Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What Is Proficiency

We hear about it all the time: proficiency.

You need to be proficient with your firearm.

But what does that mean? How does one ever know he or she is proficient? Is there a set number of rounds one has to shoot before he or she is considered proficient? A number of times each week they must practice? Is there a proficiency standard? And if there is a standard, who has set it and why? How proficient is proficient enough? And enough for what?

So that no one gets confused about what I mean when I pull out the word "proficient" let's start with the Webster definition:
"Competent or skilled in doing something or using something"
And competent means having the necessary skill, knowledge or ability to do something successfully.

You want to know if you have the necessary skill, knowledge and ability to use and shoot a firearm, if you are proficient enough to move on to an intermediate class or maybe to a shooting sport like IDPA. There are lots of levels of proficiency that are stated as requirements for certain intermediate or advanced classes and if you cannot meet those requirements then obviously you are not skilled enough for those classes but many brand new shooter do not even know when they are ready to take the next baby step unless expressly told to take it by instructors or pushed there by the natural progression of certain shooting courses.

For a very basic level shooter I break proficiency down into two parts: gun handling and shooting.

While they are directly related to one another I do not consider them the same thing. One can have outstanding gun handling but not be able to hit a fraction of their targets. Likewise, one can be a very good shot but have terrible gun handling. One must be proficient in both in order to progress. And progression is the goal. Right?

Gun handling is considered any necessary handling of a firearm up to and including firing it. This includes drawing from the holster, returning the firearm to the holster, the general attitude when holding the firearm, trigger finger discipline, the ability to abide by safety rules and administrative handling.

Shooting is the act of firing rounds at a specific target and the steps included therein--stance, grip, sight alignment, trigger press, follow through.

Many people think that the shooting part is most important. It isn't. The shooting part is relatively easy compared to gun handling. Where new shooters often struggle is gaining proficiency in gun handling and I have been known to stall entire classes until I see all of my students exhibiting proficient gun handling before allowing them to progress with their shooting. I see no point in continuing allowing my students to fire shots downrange when they cannot holster their firearm safely or keep their finger off the trigger when not shooting or keep their firearm pointed in a safe direction during magazine changes.

How do you know you have proficient gun handling?

1. You respect a firearm as a deadly weapon and treat it as such.
If you pick up a firearm it is for a purpose and if you don't have a purpose for touching it you leave it alone. You do not play games with firearms that do not involve purposeful shooting.
2. You take responsibility for every action you take with a firearm.
If handed a firearm you know how to check it and do so safely. You do not allow outside pressures to influence you to do something you know to be negligent or unsafe.
3. You know and can follow the four rules of gun safety.
No one has to tell you to keep your finger off the trigger or to watch your muzzle (especially during reloads, holstering, drawing, etc).
4. You know the parts of your firearm and can use the functions with relative ease.
You know the difference between your safety (if your firearm is equipped with one) and your slide stop and you don't confuse the two. You know what the take-down levels are for and how to use them.
5. You can maintain your own firearm.
You can take it apart and clean it adequately.

If you still aren't sure if you are a proficient gun handler, have someone (preferably an instructor) watch you shoot. If he or she has to tell you to watch your muzzle or your trigger finger or be careful about where you point your firearm during reloads or to be more careful with the way you hold your gun when you reholster, then no, you are not a proficient gun handler yet. Don't disparage. Keep practicing and get better!

How do you know you are a proficient shooter?

This one is simple and here it is:

1. You can hit what you're aiming at consistently and in a timely manner.
It's that simple. If you can align the sights of your firearm, press the trigger and know where the bullet is going to impact and see an impact there (while exhibiting good gun handling) you are on your way. A proficient shooter is not surprised when he or she hits his or her intended target. Additionally, many times he or she is not surprised when a shot is thrown. A proficient shooter can generally feel a bad shot and predict where the impact will be without even looking at the target.

