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Staying Alive -- The Combat Shooting Stance

Staying Alive -- The Combat Shooting Stance

In a deadly encounter with a perpetrator, getting a handgun into action quickly and making accurate hits are just as important as selecting the actual handgun to be used. For that to happen, you need the most effective shooting stance.

Sheriff Jim Wilson recommends what he calls the "modern Weaver stance." It is balanced, focused, dynamic, and able to deal with recoil in order to deliver quick and accurate repeat shots.

Since the virtual beginning of the handgun, shooters have tried to find ways to handle it in the most efficient manner. This has been especially true when employing a handgun as a defensive tool.

Getting the gun into action quickly and making accurate hits are tasks that are just as important as selecting the actual handgun to be used. For this reason, a lot of thought has gone into the business of shooting stances. And I'm not just talking about recent developments, either.

For instance, dueling came to America with our earliest settlers, and it thrived during the 18th and 19th centuries. In this country, dueling reached its zenith in and around New Orleans, Louisiana. By the early 1800s, there were several schools in New Orleans that taught the gentry how to properly defend themselves against nasty insults--real or imagined. The whole practice became so formalized that it didn't just matter that you won a shootout, but it was equally important that you used the proper form. You might say that they were actually choreographing gunfights.

(left) Point shooting can be quite dynamic; however, it would be more so if the shooter used both hands on the gun and made use of the gun's sights.
(right) The original Weaver stance is great for delivering quick multiple shots, but the shooter's erect posture doesn't allow for the movement needed to deal with a dynamic threat.

It was from this early training that the duelist's stance was derived. The shooter stood with his feet quartered away from his target, presenting the strong side of his body towards the target. One authority suggested that this placed the shooter's heart as far away from the threat as possible.

In the dueling stance, the legs were straight and the shooting arm was raised to eye level and held straight. The weak hand was held loosely at the side. By now, you may have snapped that the dueling stance is still alive and well among bullseye shooters the world over. And today, we call it the "bullseye stance" or the "target stance."

Since bullseye shooters are still using it in this day and time, it should not be a great surprise that this stance is capable of delivering very accurate fire. You might also note how similar this handgun stance is to the corresponding rifle shooter's stance. It clearly provides a solid platform for accurate shooting.


However, the target stance has a number of characteristics that make it less than desirable for personal defense. The one-arm, locked-elbow hold makes fast, repeat shots very difficult. In addition, it does very little to help the shooter contend with the heavier recoil of defensive handgun ammunition. Further, the erect carriage of the body does little to prepare the shooter to move quickly to a new location (cover) or to deal with a new threat coming from another direction.

With the advent of the revolver and our nation's move towards the western frontier, the strict rules of dueling fell by the wayside. Most shootists raised their gun to arm's length and used only one hand, but they didn't put as much value on style. Style was not nearly as important as winning the fight.

From studying the old illustrations of the frontier days, we see that the frontier shootist tended to face the threat with his whole body. And while the old-timers still generally used just one hand, their shooting arm was slightly bent. This allowed the shooting arm to act as a sort of shock absorber, giving better control for repeat shots with the full-power blackpowder loads of the frontier revolvers.

As an aside, the frontier shooters were somewhat divided as to whether or not to use the handgun's sights. Quite possibly, at close quarters--such as a small, crowded saloon--it was not necessary to actually acquire the sights to make a killing hit. On the other hand, one would imagine that Bill Hickok must have used his sights when he dropped Dave Tutt with one shot at 75 yards on the square in Springfield, Missouri.

The next most significant turn of events came in the early 1900s, when W.E. Fairbairn was placed in a training role with the Shanghai police. That agency had been losing men in gunfights with the various Chinese gangs, and Capt. Fairbairn was tasked with the job of making better fighters out of the policemen.

By studying actual gunfights, often as an actual participant, Fairbairn determined that his men usually crouched when they heard gunfire or sensed a threat. Instead of trying to overcome the natural inclination to crouch, Fairbairn decided to incorporate it into his training. In addition, he determined that most of their gunfights were occurring at nighttime when the light was too poor for the officers to see their sights.

For these reasons, Fairbairn taught his men to face the threat in a crouch very similar to the boxer's stance. The feet were spread apart for better balance, with the weak-side foot slightly forward of the other. The handgun was held at an angle in front of the shooter and pointed at the ground, similar to the current low-ready position. The shooting arm was straight and stiff.

Once the threat was identified, the shooter's eyes were focused on it--actually, on the spot on the threat where he intended his bullets to hit. The handgun, in the straight, stiff hold, was raised into the lower edge of the shooter's vision and brought to bear on the center of the threat. At this point, two shots were quickly triggered. From start to finish, the shooter's eyes were always on the target, never on the handgun's sights. Once the handgun was forward in the firing position, the shooter moved his whole body if he needed to move or address another target.

In the early days of World War II, a young Army officer named Rex Applegate used the Fairbairn point-shooting method to teach government agents that were part of the O.S.S. In fact, Fairbairn came to the U.S. and personally assisted in some of this training.

