Improving ‘The Most Important Shot’

I don’t think it’s any real revelation to say that the most important skill in defensive shooting is the first shot from the holster. Every story you will read about an armed citizen using their gun in a shooting has one thing in common… They had to get their gun out and shoot! After the first shot rings out, the shooting problem becomes much more complicated. Shooting skills such as shooting on the move, shooting multiple targets, reloading, malfunction work, grappling in a weapons based environment, retention shooting, and a hundred others are all important. However, they all require you to already have the gun in your hand. Taking this into consideration, I spend a significant amount of time (both live and dryfire) practicing what I consider to be the most important skill in shooting. I am currently working on making this faster, more accurate, and more repeatable. I’m going to list my approach but please understand that I’m open for suggestions and ways to improve.

What are the components of a rapid first hit?

  • Clearing the cover garment. Ideally you will chose a way that works regardless of clothing choices and time of year. I do a ‘Hackathorn Rip‘ which essentially is grabbing as much jacket/shirt material as I can with my left hand, ripping it as high as I can get it, keeping my left hand high on my pectoral muscle, while establishing a full firing grip on the gun with the right hand. If you go to that link, you’ll see there’s like 12 jillion ways to clear your cover garment. In the interest of not having to remember what season it is, and whether my jacket is unzipped, I decided to just pull all that crap out of the way and get my gun. This might slow me down a bit, but I’m OK with that for the sake of robustness (H/T Gomez). It’s better than leaving some shirt material in the way to foul my draw. I like this method because the left hand is holding the shirt material and waiting for the gun hand to pass through the horizontal line of presentation so it can mate with the right hand.
  • Doing a perfect draw-stroke. I have made the conscious decision in my practice to forgo a competition draw stroke in which the gun goes in a straight line from holster to full extension (shortest distance). I have been working with a universal draw-stroke with a built in retention position, as well as the ability to stop along the horizontal line of presentation to shoot, depending on the proximity of the threat. This approach makes the most sense to me analytically, and I’ve experienced the usefulness during force on force evolutions in ECQC and in our training group. I understand that in order to shave significant time off of my draw-stroke, I may have to modify the path of my draw-stroke to a more direct line a la Ron Avery. I haven’t decided if that’s worth it or not.
  • Begin refining the sight picture and prepping the trigger as the gun presses out to full extension. Bring the gun to your eye, not the other way around. I keep my muzzle horizontal under my dominant eye throughout the draw, and the gun never goes lower than it was an instant before. I get the gun into my eye-target line as quickly as possible, and begin touching the trigger as the slide and sights become visible in the lower portion of my peripheral vision. The idea is that as the gun approaches full extension, the sight picture is refined and the trigger has a few pounds of pressure on it. The shot will break just as the gun reaches full extension and you’ll put the shot exactly where it needed to go. An alternative to this method is one taught by Todd Green of where the gun is angled slightly up as the gun is brought from the holster and the front sight is slightly higher than the rear. As you present the gun, the front sight is driven straight towards the target as the rear sight is brought up to meet it. This method is nice when searching with a gun in your hand in an averted muzzle ready position, where you keep the gun angled up while looking past the front sight post as you move. I have given time to both methods, though I’ve never been formally instructed in TLG’s method. Here’s a clip of Gomez discussing some of these points. The relevant video starts at 2:30 or so.
  • Seeing what you need to see to make a good shot. There are countless books and videos about this, but in a nutshell it’s about only taking as much time as you need to take to make the shot you need to make. Perfecting this comes with experience, coaching, and lots of practice. It’s the part I struggle with the most. A torso shot at 4 yards and an eyeball shot at 15 yards require different levels of refinement of both sight picture, as well as trigger control.
  • Don’t be a spaz. Moving ‘faster’ doesn’t necessarily allow you to make a faster shot. For me, it just makes my sights bounce around a lot more and takes me time to correct them at the last instant. Like Avery says in that video above, trimming the wasted movement seems to go a long way in improving speed.

