A very long time ago I believed some very ridiculous things. I believed them because they were told to me by people who appeared knowledgeable or were in a position to teach me, so I trusted their imparting of knowledge completely. I can’t say I picked everything up at once. It was more like a slow process of mentally digesting stoic and wise bits of learned facts and understanding over a period of time while I was still too gullible, naïve or ignorant to know better. I was regaled by the sheer wisdom and solid thinking of men I respected, of teachers in a position to sprinkle their knowledge on hundreds or thousands of nubile minds. Because it seemed to reason that if someone is entrusted either by position or respect to pass skills and information onto others, they most certainly are doing so with a concrete understanding and truth of what they pass on, right?
Sadly, no. That is so not right that it should be chiseled in stone. We should add President Reagan’s simple words, “Trust, but verify” to the frame or receiver of every firearm sold. It’s a sad truth that is as timeless as men telling tales around a campfire about the veracity of their spear or later the strength of their bronze sword. For as long as there has been conversation, there has been myth, misinformation and ego to protect it. Not every instructor I had fell into this category, but many did.
Everything is a two way street. Perhaps I should even say at least a two way street. For as much as there are those who have true knowledge to lend, there are plenty who are repeating things heard, understood out of context or simply made up. Sometimes we as the students make it easy by not questioning when questions should be asked. Myths are stubborn, not because they are hard to disprove (many in firearms aren’t) but because even when shown to be incorrect, there is a standing line of those more than willing to keep the myth alive out of ignorance, stupidity or emotional opinion. It continues to amaze me that in our world today we have near limitless access to information, yet people still don’t put in the work for themselves or are comfortable believing something just because they like the person who told them.
I make a concerted effort to never write about or teach incomplete or unverified information. I’m not talking about my personal opinions on techniques, rather the actual facts that relate to a technique. If I forgo facts for personal opinion or gain, I’m not really helping anyone besides myself and anyone who wants to sign on to my cult of personality and even then that help is superficial. It doesn’t extend into the real-world, it exists in the training world only. What? Let me put it like this: I can teach and demonstrate how to deflect a bad guys gun while drawing my own and delivering accurate fire to stop the threat; totally ignoring the fact that deflection does not equal control and anything swatted away, much like a fly, is bound to come right back to do what it wanted to do in the first place (in this case, shoot you). It looks awesome on the range and on the mat, but it doesn’t reflect reality. Sure, many people are going to figure out quick that there is a flaw in the technique, but it doesn’t matter because even more people will never go beyond how fast its performed and how cool the video for it looks. If my personality cult is well established, I will have people defend it on my merit, not that of the technique and that is wrong.
Another example? What about teaching students to throw their arms up to protect their face/chest before drawing their weapon as an automatic response? Makes sense for protecting against a thrown blow…doesn’t make sense for any other situation, yet if it’s sold under some scientific premise as a this is what happens in real life line, then it carries an air of authority and common sense. It’s sold as a reflex to a startle when there are dozens (at least) of possible such reactions and trying to teach only one is foolish and harmful. Never mind that it take 10 minutes on Google to find half a dozen papers written by experts in neurology and kinesiology to disprove it. It doesn’t matter because people aren’t going to put in the work because they believe and want to believe that source of information because they trust them.
That trust works both ways. What if an instructor decides an applicable technique is unsafe not based on any real proof, but because it’s a technique that’s either outside of their lane or outside of their understanding? One of the more recent issues that had some cliquish industry types show their colors is the “Temple Index” technique; specifically, how it was taken out of context not by the students, but by instructors who, because they were not familiar with it, decided it was unsafe and foolish. It was derided through the lens of range training, not actual real-world application. This despite the fat that it serves a very specific task, exercises safety of the known over the unknown and when working in close quarters, in and around vehicles or under exigent circumstances it is one of the best possible approaches to muzzle discipline.
How about Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast? This saying is meant to make us focus on the fundamentals and strive for correct performance, at least that is the idea. Usually what it does instead is validate slow performance under the premise that it is smooth and therefore fast. Speed is objective, not philosophical. Fast is fast, and no amount of explanations for why going slow is preferable will change that.
Trust, but verify.