Following the war, many police agencies began to adopt the point-shooting method to deal with domestic

gunfights. In fact, the FBI sort of led the way in this endeavor. And typical of the FBI, they put their own twist on it. Officers were soon dropping into a deep squat--as if they might have had severe intestinal cramps--and were triggering their shots as soon as the handgun cleared the holster. All of which looked rather dramatic but was not very effective, except for very close-range gunfights.

(left) In the original isosceles stance, the shooter stands erect with his arms held straight out. It makes for accurate shooting, but does not compensate for the severe recoil, which makes multiple shots very difficult.

(right) The combat isosceles stance makes use of the athletic stance, but in Wilson's view, it does not deal with recoil as well as the Weaver stance.

People like Ed McGivern and Bill Jordan showed us that point shooting could be extremely fast and surprisingly accurate if a person was willing to put in hours of practice. Still, for all that, the point-shooting technique was only good for close-range encounters.

Applegate and Jordan both advised using the handgun's sights if the fight occurred much beyond handshaking distance. In addition, Jordan did not crouch during his speed draw. He advised against moving any part of the body that was not directly involved in getting off the shot. Jordan would move his arm and shoulder to get hits in 37/100 of a second.

In the 1950s, Col. Jeff Cooper started a free-form pistol competition near Big Bear, California. Targets were set up at close range, and quick hits were the order of the day. Cooper said that at the outset, competitors were using one-handed point shooting. And then along came Jack Weaver.

Weaver chose to approach this close-range competition by using both hands on his S&W revolver and actually using the sights to get his hits. In short order, he was cleaning everyone's clock because he was hitting a target with each and every shot.

And he was doing it very quickly.

Cooper adopted Weaver's shooting technique because he had seen it work. And he had seen it produce hits way faster than that which the average point shooter was capable of. As Cooper taught the Weaver stance, the shooter stood erect, with his feet slightly quartering away from the target. Elbows were bent slightly, to act as shock absorbers, and the weak arm was perpendicular to the ground. The shooter's eyes were focused on the threat, and the handgun was brought up into the lower edge of the shooter's vision. At this point, the shooter focused on the front sight, making sure it was aligned and on target, then he pressed the "Go" button.

The greatest value of the Weaver stance was--and still is--the ability to control recoil so that multiple, well-aimed shots can be fired very rapidly.

At about this same time, American police agencies were enjoying competition on the Practical Police Course (PPC). The PPC was a 60-round match that was designed for revolvers and light target loads. Back in those early days, the isosceles stance was all the rage.

Using this early isosceles stance, the shooter stood erect and held the handgun in both hands. The arms were straight and fully extended. With mild target loads, this stance could be quite accurate. However, things really fell apart when officers tried to use this stance in actual gunfights with full-power ammunition. The resulting recoil was severe and quick, and multiple shots were extremely difficult.

For a time, quite a controversy raged among defensive handgunners and in the various gun magazines. It was almost like we were back to the days of choreographing our gunfights again. If you espoused one technique, then you couldn't play with the big boys that supported the other. In many cases, it was sort of an East Coast-West Coast thing. Or maybe it had to do with the choice of pistols, I'm not sure. If you carried a 1911, you were in big trouble for using anything but the Weaver stance. On the other hand, you were supposed to use the isosceles with your Glock.

Personally, I lean towards the Weaver stance because the position of the arms allows me to reduce the flip of the gun from recoil, and I can get repeat hits much quicker. However, just as important is the rest of the shooting stance and what it can do for keeping you alive in a gunfight.

Gunfights are generally very dynamic things and often involve multiple attackers. The shooter needs to be able to move quickly to address a moving target, address new targets, or beat feet to the closest cover. Standing in an erect, rigid stance while people shoot at me is just not one of my favorite things to do.

For this reason, the shooting stance needs to be athletic. Imagine, if you will, the typical stance in boxing or just about any of the dynamic ball sports. The feet are apart for good balance, and the weak-side foot is slightly forward of the other. You want a stance that maintains good balance without being too exaggerated. And, just as in the boxing stance, the weight is distributed equally on the balls of both feet and a bit forward. The knees are slightly bent but, again, not in an exaggerated fashion. The body, as a whole, faces the threat or turns to face the new threat.

The elbows of both arms should be bent slightly. This really helps in reducing the muzzle flip caused by the recoil of defensive handgun ammunition. It causes the gun to move backwards more than upwards, which makes it much quicker to get back on target for an accurate repeat shot.

Whether you watch the top competitors in the various action-shooting events or many of the various combat trainers, you will see shooting techniques that are very similar to what I have just described to you. And, since I have no interest in choreographing the gunfight, I really don't care if someone modifies things a bit to suit their own use. The proof is really in the results.

The athletic stance, the two-hand Weaver hold, and the use of the handgun's sights give the kind of results that have saved lives. And the combination will continue to save lives. It is the kind of solid foundation upon which you can build your own personal-defense plan.

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