 How do I get better?

Step one, find a reputable instructor who teaches this sort of thing. Learn the correct way to do it, then take it back home and practice practice practice. You should also have a timer. Use either a proper shot timer, or download a shot timer for your smart phone. You’ll want to use it for par times and eventually capture actual times that you can use to carve away wasted movement. Get video of yourself shooting. Looking at yourself is different than just concentrating on how your movement feels. You might see something really stupid that you can’t feel yourself doing.

What drills can I shoot?

I’m using these two live fire drills currently:

Press Six – This drill uses progressively shortening time standards, and increases the round count. It will force you to get hits quickly and test your follow through and grip when making the multiple shot strings. I’ve started at 3 yards, and follow the instructions on the drill for when to move the target further away.

3-two-1 – This drill forces you to ‘see what you need to see’ to make shots on a given target sizes. I’m hoping this one will help me improve breaking shots more quickly when the target is larger, and keep me honest on sights and trigger for lower probability targets.

I’m doing the following in my dry fire practice:

Target is a scaled down torso with aiming spot on the high center chest. Distance varies but I try to simulate between 3 and 15 yards with the reduced size target. Please follow safe dry-fire practices and don’t put a hole through your TV.

20 – perfect and deliberate draws with trigger press. Take your time and do everything how you want to do it.

20 – 3/4 speed draws with trigger press.

15 – full speed draws with trigger press. Occasionally I’ll use a par timer and set it for 1.5 to 2 seconds. I am concentrating on finding the front sight and having the shot break as I reach full extension. This requires some honesty with myself and occasionally a video camera. Video doesn’t lie.

5- perfect and deliberate draws with trigger press. I finish with a perfect mechanics.

This is a great resource for dry fire. It’s pretty old at this point, but it keeps dry fire interesting.


Any tips you can turn me onto, I’d appreciate it. I’m just trying to get better like everyone else!!!
Protect the Brood,

Defensive Daddy.

The Universal Draw Stroke

“The Draw Stroke is the Draw Stroke is the Draw Stroke.”

-Paul Gomez explaining the drawstroke from several unorthodox positions

Paul Gomez, the personal protection integrator who passed away well before this time, once said that simple phrase that has stuck with me ever since. He was good about quips that you would have to contemplate and reflect on. At the time, the realities of self-defense and ‘The Fight’ were starting to become clearer to me. I realized that if I had to use my gun, I wouldn’t be slapping iron at noon in a dusty street while the town folk were watching from the front of the saloon (Insert your own personal gunfight fantasy).

Skin that Smoke wagon!

Upon watching and reading about the dynamics, lighting conditions, circumstances, terrain, distances, number of criminals, and locations in defensive shootings (gun fights, or gun battles) there was only one thing that was consistent. This is that the good guy didn’t get to choose when it went down. We, as the reactionary party, are attacked when it’s the worst possible time for us, and the best possible time for them.

As I wrote about in practice by the odds, a person should spend most of their time/resource constrained practice time working the most likely needed skill sets and streamline their mechanics to cover the widest set of circumstances one possibly can.

Your gunfight (hopefully we get lucky enough to make it a shooting instead) might be at thirty feet in a parking deck, at arms range in bank, in the hallway outside of your child’s room, in the front seat of your car, or on your back next to an ATM. So how can we as responsible and thinking gun owners, try to account for as MANY of these scenarios as possible with one set of mechanics for getting our gun into play? We can’t try to do something different for each scenario and have a different way to get the gun into play for each one. The decision tree quickly branches into an unmanageable (and slow) pile of options. The method of ‘if this, then this’ is why certain martial arts fall apart under pressure.

When I punch like this, you block like that… No higher.. a little left… OK perfect.

So we need a draw stroke that works within as many of the scenarios as we can imagine. We need an ‘if anything happens, you only need this one movement’ type of thing. Luckily for me, there are guys like Gomez, Craig Douglas, Greg Ellifritz, Cecil Burch, Chris Fry, James Yeager, Paul Sharp, Larry Lindenman, Aaron Little, and all of the gentlemen and scholars that teach a robust universal draw stroke and it’s integration into a self defense program.

The universal draw-stroke is so useful because with one mechanic we can handle probably 99% of all scenarios that one could imagine. It works while standing, lying, seated, while grappling, in a competition, from appendix or behind the hip, in a retention position, whatever you’ve got.

The Steps

  1.  Clear obstructions which could foul building a full (fuckin’) firing grip. This one can be deceptively complicated. In the simplest case with an open top holster in a shooting range, you can actually skip this step completely. Slightly more complicated might be breaking holster retention devices or clearing concealment garments. If seated, you might have to clear garments and a seat belt. If you’re in a fouled up tangle (gun grapple) of arms and legs, it might mean doing an arm drag and controlling the nearest arm to the gun. This step has the most depth of any of the parts of the draw-stroke. You can go deep deep deep into training all the complications that this one step can cause.
  2. Establish a full firing grip. Building the grip with all of the proper index points is key. This is the first, and probably last time in your fight that you’ll have to build a good grip. Get a lot of practice and make it count.
  3. Begin an efficient (no wasted movement) draw in which the gun is never lower than it was a moment before. Keep your elbows from tracking away from your torso. Being in proximity to non-involved parties that you don’t want to hang up on while drawing and opening holes between your arms and your torso for the bad guy to control your arms being the primary reasons.
  4. Move to an indexed position of retention. This is important because you may need to shoot with someone in contact with you, swinging a pipewrench, or otherwise in your intimate space. If you need to shoot from here, you can stop your draw and begin shooting.
  5. Move the gun to a horizontal position under the dominant eye. Your hands can come together at this point. Or for one handed shooting, you can begin pressing the gun out to full extension. While the gun is coming out, you should be bringing the gun into the eye-target line as quickly as possible. This gives you time to refine your sight picture as you are reaching full extension, which will allow you to start shooting quicker.

Example Photos:

Gun behind the hip.
Gun behind the hip.
IPhone Photos Dump3
With ‘appendix’ carry, the retention position is a small diversion from the straight line draw. It’s easy to fall into the retention position as needed, however. My body is a bit more bladed than I intended in that photo. Ideally, I’d be more square to the target.
IPhone Photos Dump
Clear seat-belt, clear garment, draw as needed.
IPhone Photos Dump2
Standing grapple

In Closing

I think spending the time to drill and ingrain this draw-stroke is time well spent. Having the framework to shoot from different positions without having to think about the mechanics is crucial. You’ll have enough other things to think about. When learning this draw, you should seek training under a watchful eye so you learn all the nuance involved. When you’re drilling and learning this draw, strive for perfect repetitions. Try to hit all of the index points so you will have the kinestetic awareness of how your body feels and where it is in space. I would pause at each way point along the way, imagining myself as a robot moving perfectly.

What you’ll probably find is that when you’re going for supreme speed in a competition or when you know you’re shooting at distance, the sharp corners of your draw will ’round’ and you’ll move in a more direct path to the target. That’s OK. You’re a thinking being and you will know when it’s appropriate. Having a framework to fall back on is what matters here. One Draw Stroke to rule them all… or something.

Getting Training

Here’s a list, in no particular order, of some trainers who can teach you this stuff:

The Bell-Curve: Shooting Practice by the Odds

This post is another in the theme of getting the most utility out of a very limited training time and budget. In the first article, I tried to give the general structure of how I allocate training and practice time to the different sub-disciplines I deem important for defense of my family and myself (you should pick yours based on your situation) . In this post, we will look at the most probable armed citizen encounters and then we can associate some skill building exercises and drills to help guarantee we are ‘good enough’ to handle most situations. I know a lot of people will take issue with only reaching for the “lowest rung of the ladder”, but hear me out first. I feel a person should always hold themselves to a higher standard in any discipline they choose to pursue, but to many people the next step in shooting is an unsolvable quagmire of conflicting messages from youtube, movies, gun-rag articles, and the tacticool gurus who are out of touch with the realities of the truly average gun owner. So this article could be used as the jumping point to escape “I know which end is the dangerous end” skill levels to whatever level of proficiency you choose to acquire.

First, some background:

There seems to be a huge gap in the knowledge base and skill-set of shooters in the training community. I’m talking about the sub-set of folks between the most basic of NRA shooters and the training junkies. There is a middle ground of people who realize they need to know more, but don’t know where to start. Others in this group own a gun and mistakenly think of it as a talisman which will ward off evil by it’s mere presence (to be honest, a lot of times it does, but I won’t let you off that easy). It’s our job to recognize we are not as good as we think we are and we must have the metacognition to escape from the Dunning-Kruger effect. I’m writing this entry for all of the above groups.

These people (possibly you) don’t necessarily want to be tossed into a 2 day, 1000 round shooting extravaganza. You might only want or have time for a single day of instruction. You might only have time for a single range trip every other month. We have families and strict budgets but we know that we need more than basic instruction. What, then, are the most critical skills to prevail in a defensive gun use with minimal round counts and maximal learning opportunities? You could probably imagine several shooters who could use this information. For instance, my wife, my mother, and my father all fit this profile. How can we get them ‘good enough’ to win most of the time?

Mission: To find and establish a ‘most probable’ set of skills (and drills to practice) based on real armed citizen encounters.

First, I’m an engineer. If you ask me how to find a formula or table, my job is to know how to find the data in a book or database and then try to apply it to the situation. I suppose I do that with this self-defense thing. We as shooters have access to huge pools of raw data in the form of articles, news clips, and  also researchers who like to compile this sort of info. We would be foolish to not take advantage of these great resources. In the interest of maintaining my sanity and free time, I rely on the aggregators to do the work. I also trust in the great minds that have come ahead of me and filter their recommendations through my own experiences, situation, skill-set, and available training resources. Do the same for yourself.

Here is The Tactical Professor’s page of links to different shootings you can study.

Here is Reddit’s Defensive Gun Use subreddit. You can quickly scroll through and find hundreds of recent defensive gun uses, including bad shoots.

Here is Guns Save Lives. With over 1200 cataloged DGUs. You can divide it by caliber, location, number of bad guys, and so on. It’s great.

The most Probable Distance:

Here’s a great article from Tom Givens of

The majority of these incidents involved an armed robbery, which I believe is probably the most likely scenario for armed self-defense by private citizen. … the typical armed robbery occurs at anywhere from two or three steps, to roughly the length of a car — between the robber and his victim. That is, then, about three to seven yards typically, or say nine to 21′ or so. This is the distance at which most of my students have had to use their guns. I believe we should do the bulk of our training and practice at these “most likely” distances.

So it would appear that our most probable shooting distance would be between 3 and 5 yards. This is if you carry a gun concealed (I hope you are, please do). If you only have a house gun, you should practice distances that range from 3 yards, up to the longest distance in your home. You have to tailor this stuff to your reality.

The most useful Target Size:

Given the geometry of the human heart and upper lung fields, a great target size is a 5″ diameter circle. A sharpie marker and an old CD make cheap circles. Draw an aiming point in the center and you have a good target. The smaller your point of aim, the smaller your group size will tend to be. “Aim small; Miss small”, right?

For the ocular cavity, a 3×5 notecard makes for a great target to simulate this area. You can draw some eyeballs on the card if you’re fancy, or just shoot at The Tactical Professor’s eyeball target.

cranial vault


The Most Important Shooting Skill:

I personally think the single best shooting skill you can hone to a fine edge is the draw to a single shot. This is assuming you carry a gun everyday.  If you only keep a gun unloaded in your safe, or in a nightstand, then you need to practice from this condition. Practice picking the gun off of the table, rack the slide and do your shooting. There is literally no sense wasting time and money on holsters and mag pouches if you will only ever use these things for training. The condition that you choose to keep your firearms is none of my business, or anyone else’s. But they are your business. You need to get repetitions getting your weapons into action, however you chose to keep them.

