Self-Defense Pistol 101

Using a handgun to defend your life requires more than just a familiarity with firearms.


The “keep it simple, stupid,” or KISS, principle applies to most things in life. Training with a defensive handgun is no different. To employ a handgun effectively in a defensive situation, you must be able to get it into play smoothly and deliver accurate hits before the attacker injures or kills you. And the only realistic way to accomplish that is to practice the skills you could reasonably be expected to use in a life-or-death situation before it occurs. They include drawing the handgun, hitting the target, moving, using cover, reloading and clearing a malfunction. The following is a 100-round training regimen, consisting of five drills, that takes all these skills into account. Become proficient with them now, and you will be better-prepared for the dark day when trouble comes to call.

The Dot Drill (24 shots)
I strongly believe that most defensive handgun practice should start with the gun holstered. This lets you practice your draw stroke or handgun presentation more frequently. When practicing basic skills most shooters draw the handgun only once and burn through an entire magazine before they holster again, if at all, which wastes precious opportunities to practice handgun presentation.

Position a target with six 2-inch circles at between 5 and 7 yards. Shoot one shot at each circle, drawing the handgun from the holster before each shot. The goal is to fire one shot at each circle and hit each target once. This is not a speed drill, but rather it’s an accuracy and gun-handling drill to help you establish a foundation for gun presentation, sight alignment and trigger control. Conduct this drill four times at the beginning of every trip to the range.

The Failure Drill (24 shots)
Il Ling New, an instructor at Gunsite, is one of the best firearm instructors I know. She believes practicing head shots at between 5 and 7 yards is a great way to stay sharp. Why? According to New, “The idea is to become absolutely confident in making that shot, at least at that distance, every time, under all conditions and on demand. If I can do that, I am well-equipped to deal with bad things that may happen to me. Vital zone shots at 15 yards should be easy if one can do head shots at seven yards.”

I agree, but to maximize training opportunities I like to incorporate head shots with torso shots in what’s called a failure drill. The failure drill presents the problem that you have engaged an attacker with two shots to the torso and they have had no effect. To stop the attack, you transition to the head as a target and fire one shot.

Position a silhouette target at between 5 and 7 yards. At the signal, draw your handgun and fire two shots in quick succession to center mass. Then, immediately fire one shot to the center of the head. You’ll have to slow down to make the head shot count. Something between three and four seconds is commonplace. Perform this drill eight times during each practice session to establish your average time. Work toward a goal of completing the drill with no misses in less than three seconds.

New also stresses the importance of practicing head shots from every position you can think of; not just while standing square in front of the target. You can do the same with the failure drill.

The 45 Drill (25 shots)
Even a disciplined shooter’s reaction to a stressful situation can be chaotic. The first few times police officers and good competitive shooters are subjected to close-quarters, force-on-force training, a common reaction is to point their handgun at the threat and to pull the trigger until they run it dry. The same response has been observed in gunfights. Adrenalin surges prompt the shooter to thrust the gun forward and pull the trigger fast and repetitively.

We cannot simulate the stress levels you’ll experience in a life-and-death encounter, but we can simulate your reaction. This is why I believe the adrenalin dump drill is important. If your reaction is going to be to shove the handgun toward the target and start yanking on the trigger, then learn how to do it effectively. I call my version of the adrenalin dump drill “The 45 Drill,” because the drill has four elements of five—five shots at a 5-inch circle at 5 yards in five seconds.

This is a difficult task for many shooters, especially when drawing the handgun from concealment. If you can successfully perform this drill on demand, under time, with no misses, you should be able to pass any shooting requirement necessary to obtaining a concealed carry license. Practice it five times each training session. At first you’ll probably have several shots land outside the 5-inch circle, and your time will be slow. Slow down your shot cadence even more and strive to get all five shots in the circle. Once you can do this consistently, gradually speed up with the ultimate goal of completing the drill in less than five seconds.

