Monday, November 3, 2008

John Farnam's Fighting With a Handgun class

Greetings from South Carolina!

Moving away from Utah, and the Utah Polite Society, has kind of put a crimp on my handgun shooting.  However, it has also opened up some new opportunities.  I recently had a chance to take a class from John Farnam called Fighting with a Handgun.  Harold Green was nice enough to let me post this writeup of the class here.

Friday Night Lecture

The class began on Friday evening at the hotel John was staying at (handily just across the freeway from my apartment).  Everybody introduced themselves.  The class was quite small, just four students, plus two of John’s local instructors, Bill and Richard.  With three instructors for four students, everyone was guaranteed a lot of individual attention.  John went over the plan for the class, with live fire on Saturday and airsoft force-on-force on Sunday.

One of the things John is really big on are “tape loops”: memorized bits of dialog that you have practiced and can recite on demand in a stressful situation.  If you’re involved in a deadly force confrontation, it’s going to be one of the most stressful situations of your life, and probably isn’t the best time to speak extemporaneously.  If you’re trying to make stuff up on the spot you may end up mumbling indistinctly or saying something you’ll regret later.  Tape loops are good for verbal disengagement (“Sorry, can’t help you.”) or dealing with armed, but not immediately threatening individuals (“Police! Drop your weapon!”).  One area where they’re particularly useful is in conversing with the police after a gunfight.  Even seemingly innocuous remarks can come back to haunt you later on.  He recommends:

“Thank God you’re here.”

“I’m the one who called.”

“That man tried to murder us.”

“I’ll be happy to answer all your questions as soon as my lawyer gets here.”

This discussion expanded a bit to more general questions about how citizens with weapons should deal with the police, including traffic stops and the like.  John’s advice is never to give consent to search, and never go with the police unless you are under arrest.  During a traffic stop ask, “Am I free to go?” after a reasonable period of time has passed (about 20 minutes).  If you’re arrested, never say anything without a lawyer, and when they ask if you understand your rights, always say “no”. 

After an interesting and wide ranging discussion, we adjourned for the evening and several of us went out to dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Saturday Morning

In most defensive shooting instruction I've had, every drill or scenario begins with a signal to draw and fire at the target.  In this class, however, we started earlier on in the confrontation, before justification to use deadly force has arisen.  We started out in the interview stance (body bladed, support hand up between you and the attacker, shooting hand hooked over the hem of your cover garment ready to begin the drawstroke).  John begins each drill with some dialog from the assailant, usually a question designed to distract you and give you a chance to practice verbal disengagement. 

The verbal disengagement techniques are tape loops, usually starting with, "Sorry, I can't help you," in a firm, but conversational tone.  If the subject doesn't take the hint you can increase the volume and intensity or move on to something a bit more direct like, "Back off!"

During this, we were supposed to be constantly moving and checking behind you.  Constant movement both throws off the subject and can help you gain a more advantageous position.  We were moving during verbal disengagement, during the draw, whenever we weren’t shooting (and when shooting if you're close enough to shoot on the move), during reloads, during malfunction drills, and during the post-fight scan.  John also insists on constantly checking behind you, to make sure the assailant doesn't have a buddy sneaking up on you.  To make us really look, rather than just turning your head, he had Richard and Bill hold out their hands with a number of fingers raised and we had to call out how many fingers we saw.

After we used our verbal disengagement techniques, John called out that the subject had revealed a weapon, prompting us to draw.  All of us already had the drawstroke down, so we didn't spend much time on that, but one new wrinkle (for me at least) was that if we didn't shoot, John wanted us to pull back to a compressed high ready.  This provides better visibility and is a much stronger position against disarms than with the gun fully extended.  It places the pistol just in front of and below the chin, rotated slightly toward the support side.  To fire you just punch the pistol forward to your normal shooting position.  Unlike a low ready, there's no danger of swinging up past the target and overshooting (often followed by overcorrecting back down) when you bring the pistol up. 

