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Training Intent: People, Not Paper

In my experience, nothing changes the mood more on a range or in a conversation about training and practice than this simple truth; we are training to shoot people, not paper.

Now, I suppose there are different reasons for different people why this is a somewhat uncomfortable truth, and it certainly isn’t uncomfortable for everyone but it is something that isn’t discussed nearly enough in my opinion.  Since it isn’t discussed, it also isn’t expounded upon as a training guide; if we don’t humanize the training, then we fail to teach important aspects of the use of force against people.  Paper is a poor medium for training.  Not only does it rarely reflect real life in the three dimensional sense, but it also fails to demonstrate to the student, the citizen, officer or solider that they are indeed training to shoot people when/if it is called for.   This isn’t universal, there are instructors, agencies and units in the world who are humanizing their targets as much as possible, but they seem more the exception than what should be a stone carved rule.  Is this because we traditionally do not train against realistic targets, or because we want to avoid the modern taboos associated with firearms training because of fear of litigation?  I submit that it’s a little of both with a third complication; it is psychologically easier to sell holes in paper than it is holes in people.

3D Dressed Targets

When the sword was the common weapon (at least for some geographical areas), from around 3300 BC to the waning years of the early 19th century, training was varied from nation to nation and evolved as the weapon did.  The Roman Empire trained with wooden Wasters against live sparring partners, wooden poles and human figures made of straw or other material.  The Japanese and Chinese both worked against straw or wooden silhouettes and of course live practice partners.  The sword was both the weapon of choice or occupation, and a sign of wealth or station.  The spear and axe found more favor with some peoples (most notably a large number of Germanic tribes such as the Vikings) than the sword, and its presence among them was often reserved for those well off enough to either afford one, or take one in battle.  The military requirements of the Romans on both the standing army and citizen is well known or easily found, as are those societal requirements found in Feudal Japan or Dynastic China; training was serious business.

The bow and arrow predates the sword by all accounts, and evolved as a weapon and a hunting tool with arguably more usefulness as both depending on the nation of origin.  Obviously the earliest archer targets were live animals being hunted.  As a military tool, the training targets took many forms; straw dummies, and large bullseye targets (as an area target for the early artillery use of the bow) such as those used by the English.  The Long bow was a monumental weapon for the English, all men from 15 to 60 were required by law in 1252 (the Assize of Arms) to be so armed and by 1363, archery practice was required every Sunday.  With pull weights approaching 120 pounds and an expectation of striking a target at 200 yards, the bow was not easily mastered.

Does this mean that there was no objection to discussing what was being trained, what the ultimate intent was?  I would venture to say that until the modern age of man, the free talk of what a sword, spear or arrow was for would be more than common.  Was the value on human life less?  Some would say most certainly so depending on the century or country in question and it would probably be foolish to argue with them in the face of freely found evidence.  Yet into the 19th century, as we began the serious use of firearms and man became more “civilized,” the free talk about what the rifle and bayonet was for was hardly limited by the chattering in court rooms or the Political Correctness fears of trainers.  The talk of taking lives to insure victory in personal conflict and in war was due course in training and practice.  The loss of this free speak has little to do with becoming more civilized.  To quote Aesop Rock, “I can lead a man to city, but that doesn’t assure civility.”  My evolution as a member of a peaceful and politically correct civilization offers no protection from those who do not recognize or respect my right to peace and good health.

At some point we stopped talking about people and just talked about the paper.  The E-type silhouette, the B-27 silhouette, bullseye targets and patterned shapes became far more relevant than targets that even slightly resembled the actual human form.  Outside of the military, the talk of “killing” (because blood makes the grass grow green) was shunned and we began saying “incapacitate.”  The modern citizen fell into this sort of training because the trainers came to them with the same dogmatic mindset they instilled in police officers that was beaten into them by nervous administrators, prosecutors and squeamish juries.  Those coming from the military into the civilian world quickly took on the same approach to discussing what the ultimate intent was, or at least publicly.  What is said on the range often stays on the range but far more is learned from what is written and filmed than what takes place in courses and this is often sanitized of the realistic talk of bullets into people.  Dehumanization by using terms like threat and bad guy or simply target can be found in almost any media on the topic.  Outside of a few trainers, anatomy is not taught as a primary block of instruction and the use of 3-D targets may be even rarer.  You can draw your own conclusions for why this has happened and why we don’t want to discuss the simple truth that if we give someone the right and responsibility to carry a firearm for the defense of their life or the lives of others, they had better be good at it.


