Trainer vs. Competitor vs. Practitioner: A Tale of 3 Idiots and 1 Beneficiary

There’s a relatively rare kind of shooter that thinks, “Only practical shooting experience matters. You can’t replicate the real thing.” There’s no arguing with faith and only negative experiences will change their mind. That’s said because practical shooting generally involves blood and should be approached with a bit more thoughtfulness than that sort of glib attitude betokens. The kind of simple mind it takes to even think that way simply befuddles me. It’s an opinion borne of extreme ignorance and hubris.

There are people that think you can only build skill by seeking specialized training, especially among them are both trainers and pathological students. I actually classify people who only use training courses to learn in the same category as instructors who think that only course-based training is a legitimate performance improvement avenue in the same basket of intellectual vacancy. It’s nothing but a no true scotsman assertion. It’s not even an argument. Just a demonstrably wrong assertion.

There are, as well, competitors that think that because they compete at a very very high level in some shooting sport that they’ll instantly be able to translate that into very high level performance in a practical situation or that they are somehow qualified to be an instructor. Similarly, there are people who’ve never competed or been in a practical shooting situation that think that because they’ve taken 50 gazillion training classes that they’re somehow a ninja and qualified to opine about what is the right way to do things to people that have competed or gone practical.

Then there’s the really rare bird that does it all but in this rare air few give equal or even near the right balance of time to all three. The subset that gives all 3 performance builders sufficient attention tend to be extremely reliable performers in all 3 areas but in my experience they’re never the best in all 3. They’ll still do one thing better than the other two which comes down to time and money and situation dependencies.

The best trainers I’ve worked with have typically been decidedly average as competitors or practical shooters. The best competition shooters I know perform as workable practical shooters right up until situations get sufficiently new/dynamic/complex/fast and then the wheels come rapidly off their buses. The best practical shooters I know are horrifically bad instructors. They are also usually middling competitors and few go further than that.

The only truth of the matter is, if you want to get to the top of any one thing you won’t have time for the others. Practical shooters (be they operators or professional game cullers or just rednecks/boer out doing redneck/boer shit) that never compete will not do very well their first time out in a competition. Practical shooters that don’t seek instruction will not know how to communicate the mechanics of how to do anything and so they can’t teach it to anyone else much less themself so they also can’t improve much. Instructors that never shoot in competition will do similarly poorly their first time out and will quickly lose relevance because they’re not learning new stuff that they can teach and they’re not measuring their own performance from occasion to occasion. Competitors that never shoot practically will usually have the wheels come off their bus anytime you take the competition gear/toys away from them. Competitors that never take any training are at a major disadvantage in practical circles because they haven’t learned how to take very specialized knowledge, strip it to the basic mechanics and then adapt those mechanics to non-specialized situations.

If you want to be at your best you need to identify where your gaps are and then address those gaps. If your only measure is practical use (hunting or martial) then you don’t get the ability to tear apart your performance and adjust your training. Either you kill the animal/bad-guy or you don’t and there’s not often a lot of film taken or clocks running to use for later measurement of performance. If you only compete then you can know exactly what match stage you need improvement on but without taking some training to teach yourself what is “training” versus “rehearsing” you may not be able to develop training regimes for yourself that will allow you to realize that improvement. Even if you do train and compete, without testing yourself in a more practical situation you don’t know for sure if you’ve been learning a skill or just rehearsing a theatrical performance. If you only do one of the three then the measure of what your skill level there is is non-existent as measurement of anything requires comparison against a baseline. When the man said, “Physician, heal thyself.”, the command in that saying (in common modern parlance, not biblical parlance) is for a practitioner to demonstrate that they have the skill they proffer to use on others but where and when it’s the practitioner’s own reputation/skin/life/money on the line. Instructors need to get out in the field regularly and make sure that what they think of as their knowledge actually works and if it doesn’t to modify or abandon those lessons. Instructors also need to get to some competitions so as to see what new and really useful methods/tools/etc… have been developed while they weren’t looking as well as to measure their own performance when using versus disregarding the techniques they themself teach.

Training is one part you might be able to cut yourself a tiny little bit of slack on provided that you compete regularly (only because competitions are a great place to pick up book-title length training lessons) but you can’t ignore training entirely in favor of picking stuff up in competitions because book titles aren’t books. Trainers don’t just teach you the exactly skill at hand. They’re, if you’re observant, also teaching you how they create lessons that target specific skills and knowledge and if you pay attention you will soon know how to do this for yourself. Competition itself has been argued time and again to be a form of training but it’s not being that it’s training for a highly specialized situation and it’s incomplete because you frequently learn techniques but not any reasons to apply them or not. Competition is a great method of performance evaluation which for practical shooters is beyond important. Practical shooting usually ends with something bleeding. If you can only measure in blood, eventually you run out of blood.

I’ve been at competition events that are held by and attended only by special forces operators. The last time I was at Ft. Bragg I was at Range 37 to hang out and interact with some Delta and GB guys as they did a 3-gun match. You could see the bell curve in the speed and accuracy as clear as day because each person was running on their own time in that format. Some were bloody Jedi’s and some were just very fit and aggressive but decidedly more inelegant in their use of guns. On the other hand, in a normal team-format drill you probably won’t get an idea of who’s where on any bell curve because the team is stacked up or otherwise working as an interconnected machine and can only go as fast as their slowest member. Competition lets them shine or not based on their own ability to perform and it does it to their face so they can’t ignore it.

