Handguns Self Defense

Combative Pistol

Here is my rather lengthly after action report of the Combative Pistol course I recently attended. This class is a must for anyone who owns a gun for self defense. It will level you up and change the way you think about self defense.

I recently attended and successfully completed the Combative Pistol course offered by Rangemaster Firearms Training Services (RFTS) hosted by KR Training. It was exhausting, it was intense, and worth every penny and second invested. Before getting into the after action report, I want to provide what my expectations were going into it and then I’ll get into what I got out of it.

I previously mentioned one of my goals for 2020 was to attend three training courses in addition to Gabe White’s Pistol Shooting Solutions course. During the registration process for Gabe White’s course, I was asked about my shooting experience and prior training as it’s not intended to be the first pistol course one attends even with some experience. While I had prior training (about 12 hours of pistol training and 4 hours of carbine training), the Combative Pistol course with Tom Givens was highly recommended as an intensive course to ensure my pistol skills were ready for Gabe White’s course. Given the recommendation came directly from Karl Rehn, owner of KR Training and a well respected instructor, I decided to register for and attend the Combative Pistol course.

While I had previously heard of Tom Givens and RFTS, both of which I already held in high regard given the reputation held by several firearm instructors I know, I was a bit skeptical that I would get much out of the class. My skepticism came from previously received instruction that covered similar topics and a year of participation in local IDPA competitions. Even though I was a bit skeptical, I still thought it would be a good investment and expected it to provide a thorough review of fundamental pistol skills, help me identify skill deficiencies to improve, and maybe even level up a few skills that I’m already pretty good at.

The Combative Pistol course is a 16 hour course split into two days that covers the following skills:

– Rapid presentation from concealed carry
– Effective gun handling techniques, designed to work under stress
– Rapid reloading techniques
– High speed accuracy at close ranges
– Precision shooting at mid-ranges
– Shooting effectively with one hand, with either hand
– Fixing malfunctions rapidly and reliably
– Proper defensive mindset, personal tactics, and more.

Taken directly from the Combative Pistol course description

Let’s talk about Tom Givens for a second. If you haven’t heard of him, as I had, before meeting him, then your first impression may be just a friendly and fun mild mannered guy with a good sense of humor who likes to share plenty of stories from his life experience colored with an f-bomb here and there. On paper, Tom has an extensive list of certifications as a firearms instructor, plenty of relevant experience from his 25 year long law enforcement career, and topped off with extensive experience as a firearms instructor as well. Thing is it’s one thing to look good on paper, it’s a very different thing to walk the walk.

In the classroom, Tom’s qualifications become evident from the get go. He takes a no nonsense approach to his teaching style and delivers an endless array of sayings to help the student remember the important stuff and backs everything with stories from his experience, a thorough collection of facts, and more statistics and data than I can describe. Golden nuggets of knowledge were abundant and I’m certain I missed and forgot about 80% of them. Thankfully, he provided a small workbook that highlighted several important points that students took home with them. Tom used some videos and visual aids to help get the lessons across to the students. It was a real pleasure and privilege to listen to Tom.

On the range, Tom was very well organized and ran a tight ship. The entire class hustled the entire time. However, the pace wasn’t grueling or taxing. It was just fast enough to make sure instruction was maximized and time wasn’t wasted. Tom was cognizant and aware of students physical and mental exhaustion and provided plenty of breaks to allow the students to rehydrate and recover just enough before getting back to it. One of the most impressive things was witnessing Tom demonstrate the precision and speed that students can achieve if they are willing to put in the work. Again, Tom walked the walk by displaying masterful pistol handling skills and gave every student something concrete and achievable they could aspire to confidently if they put in the effort.

Inevitably, folks end up asking what gear I used for the course. So here it is:

I estimate that we spent about 20% of the course in the classroom and 80% at the range.

Day 1

Day one started in the classroom. After Tom introduced himself, he made it a point that one of the main goals of this course is to get students thinking correctly about gun fighting. He made it clear that while mechanics are important, mechanical skills must be high so that during a fight for one life the defender can focus on thinking about executing tactics. In other words during a gunfight, the defender should be thinking about how to get themselves and those you care about out of the situation alive, rather than trying to figure out how to work the gun.

