WHY DO WE TEACH? Handgun Shooting Stances
By George T. Williams
Different stances for different situations
Photo Credit: Cynthia Williams, Cutting Edge Training, LLC
Handgun shooting stances are taught and reinforced through hours and years of training. Creating a stable shooting platform, from the soles of the feet through the hands, is necessary to obtain the hits on the target or, more vitally, on the Threat. Stances are performed with the legs comfortably bent, spine with a bit of a forward lean, with the arms either pushing and pulling, creating the dynamic tension for which the Weaver Stance is known, or pushing the hands forward symmetrically to form the Isosceles Stance. It is important to focus upon a proper stance in order to be more successful in surviving shootings, right?
Well, no, not really. Early formal stance training may be useful to a developing shooter. However, concentrating on perfecting a stance is generally counter to prevailing in a shooting. Most shootings take place at extremely close distances involving very large targets. They are very abrupt and extremely violent. Many officers find themselves in awkward positions—including on the ground and under something, e.g. a car—when the gunfight begins. The relationship of the handgun to your eyes is much more important to survival.
Stances May Be Counterproductive in a Gunfight
The mere mention of a “stance” automatically causes the legs to freeze into a solid, well-balanced base supporting the upper body as it fires the weapon. Marksmanship tends to require a strong foundation. However, accuracy, and thus the need for marksmanship, is contextual. In most gunfights, what the legs are doing is irrelevant to marksmanship needed to survive. Training to stand solidly in the open and trade shots with a murderous suspect is a sucker’s game—every bullet fired in your direction may end your life. While being a static target may theoretically have the possibility of increasing your accuracy, being a stationary target definitely assists the bad guy with his marksmanship and putting bullets through you.
Standing still with bits of red hot lead zipping past while being thumped by muzzle blast generally decreases any shooter’s accuracy potential. The more vulnerable you perceive you are, the less physically and mentally functional you are likely to become. Accuracy is more a factor of being able to cope with and overcome your perception of immediate personal vulnerability. While you are not likely to instantly affect the suspect shooting you (most bullets take time to cause the body to react), you can create a sense of more time, possibly increasing your ability to lay sufficiently accurate fire on the suspect to save your life. The tactical responses proven to likely increase your survivability is either sudden angular movement or moving to a corner and fighting from there. Static stances have no place in this lethal environment when you are behind the suspect in the gunfight and need to stretch time to effectively respond.
Developing the capability for precise fire is a necessary skill for any shooter. However, precision is rarely called for in an actual shooting. “Combat Accuracy” is all that is necessary for survival. Paraphrasing Rob Pincus, combat accuracy can be defined as “Any round disrupting the imminent threat to life.” This may mean a bullet strike to the brain or spine, a hit in the upper thoracic cavity, the pelvis, or any bone. Sometimes simple “minute of human” accuracy to any part of the body is sufficient, but no single bullet can be counted on to stop the fight.
For the balance of this discussion, let’s assume that the legs are doing their thing independent of the upper body’s efforts—this may be moving, crouching, or kneeling. Therefore, this discussion will be about a Modified Weaver or Modified Isosceles and their contextual usefulness.
The position of the arms in the Weaver Stance, characterized by the push-pull tension of both hands on the grip of the handgun, arguably provides a very stable platform for accurate fire. This shooting method was popularized by Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper as the “Modern Pistol Technique,” permitting more precise shot placement at small targets at any distance.
Fundamentally, the body is bladed and the shooting elbow is locked straight, with the gun hand pushing the handgun forward. The support hand’s palm contacts the shooting hand’s fingers, pulling directly back with the elbow bent and pointing downward. Many have been taught to shoot with their shooting elbow bent and pushing forward. This is an error. Instructors attempting to mimic Col. Cooper’s shooting style are apparently unaware that a combat injury prevented him from extending his arm. He taught to straighten gun arms.
The FBI’s “Violent Encounters” study (2006) revealed that more than 97 percent of shootings begin with the suspect shooting first. A human’s “startle response” to surprise results in spinning to directly face the threat, hands up at face level and extended to protect the eyes and throat, with the spine forward in a semi-crouched position. Problematically, human factors and the Weaver hold are counter to the body’s reactions in a sudden shooting situation.
It is a rare shooter trained in the Weaver method who does not react to sudden and unexpected gunfire by instantly moving into an Isosceles upper body (regardless of what the legs are doing). In scenario training where there is no expectation of actual injury—with only minor pain penalties when hit by marking cartridges or Airsoft pellets, the sudden response to unexpected “deadly threats” by “Weaver-trained” shooters is almost invariably an Isosceles-type reactive response. This is even seen on the range where there is no personal peril whatsoever. Shooters tend to transition into the classic Weaver hold apparently as they realize they are in the “wrong stance.”
