Retention shooting is a phrase that’s commonly used, but poorly understood. We tackle the visible part of the iceberg, and give some ideas on retention training.
In the world of fighting with a handgun, it’s hard to find a more vetted course and instructor than Craig Douglas, whose course ECQC has – for many – redefined what it means to fight in extreme close quarters.
The shooting world is based almost entirely on shooting non-hostile, inanimate objects, which for all intents and purposes, is the same as just performing katas in a dojo without ever sparring. While this was OK for the era in which no non-lethal options existed to train with, it’s simply unacceptable in the age of Sim/FX. More egregious is the number of people making bold assertions about how they think gunfights might go, without testing them in the laboratory that force on force gives us.
Because of this, it’s commonplace for emulation without proper training, conceptual understanding, and structured development to go running through social media like Cholera through a medieval village. The stuff you see there might look cool, but smoking cardboard knuckleheads by the dozen is easy in comparison to fighting a living breathing human who doesn’t wanna get shot and wants to shoot you. The purpose of this article *is not* to train you on integrating retention into your practice, but it should serve to highlight the necessity of competent instruction on the topic – even if you’ve managed to get through fights or gunfights thus far.
One of the most flagrant and mind-numbing examples entered the world as the “speed rock” (which also gets called ‘retention’ or ‘hip shooting’), and has changed very little to this day. Even now, it won’t take much work to find high profile, well-credentialed instructors from all sorts of backgrounds demonstrating what they refer to as ‘retention’ shooting. Let’s have a look:
The video’s creator states the following:
“I’m not an expert. This is not a video that shows defensive tactics…” – The video’s author
Which isn’t going to be evident to everyone who sees it. A byproduct of the “look at me” egocentrism of Social Media is that a lot of people spend a ton of time building the wrong skills, in ways that look cooler than they really are.
When confronted, the producer of the content nearly always falls back on “Well, I was just demonstrating some shooting techniques” or the like. If your purpose for owning a gun is sport, and you have ZERO ambition of using it to defend yourself, that could be fine. If you are armed because you want to protect yourself or your people, it’s not good enough.
Let’s break down why.
First things first, having the first move as a “good guy” (see: regular citizen) isn’t going to happen. Period. Any situation in which you pull your pistol and start blasting from the hip skips us straight to the middle of a bad scenario in which we’ve already failed.
Well, if someone is presenting you with a lethal threat, you need to be able to qualify your decisions with 3 main points:
As it relates to this scenario, capability means they possess a means to inflict deadly force, opportunity means they’re in a position where they’re able to injure or kill you, and intent means they’ve made it obvious they intend to harm you.
If someone has the drop on you, it really doesn’t matter how fast you draw, it’s unlikely to be fast enough. Even if it is – you’re probably not going to have enough time to hit that second guy before he nails you. If, by this point, you’re saying “yeah right, I’m really fast”, stop.
Have you done it in force on force? If yes, was that force on force entirely non-consensual, or was it a demonstration environment that didn’t fully pressure test the method?
If you have, congratulations, you’ve earned the right to now start questioning whether or not those couple handgun rounds are going to instantly stop the threat.
No matter who you watch, from Rangers to Instagram celebs, you’ll see some presentation of ‘retention’ shooting, and it seems like it’s always done against cardboard. In this article, we’re going to cover some major issues with this entire concept, from the physiology to the training methods. Having been in several situations where I found myself in fights with guns present, we’re going to make some really critical points, and discuss better ways of doing things. Before we do, I want to say again that no single person has been as influential or successful in pressure testing these concepts than Craig Douglas in his course ECQC. I’ve attended it three times now, with military, SOF, police, and citizens, and in the mixed weapon environment of street level altercations, it doesn’t matter what sphere of violence you came from, extreme close range fights are their own world.
So, let’s discuss the things that happen when guns enter the fight.
Establishing the Lethal Threat
Let’s assume you’ve done everything right – you’re not doing stupid things around stupid people, and you’ve still managed to find yourself in a confrontation. If you’re at all concerned with the legal aftermath, here’s the reality: You won’t have the first move. You won’t decide who attacks who, when, how, or with what.
You don’t have a right to a fair fight. All you can do is manage the threats.
This means if you’re getting your ass kicked, but you’re otherwise in good health, pulling your strap is going to create more problems. There’s a tremendously important lesson embedded in this: You need to have some hand-to-hand skills, and you need to be physically fit enough to fight, all out, for 3-5 minutes.
