Gun Digest

The Fundamentals of Gunfighting

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The effective use of cover seems quite simple but it is both a science and an art. Good cover should provide the most protection to your body but also offer a good field of view so you can see what is happening around you. Try to note potential cover and defensive positions when in a new area before trouble starts.
The effective use of cover seems quite simple but it is both a science and an art. Good cover should provide the most protection to your body but also offer a good field of view so you can see what is happening around you. Try to note potential cover and defensive positions when in a new area before trouble starts.

While everyone hopes the only gunfight they’ll be in is on the Xbox, if you carry for self-defense, you have to be prepared for the real thing.

Defeating a dangerous threat through fighting is problem solving at high speed. You’re presented a problem. Normally, you have a short amount of time to come up with a solution and apply the actions necessary to defeat the threat(s). The exact details are unpredictable; each encounter is unique. But, we do know these fundamental skills will determine the outcome of the fight: movement, communication, the use of cover, shooting (if necessary) and the ability to think.


In almost all violent confrontations your number one priority is movement. If possible you move before the actual confrontation begins. You move to create distance from the threat or escape to a safer location. Moving to cover provides you with protection.

It may be necessary to move in order to obtain a clear angle of fire on the threat without endangering bystanders. Another advantage of moving is that it puts your opponent(s) in a reactive mode. A threat armed with a knife charges you.

You start stepping to the right. Now he must evaluate, make decision and react. Forcing the threat to react to you is always a good principle to apply. Moving is an important, fundamental skill.

Programming movement into our threat response is difficult. Once we decide to fight, our natural instinct—which is programmed for fighting with our hands, feet, teeth, clubs and impact weapons or knives we use as claws—is to root to the ground. The beauty of firearms is that we can be moving and still respond to the threat.


Yes, communication is an essential fighting skill. You communicate with the threat, issuing verbal commands, telling them what to do. There are literally millions of documented examples when the presence of a firearm and strong verbal commands diffused a situation.

You’re with family or friends. Through communication you check on their status, tell them what to do or where to go. There are bystanders without a clue. You have to step up, directing them toward an exit or safe area.

Communication is mandatory to coordinate your actions with armed partners or teammates. I use the acronym I.C.E. for communication—Inform, Confirm, and Execute. I inform my partner I want to move left.

“Moving left!” I’m asking for permission to move. My partner confirms my intent by repeating the command, “Move left!” This is communication, an exchange of information back and forth between the two of us.

Once I get confirmation I execute my action, announcing, “Moving!” There is also nonverbal communication, for example body language, paying attention to cues the threat may be exhibiting, or using hand signals to communicate with a partner.

Communication is an essential element to fighting and requires practice. If you don’t work on it you’ll get lockjaw under stress. You can always choose not to communicate, some situations may not demand it, but without practice it’s really difficult to remember to communicate.

Use Cover

Cover provides protection between the threat and their weapons. The attacker has a knife. Putting a car between him and you reduces the effectiveness of that weapon.

That’s a pretty simple concept. Using cover for protection against a firearm is more subjective. An object that provides protection against handgun rounds may not hold up against high-velocity rifle rounds. Among rifle calibers there is a significant difference in penetration.

A round of 5.56mm ball ammunition penetrates about 11⁄2 inches of concrete. A .30-06 armor piercing round penetrates five times that. Even a handgun round can punch a hole through a standard concrete block with three to four shots.

Most objects in our environments are bullet resistant as opposed to being completely bullet proof. While paying attention to what the people around you are doing, looking for possible trouble, you’re also taking note of where cover is located. At the first sign of trouble you’re moving to cover.

There are a few principles to apply when using cover. For example, creating distance between you and cover is a good idea.

This distance greatly reduces the danger of being injured by fragmentation and debris created by any incoming rounds hitting your cover.

Distance can create a larger area of protection created by your cover object, opening up your field of view so you can see more of what’s going on around you.

Whenever possible work around the side of cover, exposing less of your body than if you were working over the top of cover. To properly use cover requires plenty of practice.

Shoot If Necessary

There are two ways to stop an attacker. One, you change their mind about what they thought they were going to do.

You move to cover while issuing verbal commands and drawing your pistol. The threat decides it’s not worth it, breaking off the attack. The other option is to use your firearm to inflict the physical damage necessary to stop the attacker.

The key is you need to be able to shoot while moving, communicating, using cover or maybe from an unusual position, on your back from the ground. For example, you can move smoothly and shoot accurately, or you can move quickly and not shoot, at least not accurately.

The situation determines the best solution. It may be a lot better to move quickly, get behind cover for protection, and then if necessary put hits on the threat.

Or, the situation may require you to shoot while moving at a moving target. Shots to the chest don’t stop the threat. Where do you hit him next? The pelvic girdle is a good choice. Again, this is a trained, learned response.

We drill this into students at my school, Shootrite Firearms Academy. On the range, students make three or four shots to the chest and then hit the pelvic girdle.

But then when things get complicated—the target is moving, the shooter is moving, communicating and using cover—the shooter will place hit after hit into the chest, even though it’s not providing results.

In real life it rarely plays out like we think it should. You have to constantly be evaluating what you’re doing, and what you’re going to do next.

Practice shooting at the chest area or center mass of an attacker’s body. Follow up with a shot to the pelvic girdle. When taking cover, understand that there are more materials in the world that are bullet resistant rather than bullet proof. Even cinder blocks can be pentrated by certain calibers and catridges, so choose defensive cover wisely.


Violent confrontations—attacks—are sudden, dynamic and unpredictable. Remember, high-speed problem solving. When and where will your fight take place?

Answer that and you could avoid it completely, or prepare to face your opponents with overwhelming force. We don’t know how many threats will be involved. Statistics say there will be more than one; they’ll be at close range and moving.

Over 70 percent of fights occur in low-light environments. What will we do to win? Whatever it takes.

If you’re not thinking about solving the problem then all you’re doing is reacting to what’s being done to you.

Reacting means you’re always behind, a really difficult place from which to win a fight. In order to focus on your problem, the fundamentals—moving, communicating, using cover and shooting—have to be applied at a subconscious level.

These skills are the result of training, where you are introduced to the techniques, practice and learn through repetition.

Your weapon runs empty. You reload efficiently, getting the weapon back into the fight without delay. There’s no time to think about how to reload. It just has to happen. Ditto for clearing malfunctions if they occur, and they will, moving, using cover and shooting accurately.

These skills must be practiced until they can be performed at a subconscious level. Functioning at the subconscious level frees the conscious mind to think about the fight.

After the threat is down you still have to mentally stay plugged in. One threat is down. There may be others. You still want to get to a safer place or move your “team” towards an exit. The fight isn’t over until everything is locked down, secured and there’s no chance of anything else occurring. Then you’re facing a completely new set of problems to solve.

Make a Strategy

Start the fight with plan A, but when it doesn’t go like you think, have plan B and C ready. Plan X is for the unexpected.

No two fights are the same, so remain flexible and adapt as the fight unfolds. Fighting is part science, like the geometry involved in using cover, and part art. Sometimes something completely unorthodox is exactly the right solution.

To be truly prepared you must train, practice and learn to apply the fundamentals on demand. It’s great to read about it and become better informed, but until your response is ingrained in your nature, it’s only untested theory that will likely fail you should you ever face a true dangerous encounter. Don’t leave your survival to chance.

Tiger McKee is director of Shootrite Firearms Academy, located in northern Alabama and found on the web at He is the author of The Book of Two Guns, writes for several firearms/tactical publications and is featured on GunTalk’s DVD, Fighting With The 1911.

This article appeared in the January 27, 2014 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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