When John called out that the assailant had threatened you with the weapon, we fired a four shot burst (three shots for the fellow with the 1911) at the target, starting at the navel and moving up to the upper chest.  This zipper technique is a little different from the Polite Society’s "golden triangle" targets with the scoring zone in the upper chest that I’m used to shooting.  After a few strings of fire my target had a few hits in the lower abdomen and a big cluster in the upper chest, so I was evidently starting down low, but quickly moving on to my more usual aiming area.  After firing a burst of four shots, the procedure was to move immediately.  If the target was still a threat, based on John's description, we fired another four shots.  There was no shooting and moving at this stage, but at these ranges (7-20 yards) I wouldn't have hit much on the move anyway.

After John declared the target was no longer a threat, we continued moving and checking behind us using a sul scan, reloaded the pistol, and, after making sure there were no additional threats, re-holstered.  Constant movement was required during all of these.

I really like how this training got beyond just the shooting portions of a gunfight.  Thanks to the Polite Society, the post-fight procedures (checking behind you, reloading) have been part of my standard practice for a long time, but the pre-fight stuff (verbal challenges, drawing but not firing immediately) are largely new to me.  John mentioned that on average people only fire about one in every thirty times they draw a weapon in self defense.  Given this, it makes sense not to simply begin every simulated defensive encounter by drawing a weapon and blazing away.

We repeated this several times at various ranges until we all had the different steps down pretty well.  Rather than having us tape up the whole target between each drill, we only taped the shots that we weren't happy with.  This makes quite a bit of sense, since we're interested in seeing how many shots we're dropping, but as long as a shot goes within 3 inches of the body midline between neck and navel, it's a solid hit, regardless of exactly where it hits the cardboard.  Most of my hits were in the desired area, which I was pretty happy with.  My only shooting since I moved to South Carolina last August was the 50 round qualification for the concealed weapons permit class, so I was worried about being a little rusty.

We moved on to some precision shooting and practiced our brain stem shots at about three yards.  We drew a hostage on the target, along with a face to the assailant, so we knew exactly where to place our shots.  The procedure in this case was to ask the assailant "What do you want?", hopefully dividing their attention for a few critical seconds, then extend the pistol and fire two carefully aimed shots into the nose.  I was pretty pleased with my accuracy on this drill.  I dropped a few shots early on, but I ended up with one ragged hole smaller than a half-dollar centered right on the subject's nose.  I normally shoot with a both eyes open, but I found that for a precision shot like this, it really helped to close the non-dominant eye. 

Saturday Afternoon

After lunch, John set up a course of fire with targets at multiple ranges.  It started with a contact shot, followed by three more targets between 3 and 15 yards, including one with a no-shoot in front of it.  We made the contact shot and move right to engage each target in turn.  This seems like a simple drill, but it's actually deceptively difficult.  After blazing away at the contact or close range targets, it's hard to slow down and shoot at the longer ranged target or the one behind the bystander as slowly and accurately as necessary to achieve good hits. 

After running through this drill a couple of times each, John moved the contact shot out a few yards and had us shoot it two at a time.  The first shooter would engage targets one and three, while the second would shoot and two and four.  After engaging a target you stood there and waited while the other shooter moved behind you with the gun in position Sul and shot the next target.  Obviously, having someone behind you moving with a loaded pistol in their hand requires a lot of confidence in their gunhandling skills.  However, after shooting with these folks for half a day I didn't have any worries.  I certainly hope they felt the same way about me.  Once the pair of shooters had engaged all the targets you were expected to cover each other's back as you reloaded.  We tried a couple different methods for coordinating reloads, but the one that seemed to work the best was calling out "red" when you start reloading and "green" when you're back up.  Obviously this only works if you've worked out the procedure in advance though.

After the two-person drills we moved on to some work transitioning to backup weapons.  Several people brought their own BUGs and the two of us who hadn't were able to borrow extras from those who had them.  John was nice enough to loan me his Kahr PM45.  Other folks were using a pair of S&W hammerless snubbies and a compact Beretta for their backup guns.  We started the drill by engaging three targets.  While moving to engage a fourth, we popped the magazine out of the pistol (simulating running out of ammo).  Firing the last round in the primary weapon, we transitioned to the backup gun and emptied it into the target.  Finally, we had to engage the last target with a blade (everyone was carrying a suitable knife).