Shortly after the introduction and goal setting, we dove straight into the four principles of safe gun handling. One of the things that I took away from this is that there are two key disciplines that ensure safe gun handling:

  1. Muzzle discipline
  2. Trigger finger discipline

Safety was followed by covering several pistol shooting aspects like grip, sight picture, trigger control, and follow through. The emphasis was placed on the most important aspect: trigger control. We talked a bit about the accepted truth that pistols are inherently less accurate than rifles. Asking people why this is true results in some common answers such as a longer sight plane or a longer barrel. However, Tom pointed out that to shoot a rifle one applies 2-3 pounds of pressure to a trigger attached to an 8 pound tool. Whereas with a pistol, one applies 5-8 pounds of pressure to the trigger of a tool that weighs less than 2 pounds. This means that the pistol is always going to move when the trigger is pressed. So trigger control is absolutely the most important aspect to get right in order to achieve fast accurate acceptable hits.

Throughout the day, Tom came back to mindset and mental preparedness.

Range time started with some presentation drills from concealment using a cleared firearm. I took away a couple of important things from this drill. First, a rapid robust skill is critical. Yes, we want to be fast. But in a deadly encounter, we can’t afford a screw up. A screw up can result in losing the fight. This made me change how I defeated my concealment garment, a t-shirt. Up until then, I had been using my strong side thumb to begin clearing the garment while using my support hand pulled the shirt up. This method minimized the distance my strong hand moved before gripping the gun which shaved a tiny fraction of a second from my presentation time. However, sometimes I fumbled it which resulted in either a poor grip or a slower draw. The improved version used both hands to pull the t-shirt up to armpit level before my strong hand moves back down to clear the grip. Yes, it’s a bit slower but it resulted in much more consistent grip and virtually no fumbled garment clearing.

The second thing I took away from the presentation drill was that unless I need to draw and immediately shoot, the presentation should go to a low ready position. This has a couple of important benefits. First, it increases my field of view so I can see more of my target (like the hands) and allows for a less obstructed view of the surrounding environment which aids in being able to see more of the backstop (like bystanders). The next benefit is a legal benefit. Flagging a person who doesn’t need to be shot is generally a felony in all states. Making it a habit to go to the low ready position can minimize one’s legal liability in an encounter.

We ran a few other drills with the cleared firearm. One drill was going from low ready with an indexed trigger finger to on target while taking out the slack from the trigger and the reverse. This again reinforced good muzzle and trigger finger disciplines.

The last drill with the cleared firearm was a trigger press. Rather than doing this the traditional way with a good sight picture, we rotated the gun where we could observe the trigger as we pressed it. The idea here is that the brain is much better at recognizing patterns through using our sight rather than just hearing and touch alone.

Live fire drills occurred mostly from the three yard line on a RFTS branded target that resembled an IALEFI Q training target. These targets provide an 8 inch chest vital zone, a 4 inch head box, and a 2 inch precision target. The targets used in class provided the same target areas but included an additional 2 inch precision target to the left of the head box. The drills varied the starting position from either concealment or low ready. Other variations included strong hand only or support hand only from the low ready, but most of the work was with two hands from concealment. Some drills and tests included shots taken all the way back about the 15 yard line and at different ranges between the 3 and the 15 yard lines.

Rangemaster 2017 Q target

During this first range session, I made several gear changes to better keep up with the pace of the class and deal with some discomfort. Details about those changes are available in this other post.

We broke for lunch and returned back to the classroom where Tom covered some very sombre case studies which emphasize the fact that most deadly encounters are over long before first responders arrive. Those who are not prepared to fight back will find themselves at the mercy of the attacker and that does not bode well. This led to further discussion about mindset and keeping gun fighting tools on your person at all times.

Tom’s experience in investigations and other research shows that victim’s last thought before losing consciousness in a fight fall into three categories: the majority fall into those whose final thoughts were those of disbelief that this was actually happening to them, a small group is comprised on those who were struggling with the decision to fight back, and the smallest group was those who were thinking about how to stay alive. I inferred from the data and discussion that victims who did not survive would probably also fall into those three groups in similar proportions. The key here is that those who win deadly encounters, meaning they survived and the attacker did not escape (or survive), tend to be those folks who had personally made the decision to fight back before being in an encounter. In those encounters, the defenders are focused on how to survive rather than trying to decide whether they or not to fight back.

