Why Combat Accurate Training Doesn’t Work (Except When It Does)

I got a very interesting email the other day saying that trying to shoot accurately with a pistol is a waste of time for a serious shooter.  The email said that it’s fine for a competition shooter, but not for someone who may use a pistol to stop a violent threat.

The justification was that in a self-defense shooting situation, you don’t need precision.  One or more high center-mass hits will stop most attackers quickly.  For the purposes of this article, I’m going to call hand sized, high center mass groups, “combat accurate.”

The problem is that if a shooter can reliably and consistently shoot “combat accurate” groups on paper while flat footed on a well lit range with little to no stress, it’s good, but it doesn’t translate to a dynamic, chaotic self-defense shooting situation.

Unfortunately, many shooters think that it’s an either/or situation…you must train precision and combat accurate shooting is a waste of time OR you must train to shoot combat accurate groups and precision shooting is a waste of time.  Neither are correct.

If you get overly focused on precision or if you get overly focused about the lack of need for precision, you’re putting an artificial ceiling on how good of a shooter you can be.

In general, the bigger disparity between the conditions when you train and the conditions you expect in real life, the more precise your training needs to be.

What I mean is, it has very little practical meaning for a shooter to be able to make 5 hits in a hand-sized group on a target if they’re shooting 1 round a second, standing flat footed, the target is still, there’s full lighting, and there’s no stress.

It’s completely different if those hits are made in a force on force situation where the shooter got surprised, the OPFOR (opposing force/enemy) is moving and shooting back, and the lighting is less than ideal.

In the first case, the ability to make hand sized groups isn’t really an indication of how well the shooter will shoot in real life.  The performance in the 2nd case is much more likely to translate to real-life performance.

This is summarized with the saying, “Train the way you’re going to fight because you’ll fight the way you trained.”  The more different your practice is from real life, the more your performance will drop off.

Ideally, you’d gradually make your training more and more realistic, but when you can’t replicate real world conditions with your training, you want push your training standards higher than how you want to perform in real life.

The best way that I’ve found to approach it is from both ends of the equation…train to be able to shoot 1 hole / ragged hole groups, and then push yourself to do it from further and further out at a faster and faster pace.  At the same time, train your fast groups and develop your grip, visual skills, movement, and stress modulation to be able shoot tighter and tighter groups in more and more realistic conditions.  Again, it’s not an either / or.

Why do I say this?

  1. Neural pathway development (muscle memory). The more precisely you lay down your technique, the less deviation there will be when you add in speed, movement, and the stress/chaos of a real life scenario.  You want your fast, reflexive, instinctive drawstroke to bring your sights into as-close-to-perfect alignment as possible without having to think about it or using your eyes to do anything but verify sight alignment.  You get this with precise practice.
  2. Someone who trains to the standard of only being able to shoot “combat accurate” groups on paper in good light under low stress without movement is probably not going to shoot combat accurate rounds in a real life situation…the groups are going to open up–a lot.  You can see this in after action reports, you can see it in force on force training, and you can even see it on paper target training where the main source of stress is a silly buzzer and the fear of how a shooter’s performance will affect their social status with their peers.

Shooting combat accurate groups in practice DOES translate over to combat accurate groups in real life much better when your practice mimics real life and includes things like moving targets, you moving, surprise, stress, altered lighting, confusion, dealing with failure or malfunctions, having to think & decide before shooting, shooting off balance or from unorthodox positions, etc.

The groups are going to open up for a shooter who has worked both ends of the equation too…oftentimes to about “combat accurate” size.  And keep in mind that even if you put a gun in a vice and drill every round through the same trajectory into a charging attacker, the movement of the attacker is going to give you hand sized groups.

  1. Spending some of your time focusing on precision exposes fundamental flaws in technique that are hidden by doing only “combat accurate” practice. Being able to shoot precisely never means that you can’t speed up and loosen up your groups…and you should practice doing so so you know your performance envelope, but if you only practice combat accurate shooting, it’s next to impossible to manufacture the ability to make a precision shot under stress.

What am I calling precision?  A head shot.  Not a glancing hit or an ineffective hit, but a hit that will stop the threat.

A distance shot.  For many shooters, 10-20 yards is a distance shot on a man sized target.  It’s very common for shooters to not be able to shoot a 1″ group at 6 feet with no stress or time constraints.  A lot of serious shooters are sure they can do this right up to the point that they try it and are looking at their target.  2-3″ is much more common.  2″ translates to missing man sized targets at 20 yards.  3″ translates to missing man sized targets at 15 yards.  I’d argue that this performance won’t improve when you add in speed, stress, low light, and movement.

A leg/ankle/foot shot or a shot at a shooter who’s using cover effectively.  What are the chances of needing to shoot under a car or at a shooter who’s using cover effectively?  Not that high.  But when you train for average encounters, outliers will bite you in the butt.  But if you train for extremes, the averages take care of themselves.

  1. When you work both ends of the equation, you learn your performance envelope. You know how fast you can press the trigger when you have a big target and you know how fast you can press the trigger when you need to take a precision shot.  I know I can react, draw, and consistently hit a steel torso at 55 yards with a Glock 26 in 2-2.25 seconds.  I know I can do the same thing at 7 yards in a second or less.  The speed that I press my trigger is different for each.  My splits are about 4x faster at 7 yards than at 55 yards.  People who haven’t trained both ends of the equation tend to press the trigger W A Y too slowly on precision shots or they press it exactly the same speed that they press it on combat accurate shots and end up throwing the shot.
  2. Hit percentages are important. Not only because of errant rounds but also because of the limited number of rounds that people typically carry for their carry pistol.  Again, if the best standard that you perform to is a combat accurate group when standing flat footed on a well lit range shooting paper, it’s going to take more rounds than necessary to get the job done when the situation isn’t quite so sterile.  Mix precision and combat accurate shooting & gradually add in realistic conditions and your performance will improve tremendously.

So, don’t limit yourself to only practicing one end of the equation…you want to work both the speed end AND the precision end, and then increase movement speed, change lighting, increase stress, and increase the need for thinking while shooting.

If you’re ready to get serious about your firearms training, I want to strongly encourage you to go through the 21 Day Alpha Shooter Course by clicking >HERE<   The combination of 21 Day Alpha Shooter, Dry Fire Training Cards, and the other bonuses deliver the most bang for the buck in firearms training today and are a must have for any shooter who owns a pistol because of the potential need to stop a threat.  Get the base package >HERE< or get the package that includes our new diagnostic splatter targets for $10 more by clicking >HERE<

Questions?  Comments?  Fire away by commenting below…







  • John Brunner

    Reply Reply December 8, 2017

    There are probably many training groups that challenge the student in unusual ways. I know of at least one as I have had the luck to train with them for a while. The school is Advanced Performance Training Group led by Jim Shanahan. Friend them on Face Book and see what they do. It is a measure for me to compare one group with another. The group meets twice a week 1900 to 2100 all year round on an outside range This time of year it’s low light and warm clothing including gloves. I have found no comparable group which meets regularly.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply December 8, 2017

      There are several across the country, but they’re typically by invite only…we’ve got one here, Herman (comment below) has one, and I’ve found similar groups everywhere I’ve lived.

      Train hard!

  • herman

    Reply Reply December 8, 2017

    Your article is spot on! Especially the comment of “a distant shot”. In training my clients, with simulators, they regularly miss a moving human threat. I add in artificial stressors and it becomes a humbling experience. We focus on precision, purpose of movement and processing of information. Again, a great article and I look forward to the next one.

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