Strategies and Standards for Defensive Handgun Training
By Karl Rehn and John Daub
2023 Edition Published by KR Training
$9.97 for Kindle; $20.00 paperback at https://www.amazon.com/
Reviewed by Gila Hayes
In January of this year Karl Rehn gave us an interview about skill development and practice for armed citizens, and during that conversation, we talked about the soon-to-be-released second edition of his book Strategies and Standards for Defensive Handgun Training, which he co-authored with John Daub. Writing and updating books is tedious work, and in the months that have followed, several members asked when the second edition would be available. Good news! When I saw Karl at the NRA Annual Meeting several months ago, in his hand was a copy of the second edition, printed this time in a larger format.
Like the first edition, the 2023 version explores realistic performance standards for defensive handgun practitioners and how to motivate armed citizens to work toward responsible levels of skill. In their first edition, comparing the ultra simple state carry license requirements (where they exist), Rehn and Daub asked, “If the state standards aren’t realistic minimum performance standards and don’t include all the skills the average gun owner should be trained in, what are those skills and standards?”
Many states have transitioned into permitless carry. Rehn and Daub explore that trend’s effect on gun owners, some of whom would previously have at least completed the permit requirement training, even if they went no further. Statistics show that gun ownership is more prevalent than ever. Rehn writes in a later chapter, that compared against mandated training, likely more good has come from increased focus on skill and tactics in the firearms media, no-cost resources online, and formation of minority gun owner groups, be they focused on gender, race or political persuasion. He opines that state-mandated training did not produce much “actual benefit.”
The authors expressed concern that, “99 percent or more of those who could, should, or would benefit from taking training beyond the state minimum either have no interest in it, cannot afford the money or time to attend it, or don’t perceive enough value (even pure entertainment value) in it to attend.” There is a lot of data to make that point but perhaps the best proof of the need for training comes from the Transportation Security Agency which as far back as 2015 to 2016 reported a 28% increase in incidences of travelers caught with guns that they forgot were in their bags before they went through the security checkpoint. What would it take to reach such a disengaged audience?
Combining Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs with analysis of video game culture leads Rehn to conclude that with humanity no longer primarily focused on assuring there’s food and shelter to survive, classes and shooting sports fulfill the higher-level needs for achievement, social interaction and immersion. He comments that the most avid in the gun community love to customize their guns, have special clothing for range time and participate in range drills that are, to some degree, a form of live-action role play. “None of those things is inherently bad. My point here is that all those factors appeal to us in various ways, and they bring us pleasure and satisfaction,” he comments.
Training, Rehn continues, generally includes segments on mindset and mental preparation, creating motivation to seek higher skill levels. If driven by acknowledgment of risk, armed citizens often react in one of three ways: mitigate (do something to change it), transfer (plan on police or others to provide protection) or accept risk without correcting it. He ponders other risks to health and well being, commenting that physical fitness, medical skills to address injury and driving skills all contribute more to life expectancy than “anti-crime skills.” Even skills to counter criminal violence have many facets that are a higher priority than defensive gun use, and some claim, based on studies of private citizen self-defense shootings, that factors like drawing speed are overstated. Rehn disagrees.
What, then, is the rationale for training beyond the basics? Developing confidence and learning safe gun handling, he answers. Training reduces “negative outcomes,” including--
- Failure to engage,
- Gun accidents,
- Legal issues stemming from bad decisions,
- Injury or death if deficits in speed or accuracy give a criminal assailant the upper hand.
Agreeing on the necessity of formal training, one might ask, “Will any instructor do?” Rehn issues a resounding “No!” explaining that instructors themselves need to possess high skill levels and continue training for their own updates and improvement. He weighs the value of “been in gunfights” experience, discusses the value of ancillary experience like knowing the legal system, and seeking out instructors who are the acknowledged experts, not just their disciples. His chapters advising instructors about successful business-building strategies he’s used at KR Training can also form an instructor-selection criteria of sorts for students wanting to choose better instructors.
John Daub writes Section 2, a change that occurs about 1/3 of the way through Strategies and Standards. He begins by defining minimum competency, how it would be proven, the place of “minimum” in skill progression -- hint: it isn’t the end of the road by any stretch of the imagination. Context influences standards, he continues, noting that law enforcement agencies establish passing scores for qualifications, shooting competitions classify skill levels, and some states require carry permitees to pass fairly simple tests. Context for those carrying a pistol for defense of self and loved ones may be drawn from Tom Given’s analysis of FBI and DEA agent-involved shootings. It suggests the precipitating incident is commonly robbery, with one to two assailants, at 3-7 yards, involving three shots in three seconds.