I’m not talking about neat shot groups, I’m talking about efficient placement of bullets in the human body to disrupt or destroy its ability to function; inducing central nervous system failure by blood loss or destruction of critical organs.  Even as I write this I have the operant tic, the aversion to the word kill because in all of my formal education as a shooter and an instructor outside of the Army, the word was and is, simply verboten.  In my reading and research, the word is absent from the discussion unless we are talking about the result of a shooting, not what the intent was to cause it.  This isn’t an exercise of linguistic hop scotch; it’s a byproduct of political correctness.  Our intent isn’t supposed to be to shoot to kill, it is to shoot to incapacitate.  The last time I checked, the best form of incapacitation was the lack of a heartbeat from the person who through intent or behavior left with me with no choice but to shoot them.  Think back to all the formal training you have had, all the related articles or books you have read…how often has the purposeful knowledge of anatomy or discussion of destroying that anatomy to induce and efficient ending to a violent encounter been discussed?  Is there some sort of liability attached to using the word “kill” or in making our training targets as human as possible?  Some would say teaching anyone outside the military to shoot to kill is a massive liability.  Perhaps, but any lawyer fresh out of law school should be able to see the stark substitution of one word for another in the name of civilized feelings.  Can someone be incapacitated without the loss of life?  Of course they can.  Unconsciousness due to blood loss is a very common source of incapacitation, as is psychological surrender out of fear of injury, fear of death or belief that one’s wounds are fatal or debilitating.   Given my choices, some of which (psychological incapacitation) are out of my hands, the lack of a heartbeat in someone intent on taking my life or the life of others is the surest form of winning a violent encounter.  Do I teach to these ends?  Yes.

I am an instructor; more specifically I am a self-defense instructor.  My job is to teach students techniques and reinforce the principles of using a firearm for self-defense.  Every skill I introduce must be put in context of its potential use.  The skills I teach may be relied upon by my students to protect their life or the life of someone else; this underscores my responsibility to ensure that the instruction and advice I give is not only realistic but is also ethical.  We instructors have an obligation to our students and to the public to teach in the framework of how we identify ourselves and to be specific on what our instruction is intended for.  Far more than just demonstrating skills that can be memorized, I feel my job is to allow students to develop these techniques into tools; to allow free application of these practices to best help them.

SIRT Pistol

Reality Based Training isn’t a catch phrase for me, nor is it for a small (but growing) number of instructors who want to push beyond the stagnant and sometimes very unrealistic training models of the past.  I want students to understand that the target they train on is a representation of a violent human.  When no option but to shoot remains, it should be done with an exercise of extreme violence and purposeful targeting of critical areas of the body with the highest probability of stopping, finally if necessary, this person.   Outside of bodily loss of function due to injury, I have no guarantees at all that the force I use will result in winning a gunfight.   I want to avoid a gunfight lacking a reason for one, but having no other option I must embrace the idea that I may take a life and that my Threat forfeited his or her right to safety and health by endangering mine or that of someone else’s.  I am not bound to experiencing fear, nor should I be required to suffer any sort of injury before I can inflict both.   In a contest or mortality, survival can be experienced in varied degrees of health and enjoyment of life.  Without the ability to see the future or really know the internal thoughts of my human aggressor, I am left to discern their plans through their words or actions.  With this in mind, Clear danger to life means that violence is needed and their potential loss of life is a result of their behavior.   For me, this is as obvious as the fact that it is day by the sun in the sky, yet we are left to find creative ways to impart it on shooters because there are words we are discouraged from using or because we have simply been taught to dehumanize the bad guy.

