One of the scariest traits you can develop from a self-defense perspective is a false sense of security.

You know what I’m talking about. We’re human, so we’re superior not only because we have opposable thumbs, but because we can think, strategize, reason, and hope. The hope part, while awesome and critical to our long-term survival, can also get us into big trouble on occasion.

When most people buy a gun for self-defense, they immediately feel better, and sometimes even invincible. “Now, I’m prepared!” That’s the downside of hope.

Buying a gun no more prepares one for self-defense than the acquisition of an accordion prepares one to join the French Foreign Legion.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider the tragic case of Franklinton, North Carolina woman Tracy Williams. Her abusive ex-boyfriend, previously arrested 89 times, was reason enough for her to buy a gun and obtain her concealed carry license. When attacked yet again by the man, she fired once and hit him in the leg, at which point her gun jammed. She was unable to clear the jam or bring a second gun that she had available into the fight. She ran and was murdered. Her ex-boyfriend was able to not only load his gun but use it during the attack.

It’s not entirely fair to second-guess the result of a dynamic situation like this, but practice and training certainly would not have hurt. Knowing “non-range” skills like malfunction drills and how to transition to the backup gun she had on her person might have made all the difference. The knowledge that a state-mandated concealed carry class is not preparation for self-defense might also have saved her life. Concealed carry classes generally teach laws, not survival tactics.

So that some good might come from tragic cases like this one, it’s always a good idea to reflect on how we can learn and do better. With that thought in mind, here are some shooting range habits that just might get you killed.

1. Focusing on your target

You’ve probably seen people at the range who fire one or more shots and then pause and deliberately look side to side. They’re not tacti-cool derpa warriors. They’re just developing a good defensive shooting habit.

The act of firing a handgun tends to encourage tunnel vision. You know, because of that whole focus-on-the-front-sight thing. And then there’s the desire to see where you hit the target. After that, you’re focused on aiming the next shot. That’s great for deliberate and leisurely target shooting, but might get you killed in a self-defense situation.

Don’t take my word for it. Consider the case of Joseph Wilcox. After murdering two police officers at a CiCi’s Pizza restaurant, a married couple entered a nearby Walmart store. Firing into the air, they ordered customers to leave. Wilcox, a concealed carry holder, decided to intervene and challenged the husband of the perpetrator duo, unknowingly walking right past the wife, not suspecting her involvement. The wife then shot and killed Wilcox. Sadly, Wilcox focused on the man waving the gun and did not observe the other threat.

2. Firing one shot

In a self-defense shooting, you don’t get to decide how many shots are required to stop the proceedings—the assailant is in charge of that.

At the range, we tend to fire a shot, then stop to evaluate our results. That’s fine to establish bragging rights with your range buddies, but not so fine in a fast-moving self-defense encounter. Sometimes an attacker wisely chooses to stop attacking after one shot is fired. Sometimes the first shot misses. Sometimes, as in the case of one law enforcement gunfight, the attacker might absorb 33 gunshots before quitting.

If you’re practicing at the range, consider working different scenarios into your practice, so you don’t hard wire a habit of firing once, then lowering your gun and relaxing. Fire two times. Fire five times. Fire at multiple targets. Most important, before lowering your gun, evaluate the situation. Train your brain to consider your surroundings before ending a shooting string.

3. Not practicing with a holster

From personal experience, I can assure you that the first time you try to draw and fire from a holster under a bit of stress it’s going to go badly. Drawing a handgun seems so easy and natural until you’re trying to do it quickly. Add the complexity of concealed carry using covering garments and things can get interesting. Fumbling, tangling, and dropping aren’t words you want used to describe your tactical gun draws.

You might consider joining a local IDPA competition group. That discipline has competitors drawing from concealment, moving, and engaging multiple targets, all the while under time pressure. Of course, the “pressure” is minuscule compared to a life-or-death struggle, but it’s enough to show you where you need practice with your gun handling skills. Just to be clear, competitions like IDPA won’t teach tactics, but they will give you practice with manipulating your gun, drawing, reloading, malfunction clearance, and hitting multiple targets quickly.

IDPA won't make you a Special Forces Operator, but it will get you thinking about basic self-defense skills like finding cover and moving while shooting.
IDPA won’t make you a Special Forces Operator, but it will get you thinking about basic self-defense skills like finding cover and moving while shooting.

4. Not moving

With the exception of those nifty little clocks, range shooting is like chess. The whole battlefield remains perfectly still while the players take all the time they want to plot their next move.

Virtually any self-defense encounter will involve movement, and lots of it, by all parties involved. That’s mainly because we have legs, unlike those chess pieces with felt bases. Shooting a pistol with accuracy under time and pressure is challenging. Hitting a moving target under those conditions is even harder. Hitting a moving target while you’re also moving is a whole new ball game.

