When Observation Alone is Not Enough – Learning the Combat Focus Shooting Method, Part 1

As noted in my earlier post on shooting versus not shooting during my observations of training classes, I have generally tried to act as a non-participating observer. But when Rob Pincus informed me – it was not really a question – on the second day that I would be shooting during his Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Conference, I did not argue. I was a guest at his event; his range, his rules.

Pincus thought it was important for me to actually be instructed in the Combat Focus Shooting (CFS) method to understand it better, and he was right.

I was put through an abbreviated version of the Fundamentals of Combat Focus Shooting course, and so won’t recap the entire process. (Melody Lauer has done a good job of this.) Rather, I want to focus on three points: the importance of context, sighted versus unsighted fire, and the balance of speed and precision. I will deal with the first now, and the other two in a separate post.

Disclaimer: As I am finding Rob Pincus to be something of a divisive figure, I want to make clear: (1) This account is based on my understanding of the Combat Focus Shooting method based on what I learned over 4 days in September. It does not reflect any further study of CFS (e.g., reading the book or watching videos), and it may not even accurately reflect CFS as a whole. (2) I am not a “subject matter expert” in shooting or the martial art of the gun; therefore, I am not able or trying to say that this method is better or worse than other methods of shooting or instruction. As we say on Twitter, “RT =/= endorsement.” Thank you for understanding these limitations.

Matters of Context

The Combat Focus Shooting method was designed to be used in a particular context: counter-ambush. According to Rob Pincus, the violent attack to which armed citizens are responding with lethal force is by definition an ambush situation because if they saw it coming, they would have avoided or evaded it.

Since by definition private citizens can only use their firearms against other people defensively and re-actively (to counter the ambush), their shooting needs differ from law enforcement officers and soldiers who frequently work pro-actively. Moreover, most defensive shootings involving armed citizens take place from 9 to 15 feet. (Tom Givens makes substantially similar points, and in fact I think Pincus takes his distance estimate from Givens’s post-event debriefs of his students.)

These contextual differences result in different goals and require different means (techniques). The audience for CFS courses is not people who are not trying to be marksmen or competition shooters, but people who may have to use their firearms for self-defense in a worst case scenario. Consequently CFS emphasizes defensive accuracy in shooting. Defensive accuracy means that the threat has been stopped. Or, put another way, it means that the shots were accurate enough to stop the threat. That could mean five shots in a 1 inch group in the center of mass, it could mean five shots in an 8 inch group center mass, it could mean one shot through the eye ball, and (controversially, perhaps) it could mean one shot that misses the target altogether, provided that shot deterred the attack.

These ideas I could understand intellectually as I sat in the Baymont Inn and Suites’ Heritage West conference room listening to Pincus and his instructor cadre talking about CFS. But the practical, experiential question of how to train shooters to be defensively accurate in the context of a counter-ambush situation remained. My answer would come not in the conference room, but on the range.

My Combat Focus Shooting instructors: Mandy Autrey (L) and Barret Kendrick (R). September 2017

On Saturday morning, Pincus assigned two of his instructors, Barret Kendrick (of Bearco Training in Louisiana) and Mandy Autrey (of Gunlady Defensive Firearms Training in California), to run me through an abbreviated version of the CFS course. They begin by discussing the balance of risk and safety in the course and the need to be physically and intellectually comfortable with what I am being asked to do, or else to ask questions or say “no.” They then review the context of what we are doing (counter-ambush), the medical kit and what will happen in the event of a medical emergency (“you’re more likely to need this than a gun”), and CFS’s 3 safety rules (finger off the trigger, gun pointed in a generally safe direction, and the “big picture rule” of accepting responsibility for the firearm).

Without discussing technique (grip, stance, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger pull) at all, Barret and Mandy have me get on the firing line about 10 feet from the target, load and make ready, then come to the high compressed ready position while getting into a comfortable, athletic stance. From there they give the command to “extend” the gun, “touch” the trigger, and “press” the trigger a single time.

We progress to coming up from the holster and firing a single shot, and then multiple shots at an 8 inch square in the center of the humanoid part of the CFS target.

The idea here is to get the student (me) to bring the gun up in a “kinesthetically aligned position” (see Schmidt and Lee’s Motor Control and Learning: A Behavioral Emphasis) and get acceptable hits on target very quickly.

Given our limited time, we progress more quickly than usual through the curriculum, but this quick progression becomes a series of “teachable moments” as my shooting skills degrade (my coordination is bad), but I am also challenged physically and mentally due to the “cognitive load” I was being asked to bear (thinking and doing at the same time further diminishes my coordination).