When wearing body armor, the Weaver stance also presents the non-dominant side’s arm hole to the Threat. Because the Weaver can only be properly employed in a bladed stance, the strongest part of the body armor (center chest where the shock plate is located) is in an irrelevant position, with the unprotected armpit placed in the most vulnerable position. Wounds from bullets traversing the body laterally through the axillary region, that is, from side to side through the armpit, are incredibly threatening to survival because they tend to pierce multiple organs and vital blood vessels of the upper thoracic region.
The Weaver hold can be ideal when fighting from a corner. With most of the body covered by the barricade, the stability of this hold is put to use making longer-distance or precision hits. Corners give you time. Marksmanship is all about having the time to put the bullet on target.
The Modified Isosceles is a reactive “stance.” The Isosceles (upper body square to the threat, hands pushed forward at eye level, the legs doing what they do in that specific situation) reflects how humans naturally react when faced with a sudden close threat. The upper body of the Isosceles mimics the natural startle response, as seen in video after video of officers responding to real-life threats by punching their handguns out in front of them. It is a human instinct to put a weapon between you and the perceived threat.
While generally not as inherently accurate at distance as the Weaver hold, it doesn’t have to be. Combat-effective accuracy requires only hits on target, preferably in most cases, with bullets impacting within 3–6 inches of each other, creating as much damage to multiple organs as possible. At close distances where the Isosceles-style will likely be employed, a high degree of precision fire is generally not necessary for survival. Hitting the threat well, quickly, and often is more critical to winning.
If wearing a ballistic vest, the Isosceles hold keeps the center of your vest facing the threat, affording you maximum protection. It also supports moving and hitting. When the shooter moves in any angular or lateral direction, the Isosceles hold supports hitting until the angles become too severe, forcing the shooter to transition to a one-hand hold.
Not a Question of “Either/Or”
Either/or is not a question for warriors or trained professionals. Paraphrasing Gabe Suarez, the context of the problem determines strategy; strategy determines tactics; and tactics determine the methods and skills employed to solve the problem:
- Where’s the Threat? Either close or far, big or small.
- What’s his weapon? Firearm or blade.
- What’s he doing? Charging you or standing. Grabbing you or firing from behind cover.
- Are you surprised or did you have enough time to prepare? If you had time to prepare, you are likely behind a corner.
- Are you willing to engage in this violence or are you still frantically looking for alternatives? Remember the old saying, “Once you’re in the fight, it is way too late to wonder if this is a good idea.”
These questions will likely not be answered so much as reacted to. Realistically, this decision is not made as it is responding per your training to the situation suddenly erupting in front of you. What you will likely find is that stance is a fluid concept when bullets are in the air. Keeping the weapon between you and the imminent threat, somehow interrupting your eye-target line, referencing the sights in some manner, and pressing the trigger when likely to hit him is how most officers win their gunfights.
All plans are made for flat terrain and sunny weather regardless of the ground-truth. Having a rigid plan to engage in a gunfight with a certain weapon hold and stance is unrealistic. Training and expectations of “how it’s going to go down” may not match your immediate needs—especially so if dogma rules your decision-making. Desperately clinging to a “style” or “method” may mean that you are attempting to drive a nail with a screwdriver in a life-and-death situation. While a screwdriver is a fine and necessary tool, it cannot be applied in every situation. The same is true of a shooting stance where dogmatic adherence to a “style” due to guru worship or personal ego investment may leave you confused, unable to effectively respond, and perhaps horribly injured.
If you’re suddenly attacked at close range and are purely reactive, you’re most likely to shoot (and hopefully move) in some form of a Modified Isosceles platform. From contact to rock-throwing distances, movement is the highest initial survival priority—hitting the threat is a very close second. However, if you are fighting from a corner, employing the Weaver platform is more likely to get the needed hits, especially if the threat is at a good distance or behind his/her own cover. Fighting from a corner creates the perception time, and if you have the time to make a precision shot, Weaver may help you obtain that hit.
The bottom line in any deadly force response is to interrupt the eye-target line with the weapon, and once the weapon is on-target, to fire repeatedly slowly enough to hit him as long as you perceive the imminent deadly threat remains. How the body supports this is context-dependent and based on the tactics you employ to survive. The old bromide certainly applies: “In 20 years, no one will care about which caliber or stance you were using in the gunfight. All they’ll care about is whether or not you won the fight.” PM
George T. Williams is the Director of Training for Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, Wash. He has been a Police Training Specialist for more than three decades, as well as an expert witness in federal and state courts nationwide and a widely published author for more than two decades. Mr. Williams develops and presents revolutionary concepts within integrated force training solutions through a problem-solving format, functionalizing police skills and tactical training. He may be contacted at email@example.com.