Another thing I’ve been able to glean from training and competitions I’ve done with members of special forces of assorted militaries and police forces is, if they’ve never competed before they will universally perform pretty badly at it their first time out. Either they’ll suck up the ego hit, move on to the next match and they’ll improve at a rate that the average Joe just isn’t going to match (because they have the time and resources to do nothing but train their ugly away) or they’ll never go back to a match because their mental image of their own pecker size can’t take the reality check.

I shoot competitively and almost uniformly end up in the high-middle of the pack. I can do better but I don’t usually do better. I know this is true because I occasionally place in the top 5 on my “on days” and I clean some stages and not others but I’m inconsistent about which. I use my competition skills and my experience as an instructor when I’m hunting every year in the game fields of southern Africa. Africa is a place where everything bites and there aren’t many second chances. I also take shooting courses of all kinds whenever I can and I adapt my own courses to incorporate the best of all of the above situations. What this delivers to me is that I know my limits and how to grow past them if I ever find the time, desire and the money to try. I also know that my performance limits are a little bit further out than if I only did one of the three skill builders. When my students invite me to demonstrate the skills I teach in my courses there’s no worry on my part about being able to do it. I just have to very consiously apply all of my lessons to that shot.

An example: The Trifecta

This year on my hunt in South Africa a situation came up where I had 3 animals all at or beyond 200 meters distance and a .308win with 150gr Game King bullets which were not suitable to reliably fatal (and quickly fatal at that) body shots on 2 of the 3 animals. So we’re in a situation where head shots are the requirement. Ok, fine. Small targets it is. My rifle weighed maybe 8lbs with its pencil barrel and rounded traditional hunting style stock and it had a neoprene sling with ammo stuck in loops on the outside of it. The terrain was a rocky cliff with a couple 1m diameter boulders with plenty of sharp small rocks around the bases of the boulders. The largest animal was at my 12 o’clock, 230m away and down 15 degrees and was an eland that was easily the size of a large horse. The second largest was at my 2 o’clock, 260m away and down 15 degrees and was a waterbuck about the size of a massive mule deer or a very, very small cow elk. The smallest target was at my 6 o’clock, 200m away and down 10 degrees and was the size of a 200lbs warthog, because it was a 200lbs warthog. Warthog brains are tiny compared to eland or waterbuck brains. An eland brain case is about the size of a grapefruit. A waterbuck brain case is about the size of a large orange. A warthog brain case is about the size of a small pecan.

So I’ve got a light rifle and a sling made out of wet suit material that are not set up for being super stable on the most cooperative obstacles, a fairly modestly powered rifle which makes body shots a no-go, only big and very lumpy rocks to use as a rest, very small mobile targets spread across 180 degrees of horizon and probably only seconds to engage all 3. Fine.

First thing first: Remembering my experience as a PRS competitor and think to myself, “Bracket the distance so you don’t have to fiddle with knobs once the stage starts.” so I dial 2.3 mils (this load’s 200m dope plus 1 more click). I’m thinking to myself as i do this, “I’ll just hold center of head/neck interface.”

Then I start fiddling around in a bit of a rush moving the rifle around on the rock trying to get a rest that will work and my advice as an instructor comes racing into my head, “Don’t rush the shot. Get stable, then worry about touching triggers. This is an optional shot.” I instantly regained my composure, snuggled up tight to the rock so it supported much of my weight and got the rifle set up with the sling resting on the rock, the trigger guard resting on the sling and the fore end of the stock resting on the Uncle Mikes sling swivel which was itself resting on the neoprene sling. That chased a lot of the wiggle out but not all of it.

Ok, so I’m set up pretty stable but I 100% need to stop this side to side wobble. Thinking back to PRS competition shooting I pulled a technique many of us call “the cross” out of the bag. This is where I use my non-firing hand crossed over the scope to stop the rifle wiggling side to side. Now I can see my heartbeat in the scope so I pulled out the old “minimum biological input” card which is how I teach my students to shoot from prone (on moderately recoiling rifles) so they won’t see their heartbeat. I reduced my shoulder pressure on the stock to just enough to control the rifle. Now I have headshot level stability and I’m holding on the back of the eland’s head. Wind is essentially nothing, critters aren’t spooked and it’s about to get bloody as I feel great about the whole situation.

Doing as my instructors have all drilled into my head I focused on the reticle hovering over the target at hand and steadily added trigger pressure until the shot broke and the eland immediately hit the dirt. My PRS experience instantly took over and as soon as I recovered from recoil (I’d seen the thing hit the dirt through the scope) I flicked open my bolt, leaned my body leftward a bit and slid my aim over to the waterbuck as it trotted a few steps further away, annoyed by all the ruckus and chambered the next round in as close to a single smooth motion as could be done.