Lateral movement while drawing and then firing is introduced relatively early in the process in respect of the context that is being trained for: counter-ambush. Better to be a moving target than a stationary one. Here my physical coordination breaks down a bit, driven in part by my trying to mentally process a number of instructions. I rush my shots, then I start to get weapon malfunctions, then I forget to tap-rack, then I slingshot rather than over-hand rack the slide, and the downward spiral continues until I just stop shooting, at which point Mandy or Barret remind me to stay in the fight despite my frustration.

Although frustrating, I realize that this is part of the point of the Combat Focus Shooting method: The ability to think one’s way through this cognitive overload and apply the appropriate skill in the context of the “dynamic critical incident.” Losing the ability to think during such an incident could lead to negative outcomes, as Claude Werner calls them. Possibly getting shot, or shooting someone who shouldn’t be shot.

This becomes even more apparent to me when learning the CFS techniques of assessment after shooting and follow-up shots after reloading as reflective rather than automated processes. This, too, is dictated by the shooting context.

Every gun training course I have attended or observed teaches reloading (tactical and/or slide-lock) and assessment after shooting. This is part of the CFS method, too, but it is not taught in isolation – that is, out of context from the application. The application is civilian defensive shooting – the counter-ambush situation, dynamic critical incident, or whatever other words you use to describe it. Civilians are held to a higher standard for the justifiable use of lethal force in self-defense than either LEOs or military. Which makes the assessment process and the decision to make follow-up shots after reloading even more important.

Rob Pincus himself checked in on and worked with me for a while. September 2017.

Pincus is very critical of shooting drills that involve what he calls “choreographed performance” like El Presidente. Why? “There’s no interference.” He uses an analogy to further his point: race track = range (controlled environment) vs. road = reality (uncontrolled). Choreographed performance drills are for the race track not the road. If you take your race track mentality onto the road, you are asking for trouble. “You teach El Presidente,” he tells his instructors, “you’re teaching people to murder other people. If you’re teaching an assassin school, then teaching shoot-swing-shoot is fine. But you’re teaching defensive shooting, not murder.”

The cognitive load CFS tries to apply to students is meant to make the race track a bit more like the road. And processing information while shooting was harder for me that I thought it would be. People often talk about “training scars,” and mine definitely showed. I was told that after I re-loaded I should determine whether or not to continue shooting because the target dictates whether or not to shoot after reloading. Did I think the attacker was still a threat? Was there a second attacker that needed to be addressed? I had no idea because I got caught up in an automated shoot – reload – shoot pattern.

In a real-life situation, I could put 6 rounds into an attacker and run to slide lock, and while I reload the attacker might surrender. Putting more rounds into him could mean legal trouble in terms of lawful self-defense. Or I could put 6 rounds into an attacker, reload, then put 6 rounds into the attacker’s accomplice that I saw initially but who has now turned to run. Or any number of other scenarios in which just reloading and automatically shooting again would be problematic.

And yet on the range I do this every time: shoot – reload – shoot. Mandy explains the problem with this, echoing Pincus, by pointing at three different targets while saying three words, each one deliberately: “That. Is. Murder.”

An exaggeration? Perhaps. But it certainly brought the point home to me in a major way.

Shooting the Dozer Drill at Gunsite Academy, 250 Defensive Pistol Course, June 2017. Photo by: David Yamane

After my CFS weekend in Minnesota, I think back to my earlier experience watching how much fun people had shooting the Dozer Drill at Gunsite. But now I was thinking of it in terms of context. The Gunsite 250 students were on the racetrack, not the road. Nothing wrong with that, but good to keep the difference in mind.

I also remember hearing Darryl Bolke of Hardwired Tactical Shooting on the Ballistic Radio podcast in August 2017 describing how the original “failure drill” – two to the chest and one to the head – was developed by the LAPD(?) to train for situations in which the two shots to the chest did not stop the perp and so a head shot was necessary. Because of this, the drill initially specified that two shots to the chest would be followed by an assessment, then the third round delivered to the head. Today, of course, the “failure drill” is two shots to the chest and one shot to the head as quickly as possible. Removing that moment of assessment might work well for sworn LEOs, but for the private citizen, failure to assess could mean legal jeopardy.

As an end-user and sociological analyst of the private citizen gun training industry, but not a “subject matter expert” myself, I have no way of saying whether this is a better or the best way of teaching defensive firearms. But I can say that it made sense to me, then and now.

Furthermore, the CFS method was definitely a case in which observation alone was not enough to “get it.” So I appreciate Rob Pincus’s insistence that I shoot rather than just observe.

In the end, we know empirically that most “defensive gun uses” are successful even without firing the gun. We know from Tom Givens that most of his students who successfully used their guns in self-defense had only basic firearms training. We know from Karl Rehn’s work that few gun owners take any advanced training at all (the 1%).

