Paper Targets: Part One

I have received several questions generated by, “What Are You Training For?” Most of these questions were about ways to improve personal training and how to make the transition from training to shoot, to training to fight. In the next couple of posts I will write a bit about how we can both improve from, and be limited by, our training.

Most of us think of our local range as our training area, but every range has its range-isms. “Range-ism” is the term that many professionals use to refer to the limits placed upon our training environment by safety, level of assumed risk, range construction, convenience, and cost. Simply put, a rang-ism is any discrepancy between how we must act during training and how we would really act in a real scenario. It is a generally accepted fact that the closer our training mimics the real world, within the bounds of safety, then the better it is.   Range-isms are a necessary part of any training environment (not just stereotypical gun ranges), but we must be aware of them and understand how they influence our training and mindset. As one of my associates is fond of saying, in contravention of a corporate aphorism, “You have to know where the box is before you can start to think outside of it.” However, sometimes we do not realize self-induced constraints until someone else points them out to us. I intend to talk about multiple types of “range-isms,” and how we can get outside of them, starting with targets.

Firstly, shoot targets that look like humans or are reasonably humanoid in shape. If you have a gun for home defense, or carry a gun for self-defense, you need to spend the majority of your time shooting at targets that look like people. Training is the art and science of preparing yourself for eventualities. The most likely eventuality necessitating the use of a firearm, is a two-legged predator. Prepare your mind and body for that situation. Even when shooting at small or colorful targets of varied shapes, I staple them to a backer that looks like the outline of a person. This trains the brain to be ready to shoot people, should they make it necessary. If you are uncomfortable with that idea, don’t own a gun for defense. Be a shooter if you like, but unload the piece before you leave the range. Don’t depend on your firearm as a tool for the defense of yourself, or your family, if you are incapable of shooting another human.  Take a martial art, buy pepper spray, or get a rape whistle. Just don’t depend on a gun for your life if you are unwilling to discharge it at a person who means you harm. Enough on that for now…

One of the most ubiquitous range-isms is the use of paper targets. By paper targets I mean any target printed on cardboard or paper that is two dimensional and affixed to some manner of target stand. Lest I be labeled a hypocrite, I will admit up front that I do about 70% of my personal training with paper targets. Every new and novice shooter I work with starts on them. Paper targets are convenient, cheap, easy to transport, easy to store, easy to use, and easy to replace. They are so easy that the vast majority of shooters only shoot at paper targets. However…

There are five main drawbacks to paper targets and I will discuss each one in depth in this series:

They do not move.

They do not drop when they are shot.

They are two-dimensional instead of three dimensional.

The teach you to shoot at the wrong places.

They make it too easy to identify bullet holes.

Problem #1: Paper targets do not move. Their lack of movement tricks us into not moving.

This problem sounds simple but it is in fact multifaceted and can cause several issues with our response cycles during a dangerous situation. Think about how other people move, in relation to you, during your everyday life. At the basic level, people going about their business move towards and away from you (depth), from side to side (width), up and down (level) and at different speeds (velocity). In addition to these dimensions of movement, people typically bob their heads, swing their arms, and talk with their hands. People also turn their bodies in relation to their direction of movement (orientation). Imagine for a moment how odd it would be if people only moved about their daily business with their shoulders and torso oriented towards you. Bizarre is it not? Yet, this is what most paper targets teach us about our relation to a threat.

 In the real world, if your produce a firearm, potential threats are going to run away from you or towards you, from side to side, or change their level in relation to where you are. They may also strike out at you, throw their hands up as if to ward off a blow, or attempt to get a weapon of their own into action. Normally they are going to perform several of these actions simultaneously, or in direct sequence. What is guaranteed, is that they will not be directly facing you the whole time that they are doing these things.

Legally we are required to use the requisite amount of force to stop a threat and no more. However, just because a threat initially ducks and runs away from you (changes in level and depth), or turns their back (orientation), does not mean that they cannot subsequently turn with a weapon in hand, and injure or kill you. Paper targets cannot imitate or simulate this.

