The day after I participated in The Complete Combatant’s Entry Level Pistol Essentials course in June 2020, I observed John Johnston of Citizens Defense Research teach his “Technical Handgun: Tests and Standards” course on the same range in Dahlonega, Georgia.
Before anyone freaks out, “stupid human tricks” is the title of a humorous segment from the classic Late Show with David Letterman. In using this as an alternative title for his “Technical Handgun” class, Johnston seemingly tries to downplay its importance. As he told me over dinner following the class, “For self-defense, this course is a waste of time and resources.”
As with the “stupid human tricks” title, there is a significant amount of self-deprecation in this statement. Although he does not teach self-defense tactics, techniques, and procedures in “Technical Handgun,” there is in fact a huge self-defense implication to the course. One which Johnston himself highlights in his introductory comments.
Compared to the better-known “Contextual Handgun: The Armed Parent/Guardian” he developed and teaches with his Citizens Defense Research partner Melody Lauer, the self-defense significance of “Technical Handgun” is not as readily apparent. But focusing on pure technical shooting ability does confer self-defense benefits.
Johnston connects this to the core learning outcome for the class:
Improvement runs through the four stages of competence from (1) unconscious incompetence (you don’t even know what you unable to do) to (2) conscious incompetence (you know what you can’t do) to (3) conscious competence (you can do something but it takes concentrated effort to do it) to (4) unconscious competence (doing the thing has become second nature and does not require conscious thought).
According to Johnston, “If you have a gun in your hand, lots of bad things can happen to you or others. The more you have to think about the gun, the harder it is to do good things. So, we need to strive for automaticity, unconscious competence. This has practical applications, of course.”
The ability to quickly and accurately access and fire a gun with unconscious competence frees our minds to make good decisions during dynamic critical incidents that require us to defend ourselves or others. Including decisions not to access or fire a gun.
Johnston has no illusions that he can in a one-day class get students anywhere near the desired level of unconscious competence. It is not even remotely a goal of the course. Rather, Johnston wants to show students where they are and teach them how to understand their shooting in a way that they can improve themselves.
As he says, “I want to introduce thoughts, a vocabulary, and mental and physical awareness of what’s going on during shooting. You need this to improve yourself.” He gives the example of a shooting drill in a typical class. The instructor asks the student, “How did that go for you?” The student looks at the target to see the results of her shooting and responds accordingly. “But what produced the result in the target?” Johnston asks me, rhetorically. “What created that target has already passed. But the feelings you have when you do something right or wrong carry over.” So it is imperative that students pay attention to what is happening in their minds and bodies when they are shooting so they can improve their technique and move toward the high end of the competence continuum.
To wit: The first part of the course ends with students shooting “Dot Assessment Madness” (DAM). DAM requires students to shoot rounds on each of 10 2-inch circles numbered 1 to 10 (on the Langdon Technical Technology LTT-1 target pictured above). They shoot the number of rounds indicated by the number in the circle, in the following order: 1, 10, 2, 9, 3, 8, 4, 7, 5, 6. The assessment is total time with each miss adding 1 second. 10 misses is a DQ. (For reference, Johnston shot DAM in 35.20 with 5 misses for a total par time of 40.20 seconds.)
In reflecting with me on DAM, Johnston says “DAM is allegedly ‘dot assessment madness’ but really it is ‘doesn’t actually matter.’” Which is to say, the manifest purpose of the assessment in terms of establishing a time/score does not matter as much as the latent purpose which is to induce certain feelings in the student that they can learn from. In fact, in the debrief during the lunch break that followed, Johnston asked the students, “What did you experience when you were shooting the DAM assessment?”
According to Johnston, “The ideal student for this class is someone who is good enough for other instructors to ignore.” As this person is rarely me, I did not participate in “Technical Handgun.” As it turns out, there was a very broad range of shooters in this particular student body, from novice to advanced. Here Johnston’s ability to adapt the course to his students really stood out.
The fact that he spends a significant amount of time – more time than in any other class I have ever taken or observed, in fact – working with students individually helped him manage the diverse student body.
As befits a course called “stupid human tricks,” working with students individually allows Johnston to get deep into the minutiae of shooting basics like stance, grip, presentation, sight picture, and trigger press. But rather than just telling students what to do and checking whether they do it, Johnston emphasizes the importance of students learning for themselves what shooting well or poorly feels like.
Although this is not a high round count course – in the first 6 hours students shot about 125 rounds, including 55 for DAM – it is intense in other ways. As the day wore on I observed students breaking down more and more in their fundamentals. This highlighted Johnston’s initial point about competence and how without unconscious competence the cognitive load on the shooter gets too high. If this manifests on a square range, one can only imagine how it might manifest in real life.
The fact that John Johnston taught this course in a “Don’t Worry [Image of a Bee] Happy” t-shirt was not an accident. It reflects his personal disposition, which I have characterized as a “Granola Libertarian.”
The orientation emerged also in his concluding comments to his students. “Thanks for your money,” he said, “but more for your time. You don’t know how much you have and you can’t get any more.” He then reminded them: