You can't swing a dead cat without hitting half a dozen guys that are willing to teach you how to shoot (for a small fee, of course). I've had the good fortune to attend fantastic firearms training provided by the Special Forces community as well as a number of civilian courses from the most recognized instructors in the industry. The two days I spent pistol shooting with John McPhee of Sheriff of Baghdad Tactical were more efficient and productive than the SF training and light years ahead of almost everything else I've seen on the civilian side.
McPhee is a 20-plus year veteran of the Special Operations community. In and of itself, that is not an indicator of firearms instructor competence. I served along-side a lot of guys that were great folks, but not necessarily a ninja when it came time to shoot.
The majority of McPhee's service was with Delta Force. Service in that unit is impossible without serious shooting ability. The sheer number of rounds fired and hours of dry-fire practice, all under the watchful eyes of an instructor or fellow operator, make it impossible to hide if you cannot perform. Live that life for a decade or two, and a guy walks away knowing how to shoot.
What makes McPhee's approach different from what's usually available is the intense one-on-one assessment he provides. McPhee's pistol course began with a small number of students on the firing line. One by one, he filmed each student drawing the pistol, firing two rounds at the target, reloading and firing a final two rounds. The entire class then moved back to the informal classroom, where we stayed until lunchtime.
It was in his classroom where the majority of learning occurred. So many students and instructors think that firing a ton of rounds is how to get better at shooting. This is absolutely not the case. Blasting ammunition is good for bragging rights and offers an easily quantifiable metric of work done, but it is no measure of whether or not the student improves.
McPhee takes students, one at a time, and reviews the slow-motion video of their shooting performance. The morning's first and only shooting drill lasLs about five seconds but is plenty of material for McPhee to work with. The drill is broken down into four categories: stance, presentation, grip and reload.
McPhee has a TV set up in the classroom and reviews each student's video with them in front of the rest of the students. Being able to see your performance on screen and in slow motion provides an enhanced degree of understanding. I can't tell you how often I've reviewed and practiced the draw sequence with a pistol. I can break it down into four steps and explain in detail exactly what needs to happen. I even thought that I had a pretty good draw prior to attending this course. No other instructor has ever watched my presentation and said anything other than, "Looks good."
ABOVE : Just when students are getting comfortable with the basics, it's time to start shooting and moving.
The video of my draw sequence showed a different reality. Where I thought my movement was efficient, the video showed I rocked back prior to grabbing my pistol, pulled my strong arm elbow way too high in the air to clear my holster and then dropped my gun below my line of sight instead of pushing it out straight toward the target. I remember the details because I still have the video and review it often.
Those types of details are vitally important to improving shooting performance, but they are only visible to the student and instructor if there's video both can review. It also takes an instructor who knows what they're doing to spot the problems and offer detailed corrections on what needs to change and why. McPhee always covers both.
12 years. I shot pistols competitively in college and in a few informal competitions in the U.S. Army. Where 1 really learned how to shoot was in a two-month CQB (close quarters battle) program that Special Forces runs for Green Berets assigned to the counterterrorism mission. I attended that course in 2004 and learned more about how to shoot a pistol than at any other time in my life.
I still remember an instructor standing in front of the student body saying, "We are going to teach you how to shoot a pistol because you will learn that skill nowhere else in the military." He was right. Every student learned to shoot a pistol well or they were removed from training.
My class staned with 56 Green Berets, and 32 finished. Of the five captains that started the class, only two of us made it to the end. It was an incredibly stressful but fantastically informative experience. My pistol shooting ability has remained relatively unchanged since that time.
Knowing what to fix. Part of the reason for my plateau is that I could never get a good read on what I needed to fix or why I needed to fix it. It's hard enough to find knowledgeable instructors, but then it takes one-on-one tutelage to diagnose any problems. Also, pistol shooting happens quickly. A semiautomatic pistol fires and cycles in a fraction of a second, so the human eye is going to miss a lot of what's really happening.
The first morning in the classroom was time well spent, but the afternoon session was out on the range correcting the deficiencies identified earlier. McPhee keeps classes small so that he can spend time with each student on the line to ensure they're applying what he taught during the video review He has a number of drills to test each portion of the drawing and firing sequence.
I wanted to work on my stance a little to make sure that I leaned forward enough and really wanted to practice getting my thumbs in the right position to set up the correct grip on the pistol. The afternoon session featured drills from various yard lines. Closer drills emphasized speed and recoil management, and the long distances worked on accuracy.