Afterwards, we got back out on the range and ran more drills. One of those drills was the Parrot Drill. I don’t recall exactly if this drill was introduced before or after lunch, but that’s not really relevant. The drill consisted of drawing from concealment, placing 2 shots in the 8-inch target quickly, 2 shots in the 4-inch target carefully, and 2 shots in the 2-inch target precisely. This drill was similar to one of the drills introduced in the Tactical Pistol and Rifle course I attended at the end of 2019. The point of the drill is to establish the necessary shot cadence to achieve acceptable hits at similarly sized targets at different distances. As distance between the defender and the target increases, the defender needs to employ a more refined sight picture and better trigger control to achieve a good hit. Generally, this means we need to slow down. The closer the threat is the more a defender needs to hustle, thankfully less precision is required so a coarser sight picture and slightly less than perfect trigger control is sufficient.

At some point we also worked on emergency reload drills. Emphasis was placed on using an overhand technique, rather than the slide lock/release, to release the slide after a loaded magazine was inserted. The idea here is to develop a robust technique that will work with any pistol. Like my take away from the presentation drills at the beginning of the day, using the slide lock/release to release the slide may shave a fraction of a second or two, but it is also more likely to be fumbled especially if the pistol used is different than the one normally used for training and practice. This didn’t require me to change anything as I tend to prefer an overhand technique for IDPA competitions since I like to use different guns from time to time.

We ended the day with a scored and timed qualification course of fire that consisted of several strings and a total of 140 rounds. I don’t recall the exact course of fire but it tested everything we had covered. Most of the strings started from concealment and a couple from the low ready position. It covered changing cadences, two handed shooting, one handed shooting with both hands, and emergency reloads. The distance to the target covered different ranges from as little as three yards up to about fifteen yards. I scored 181 points out of a possible 200.

The day was hot and humid. At the end of the day, I was dehydrated and slightly sunburnt even though I drank a lot of water and liberally applied sunblock often. Almost everything I included in my training load out was used with the exception of lead wipes, the folding chair, and the canopy as those things were provided. While I didn’t make use of my spare gun, another student used their spare gun due to a recoil spring breaking. Another student had a screw come loose from their holster. The two things I will add to my training load out based on what I learned are: electrolyte replenishment and kinesiology tape (both of which I used on day two to help fight dehydration and deal with blisters that started to form on my strong hand).

Total round count for day one was about 350 rounds.

Day 2

The course started in the classroom on the second day where Tom covered two different case studies. Both were very different and illustrated several important points. One case study highlighted the need to throw away any stereotype we may have about what an attacker looks like and work more on identifying strange behaviors and start to pay attention to those exhibiting those behaviors to determine whether or not and which previously identified tactics will be employed in defense when needed. Otherwise if an attacker that doesn’t fit the stereotype begins an attack, then the defender will spend precious time overcoming the stereotype before beginning their defensive response. The result of that delay can be deadly as evidenced in the case study.

The other case study, the infamous 1986 Miami FBI shootout, highlighted the importance of maintaining a high level of skill with your tools and multiple acceptable hits are likely to be required to neutralize a threat. In this case study most of the FBI agents involved were wounded and a couple perished. The most surprising thing to me was that early in the fight one agent fired 6 shots and missed with 5 of them. The one hit did not take the suspect out of the fight. Maintaining a high level of skill is important so that under stress one is able to get acceptable hits, acceptable meaning hits in the vital zone which are essential to neutralizing a threat. Every other hit is unacceptable because it will either wound the attacker without neutralizing them or hit an unintended target. A single acceptable hit may not be sufficient to end the encounter as a result we have to be ready to continue cycle of getting a taking up slack while acquiring a sight picture, pressing the trigger, resetting the trigger, and again taking up slack while acquiring the sight picture again until the target is neutralized or feeling the scene.

We also discussed the survival rate of a gunshot wound is much higher than most people realize (mostly due to unacceptable hits). Furthermore, it’s important to realize that chances are one is likely to take a bullet in a deadly encounter. After all, it’s a gunfight. The point is to be mentally prepared with the knowledge that while one is likely to take a hit in a gunfight, one is also likely to survive that hit as long as one continues to do so while one remains conscious and has a working gun with ammunition.