That being said, it's entirely understandable when new shooters get excited by accurate shots. It is exciting to do something new and to do it well. But when new shooters throw a shots and are asked, "Okay, what did you do different that time?" and they says, "I don't know," they are demonstrating their lack of proficiency. A proficient shooter will tell you, "I jerked the trigger... I flinched... I forgot my follow-through." A proficient shooter knows the fundamentals and how to apply them as well as when they forgot them.

That doesn't mean those fundamentals are perfectly mastered and that there are no errors or work to be done, but the fundamentals are there. It doesn't mean one is never confused about an error that suddenly pops up that they can't immediately diagnose, especially as they attempt new distances and speeds or switch to a new firearm.

This picture was taken exactly one month after my 21st birthday. It's one of my first targets
before I took any additional gun classes past the basics class. Note the self-diagnostic note to myself.
There is no magical round count that makes a shooter proficient. There is no magical number of range visits or classes. I have had proficient basic shooters in as little as one hour. As one of my students put it, "I don't see what all the fuss is about. You just aim and press the trigger." In as little as a few magazines she could tell me how to shoot well and could tell when she messed up and why. I've also seen individuals shoot daily for months and never gain in accuracy or be able to tell me what he's doing right or wrong. Each individual is different and learns at a different pace.

If you aren't there yet, that's okay! Take a class with someone who is good at teaching beginners and diagnosing shooting errors. If you're struggling with gun handling, do dry fire practice in a safe place being exceptionally conscious of muzzle and trigger finger awareness. If you're having a recurring issue, seek help. Very few shooting issues are are solved by simply throwing ammo at them. It often takes reworking of the basics and feeling what is working and what is not.

Some will disagree with me and say that my standard of proficiency is far too low. When I started looking at what I would base my standard on I started seeing that while lots of people will opine about what makes one proficient in this venue or at that task does not tell someone they are ready to even attempt those skills. So I thought about what I would consider an a minimum baseline of firearms proficiency.

Now allow me to remind you that this is proficiency at an extremely basic level. This is what I would expect to see from a student coming out of a basic pistol class or enrolling in an intermediate class with no specified requirement of proficiency.

This does not mean you are proficient in gun fighting and the laws thereof. This does not mean you are proficient in combat. This does not mean you are proficient at moving and shooting. This does not mean you are proficient in extreme close quarters gun fighting or partner tactics, or shooting from unusual positions, or shooting one handed or shooting moving targets, or shooting moving targets while moving, or room clearing, or shooting from or at vehicles, articulating why you chose to do what you did, etc, etc, etc.

In other words, this does not automatically make you a gunfighter. (Here's a secret for you. I don't consider myself a gunfighter, either.)

Don't get ahead of yourself. Just because you passed a basic safety course doesn't mean you know all there is to know about shooting, particularly defensive shooting. But don't get too discouraged either. The first step is often the hardest and once you've become proficient at gun handling and basic shooting, the other skills can be added, sometimes quite quickly.

If you wonder if you're ready to advance, take a look at your gun handling and shooting. Take a look at the classes you are looking forward to attending and see if any of them have minimum requirements for enrollment. If the minimum requirement is that you be able to consistently hit a man-sized target at 25 yards or be able to do a 5x5 drill (five shots in a five-inch circle at five yards in five seconds from the holster) and you can't do it or have never tried it, then instead of being discouraged, consider it an opportunity to work towards a new level of proficiency!

And if you want to test how you are progressing, here is a great list of drills you can attempt on your own to challenge you:
Pistol Training Drills


  1. I agree with your definition of proficiency. I see some people who neglect the very basics - their gun handling is awful and I get flinchy just standing next to them - but who insist on working at skills far above where they should be. If you can't unholster while standing stationary at the line safely, you have no business trying to draw and fire from unconventional positions. Sadly, trying to point it out to some people is like talking to a wall. They want to jump to all the "cool stuff" without mastering the basics.

  2. Very interesting thread on by John Hearne about skills assessment by test/drill/competition rating.

    1. I saw it. It was very interesting.