Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sage Dynamics Firearms Training: The Four Tenets of Weapon Retention

For those of you who have read my writing before, you know I come from a law enforcement by way of a military background.  I received fairly extensive weapons training while in the Army, but it was focused on direct action techniques, marksmanship and tactics.  It was not until I put on a badge as a police officer that I received training in true weapon retention.  Police officers have a long history of open carry, and the history of bad guys attempting to (and sometimes successfully) take their weapons is just as long.  

Sage Dynamics Firearms Training
All police officers receive weapon retention training as part of their academy and the lucky ones receive continuing education in weapon training at least annually after that. The techniques are simple and fairly effective, but suffer from the same problem as many lowest-common-denominator skill instructions; they are approved for mass consumption and sometimes designed to be graded, instead of grading on the design.  Without going into my personal experiences with the shortcomings of the weapon retention training I received, I can say that there were many positive effects of that training on my weapon retention skills despite some of the obvious “best case scenario” techniques I was taught.

When I became a trainer of cops myself, I pushed for more advanced weapon retention techniques training and was somewhat successful, though I still had many heated arguments with my management over what should be taught.  My first line supervisor was always supportive (almost, anyway) his boss, not so much. 

Now, teaching for Sage Dynamics, I am able to put out the best set of tools possible for weapon retention training to anyone willing to learn them.  What I realized pretty quickly was that there is not a lot of quality weapon retention training out there for the CCW shooter.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t any, because there are some awesome instructors teaching excellent material but they are in a minority.  Every firearms instructor should teach it, not all do.  From the martial arts world comes a wealth of knowledge that can be applied to hardcore, real world weapon retention but many martialists are not serious shooters so they either don’t want to or don’t think to cater to the CCW market.

The next problem I discovered is that there is a lack of desire for weapon retention training among some CCW shooters. I can think of many avid shooters who attend varied types of training regularly who have not pursued specific weapon retention training, but I can’t speak to their reasoning.  What I can say is that professional firearms training is important, and professional training in the retention of your weapon, being able to defend against someone trying to take your weapon, is just as important.

Just like many firearms skills, WR isn’t something you can learn from a DVD or an internet video.  Its hands on training, it’s physical and it’s probably a little hard.  None of those are reasons to avoid it.  In fact, I can’t think of a single good reason to not receive at least a basic level of WR training. But we all know that training can be cost prohibitive, time prohibitive and inconvenient to busy lives.  As an instructor, I want each and every person I reach to train with me but the fact that not all will is no excuse to not put good information out there.  As far as I am concerned, there are four basic tenants to weapon retention and we are going to cover them here. 

Situational Awareness
If you carry a firearm for self-defense and defense of your loved ones, you probably already have a healthy appreciation of situational awareness. Being aware of ones surroundings is so common to self-defense instruction that it is almost cliché. When it comes to weapon retention, situational awareness is all about having an acute respect for the fact that no matter where you go, no matter who you may get into an argument or altercation with, there is at least one live weapon involved.

We want to be aware of our surroundings to protect that weapon, but what exactly does that mean? By far the simplest skill to increase situational awareness is keeping your vision up and acknowledging anyone in which you make eye contact. Avoiding the growing habit of being lost in your smart phone while walking, or staring at the ground 3-4 feet in front of you as you walk goes far towards helping you see the world around you.  Keeping your eyes on the horizon and taking the opportunity to scan the world around you lets anyone paying attention know that you are paying attention.  Acknowledgement of anyone you make eye contact with is not only polite, but it lets them know you see them and if they mean you harm, they know it just got harder.

When you look, you need to actually see.  How many times have you glanced at your watch to check the time and then had to look again because you had no recollection of what you saw? Looking doesn’t equal seeing and you need to see.  Situational awareness does not require constant vigilance, because no one can maintain a heightened sense of alert for an extended period of time without suffering substantial fatigue.  Rather, situational awareness is seeing the world and adjusting your behavior accordingly.

