In Pursuit of Better Practice
An Interview with Claude Werner
by Gila Hayes
Claude Werner, the Tactical Professor, recently published an eBook full of drills for self-guided practice and skill development, which we’ll review a few pages further into this edition of this journal. Werner is known for encouraging regular practice, both dry practice and live fire, and this is the focus of his new book.
While admonishments to obtain documentable training are common to these pages, not as much is said about practice to maintain skills learned during training. Werner’s book focuses on challenging ourselves to accomplish high but measurable standards through practice. His drills blend fundamental skills with focus challenges to also hone the mental aspect of using a gun. How far, I wondered, could the armed citizen proceed in his or her skill development through self-guided practice alone? This and other questions prompted a call to the Tactical Professor. The discussion was so interesting that I think our readers will also find it beneficial.
eJournal: I read your eBook last weekend and wondered about several aspects of self-guided practice. First, though, can we tie down the correct terminology? Two words, “training” and “practice,” are used extensively. How do you define each? What are the differences and where, if at all, does practice overlap into training?
Werner: To me, training is done under the auspices of someone other than ourselves. You go to take a class like MAG-20–well, that is training. Practice, then, is what we do after training, or in some cases, we might practice on our own, without training.
The dictionary definition of practice is “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.” I really like the way James Yeager put it years ago when he said, “Training is just a down payment.” It is like buying a car. You put a down payment on a car, but you have to keep making the payments to keep it. In my mind, the practice that you do after training are those payments.
I completely differentiate between training and practice. That is why, for many years, I have always given my clients something to take away to practice after the training. Now, that may be a fairly simple thing. For a long time, mostly what I taught were short courses at an indoor range of about a two to three hours duration. For practice after class, I gave those clients the NRA Marksmanship Qualification Program (the MQP), because it was structured and it was fairly attainable. I had everybody shoot the first level of it at the end of the class so I knew they could do it. The MQP is a progression of shooting, then adding some skills, then adding some more skills. It is a good, structured program.
Trainers need to provide that kind of thing for practice after people leave a class. When I went to Mid-South they had a very distinct program that they gave you when you left. When I took Intensive Handgun Skills from Greg Hamilton at Insights, he had a very extensive program that he gave us to practice after the class.
eJournal: You specified that you teach “clients” not “students.” Why do you draw that distinction?
Werner: Trainer/student in transactional analysis has the connotation of a parent/child relationship. A client relationship is between two equal adults. I think the parent/child relationship comes out of the trainer/student terminology leads to this concept that we’re making cookie cutters of ourselves and forcing people into our mold the way the military and law enforcement does—although it has to. In the private sector, it is much more important to understand that the skills that we give people will have to be applied in the context of their own lives and it may look radically different from what we teach them.
eJournal: That relates to the word picture you drew of training as a down payment with practice as the installment payments needed to keep the product you purchased. That implies that we are interacting with a second party. Can training happen solo without a second party?
Werner: No, not in the way that I describe it, but I do think education can, and that is the third term we should identify. When the Network gives members a book and the DVDs, you are providing them with an educational resource. If they take that and practice it on their own, then you might say they had training that is sort of solo, but it has been guided by the materials that somebody else provides. I don’t think training is ever a solo activity, but it may look different under different situations.
eJournal: I am mentally forming the image of a triangle with education and training as the base and at the top, the practice element through which we solidify and habituate what we learned from an instructor. If we were to say that the foundation is education and training but practice completes the triad, then we must make sure our practice is productive. What, in your viewpoint, are the defining characteristics of good practice?
Werner: The best practice is structured and measured. A while back, Greg Hamilton said something that I agree with completely: “Without testing, there has been no training.” If we apply that to the concept of our practice, without structure and measurement, it is just what John Farnam calls ballistic masturbation. I agree 100% with John because I see it all the time here at the club, and back when I was teaching at an indoor range.
I tell you, Gila, that one of my most valuable experiences as an instructor was spending about four years as the primary instructor for an indoor range. I saw where 99% of the population that owns guns were at–assuming they ever even shot their guns. At the indoor range, I would watch people. Their whole concept was to get a B-27 target, and set it at the minimum allowable range, and they’d shoot at it. Maybe they would hit it or hit the target carrier or the lights. You know that deal!
