Skip to content

Prepare for the 1%

January 21, 2019

I have a buddy who works for a well-regarded federal law enforcement agency with a reputation for having the most challenging handgun standards in American LE, and possibly in the world. A few weeks ago, we were on the phone, discussing some tactical issues regarding the execution of some essential tasks in that particular context.

I’m happy to say that I was apparently able to provide an alternative point-of-view on a couple of issues he was problem-solving, and he seemed to find them useful. One of the issues we discussed though, was one of the recent subscription training drills that called for an on-demand hostage rescue head shot at 50 yards…with a pistol.

That’s a bitch of a shot to make on demand. In mentioning it, he pointed out that, of the guys he had shot with the weekend before, most were not capable of making that shot with any degree of regularity. Only two could do it with reasonable reliability. He was feeling a little discouraged as a result. After all, these are guys who are required to maintain some of the highest pistol standards in the world.

I pointed out to him that this was okay. This was an EVALUATION drill, not a training drill. I then went on to describe a method for training the particular technical skills required to hone your pistol marksmanship to the level of being able to make that shot, on demand (subscribers received the same information on the 15JAN19 drill). He mentioned that this seemed like a lot of work to build the ability to make a shot that there was almost zero chance of someone ever needing to make. He wasn’t wrong either.

When I first decided I wanted to be able to make a 50 yard head shot, on demand, it took me two weeks of 30-45 minutes a day, and several hundreds of rounds of ammunition (I’d have to look back at my training logs, but I think I blew through something like 800 rounds in that two weeks, just focused on making that precise shot). This was after I was already, by most metrics, an expert pistol shooter.

The level of work and focus required leads to two valid questions:

1) What perfect alignment of the stars and planets would have to occur in order for me—as a private citizen, not a serving member of a JSOC or LE counter-terrorist unit, tasked with hostage rescue missions—to need to make a 50 yard head shot on a hostage taker, with my pistol?

2) Why would I waste time on something of such far-fetched implausibility, when there are so many other tasks involved in combat pistolcraft, to master?

The answer to number one is, of course, impossible to measure. While there have been cases of armed citizens making ridiculously long shots with their EDC pistols, to intervene in a life-and-death struggle between others (often saving the life of a police officer), they are pretty uncommon, all things considered. The chances of me ever needing to make that particular shot are slim-to-none, and even if the shot presented itself, good tactical decision-making would PROBABLY preclude actually taking it, instead of working to change the situation to provide a more high-return shot with less risk involved.

In view of that, the answer to number two would initially seem to be, “there is no valid reason to do so.” That’s probably the only right answer. It’s a waste of time. From a statistical perspective, it seems that it would be far more valuable to spend my time focused on working skills at 3-7 yards, and only worrying about getting hits in the A-Zone. So, why bother?

To a great degree, I covered this reasoning in The Guerrilla Gunfighter, Vol 1: Clandestine Carry Pistol. But, the underlying reason for mastering this particular shot requires a momentary tangential discussion…


I read a lot of books. I read hundreds of books a year. What I don’t do is read very much fiction. There are probably a half-dozen authors of fiction that I read, and if someone I trust recommends a novel, I’ll usually check it out, but I’ve never actually added a fiction author to my “list” based on these recommendations.

One of the authors I do read is Stephen Hunter. For the non-literati, he is the author of the “Bob Lee Swagger” novels, on which the Mark Wahlberg movie “Shooter” is based. In one of his recent novels, the young Marine Scout-Sniper protagonist is being described by a member of his chain-of-command. In the process of describing his thorough, conscientious approach to his trade, the officer related a story of the protagonist realizing that he had one weakness as a sniper: the ability to make a certain shot, from the standing off-hand position, on demand. Like the 50-yard head shot, the shot described was a one-in-a-million shot for a sniper. It’s not something he would ever be expected to need to make, thus the reason for the hole in the sniper’s training: he’d never bothered practicing it.

As you can imagine, that particular shot becomes a key plot point in the novel, but the point, as it applies here, is the protagonist’s dedication to craft, and his conscientiousness to mastering his trade, meant that he spent several months of solo work, just focusing on that particular shot.

While this was a novel, written by a dude who tells fiction stories for a living, the anecdote jumped out at me, and niggled at my subconscious for weeks. What, I wondered, area of my own training had I overlooked, because it was such an improbably unrealistic shot? What was I missing by not practicing that?


Like anyone who has ever tried to master any of the shooting disciplines, I have missed a LOT of shots over the years. As a guy who focuses on extreme precision and accuracy, at high speed, I’ve missed more than most.