I had some real trouble with this drill.  I carried John's PM45 in an inside the waistband holster around my left kidney.  I'm not used to drawing from that position and I had to feel around quite a bit to find the gun.  I also had a lot of difficulty with the BUG to knife transition.  I carry a Cold Steel Recon 1 clipped to my left side pocket, giving me a weapon accessible to my off hand.  This works decently well in conjunction with my primary carry gun, but with a support side backup gun, the transition is kind of difficult.  I needed to cycle through three weapons using only two hands, with the last pair of weapons only accessible to the right hand.  So I needed to draw the BUG and engage the target while holstering my primary gun, pocket the bug or pass it to my right hand and draw my knife, then stab the last target.  Getting the primary gun holstered while simultaneously managing the backup gun wasn't easy.  Several times I found myself with a gun in each hand and needing to get to my knife.  I ended up dropping John's gun in the dirt twice to get to the knife (not exactly a great way to thank a man for loaning you his pistol) or trying to juggle both guns in my right hand while I stabbed with my left.  The sand and grit ended up causing some feeding problems with the PM45.

Clearly, these sorts of transitions require practice, preferably over a more forgiving surface.  I also think that if you have a gun accessible to either hand, you need a knife accessible to either hand too.  You never know which hand is going to be occupied when you need a knife out in a hurry.  This drill has inspired me to look for my own BUG (probably a revolver), and I'm looking for another knife to put on the strong side as well.

Following the transition drills, we did some moving and shooting.  John set up targets at various ranges from three yards out to fifteen yards and had us shoot them on the move.  We tried out moving right to left with the right hand, and left to right using both hands and using just the left hand.  Hits were highly range dependent, with most everyone delivering good hits on the closer targets and distinctly fewer hits on those at seven yards.  Hits on the fifteen yarder were pretty much dumb luck.  The two IDPA shooters in the class had a tendency to slow down into the smooth, bent-kneed walk you see during competitions, rather than the nice quick jog John wanted.  This obviously results in better shooting, but it doesn’t make you much more difficult to hit or get you where you’re going quickly.

The next drill involved a series of targets each placed about a yard to the right and a few yards further downrange than the last.  We had to move to the 1 o’clock direction down the diagonal line of targets and engage each target in turn as we went by them. 

For last moving and shooting drill three targets were staggered to the left, right, and left again, followed by a no-shoot target in front of the final hostile target.  You move between the staggered targets, engaging each in turn, then move off to the right or left to get an angle on the hostile target behind the no-shoot.


While this was primarily a pistol class, several of us had brought rifles with us, and we had a little bit of time to do some rifle work.  John and I both had XCRs.  Mine was in .223 with an EOTech, while his was one of the new ones in 7.62x39mm with an Aimpoint Micro.  The other two rifles were both AKs, one a fixed stock model with an Aimpoint, the other an underfolder with iron sights.  Those of us who brought rifles were happy to lend them to those who hadn’t, giving everyone a chance to shoot the drills.

John demonstrated the flat stock technique for us.  This is an example of why books and websites are distinctly inferior to coming to a class and seeing techniques demonstrated and having your performance critiqued.  I read John’s explanation of the flat stock technique on his website, but couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  However, after seeing it demonstrated, immediately makes perfect sense. 

We started out shooting the same drill as last time, firing at the first three targets on the move using the flat stock technique and following up with a burst to the body and a headshot on the target behind the no-shoot using the sights.  I haven’t shot enough close range rifle to get the holdover ingrained, so I ended up placing my headshot a little low, but I think I did pretty well considering my limited experience with a rifle.

Our next drill used the same target setup, but instead of  advancing we shot the three close targets, the moved off to the right to get an angle on the target behind the no-shoot and delivered a headshot from about 20 yards.  Conscious of my limitations, I chose to drop to kneeling for the headshot.

Weapon Familiarization and Malfunction Drills

As the sun set, John had us all place our pistols on the table and shoot a couple of rounds with each other’s guns.  This was perhaps a bit less useful than it might have been because of the uniformity of our firearms choices.  Five of the seven people present had Glocks of one description or another (two 21s, a 17, a 30, and a 34).  The last student had a 1911.  John was also nice enough to let us shoot his new XD-M, which seemed like a really nice pistol (with seventeen rounds of .40 S&W!).

