Just what is a “critical skill”?

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I really should stop reading stuff people link to on FaceBook. I really should. It’s like chocolate chip cookies; you know they’re bad for you, but you eat them anyway!

The latest was a linked article which talked about practicing your reloading skills. In it, the other repeatedly referred to reloading the gun as a “critical skill”. That phrase really annoyed me, because his definition of the term and mine were obviously radically different. In fact, I suspect he (like almost everyone else I’ve ever asked) doesn’t have a consistent definition of “critical skill”.

I do.

What makes a “critical” skill?

When talking about self defense, a critical skill is one which satisfies two criteria: first, it must be a skill which is very likely to be needed in the largest percentage of incidents; second, it must contribute obviously and significantly to the positive outcome of those incidents.

In other words, it has to be something common and important — a combination of both high probability and high value.

Efficiently getting the gun out of its storage place and into a condition in which it can be used would certainly be a critical skill. For any incident in which lethal force is a viable response, getting your gun out of its holster (or out of the quick-access safe in which it’s stored) is certainly something you need to do, and doing so certainly contributes greatly to the resolution of the situation (whether you actually shoot or not.)

Drawing the gun, then, is a critical skill.

Knowing how to manipulate the gun to hit the intended target is also a critical skill. Again, when lethal force is warranted the ability to efficiently deliver that force is certainly needed and will affect the outcome (positively in your favor, we hope.) It meets both criteria.

What skills might you need in a defensive incident?

To train efficiently, you need to practice skills that are both likely to be needed and which affect the outcome of the incident. How, though, do you make those determinations? Claude Werner, for one, did an interesting survey of the skills which people reported using in defensive firearms incidents. Some of them were surprising even to those of us who’ve studied the topic for decades, and I think you’ll find that most of them are probably critical skills by my definition.

One of the skills he didn’t see reflected in his survey — and no one else has either, to the best of my knowledge — was the need to reload. It’s very uncommon in law enforcement and nearly unheard of in private sector self defense. Reloading, then, fails the first test: it’s not a skill that’s at all common and is so rarely needed as to be news when it is.

Many years ago Massad Ayoob told me that in those police cases which he’d studied it was very rare to find a case where a reload (when it happened) had any significant effect on the outcome of the incident. There are rare exceptions, of course, but they’re hard to find. I think it’s fair to say that even in those unusual cases where reloading happened (whether by choice or necessity), it usually didn’t obviously and substantially change or affect the outcome.

So, if reloading the gun just doesn’t happen very often and rarely if ever has an impact on the incident, how can anyone call it a “critical skill”? I certainly can’t make that justification, and I can’t see where anyone else can legitimately do so either. To call it a critical skill implies that it’s very important to practice and master; it says that this is a skill, above all others, that you need to devote time and effort to learning to the exclusion of lesser skills.

I just don’t think that’s the case, and I’ll go further: those who try to make that case probably haven’t examined either their own conceptual definitions or the available evidence.

If they’re not critical, should you ignore them?

If it’s not a critical skill, one that’s very likely and very important, is it at least a plausible skill? A plausible skill is one that logic says (because of historical occurrence or because of a combination of other historical occurrences) has a greater-than-random chance of need. Under some circumstances I think that reloading the gun could be a plausibility: against multiple home invaders, for instance, or being caught in Baltimore by an angry mob. Plausible yes, because those incidents which may require that skill do happen occasionally. Is it likely? No. This, then, is the kind of skill that’s worth developing but only if the effort needed to develop that ability doesn’t come at the expense of any of the truly critical skills.

With that in mind, I approach teaching the reload in this way: in my classes we spend no special time on the reload technique beyond showing the students how to do it most efficiently. Since they’ll have to reload the gun multiple times during the rest of their training anyhow, it makes sense that they do it in the most efficient and most reliable way possible. It’s those naturally-occurring opportunities to reload their gun that provide the necessary practice in the skill. The development of the skill takes nothing away from the truly important things they’ll be doing in the rest of the class.

If you approach reloading the same way, it makes the skill “free” to you. You’re not taking (and shouldn’t take) any resources away from the truly important skills to do it, because it’s something you’re already doing just by virtue of shooting the gun. For a highly unlikely skill, that’s enough!

Standing in your bedroom repeatedly dropping empty magazines onto the bed and stuffing new ones into the pistol as fast as you can just isn’t necessary in the context of private sector defensive training, and probably isn’t a good use of your limited resources. Use that time instead to practice a truly critical skill  — and I’d submit that almost anything else is more valuable!

When someone insists that their pet topic is a “critical” skill to master, ask these questions: how likely is this to be needed, and how much of an impact on the outcome of an incident is it likely to have? If the answer isn’t “very” and “substantial”, it’s probably not really all that critical.

If it’s not critical, what really important skills are you ignoring in order to focus on it?

-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-

 

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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