So why not teach a method that is based on where people are rather than where we wish they would be?

[More in a following post about sighted vs. unsighted fire and the balance of speed and precision]


  1. I had a similar moment of vapor lock during the sort of drills Pincus uses. Former CFS trainer Paul Carlson was doing a drill where we were moving up and down the range, with the commands “Front,” “Middle,” and “Rear,” to designate which distance to the target line he wanted us to move to. The problem is that “FRONT!” is also a range command that means “Target Front.” Twice or three times when he said it I immediately started to draw and address the target and had to be stopped from shooting between people moving forward to the front line. I was tired and mentally overloaded.

    Strangely enough, there was another shooter who was having the worst trouble shooting. But when he got overloaded and couldn’t overthink his shooting, he was really good.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Since I was the only person who was reacting this way, and a lot of it had to do with being exhausted from failing to get adequate rest on Saturday night, I can’t really blame him for my errors.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve done the drill in a CFS class as well.
      It is a great way to get the heart rate up, and as the commands are barked out (after a full day of physical training and hyper-mental focus) it certainly demonstrates the effect of frazzled synapses and heaving lungs on reacting to unpredictable stimuli. (On the ever-changing 360 degree environment of a true Critical Incident the stimuli would be truly unpredictable. As long as we’re talking “context,” we at least know we’ll be reacting to one of three actions in this drill. It’s a better “context” than a sunny, fat’n happy flat range static drill, though!)
      The ‘Figure 8 Drill’ was an eye opener, too.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. No critique, just a tweak (you seem to welcome such and per the question mark re: LAPD and the ‘failure drill’ …)
    LAPD brought the drill back from, surprise, surprise, Jeff Cooper.
    The drill’s original name was the “Mozambique.” A friend of Col.Cooper’s told him about shooting someone during the conflict and how the accepted “two to the body” didn’t work. The surprised shooter quickly followed up with one to the head (which, the story goes, was a little low but effective).
    Col.Cooper added the practice to the Gunsite 250 and a couple of LAPD officers attending the class (late 70s? early 80s?) asked if they could borrow it back home.
    It is still called ‘The Mozambique’ in some circles.

    Looking forward to part II.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. CFS was dealt with some what indirectly in my armed security range day. We had to be up very early to go out, then there was a long delay. The shooting day included night qualification so it wound up being a 14 hour day for me. Plus it started to rain and it was a cool day in March which all you with military experience will say ‘good training!’. I had issues during the night firing part with holding my pistol. We all were wet, cold and tired by the end of the day.

    We were taught a 3-2-1 firing sequence. I asked why that pattern later and was told get 3 off on target fast, asses, still moving? 2 more off on target, asses, still moving? get 1 more off on target, asses. Didn’t say what to do if still moving if all 6 went into the target.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Just did a six hour live online (ah, the modern world with its contradictions) Law of Self-Defense Level 1 class with Andrew Branca. A case he uses to illustrate the need to assess your threat during the fight is the Michael Dunn case in Florida. The jury deadlocked on the initial two sets of 3-4 shots, fired a second or so apart, so at least one person thought his actions were reasonable, but the jury unanimously convicted on the third burst, fired just six seconds later.

    I can heartily recommend Branca’s book and would recommend his classes, live or online, to anyone as a vital component of self-defense knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Did not demonstrate in terms of showing me live fire what I was supposed to do before I did it. Barret Kendrick did show me what my lateral movement and draw stroke should look like once I started flubbing it.

      Pincus and all of the instructors did shoot drills, however, at one point or another during the weekend. The instructors had a shoot-off for prizes (Ernie Traugh was a top finisher and won a $100 CrossBreed Holsters gift certificate, which he generously gave to me). Those who didn’t shoot well were used as students for instructor candidates, so shot the drills then – but that is not demonstration in the sense you mean it I don’t think.

      I was also given the opportunity to do an abbreviated Combat Focus Carbine course, taught by a couple of instructors under the direction of a lead instructor. There was no demonstration then either in the sense of “here is what you should do” live fire.


  5. […] Some time ago I wrote about NOT shooting as an “occupational hazard” of studying gun culture. In 2017, as part of the research for the chapter of my book on the gun training industry, I saw at least 100,000 rounds fired. But shot only about 1,000 rounds myself, max, and 400 of those were one weekend at Rob Pincus’s Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Conference. […]


  6. […] I know this list is incomplete (there are some North Carolina CCW courses I attended that I cannot find my notes for) and I will update it as possible. That said, my recorded time “in the field” totals 726.5 hours. About two-thirds of this is pure observation (504.5 hours) and roughly one-third is participation (222 hours). In 21 of the 71 events logged I engage in live fire. (I have discussed the pros and cons of participation vs. observation previously, here and here.) […]


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