They did not have structured and measured practice. That is one reason I like the Marksmanship Qualification Program because it gives people a structured and measured program that they can practice on their own.
eJournal: While reading your book, I wondered if we rely on self-coached practice, how do we avoid self-delusion and thinking we are better than we really are?
Werner: I believe the solution is measurement. Keep in mind that as adults, the psychology of this is enormously important. All adults, and in this context, gun owners who shoot, need to learn to distinguish between a report card and a status report. A motivational guru I follow is Steve Chandler who wrote the book 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself. One of the 100 ways says that most people never leave high school and that is where the report card comes in. When you are in school, your report card is a measure of your worth as a teenager. As adults, we need to get past this feeling that measuring things is going to reflect on our worth as individuals.
Just take it as a status report, a measurement, no different than measuring how much air is in your car tires. If a tire on your car goes down to 26 psi, does that make it a bad tire? No, it just means that there may be a nail in it that you need to fix or maybe that the weather got cold. When we measure things–and that is why I put so much measurement in the book–we have to get used to the fact that it just is what it is. It does not mean that we’re better or worse people if we can shoot a four-inch group or if we cannot. It is irrelevant. It is just a status report and we say, “OK, I need to work on that.”
eJournal: If I’m following your reasoning, the adult response to good performance is not, “What a good boy–or girl–am I,” but if I am determined to improve it should rather be, “Now I need to practice skills that I do not do so well.”
Werner: We are back to that parent/child relationship. I work really hard at trying to avoid that both personally and in my classes. I am an adult, my clients are adults and the people who read my book are adults, and so I am determined to treat them as adults so they then see themselves as adults.
eJournal: Adults accept personal responsibility and we work to improve. So, moving to skills improvement, if we employ some of the measurable skill tests from your book, how are we, on our own, supposed to identify and eradicate incorrect–or even more seriously, unsafe–elements that creep into our performance of, for example, the physical skills of drawing, acquiring sight picture, trigger press and follow through?
Werner: There are two parts to this answer. One, the very process of measurement helps us with the incorrect actions. That is in both live fire and dry practice. That is why I included some of those dry practice sections, like that half-circle drill.
The Half Circle Dry Practice Drill uses a small half-circle on a sheet of paper. Place this sheet of paper on a safe wall with the half-circle at nose height on the safe backstop. Extend the pistol and place yourself so that the muzzle is approximately an inch or two from the half circle. Align the sights on the bottom of the inner white half circle. You will be able to concentrate on the front sight and the inner half circle at the same time.
Press the trigger smoothly and follow through. Because there is no bullet impact, you should not be tempted to lift your head to see where the bullet went. This ingrains your understanding of proper follow through. If the front sight drops out of the outer gray half circle when you press the trigger, concentrate on pressing the trigger more smoothly.
We need to have a program, view what our results are and have immediate feedback. Bill Rogers is one of my inspirations. Bill is big on the idea that we have to have drills that provide instant feedback, not feedback after the fact, because we don’t learn as well after the fact. When you have something like the half circle drill and you see yourself jerking the trigger–assuming you keep your eyes open–then you know that you have to stop doing that. You can at least recognize, “I have got a problem with yanking the trigger.”
In terms of unsafe aspects, I suggest video. If somebody knows that they are not supposed to have their finger on the trigger until the gun goes parallel to the ground, and they take a video and see, “Oh, as soon as the gun comes out of the holster, I have got my finger inside the trigger guard.” Then they say, “Well, I don’t want to do a Tex Grebner and shoot myself, so I had better stop that.”
How many people now do not have smart phones? Not that many! The latest phone that I got only cost me around $60 and the video and pictures that it takes are amazing. I have a tripod and selfie stick with a receptacle for the tripod on it that I use to video myself both for practice and to make educational videos for my YouTube and Instagram followers. Part of that is just feedback for me.
Now, people need to have the right idea ahead of time, so that goes back to the education aspect and having a correct foundation of the proper way. I really give people credit for being smart assuming they have the right basis to work on. They can figure things out on their own. “Oh, look at that video. I have got my finger on the trigger where I am not supposed to. Well, that is unsafe. I had better stop doing that.” I think video is a really wonderful solution, and most of us have the tool already available.
eJournal: Mentioning video brings up an option I hadn’t envisioned while reading your book. Imagine a self-learner in a remote location or someone for whom getting to classes is next to impossible. With video, that person can watch, for example, the correct sequence of drawing and firing. So, this person watches your video, memorizing how your dominant hand grasps the gun in the holster, where your support hand is as the gun comes parallel to the ground, and then, let’s say she or he compares video of a dry practice draw and live fire practice, perhaps, and they see, “Oh, I need to adjust where I have my support hand” and they update their draw stroke accordingly.