After the first shot, the shooting problem gets much more complicated. Watch any CCTV video of a shooting. Once pistols start discharging, everyone starts moving faster. This makes hitting things even harder, so you might as well get really really good at that first shot. This is not to say that you should only work single shots from the holster. In fact, I think there’s a better ‘base line’ drill that requires multiple shots. Just make sure you put time in on this. If you are shooting your .22 Special Application Rifle, then you’ll want to consider starting your drill from whatever condition you keep your rifle. For example, I’m having my wife start with an empty chamber, mag in, safety on. She’s getting reps of manipulating the rifle as it rests in the closet at home as she’s getting reps of the shooting. Kill as many birds with as few stones as possible.

The Most Important Defensive Skill:

The most important thing you can do with a gun in your hand is learn to think and make rational decisions. As a result, decisional shooting drills must be part of your practice in some way. If all you ever do is do a smoking fast draw to a headshot, well maybe that’s all you’ll ever do when it counts. The problem is, the right choice might have been to draw and hold the scumbag at gunpoint and walk him out of your house and let the cops do their job and handle him. Thinking with a gun in your hand is a necessary skill.

The Pressure of Time:

Time is the least definable aspect of this whole thing. I will generally default to the drill designers for par times. Par times are a great way to add stress to an otherwise carefree drill. I encourage you to download a par timer for your smart phone. The timer adds a stress that is very valuable to an entry level (any level) shooter. The par times should be generous, but still provide motivation and urgency to execute the shooting cleanly and efficiently. I find that a shot timer is nice when you have access to a private range, but public indoor ranges (the norm in Atlanta) are loud and shot timers are hit or miss.

What about Reloads? One Handed-Shooting? Stoppage reduction?

Reloads, one hand shooting, and clearing malfunctions have a very very low chance of occurring during the already improbable chance that you’ll need to get your gun out in public. That said, I’ll throw in a drill that you can do to get a few repetitions of these things so that if you need to do it under the stress of a real DGU, you have been there before in your mind, and hopefully can make it work in the moment.

I encourage you to read Claude Werner’s (The Tactical Professor) great article about the same topic: What skills should we train and practice?; you will see Claude’s influence on my thinking when approaching this problem. I owe a lot of my current approach to firearms training to conversations we’ve had. Here’s a data table from the article.

What I was looking for this time was the skills and techniques that were used by The Armed Citizens to solve their problems. Each incident was looked at from the perspective of skills that could or might be taught in an entry level to intermediate level firearms training class. Here’s what the list and usage rates ended up looking like from 10% up and 0%:

  • Retrieve from Storage (handgun)                32%
  • Move safely from place to place at ready    22%
  • Draw to shoot                                        20%
  • Challenge from ready                                  15%
  • Intervene in another’s situation                  15%
  • Draw to challenge                                        12%
  • Engage from ready (handgun)                     12%
  • Hold at gunpoint until police arrive              12%
  • Retrieve from Storage (unknown)               10%
  • Shoot with non-threats downrange            10%
  • Retrieve from Storage (rifle)                        0%
  • Reload                                                  0%

So despite how much it’s stressed in most classes, it’s very unlikely that you will need to do a reload in a gunfight. But you see that you should be practicing opening your safe quickly, or drawing to shooting.

The Drills

I’m legitimately open to your input for changes here. I want to cover enough drills that will use about 100-150 rounds of ammunition, take a little over an hour to shoot, and cover most of the bases that need covering.