Unfortunately, most ranges don’t offer moving targets, so that’s a tough scenario to practice with regularity. However, you can start to develop the habit of at least starting to move while drawing your gun to address a threat. No, your range probably won’t take kindly to you running across a half-dozen shooting lanes while unloading your 15-round magazine, but that doesn’t rule out smaller and safer practice moves. How about conditioning yourself to take a step to the side just before you draw or raise your gun to shoot? Getting into the habit of moving your whole self while deciding whether you need to draw and fire is a good defensive move. Movement not only makes you a more difficult target, but it creates action, which causes your assailant to evaluate what you are doing. That buys you time—perhaps just enough to save your life.

5. Practicing failure

One of the reasons I’m such an advocate for getting involved in local competition and live training is that you learn how to handle your gun. You program into your brain instinctive actions like focusing on your sight, transitioning to a new target, reloading, and, perhaps most importantly, dealing with malfunctions.

A competition involves a little bit of stress. The clock is running and people are watching you. Is that analogous to the stress of a self-defense encounter? Of course not. But it can be enough to expose your gun-handling weaknesses. In a competition, when your gun goes click instead of bang, you have to deal with it while the clock is running and peers are watching. That’s great! You’ll quickly learn the malfunction routines for your particular gun. More importantly, you’ll program those into your mind so the responses become automatic.

Think about this. I suggest that you are more likely to have a malfunction in a self-defense encounter than any time on the range. Why? By definition, you’re shooting from unnatural positions, and, especially if you use a semiautomatic, the odds of improper cycling are increased. Look at the first case in this article. Tracy William’s gun malfunctioned after the first shot. It can and does happen.

Whether you elect to get involved in some competitions or not, figure out your own ways to practice malfunction drills until they become automatic. You should never have to stop and ponder how to operate, load, or clear your gun. It needs to be automatic, like (hopefully) using the turn signal in your car.

I’ve highlighted just a couple of examples of range habits that are fine, and even fun while shooting recreationally, but that might develop bad self-defense habits. What say you?

Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.

Images courtesy Tom McHale

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18 thoughts on “5 Bad Shooting Range Habits That Might Get You Killed

  1. Probably the most difficult thing for most people is to find a range where you can actually move while firing, or move period!

    My answer to this is go to a match, get involved. One does not need to be hellbent on winning the match to receive a very real awakening about one’s firearm skills and how hard it is to move and shoot! Even if the movement is just from one shooting box to another. Movement really enlightens a person as to a whole new world of shooting and problems shooting!!
    As for the malfunction issues, too often people practice shooting in such a way that they precludes having a malfunction with that particular firearm. While this does not sound bad on the surface, it has many hidden dangers.

    What happens to your firearm when you have a weak grip? Most shooters have no idea that many semi-automatic firearms will malfunction with a weak grip and most ammo. In a defensive situation, it is not uncommon for the first round to be fired with less than the optimum grip on the firearm for any number of reasons!
    One reason many poorly seasoned shooters will do better with a revolver for self defense, although there are plenty of reason for a revolver to malfunction also.
    There are a long list of reasons for a malfunction, more than you can imagine! No firearm is malfunction proof, especially when the chips are down and the stress is up!!!

    The other item people need to practice with, once they have well ingrained firearm handling techniques, is a timer!!
    It is hard to understand just how much a timer will show you hidden flaws in your shooting until you use one. While watching a sweep second hand on a clock will help, using a timer that beeps at you to start and when time is up while recording how much time you spent, is a real eye opener!
    Many a “fast” shooter has had to really evaluate what was going once they found out just how slow they really were!
    Couple the timer with a video recording and all manner of things will show up in your shooting. My wife took an average of 11 seconds off her times in matches once we showed her how she was doing a little dance with her feet prior to shooting. It had been explained but she did not understand exactly what was happening until we did the video.

    Overall a good article, one with a lot of good ideas and I fully support attending pistol matches of any kind! What you will learn in one day will quickly outstrip all of what you thought you knew before attending!

    One word of caution, many if not most of the YouTube videos, even some of the “courses” you can buy are poor at best, get you killed at worst!
    Too often they show fine handling for a range and a static target, horrible tactics if you are confronted with a deadly situation. Use cover if at all possible, go to cover if at all possible, understand what a gunfight is! Most of the jokers pushing out the videos have no idea what a gunfight is and too many of the “instructional videos” will concentrate on great tactics if you are in a squad and fighting with a group of people.
    YOU will be fighting someone one on one, or one on a few, but not as a squad so don’t bother to learn the squad techniques unless it is something you would like to know later.

  2. “she fired once and hit him in the leg, at which point her gun jammed. She was unable to clear the jam ”

    That brings up yet another point. If one insists upon having a semiauto(to be all modern and ‘cool’, naturally), at least learn how to slap and rack. Auto have stoppages all the time, know how to recover! Or if you just cant bear to learn your own weapon, buy a revolver. I’ve only had two jams with revolvers, a M29 that unscrewed its ejector rod and tied up the cylinder so it couldnt be reloaded, and a M19 that broke a hammer spring. Contrast that to the hundreds and hundreds of stoppages I’ve experienced, and the thousands I’ve witnessed, and you might see why I always take so much guff in these pages for my choice of a 38 snub.

