Wednesday, November 18, 2009

John Farnam's Scenario Based Defensive Handgun Course

In late October I had an opportunity to assist John Farnam with a class in Columbia, South Carolina. The class was itself the same format as the one he taught here last year: one day of live fire and one day of scenario based force on force training. One difference this year was that was that John’s wife Vicki Farnam was here as well, teaching a Women’s Defensive Handgun course.

Last May, I took John’s instructor course. One of the perks of taking the instructor course is the opportunity to act as an assistant instructor at John’s classes. This is the first time I’ve had a chance to avail myself of that opportunity. This writeup is going to be a bit different than my usual class review, focusing more on instructor stuff and some of the issues the students had in the class.

In addition to myself, there were three other fellows assisting with the class. We had eight students, so the student instructor ratio was pretty impressive. For many of the students, this was their first time in one of John’s classes, but others had taken some classes from him before. Every student who was in the class last year was back again as either an instructor or a student. Vicki had five ladies in her class, most of whom were the wives or girlfriends of students.

Usually, at this point in one of my class write-ups I describe the gear I used to shoot the class. In this case, I didn’t end up firing a single shot all weekend. Nevertheless, I carried my usual Glock 21 in a Comp-Tac C-T.A.C IWB holster and a S&W 442 in a pocket holster. All of the instructors were carrying Glocks of one variety or another, except for John, who carried a SIG P250. Five students carried Glocks as well, with one SIG 228, one Springfield XD and one 9mm 1911.

Friday Night Lecture
The class met on Friday night in a meeting room at the local hotel where John and many of the other students were staying. We started off with a round of introductions and a bit of lecture from John. As happened several times in this course, both John and Vicki’s classes came together for the lecture. Comparing this to last year’s Friday night talk, it’s quite evident that John is speaking extemporaneously, rather than delivering a canned lecture. He hits the same major points, but it comes in a different order, and a lot of the ancillary stuff was different. In part, this was because he’s very responsive to student questions and he can launch into a discussion of pretty much any self-defense related topic someone raises.

Saturday Morning
After breakfast at Denny’s, most of the class convoyed to the range together. John delivered the range safety lecture and we geared up and got to work.

We started out with some loading and unloading drills. John runs a hot range, where students are expected to have their pistols loaded at all times (as he puts it, empty guns make him nervous). However, there are occasions when we want unloaded weapons, such as doing a dry fire drill. John ran everyone through the process of administrative unloading, loading, and chamber checks, then got everyone unloaded for some dry fire.

Unlike a lot of training, where the drill begins with a command to draw and fire and ends as soon as the shooters are done firing, John incorporates some pre and post fight actions in almost every drill. Students start out in the interview stance, moving, looking behind them, and practicing verbal disengagement in response to queries from John.

I noticed some of the students didn’t quite get the point of the tape loop concept. “Tape loop” is John’s term for short bit of pre-rehearsed dialogue. Attempting to verbally disengage from a potential threat is a lousy time to extemporize. For one thing, it makes your response more likely to come out garbled or confused when you most need to be clear. More importantly, when a potential assailant asks for the time, or directions, or help finding his lost puppy, he’s trying to distract you. Coming up with a dismissive response to his question (“my watch is broken”) can do the job of distracting you just as well as looking at your watch. “Sorry, I can’t help you” is a quick, all-purpose response to anyone who approaches you on the street. It doesn’t require any specific thought about their question, leaving you free to concentrate on maneuvering, glancing behind you for the potential assailant’s partner, etc.

After a bit of verbal disengagement, John gave the command to move and draw. We had a couple of the students with a tendency to sweep their support hands during the drawstroke, and the instructors had to keep an eye out for this. John teaches that if you’re not shooting to bring the gun back to a compressed high ready with the pistol brought back just beneath the chin and rotated to the support side. This gives better disarm resistance, greater visibility, and unlike low ready, it keeps the gun pointed at the target so that you just have to drive the gun straight out to the target, rather than swinging up and potentially overshooting and having to bring it back down. Some students had a tendancy to forget the compressed ready position and leave the gun out at full extension. As the class progressed, others started drawing to the compressed ready, rather than drawing to full extension and then bringing the pistol back to compressed ready. Drawing to full extension every time keeps the drawstroke consistent, rather than having to decide between two different drawstrokes depending on the situation.

