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Drill-Building for Skill-Building

January 28, 2019

It’s become something of a cliché, in the training world, to point out that “Life isn’t a square range!” The implication—and sometimes it’s not even implied, but violently explicit—being that if you’re doing fundamentals work with your weapons, you’re going to die, because your training isn’t “real” enough. I’ve always found this ironic, since in my experience, the ability to actually hit what the fuck I was shooting at, on demand, as many times as I needed to shoot it, was THE defining factor in success in a gunfight. Where did I learn to do that? On the fucking “square range!” Admittedly, they were actually, usually rectangular, but…

I don’t know who first coined the phrase, “Life isn’t a square range,” but I suspect they’ve been taking horribly out of context. I’ve always understood the phrase to mean “ there’s more to combat shooting than standing still, waiting for the command to commence, and then firing a ‘double tap’ or a ‘Mozambique Drill.’” (I realize, the modern, politically-correct term for the Mozambique is a “Failure to Stop Drill.” I’m old, and I learned the old term first. I also realize there are minute differences between the Mozambique and F2S, but, you get the fucking point…). To whit, the difference being, there will probably not be some nattily-dressed instructor, in a ballcap, pressed shirt, and BDU trousers bloused into his Altama jungle boots, standing behind you in the dimly-lit parking lot of the local stop-and-rob, telling you “Draw and fire two rounds to the body!”

Instead, the decision to draw and fire, or to turn around and run like a raped ape in the other direction, or to engage with unarmed combatives, or….etc, etc, etc, will rest solely on your shoulders, literally, figuratively, and legally.

My buddy, Paul Sharp, of Sharp Defense, is a retired police officer, with a wide-variety of hazardous duty positions in his background, and is a black belt in Brazilian Jujutsu. He makes the point, quite often, that “drillers are killers.” The point being that the fighters who drill regularly, tend to dominate the mat when it comes to sparring/rolling. While I have only seen/heard him use it in the context of jujutsu, I believe he would agree, 100%, that it applies equally so to firearms and tactical applications.

In my experience, in fact, the dude who is telling you that “square range drills will get you killed,” and is rushing you to get “off” the square range, and into some form of scenario or field training, is doing you a gross disservice. Typically, in both civilian self-defense scenario training, and in military field training, my observation has been that, tossing a dude into a complex scenario that requires good decision-making to be executed, before he has a solid grasp on the execution of the basic, core skills, results in abject failure. Occasionally, it may provide the service of illustrating to hard-headed individuals, that they really do need a bunch of remedial training, but more often it results in them vapor-locking mentally, and results in total failure (to be fair, a really good teacher should be able to overcome this, by backing up slightly, and allowing the student to work through the same scenario, as many times as necessary, to allow them to fix their shit, but then, you’re basically stopping the class for all the rest).

The “trainer” who tells students that they don’t need “square range” work, or that “square range tactics will get you killed,” is a fucking retard. He is either trying to sell you a load of bullshit (it’s a lot easier to impress students with coursework that overwhelms them, than it is to impress them by drilling the same fundamentals, over and over and over and over, until it becomes hard-wired into their neural pathways. That means they’re more likely to come back and pay the trainer to take the class again…and again…and again…), or they lack the basic understanding of how to build effective, efficient drills that accommodate different aspects of the training matrix.

Today, we’re going to look at the principles I was taught to apply, when developing effective drills, and putting them together into an effective syllabus.

1) Start at the beginning. While this seems self-evident, it is actually a far more nuanced principle than most understand. In any given drill, there is a certain level of assumed knowledge. When you are creating a drill, you have to either a) be absolutely sure of the student’s actual level of knowledge, or you have to start with the assumed knowledge default being zero.

As an example, if we’re teaching a draw to first shot drill, we’re assuming that the student, upon reaching full extension, is already capable of hitting the target with sufficient accuracy. There’s no point in teaching a drawstroke drill, if the student doesn’t even yet know how to SHOOT the fucking gun well enough to hit the target.

If you’re trying to do buddy-team or fireteam fire-and-maneuver in the woods, and the individual shooters have never done “movement under fire,” you’re putting the cart in front of the horse. Do the shooters actually KNOW what constitutes cover, in that environment? Do they know that 3-5 second rushes are intended to be used when there is insufficient cover for low or high crawls, or when the need for speed is sufficient to risk losing individual shooters to hostile fire? Do they know that, at the end of their 3-5 second rush, it is NOT FUCKING APPROPRIATE TO JUMP UP AND DO ANOTHER FUCKING 3-5 SECOND RUSH!!!??? The appropriate follow-up movement technique is to crawl the rest of the way into your predetermined position of cover. If they don’t, and you’re trying to teach them fire-and-maneuver, you’re wronger than two boys fucking.

