if they come here to get it or not--just as long as they know they need it, and get it somewhere.”

We packed up weapons and ammo, put on headlamps to gather brass, and then headed for the trucks.

A few weeks later, Tiger sent me this quote by email, with little other explanation:

“Therefore, while we would by all means discourage the indiscriminate carrying of firearms, we would recommend every one to acquire a thorough knowledge of the best methods of using them.”

It took me awhile to remember why the quote was familiar to me—it was from a book published back in 1875 that I had been reading in the Shootrite office, which has an extensive library. The quote admirably summed up our discussions. It also made me realize: It has been this way forever. People who train seriously with firearms are holding on to one of the most powerful traditions of humankind.

I’m proud to be one of them.

Shooting from retention position for close-quarters threat situations. Often times a situation may occur when the threat is too close to extend the handgun out to a normal firing position.  In this ca
Shootrite offers a variety of different classes, including instruction in the use of smaller pocket or ankle pistols. Here students are dropping to a kneeling position in order to draw their weapon, and then working their way up to standing, which is followed by creating distance and/or moving to cover.author photo