After a few moments with the gun in compressed ready, moving and checking behind them, John announced that the target was threatening you with a weapon, prompting the students to open fire. Since this first drill was done dry, the half of the class that wasn’t shooting manually reciprocated the shooting students’ slides after each shot to reset the trigger. After firing four shots, the students moved and fired another four. John announced that the target was down and out of the fight, prompting students to move again, scan in front, then turn around and do a sul scan. Once everyone has done this, John called for students to holster.

This was some students’ first exposure to these kinds of pre and post fight drills, so we ran through it dry a couple of times to get everyone on the same page.

Saturday Afternoon
After lunch, we did the same drill live fire. This was some students’ first exposure to the “zipper” technique John teaches. Rather than aiming exclusively at the upper torso or center of mass, you fire your first shot at the navel area and move up the midline of the body to the upper chest. Starting at belt level prevents the gun from obscuring the target’s hands, and ensures you won’t lose sight of the assailant if he ducks. The area a few inches on either side of the body’s midline is filled with major arteries and organs, making it a good all the way up. This is rather different from the way most students had been taught previously, and many of them tended to fire one shot into the belly and the rest into the upper torso rather than working their way up.

Rather than taping every shot after each string of fire, John has the students tape only the misses (those not within a six inch strip running up the middle of the target). Not only does this save time for most shooters, it also emphasizes that absolute precision is not the goal, just getting rounds within the target area.

After a few repetitions of the drill, John threw in a reload, followed by an additional burst. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, several of John’s students were working in New Orleans, and found that jettisoning the magazine into the murky depths during each reload quickly depleted their supply of available mags. Since then, John has moved to teaching students to retain magazines as the default, rather than dropping them.

When everyone was comfortable with the reload, we moved back and doubled the distance to fifteen yards. Despite the longer range most students were able to maintain the standard of accuracy. We then moved up to three yards and shot the drill one last time. At this range, the drill was pretty easy, and most students were able to increase their rate of fire and still get good hits. John’s philosophy on accuracy is that if you’re missing the six inch wide target zone with more than 10% of your shots, you’re probably shooting too fast. On the other hand, if you’re not missing about one shot in ten, you’re probably shooting too slow. The goal is a balance between speed and accuracy.

Remaining at 3 yards, we switched over to what John likes to call the “mother in law” drill. This is a hostage rescue scenario where the student has to put a shot through the nose of the target into the brainstem. This is the only part of the body that will produce an instantaneous stop. If someone has a hostage, holding a gun to their head or a knife to their throat, this is the kind of shot you need to make. However, the brain stem is a very small target (about the size of your thumb) buried deep within the skull. Particularly from the front, the skull is heavy enough to deflect pistol bullets away from a relatively small internal target like the brainstem. Given these difficulties, it’s very difficult to hit the brainstem of an active, moving target. To help cope with these difficulties, John recommends asking the hostage taker, “What do you want?” and waiting about two seconds for him to start considering the question. When he starts thinking, he’s probably going to stop moving and look at you, giving you a chance to take the brain stem shot.

To set this up as a drill, we drew some cartoony faces on the heads of cardboard targets. Students made the verbal challenge from a range of 3 yards, raised their pistols, and fired two shots at the nose. At this range, most students who were able to keep their shots inside the nose area if they took their time. Bad shots were generally a result of rushing and taking the shot too quickly. Some students also rushed to raise their pistol. Asking, “What do you want?” only works if you give the hostage taker a second or two to start thinking about it. Shooting immediately defeats the purpose.