The El Prez—Modified (24 shots)
The likelihood of your being attacked is slim, and the likelihood that it will be by multiple attackers is even slimmer. But the threat of multiple attackers is not the only reason we practice multiple-target drills. Learning to transition from one target to the next, especially when they are set at different ranges, teaches you to obtain a sight picture quickly and to control your shot cadence based on range to the target.

One of the most famous multiple target drills was made so by Gunsite founder Col. Jeff Cooper. It’s called the El Presidente. I’ve modified it through the years as a means to help me evaluate shooters and track skill development. My modifications come from my experience as a police firearm instructor and what I’ve learned from other shooters I respect and trust.

For instance, Sheriff Jim Wilson believes you should learn to shoot from cover. This makes perfect sense; there’s no use standing in the open while the bad guy shoots at you. “Top Shot” winner and former British Army Capt. Iain Harrison likes to incorporate movement, and this makes sense too—a moving target is harder to hit. And, if you stand in one place when you practice, you’ll likely do the same in a fight. Caleb Giddings, “Top Shot” competitor, revolver aficionado and active competition shooter, believes the ability to reload your handgun in a hurry is important. While it’s unlikely a defensive encounter will reach the point at which a reload is necessary, the steps to reloading are similar to those required to clear a malfunction.

This 12-shot drill is somewhat unrealistic, but it does provide the opportunity to evaluate a variety of handgun skills and is a good benchmark to use as an evaluation tool. Place a silhouette target at 3 yards, one at 5 yards, and one at 7 yards. Space them 5 feet apart laterally. Start by standing in front of the right or left target, and at the signal engage each target with two shots working from the closest to the farthest. Then, move laterally about 10 feet to cover, reload and repeat the drill from behind cover.

Completing this drill in less than 10 seconds with all kill zone hits demonstrates a high level of proficiency. Times between 12 and 18 seconds with no misses will be average. Run this drill twice at the end of each practice session. Use it as a standard evaluation exercise and over time you’ll see improvement in each skill the drill targets. Take your total time and add five seconds for every miss. Add the times from both runs together and divide by two to get your score.

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16 Responses to Self-Defense Pistol 101

Don C Phillios wrote:
December 13, 2011

From the American Rifleman Magazine, July 2011 issue. From the article Self defense pistol 101, page 36. In the picture on the upper left corner, who made the holster. It is an inside the wastband holster and I'm Interested in obtaining one. Thank you Don Phillips

Katana1 wrote:
September 01, 2011

To those who ask about where to find a club that will let you practice what you need to practice, consider joining a shooting club. For about $100 per year, I can shoot drills per the article with .22 LR, .308 and or my 12 gauge from 10 AM to dark any day of the week - barring matches. Even then, matches rarely go to dusk. I live in Indiana. Your mileage may vary.

MikeT wrote:
August 29, 2011

This looks like excellent practice. I already do strong hand/weak hand practicing (and was that ever a learning experience!). Incorporating some movement and these drills sound like excellent training. Fortunately my range is very old-school, outside, small, and rural. So the typical range rules do not apply.

Morris wrote:
August 19, 2011

In the paragraph of the El Prez (modified) drill mentioned by Ricahrd Mann, it does not indicate whether this drill is done from the holster or from the ready to make it in 10 seconds. Can someone please clarify.

Rob in Colorado wrote:
July 03, 2011

As far as I know, the tactic herein named "failure drill" is still taught by the SIS (MI-6) as the primary method for stopping an opponent. Thus, I suspect it has been found to be effective. One must remember though, in a civilian self-defense situation, the civilian is acting to STOP the assailant not kill. I'm not sure that a third tap purposly to the head would stand up in court as an act of only trying to stop an assailant.

