Civilian Lessons from Ex-Action Guy Paul Howe

My last post about Paul Howe on “combat mindset” highlighted an important difference between the responsibilities of military and law enforcement compared to regular armed citizens. Military and law enforcement are required “to go into harm’s way, against great odds if necessary” (Howe, Leadership and Training for the Fight, p. 11). Although armed citizens may choose to do this, rarely are we obligated to (but see Gabe Suarez).

Having had his training and mindset put to the ultimate test in the “Battle of the Black Sea” in Somalia (recounted in Mark Bowden’s book and dramatized in the movie Black Hawk Down), what does “ex-action guy” Paul Howe have to teach regular guys and gals?

Paul Howe teaching Tactical Rifle 1 at Combat Shooting and Tactics (CSAT), Nacogdoches, Texas. Photo by David Yamane

According to Howe, he started his training company – Combat Shooting and Tactics (CSAT) – at the end of is active duty military career, which included service in the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (SFOD-D), a.k.a., Delta Force, a.k.a., “The Unit.” He began teaching courses for law enforcement, but soon “reverse engineered” his curriculum “so it would be applicable to anyone: civilians, law enforcement, detectives, state department, military across the spectrum.” His view is that “if it meets the DOJ [Department of Justice] standard – especially in terms of target discrimination and weapon handling – then it will work for everybody out there.”

The weekend I interviewed him, Howe was teaching his Tactical Rifle 1 course. The basic curriculum for that course is the same for civilians, military, and law enforcement. In fact, among students in the course ranged from a game warden to a novice rifle shooter.

Howe begins with the basics of safety and then turns to marksmanship, or what he calls “surgical shooting.” He teaching one curriculum for all students in part because, “When I run a class, it is a self-paced class.” Pointing to a target hung in his classroom he notes that the spinal column box on the target is the “kill zone.”

“If you start pushing bullets out of that zone then you need to slow down. That’s how you pace yourself. Your goal is accuracy over speed. So, we need to have safety first, and then we put accuracy over speed, building fundamentals and mechanics. You can shoot as fast as you want, as long as you keep it in that box.”

Following marksmanship comes target discrimination. Howe has me look at a Patty Hearst target in his classroom and tell him if it is a “shoot” or a “no shoot” target. I quickly see she is carrying a gun, but upon closer inspection I see that she also has a badge. My initial scan would have led me to the conclusion that it was a “shoot” target, something that happened in the shoothouse course I have written about previously (all 12 of us shot “no shoot” targets – a woman holding a beer bottle and an undercover police officer).

“No shoot” target from shoothouse course at Alliance Police Training. Photo by David Yamane

Although none of his students want to shoot innocents, the legal consequences of doing so are much worse for an armed citizen than for a member of the military or LE. Still, Howe teaches all of his students the same three “scans” to make on every person: (1) looking at the whole person, including their demeanor, (2) both hands, and (3) the waistline, where dangerous things tend to be kept.

Howe explains that at the start students will be spending 90% of their time on shooting mechanics and technical skills and just 10% on tactics. When they get their shooting down, they invert it: 10% shooting, 90% tactics. The same applies to civilian, military, and law enforcement. “Small techniques dovetail into higher tactical solutions,” he tells his Tactical Rifle students.

Which is not to say that the techniques are not applied differently under different circumstances. On the morning of the second day of Tactical Rifle, students are working on “breaking angles,” working barriers, stepping out to the right and left and taking shots at 75 yards, both standing and kneeling. Howe explains that the way he would use these techniques would differ if he is clearing houses in combat as compared to investigating a problem at his house.

Paul Howe supervising Tactical Rifle 1 student shooting. Photo by David Yamane

Some of Howe’s language recalls his military background. When he partners students up he calls them “battle buddies.” In addressing the issue of when to switch the rifle’s safety to “fire,” he says, “As soon as you decide to terminate life, come off the safety.” In talking about surgical shooting, he explains, “Sometimes you miss people in the head and you have to re-service it.”

But in the end Howe is cognizant of the different “rules of engagement” for armed citizens compared to military and law enforcement. He discusses a scenario of an unknown person showing up at one’s house. “Is it a drunk neighbor or someone in the wrong place?” This needs to be determined. Howe explains his approach: “I’m not going out the front door. Go out the back door and work to the front, assess, give verbal commands, give yourself cover and distance. Maybe the police get there and then the gun goes in the pine straw. You don’t want to take a life unless you have to.”


  1. Reblogged this on The Tactical Hermit and commented:
    I am proud to Call Fellow Texan Paul Howe a friend and mentor and can promise you YES he has a lot to teach the Average Armed Civilian. Do yourself a favor and save your shekels and take one of his classes, the life you save may be your own!


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