Some would say “but you can’t teach that on the square range!” Yes, in fact you can, if you utilize the square range like a training lane. Measure off how far your average 3-5 second rush is, then put your positions of nominal cover, on the range, 5-6 yards further apart than that. Now, they cannot make that distance in one rush, so they have to crawl the rest of the way into position…guess what, you just taught a tactical decision-making drill.

Start at the beginning.

2) Every drill should teach one thing. There should be a point to every drill you create. It might allow the student to practice other things at the same time, but it’s primary driver, it’s purpose, must be crystal clear to you, and to the student, once you explain it to them. A drawstroke drill certainly allows the student to practice marksmanship with their pistol, and it’s part of the point, but the primary driver of the drawstroke drill is to allow the student to build the ability to get the gun out of the holster, and into action, as fast as humanly possible. This is why, when we’re initially teaching the drawstroke, we might use the whole A-Zone of the target (or even the A/C zone). Once the student has become adept enough to perform the draw, and hit the A-Zone in the prescribed time standard, then we start tightening up the acceptable target zone, and have them refine the Position 4 position and shot break of the drawstroke.

The primary driver of the drawstroke drill however, is getting the gun out, and ready for action. Sometimes, this might mean even incorporating drills that require them to get the gun out really, really fucking fast, but not actually taking a shot, once the gun is in hand.

3) There is a difference between breadth and depth. Breadth is knowing a lot of different stuff. Depth is being able to do those things, under stress, while sleep deprived, because you’ve spent so much time doing them, under so many different conditions.

A certain level of breadth is absolutely necessary, but—as a general rule—depth is more important than breadth. This is something we see a lot in the training world, with the guys that take 15 different shooting courses a year, from 20 different trainers, claiming, “More tools for the toolbox!” They’d be far, far better off if, instead of looking for ANOTHER hammer, they mastered swinging the Estwing they already have in their nail bags. Seriously…does a fucking framing carpenter need a plumbing snake in his work tool box? No. You don’t need 18 different methods for clearing a malfunction. You need a couple—because there are different types of malfunctions—and you need to practice that one, over and over and over and over and over and over, in good weather, in the rain, in the snow and sleet, in daylight and dark; with a flashlight on the end of your weapon, and with NVG on your head. In the prone, in the kneeling, in the standing, while running to cover, while dropping to the prone behind cover.

I’ve also seen this amongst martial arts people—yes, including Brazilian Jujutsu folks. Any really high level BJJ player will tell you, the same basics you learned as a white belt, to become a blue belt, are what really pay off when you’re fighting. Someone actually did a study at one of the international tournaments once, and something like 98% of matches were won by basic techniques that are learned initially as a white belt. The difference is, at the internationally competitive level, they’ve practiced those techniques enough that they have the depth of the Mariana Trench. Too many guys spend six weeks at a BJJ school, and then get pissed because the coach isn’t teaching a new variation on the Anaconda choke every week, even though they still can’t pass guard, let alone sink a basic rear naked choke.

The dude who spends fifteen minutes practicing off the bench with his AR15, and then insists he is ready to do lane training out in the woods, because “tactical!” is no different. Students who have been in my patrolling/SUT classes will attest, we spent a lot of time drilling the basic skill of dropping from the “patrol ready” (just moving through the woods with your rifle in hand), into different firing positions, against time, before we moved on to actually moving through the woods with targets somewhere ahead.

My regular training group gets treated more like an ongoing martial arts class than a typical weekend training class. We’ll spend a lot of time doing this type of “snap position shooting,” and even do 200-300 yard buddy team bounds, dry-fire and live-fire, before they ever move into the woods for react-to-contact and hasty attack. We’re building depth.

4) Finally, we have to differentiate between different types of drills. I identify three basic types of drills: technical drills, tactical drills, and suck drills. A technical drill teaches you how to do something, and then allows you to practice doing it better and more efficiently. A tactical drill teaches you when to do it and why. It’s a decision-making drill. A suck drill is really just a reminder that you’re probably not going to be refreshed and well-rested when you’re doing this for real, and even if you are, 20 seconds in, you’re going to think you just ran a sprint triathlon. You’ve got to be able to shut down the “I’m so smoked, this sucks so bad!” part of your brain, and focus on executing the tactical and technical aspects, despite the pain and exhaustion (this is NOT the same as a “stress” drill, because the physical manifestations of psychological stress and physical stress are simply not the same).