Not only will this keep you out of prison for a bad shoot, it will establish a baseline level of competence so you don’t feel pressured into pulling your gun, which we will discuss. The second point of establishing the lethal threat is that once it’s on, by nature of the way criminal attacks unfold, you will be at a disadvantage.
Enter the ‘timing error’.
Timing Errors and IFWA
Craig uses the phrase “timing error” to describe the scramble to get a weapon into play without having a dominant position, and IFWA is an acronym that stands for “in-fight weapons access”.
It’s easy to forget that almost 100% of the training we do is “out of fight weapons access”. We draw and fire on a range without any real external pressure, and the way we think about drawing and shooting stem from that. Drawing your gun (or knife) while a guy who outweighs you by 40 pounds beats your face and flings you around is entirely a different problem than shooting on a range, and drawing a weapon while you’re taking a beating is a “timing error”.
This isn’t to say that getting that gun into play can’t result in success – you may manage to get a shot on someone while they’re beating or stabbing you, but the other side of that coin is a catastrophic failure – you introduce a gun into the fight that can be stripped out of your hands and used against you. If you do this while you’re vulnerable to a physical attack, you’ve committed a timing error with bad IFWA.
To emphasize this point, grab a training partner. Have him stand an arms length away, and using an inert gun, prop, or airsoft pistol, instruct your partner to simply get a hand on your pistol when they see you try and draw it. Now, move one step closer and repeat the drill. You’ll find that even someone with minimal training instinctively reacts to that draw as an aggressive movement, and will instantly fixate on that weapon. That tunnel vision – what Craig calls “weapons fixation”, directs everyone’s attention from establishing a dominant posture, and moves it to securing that weapon.
Question 1: Will moving it to your hip make a difference? Give it a try.
Keep in mind that attacks don’t usually happen 1-on-1. One time, I got attacked by three dudes in an alley, and they were on me before I had a chance to get out. Even a reasonably fast draw would have been easy to foul up, and before I would have even had a chance, one of them blasted me in the face. Recognizing that I was in a bad position in terms of maneuvering (nowhere to really go) and in a bad position relative to them (my back to the wall, them blocking my path, being outnumbered), the move I chose to make was blast him right back and push through them, leaving them with their back to the fence. It worked out (though it got a lot more violent before it got better) due in large part to the fact that I hit ’em with that reverse draw 4 by splitting a lip. Be able to take a crack on the jaw, or better yet, see that thing coming and hit first.
Dominant positioning in a fight between people isn’t too different than establishing tactical superiority in a gunfight; you want the enemy to be structurally weakened, and attack him from oblique angles that compromise his balance, posture, and bilaterality of his body (meaning he can’t use both arms or legs). Typically, we want to move to where we’re perpendicular to the enemy, and dominating one of his sides so that we can push him off balance. This is a very broad brush view of the topic, and real talk: if you find yourself wondering how this is achieved, you should stop reading this, go spend 6 months learning some MMA, and return for the rest later. Having a firm understanding of standing grappling, ground based grappling, striking, and some cool under pressure is a non-negotiable pre-requisite for working your way into the more advanced skills.
Now, as important as anything else is the following: this is extremely dangerous, especially if there’s more than one person to consider. Superior numbers exponentially increase the difficulty of fights like this, and don’t forget that if people are out looking for trouble, there’s a good chance they’ve got weapons, too. One of the tendencies we see both in real world fights and training videos, is the tendency to backpedal.
Backpedaling vs Arc Stepping
The thing about backpedaling is it seems like a pretty solid idea. Everyone says stuff like “make space so you can get to your handgun”, right?
Saying “make space” is so abstract that almost nobody can define exactly what they mean or how they plan to do it consistently and safely in a fight.
Think of making space to get to a weapon as an fork in the road of weapons fixation, which occurs when you’d rather try and shoot than physically jockey for a dominant position… One path takes us down the road to a timing error, and the other recognizes the need to fight your way to a dominant physical position first. As with grappling, there’s an element of dominance just in the way we stand. I don’t mean like puffing yourself up to look tough, but in terms of positioning, we can say that you’re in a better position to strike if you’re behind someone than if you’re directly in front of them. Backpedaling keeps us directly in front of someone, so at best, it’s movement – not maneuvering.
