An Interview with Karl Rehn
Interview by Gila Hayes
When making New Year’s resolutions, do you vow to practice at the range more often or take a shooting class? Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it?
I recently chatted with Advisory Board member Karl Rehn and came away with a different approach to that resolution. I called Karl about the release date and details of a new edition Rehn and his writing partner John Daub have underway for their book Strategies and Standards for Defensive Handgun Training (first edition reviewed at https://armedcitizensnetwork.org/december-2019-book-review).
The book outlines realistic shooting standards for armed citizens measured against various shooting qualification tests. Our recent phone conversation explored the differences between measurable skills and tactics crucial to self defense, how skill level supports on-the-fly decision making under stress and using standards to drive self-motivation. I asked Karl about applicability of uniform standards across various age and physical abilities. With many of us in the older demographic, I think members will appreciate Rehn’s observations as much as I did. Since the new edition of Strategies and Standards isn’t expected until later this month (January 2023), for now, enjoy sitting in on our conversation and learn about ways to hone armed self-defense skills, while whetting your appetite for Rehn and Daub’s book.
eJournal: Why are established standards important to skill development and maintenance? Time limits, 1.5 second to draw and fire a headshot at 3 yards, for example, can seem unachievable and discouraging.
Rehn: We need goals that we can measure. There is a point in the skill development process where you have to go slow, and you have to break it down, and you have to be deliberate, and you have to get all the steps right. Then, you need to begin to put the timer on the drill to have a goal.
The book has a list we call the Top 10 Drills. The drills are structured so you practice drill one until you can pass and then you move on to drill two until you can pass and then you practice drill three until you can pass. You are only adding essentially one new skill with each new drill as you move forward.
The simplest is standing still, shooting one target at one distance with no time limit: accuracy only. The next drill tests accuracy with slow time limits from the ready position. Next, we add a drill that includes drawing from the holster, then one that includes, maybe, different distances or different target sizes, like a head shot and then a body shot demonstrating being able to change cadence based on the target, then add in reloads and in another, malfunctions. Each drill in the Top 10 adds another skill. The list is built on widely used drills like the F.A.S.T. drill, the IDPA classifier, the FBI Qual and the Bill drill. (Note: See Karl’s blog at https://blog.krtraining.com/handgun-world-podcast-top-10-drills-plus-2/ for videos and details about these and other drills.)
Essentially the Top 10 Drill list is a self-guided program. Shoot from ready, and when you can pass these tests with this accuracy in this amount of time, work on a drill that is mostly about draw time next. Work on that until you get to minimum competency. If you went through those ten drills and worked to pass each of those drills as you went, you are going to be up to the automaticity level by the time you get to the end.
eJournal: Can you define “automaticity,” please?
Rehn: Automaticity means you don’t have to think about what you do, to do it. If your brain says, “Draw your gun and shoot that target,” you are not thinking, “OK, I need to lift my garment, I need to get my grip, I need to join my hands, I need to aim, I need to press the trigger.” You have trained yourself to the extent that there is no conscious thought between the “I need to do this,” and it happening.
The one part you cannot automate is the “shoot/don’t shoot” decision. That is why you want your gun skills to be at automaticity level so that your brain can process the situation. If your gun handling is at the level of automaticity, you have all of your brain cells available to pay attention to, “Do I actually need to press the trigger?”
Tom Givens of Rangemaster (https://rangemaster.com/firearms-training/) does a lot of drills where he emphasizes drawing to ready as opposed to drawing to shoot. John Murphy actually has a drill with an aborted draw. You draw the gun, and halfway through the draw he blows the whistle and at that point you have to change paths. You are thinking that you were going to be drawing and shooting and when he blows that whistle you have to change mid draw to draw to low ready and give verbal commands. It reflects that things can change in the timeframe between when you decide that you are going to draw and shoot and when the shooting happens.
eJournal: Change can come so very fast. Even in the fractions of seconds it takes to yell or to draw, there are branching opportunities, similar to what Marc MacYoung has called “off ramps on the freeway to violence” to which we can divert.