Technical drills are the basis of most shooting courses, as I’ve seen. The coursework focuses on teaching the basic technical execution of the skills involved. That’s not an inherently bad thing, and if the level of shooting ability I’ve seen on public ranges, and in security and body-cam footage of police officers and armed citizens is any indication, and whole fuckton of people could use more of these types of courses.

Tactical drills develop the student’s ability to choose the correct action for any given scenario. If every drill results in “shoot them until they fall down, change shape, or catch on fire, then reload and shoot them some more,” it’s not a tactical drill. A tactical drill teaches you when you should do what, including just not shooting at all. To some degree, any drill that involves making a choice is a tactical drill, because it is forcing you to apply cognitive function to the shooting process, instead of just blasting away. It’s entirely possible however, to build drills that require different applications of decision-making, and more or less complex decisions can be incorporated.

Suck drills are just that. They’re intended to suck. They’re physically demanding, and they generally make you feel like a complete dumbshit as a shooter, the first few times you run through them. I’ve seen grown men break down crying, in the middle of the drill, because it was so physically demanding. The problem with suck drills, for most trainers, is that they require a huge degree of safety management, especially with relatively novice shooters. The dude that doesn’t remember, every single time, to move his safety selector switch to “SAFE,” as his finger comes off the trigger, doesn’t have any business running suck drills. I don’t run suck drills in classes or on my range, unless I have at least one other experienced shooter—preferably a combat arms veteran NCO—on the range to act as another safety, because almost invariably, my suck drills involve a minimum of two shooters working in tandem, to elevate the stress through competitiveness, and I’m watching one dude, over his shoulder, to make sure safety is foremost. I need someone watching the other shooter with the same level of attentiveness, and willingness to get physical if safety violations appear (I’ve disarmed dudes who were at a full sprint, sending them catapulting, face-first into the dirt and rocks, when they forget to put their safeties on. I’ve had near misses in classes, when students almost smoke-checked me, because they got lackadaisical about safety practices, so I tend to be very, very, very anal retentive about it.).

If we combine all three of these types of drill into one single drill, we have “scenario work,” or “field training.” Generally speaking, “scenario work” is commonly recognized as involving a scripted scenario, role-players, and force-on-force work, and that’s not inaccurate. However, just like military field training—say a live-fire run through the CQB shoothouse—may be an actual “scenario,” using paper or cardboard targets, the same can apply to non-military work. This doesn’t change the fact that, just like in jujutsu or other martial arts, at some point, you probably need to test the shit you’re doing in a force-on-force evo or ten, to “prove” to yourself that it actually works as advertised.

The problem with rushing into scenario-work, as I pointed out early in this article, is that, lacking a sufficient grounding in the basic technical and tactical aspects of the system, the student almost invariably ends up so overwhelmed with sensory input that they simply lock up and don’t get any real value out of the training.

Rushing into any of these types of drills, without “starting at the beginning,” with a basic level of proven knowledge and ability in the technical execution, is a recipe for failure. When you develop a drill, you have to ask yourself, from the beginning of the design stage, “Is this a technical drill, or a tactical drill, or a suck drill?” If it’s a technical drill, is there some level of assumed knowledge that you need to test for before you start teaching the drill? Again, there’s no point in teaching a drawstroke, if the student doesn’t know how to shoot well enough to hit a target. If I’m teaching shooters to move to a position of cover, and then engage, do they know HOW to engage targets, at the given range, from the different positions they might effectively utilize from behind the provided cover? If I’m teaching basic buddy team bounding, do they know how to perform individual movement under direct fire? Do they know how to provide suppressive fire (whether according to US military doctrine or using the Rhodesian Cover Shooting Method, or your own doctrinal methods)?

If you’re writing a tactical drill, what is the assumed level of technical knowledge? I ran a rifle drill with my guys a few months ago. It involved three photorealistic targets, at 75 yards. One was a pregnant woman pointing a pistol at the shooter, held one-handed. The other was holding a pistol, with their back to the shooter. The third was a hostage taker, with a pistol held to the hostage’s head, facing the shooter. My instructions were, “You need to engage the most immediately lethal threat, and continue shooting them until you feel they would be neutralized.”

