Skip to main content

The Most Important Shooting Skill

Of all the skills the outdoorsman and defensive shooter can possess, alertness is the most important. The ability to see what is going on in time to react to it is critical. Use of some or all of the five senses is the way we keep up with what is going on around us. And of the five senses, hearing and seeing are the most important.

The hunter uses sight and hearing to determine when game is moving near him. How often have we sat quietly on a hillside and first located game by its movement? We either see the game as it moves or we hear its footsteps as it approaches. Either way, the hunter is able to locate game, get ready to identify it, and take the appropriate action when the time is right.

We know this is true because game animals tend to use the same skills against us. Walking along, we ease around a bush only to see a deer focused on our location. He has already spotted us because of the movement or sound that we have made. And too often, all we see is his tail in the air as he rapidly leaves the area. If you watch a herd of deer as they feed unmolested, you can learn the value of alertness. As they feed, those deer are continually watching for predators. The observant hunter is usually a successful hunter.

In personal defense, our powers of observation are even more important because we must be alert for predators. Alertness is often the deciding factor in determining who wins a deadly confrontation. This is the reason that Col. Jeff Cooper implemented his Color Code. Condition Yellow reminds the person to be alert to what is going on around him. In this manner, he is able to identify a potential threat, keep it under observation, and take the necessary steps to deal with it.

Because we are alert, we notice a person who is focusing his attention on us. It may be that his appearance doesn't fit the surroundings, or that his actions seem to be very suspicious. Regardless, we keep watch on that individual until we can determine what his intentions are. Alertness also allows us to spot trouble in time for us to simply go the other way and avoid confrontation altogether.

The old gunfighter's trick of sitting with his back to the wall allows him to keep the room under continual observation. In 1876, up in Dakota Territory, James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok violated that practice and paid with his life. Had he insisted on taking a seat at the card table that would have put his back to the wall, Jack McCall would have probably ended up being the fatality of that encounter.


It is equally important to find a seat near the closest exit when visiting a restaurant or other public place. Should trouble ensue, one simply gathers up his family and leaves the building as quickly as possible, using his firearm only to deal with those who might stand in his way.

Someone once said that the eyes are the window of the soul. While this sounds nice in a poetic sort of way, it's not very realistic. It's the hands, not the eyes, that can hold the means to your death. Once a potential threat is identified, the alert person focuses on the individual's hands and what they might hold.

Because we are alert, we see the armed bad guys as they approach our location from some distance away. Because of this alertness, we are able to take the necessary actions and, thus, have won the fight before it ever begins. On the other hand, if we are first aware of an armed threat when it is already upon us, there is a good possibility that we have already lost the fight.

Not long ago, a gang broke into a house, severely beat the home owner, and murdered the man's wife and daughters. Later investigation showed that the gang had been stalking this family for quite some time. Unfortunately, no one was aware of this criminal attention until the crooks kicked in the door and beat the man unconscious. I am left to wonder how different the whole thing might have been if this family had been more alert to what was going on around them.

By remaining alert, we notice the people around us. In most cases, this simply helps us to identify friends and acquaintances before they see us. We offer a friendly greeting and soon gain a reputation for being a friendly sort of guy, with no one ever knowing the real purpose behind our actions.

Probably the worst thing we can do is to adopt the posture and facial expressions of the gunfighters that we've seen in the movies. This sort of conduct will be seen as ridiculous posturing by our friends and, in fact, will generally cause us to lose friends. With just a bit of practice, one can be alert to his surroundings and still have a relaxed, friendly expression and demeanor.

I once had to arrest an armed felon in a location where there was no available cover or concealment. I had no other option except to walk up to him and make the arrest. My choice was to get as ready as I could and then walk up to him with a smile on my face as if I didn't have a care in the world. After taking him into custody, I asked this fellow why he had not taken the opportunity to draw on me. His reply was that my smile had confused him. He thought it was some kind of trick, that I knew something he didn't, and that there was probably a police sniper nearby ready to kill him if he went for his gun.

It may be that we spend too much time trying to learn the skills necessary to shoot our way out of a bad situation and not enough time in learning to identify and avoid that situation entirely. One is really just as important as the other.

It is sound advice to remember that our greatest weapon lies between our ears. Guns, pepper spray, knives, clubs, and other weapons are merely the tools that we use to deal with deadly attacks. There is a military axiom that says a military commander may be forgiven for being defeated but never for being surprised. That is equally applicable to all of those who are concerned for their own personal security.

Therefore, alertness is important to the hunter and critical to the individual who is concerned about his personal defense. In the one case, the alert hunter is the one who generally brings in the game. In the other case, the citizen is the one able to identify a threat and has the time to work out a way to deal with it. If he must fight, his alertness allows him to fight smart. Success in either endeavor should be our goal.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Shooting Times Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Shooting Times App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Shooting Times stories delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Shooting Times subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now