The lack of locomotion inherent to paper targets also precipitates our own lack of movement. Think about how many times you have stood in front of a paper target that already had a “gun” in its hand, calmly drawn your own pistol, fired one or two rounds, and then re-holstered. Would you really do this in a life or death scenario? I hope not! The only things that will save you in that situation are divine intervention, the bad guy’s terrible marksmanship, and movement. I don’t try to predict the deity (I think he may have pulled me out of a few scrapes already, I don’t want to wear out my welcome) and I don’t want to bet my life on someone else’s ineptness. The best option is movement.

Every fight, with any tool: empty hands, knives, improvised, impact, or projectile weapons; is a time and distance equation. Our survival depends on our ability to deploy and employ a given weapon before our enemy can do the same; to do unto others before they can do unto us. The time that we have to do so is determined by several factors: our speed of weapons deployment in relation to our opponent’s, the difference in our weapons, the distance between us, and the number of opponents. The problem is that attackers, by definition, have the tactical advantage because they have chosen the time, place, and method of attack. This means that anyone defending themselves or others, is automatically at a tactical disadvantage. So how do we circumvent this disadvantage? We must steal time from our enemies. Time equals movement and movement equals time. We must force our opponents to move (with our own actions) in order to create time for ourselves.

How do we do this? The not so simple answer is: lateral movement, movement in depth, and level change, or a combination of two, or all three, at the same time. These movements cause your opponent(s) to drastically change their fighting stance, weapons posture, effective range (for impact weapons), lose their sight picture or miss (projectile weapons) and get in one another’s way (multiple opponents). The goal being to provide yourself time. Time to: produce your own weapon, seek cover, end the fight (stop the aggressor by injuring or killing him) or conduct a tactical egress (run like hell). The most efficacious methods of tactical movement are determined by distance and the perceived abilities of our attacker. Again, our goal is to steal time from our opponent but there are no constant answers. This is a case by case proposition. You must be familiar with some concepts and then make your own choices. It is your life.

Assume a place that is flat, empty, and level; like a football field. You are standing in the end-zone, with your pistol already in your hand, but not yet ready to fire.  If a man who stands 5’9” (the average height for a male in the United States) rushes straight at you from the 50 yard line, how long does it take for you to get a correct sight picture on him? While you aim your pistol at the vital organs in his upper body, as he rushes straight at you, how much is it necessary to move the pistol to make an effective shot? Not very much. As he comes at you, he appears to get larger within your pistol sights. This requires you to adjust your front sight post a few millimeters, something quickly and easily accomplished by changing your shoulder angle a few degrees. In other words, the amount of distance (time) between you and your opponent is fairly large, while the amount of time required for you to deploy your weapon and accurately adjust the sight picture is fairly small. In gunfight math, the odds are heavily stacked in your favor.

What if the same man rushes laterally, or at a diagonal to you, while you aim your pistol? When you finally line up the sights, he suddenly goes to a knee, dropping entirely out of your sight picture. How long will it take you to recover your sight picture and fire? How much more time has he created for himself than in the original scenario? What if instead of a football field, we are on a city street, in a parking lot, or inside of a convenience store. Now there is a much greater chance that our imaginary man is hiding behind a car, a building, a merchandise display, or has simply turned a corner (sight line) and is running away as fast as his feet can go. If he has a pistol, there is a decent chance it is already deployed (in his hands) and may have already been employed (he is shooting at you).

Now the imaginary man is you. Your attacker has the advantage and you have to create time for yourself with movement. You must get your weapon into action. You need to get to cover because you do not know how many people may be attacking you, or what their threshold for action is (What action on your part can make them stop their aggression). You have to move or die. Please understand, I am not advocating running, or even moving, while shooting. What I am talking about is, taking the best advantage of the time available, depending on the situation. Making dynamic movement in the direction of best tactical advantage, while accomplishing a simultaneous task related to deploying or employing your weapon. Draw while moving, (pistol, knife, baton, pepper spray- whatever you have, you must get it out) close the distance if necessary, (every weapon and operator combination has a range that works best, I cannot knife someone from 10 meters, conversely “far away” is sometimes the preferred range) plant your feet and go to work. If there is an issue with your weapon, (failure to fire, combat reload, anything that causes you to stop fighting) move while you are fixing it, or get the hell out of Dodge. Just remember that no fight is a static event and real-world ranges cover 360 degrees. I am going to talk about this later but always look 360 degrees by turning your head!