Several guys shot the pregnant chick, while two shot the kid with the gun, facing the other direction. The intended outcome was for them to shoot the hostage taker. A pistol, one handed, at 75 yards, is not a particularly lethal threat in most people’s hands. The kid facing the other direction had no visible target in front of him. The hostage taker, while not an immediate threat to the shooter, WAS an immediate lethal threat to the hostage (in their defense, the two guys that shot the kid facing the other direction made the legitimate argument that they couldn’t see who the kid might be targeting, but they assumed the dude who was holding a hostage was looking to negotiate, not shoot, or he’d have already done so). Regardless of the decision they made however, and how they were—or were not—able to articulate it, there were certain minimal technical skill requirements to effect the shot(s) needed to complete the drill. They had to be able to hit the targets at the given distance. They had to be able to shoot around and/or through the intervening obstructions (I had several piles of brush on the range at the time that helped to partially mask the targets from view). If they shot the hostage-taker (as I did), they had to be able to make an on-demand head shot, at the given range, without any fear of accidentally shooting the hostage (I put my round exactly where I wanted it to go, in the inside corner of the right eye. Score one for LVPO!). Regardless of the shot taken, they needed to possess adequate technical ability to call their shots effectively. If they fired three times, and weren’t able to call their shots, those shots MIGHT have hit…or they might have hit someone else in the photo (which did happen to one shooter), or they might have missed completely. Either of the last two would have resulted in failing the drill—and worse in real life.

If they weren’t capable of those, then the tactical aspects of the drill—the decision-making—lost a great deal of its value. Let’s argue that one of the shooters was able to make upper torso shots at that distance, but not head shots. He could still get value out of it, because he would have to know that he wasn’t capable of making the head shot, and would thus be able to articulate why he shot someone else instead, even if it was not the “correct” solution. If he lacked the ability to call his shots however, and decided to simply shoot three times, to “ensure” that one of the rounds hit the intended target, one of his shots may very well have hit a bystander, while he simply thought he was smoking a bad guy.


One critical—perhaps the most critical—aspect about drill design, actually applies to training design period: there is always a healthy dose of bullshit included. There has to be. The only completely bullshit-free thing in combat training is combat. Even with FoF scenario work with Sims guns, you KNOW the Sims rounds are gonna hurt, but not kill you. If you’re doing combatives work, you KNOW the other dude isn’t ACTUALLY trying to kill you. It doesn’t matter how good the script is, or how good the role-players are, you still KNOW this is training.

Unfortunately—as a whole lot of “preppers” and non-preppers are going to find out in the future—engaging in the real thing, without some training previously, tends to be a really shitty learning process. So, we utilize drills and exercises in our training. To get full value from a drill, you have to understand how it deviates from the real thing: you have to be able to smell the bullshit.

Let’s look at a very basic, beginner level technical drill, the draw to first shot. But, instead of just focusing on smelling the bullshit in practicing it on the square range, in a technical drill, let’s also look for the bullshit in applying it in a “scenario.”

1) The “attacker” is not trying to kill you. Whether the “attacker” is a cardboard target, a photorealistic target, or a role-player with a Sims gun, you KNOW you’re not going to die. Period. You might be afraid of getting shot with the Sims round, but you know it isn’t going to kill you.

2) The roles are pre-set. The target is the target. You are the shooter. The same applies in most scenario training. I don’t know of a single trainer out there who tells students, “Okay, now, I want you to be a drug dealer, setting up the execution of a rival.”

3) You’re not supposed to run away or call the cops. You’re “supposed” to shoot. While there are scenarios set up where running away is an option, generally, those are going to get replayed again, because the point of the class is as much about fighting as it is about good tactical decision-making. The same thing CAN be practiced on the square range, with good decision-making drills. I’ve set up both Frank Proctor’s Third Grade Math drill, and my own PRA 1-5 drill where the only appropriate solution was to not start shooting in the first place. Invariably, someone will fuck it up, and start blasting the first target(s), before they realize that they cannot actually solve the “problem” they were presented with. Again, this will be re-run to give the student the ability to actually shoot the drill, but it still illustrates that the decision to shoot or not shoot, not just individual targets, but ANY targets, can be practiced on the square range.

4) You have to wait for the attack/cue to commence. This limitation is present in both types of training. Even in scenario training, you have to wait for the attacker to provide some clue that provides justification to initiate beating the piss out of him. Unless a trainer was able to spend enough time with you to run you through every single potential scenario ever, that’s just going to be the case. Again, I don’t know of any trainer in the industry that is going to start a scenario with, “Okay, so you’re walking up to the street corner where this rival is slinging dope. You need to set it up to assassinate him.”

