While scrolling through my substantial digital library the other day, I found a fascinating interview with the legendary lawman, Wyatt Earp. The exact date of the interview is not certain but is estimated to be later in his life, long after his most famous exploits. He was discussing what made a truly effective gunfighter:

“Models of weapons, methods of wearing them, means of getting them into action and operating them, all to the one end of combining high speed with absolute accuracy, contributed to the frontiersman’s shooting skill. The sought-after degree of proficiency was that which could turn to most effective account the split-second between life and death. Hours upon hours of practice, and wide experience in actualities supported their arguments over style.”

Note that he clearly understood the multiple factors that contribute to prevailing in an actual gunfight: choosing the right gun, the best method of carry, the technique used to draw the gun, the skill in operating the firearm and, most of all, the importance of “hours on hours of practice” in order to develop the requisite shooting skill.

But one of his statements made a particular impression on me:

“The most important lesson I learned from those proficient gunfighters was the winner of a gunplay usually was the man who took his time.”

Wait a minute! If you’ve watched most Western movies, you’ve probably seen lots of scenes showing lightning-fast duels between two gunfighters, with the winner decided in the blink of an eye. But Earp goes on to explain more clearly what he meant:

“When I say that I learned to take my time in a gunfight, I do not wish to be misunderstood, for the time to be taken is only that split fraction of a second that means the difference between deadly accuracy with a six-gun and a miss. Mentally deliberate, but muscularly faster than thought, is what I mean.”

Sort of reminds me of the old sniper’s saying, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” In my years of working with students, I have always advocated the same approach. You want to be fast, but not “hurried” to the point that you are banging the trigger as fast as humanly possible.

By increasing the time between your shots by just a fraction of a second, you will find a disproportionate improvement in your accuracy. And remember that by “accuracy” in self-defense, we mean “combat accuracy” — rapidly putting multiple shots in the center of mass. We are not trying to emulate benchrest shooters and their “dime-sized” groups.

I usually introduce this concept by first instructing the students to stand at the ready position, guns extended and ready to fire. At my signal (usually a whistle) the students fire three shots as rapidly as possible. We then inspect the results, which normally show the first shot hitting fairly close to the center of mass but the follow-up shots being either too high or too low, with some off to the left or right.

We then repeat the three-shot exercise, but this time a tiny bit slower. The results are always eye-opening. With few exceptions, the groups are much smaller and more centered. Yet the speed is always more than sufficient for a combat scenario.

Earp had some keen insights which have stood the test of time. Choose good equipment, practice relentlessly and remember to balance speed and accuracy.

Good advice.