After shooting each other’s guns in operable condition, John had his instructors set up malfunctions.  We each got three of the six guns and had to clear an empty chamber, a stovepipe, and a double feed.  By this time it was getting dark, so looking at the gun to diagnose it didn’t help much.  It was tap-rack-bang and if that doesn’t help, lock-drop-rack-rack-rack-reload.  The biggest problem was remembering to start the sequence by trying to fire the pistol.  Since we knew there was a malfunction, it was tempting to go straight to immediate action, rather than letting it be triggered by a failure to fire the pistol.  Dummy rounds, placed somewhere in the magazine, have the advantage of being more unexpected, but they can only simulate failures to fire, not stovepipes or double-feeds.

Night Shoot

Range rules allowed us to shoot an hour after sunset, so we were able to get a bit of night shooting in.  We started off doing the same drill with three staggered targets and a fourth hidden by a no-shoot in low light, with the targets illuminated by a pair of road flares.  Then we took the flares away and shot it with our flashlights.  Accuracy declined notably with the flashlights, which is in line with my past experience at Polite Society night shoots.  As I am in the habit of doing, I shot using the reverse Harries technique (with the flashlight held to the support hand side of the pistol rather than tucked underneath to the shooting hand side).  I’ve found this gives me better results than any of the other techniques, but in this drill I noticed I was drawing my light hand too far back, illuminating the back of my pistol as well as the target.  John also showed off his First Light Tomahawk, which seems like a pretty neat little light.

After a long day of shooting we retired to a nice dinner and some well-deserved rest.


Sunday was dedicated to force-on-force training using airsoft guns.  Everyone divested themselves of all weapons, not just guns, but also knives, pepper spray, impact weapons, or anything else that could be used to harm someone.  Richard brought a huge assortment of airsoft guns, and most of the students brought their own airsoft weapons as well.  Richard wrapped the grips of all his airsoft guns with red electrical tape to clearly identify them, which seems quite useful.  Airsoft guns look very realistic, and can easily be mistaken for the real thing (or vice versa).  In the past, I’ve gotten into the habit of removing an airsoft gun from the holster to check the orange muzzle marking, but using electrical tape on the grip makes it obvious without unholstering the gun. 

Everyone wore paintball masks when participating and shooting glasses when observing.  Airsoft guns are pretty safe, but hitting an eye can cause serious damage.  We all wore long sleeve shirts, which help take the sting out of it, but nobody wore anything thick enough to be able to shrug off the impacts entirely.  Based on some really painful knuckle hits in past airsoft training, I wore gloves most of the day as well.

The exercises we did can be divided into two basic categories which I'll call drills and scenarios.  Drills usually involved students shooting at each other to work on a particular skill or prove a particular point.  Scenarios, on the other hand, were set up as simulated defense encounters where one of the instructors played the role of the attacker and the students had to react appropriately.


We started out with some moving target drills, comparing how difficult tracking and shooting a moving target was compared to stationary one.  The moving target was definitely more difficult to hit, but smooth constant movement allowed the shooter to track the target and get good hits much more readily than a target that varied speed and direction.

The next drill involved shooting from behind cover.  We used a pair of chairs, one sitting normally, and one laying down in front of it to keep the opponent from shooting through the chair legs.  Airsoft guns definitely can encourage you to use cover effectively.  The sting of a plastic pellet really reminds you to keep knees and elbows tucked in tight.  Given the small size of our cover, some of the best shots came not on the side where the opponent was leaning out and firing, but on legs carelessly extended on the opposite side.  Similarly, heads poking up over the cover made excellent targets. 

After trying it with both shooters moving or both under cover, we went to a drill with one student behind cover and the other moving.  Nominally, the person under cover has the advantage, but if the mover can get far enough to one side or another, they can get enough of an angle to shoot around the cover and get good hits.  Conversely, if the mover was too predictable in his movements, it was easy for the person behind cover to hold on the point where they knew the mover would emerge and fire for great effect.

During this drill, when I was the mover, I ran out of ammo halfway through.  Immediately, I noticed an increase in the number and accuracy of the hits I was taking.  Suppressive fire works, even when it’s only little plastic pellets.