At the range, we started again with some presentation drills using a cleared firearm. We then proceeded to work on the parrot drill again. Shortly after a variation of the parrot drill was introduced. This variation called for 2 shots on the 8 inch target, 2 shots on the 4 inch target, 2 shots on the 2 inch target, 2 shots the other 2 inch target, 2 shots on the 4 inch target, and 2 shots on the 8 inch target. This made the drill a bit more difficult.

At some point around here we took a lunch break and went back out to range following the break.

The second half of the day started with a few more scored and timed courses of fire. The first was called the 5 second round up. This course of fire consisted of five strings from a distance of 5 yards with a par time of 2.5 seconds on a B-8 target. Any hits outside the 8 ring count as a miss. Shots fired after the par time count as a miss as well. The strings of fire are as follows:

  • From concealment, draw and fire 1 round
  • From low ready, fire 4 rounds
  • From low ready strong hand only, fire 3 rounds
  • From low ready support hand only, fire 2 rounds

The rings represent the value of the hit. Perfect score is 100 points (10 hits in the 10 ring within the time limit). If one is shooting perfect scores consistently, the difficulty can be increased by either reducing the par time or increasing the distance.

I scored 84 out of a hundred. Tom awarded a challenge coin to the top scoring student. The award went to a student who scored 98 (if memory serves me well). An additional challenge coin was awarded to Lynn Givens, Tom’s wife, who scored a 99 after recently recovering from a wrist injury that prevented her from shooting for close to a year. While Lynn was not a student in the class, the score was rather impressive given the length of time off due to the injury.

Lynn Givens accepting the 5 Yard Round Up challenge coin

One really nice thing about this drill is that it can be shot cold at the beginning of a range practice session to help one determine what to focus on. For example, I missed both shots when shooting with the support hand only which means this is something I really need to work on.

Another golden nugget of knowledge Tom dropped is that recent research suggests that shorter more frequent practice (or training) is much better at raising and maintaining skill level than longer less frequent practice. While it seems that going to the range once a week and shooting 50 rounds per session is equivalent to going to the range every other week and shooting 100 rounds per session would be equivalent, the former is actually significantly better. The 5 yard round up is a great way to spend only 10 rounds and help to prioritize the remaining 40 rounds for those short and frequent range sessions.

The next course of fire we shot is called the 5 Second Standards. This course consists of four strings of fire with a par time of 5 seconds. The scoring system is exactly the same as the 5 Yard Round Up. The strings are as follows:

  • At 5 yards draw from concealment, fire 5 rounds with both hands
  • At 5 yards from low ready strong hand only, fire 5 rounds
  • At 5 yards from low ready support hand only, fire 5 rounds
  • At 10 yards from low ready with both hands, fire 5 rounds

Perfect score on this course of fire is 200 points. Difficulty can be increased in the same manner as the 5 yard round up, by reducing the par time or increasing the distance.

I scored 162 out of 200. I struggled mostly on the support hand only string and the string from 10 yards.

We then moved on to yet another scored course of fire. I didn’t catch the name of it, but it consisted of firing 5 rounds from 5 yards a 3×5 inch playing card. This is a pass or fail course of fire. To pass, all five shots have to be in the card. Apparently, this was the method used to determine whether or not candidates for law enforcement positions had a “fair hand” with a pistol. Tom gave use the option to shoot this course of fire from concealment or from low ready. I shot from the concealment and failed.

The next drill we worked was the casino drill. This drill uses a Discretionary Command Training target, which is available in a few different variations. The target consists of six 4-inch numbered targets with different shapes and colors. This drill is shot from 5 yards using 3 magazines loaded with 7 rounds each and has a par time of 21 seconds. The drill consists of one string where the participant draws from concealment, shoots each target in numerical order, and fires the number of rounds equivalent to the target’s number before moving on to the next target. So the first target gets one round, the second target gets two rounds, and so on. This drill will also require two additional reloads. Every round that doesn’t hit a shape adds 1 second to the total time. After shooting it once or twice, it’s pretty easy to remember the shooting order and where the reloads occur. However, this can be changed by randomizing the distribution of the 21 rounds in the 3 magazines and shuffling them before placing them in a magazine pouch. Furthermore, we can increase the difficulty by changing the shooting order from ascending to descending, shooting odds first and then evens, etc.