Recognizing potential dangerous situations and avoiding them if possible.  Situational awareness is also adjusting how you move in the world to provide the best vantage point possible.  From sitting facing the primary entrance in public places to giving all corners a wide berth so you can “pie” your way around as you walk. If you carry openly or wear a cover garment that may allow your weapon to print, be aware of anyone paying attention to your weapon.  It may be simple curiosity, or that person may have a criminal intent.

Seated Draw

Of course an entire article alone (actually, a book) can be written on this topic alone but these are some basics that go into SI in regards to weapon retention.  Any good course on weapon retention is going to provide you with a wealth of knowledge and a few techniques for situational awareness alone.

Posture is all about how you carry yourself, and how you position yourself in relation to others.  The most common skill beat into the heads of aspiring police officers is the “Field Interview Stance,” which is simply blading your body so your weapon is away from the person you are talking to, your hands are kept near the waist (not in pockets) and you maintain a 6 foot gap between you and the person you are interacting with.  The most socially unrealistic part of the FI Stance is the 6 foot gap.  Every culture has a different personal bubble, a distance at which they wish to keep strangers. In the US that distance is around 4 feet (In cultures from traditionally dense populations, that public comfort zone is often smaller due to a greater exposure to close contact or due to different social behaviors and traditions).  That extra 2 feet may not seem like much, but it’s very noticeable to an observer and can make an individual defensive if they feel you don’t want them getting closer. We also have to take into account that often we are forced by circumstances and habits to be closer than 4-6 feet to total strangers.

When I rode a train to work 5 days a week, I would put my weapon side against the wall because I had half a dozen or more random strangers within arm’s reach of me.  Grocery lines, movie lines, restaurants, sidewalk traffic; all can place people well within that 4-6 foot reaction zone we would otherwise like to maintain, which is where the second part of posture comes in and situational awareness is very important.  Own the ground you stand on. Awareness goes far towards letting those around you know that you see them.  Eye contact and acknowledgement, even though a simple head nod or smile is disarming and informing; body posture factors into this as well.

The majority of human communication is non-verbal (as much as 80% of communication is non-verbal, especially on first encounters, see The Definitive Book of Body Language, The Concise Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science) If you are attentive, people notice.  If you are confident in eye contact, people notice. 2-4 seconds of solid eye contact, even without an affirming gesture such as a smile or a nod, goes far towards projecting confidence. If you carry openly, this is perhaps the most useful tool for dissuading a potential grab.  Your personal appearance also goes far towards protecting you.  If you look professional even when you are casual, from the clothes you choose to your physical shape, you won’t be mistaken for a soft target.

Verbalization is very important in situations where you realize someone is looking at your weapon.  It lets them know you see them, and if you want to be specific, exactly what you see them doing.  In law enforcement, a suspect eyeing a duty weapon is called a “target glance” and it is usually followed with a “scan” of the surroundings by the possible bad guy as they formulate a possible plan.  It can be subtle and easily missed but it’s important to verbalize when your weapon becomes the object of undue attention.  Something as simple as a “Can I help you?” can go far towards breaking a person’s nerve or concentration in a general public setting and if you find yourself in any sort of argument or altercation, a cautionary warning can aid in diffusing a potential grab, from “what are you  looking at?”  to as simple “don’t” may be just enough to avoid a fight for your weapon.

Body positioning is also important.  Blade your weapon-side away from those you interact with in public and be mindful of where you put your hands.  The first physical step towards protecting against an attempt on your weapon is going to be free hands, pointedly, your weapon hand.  Developing the habit of keeping your primary hand free and near the waist as often as possible, goes far towards being able to defend your weapon faster.

Deep Cover Rig
Your holster is more than just a place to hold your weapon.  By design, it can aid in concealment (which helps in weapon retention) and/or provide active retention devices in the design that would make it more difficult for someone to get the weapon free.  If you carry concealed, you are probably like me and forego an active retention device in exchange for the protection offered by suitable concealment.