The second day started with more video, but the debriefing each student received was shorter. These videos were to check student progression and incorporated new drills that tested new skills. While day one was all about sound fundamentals, day two moved into more advanced skills.
One of the day-two skills that stood out was quickly engaging multiple targets. McPhee had students load up and then shoot two to three targets as fast as they could. He taught students to move their eyes from the first target to the second as soon as they finish the last shots on target one but prior to moving the pistol to target two. The eyes should get to target two before the firearm does.
ABOVE : McPhee places marks on the author's hand and pistol to facilitate a quick alignment check once the gun comes out of the holster. This fixes incorrect draw geometry.
This skill is hard to critique without video that can be replayed in slow motion. The concept wasn't new to me, but it was seeing myself perform the task that really helped improve my speed. In the video, shot target one, quickly moved my eyes to target two, and then moved my eyes back to the pistol just before it got to target two. This costs me time and defeats the whole purpose of moving the eyes ahead of the firearm.
While video is a unique and immensely valuable aspect of McPhee's instruction, he also uses some good old-fashioned training techniques to drive home lessons.
We spent a fair amount of time covering shooting on the move with a pistol. This helps pull some of the focus away from what should be the basics and has a way of making students work harder to do simple tasks. As soon as students had to shoot on the move, the basics we worked on suddenly became much harder.
McPhee sends each student home with the video critiques he made in class. The most valuable videos are the ones from the first morning because this is where he goes in-depth diagnosing each student's problems and what needs to happen to fix them.
Each video McPhee makes includes his verbal observations and notes, along with his corrections drawn into the actual video, much like a coach using a whiteboard. Students can go back and review those videos any time they want, and it'sjust like sitting next to McPhee in the classroom as he walks you through it.
The most telling comment came from Barry Dueck, one of the nation's top 3-Gun competitors. Dueck knows how to shoot. At one point during the first morning in the classroom, Dueck looked at me and said, "This is going to change so much about how I shoot." I figured if a guy like Dueck was finding areas in which he needed to improve, I was probably in the right spot. After seeing my performance gains two days later, I knew I was.
It's important to get your body weight forward over the balls of your feet, not just crouch and tilt the upper body forward.
A good position allows the shooter to stand with their toes 6 inches from the wall and still have their forehead touching the wall.
These were tips specific to me and also, general reccomendations.
Each individual will have different position normalities dependant on body size, weight and structure.
That is why it becomes so important to have a professional view your proceedure and even record it for analysis.
The pistol should be taken out of the holster, moved quickly to the center of the chest and pushed straight out to the target.
This allows the shooter to see the sights as early as possible and get them lined up for a quick shot.
One tip is to put the support hand high in the center of the chest so that the shooting hand can move the pistol quickly to it.
The support hand acts as a consistent destination for the drawn pistol and allows for faster presentation.
The shooting hand's thumb should be completely relaxed and pointed up at a 45-degree angle.
This allows the support hand to get high up on the grip with the palm rolled completely forward, locking the wrist in position.
Recoil management is much easier this way because the support arm will be straight and directly behind the gun.
Get on the magazine release as soon as the support hand comes off the gun.
Pull the pistol straight back toward your face and keep it at eye level.
This allows the shooter to maintain situational awareness while getting a new magazine into the magazine well.
Keeping your weapon "live" is equally important as being able to make shots count. Many people do not put emphasis on the reload but rather the shooting.
While TV hype will have us beleive that in a shoot out, when your enemy is reloading, you have a chance to attack or flee, in reality, the time to reload should be that minimal that it does not interfere with your need to place shots in any given situation.
Practice, repeat, and practice again. Make reloading second nature!
Retired Sgt. Maj.John McPhee served a distinguished career in the U.S. Army Special Operations for over 20 years, retiring in 2011.
McPhee has spent his adult life in Special Operations and Special Mission Units (SMUs).
He has trained countless U.S. Special Operations Forces, thousands of international Tier 1 Operators and special forces around the world.
He is one of a handful of operators with over a decade of combat experience, having served in multiple theaters from Bosnia and South America to recent war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McPhee's experience and skill set make him uniquely qualified to instruct on a wide range of topics beyond small arms marksmanship. For more information, visit sobtactical.com.