 Because paper targets do not move, they train us not to move. We have to recognize this and train as if a paper target is an actual moving and thinking enemy. We have to move. This is understanding the box that we have created for ourselves and alleviating the ways in which we allow it to limit us. How do we fix the lack of motion inherent to our targets and subsequently ourselves?

If you propose running around and shooting at most firearms ranges, the folks that own or insure said range will start doing cheetah-flips. Find a range that will let you do so. You may have to travel, you may have to pay some instructors, but find a place to get the experience. I can hear people now, “That’s great mister “expert,” but I have to work. I have limited training time and even less money.” I’m with you brothers and sisters. We all have to make the most out of the training time and budget that we have available. We do that by cutting expenses, not corners, and getting the most bang for our buck out of our range time.  So what are some things that we can do to prepare for better training experiences?

Firstly, learn to shoot. As I said previously, I do all of my new shooter training with paper targets. If we cannot safely and effectively shoot an unmoving paper target, standing directly in front of us, in the location of our choosing, during the daytime, then how can we trust our skills enough to progress? Shot placement is key.  Before anything else, be able to make your rounds go where you want them to go. Once you can do that, do it from the draw. Very few honest people begin a fight with a gun already in hand, learn to deploy your weapon. Once you can do that, offset the target from your line of sight. Move it left or right, as much or as little as your range will allow.

 I will discuss this later, but keep in mind that paper targets are not three-dimensional. A center of target hit, if the shot is taken from extreme angles, may miss everything that you are actually shooting at (vital organs and major blood vessels). Think about the areas that you want your bullets to impact and make the requisite adjustments to point of aim. This exercise alone will teach you how your point of aim changes with your spatial relationship to the target. This lesson is not to be discounted. I would wager that 90% of civilian shooters have only addressed targets that are directly in front of them. Do you think that this is realistic?

Remember that all training is a progression. Whenever you add a new skill or drill start dry (without ammo). Ensure that you can complete the drill safely with an unloaded gun. Once you have done that, start slowly with ammo. As you get better speed it up and add complexity.

 If your range will allow, start changing your level as you draw (many ranges will let you do this, but not let you move in width and depth). Drop to a knee or a squat as the pistol comes out of the holster. Keep in mind that this also changes your angles in relation to your target and your desired point of impact will also change. Please keep in mind that changing your level limits your immediate ability to move in width and depth and is something of an emergency reaction, unless you are dropping behind cover. It does teach you to move while performing a simultaneous action and to focus on your target and not what you are doing with your weapon. Obviously full movement is best but if your training area is not allowing you to train for a fight, then something is better than nothing.

So we have covered our movement, what about that of our opponent. In order to train for shooting moving people, we have to shoot moving targets. The best way to do so is an actual force on force scenario (real people) using simunitions (actual pistols using actual rounds loaded with a reduced powder charge and a detergent filled plastic cap, instead of a bullet: Sims website ). Simunitions allow us to get as close to the reality of a fight as closely as possible, which is what we want from our training. If you give two guys simunitions and let them face off, you will see some things you have never seen on any range.  However, the safety and financial implications of simunitions make them beyond the reach of most people, outside of a professionally run training course.

Paintball guns are an option, but they obviously limit our draw and weapon’s handling techniques. This makes them much less valuable as a training aid but they do force one to think through tactical scenarios.

Airsoft guns have made massive strides towards realism in recent years and can be an interesting training tool. My real problem with airsoft, is that they do not hurt enough for role players to tell if they have been hit through clothing. Simunitions sting badly enough that most people really do not want to be shot with them. This causes people to act as they would if someone were actually shooting at them.

Aside from force on force scenarios, our options for moving targets are limited only by our imaginations. Other targets train us to shoot at moving targets, not fight them. But, we have to learn to shoot before we can fight so this is a logical progression.

 There are targets that spin, flip, and swing. The only real problem with these, is that they are usually static until you shoot them the first time. Have a partner shoot them first so that they are moving, then go to work. Get an RC truck, tie a helium balloon to it, and put a sadistic operator at the controls. Not an easy target. There are other, usually expensive, systems that will “run” targets in any direction you chose. There are also multiple DIY ideas on the internet. Get out there and come up with something. Start shooting at moving targets. Remember that all training is a progression. Get better than where you are now.

We will continue the next article by discussing the fact that not only do paper targets not move when you are drawing and pointing a gun at them, they do not move once they have been shot…

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