Werner: Yes! Exactly! They might say, “I need to get the support hand back to my body, not hanging out in front so I don’t shoot myself!”
eJournal: Video adds an educational resource to our self-learning experience. It’s a way to identify and correct deficiencies or even safety violations. Identifying our own mistakes was my biggest worry about self-guided practice before we began talking.
Werner: Now, the downside of You Tube videos is that there are so many of them that are so bad! I don’t know the solution. Our community needs to talk about how to evaluate instructors. That is a topic that has popped up periodically over the years.
Another question is how should we evaluate social media? This just came up again with a newly released video in which the target is not shown. One of my beefs is that very few You Tube and gun TV videos will show you the target. Two people I give a lot of credit to for showing their targets is Ken Hackathorn and Larry Vickers.
Their videos show them shooting and then in all one continuous shot, show the target. I remember one specific instance where Larry said, “Well, I blew that shot!” Well, if someone is posting on social media and they will not ever show their target and a timer, that shows me that the shooter is not “all that and a bag of chips.”
eJournal: We’re unable to determine if a great target is the results of the shooting sequence we just viewed. I think of Hemingway’s paraphrase of the Bible verse, “By their works shall ye know them,” but we’re cheated out of the proof if video only shows the action and not the results on target. That is a good starting place for evaluation, and it’s a good challenge to social media posters to follow Hackathorn and Vickers’ example, to help viewers separate educational footage from mere entertainment. The video viewer might be a beginner, mimicking only the action steps shown without knowing the outcome.
eJournal: Some shooters are perfectionists and perform at a glacial pace in order to turn in a good target. How can our practice include a reasonable speed element to a skill focused on defending against violent attack?
Werner: The timer and the target—oh, the tales they weave! I have moved away from the idea that we must use shot timers other than in a par time mode. I think the timer is a seductress, just like in real life, the seductress can make you do things that you really do not want to do! I was thinking of Dennis Tueller’s article, How Close is Too Close? and I transmuted that into asking, “How fast is too fast?” I think that happens sometimes working with a shot timer, trying to get that sub-second draw or whatever.
When I was at Rogers Shooting School, we had a lunch time dry practice period during which the targets were running. That course was meant to be run from what we called extended ready or low ready and what I now call the mid-point of the draw stroke. The targets were pretty fast: they ran between half a second and three quarters of a second. Because I had access to them all the time, I could hit 50% of those targets from the holster. I had about a three quarters of a second draw.
I don’t any more. My draw runs about a second and a half now. It is under two seconds, so I don’t care. I don’t think that it is that important because if we are not figuring the aspect of visual recognition into how fast to draw, we may outrun our mental program. The timer is useful, but only up to a point. We have to understand and we have to put the timer in its place.
That said, as I mentioned in the book, there are now apps that you can put on smart phones that provide a pretty good par timer and the one I use was free. I plug my phone in, and with either electronic ear phones or a set of ear buds under ear muffs, the phone tells me “start” and “stop.” Although we laugh at some of the police qualification courses, I think many are a good benchmark and a good start at least, for people to avoid perfectionism. If you can shoot a good group, that’s great, but if it takes you longer than it takes a police officer to draw from a Level 3 security holster, you probably need to speed things up!
eJournal: Because solitary practice lacks any comparison against other shooters, outside standards against which to measure our performance help. It seemed to me that drills in your book presumed that your reader has been trained sufficiently in shooting fundamentals to pick up where the drills and exercises start. Can the average gun owner get a good start at their local indoor range?
Werner: It varies a great deal. I’ve actually seen some pretty good instruction at indoor ranges and I’ve seen a number of instructors do a pretty good job. At the same time, the worst and most dangerous class I ever participated in was at an indoor range.
At one facility at which I taught, not one instructor there had ever read a book about shooting beyond the NRA manuals. When they told me that, I bet I looked like a fish, because my mouth was falling open and closed and nothing was coming out. I said, “I have 400 books in my library and I’ll loan them to you.” They said, “No thanks.” That is a problem.