Measuring license to carry test minimums against Givens’ probable scenario shows that tests that fail to require drawing from a concealment holster, for example, are too minimal. Instead, Daub and Rehn recommend standards that require drawing and timed drills of single or multiple shots at various distances.
Once basic competency and safety are ingrained, the shooter can improve through a self-directed practice routine. The authors include a collection of drills and Daub suggests working up through drills until running up against one on which you can’t turn in a 100% “clean” score. The drill element you can’t “clean” reveals what to practice, as well as calling out the human tendency to over-estimate abilities and under-estimate the difficulty present in a real-life situation. Resist the temptation to shoot the drills at which you shine; instead, practice the elements you have trouble performing the authors urge several times throughout Strategies and Standards.
Is your practice stymied by range rules against drawing or a “speed limit” prohibiting multiple rapid shots? Daub quotes Claude Werner’s advice to practice presentations from a high ready “starting at the pectoral muscle of the body’s dominant side” and pressing out to make a “good hit with the first shot.” This leads Daub into a thoughtful essay about nomenclature. He opines that “missed shots” always hit somewhere and should be judged as unacceptable. “What is acceptable is a very narrow band. What is unacceptable is quite wide. The implication is in practice, you must work (hard) to get acceptable hits and nothing else.”
Although Strategies and Standards puts much effort into determining minimum competency, the key take away is inspiration to practice effectively to increase skill level. “Untimed, unstructured target practice is not the same as practicing the drills...particularly if the practice does not include evaluation of current skill level via any kind of scored drill compared to a standard or goal,” Daub and Rehn write. In a later chapter, introducing a collection of drills, the characteristics of a good practice drill are enumerated. “They are quantifiable, repeatable, trackable, and thus allow for measurement and determination of progression – especially in areas that need improvement.”
In addition to skill acquisition, proof of mastery requires performing on demand, under stressful circumstances which doesn’t allow enough time to think through each step. At higher skill levels, the basics become nearly automatic. This is not a mindless sequence of actions that runs unchecked once started, the authors point out. With growing automaticity, comes greater resistance to negative emotions like fear, defeat, and self-pity because we’re confidently working to solve a problem.
While not permanent, once developed, well-learned skills stick with you longer and, with a little work, come back more quickly. “The farther you push your skills into automaticity, the longer they will be retained, and the losses in performance level will be slower to fade...Don’t assume because you reached a particular level once, for a short period, that the skill is available at that level if you don’t maintain it. But the good news is that it won’t take as long to get back to that peak level the second time around, and if you train past the level you can live with as a maintenance level, you can keep that with less intense and less frequent practice than it took to achieve the peak.”
Daub contributes a chapter on assessing minimum competency, emphasizing the need to practice and assess with what we carry; why realistic targets scoring zones matter (with a link to free downloadable target art); simple scoring – one point for an acceptable hit, zero for unacceptable. This leads to discussion of skill development beyond “good enough” into over-learning to combat the inevitable skill degradation under extreme stress. Other details include starting in various hand positions, including holding objects like an ammo box as if it were a cell phone, movement to get off the line of attack or transitioning from a body target to a smaller, more demanding head shot. While rooted in what may happen in a real-life situation, the additional “busy-ness” also serves to force development of motor automaticity, writes Daub. Movement – be that a side step or dropping what’s in your hands – increases the “cognitive load” so that steps like drawing, presentation, sight use or trigger control need automaticity. A later chapter includes problem solving as an element in drills used to increase skill.
If assessing minimum competency, Daub expressly avoids tests requiring reloads under time, one handed shooting or decision-making. Those are important for advancing skills beyond minimum competency, but are not integral to it. He discusses realistic decisions to maintain good competency, while allowing time for ancillary training like medical, survival, force on force or physical fitness over champion-level speed and accuracy.
I read and reviewed an earlier edition of Strategies and Standards a few years ago, so I was interested to weigh this edition against the earlier reading. While my perspective may have shifted, the new edition filled a lot more of the Strategies element of the book’s name by focusing less on inadequate state permit test requirements. I was much more engaged in this reading and came away with a stronger understanding of practice strategies and of skill development and maintenance.