On a range, where you know what’s behind you and have no real risk of running into someone, being blindsided by an oblique attack, or tripping over a curb, all you risk is throwing yourself a little off balance. In real life, outside our controlled environments, this can have serious consequences. When you’re moving straight backwards, you run the risk of being freight trained by an accomplice, tripping, hitting a vehicle or other environmental fixtures, such as curbs, signs, trashcans, etc. Especially when disentangling from a ground fight, we absolutely have to use this time as an opportunity to maneuver.
In addition to putting yourself in danger, backpedaling allows the momentum of the fight to switch if the opponent can get up off the ground and rush you. Worse yet, if you both have handguns and you commit to an exchange of fire, you’ve got some “high noon” nonsense with lead flying everywhere, and pretty equal chances of being shot.
If you arc step around from the side to the head of the adversary, they have to get up and reorient their body to press their attack. Not only this, but as you arc, you can scan for other threats, and make better decisions about what your next play is.
When you really think about it, it’s hard not to ask “Why do we backpedal at all?”
Well, it’s a natural, instinctive response, for one. We want to get away from the danger, not closer to it. Secondarily, it’s how we train on the range, and there’s no one there to beat our @$$ when we do, so there’s no negative reinforcement for the bad practice. Sometimes it’s really not possible to arc, which is also a concern. One altercation I got into was in a corridor, while wearing my pack. After grappling to stop the strikes, we ended up going to the ground in a narrow hallway. Fortunately there was no secondary attacker, but be aware that these linear spaces can cause serious problems (just as they do in maneuver warfare), and the only real choice is to blast through and get on the other side of the attacker(s), which is still the better option than backpedaling.
A final word on backpedaling… it happens so often on the ‘gram and YouTube that you might not have even noticed it. Watch for it from now on. Once you realize how few people have any real experience with what they’re teaching, it’s hard to go back unless you just find it entertaining.
Dominant position and Shooting from Retention
As we talked about, dominant position isn’t something you read about and then go do. You have to physically learn the requirements of fighting your way to the advantage under competent instruction, and even then those advantages might be fleeting. While we want to get way deeper into this, the basic idea behind this is that if you can’t maintain the position for more than a couple seconds, accessing a weapon is probably a timing error and now you’re back to the dangerous “grapple over the gun” phase, which is a step backwards.
Just as important is this: if you *do* have dominant position, is this still a lethal force encounter?
There’s a good chance it isn’t, and it’s easy to forget while we’re in a scrap, some dickhead is always standing there with his phone out recording you (usually with the screen straight up and down because people are just indecent). This is one of the lynchpin arguments we make at ISG; the citizen has it the worst. You have no legal aid, you must absolutely qualify your actions by satisfying the intent, capability, and opportunity metric, and if you start to take control effectively and still choose to shoot, you just became the ‘bad guy’ (which we know is idiocy, but it doesn’t change the way the law works).
If the threat IS still lethal, one of the things commonly seen is the ‘flailing’ of the pistol. When you draw that weapon, if it isn’t close to your body there’s a tendency for it to flail around, for a few reasons. First, the other guy is probably still thrashing around. Second, if he sees the gun he’s going to try and grab for it, which leads to the third problem of ‘floating’ the gun, which is when the shooter takes odd angles to try and make hits while keeping the pistol as far from the opponent as possible. This opens the door to three more big problems:
- Things move faster the farther they are from the axis of rotation. Think about an ice skater. The rotational inertia increases (actually, quadruples when you double distance) when her arms or legs are out, which causes her to spin faster. As it relates to a fight, it means it’s much harder to control your limbs while under the strain of a fighting enemy, and though we typically don’t spin around on purpose, you’ll find that’s exactly what happens when the standing grappling kicks off.
- A floating gun is far more prone to being grabbed, struck, or taken due to the fact that the farther your limbs are from your torso, the worse they are at exerting strength. Tom Givens says “there’s liability attached to every bullet”, so allowing the gun to float means you’re going to instinctively put yourself at risk for a negligent discharge. Just like we see time and time again that in shootings, people instinctively go to full extension, when there’s an active grapple with a handgun, there’s always some floating of the gun. We’ve got to rethink retention to solve this problem.
- Incomplete or loss of control of the firearm means an increased risk of negligent discharges.
So, with all of this in mind, does bracing the pistol against your hip seem like a good way to retain it if you’re up against a physical assault which you reasonably believe might kill you?