Rehn: They only exist if your brain is free enough to pay attention to what is happening and not fixate on the mechanical skill of drawing the gun. The vast majority of people have to think about the steps to draw the gun.
I use a music analogy: automaticity is the difference between having to think about where your fingers go on the guitar neck to make an E chord and your fingers automatically going to the E chord on the guitar when you see it on the sheet music. It can get to where you’re listening to the song and know what’s coming next so your hand just automatically goes to the E chord because it is supposed to at that point.
eJournal: …and while moving toward the E chord, if another band member changes the song unexpectedly, the musician changes the chord they’re forming.
Rehn: Force Science (https://www.forcescience.com) has done a lot of interesting studies on predicting change. At the top level, the people who are really good at making use of force decisions are very good at predicting what is going to happen next, even to the point that they anticipate what the person is going to do before the person does it because they are reading their pre-fight body language. You can’t do that if your mind is focused on the mechanical skills of just simply getting the gun and aiming the gun.
eJournal: While most classes focus on mechanical skills, you make a strong argument for training in what I think of as people skills. How do criminals act when they are about to resort to violence? What can I do BEFORE the danger level is so high that shooting is the way to survive? As John Farnam is fond of saying, “There is no time to dither!”
Rehn: We teach a four-hour non-shooting class that is nothing but decision making based on Brian and Shelley Hill’s Image-Based Decisional Drills (https://www.imagebaseddecisionaldrills.com). In class, I give you seven cards, then put a picture on the screen and you have three seconds to decide and pick one of those cards. You have to make the decision and commit to it. You don’t have all day. You practice decision making without a gun in your hand. Learning to make those decisions quickly with limited input is a skill that has nothing to do with working on the range, however that mental skill is another minimum competency set.
eJournal: When we add in the tools we use in self defense, how are timed drills applicable to real life weapon use?
Rehn: You have got to understand speed and timing. John Murphy has some wonderful videos on YouTube (https://www.fpftraining.com/fpf-on-youtube) where he times things like how fast you can run from one end of the car to another. How fast can you get in your car and get it started? How fast can you get from your car to the front porch? If you put those on a time tick relative to “How fast can I draw my gun?” that affects your perception of what are your options and what do you need to do at which point in time.
Craig Douglas (https://shivworks.com) has for years been trying to get people to understand the difference between a one-step interaction and a five-step interaction. If someone is five steps away there are things that you can do that you cannot do if they are one step away. You can’t draw your gun and shoot them without them grabbing and interfering with that draw if they are one step away.
If they are five steps away, maybe you can draw your gun and shoot them. At five steps away, by the time they can get to you and grab your gun, your gun is already up and pointing in their direction; if you are two steps or four steps away, maybe not.
We have also done drills with Airsoft® guns studying moving to cover. How many steps you can be from cover before you get shot? If you are two steps from cover, should you move to cover first and then draw, or should you draw and move? What gets you to cover faster?
It depends on the distance. If it is just two or three steps, you are probably better off putting all your energy into moving to cover and then drawing versus trying to draw and shoot on the move and taking two to three times as long to get to cover from out in the open.
Distance to cover becomes an issue. If you are seven steps from cover, and you try to move to cover while the person is already getting their gun out, you’re probably not going to stop them from shooting at you. If you are out in the open, and you have to draw and shoot on the move, it is going to take you longer to get to cover, but the hope is that you will inhibit their ability to shoot you back. If you are not shooting and you just run to cover, it is much easier for them to shoot at you.
eJournal: That explains the practicality of time limits in practice. I’d like to ask about another term you used: “minimum competency.” That sure sounds like something to move beyond, so the question is “how?” What is the path to move beyond “adequacy?”
Rehn: The normal person should work to get to a minimum competency level and then they should verify that they remain at that level. If they are serious, then they should work to get to the automaticity level and then verify that they remain at that level.
eJournal: When we have achieved automaticity, how do we maintain that level of skill?