    1. I completely agree!
      When I have a new/newer shooter and they want to move to self-defense, my first questions are what do you want to carry and why?
      Many are part time shooters and while they have all shot basically all the different types of firearms before I ask them this question, most go to the simpler ones to shoot, revolvers if a handgun, doubles or pumps if it is a shotgun, always 12 gauge! They like what they saw about results!
      Fewer actions, fewer moving parts, and easier to understand are the reasons given me. These are not people that are going to practice all the time, but they do have what it takes to defend themselves if the chips are down.

      While I have not had very many jams with autos, except for a couple that I was pretty sure would do that, I also have had fewer malfunctions with revolvers.
      I always teach them to take care of the firearm, keep the best ammo in it and identify the target first. Hasn’t let any one of them down.

  3. One handed clearing techniques should be practiced also. What if your gun hand is disabled? Clearing, changing mags and shooting all should be practiced with your weak hand and one handed.

  4. I shoot IDPA for the reasons listed. It’s amazing what even the adrenaline of time pressure can do to screw you up.

    Also, I shoot IDPA with the gun I carry. As in, I go to the match with my carry gun “as is” and shoot it, lint and all. (I’ve gotten a laugh at the lint flying from my first shot) I use my carry holster during the match and draw with the holster concealed as if I were out and about. Finally, I have a couple of bad magazines that I use, just to work on malfunctions.

    1. Doug, with a competent instructor who is actually paying attention, just about anyone can shoot an Uzi. I’ve helped dozens of kids, some as young as four years old, run a stick through an Uzi. YOU maintain control of the weapon, let them run the sights and trigger. The instructor I presume you were referencing was on the wrong side of the child, and released control of the weapon to someone who had not demonstrated the ability to handle it safely. Tragic, but entirely due to his complacency and ignorance, if not outright negligence.

  5. Here are my thoughts on the article
    1) Check out your surroundings before you shoot not after as many practice at the range. There may be more than one adversary or there might be an innocent bystander nearby.
    2 ) Firing multiple shots on a range at an imaginary foe is a waste of ammo. In a real life situation remember to apply the old adage for hunting dangerous animals. ” Keep shooting until it stops moving “. However, don’t keep shooting once your adversary is disabled unless you desire a murder charge.
    3 ) If you really have to rush your draw that means your adversary already has an advantage on you. Depending on the advantage he has, you may end up dead if you continue to play your hand. A smooth draw is an advantage is the playing field is level.
    4) Yes, you don’t want to be a standing target but remember your adversary is likely moving, too, which means your moving probably will be fairly constant unless you can find something solid to hide behind. That also means misses, which don’t count unless you happen to be the one hit. Bottom line is a person needs to have a place with secured safety where you can shoot while on the move Being able to hit what you are trying to hit is the bottom line
    5 ) Failure means you are likely to be injured, most likely dead. No matter how much you practice different situations at different ranges, you are not going to have anyone shooting back at you. There is not any range or club or organization that can prepare you for that situation no matter how well you think you have trained

    1. Good point about looking around first!
      I watch too many people, including in most of the videos, practicing Tunnel Vision!

      While they often talk about situational awareness, not very many have any idea of how to practice it.

  6. A generally good article but I have to wonder why there is no mention of professional instruction as the best way to improve one’s self defense skills. You’ll learn more in one or two days of training than in a lifetime of aimlessly blasting cardboard or even shooting IDPA (yes, I compete in IDPA)…

  7. You have brought up some valid points. If a day comes when you have to protect yourself, things go from everyday standard, to total chaos
    in very few seconds. It becomes surreal your reflexes and shooting abilities are only half as good as your best day at the range, so it is said.
    Some will fold up, drop their gun and run, some will shoot and hit nothing, left frozen w/ a empty gun. Some will end the treat and survive.
    Mindset is paramount, training is second to develop the skills needed.

    Think about the last time in your life during a emergency, who reacted to save the day, who stood there dumbstruck. Everyone has a unique mindset,
    which one are you ? Two police officers were killed by one gunmen during an arrest of the driver. A passenger came out, gun in hand and began firing,
    the cops froze with fear allowed this guy to execute them without ever firing a shot.
    What makes me an authority ? I’m not, I know a little about how some people react to “Fear” .. Over the course of several years I have witnessed the reactions of many people and many cops, and have seen the best and worst come out in emergencies and life or death situations that required immediate reaction.
    It’s funny that this subject “Fear” usually don’t come up a lot, wonder why that is ? Are we unwilling to admit we all have fear ? It seems it’s all about
    training to hit the target, clearing jams ect. .. First it should be how to overcome and control the biggest problem, “FEAR”

  8. shooting is great fun any style you use.however if you intend to carry a weapon for defense you should as your self two questions! 1c an you look another human in the eyes and kill them and 2 can you live with it afterwards. if the answer too either question is no carrying a weapon is just a liability that may be used against you

  9. For practicing, try to find a range that will allow double tapping or some kind of rapid firing. Many ranges will not allow for it….dictating a 2-3 second time space between shots. I understand why they require that….they don’t want their range shot up by people shooting everywhere.

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