The reality is that the targets we train and practice on need to be as human or as realistic as possible; three dimensional, men and women.  They need to make what is uncomfortable to admit or think about for some a pillar of firearms training.  We need less hyperbole and more real life.  Is there a natural human aversion to taking life?  No, there isn’t and history makes that pretty obvious.  The intent or motivation behind why actions that may result in the loss of life are used is what separates the good from the bad.  I do not seek the opportunity to take a life, but remain prepared to do so and honestly believe that any aversion to do so is more on the part of quality of training or personal beliefs more than it is some sort of genetic programming.   We need more focus on what makes the human body work and how best to interrupt those functions.

Perhaps what we need most is to move beyond the basic idea of isolated “marksmanship” and instead focus on self-defense as the beginning of firearms instruction.  Firearms are for self-defense first, sport second.  Not a popular opinion with some but it’s one I support completely.  If all of my fundamental training and practice was focused on defeating the human body from day one, would I be a better shooter?   Is this an uncomfortable idea with you?  If so, why?  I have to ask myself the same question, or at least I did many years ago when I realized that shooting at a round dot in the middle of a circle was doing little to prepare me for shooting people.  Sure, it helps with the personal fundamentals of controlling the firearm but it doesn’t help me mentally prepare for maintaining excellent marksmanship against a violent person.  Is there value in using non-human form targets for practice?  Yes…but is there value in not using human form targets in practice?  No.  Should anatomy be taught at the basic level?  Absolutely.   Is this overloading the student with too complex concepts and principles?  No, it isn’t and quite frankly I believe that many walls to performance are erected by instructors and not the students themselves.

Can you be politically corrected to death?  I would say very much so.  I would also risk saying that there are good men dead because training failed them.  It’s not about paper, or drills, or shooting shapes, it’s about training and practicing to shoot people if we have to and everything should support that reality.

Minimal exposure, 2D target

Minimal exposure, 2D target

This isn’t a strict mindset issue.  All good instructors cover mindset in their courses; having the will to fight, having the Sheepdog, Wolf Hunter or Warrior mentality, accepting your responsibility and training and practicing to be comfortable with violence.  Would this mindset not be best reinforced by then driving home reality with the human form?  I don’t think the two practices are mutually exclusive.  Any drill or desired point of fundamental instruction that is done in a method that does not reflect shooting people, a bull’s-eye, a dot drill, an index card or a colored shape, can be done with the same intent with a representation of the human anatomy.  Everything in context; a difficult drill is not necessarily a realistic drill.  I can create any number of difficult drills with reality in mind. Want to work on precision accuracy?  Forget the index card and instead obscure all but your human target’s leading eye, this represents a threat’s maximum use of cover.  Want to teach speed shooting or transitional shooting? A semicircle of human targets utilizing various forms of cover, or mixed in with No Shoot targets.  Any drill that can be done with dots or plates can be done with more realism in mind.  Is there no value in the isolated round steel plates or speed racks?  They are useful for specific skills, but even more so if you use them in concert with or behind human form targets so that a solid center mass hit drops a plate or gives the satisfying ring of a good hit.

Minimal exposure, 3D target

Minimal exposure, 3D target

If your practice intent doesn’t involve self-defense, perhaps my words are falling on deaf ears.  But if it does, think of how more realism would go far towards better preparation.  Growing skills, being realistic with yourself and most importantly, never failing to learn a skill or a more realistic way to do something because of a training taboo is one of the best ways to become a more competent shooter and greatly increase your chances of winning a gunfight.

10 Responses to Training Intent: People, Not Paper

  1. Albee March 11, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    This entire article should be etched in stone and passed across this nation for who enjoy shooting to read. Te importance of taking a life has to be taught first thing. There are no leg shots or flesh wounds when your life is on the line. I only train with the intent to shoot and kill whatever threatens my life. I will let the law weigh in as needed but that’s what a defense lawyer is for.