Several years ago, I decided I wanted to be able to make a reliable, upper thoracic cavity shot, on a human, at 100 yards, with my pistol. I had realized the fiction of the idea that I was going to—if I found myself in an active shooting scenario in the run of my daily life—manage to find time to get back to my truck, grab my rifle, and go to work with that. I had also paced off the length of my local grocery store aisles, and realized that 100 yards really isn’t very far in that context.

When I started developing my ability to make that shot, I missed something like 85-90% of the shots I took. For the first six months, I’d spend a half hour, at the end of every range session, working just on figuring out hold-offs, and tightening up my position on the gun….mostly tightening up my position on the gun (For those that don’t remember high school or college, when the teacher repeats something, it’s because it is important, and you’ll probably be seeing it later…). I finally systematized what drill would work to build that ability, and it started taking me about ten minutes of practice. Then, it got to the point where shooting a reduced silhouette steel—8×12—at 100 yards, became pretty monotonous. To be sure, I’d still miss some, but I hit so much more often than I missed, that it became almost boring. I was more interested in the misses—and problem solving why I missed them (almost invariably because I wasn’t in a tight enough position on the gun)–that I began only practicing that particular skill a few times a quarter.

I’ve always placed an extreme emphasis on accuracy and precision in my training, teaching, and personal practice. That surprises the shit out of a lot of people, the first time they ever shoot with me. They tend to expect a guy who talks about 1.0-1.25 second draws from concealment, and quarter-second splits, to be spraying the target.

Despite my fervent, oft-voiced belief that “Accuracy is final…as long as it arrives on time,” I’ve never bought into the bullshit notion that “any hit, anywhere,” is adequate for “combat accuracy.” People that accept that notion are surrounded by simpering cowards and pussies that will—apparently—fall over in a faint at a stubbed toe or broken finger. The people I have surrounded myself with in my life are built of sterner stuff. I don’t consider myself particularly tough, because I’ve spent my life surrounded by guys who can—and in many cases have—taken dozens of wounds from modern fighting rifles, and then still managed to kill the people shooting them.

Ultimately, that is the reason for the 50 yard head shot. I may not ever need to make a head shot on a terrorist, in order to save the life of a hostage, but…the fundamental application of skill required to be able to make that shot, on demand, has a direction carryover benefit to shooting at lesser ranges, or the same range under less demanding circumstances…and, have YOU ever measured the length of the aisles at your local grocery store?

If you are in that grocery store, and some shitheel decides to start lighting folks up, and you’re armed only with your EDC pistol, you’ve basically got three options:

1) run away and let the “professionals” handle it, while people die waiting for them to arrive, 2) charge to the sound of the guns, and hope you can get within that 3-7 yard range that you actually practice at, because it’s “statistically all you’ll ever need,” and hope you don’t get shot in the process of getting there, or 3) be able to make a “long range” shot with your pistol to anchor the bad guy—while people are running and screaming, or even standing frozen in fear, in between you and the bad guy.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it’s a head shot you need to take, to kill a hostage taker, or a simple upper thoracic cavity shot on a shit head lighting up the movie theater, standing 25 yards away, with a bunch of screaming, panicking people in between, or a personal defense shot at 3 yards, on a deserted street lined with houses, apartments, and stores, the key skill required is the ability to align the sights appropriately, and then break the trigger rearward, without disrupting that sight picture, in order to get the hit that you need to get. The ability to do that, at a level required to make a 50 yard head shot on a hostage taker, will absolutely make any lesser shot significantly less stressful. That reduced stress level means you will have more cognitive function available to you, in order to make good decisions about whether you should or should not even take the shot in question.

There is an old cliché about, “never draw the gun unless you’re going to shoot the guy.” This is a bad case of piss-poor transmission of knowledge. The original was, I presume, “never draw the gun unless you’ve made up your mind that you’re willing to shoot the guy.” There have been a number of situations in my personal life—both military and civilian—where I have found myself deciding that drawing and pointing a gun at someone was necessary. My confidence in my own ability however, allowed me the cognitive space—even in the midst of drawing the gun—to realize that I might still be able to stop this without shooting. That has kept me—on multiple occasions—from shooting someone that, it turned out, didn’t need to be shot. They just needed to be convinced that if they didn’t desist, immediately, they WOULD be shot. Readers who have read The Guerrilla Gunfighter may recall the “road-rage incident” as an example.

Ultimately though, the point of the drill wasn’t so much to be able to make a specific, not particularly likely shot with your pistol. The point of the drill was the same as the point of any well-developed, well-thought out training drill…it was to force you to identify the weaknesses in your game, and to subsequently develop a training and practice regiment to overcome those weaknesses.