If you open carry, by choice or occupation, you need to have a retention holster.  There is simply no excuse for carrying a firearm in public openly without some level of active retention.  Be it Serpa, Safariland or some other popular model/maker, find something that works, is operated easily and can be relied upon in a struggle.  If you are in doubt, test it.  I cannot count how many paddle, cheap injection molded plastic, shoddy leather and garbage nylon holsters I have been able to literally rip off of a belt without even trying to free the weapon first.  When it comes to actual retention devices, if it involves velco, I wouldn’t bet my life on it.  Level II is good, level III is better but risk versus reward sees many of us avoid level III.

No Retention Open Carry is Asking for Trouble
Carry a knife, at least one, and carry it on your support side.  This is a necessity.  If someone gets their hands on your weapon, a sharp piece of metal can go a long way towards making them rethink their life choices, mainly by way of surgically removing or hindering their physical ability to grasp objects.  All the adrenaline in the world can’t maintain a grip when the extensor digitorum tendons have been severed.  As long as your choice in knife can be opened with one hand and quickly, brand is only important for your desire in quality.  I carry an Emerson due to the fact that it has Emerson’s Wave feature, which catches on the pocket edge when drawn, opening the knife.  Spiderco also offers knives with the Emerson wave feature.  Of course there are plenty of solid fixed blade options out there as well.

Choose a good belt, one made for the carry of a firearm and put some thought into your cover garments (if you carry concealed).  Loose is good, but too loose or too long can complicate your draw.

Skill may be the last of the four tenants, but it is by no means the least important. Weapon retention skill is part intuitive, part need for common sense professional instruction. Next to running out of ammunition when lives are still at risk, having my own weapon used against me or my loved ones after I failed to retain it during a struggle is a healthy fear of mine. I could offer some technique advice, but print is not really the medium to best supplement your practice and may not help motivate you to pursue training in retention.  What I can say in regards to skill is that weapon retention training and practice is just as important as marksmanship skills.  Physical fitness plays a part in this.  Even with good “mat techniques” for weapon retention, your body can only fight for so long at its peak before you begin to suffer debilitating losses of energy and mental acuity.

Even someone in excellent cardiovascular strength can expect little more than 30 seconds of optimum performance in a physical struggle against an opponent.  This isn’t the same as sparring, or boxing or wrestling, it’s a fight for life and your caveman brain knows that. Your Sympathetic Nervous System will activate and burn through its energy stores in short order. The better your physical shape, the more shallow your physical performance decline will be.  If you think that sheer will alone can get your through a fight for your weapon, you may be right but there is little to gain in expecting that outcome when you can take positive steps in your fitness regimen now so that when it does happen, you are far better prepared.

You don’t have to run out and become a black belt, or take up MMA (not that it would hurt) but you do need to put as much thought into fitness and retention training as you do weapon selection and gear.  Instructors who specialize in retention training are not as common as strict firearms instructors, though there are plenty of them out there and all it takes is a bit of research and a sound investment to help you gain the skill needed to protect your weapon against a grab.

There is also good reason to practice disabling your weapon to prevent it from being used against you in the event that you begin to lose a struggle, or face more than one opponent.  If the recent rash of “knockout game” events have taught us anything, it’s that random attacks can happen and they are not always motivated by criminal profit. If a situation such as this devolves into a fight and the presence of your weapon is known, being able to disable your weapon before it is taken from you can be the difference between a physical fight and being shot with your own weapon.

Above all, take weapon retention seriously and think hard on how you are already prepared to defend against a grab, and then add to it.  There is no such thing as enough training or enough practice.   Putting holes in paper is but a small part of total weapon skill.  Train accordingly.  

Aaron Cowan is the Lead Instructor for Sage Dynamics, a reality-focused firearms and tactics training company that provides practical instruction from the fundamentals to advanced skills for the civilian, police and military professional.  Aaron served in the US Army as an Infantryman,  as a private security contractor overseas and as a police officer.  In addition to patrol he worked as a a SWAT team member, SWAT deputy team commander, SWAT sniper, sniper section leader and in-service police training officer.  Aaron holds multiple professional certifications including the National Rifle Association Law Enforcement Division’s instructor training program, California POST certified academy instructor, Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Active Shooter Response Instructor and Simunitions Scenario Instructor among others. When he isn't teaching or training, hes writes semi-regular for Recoil (web) and Breach Bang Clear among others."

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