There is a wide variation of what’s available at public ranges, both indoor and outdoor. A lot of indoor ranges are staffed by former law enforcement and former military personnel and they get into that parent/child relationship that they were taught in the military or police. I don’t blame them; they use the only system that they know, but that is not necessarily a good system for other people.
eJournal: How far can self-directed learning, without outside instruction, take the shooter?
Werner: Cooper was once asked, when will I know that I am proficient enough? His answer was when your attacker is in more danger from you than you are from him. I believe that level can be attained by a normal person through self-directed training. In fact, I am sure of it because it happens every day. The downside is bad things also happen pretty regularly from non-training, non-practice, non-education.
I do not think that we in the firearms industry teach people enough about how to avoid negative outcomes. We focus on the positive. What do we want to achieve? Good groups, that smooth, efficient draw. We teach people how to do that but I don’t think we do a particularly good job of teaching people how to avoid the negative outcomes of shooting yourself or shooting someone else. I’m just not sure we do a good job of teaching people how to think and that is something else people don’t learn in a self-directed environment.
eJournal: I did notice that some of the later drills in your eBook add a component of conscious thought, matching the number of shots with a number on a target, adapting to a new shooting order in mid-stream, and other distractions from the basics of sight picture and trigger press. Some were quite complex! It made me curious, because we have the basic edict to keep our eyes on the sights and yet to identify the right target. Are the two at odds?
Werner: As Paul Markel said years ago, we’ve got to learn to teach people to think with a gun in their hand and that is the object of those drills. In a book, I can’t teach you to make shoot, no shoot decisions. What I can do is get people into the idea of not being entirely focused on the gun itself.
The way I envision this, Gila, is that we have to be able to rapidly shift back and forth between the gun and the target. In the shooting community, we have two opposing camps. We have got target focus and we have got front sight focus. The fact is that the answer lies in an overlap of the two. We don’t teach the overlap very well.
The object of my decisional drills is for the shooter to ask, “Did I fire the right number of shots? Did I make the right number of hits?” Well, if I didn’t then I go into a branch of the drill and have to go back to the front sight to start making my hits. I have to learn to do that quickly, going back and forth. I think the decisional drills are embryonic. I am sure somebody will come up with better ways of doing that. I wanted to at least start the ball rolling and give people the idea that this can be done.
Literally thousands of times when running competitions, I’ve watched people’s faces and as soon as the timer goes off–and sometimes even before–I can see that the conscious mind has shut off. That is a problem! That is a big problem! Decisions–even those made in split seconds–are by nature conscious thoughts. Decisions are not reflexive. If we are not teaching people to be able to engage their conscious mind as part of the process, then that is a problem.
Years ago, Skip Gochenour and I had a conversation in which Skip said, when we do multi-day training, it should be one day of live fire, then the second day take the guns away and give them blue guns (non-firing replicas) and have them work on the decisions, and then the next day go back to live fire and then the next day go back to the blue guns.
I thought, “You know, Skip’s hit this nail on the head. Skip’s a smart guy.” We are not integrating thinking. The police and military have wonderful simulators. The average person, living out in the middle of nowhere, has no access to a simulator. What can we do to help them learn to do this skill?
I think it is important to learn the skill of getting off of the front sight, look at the target, figure out what is going on there, and then get back on the front sight if necessary. This is a necessary skill!
eJournal: As you said, we need to overlap both seeing and shooting. That requires a mastery of both and calls for dedicated practice to mix them effectively. Can we do this on our own? I’m not sure. You are very dedicated to your training. If you were king of the world, would you require mandatory minimum training for having a gun for home defense? For carrying a gun for personal defense in public?
Werner: No! I don’t believe in that on a number of levels. For one thing, I think it is anti-American. Another reason is that if training is not followed up by practice, after 90 days, its value is gone. The Army Medical Department has proven that in several studies. If you don’t follow up training with practice, you might as well not take the training at all.