Rehn: Use the Top 10 drills for practice. Do constant reassessment. You don’t necessarily need to return to drill one, but maybe practice drill five, or drill seven.
eJournal: Is it practical for everyone to strive for the “grand master” level that you quantify above automaticity?
Rehn: I agree with John Hearne (https://twopillarstraining.com) and Greg Ellifritz (https://www.activeresponsetraining.net/available-classes) who say that once you are into the 80th percent level – you’re shooting 80% of USPSA grandmaster which is roughly the same as IDPA master – then your attention should probably shift to some other aspect of self defense. Once you are at that level, maintain it and go pick up some other skill instead of trying to get to 100%. There is limited to no data showing that the difference between 80% and 100% of shooting is likely not to be as important as getting from 20% to 50% on some other skill.
eJournal: With age, injury, and diminishing strength and agility it is harder to turn in high scores on shooting drills. Is it reasonable to aspire to score high in the second quadrant of skill you’ve quantified as minimum competency or getting into the third, automaticity? Are the time limits and accuracy requirements to do that even achievable for an 80-year-old lady with arthritic hands and a five-shot revolver?
Rehn: She can get into the second quadrant. The challenge moving into that third quadrant is going to be much more difficult. Everybody will reach the point where they cannot make much more progress. I think when you reach that point you say, “OK, I have put in my work, and this seems to be where I am plateaued out. What else do I need to go get good in?” That might happen at 60% or 80%, but you want to push up that hill as far as you can go before age changes the slope and progress becomes extremely slow.
Sometimes the problem is gear. If you’re insistent that you’re going to carry your five-shot revolver, I might say, “Try this Glock 48, or the Sig 365 .380.” Maybe you say, “No, I will only carry a 9 mm,” and then I have to say, “You only have 50 pounds of grip strength in your hands, let’s try this .380. Here is what you can do with that versus what you can do with your snub-nosed revolver with its nub sites and its 12-pound trigger pull. Look how much more capability you have!”
Equipment can buy you some skill in certain cases. Maybe the answer to plateauing out is a red dot sight or a laser on your gun. Maybe you need a gun in a different caliber; maybe you need to carry differently. Instead of trying to fish the gun out of your purse or ankle holster maybe you need an Enigma, or a belly band.
Sometimes you need to be willing to say, “If I make this change to my equipment, I will gain 15% in my performance just by making that change.” If your life depends on it, and that change is taking you from the bottom of quadrant two over the hump on quadrant three, there is enough information to indicate that might be worth doing. If it takes you from a 3-second draw to a 1.5-second draw, that is a lot of time! It is a lot of time especially if you are not a fast runner and you are not going to kick and grapple.
Criminals are not going to slow down, move closer, and make themselves easier to shoot. Criminals are not going to attack with less violence or with less speed because you have less skill. That is just how it works! If they are attacking you, it is likely because you have less skill, and you appear easier to victimize than someone else. I explain to people, “Look, this is how long it is going to take a 17-year-old to do this. That is how long you have. What can you do in that amount of time?”
eJournal: Even with a better gun or laser or optic, we still have to be able to draw efficiently and hit accurately, both perishable skills that require training and practice. I hear a lot of reasons why people can’t get training to increase proficiency. The shooting range is too far away. Ammunition is too expensive. Tuition for many classes is higher than the amount some get from Social Security to live on each month. How are we going to overcome so many impediments?
Rehn: What about dry fire? The point that people miss is that there is no benefit to driving to the range and putting ammo in your gun if you can’t meet the standards in dry practice. You should treat going to the range as the test. You do your dry fire as your homework. Annette Evans, Ben Stoeger and Steve Anderson are the big pioneers of the whole idea that you practice the things you want to improve in dry fire at home until you can do them. Then you go to the range, and you verify with live ammo that you can do them.
Untrained shooters think that the only way you can practice shooting is to go to the range and shoot ammo. The problem, as Tom Givens and John Hearne will tell you, is that the key is frequency of training. The easiest way to get frequency is to buy a SIRT gun or a dry fire magazine, a Mantis or Cool Fire kit or anything that has repeat trigger pulls.