We then proceeded to work on clearing malfunctions. The clearing process was simple: 1) tap the magazine to ensure it is seated property, 2) using an overhand grip rack the slide while adding a clockwise rotation to ensure a double feed isn’t introduced (due to a failure to eject), 3) bang. The overhand grip was stressed to make sure the rack was aggressive enough to clear either the failure to fire or failure to eject malfunction and get back into the fight consistently.

The day was closed out with the same qualification course shot at the end of day one. I did a little better and scored 188 out of 200.

The weather on this day was overcast in the mid 80s and a lot less humid than the day before. I wasn’t as dehydrated at the end of the day as the prior day which I attribute to drinking 32 ounces of Gatorade between every 2-4 half liter bottles of water. However, I ended up more sub burnt than the previous day. While I applied sunblock several times, I didn’t do it as often.

In terms of equipment, I used an IWB holster throughout the day. I made this decision in the morning after having thought about how I wanted to train like I would fight in a deadly encounter overnight. Truth is I carry a pistol in an IWB holster on my strong side more often than any other way by a large margin. I figured I would get more out of the second day by working through the discomfort of the IWB holster and I think I made the right choice. Yes, the gun got hot and was uncomfortable, but it never got painful. I did find that my strong hand started getting hot spots and exhausted faster than using an OWB holster. The hot spots were prevented from turning into blisters by wrapping/covering them with kinesiology tape.

Total round count for the day was about 300 rounds. This brought the round count for the entire course to about 650 rounds.

Final Thoughts

I went into this class with relatively low expectations. However, I got much more out of this class than I expected. While the class is serious and some of the discussions are sombre at times, as it should be since surviving a deadly encounter is a seriously grave matter, it is fun, and well worth the money. In fact, I plan on taking this class again next year (assuming it’s offered again) because I’m certain I didn’t retain everything it offered.

I’ve made it a point to participate in IDPA to improve my defensive pistol skills. However, at the same time I’ve improved my skills from watching other competitors and taking some of the advice they provided. The result of that is that I built up some habits that are better suited for competition where the cost of failure is a bad stage or a lower than desired final score, but suboptimal for defensive use where the cost of failure is much more permanent. Simply put, I got way more in terms of mechanics that I had expected.

What I took away in terms of mindset was enormous and unexpected. It’s not that I have thought about it and prepared mentally for the encounter. However, I haven’t been as deliberate, precise, or as thorough in clearly articulating my reasoning to myself (and others) and thinking through tactical scenarios. This is something that I am already working on and will continue to do so. Frankly, I want to be as prepared as I can both mentally, physically, and skillfully as I can should I ever find myself in a deadly encounter.

Other previously learned lessons were also reinforced. For example, I am well aware that gun handling skills are perishable. While I have done some dry practice in 2020, I haven’t done nearly as much as I could have. This is entirely my fault, I got complacent and lazy. Additionally, I’ve had almost zero range time over the past three or four months. This was very evident in how I performed in the drills and how sloppy my presentation was. While I’m happy that I spent time working on finding the RMR dot on the VP9, that wasn’t nearly enough to maintain my skill level. As Tom pointed out, reaching and maintaining a high level of skill depends on recency and repetition.

I loved this class. Tom is an amazingly skilled, knowledgeable, experienced, and effective instructor. Honestly, I highly recommend the Combative Pistol class and encourage anyone who owns a pistol for self defense to take this class. Even if you think you already have a high level of skill, this class will level up your skills and change the way you think about self defense. RFTS offers this course and several others throughout the USA. I really hope that my wife joins me next time I take this class.

As I mentioned, the Combative Pistol class I attended was hosted by KR Training. While this was my first time at their A-Zone Range, I was very impressed. The facilities and range are well maintained. The staff was thoughtful, kind, and professional. They also have an impeccable safety record. They offer a multitude of firearms courses throughout the year in addition to the Combative Pistol course and host courses taught by several other national trainers like Massad Ayoob and Caleb Causey. Interestingly enough, KR Training has more Rangemaster “Master Instructor” graduates than any other firearms school in the country with the exception of Rangemaster Firearms Training Services. I will be back at KR Training soon to attend their Red Dot Pistol Essentials course and then again later in the year to take Gabe White’s Pistol Shooting Solutions course.


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