  2. john March 11, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

    Good afternoon! I echo Albee’s comment. This has to be one of the better reads I’ve read on here! (Not that any are bad). But this is a wake up read to the civilian shooter. Paper doesn’t shoot back, if doesn’t charge you, nore does it bleed. With your permission I would like to print this out and post it in roll call as well as on the wall at my gun club.

  3. Vincent P March 11, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

    Excellent article!

  4. James Helm March 11, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

    It is encouraging to know that the realization that one’s target may not be a target but another human being is an awareness that at least some who instruct are willing to pass on to others. I am a 69 year old veteran who for 50 years did not feel the need to carry a firearm for self defense – that has changed in the last 16 months, for two reasons: First, I am now responsible for the care of someone that could not retreat in the event of a home invasion; second, I have become painfully aware of the need to defend the 2nd Amendment. I found to my dismay that most instruction available today avoids the primary reason for having a firearm, namely the ability to stop what one believes to be a threat to life. I am a neophyte when it comes to discussions of “stopping power” of various calibers of firearms, but it seems to me that one needs to be able to cope with the idea that the most effective means, regardless of caliber, is to put the round where it will do the most damage – in other words, when in a life threatening situation you must, at the very least, be prepared to threaten in return. Thanks to the author for a very informative and sobering article, and hopefully one that will be widely read.

  5. Kevin March 11, 2014 at 8:44 pm #

    Fantastic article. This needs to be everywhere, read by everyone.

  6. Cas March 11, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

    I believe all aspects of this article is indeed essential to defensive training. It’s the premise of what we train for right? I’ve went beyond my training with paper to engage with similar conflicts and defensive countermeasures. I’m and avid shooter and MilSim enthusiast who trains by use of airsoft guns. My style of recreation often comes under fire by “tactical” gun guys who only train with paper and not live targets. It often brings the assumption that because the guns we use are airsoft guns, and that we’re are only kids running around shooting each other carelessly. This is indeed a wrong assumption. i’m not an instructor, but I have designed a course for my friends and family to teach them how to safely evade and react defensively for such altercations when engaged in a life-threatening conflict. My targets are not paper, but actual humans simulating aggressors.
    Thank you for this article. If all the years of range training taught you how to stand like this, hold your gun like this, shoot like this, etc. etc,- then the whole idea behind defensive firearms instruction should be redesigned to work for the average homeowner, business owner and American citizen. I can honestly say that I feel more comfortable in an uncomfortable situation because the targets i train with have heartbeats. We have to explore the world beyond paper. There are always effective non-lethal ways of training, and many options available.

  7. Rob Pincus March 16, 2014 at 12:45 pm #

    Great Article. Shared!

  8. Mitchell D. March 25, 2014 at 4:50 am #

    Awesome of you to quote Aesop Rock!! I was NOT expecting that.

  9. Tim Milligan April 14, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    Great article. I am one of the few instructors utilizing 3-D human form targets in scenario based training. Realism makes a big difference when teaching self-defense. More important is the difference it makes for the students.

  10. Dave May 17, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

    I am completely with you on this, except for the term “incapacitate”. It has always been my understanding that we shoot to immediately incapacitate a violent human being. This isn’t because we don’t want to use the term “kill”, but rather because a fatal shot may not be immediately fatal (known as the ‘dead man’s 30 seconds), and thus not put an immediate end to the violence. While a shot which is immediately incapacitating may end that persons life, but will immediately end the threat.

    This is evidenced by the 1986 Miami-Dade Shootout, where it was determined that Michael Platt, who had been shot 12 times, suffered wounds which he would not have been able to survive even with immediate medical attention before ending the lives of Agents Grogan and Dove. This is why I have continued the use of incapacitate in my training. However, when saying shoot to incapacitate, I make it very clear that we will most likely kill that person, and we are aiming for the heart, head, or pelvic girdle in order to do so.