  • Gila Hayes (modification by C. Werner) from Effective Defense– 5x5x5 (mod: 5^5 drill) 5 shots, 5 seconds, 5″ circle, 5 yards, 5 times in a row (Claude’s contribution). This is just such a simple drill to setup, remember, and touches on nearly all of the “average” gun fight skill-sets. Mrs. Hayes uses it as a qualifier to demonstrate when a person can shoot their chosen carry handgun well enough to carry. If you can’t pass the 5x5x5 with your mouse gun in .25 acp, then you should consider a different gun. When you have someone shoot this drill with a weapon with mounted light, have them activate the light before they shoot this drill. They will get practice with the shooting, as well as manipulating the light so they don’t shoot someone they don’t mean to. (25 rounds)
  • Claude Werner’s (The Tactical Professor) evil eyeballs drill. This will give you practice on low probability (either tiny or far) targets. It forces you to concentrate on trigger and sights, and practice from both the holster and from a low ready. Also, nothing builds confidence like when you start punching the pupil meat out of the eyeballs. (10 shots)TARG-Claude's Evil Eyes
  • Claude Werner’s Self Directed Decisional Shooting Drill. Claude uses this drill in his decision based shooting classes. I’ve come up with a way to shoot it by yourself and still get the benefit. Buy a few of each of these targets, or make reduced sizes for printing on 8.5″x11″ paper. Target A, Target B, Target C. Then, write the following on individual 3×5 notecards:
    • Red
    • Yellow
    • Blue
    • Green
    • Triangle
    • Square
    • Circle
    • Heart
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
    • 5
    • 6
    • 7

Drill goes like:

If it’s a number you flip over, shoot the corresponding numbered shapes with one shot. If the number isn’t on your target, draw and hold at a low ready. If it’s a color you flip over, shoot the number of shots written in each shape of that color. If the color isn’t on your target, then draw and hold at a low ready. If it’s a shape you flip over, shoot the number of shots written on each shape that you flipped over. If that shape isn’t on your target, then draw to a low ready. You can add task loading to this by adding a verbalization aspect to the low ready hold. You can add dummy rounds into your magazines. You can also draw multiple cards, and force yourself to remember several cards before engaging. This can be a brain melter. (round count varies)

  • Here’s another decisional shooting drill from Travis Haley:
  • The Dot Torture Drill – Here’s a link to the drill. This drill is a good one to do once every few months. Keep your old targets and compare your performance. Start at 3 yards and bump it back 1/2 or a yard once you can shoot it clean at 3 yards. This drill will have you working some strong hand, weak hand, reloads, transitions, and multiple shots on low probability targets. Even though the statistics don’t seem to show that many reloads or weak hand shooting happens in DGU’s, it’s still useful to know what it feels like to do those things. The first time you need to make a weak hand only shot shouldn’t be during a gun fight. (50 rounds)

Don’t fall into the trap of just ‘training the drill’. Here’s a great article about that topic. These drills should be an audit of your skills. Or in some cases, a baseline standard for what is ‘good enough’ to allow you to get through ‘average’ gunfights or armed encounters. I really think that these drills cover the most important shooting skills that will satisfy the 80/20 rule.

Other Resources for Drills:

If you want your head to explode from the sheer number of drills, here’s some more resources:

A great book by Michael Seeklander – Your Defensive Handgun Training Program

In closing:

While these drills are a great start and the bell-curve of shootings seems to be pretty clear when looking at huge pools of data, there are outliers. It is in these rarest of rare instances that your level of proficiency and selection of tools will be the dividing line. John from Ballistic Radio just wrote about this. Ultimately, you must hold yourself to a higher standard and push to the limits that you are capable of pushing.

After all,

…Statistics are cold comfort after you discover that your case is the rare exception.

Jeff Cooper – Principles of Personal Defense

Thank you for reading this long post. I felt it was important and I needed to get it out. I hope you enjoyed it and got something from it. Please share it with your friends and use it to help people out of the murky depths of unconscious incompetence. Please subscribe to the blog, and shop through the G.U.G. Amazon Store click-thru to help support the blog.

Stay Safe and Protect the Brood,

Defensive Daddy