The first scenario put us in a restaurant where a couple gets into an increasingly loud and disruptive argument.  Bill’s girlfriend was at the range that day and gamely played one half of the couple while John or Richard played the other half (she was quite quick with the verbal comeback during the argument too).  One of the other students also played the female role later on, which led to a bit of ribbing. 

The argument generally developed into some sort of violent altercation, with the man pulling a rubber knife or an airsoft gun.  You area seated nearby and have to decide what to do about the situation.  Rapid disengagement before the argument escalates to violence is probably represents the best choice.  To make things a bit more interesting, John ruled that the only exit required walking right by the couple having the altercation, forcing us to confront the situation more directly. 

One of the students, after getting the man to drop the knife, commanded him to get down on his knees, prompting John to call a time out and explain why this is a bad idea.  As a private citizen, it’s much better if the assailant decides to leave, rather than trying to make a citizen’s arrest or hold them at gunpoint. 

We also had a nice discussion of pre-assaultive behavior, the cues that can signal that someone is planning to act violently.  These are the sort of things that should be setting your alarm bells off, like screaming at someone, aggressive body language, etc.

They changed the scenario up for different people and let us go through it more than once.  One of the times I went through the scenario, rather than having an argument, the guy tried to show his girlfriend his gun and NDed into his leg.  In that particular case, I decided the last thing I wanted to do was introduce another gun to the situation and instead the best option would be to walk past him out of the restaurant and call for help.

The next scenario involved dealing with an aggressive panhandler while exiting a restaurant.  This one was particularly difficult because the door (represented by a pair of chairs a few feet apart) serves as a choke point, limiting your ability to avoid him (which is exactly why a panhandler would stake out such a spot).  The short range meant there was very little time to switch from verbal disengagement to deadly force if the panhandler produced a weapon.  This led to a lot of retention shooting.

In the next scenario, you enter your garage to find a pair of intruders.  Your family is at home and the burglars are between you and your loved ones.  In some cases these two were burglars engaged in an argument (some sort of territorial dispute) who barely noticed you at all until you injected yourself into the situation.  Sometimes one or both of them could be persuaded to leave at gunpoint, some acted aggressively towards you.  Perhaps the most difficult situation was when they tried to flee to the interior of your house (towards your family) forcing you to decide between shooting them in the back or allowing them to potentially do harm to those within.

After all these scenarios involving strangers, the next one instead focused on your habitually drunken brother in law who you discover in your house waving a loaded gun about.  The objective is to deal with him without getting yourself shot.  In this scenario, drawing and shooting isn’t really a solution (despite being a no-good drunk, your sister would probably be unhappy if you shot him).

John demonstrated a couple of disarm techniques, but we didn’t want to go full speed with the disarms, since airsoft guns are a lot less durable than the real thing.  During the disarming discussion, one student asked what would happen if you were holding the slide of an opponent’s gun when the trigger was pulled, so John went and got his XD-M, wrapped his hand around the slide (with fingers clear of the muzzle, of course) and fired into the berm.  The slide failed to cycle, but there was no damage or discomfort to his hand.

I’ve now learned disarm techniques from three different people, and been taught three distinct sets of techniques.  I really just need to pick a set and practice them enough to be confident in their employment in a life or death situation.

The last scenario simulated a kick in the door home invasion robbery.  This lacked some of the pre-fight verbal disengagement and shoot/no-shoot decisions of the other scenarios.  Someone kicking in the door of your with a weapon doesn’t require a lot of conversation or involve much ambiguity.  However, John ran this one all the way through playing a responding police officer, giving us a chance to practice our tape loops for dealing with the police.

Wrap Up

With the airsoft exercises concluded, we finished up the course with some nice discussion.  Richard and Bill gave some commentary on the course and their thoughts on how we’d done as students.  John did the same and gave a very nice speech summing up the class.  Some folks had to head home to other parts of the state, but the rest of us all adjourned for a nice steak dinner.

Looking back, this was an excellent course, and one I’m really glad to have had the chance to attend.  John Farnam is an great instructor, an expert at both the fighting arts, and of teaching those arts to others.  I would highly recommend this class, or any of John’s classes, to anyone with a serious interest in learning how to defend themselves with a firearm.


Utah's Personal Protection Laboratory