Dryfire our Top 10 Drills. It is a matter of dry firing to a standard, and then taking that to the range once a month, once every two weeks, for just an hour. If you are looking for a New Year’s resolution, this is a good one. Here’s what you’d do:
- Go to the range and assess your skill. Pick a drill or use one of our Top 10 Drills; use anybody’s assessment. Go to the range and shoot it.
- Identify weaknesses, or things you want to improve.
- Commit to working on improvement in dry practice for a few minutes every day or a few minutes every other day.
Work on that. The reward is that you get to go to the range and shoot live fire again once you make the improvements in dry fire. That is the best way to gain new skills.
eJournal: And all this time we thought we needed a class …
Rehn: [Laughing] It breaks my heart to say that. None of that involves taking a class from an instructor. Most of the work is the dry fire homework. As Tom Givens used to say, “All we can do is ‘rent’ you the skills during class.” If you don’t take it home, own it and build on it, then, sure, you can come back and take another two-day class, but you’re losing a lot of the improvement that you made.
Look at buying dry fire gear as an investment instead of buying more ammo or paying for another class. You will need a $100 shooting timer and you need a $100 dry fire magazine or a $200 SIRT pistol or dry fire kit. When people ask why they should spend that money, I ask, “How much did you spend on ammo last year?” $500 will get you about 2,000 rounds of 9mm ammo but if you pull the trigger in dryfire 2,000 times it cost the same amount as it would if you bought and fired 2,000 rounds of ammo into the berm at the range, but now you own the dry fire kit that you can use for a lifetime. Every dry fire trigger pull after the 2,000th is free training. At some point, you have to look in the mirror and ask, “What is really going to make me better?”
eJournal: How do we know if we’re correctly replicating the drill in our dryfire practice?
Rehn: There are plenty of trainers who will do private video coaching, all the way up to Rob Leatham and Mike Seeklander. Ben Stoeger does private video coaching; Tim Herron does it, I think Brian Hill does it, too, and I do that for some of my alumni. Pretty much any trainer, if you ask them, will do it if they are not already doing it already. You send in a video of your dry fire, or you send in a video of your draw, and you say, “What do I need to do better?” The instructor can say, “Here’s what you need to do.”
There is no shortage of good knowledge for people who are motivated to improve. The trick is to find a way to motivate yourself to improve and to reach attainable standards. If you start with the minimum standards, and then once you achieve those, then you feel like, “OK, now I’ve got something.” If your goal is to win the Nationals or nothing, then you’ll just have a lifetime of disappointment. There are tons of people that wanted to win the Nationals that never won the Nationals. Think of all those guys who won silver medals in the Olympics who had trained their whole lifetimes and were just two tenths of a second or half a pound short. You don’t want to go down that road! You want to train and accomplish a goal, set a fresh goal, accomplish that and move yourself forward. It is all about goal setting.
eJournal: That is what our time together today has been about and that is what the book you and John Daub wrote is all about, too. This has been great to learn more about setting realistic goals, using standards to track our progress and to stay motivated to improve.
Rehn: It is a good time to talk about this, because with winter here, it is downtime for many ranges. Now is the time to invest in some gear, make a plan and work it, and get to a reasonable standard and maintain those standards. You don’t have to be the best shooter in the class, but you should get to the automaticity level if you can, and then you want to maintain it.
eJournal: An excellent point, Karl! Thank you for your instruction, coaching and encouragement.
Network Advisory Board member Karl Rehn founded KR Training in 1991, the first professional firearms academy serving Central Texas before Texas passed concealed carry legislation that included a training requirement. In the ensuing 30 years, Karl has honed his craft, bringing to his teaching philosophy the viewpoint of a university research scientist, which makes for an interesting combination. Check out his classes at https://www.krtraining.com/KRTraining/Classes/classes.html , order Strategies and Standards for Defensive Handgun Training at Amazon.com or watch the KR Training website for availability of signed copies when the new edition is back in stock.