After the hostage drill, we brought out the table and had the students lay their weapons out on it and shoot each weapon in turn. The prevalence of Glocks made this a bit less interesting than it might have otherwise been, but the SIG, XD, and 1911 lent some variety to the proceedings. This was also the first drill of the day we shot on the steel rotator targets rather than cardboard.

It was around this time that one of our students had to leave. His wife, over in Vicki’s class, wasn’t doing too well and he needed to take her to the hospital. She and her husband both rejoined us the next day after getting some IV fluids at the hospital. They couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong with her, but the most likely issues were dehydration and lack of food. Keeping fed and especially keeping hydrated are critical when training, even in the relatively cool South Carolina fall.

Once each student had shot all the other weapons, John had the instructors set up malfunctions in each of the pistols on the table. We set up empty chambers, stovepipes, and failures to extract. One of the things John emphasizes is clearing malfunctions without looking at or trying to diagnose them. Tap rack bang, and if that doesn’t work, lock, eject, rack, rack, rack, and reload.

Up until this point, all our drills had been exclusively handgun oriented, and at a distance of at least three yards. Since everyone had demonstrated fairly good gunhandling skills, John set up a more complex scenario involving close range shooting and alternative force. The student started off making a shot from retention at a cardboard target within arms length, then fired bursts at a more distant rotator target until he expended all the rounds in the magazine. With an empty gun, he was then confronted with another close range cardboard target. He used his pistol as an impact weapon, ramming its muzzle into the target’s head, then transitioned to his knife and stabbed the target in the stomach.

The students did fairly well on the shooting portion of his drill, but for most of them it was obviously their first experience with using the gun as an impact weapon, or deploying their knife in a defensive scenario. Every single student was carrying their knife on their strong side, requiring them to swap the pistol into their support side hand before beginning to draw the knife. Combined with the fact that they were all carrying folders, and were generally none too quick about deploying them) there was usually a substantial wait between the muzzle strike and the stabbing, more than enough time for the assailant to recover and start doing bad stuff to them. Having an alternative weapon on the support side, either a knife or back-up gun (or both) is a much better choice than having both on the strong side. If you’re going to carry a knife as a back-up weapon, practice deploying it, just like you practice drawing the handgun. If you need it, you’ll need it in a hurry.

One other thing I noticed during this drill was the limited amount of movement by most of the students. When we’re lined up shooting in relays, there are some obvious limits to the amount of movement each student can do; one or two steps to either side at most. In a drill like this, where only one student shoots at a time, there are much fewer restrictions, yet students were still only taking one or two steps in each direction when moving between strings. In order for movement to be useful, it needs to be rapid and dynamic, not a couple of lazy sidesteps. I think this may be an instance where range restrictions are translating into some bad training habits.

With the end of this drill, the light was fading and we moved on to our night shoot. John demonstrated the Harries technique and a modified version of the neck index that places the flashlight higher on the head. We started out shooting without flashlights, just using ambient light and the light from the “takedown mode” on John’s FirstLight Tomahawk (flashes the red and blue LEDs and strobes the main light in sequence). We had two rotators set up and students fired a burst at each of them, with movement in between. Then we broke out the lights and the students had a chance to try both methods before going through and shooting it a third time using the method of their choice. The biggest problem I noted was that some students had a hard time keeping the light on target. These lights are bright enough that you can usually see enough to shoot even if the brightest part of the beam isn’t pointed directly at the target, but that eliminates a lot of the light’s blinding potential. Lights are bullet magnets, so they should be used sparingly, but when they’re on, they needed to be pointed directly at the assailant’s face, to inhibit his ability to direct fire your way as much as possible.

Once everyone had shot with the flashlights, John broke out a couple of road flares to illuminate the targets and we set up the malfunction drills again. This time, it was downright impossible to diagnose the malfunctions by looking at them, demonstrating one of the reasons why John teaches clearing jams without trying to figure out what they are first.

This finished up the night shoot, so we packed up our gear and adjourned to a late dinner at an Italian restaurant near John’s hotel.

Sunday Morning
After another breakfast at Denny’s we all headed down to the range. This morning we got started with another iteration of the dry fire drill. After yesterday, most of the students had this down pat.

Following this, we all divested ourselves of any firearms, knives, OC, saps, or any other weapons for our force on force drills. Obviously, we don’t want anyone confusing a live gun for an airsoft, but it’s important to remove other weapons as well. After everyone laid their weapons out on the table, we did a pat-down of each person just to make sure nobody was carrying any dangerous implements.

For the first set of drills, rather than airsoft, the students were using fake blue guns. A few students had their own, and from John’s rather sizable collection we were able to get most students a pretty similar replica of their carry weapon. The only fellow that had to make do with a different make was the one shooting the SIG.

Once everyone had joined the rubber gun squad, we began some simple disengagement drills. John described some of the tactics potential assailants use to get you to stop and distract you: asking for directions or the time, or for help finding their child or pet. Sometimes they’ll run through a whole string of opening lines to see what catches your attention, then pick up on that subject for further conversations. The students paired up and one played a panhandler while the other tried to avoid engaging with them to give them a chance to practice their disengagement skills in a more free form environment. We started out with fairly passive panhandlers and simple verbal disengagement, “Sorry, I can’t help you.” One of the more interesting techniques John recommends is pointing down at the ground on one side of the panhandler and saying “uh-oh”, then bolting past him on the opposite side when he looks down to see what you’re pointing at. While this seems to be one level above “your shoelace is untied,” it can evidently be quite effective.

In the next drill, we had the panhandlers be a bit more persistent, prompting the other student to escalate their verbal disengagement, “Back off!” John recommends pointing at the potential assailant when you do this, so that any witnesses whose attention you attract are more likely to realize it’s you telling the panhandler to back off, rather than vice versa. He also recommends pointing with two fingers rather than just one to avoid giving the impression that you’ve just flipped him the bird.

Finally, we had the panhandler escalate the point of pulling a knife, prompting the student to draw. One of the things John discussed at this point were some strategies for engaging an assailant at close ranges like this: getting off the X at a forward angle (45 degrees to the right or left of the assailant) to create a lot of apparent motion and get on the assailant’s flank while drawing and shooting him. This is the kind of tactic I’ve learned before from Gabe Suarez and Randy Harris, but it seems to be spreading. The art progresses, and one of the ways you can tell the good trainers is they’re moving forward with it.

Sunday Afternoon
After lunch, we moved on to some more complex scenarios. In these drills, rather than pairing the students up, John’s assistant instructors served as the actors in the scenarios and we ran the students through one at a time. I have to say, this was a lot of fun. Enough fun that I didn’t really mind getting pelted with quite a few airsoft pellets over the course of the afternoon. However, one thing I always tried to keep the in mind that the objective was to help the students learn, rather than to show off my own skills.

Our first scenario was a straightforward application of the disengagement skills the students practiced during the morning. This time, however, the students faced three aggressive assailants instead of one. We tried to box the student in, trapping them. As we closed in, we got more aggressive, escalating our verbal interactions, and eventually flashing (but not drawing) a weapon. This scenario had some interesting lessons. At what point are you justified in shooting? Does it require seeing a gun, or is this group being sufficiently menacing to justify shooting them before the gun is seen. Who do you shoot first? The closest one? The one who showed a weapon? Different students took different approaches, with varying degrees of success. The most notable difference was that sduents who moved quickly and decisively to avoid being boxed in were the only ones who were able to prevent the situation from escalating.