Everyone has heard that: 9mm doesn’t stop bad guys, carry a .45 because they don’t make a .46, Stopping Power is measured by looking at a bullets weight/diameter and FPS, racking a shotgun will make the burglar flee in terror, putting an after-market trigger in your carry gun will get you put in prison (so will a Punisher back plate or magazine floor plate), center mass is the center of the chest, bullets rise when they leave the barrel and then arc down, rifle rounds go through everything and shouldn’t be used for home defense, two rounds to the chest does it every time, and one of my personal favorites, the 21 foot rule is the maximum distance someone can be with a knife and it be legal to shoot them.
Heard any of these?
How about the more scientific ones like; it takes 3000-5000 repetitions to learn a new motor skill? Or that your gross motor skills will absolutely fail at a high heart rate? Perhaps even that you should train to shoot with one eye closed because you can’t shoot with two eyes open under stress? That last one in particular continues to baffle me because if you printed out and collected all available evidence to the contrary in one location it would probably outweigh a small car.
All of these examples (and more) are instructed each day on ranges across the world. All of them are wrong, taught out of context or misunderstood by an instructor who is simply parroting the same crap he/she was fed early in their career and never bothered to verify on their own.
Of course I haven’t even included some of the more opinion-based matters – the veracity of head shots, training on 3D targets, crossing your feet for sideways movement, appendix carry, etc. because that would be a totally different conversation. Instead, sticking to the myths and misinformation so easily dispelled works to prove my point. To wit, our industry does a horrible job of policing itself to the point that even the most obviously unqualified or outside-their-lane instructors still enjoy an audience because its somehow wrong for one instructor to point out when another is factually mistaken.
‘Well that’s just your opinion’ doesn’t qualify in matters of verifiable fact. Unlike the sciences that (mostly) welcome open debate and peer review; the firearms world sometimes edges to the side of privileged fanaticism at its worst and personality cults at its best. Some instructors openly work together for the sake of the skill, though this seems to be more exception than rule. We suffered under the impractical Modified Weaver stance for decades because instructors, when shown proof that it did not translate to real life, refused to believe it because it went against what they wanted to teach or were already good at.
Putting holes in paper is a far cry different from putting holes in people. This is an important fact because as an instructor, that is what we are teaching people to do (assuming we self-identify as a self-defense instructor). Is personal gunfight experience a requirement? I say no, it isn’t. However what should be a personal requirement is to listen to those who have been there, to welcome the collective knowledge and lessons learned because it’s the best example of what happens and what instructors are training their students to be prepared for. An instructor who doesn’t listen to the personal and professional experiences of peers who have been involved in uses of force is a fool. No gunfight will ever occur under scientific controls, which makes actual accounts quite priceless.
This isn’t a case of teaching the latest fads. Fads are ever present in firearms, though knowing the difference between a fad and a new technique or piece of equipment based on lessons-learned requires asking the right questions or being given the right information by who is selling to/teaching you. Shooting continues to evolve, sometimes at a slow rate because it’s one of the few skills that require mortal feedback to improve. Some poor bastard has to run the risk of death or injury to prove or disprove theories, show the promise of a new piece of equipment, or verify that the new in-fashion grip gets rounds on bad guys just as well as it gets rounds on paper. This feedback is often collected personally by instructors, either through direct experience or though those who find themselves in shootings, near shootings or uses of force in general; what they do with that information is what matters most. If someone chooses to ignore a collection of information from real world circumstances because it goes against what they teach, then they are a dangerous liability to their student and to the community as a whole. Because of the unique circumstances and possible variables involved in any violent encounter, we cannot rely on the exceptions to the rule just because we prefer to teach them as the constants.
Context, context, context.
An informed student is a prepared student. Everything should be in context of what it is preparing you to do. There are many, many drills and scenarios that work well on the range, but do not directly reflect the possibilities of reality. So long as this is understood and explained as an unfortunate nature of the training artificialities of live fire because of safety needs, no harm is done. If the drill or scenario does not reflect reality and instead seems to exist only as some sort of arbitrary game or competition, this does no harm so long as that it is explained or at the very least understood as such. If there isn’t any context to a drill or scenario, what purpose does it serve other than to shoot ammo? Sometimes the context is very straight forward, i.e. accuracy, speed, movement, etc. Though sometimes it requires some explaining and that explanation is sometimes more beneficial to you the student than the drill or scenario itself.
I am not in the business of identifying and reinforcing your good habits while ignoring your bad. I am also not in the business of structuring my classes with a very low (and unrealistic) performance bar so you leave the range “certified” to feel good about your performance. My job is to help you identify your performance walls and move past them; to make you a better, more realistic shooter and to prepare you for the use of force. That is my context, which means that I have a duty to explain everything in that context. It’s your duty as the student to verify that which you are being taught before you pass it along to someone else.