My experience as a hunter chimed in as soon as the waterbuck started moving and said, “The suppressor did its job. The buck is just startled not spoooked. It’s just going to take a few steps and then it’ll look back and you’ll have your shot so don’t rush and definitely don’t come off the rifle.” What do you know, exactly that happens and; still holding crossed over the scope, the small and sharp rocks start aggressively biting into my knee joints in a very uncomfortable way due to my body shift leftward allowing some to roll a bit under my knees on the otherwise slick rock ground. My time spent rolling around on the rocks and hot brass in a summertime pistol class at a Tactical Response chimed in and told me to not be such a sissy and to ignore the discomfort until it becomes actual pain (there’s a difference) because we’re busy with some business now and I can always complain later. So i sucked up the discomfort. Crosshairs steady out on the waterbuck bean and bang, flop. Down goes the waterbuck. As soon as I recovered from recoil my PRS shooter voice pops back into the fore and I instantly jack the bolt open, then execute something of a rather elegant turn; bordering on a pirouette, as I stand and do a sharp about-face. Then I took two big but calm steps toward the other big rock behind me and lay the rifle on the sling like before before getting my chest and genitals snuggled up to the boulder. I find the hog and let my knees feel the sharp little rocks dig in a little. I assume the cross hold like before, then nudge the reticle over to the pig’s ear, apply trigger pressure slowly and whammo. Pig on the ground literally just outside of its hole.

From first trigger pull to last, 3 headshots all at 200m or better from relatively unstable and definitely uncomfortable positions including a location change all in well under 30 seconds. If you count all the position building from the time we spotted all 3 and decided to spill blood on all of them then it was still well under a minute. If I hadn’t spent tons of time in the field actually hunting; enough to not get buck fever, and if I hadn’t spent many a weekend doing a precision rifle competitions and if I hadn’t spent lots of time over the past decade providing precision rifle instruction and taking all manner of gun courses then the day wouldn’t have turned out with 3 pretty nice head shot trophies in the pickup.

The 3 idiots the title refers to are my internal hunter voice, my internal instructor voice and my internal competitive shooter voice. By themselves each one is super helpful but not enough to get me through a situation that dynamic and demanding of exactness. When all of them get together though, I became the beneficiary. I was able to perform in real life a series of actions that I often have trouble with in competition: Shooting decreasing size targets down to sub-MOA size at longish distances using a bolt action rifle while dealing with target movement, 180 degrees of horizon spread on the targets, hastily built positions, major discomfort, body position & firing position changes and ending up with shot splits substantially under 10 seconds and a clean stage. If I’d only listened to my instructor voice I would have been able to miss every single shot because my instructor voice didn’t mention “the cross”, my PRS voice knew about that and my instructor voice would have advised picking a single target instead of trying for mulitples. If I’d listened only to my hunter voice then I would have taken the pig and never even seen the eland or waterbuck; since I saw the pig first, and would have just went all pig fever on it. If I’d listened only to my PRS competitor voice then I would have insisted on taking a Kestrel reading of the wind and temp, breaking out my tripod and shooting bags and then doing the ballistic calculation and never have shot anything because they would have left by then.

As a final point, all of the students that come to my class with a great deal of competition experience are the ones who have the wheels come off their bus on the final day (the final day is test day) because, as a surprising rule, they don’t internalize all the material and they deliberately ignore some things. Instead they practice falling back on old experience which is obviously not good enough or they wouldn’t have taken my class. The students that do not have the wheels come off the bus, in fact they end up shooting to the limits of their gear every single time, are the ones that start the class with the, “I can only shoot maybe 200m and then it’s body shots. Long range is just too hard/complicated/etc… and I can’t do it.” They find out quickly that they can do it and precisely how to do it, precisely why the how works and they don’t ignore anything so they can use all the knowledge that I give them with every shot.

Every training class has 3 kinds of people in it. Those who came to learn. Those who came to show. Those who came to say. The third kind are just there for a sympathetic audience but they can be disruptive. The middle kind are disruptive but can shut up once the wheels are pulled off their bus in public. The first kind are your stars and who you’re there to help anyway so accept the latter two kinds as inevitable inescapable unfortunate facts and move on with the first group.

Instructors, teach your students how to learning to be teachers themselves not by replicating your lessons but by seeing the logic in how you built the lessons so they can help build lessons for those close to them. Make them ambassadors for quality training. Don’t just stop there though, keep fresh by doing some competition and taking other trainer’s courses and then try that stuff out in the field and where you find BS, call out BS. A big tip, don’t even mention how to do something wrong. Only teach the right way.

Competitors can help the whole community by realizing that your competition performance is nearly meaningless in the real universe but you do have a leg up and if you learn to be competent instructors you’ll probably make a great practical shooter once you’ve got a bit of knowledge about your quarry built up.

Practical shooters, you guys can’t be helped unless you recognize that you do need some training and you should do some competition to measure your progress. Then you’re not really a problem for anyone. If you go the training route from pure practical you’ll progress really quickly. If you go the competition route you’ll go in spits and spurts. If you do both you’ll be someone that everyone else wants to learn from because you’re in a great position to call BS on all the gear queer shit and on all the tacticool stupidity as well as being able to say what does vs. does not work in the real world.