I’m sure there are dozens more that advocates of the “square range drills will get you killed in the streets!” philosophy can come up with. That’s fine. Some of them might even be semi-valid. I offer however, anytime someone offers such an argument against drilling your skills, either for technical or tactical proficiency building, you need to step back and ask how the same objection applies to their own preferred method (and yes, I’m including myself in that. Take my emphasis on combat sports for combatives training. I know dozens of guys who trained in “traditional” martial arts, and have never competed in MMA type events, that have used their skills in actual hand-to-hand combat, and come out on top. I also know guys who’ve never had a minute of training, but are thoroughly dangerous fighters that have hospitalized people with one punch. That doesn’t mean the combat sports argument is wrong. It just means, if you happen to be that outlier, then it may not apply to you. Guess what? You—like me—are probably far more average than you want to admit.)

Wrapping It Up

When you are designing a drill—or just choosing someone else’s—to practice, or to teach others, the above considerations should be at the forefront of your decision-making.

1) Is there an assumed level of knowledge in the drill that I need to address first? Start at the beginning.

2) Identify the primary driver for the drill. What is the one thing it is supposed to teach? Is that clear from the presentation of the drill? Is there too much other shit incorporated into the drill that will distract from that driver? What can I remove/replace to make it more focused? Will that change the value of the drill?

3) Is this deepening the skill level of myself or the student, or is it broadening the skill level? Depth is seldom a negative. Breadth may or may not be. For the new shooter, some breadth is required, to give them a baseline of knowledge, to cover the assumed level of knowledge needed for follow-on drills. For intermediate shooters, depth is far more important, instead of simply giving them more shit to fumble around with. For advanced shooters—those who have truly mastered the core skills they already have—some additional depth may be valuable, but they can probably identify what breadth is useful, and then have the discipline to drill it to mastery before worrying about another skill.

4) What is the point of this drill? Am I looking to improve technical skill, or to teach a tactical application thereof? Or, is this “just” a suck drill, where they already have the technical ability and tactical acumen to execute the drill, and now we just want to see if they can do it while they’re sucking physically?

If you’re going to incorporate a drill into your own training, or into a syllabus, you should be able to answer these questions about it. If you can’t, I would suggest reconsidering the drill’s inclusion. Is it necessary? Are you incorporating it because it sounds cool, looked cool when your favorite trainer demonstrated it, or because “all the cool kids do it?” Is there another drill, about which you CAN answer these questions, that might be a more efficient use of limited training time? Is there a different drill I can use first, to set up this drill?


And of course, there’s always the option of subscribing to the Subscription Drills, where I send you two training drills a month.


From → Uncategorized

  1. Nick permalink

    This is GOLD. Excellent

  2. Ken permalink

    Thanks, That was a good read and a better reminder that the cool guy stuff may not be making you better.

  3. Crawl, well, and run. Explained so anyone could understand.

  4. David Elis permalink

    Probably the best explanation of the different “levels” of training drills I have ever read…and I’ve been training cops/military/civilians for nearly 40 years. Thank you.

  5. Very good. I’m halfway through “Clandestine Carry Pistol” and it just keeps getting better. Needless to say, I am still in the ‘needs more technical skill’ camp at the moment.

  6. Swordsmyth permalink

    Great article. Every time I read your writing I realize how much I do not know and it prompts me to train harder. Thanks for all you do JM you are a blessing to us all!

  7. GunnyGene permalink

    Enjoyed your article, but a question and suggestion. Given the fact that the US population is aging rapidly (baby boomers, etc.) there are many who carry that are in their 70’s and older, and much of the younger generation is badly out of shape as noted by military recruiters. The out of shape issue can sometimes be fixed, but age and/or disabilities usually cannot be fixed.

    So do you recommend a syllabus for the above folks, that takes this into account?

    I ask because I’m one of those old (mid-70’s) retired combat Marines who finds it much easier to fall down than to get back up, but who still carries daily. I do have property sufficient to practice on and do so fairly regularly as far as the fundamentals go and I’m still a good shot. 😉

  8. Gordon permalink

    A great piece , many excellent points I can see your books will be on my to get list!

  9. Andrew Chesney permalink

    The world is a hot range!

  10. clayton permalink

    Reblogged this on Deft Systems, LLC and commented:
    Balance in training is key. You should drill fundamentals and incorporate more realistic and force-on-force work. Be wary of trainers that suggest ditching square ranges. Likewise, understand the square range is crawl/walk; you need further drills for the run phase.

  11. Bill permalink


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