One of the common refrains in the current training industry is the idea that “trigger squeeze doesn’t matter! Just grip the gun tighter!” That idea isn’t wrong. I’ve said it myself, both in articles and books, and when teaching classes. For most shooters, it’s even a solid, good training maxim, because we tend to sissy-grip our guns too much.

The fact is, most dudes teaching combat shooting classes—guys coming out of USSOCOM, or LE SWAT units—can overcome a lot of issues with their fundamentals, simply by gripping the ever-loving-fuck out of the gun. When you are pulling 400-500 pounds in the deadlift, and are repping kettlebell swings with a 100# kettlebell, you can—quite literally, I’ve done it—mash the fuck out of the grip of a polymer frame gun, to the point of deformation. When you’re gripping the gun that tight, you can get away with a LOT of slop in your trigger press.

Similarly, there is so much focus on “burning it down,” running super-fast, high-round count drills, that what passes for “accuracy” is sometimes lost in the mix of “statistically normative gunfight distances.” If you limit your training and practice to the “stastistical norm” of 3-7 yards, and you focus on “shooting him until he falls down, changes shape, or catches on fire,” to the exclusion of any other outliers, then simply gripping the shit out of the gun will suffice.

I discovered something dramatically earth-tilting to me personally, back in 2017. In the process of building our house (and by “building our house,” I mean, we built our house. I don’t mean, “we acted as the general contractors in charge of hiring construction crews to come in and build our house for us.”), I developed “tennis elbow/shooter’s elbow” in both arms, through repetitive stress injuries.

All of a sudden, my grip strength disappeared, basically overnight. I was lucky if I could pick up a 35# kettlebell, let alone swing it. My deadlift dropped instantly to about 225#, because I couldn’t pick up anything heavier without my grip failing. I literally could not grip my pistol tight enough any longer. Suddenly, to make the standards I wanted to make, I had to go back to focusing on the fundamental of proper trigger press.

In fact, doing so was what made 50 yard head shots, on demand, a possibility for me. Before that, I could make 50 yard head shots…most of the time.

Something else I’ve noticed is, when I teach soccer moms, or older shooters, or—particularly important, in my mind—young females in their teens and twenties, they generally lack the grip strength needed to “ignore trigger squeeze.” This leads to the question: Who is more likely to NEED to be able to make precise, fight-ending shots, reliably, the dude who deadlifts 500#, or the elderly grandmother with carpal tunnel syndrome, from a lifetime of shucking peas on the front porch?

A 50 yard head shot is not a particularly likely shot that most of us will need to make with our pistol. It’s not entirely impossible, by any stretch, but it’s not likely. What it is however, is challenging as fuck. By building the ability to make that shot, on demand, anything less challenging becomes significantly less challenging.

If you can make a head shot, on demand, at 50 yards, in say, 1.5 seconds…putting a round through a dude’s left eye at 10 feet, in 1.0 seconds? C-A-K-E. Rich, creamy, chocolate cake, with chocolate fudge frosting on it.

It doesn’t matter what skill or skill area you identify as a shortcoming, or a weakness in your armor. The point is, once you’ve identified a weakness, you don’t just “patch” the armor with some fiberglass. You take the armor apart, and you weld a stronger patch of metal over it. Like a broken bone, we want to knit the edges of the hole together so the repair is stronger than the surrounding areas. That helps strengthen those surrounding areas. Master that skill.

If you develop the top 1%, most difficult levels of skills in a given area, the 99% that make up the bulk of that skill area become significantly easier, because you’ve covered the bases of the component skills that comprise those skills, to a higher level.


From → Uncategorized

  1. Ranger Rick permalink

    This is a great real life post. You did well brother. Ever bit of this is spot on as usual.
    Ranger Rick
    North Idaho

  2. bruce buckman permalink

    I subscribe to John’s drills so I am familiar with this particular drill, well actually John did a follow up to it because of all the whiny little bitches that said it couldn’t be done. I am one of those, at least in my own head. His follow up drill was taking a 3×5 index card, putting it at 3 yards and starting at one corner put 5 shots on top of each other. Rinse and repeat on the other 3 corners. Stacking shots on top of each other is not easy. I took the challenge. Have I been successful in make 4 holes with 20 rounds? Nope, but I’ll tell you what, I learned a whole bunch about my skills. I will continue the drill and am confident that my groups will improve because of self awareness. Once I have conquered the 3 yard drill, I will move to 5 then 7 then 10. I may never be able to make that Oh shit shot, but no doubt my skills will improve greatly in the process. Thanks John.

  3. SteveRN permalink

    Great post! Just finished the new book, I got a lot out of it, now to do the work. Thanks. Semi off subject, did you do any particular rehab for the tennis elbow, regular p/t, just time and rest? Recently developed the same, it’s getting better, just fishing for ideas if it comes back.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: