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The Three Levels of Shooting Skills

Generally it is thought by the non-shooting public, that shooting a handgun is an almost purely physical act. However, anyone who carries a handgun as part of their daily routine, whether as a legally armed civilian or law enforcement officer, knows there is more to shooting than pointing the gun and pulling the trigger.

Most of us are familiar with the “fire triangle”, we learned about in elementary school. Simply stated, the triangle shows that three things are needed for a fire to occur – heat, fuel and oxygen. If you remove any side of the triangle, there can be no fire. The same concept can be applied when shooting a handgun in defense of your life against a lethal threat.

The sides of the “defensive shooting triangle”, like the fire triangle, are made up of three portions - judgmental skills, physical skills and psychological skills. Remove any one of these and the triangle will fall apart as each part of the triangle plays a synergistic role toward insuring the successful outcome when using a firearm in defense of a life. Let’s examine each of the parts a little more closely.

Judgmental Skills

Judgmental skills are those abilities necessary to make the proper decisions prior to actually shooting. These skills can be developed in a number of ways. The use of “shoot/no-shoot” targets on a ‘flat’ range is one method. Another is combining these targets while conducting regular qualification or practice. The use of judgmental shooting systems, such as MILO or FATS, is good example of inserting technology into firearms training. These systems allow various scenarios to be programmed and ‘branched’ depending on how the shooter handles the situation. These can be very realistic and new versions can even shoot back. One of the most valuable aspects of these systems is their ability to track various parts of the shooters technique. Trigger manipulation and sight alignment/picture are two of the most important fundamentals that are problematic for many new shooters. These systems can be a tremendous asset to firearms instructors and can save time and money in the long term.

Those of us who go armed regularly and instruct others, also study and stress the trifecta of self-defense shooting - Ability, Opportunity, and Jeopardy. A thorough understanding of this triad is essential to ensure a full grasp of what circumstances must exist before lethal force can be applied. The ability of an aggressor to actually inflict harm must be present – actually having a weapon or presenting a lethal treat. The aggressor must also have the opportunity – be near enough to employ the ability. Lastly, the aggressor must put you in jeopardy of losing your life or grave bodily injury.

The totality of circumstances must also be considered prior to letting the lead fly. The totality of circumstances involves a number of variables and concerns that could have a direct effect on the outcome of the encounter. The size and gender of the attacker and defender must be considered. A four foot three inch female would probably be safe in using deadly force against a six foot four inch male aggressor but the opposite may not always hold. The environmental conditions can also have an impact. You would not consider using the same tactics in daylight on a crowded street that you would in a vacant lot in less than ideal light at night.

Physical Skills

Physical skills are what occur (physical actions) after the need is realized and the decision to shoot has been made. Much has been written in the shooting press about the need for proper grip, stance, sight picture and trigger squeeze. There have been volumes written by many gun writers and enthusiasts about which is the best stance - Weaver or Isosceles. These fundamental physical skills are absolutely essential to insure the defensive shot goes where it is planned.

We now know that under the stress of a lethal threat confrontation, our bodies are going to react in a certain physiological manner. We also know that we have no control over this process – adrenaline and sweat will flow; heart and breathing rates will rise; vision will be altered. We can minimize the effect of these changes somewhat through a regimen of live and dry fire and a full understanding of how stress will affect the body during lethal threat confrontation. This knowledge will allow us to adapt the fundamentals to our particular set of ‘needs’ when faced with a lethal threat.

Tactics are physical skill sets that must be developed and maintained to be effective in lethal confrontations. Movement to cover or when searching could be critical in some situations. The ability to engage a threat form one position and then re-engage from another could also be useful.

Psychological Skills

Psychological skills are those skills that enable someone involved in a shooting to deal with the mental aftermath. Even if the shooting was totally justified, there may be long lasting psychological scars on the survivor(s). This has been shown with many men returning from war. What has become known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has also been called ‘shell shock’ and other names as well. In addition to other factors, this condition generally developed after long exposure to combat. Often, even the realization that one has survived a lethal confrontation, and someone else did not, can also lead to ‘survivor’s guilt’ or the feeling of, “Why did I live?” Counseling is frequently the method of choice used when trying to treat critical incident stress.

A thorough search of each individual’s mores and spiritual beliefs are in order long before the decision to buy a firearm for self-defense is even made. The choice to use lethal force, even in defense of a life, is not an easy decision to make and when under the mental trauma of a life-threatening situation is not the time to begin contemplating that choice.


There are those individuals who may believe that all they need to defend themselves is a firearm. Little thought is given to the other sets of skills necessary to insure that an adequate defense can be mounted. The fundamental physical skills are an absolute must as we must be able to have control over the firearm in order to place the shot if necessary.

In a self-defense situation, the use of a firearm cannot be taken lightly. The decision to carry a firearm for self-protection should not be either. If an individual feels they may need to use lethal force to defend themselves, then the judgmental skill to make the decisions that will no doubt take place, are crucial. Being sure prior to a shot being fired can mean the difference between winning or losing everything.

The psychological consequences of any shooting incident will leave its marks. How we deal with that is a direct result of how much we put into our mental preparation. Knowing what the consequences may be after using lethal force and what our personal belief system is, will go a long way toward helping us through the legal and public quagmire that are sure to occur after a shooting.

Development and execution of these three skill sets won’t insure a good decision or a ‘good shoot’, but they can be an asset in helping you through the difficulty you will no doubt face if you are ever involved in a self-defense shooting.

Defensive Shooting Triangle
Defensive Shooting Triangle


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