Is it better to be a good target or combat shot? This question comes up frequently on various shooting sites as well as my email inbox. Recently I read a thread in which an instructor was saying folks were shooting "good" if they had hits that were spread out and "bad" if their shots were tightly grouped. The inference was that they were shooting too slowly for self-protection. Not having seen the actual training session in person, I cannot say if the response was correct or not.
I can suggest (strongly) that accuracy is not a bad thing and that with most defensive handgun calibers, placement is power.
Jeff Cooper said that for effective combat shooting one requires Diligencia, Vis, and Celeritas. He uses the initials "DVC" to represent a blending of accuracy, power, and speed that he opines are necessary components in effectively using the fighting handgun. I happen to believe he is correct. This makes sense to me, but that is not to say that there is not controversy in determining the correct "blend". Opinions vary widely as to what caliber or load constitutes an "adequate" protection gun, not to mention the auto vs. revolver issue.
Likewise, there are viewpoints on both sides (to varying degrees) on speed vs. accuracy.
Cooper's concept of DVC (Accuracy, Power, and Speed) is hopefully represented in this photograph. Most agree that the .45 ACP has the necessary power, but there is considerable disagreement concerning both accuracy and time. This image might also represent that the accurate use of the handgun will require both time and effort. The group was fired in slow-fire from 15 yards using a Springfield Armory Mil-Spec 1911 pattern pistol with factory 230-gr. FMJ.
One thing that I have come to accept is that there are few absolutes in this world. For that reason, I general view absolutist my-way-or-the-highway viewpoints with a very jaundiced eye. In this article I will offer my observations as a certified police firearms instructor for 11 years. During that time, I was responsible for police firearms training, qualifications and also provided more intense handgun training specifically for the department's tactical unit. I claim utterly no expertise at anything, but will relate what I have seen with regard to both quick and slow shooting disciplines.
To avoid possible complaints of not using an "acceptable" defensive caliber, I selected a .45 ACP from Springfield Armory for this work. It is their Mil-Spec and was chosen because:
1. These pistols are widely available.
2. These 1911's are affordable for most people.
3. This is about as close to stock a 1911 as I own.
This Mil-Spec was the gun used for this article. This one has had some internal upgrades and sports different stocks than the black plastic ones it came with. It also has the Wilson Combat wrap-around checkered frontstrap. The hammer is a wide spur hammer from EMC and is made of tool steel rated at RC 46-52. Trigger specialist, Teddy Jacobson, mated it to a new sear and the gun has his upgraded disconnector as well. The hammer spur was slightly shortened and recontoured to avoid hammer bite with the GI grip safety. I cleaned up the trigger channel and smoothed the trigger bow myself and am using the original trigger. This pistol has an ISMI recoil spring and the trigger breaks cleanly at around 4 to 4 1/2 pounds. The sights are as they came from the factory. I find them quite useable and they are spot on for me. No accuracy work has been done and this pistol is using the factory barrel and bushing. It is nothing fancy and certainly not intended as a formal bullseye competition pistol. That said, I have no intentions of fitting the pistol with a match barrel and bushing. In its present configuration, it is capable of better accuracy than most shooters can wring out of it. This gun has proven extremely reliable as well. (Though a forty-five was used in this instance, I am personally about as happy with a quality 9mm using loads I deem satisfactory for self-protection.)
This question concerning combat vs. target shooting also begs the question, "What is the purpose of the handgun?"
The pure martial artist will give an answer couched in self-protection aspects. The pure marksman will speak to accuracy and there will be some overlap with regard to comfort, durability, and so forth. The marksman might be able to sacrifice perfect reliability to the altar of accuracy, but the martial artist cannot. Your answer will depend upon your perceived needs. (To some degree it will also depend upon the willingness to do what is necessary to achieve these needs.)
Here is my answer: The purpose of my own handguns is whatever I want it to be.
Does it not follow that the emphasis on DVC's individual components might change? I think so, but let's keep this discussion focused on but two aspects of shooting:
1. Accurate slow-fire in which tight groups are shot with time a secondary consideration
2. "Practical" type shooting in which coarser accuracy is acceptable within abbreviated time frames
Are these necessarily contrary to each other? Is the fellow who is primarily a target shooter doomed to lose in a deadly force scenario? Does the combat shooter have no need for very precise shooting? Are these ideas mutually exclusive? I don't think so at all, but with a caveat or two that will be explained a bit later.
Several years ago, an officer under my command and I began shooting together. At close range, he would empty his HK USP .45 as quickly as possible, happy if the shots were contained on an 8 1/2 x 11" sheet of paper. He was almighty quick to be sure and much of the time most of his hits were on the paper. This was done at roughly 5 and 7 yards. However, if target size was reduced or distance increased his ability to hit the target was severely diminished. Distances at which this occurred were not over 15 yards.
Eventually he wanted to work on his ability to group better with his pistol. Even though I emphasized not being concerned with time, his shot-cadence was still too fast. It was not too fast because he couldn't handle the recoil. It wasn't too quick because he couldn't find the sights. It was too fast because he couldn't control the trigger. He would get a perfect sight picture but jerk the trigger. Even getting the time between shots increased made no real difference…at first. Eventually he learned the elements of making a clean break and follow through and his trigger control became very, very good. He worked diligently on slow, accurate shooting for about a year.
During that time he did not abandon the "quick & dirty", but the emphasis was on precision shooting. After that we shot for precision on some days and for "combat accuracy" at speed on others. (Even on days when we shot the practical exercises, I always fired at least of couple of slow-fire precise groups before leaving. I wanted correct trigger control reinforced.) Time passed and he continued to practice both types of shooting.
