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Building a Personal Fighting System

Chris Upchurch

I’ve been taught by been-there-done-that guys that you should run your carbine stock all the way out and that you should run it as short as possible. That you should mount your sights high up, and that you should mount them low. That you should run muzzle up, and that you should run muzzle down. That you should do target identification through the sights, and that you should do it looking over the gun. That you should carry appendix and that you should carry on the hip. That you should release the slide by pulling back on it and that you should use the lever. That you should default to dropping expended mags and that you should default to retaining them. And don't even get me started on contrary opinions on handgun makes and models, much less the caliber war.

What is a student of the fighting arts to do? How can you resolve all of this contrary advice?

One solution is to pick a guru. Pick one instructor or one school whose advice you're going to follow. Take a bunch of classes, practice the techniques, and ingrain what you have learned until you can deliver it on demand.

This is probably the right approach for many, if not most people. If you pick a good instructor, you'll get a set of techniques that work and that come together in a coherent system (choosing a good instructor when you're just starting to learn this stuff is a whole other problem, but this article is long enough as it is). Frankly, knowing the basics, practicing them on a regular basis, and carrying regularly will put you miles ahead of most CCW holders.

That said, there are disadvantages to adopting an instructor's system wholesale. No matter how good the instructor their system is never going to be the best possible fit for your needs, your physical capabilities, your life. Choosing an instructor whose system is a good fit for you can help, and any good instructor will try to modify techniques to work with a student's physical limitations. There are inherent limits to this, however. The instructor can't know what you know about your lifestyle or feel what you feel when you try to perform a technique. Any preexisting system that you adopt is going to be a compromise.

There is another path, however, one that is much more difficult and demanding. Indeed, it is a project that, by its nature, will last a lifetime. Build your own personal fighting system by learning, adapting, and adopting techniques that fit your needs, your circumstances, your physical limitations.

Train widely

To start this process, you need a good grasp of the fundamentals. If you're starting completely from scratch, it's best to start with one instructor and one system until you've mastered the basics. This will give you a foundation, a point of departure from which you can begin customizing and creating your own system to meet your needs.

When you have a working knowledge of the fundamentals, it's time to branch out. Train with different instructors so you can see a variety of different takes on the same sort of material. Each new instructor will give you a chance to see some new technique, something that you didn't appreciate before, some refinement that you can add to your skill set. Sometimes, an instructor will cover a technique that you've seen before and didn't understand, but will explain it differently in a way that allows you to "get it."

If you want to get the greatest benefit out of training with different instructors, it's essential that those instructors be different. If you only train with ex-Delta guys, there's not going to be a whole lot of variation, no matter how many of them you train with. Train with instructors who have military backgrounds, train with cops, train with armed citizen instructors. Train with the competition crowd, train with those who think gun games are a waste of time. Train with traditionalists and with guys who are pushing the boundaries. Train at the big schools and train with the 1-man shops. The more diverse your teachers, the more different ideas and techniques you'll be exposed to.

This is not to say you shouldn't be discerning when selecting your instructors. Always seek out good instruction: read reviews, get recommendations from trusted students, learn what you can from what an instructor has put online. There are great instructors out there from all sorts of backgrounds. You don't have to sacrifice quality to train with a wide variety of instructors.

When in Rome

When you seek out diverse instruction, you're going to encounter techniques and approaches that seem strange to you. Maybe even uncomfortable. Keep in mind that while you're at a class, you're not there to make a judgment about whether a particular technique is good or bad, or whether it suits you or not. A class is a chance to learn as much about the technique as possible so that you can evaluate it later. Unless you are physically unable to perform the technique or think it's obviously unsafe, give it a try. Do it the way the instructor is teaching and withhold judgment until you've seen how it works.

In addition to learning the technique itself, it can be useful to understand why the instructor teaches a particular technique. What are the advantages and disadvantages compared to other ways to do it? How does it fit with the rest of their system? What situations is it strongest in and where are any shortcomings apparent? There's a fine line to be walked here. While you want as much context for what the instructor is teaching as you can get, you don't want to take the class down endless "bunny trails" and side discussions (don't be "that guy").

As anyone who's been in a class with me can tell you, I tend to take a lot of notes. This is particularly important if you're trying to build a personal fighting system. The real work when it comes to evolving your system happens after class is over, so being able to call up the details of a technique and the instructor's explanation for it are critical.

Does this have a place?

After a class, it's time to decide whether or not a new technique should become part of your system. Changes could range from minor tweaks (making sure you eject the mag while the gun is horizontal to help it clear the magwell) to major (changing from strong side carry to appendix). Regardless of how significant a change a new technique is, scrutinize it carefully before incorporating it into your system.

I often see instructors describe a new or different technique as "a tool in the toolbox." This comes with the implication that adding a technique to your toolbox is a good thing; that a new technique doesn't have to displace what you already know. I disagree with this approach. You're not trying to fill one of those big rolling tool chests, you're trying to build a system of techniques that work together and enables you to fight effectively.

When you're first starting out, you'll learn a lot of new skills that fill niches that you didn't even know existed, like the finer points of one-handed reloads, or shooting from inside of vehicles. However, as time goes on these empty niches will become rarer. New techniques will more often be alternative ways to do things already know how to do. Think carefully before you decide to adopt duplicative techniques. There are situations where it's helpful to have more than one way to do something. However, having multiple techniques to address a single problem requires more training to learn, more practice to keep current. Or more likely, you don't end up learning either of them to the level that you would if you only had one technique for this particular problem.