My personal guideline
Even as an instructor, I will always be a student and do not now, nor will I ever consider myself a Subject Matter Expert (that title is decided by my peers, not me). I offer my own guideline as advice for approaching new knowledge, or verifying knowledge already instructed. These are the rules I created for myself a long time ago when I realized I had been sold some bad information and wanted to help prevent it from happening again. This became somewhat of a crusade for me because bad information can go viral faster than a YouTube video and the damage it does can be as simple as holding incorrect information in your head to getting you killed. These are my personal rules.
You cannot learn what you think you already know.
Pretty straightforward: Drivers license does not Formula One driver make. No one improves if they believe themselves already improved.
Find the motivation behind each lesson. The root of every technique.
The history of where a technique came from will often tell you why it replaced the old way and what makes it superior. From which way the bullets face in the magazine pouch to why we reload the weapon in our peripheral vision, there is a lesson in the lesson that puts it in context.
If it doesn’t make sense, dig deeper.
If it still doesn’t make sense, it probably never will. If someone can’t show me good reasoning to do a combat roll, my initial skepticism about doing one was probably well served.
Ask every question you have.
If someone says “we all know that…” and inserts a fact you didn’t know, ask away. If it comes down to you leaving the range with questions or battering down an instructor with questions, choose the latter. Get your time’s worth. Be willing to disagree if necessary and don’t be afraid to do so respectfully.
Don’t get emotionally invested in answers.
It’s okay to be wrong. If you want the answer to align with what you already believe, you are emotionally inclined to not believe the answer if it doesn’t. Take facts as facts as objectively as possible.
Weigh your personal experiences against everything you are taught.
You don’t show up to the class without personal experiences and knowledge. If something is taught as a constant that goes against your experiences in a similar situation, be sure to bring it up and when you do, be wary of being emotionally invested in the answer.
If what you are taught does not improve the way you are doing it, it may have not needed improving.
No one can change in 8 or 16 hours what you have been doing your entire life. It takes personal practice to alter established motor skills. If you meet the standards set but do so in a “non-approved” grip or stance, ask for credible reasoning as to why you should change. These reasons should make sense and add value to your performance.
Beware of the law of exceptions.
Examples can and often are used for why something is done. Are those examples exceptions to the rule? A technique that doesn’t make sense based on your personal experience may be because it’s an exception to the rule. Catastrophic exceptions are sometimes used to push a technique agenda.
Fact is fact.
Opinions be damned in the face of facts. Is the technique or piece of gear being recommended based on the former or the latter? If I am going to change the way I draw, It had better be based on lessons-learned not napkin theories or incomplete research.
Take no knowledge for granted.
Verify everything. This doesn’t mean you don’t trust the instructor; rather it is an excellent way to learn more about any given topic. If someone gives me two examples of how vision behaves under stress or how heart rate can affect performance, my personal research into it will help solidify (or disprove) training practices based on that information.
With the amount of information available to any one person in today’s world, we seem to have a greater tendency to take things at face value as opposed to spending the time looking into something. Maybe it’s because we have too much information floating around, or because we want to put our trust in the people we choose to learn from. In no way am I saying every instructor will purposely steer you wrong, because the vast majority won’t. But it does happen, and will likely continue to happen as long as we don’t put more stock in calling a spade a spade as a culture. You may only be able to take a professional course once or twice a year; I would like to think that the time you invest will be well spent; factual, informative and beneficial to your skills as a whole.
Trust, but verify.
About the Author: Aaron (Breach Bang COWAN!) is an idiot savant of the tactical variety from a little place we like to call Hotlanta (though apparently no one from down there calls it that). COWAN! is the Lead Instructor and HMFIC of program development for Sage Dynamics who believes every article should be roughly the equivalent of a doctoral thesis. To call him thorough would be to damn him with faint praise. We call him COWAN! because anything in all caps with an exclamation point after it must be awesome. A former infantryman turned PSC contractor and LEO, COWAN! has served in several SWAT and training billets. His company, Sage Dynamics, is a reality-focused firearms and tactics training company that provides practical instruction for the civilian, police and military professional. An identical twin whose brother went on to become Agent 47, COWAN! is the author of the novel Rushing Winter and the designated fluffer on the set of numerous training videos, including some really good ones with guns and science and tactics oh my here.