He can almost always shoot smaller groups than I can now and he remains faster too. He can do good work at arm's length if required out to distances usually thought of as being out of handgun range.
"So what?" some will say, adding, "You use the handgun at close range. You're not justified if the bad guy's a long way out. If I can shoot fast, I can darned sure shoot slow if I need to make an accurate hit."
Maybe, but not in my experience. I fully agree that most private citizen deadly force scenarios are at very close distances, but some are not. It only takes one to kill you. Whether a shooting is justifiable at distance depends on many things, but actually needing to do so without the prerequisite skills might get one in hot water even faster. There are certainly distances at which I will not waste my ammunition but I suggest that it would behoove us to be able to hit a precise point smaller than a washtub out to at least fifteen yards.
Though a police scenario, I recall when an officer in my department was fired upon after a car chase by a felon who had just kidnapped and shot another officer. He had an M1 carbine. My friend had an S&W Model 19. The gunfight was at roughly 50 yards. Some would ask, "Why didn't the officer use his rifle?" The answer is simple. We were not allowed to routinely carry them back then and the revolver actually had greater effective range (in competent hands) than the short-barreled shotgun with buckshot. The officer was able to get a heart shot and won the encounter.
In this instance, accuracy was required at a distance that was greater than expected.
More important than action-type is the ability to put the bullets where they are needed. Whether this is the X-ring of a pistol target in competition or the vitals of a deadly aggressor, it remains true. Quality firearms possess more inherent accuracy than we can wring out of them under stressful conditions and it is tougher to achieve. Does that it is difficult make it less necessary? I think not.
When working with tactical officers there was no problem having them do the "quick & dirty" rapid-fire drills where scoring areas were generous (too generous in my opinion) and times short. Their participation in precise target shooting came with considerably less enthusiasm. With notable exceptions, they could shoot well enough at large targets and darned quickly, but they could not group well enough to keep from being embarrassed by their group size. Shooting small groups requires considerable work. I am not saying that IPSC, IDPA or defensive shooting does not, only that precision shooting is usually not considered as much fun. Combine that with the merciless manner in which the classic bullseye target displays our hits or misses and we see that many will just shy away. Some fool themselves and say, "I may not can hit a paper target but I can hit a man in a gunfight?" I have heard that. I do not believe it now any more than I did then. (This is not to say that the best target shots will win on the street and the same applies to the "practical" shooter. They must actually be willing to employ deadly force. Too much hesitation and what they might be able to do is moot. A mediocre shot who is not afraid to use deadly force when no other reasonable alternative exists might very well win the encounter, but this has more to do with mindset.)
The group on the left was fired standing and with a two-hand hold at 25 yards. Certainly it is not Camp Perry accurate and plenty of precision shooters can do better. Some suggest that this type shooting is irrelevant to defensive handgun use. What if all you can see is part of the aggressor's head and an accurate shot is all that will save the day? What if that head is partially visible from behind your wife or child and a knife's at their throat? Might not the ability to drop the hammer without disturbing the sights be a good thing? (The target at the right was fired at 7 yards. It was timed. Starting with the handgun on safe and in a low ready position, each shot was required an average time of less than 1.3 seconds. Many can beat that to be sure, but that's about my personal limit.)
If you have not guessed it by now, my humble suggestion is to be competent in making both precise shots if required as well as the quicker ones as closer range. I have not found precision to be a detriment to defensive shooting so long as the shooter can pick up the pace to a respectable degree. Some group spread must be expected to be sure, but that is simply to be expected. I honestly think those who only shoot as quickly as they can while trying to keep their hits on a target the size of a dinner plate would do better if they would work on precise grouping and trigger control now and again. This brings to mind to old saying attributed to Wyatt Earp, "Speed is fine but accuracy is final," as well as the more contemporary, "We cannot miss fast enough to win."
At the same time, I would counsel that the exclusive target shooter not to be too quick to scoff at the larger groups fired in practical shooting drills. Quick and accurate shooting at speed does not come without effort and practice. I would suggest to him that he also consider using ammunition loaded beyond the lightest-loaded target rounds now and then, if defensive shooting is a consideration. Rapid-fire does not necessarily have to mean inaccurate fire. Anyone who has seen Jerry Mikulek work his revolver magic can attest to that!
Whenever I found myself with an officer having trouble passing the required handgun qualification course, the vast majority of the time, we started again with the basics: sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control and follow through, grip, stance, and breathing. Of these, it seems that trigger control was the most difficult to correct. However, with the required effort and concentration on the officer's part, he would be able to translate this foundation into a passing score at the more quickly paced "practical" type qualification course. I observed just the opposite too. Some officers trying to pass the course would "practice" by simply burning up ammo as fast as they could shoot it. All they were doing was wasting time, ammunition, and ingraining the same improper techniques they'd been using even more.
Back when I used to run a little, I read that if one wanted to run fast, he should run slow. The idea was that if running a three-mile race, one should not get out and run that distance as hard as he could every day. Instead, run four or five miles but do it at a more relaxed pace. Kick it up to race pace only once per week or so.
This target was shot at 7 yards. Several controlled pairs were fired center chest as quickly as I could obtain what Jeff Cooper calls a "flash sight picture". Failure- to-stop drills were also performed. (I find it interesting that the head hits are more tightly grouped than those in the chest. I believe that is at least partially due to there being a more precise aiming point in this target's head.)
I believe that general parallel can be drawn between effective fast defensive handgunning and precise slow-fire shooting. I see being good at only one or the other as severely limiting oneself. These shooting aspects are not necessarily "either-or" concepts. The wise man learns and uses concepts from both. They can mutually benefit a person's shooting skills be they in the heat of a life-or-death fight or just relaxing at the range.