“You must learn to be cover conscious. Wherever you happen to be in the world, you should be aware of available cover around you.” So said John Farnam to the class of students gathered in the Rocky Mountains for a 40 Hour Advanced Defensive Pistol program. Use of cover is one of the most foundational tactics of gunfighting.  

The year was 1986 and I was all of 19-years-old. That would be my first professional firearms training course of many.  Mr. Farnam’s course was where I learned not only about cover versus concealment, but how to use cover properly. These lessons were driven home during the Force on Force building clearing exercises that we conducted using .50 caliber paintball revolvers. (*That was cutting edge at the time and long before Simunitions.)

Failure to use cover properly resulted in a painful, quarter-sized welt or welts on your body as well as the psychological embarrassment of having been “shot”. Being “shot” in a Force on Force scenario results in temporary pain and some embarrassment in front of your peers.

That, nonetheless, is nothing compared to the brutal results of failing to use cover or using it incorrectly in a genuine deadly force encounter. That is why we engage in training. We make mistakes in the training arena so we do not make them in the real world. However, what happens when we habitually engage in poor use of cover or ignore sound tactics all together? 

Stay back from cover. Expose the least amount possible. 

Norco Bank Robbery

In 1980, five men hatched a scheme to rob a bank in Norco, California. Their bank robbery attempt was amateurish, but they attempted to make up for lack of skill with heavy armament. 

During the first few minutes of the gun battle outside the bank, the getaway driver was killed.  The remaining four men hijacked a utility pickup truck and led police officers in a running gun battle that lasted nearly 45 minutes. Numerous officers were wounded, some critically, but only one officer was killed. 

At the very end of the chase, when the robbers were attempting to escape into a National Forest, they ran out of road and bailed out. The officer who was closest behind them jumped out of his unit and immediately opened fire, striking one of the men. This officer retreated to cover behind his car. After firing the remaining rounds from his revolver, he ducked down and reloaded. Two other officers were closing from behind and witnessed the lone officer drop behind cover, reload, and then pop back up to fire from where he had just been.  

The bank robbers waited, watched, and when the officer reappeared, they fired and killed him immediately. For all of his valiant effort, this officer died because he made one, single mistake. He violated a basic rule of cover. Never reappear in the place you just were. This is a tragic situation, but it is one from which we can learn.  

CLICK HERE to apply to be part of The Student Lounge.

Tactical Games or Not?

The coolest trend in firearm related games today is to engage in competitions that are referred to as “Tactical” this or that. The other term that is on the way out, but still used a bit is “practical”. Thanks to the devil that is socialist media, I am regularly exposed to short video clips of folks participating in “tactical” or “practical” shooting games.

Here is the truth, games are fun. People have been playing organized games for thousands of years and there is nothing wrong with that. I don’t have a problem with people playing games. 

That being said, we must view these games or competitions from an intellectually honest viewpoint. Despite having the words tactical or practical in the title, competitions are NOT a replacement for or just as good as dedicated martial training.

Martial training has at its core the stated purpose of teaching people how to use tools to save innocent lives, including their own, during a lethal force encounter. There are no points or trophies, but there definitely are winners and losers in a gunfight. 

My issue with “tactical games” is that when I see people playing them, I witness exceedingly poor tactics or a complete disregard for genuine tactics that are essential for survival in a real world encounter. Of the most egregious violations of tactics is the complete disregard for proper use of cover or pretending to use cover.

Intellectual Honesty? 

If playing gun games is your bag, go for it. Have a great time. Just don’t lie to yourself that you are engaging in some type of tactical or martial training activity. Be honest and admit that games are not reality.

As I have been training humans for over thirty years now, I can tell you that when the harsh reality of a lethal force encounter hits you in the face someday, you will default to whatever you have mastered. If you have mastered leaning over the top of your cover and exposing yourself to stabilize your gun, that is what you will do during the adrenaline fueled encounter. 

Another tactical absolute that I was taught decades ago was this, if the fight begins and you are not behind cover your feet should be moving. Standing still, without cover, is a great way to get shot in a gunfight. Remember, you LOSE all ties.

Have you seen people playing “practical” or “tactical” games where they are restricted to standing inside of a “box”? The timer goes off and they stand flatfooted, no cover, engaging multiple human-sized silhouette targets. “So what?” you say. “Who cares, they are playing a game.” Yes, indeed it is a game there is nothing tactical or practical about it. Don’t lie to yourself and say that there is.

If you aren’t behind cover, your feet need to be moving.

Every Tactical / Practical Sport Devolves into a Game

Consider, if you will, the origins of the Ultimate Fighting Championships. This sport was formed in the beginning to be the most realistic test of fighting ever. There were few rules other than no eye gouging or biting or strikes to the throat in the beginning. Hair pulling? Sure. Groin strikes? No problem. Choking people with their own gi/clothes? Go for it.

The original UFC had no weight classes or time limits. You went until you were knocked out or surrendered via submission. As you might know, the old school UFC was short-lived. It devolved into a sanctioned sport with specific rules and weight classes in order to survive.

The Practical Police Combat and the International Practical Shooting Confederation began with the idea that participants would engage in realistic, tactical or practical shooting exercises. The IDPA (International Defensive Pistol Association) was founded by PPC and IPSC veterans to get back to the tactical or practical roots after the gamesmanship took over both.

Even the late great Colonel Jeff Cooper promoted competitions. He organized the Leather Slap shooting competitions in Big Bear, California in 1956. Cooper hoped to get practical benefit from bringing together some of the best handgun shooters to compete against one another.

Our 60 plus year experience with practical or tactical shooting competitions has proved that, regardless of the intentions of the founders, they ALL devolve into games as competitors vie for trophies and prizes. Gamesmanship creeps into all of these events until any tactical or practical benefit is a distant memory.

Harsh Reality

The Four Pillars of Fighting are as follows; Mindset, Tactics, Skill and Gear. Mindset is naturally the predominant pillar as this is where all other choices are made. Tactics comes in second only to mindset and are more important than even skill and gear choices. 

The issue with competitions and games is that they encourage the participant to put the last two pillars; Skill & Gear, ahead of the first two; Mindset & Tactics. That choice is not so critical when the only thing on the line are prizes and ego. 

However, when your life or the life of an innocent person is on the line, a disregard for mindset and tactics can have deadly results. If you want to win prizes and boost your ego, play games. If you are serious about preserving life, yours and the lives of your loved ones, train diligently and seriously.   

The following two tabs change content below.
Paul G. Markel has worn many hats during his lifetime. He has been a U.S. Marine, Police Officer, Professional Bodyguard, and Small Arms and Tactics Instructor. Mr. Markel has been writing professionally for law enforcement and firearms periodicals for nearly twenty years with hundreds and hundreds of articles in print. Paul is a regular guest on nationally syndicated radio talk shows and subject matter expert in firearms training and use of force. Mr. Markel has been teaching safe and effective firearms handling to students young and old for decades and has worked actively with the 4-H Shooting Sports program. Paul holds numerous instructor certifications in multiple disciplines and a Bachelor’s degree in conflict resolution; nonetheless, he is and will remain a dedicated Student of the Gun.

Latest posts by Professor Paul Markel (see all)