One of the most interesting scenarios we did took place at a family reunion and had one instructor playing a suicidal distant relative, while the other two of us tried to talk him out of killing himself. As the scenario progressed, the suicidal became more and more agitated pointing the blue gun at the student and the other two relatives in addition to himself. Important to the setup was the idea that these folks were your relatives, but they weren’t close enough to automatically be people you’d risk your life or limb for. Students’ reactions ran the gamut from leaving the area and calling 911 to shooting the suicidal relative when he begins to point the gun at other people. The most effective reactions tended to be those that were the most decisive, whether it was leaving immediately, dragging the non-suicidal relatives away, or shooting the suicidal relative. One student performed a very nice covert draw before approaching, then raised the gun and shot the suicidal relative in the head at lightning speed the moment he started to point the gun at someone else. The students who dithered tended to be much less effective. Those who approached, but didn’t act or tried to talk to the suicidal relative, or who weren’t forceful in trying to move the other relatives to safety tended to end up looking down the muzzle of the blue gun before they were able to shoot. The difference between suicide and homicide can be as little as a flick of the wrist.

We also did a scenario that replicated the hostage shot from live fire yesterday. One instructor took another hostage in the classic, gun to the head pose, while the third instructor (me) ran around like a blithering idiot trying to distract the student and generally getting in the way. Some of the students ran into trouble with this one, either they never did the “What do you want?” bit and tried to take the shot as the hostage taker was moving. Others asked the question, but didn’t leave time for the hostage taker to think about it before firing, which kind of defeats the purpose. On the other hand, waiting too long for a shot could be just as bad, giving the hostage taker a chance to shoot you before you get him.

The next scenario was a bit more conventional: the student walks in on a robbery in progress and has to decide what to do about the situation. One instructor played the clerk getting held up, while the other two were robbers armed with a knife and gun respectively. Some students elected to simply walk away, deciding that whatever was going on here was none of their business. Those who elected to intervene had to decide on their tactical priorities, since the robber with the knife was closer, but still out of contact range. One ended up shooting both robbers and the clerk!

The last scenario was probably the most fun from the roleplaying perspective. The student needs to exit a narrow alley to go assist their wife or girlfriend with an automotive problem, but it is blocked by two brothers having a raging argument, who ignore any of the student’s requests to get by, while a third brother attempts to calm down the other two. If the student elects not to take action for a while one of the brothers eventually draws a knife and stabs the other.

In contrast to the other scenarios, the student wasn’t really in any direct jeopardy unless they injected themselves into the situation. The brothers are directing all their attention toward each other, totally ignoring the student. There’s no immediate danger, but there’s also no justification for using force to solve the problem. Some students elected to wait it out, perhaps calling the police. Others intervened after one brother stabbed the other. Some drew their weapon, perhaps on somewhat shaky legal ground. A few tried to rush past, one of them after drawing his weapon, which resulted in an attempted gun grab (which in turn led to him shooting all three brothers).

In all of the scenarios, John emphasized that there was no “School Solution” to any of these situations. Some courses of action may be more successful than others this time around, but that’s no guarantee that the same will hold true in the real world. The common threads were that decisive action almost always led to better results than dithering or tentative action. Sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing, or choose not to get involved, but that should be a deliberate choice, not the result of an inability to make up your mind.

The assistant instructors gave our assessment of the class and John gave his observations and provided a final wrap up. With that we packed up and many of us went out for a nice steak dinner before going our separate ways.

Overall, I think this was a great course. I’d definitely like to do some more firearms and self defense instruction in the future. As always, the best way to learn something is to teach it, and I think I may have gotten more out of this class than the students. I think the students got a lot out of the course to. Force on force training is a real eye opener, and scenario based training like this can make you think about stuff you may not have considered before. I really enjoyed assisting with the instruction and playing the opposing force during the scenarios. While none of them were complete novices coming in, I still saw lot of progress from some of them over the course of the class. If I have any regret about this class, it's that I wasn't able to spend much time with Vicki, since she was mostly busy with the ladies class. She's an excellent instructor and one I think I could learn a lot from both as a student, and as a fellow instructor. Hopefully, I’ll be able to assist again when John comes around next year. I would highly recommend this class, and indeed any of John and Vicki Farnam’s classes.


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