What’s the difference between tasks and skills in defensive shooting training? Does it matter?

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When training defensive shooting techniques, it’s common — too common, in fact — to focus on the skill used rather than the task to be performed. Now some people will say that those are the same thing, but they’re not. In fact, they’re very different.

I recently read an article on the importance of and the procedures for practicing reloading a handgun. The article started from a bad premise (reloading during a fight is a vital skill when the best information we have says it almost never happens) and then proceeded to detail a drill specifically to practice reloading.

The drill required the shooter to load one round in a magazine, load the pistol with that mag, and have a spare magazine with two rounds. The drill was to shoot the one round in the gun, reload (because the gun was now empty), and fire one more round. The gun is holstered, the empty magazine refilled with two rounds, and the drill repeated — “ad infinitum”, the article specifically recommends!

There are some issues with this approach to “training”. The first is the notion that you need a specific drill to practice your reloading skills. Since reloads almost never happen in the “real world”, and it’s nearly impossible to find a case in private sector self defense where a reload significantly affected the outcome of an incident, putting together a drill that really only does this one thing is a waste of training resources. Instead of spending that time, energy, and money on a low-probability event, I would submit that it’s far more profitable from a return-on-training-investment point of view to use that time and that ammunition practicing the skills you’re far more likely to need.

Now one can argue that point, I suppose, but the reality is that you don’t need specific drills to practice reloads if the rest of your practice is truly realistic. If it is, you’ll run your gun dry many times in even a short practice session — every one of those instances being a chance to practice your reloading skills. If you want to have more chances to experience needing to reload, you can simply download your magazines a few rounds (always making sure that your magazines have a random and variable number of rounds in them.)

Bottom line: the likelihood of needing to reload your gun as the result of an attack is low enough that it simply doesn’t justify a specialized “reloading drill” — especially when you can get all the reloading practice you need by making sure that the drills for the important skills are properly structured.

That brings us to the second issue with this drill: it’s not realistic in any manner because it doesn’t test the skill in context. What do I mean by that?

The reason you might need to reload your gun in a fight is because you ran out of ammunition when you least expected to. In that case, you need to a) recognize that your gun is out of ammunition, b) recall the skills necessary to correct the condition, c) execute those skills, and finally d) determine if you need to keep shooting. Seems simple enough, but it’s far more complex than this simple summation might suggest. The reason is because of Step A.

The recognition portion of the sequence is the most important. You need to be able to tell, to recognize, that your gun is empty and needs to be reloaded. This recognition of the stimulus (the empty gun) is what serves as the link in your mind to the physical manipulations you need to perform to get the gun back into service. The problem is when you take your practice out of context, out of the conditions under which the practiced skill will be required, the gains you made by that practice might be offset by the lack of automated response when the stimulus occurs when you’re not expecting it.

Let me give you an example. Some years ago, when I was shooting a lot of matches, my reload times were nothing to write home about. I knew that if I were going to be competitive I needed to do them faster — I needed to shave some time. So one month, in the several weeks between matches, I practiced my reloads at every range session and did “dry reps” at home. I did get faster, and in fact I got a lot faster. I was ready, or so I thought!

When I shot my first match the following month, a “tactical” match with no set course of fire, I discovered something: despite having done hundreds (perhaps thousands) of practice reloads the previous month my times actually increased a bit. Why? Because I had trained to reload at an expected point; I had been practicing reloading drills, not “my gun is suddenly empty and I need to fix it” drills, and when my gun unexpectedly ran dry in the middle of a stage it took me precious time to analyze the situation and initiate the reload. That was in the late 1990s, and I can still remember the feeling of bewilderment and frustration I felt the first time I was ran out of ammunition and had to remember what came next, instead of just doing it. I didn’t have my automated skill because the conditions under which I’d developed it didn’t exist at that moment.

It wasn’t a lot of time, mind you, maybe a few tenths of a second — but it was enough to teach me the lesson.

Practicing your skills out of context, out of the conditions under which you can reasonably expect to need them, isn’t practicing realistically. Start with the task you want to achieve, and practice the skills you need in — as close as you can — the same types of circumstances in which you’re likely to use them.

Start your path to more realistic training now, by looking at your practice regimen and the skills you’re working on. Look at each skill, and ask yourself: a) how likely is it that I’ll need this skill; b) what task does this skill support; and c) am I practicing in a way that’s congruent with how I expect to actually use it?

– Grant

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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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