Reader wrote:
June 30, 2011

Well Jim. In my NRA instructor opinion. I think these drills are excellent. Not everyone wants to compete and there has to be information out there for shooters of all skill levels. Besides, not everyone wants to shoot your way, or my way. Instructors need to quit thinking that everything they say is correct. There is no correct, only correct for the user. Think about that.

jim trockman wrote:
June 29, 2011

Quite honestly, in my opinion as an old-fashioned NRA certified instructor, these drills are ridiculous, and of no use whatsoever to the average gun owner.If a shooter has not even gotten as far as an IDPA match, he's certainly not going to print out all this nonsense, go to the range, and follow the instructions. The most basic defensive skills are not even mentioned here: shooting strong hand only and weak hand only - shooting while moving forward and backwards, and very importantly, shooting from close retention.I wish somebody would pay me to write a few articles once in a while...dry-firing with a Crimson Trace laser is the absolute best way for a beginner to ingrain several important and necessary skills, HOWEVER, knowing what to do and how to benefit from it is essential. Just making a clicking noise and watching the bouncing ball on the wall makes you good at just that, and nothing else. Above all else, excepting a working knowledge of safety skills, knowing your own limitations is the very essence of why you should practice in the first place.

john delaney wrote:
June 29, 2011

In the heat of gunfire or shots exchanged I have witnessed "buck fever". That means the indiidual, even a police officer, believes he is doing one thing, like firing his/her weapon but really doing something entirely different. I witnessed an officer fire a shot, eject a magazine, reloaded fired another round and ejected the magazine again. The officer swore he had fired all his rounds. Adrenline is a powerful drug. Practice, practice and practice again. It is imperative to become 100% comfortable with the weapon and procedure where it becomes 2nd nature.

Larry wrote:
June 28, 2011

To Steven and Dave: You must be living in CA like me. Unfortunately, there is no commercial range here that would allow us this kind of practice.

Dewey E. Du Bose wrote:
June 28, 2011

For me, I try and do a dry fire exercise once a week in my bed room. I do this both during day light hours and during darkness with a small flash light. Sometimes I have my wife make noise in either the living room or the kitchen and I try and respond to as if it was real. I also have my wife respond to different situation in the home. Practice, pratcice, practice. I'm also blessed with the fact that I can shoot both pistol or rifle in my back yard. 55 gal drums filled with sand and mud acts as a back stop for our target practice. When the drums are shot full of holes, they are empyted into new drums and the new targets are ready for more use.

MD Link wrote:
June 28, 2011

Hey Steve, I'm in No. CA between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.I built my own targets out of PVC 1.5" sch.40 using cardboard targets of all different sizes. I head out into some old logging and mining road in my 4x4 Tundra and practice combat tactics out where no one can hear me never mind see me. Do you live near any National Forests? Check with the Rangers and see where shooting is permitted, and have at it. Happy Shooting

Stephen wrote:
June 28, 2011

I had an occasion to try my adrenaline rush patience. A home intruder kicked in my side door when I was walking around the house with my loaded, one in chamber, because there was a noise that caused me to investigate. I was only about 10' away from the door and walking away. I turned around raised my gun to ready with my finger to the side of the trigger. My laser landed on his front right shoulder. I shouted "Hey" and they took off. Had I not practiced the "Rush" shot scenerio, I might of pulled the trigger right away. But you should also always take into account anything behind the target. Had I fired, my neighbors side door was right in line, the bullet could of gone right through their door and possibly hit someone inside. That is why I practice this drill so that innocent people are not hurt.

Steven wrote:
June 28, 2011

Where do you find ranges that allow this kind of activity. All indoor ranges, and most outdoor will not allow "draw & fire" activities, or "move and shoot", in anything short of an IDPA meet.

Dave wrote:
June 28, 2011

The biggest technical problem with these drills is finding a range that will allow shooting at various ranges, especially the relatively short ranges that are typical for defensive scenarios. Most ranges insist on shooting from the booth and that targets be on the backstop.

Morris wrote:
June 26, 2011

In Richard Mann's article this month "Self Defense Pistol 101", in the El Prez-Modified section; it is not clear whether this drill is performed starting from the concelaed holster or from the ready poistion. Also, in the same section, the expected group size is not specified. Whether its is a 5" circle or the center mass area on a silhouette target which is bigger about 8-10". I would appreciate if these two points can be clarified. Thank you, Morris

R Fritz wrote:
June 25, 2011

Excellent article, thanks. I shall try these drills are the range.