If adopting a new technique means dropping the old, it's clear that the new one should have to earn its way into your system. This is the appropriate point to deploy that skepticism you set aside in the class itself.

Think about how the technique fits in with the rest of your system. Is it radically different from the way you do other, related tasks? Commonality among techniques is a good thing, don't give it up unless you get a significant advantage in return.

Think about how the technique fits you physically. If it requires more mobility or more dexterity than you possess, it may not be for you, even if it works well for others.

Think about how the technique fits your training regimen. If your practice time is limited, maybe a complicated technique that requires a lot of practice to maintain isn't the right fit.

Think about how the technique fits your life. If you drive a lot, is this something that works well in or around cars? If you have young kids how does the need to manage and protect them affect things? Does living in the city (lots of bad backgrounds) or the country (lots of wide open spaces) affect the viability of this technique? How does this fit with your requirements for concealment? If your circumstances allow you to open carry or modest concealment that opens up options that aren't available if the law or your employment make deep concealment mandatory. This is not intended as an exhaustive list, everyone's life is different, and the things you should consider before adopting a new technique are going to differ too.

The one thing you shouldn't be considering at this point is how natural it feels or how fast it is compared to your existing technique. When you come out of a class, a brand new technique is almost always going to feel and perform worse than your current technique. For now, ask, "if this works as well as advertised, how would it fit into my system and my life?"

If you decide that a potential new technique isn't a fit for you, don't put it in your toolbox. That doesn't mean you necessarily forget it. Perhaps in the future, your circumstances will change, and the technique will be a better fit. Put it in your storage shed rather than your toolbox and when and if the time comes you can dust it off and pull it out (another good use for notes taken in class).

Apples to apples

If you decide that a technique is worth pursuing further, it's time to investigate whether it really does work as advertised. Put it to the test and see if it's really better than what you're doing now.

As mentioned earlier, any fresh new technique that you've just learned isn't going to feel as natural as something that you've trained with for years to the point that it has become ingrained.

A useful model for this is the four levels of competence:

  1. Unconscious incompetence - "You don't know what you don't know."
  2. Conscious incompetence - You realize the gap between what you can do and the desired level of performance.
  3. Conscious competence - You can perform the skill if you concentrate on it.
  4. Unconscious competence - The skill has become ingrained to the point where you can perform it without thinking.

Most of the time you learn a new technique you're going to come out of a class somewhere between levels 2 and 3. Hopefully, you know what doing it right looks like and feels like, but most of the time you won't have enough repetitions with the technique to do it the right every single time, even when you concentrate on it.

To get to the point where you can make an apples to apples comparison between the new technique and your existing technique, you'll need to practice until you are solidly in level 3. In my experience, this will probably require hundreds of repetitions; several weeks of regular practice. It isn't going to become ingrained to the point where it's completely natural (since you haven't made your final decision to adopt this technique, that's actually a good thing). However, it should be smooth enough when you concentrate that you can make a fair comparison with your current technique.

What form that comparison takes depends on how the new technique is supposed to be better. Is it supposedly faster? Put it on a timer. Is it supposed to be more reliable under stress? Add some stress. Put it on video, have someone watch you perform it, or even just see how it feels compared to what you've been doing.

Finally, at this point, you have enough information to decide whether this new technique is worth incorporating into your system. If you decide that it isn't, it's probably time to put in some dedicated practice concentrating on your existing technique to reinforce it.

Ingraining a technique

Once you've decided that a technique is going to become part of your system, it's time to get to that fourth level: unconscious competence. When it comes to critical lifesaving skills, it's obvious that you want to be able to perform the technique reliably; to get as close to 100% with it as possible. As John Farnam says, "An amateur practices until he can get it right, a professional practices until he can't get it wrong."

The other, perhaps underappreciated, aspect of this is being able to perform the technique without actively thinking about it. When you've truly ingrained a skill you can make a decision to act, then carry out the action while you dedicate your mental bandwidth to other tasks. You think draw, and while your gun is on the way out your mind can already be moving on to where you're going to place these shots.

Getting to this level requires a lot of practice; generally thousands of repetitions. For each new core technique you need to put in the work to reach that level, then continue putting in enough practice over time to maintain those skills.

A never-ending process

Building a personal fighting system is a never-ending process. As you get older, as your circumstances change, things that worked for you in the past aren't going to work as well. Perhaps techniques that you rejected in the past will become more relevant. It's important to exercise these skills and reevaluate them over time. No matter how much you know or how much you've trained, there's never a point where you can say, "It's done, I never need to do any more training or learn any new techniques."

We sometimes also face temporary changes. Maybe an injury means you can't perform some of your usual techniques. The classic example of this is if you break your dominant arm. While it's in a cast for weeks, you're going to have to shoot with what's normally your support side hand. Maybe a shoulder injury prevents you from drawing from a hip holster, and you're going to have to go cross draw for a while. Perhaps eye issues require shooting a rifle from the other shoulder.

This sort of thing is where the "storage shed" mentioned earlier is very important. Maybe you chose not to embrace ambidextrous shooting in the past, but as long as you have the knowledge, you turn it into skill with enough practice. Just because something didn't fit when you first learned it doesn't mean it won't fit in the future.

The payoff

Reading all this, it's easy to conclude that it sounds like a lot of work. And it is. For many people, the juice may not be worth the squeeze. For them, it may be better to find a good instructor, learn an existing system, and practice.

For those who are willing to put in the effort of building a truly personal fighting system, the benefits are significant. You get a system that fits your needs, your physical abilities, your circumstances, your life, a system that fits you. One that can evolve with you over time as your circumstances change.