For us, the answer is “no”. On three occasions now, outside the professional sphere, I’ve been in fights in which I had a gun on me and knew it was an absolute liability. The other guy wasn’t armed, wasn’t looking to kill me, and didn’t have a gang of hard hitters backing his play. Even if you try to resolve the situation without a physical fight, the ultimate decision isn’t yours, and you need to be ready to retain that sidearm so it doesn’t jump in the game and up the ante.
Retention is just as much about having a good holster that can secure your gun while you’re in a non-lethal scuffle as it is about being able to maintain control over it if things switch from yellow to red.
So what’s the answer if not hip retention?
Well, once we make it perfectly clear that weapons access needs to be a deliberate effort that comes on the tail end of both dominant position and the imminence of lethal threats, what Craig refers to as the “thumb pectoral index” or “position two”, is the most stable position to fire from and retain, and it prevents floating the gun through a consistent, neutral, physical indexing of the pistol.
When done correctly, it creates consistency that can be used to get rounds on target. With that said, I’m extremely reluctant to draw into Position Two without a substantial physical edge on the opposition, because of the legal gray space that goes along with fights that escalate to lethal force. Having that positional dominance means you – at least in theory – have the time to assess on the move and make good decisions about how you use your weapons, if at all.
At this point, it bears mentioning that edged weapons in the ECQC environment can be an option as well, which introduces some unique advantages and disadvantages that we discuss in detail in our article “bring a knife to a gunfight“. While knives are associated with substantially lower mortality, they don’t jam and can be used to take space against an adversary who may have a weapon of their own.
It’s important to make some note of the importance of disarming as well. Not only will it help you defend your own piece, but if you’re fighting someone who pulls their piece, being able to make a play other than grabbing your own gun and hoping for the best is smart.
Position Two and Fending
The natural next step when discussing how to draw and fire from a position of retention is “Yes, but what if the gun is already out?”
For this, there are fending positions. which we discussed briefly in “One handed Shooting“. I initially heard about these methods back in 2005 or so, and a few years later again from Shivworks. The vertical and horizontal ‘fend’ have unique purposes, strengths, and weakness that really can’t be done justice by an article or video – you simply need to work them into Force on Force training.
For one, they’re rarely as “clean” as you see in videos. Even if you’re able to fend using them, the fending arm is often used by an adversary as a lever to control the body, meaning you get flung around if the encounter is close, which means under the best case scenario you’re probably still under some physical pressure to control your shots.
Fends aren’t all that different than the hip shooting retention stuff that’s all over the ‘gram. If you’re doing it against cardboard, there’s absolutely no way to validate that what you’re doing is being done right. It’ll be very easy to determine if you know what you’re talking about from experience, or if you’re just watching YouTube based on if you train to draw into a fending position. As we discussed earlier, presenting the handgun at this interval without having a postural edge means you’ll be fighting over the gun if your shooting has no effect or results in a malfunction. The types of fends have some advantages and disadvantages, so let’s look at them briefly. Again, this article and/or youtube videos aren’t substitutes for actually going out and training on these techniques under a competent instructor.
- Allows some concealment while moving
- Naturally acts as a ‘prow’ when moving through a crowd
- Doesn’t occlude much of the visual field
- Can be used as a strike to ‘initiate’ a fend.
- Presents an easier target for grabs/grappling
- Aggressive looking forward posture (may not matter)
- Protects the head during fending
- Quick to assume from a ‘default’ position
- Keeps support side arm clear from firing angles
- Harder to use as a weapon point for grappling
- Occludes some of the visual field
- Can expose axilla and attending vasculature, heart and lungs to penetrating wounds
This is a surface view of fending and how it’s applied to fights. Again, no amount of reading or video watching will prepare you to do this under pressure against a person intent on hurting you.
This is a long, dense article that is meant to be a higher level reference for those serious about learning the do’s and don’ts of close quarters problems. There are a few takeaways we hope will help guide your efforts as you consider whether the training and experiences you’ve had to date are enough to validate your training, or if more is necessary to stand firmly on them when you’re teaching others.
One of the most important points we want to reinforce is that Force on Force is to shooting what sparring is to martial arts. Even if you’re not about fighting, you’ve got to walk through the doorway if you have any plans to defend yourself.
If you just want to look good for the camera with a gun as a prop, no judgment. Just don’t get defensive when someone says that your approach is dangerously bad.