I live in the State of Georgia where you go down to the probate judge, file your application and if you don’t have anything on your record, you get your license to carry. There is no evidence that approach yields any more problems than in states with training requirements. For example, Texas used to have a two-day training requirement. Illinois still does. There is no evidence that solution is any better or worse than Georgia’s, so why should we impose a training requirement on people? I just do not believe in it. I would like for everybody to take training and I would like for everybody to practice, but as a formal requirement, I do not believe in it at all.
eJournal: We have to, then, shoulder training and practice as a matter of personal responsibility. This brings us back to standards and measurements. In your experience, do most people overestimate their skills with firearms, or are we conservative in our self-evaluations?
Werner: People overestimate their skills, because in many cases they have no benchmark. One time I was talking with a lady who was sort of bragging to me that she liked to go to what she called the gun range and shoot and she said she was pretty good. I thought that was interesting, so I said, what do you consider pretty good? “Well,” she said, “I hit the target most of the time.” I’m sure when she said target, she meant the whole paper, not just the silhouette of the B-27.
She hit the whole paper most of the time. Well, I am in favor of a self-directed, 100% standard for accuracy. I don’t believe in a 70% passing score. If you think about it, if someone who has been indoctrinated to think that 70% is good enough shoots six shots at a burglar, that means that two shots go into the neighbor’s house. If I am the neighbor, I am not too happy about that.
eJournal: That came through clearly in your book, but you also gave practice drills initially that could be passed at 100% and then you provided drills of increasing intricacy that are a lot harder and require a lot more work to achieve scores of 100% so we realize we want to improve our abilities, too.
Werner: Exactly. You have to ask, where can I get 100%? Several years ago, I gave a lesson to a fellow who was a former member of the French Foreign Legion. One of the exercises I had him do was to make a hostage rescue headshot. I said, you can do this from any distance that you want, but you have to be able to do it five times in a row, at 100%. Not too long ago, he posted on Facebook and told me, “I remember doing that drill with you! I remember that I had to get really close, but I knew that at three feet, I could make that shot 100% of the time.” He then said because he practiced and because I gave him a benchmark, he had now gotten better.
When people have no benchmark, they do not know what “good” means. That is the problem. Although Cooper’s response was kind of philosophical, we do have to measure things. So, I give people a benchmark–like you ought to be able to hit a 12-inch circle at seven yards 100% of the time with five shots in 15 seconds. Once again, that’s the MQP and it is a concept I really like.
eJournal: You’ve answered a lot of the questions I had while reading your book, but those arose only from my own viewpoint. What discussion points have I missed that you had hoped we would talk about?
Werner: I really would like to emphasize two parallel concepts. Training is not an event: it is a journey. We need to have self-directed standards and know our limits and know our capabilities at any given time.
eJournal: That is key to avoiding what you’ve called negative outcomes. We should also aspire to higher levels of skill, and you’ve given us a set of exercises and drills to help reach those goals, too. Meanwhile, although we’re working toward higher goals, we must also realistically acknowledge the measure of our skills today.
Werner: Exactly. I need to know what my status report says today. Do I have a full tank of gas or do I only have half a tank? Do I need to hit the gas station at the very next opportunity? That is all an evaluation is–a status report. Get out of the report card mentality. That is the parallel to knowing that training is a journey.
eJournal: Thank you, Claude, you’ve given all of us an optimistic way to continue to improve.
Werner: I am an optimist at heart. I look for the good in things and for the possibilities in things. That is the way I would like for people to look at their own personal progression. I would say, “What is possible, given my resources?” Think about someone who is a self-directed shooter who can afford to go to an indoor range once a month with 50 rounds. Are they going to be able to learn to shoot at a level where they could pass the Rogers Basic Test? No. On the other hand, can they learn to shoot at a level that would allow them to defend themselves and their loved ones? Yes.
I would like for people to think about the possible outcome for their circumstances and resources. Once you’ve seen what is possible, then figure out how to achieve it.
eJournal: Your new eBook is a great guide, and in a few pages later into this journal, I’ll give some details from the book itself in this month’s book review. Thank you for discussing how self-guided skill development works. You’ve answered the questions I had while reading your eBook and I know your work will help many Network members, too.
About our source: Claude Werner is the popular internet blogger and Atlanta, GA firearms instructor, the Tactical Professor. His background combines extensive work in the military, self-defense training, and white collar financial services communities. He is a retired Army Captain, with 10 years of service in Special Operations, former Chief Instructor at the elite Rogers Shooting School and he has won numerous IDPA competitions at the State and Regional level.
You can buy and download his eBook for $9.95 at
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