You are on page 1of 17


British experiences in the development of combat shooting.

Prior to the First World War the pistol was considered as a rather superfluous close-range weapon, to be fired one handed. The cavalry (the then elite military formation) carried pistols for point blank emergency situations, for use against infantry/ irregulars if the sabre, or, lance had been lost. In this situation the pistol would, of necessity, be fired one-handed, since the other would be controlling the

reins. Duelling codified the use of the pistol in single hand, side-on stance. These major influences shaped sporting, police and military training, so that the "correct" way to train for combat was on bullseye targets, from the single-hand duelling stance. When police and military agencies first started formal training in pistol shooting they tended to turn to the "experts", the guys who were formally recognised in this type of bullseye shooting, in other words, recreational shooters. A typical police force would take the top competitors and make them the force firearms instructors who would then stipulate the range facilities and training program. People teach what they know, and if you employ target shooters, they will teach target shooting. This accounts for virtually every police/military pistol range being of at least 25yds length.... there is no tactical reason, it comes from sporting regulation. Changes and improvements have been driven by two factors. For military training the impetus for change has been war. For police firearms training change has generally resulted from tragedy, from conspicuous cases in which officers were killed. In this article we are going to discuss benchmark influences on British military pistol training. Right from the start I want to emphasise that this is in no way a definitive history, it is more a work in progress, and a framework for discussion. Hopefully, this will be continually revised as new information is made known. Readers who can add to the tale are warmly invited to contact the author, and their input will be included. During times of war and conflict a certain type of man comes to the fore. He is a man who can defy accepted doctrine, and blow convention away. He sees what needs to be done and doesn't rest until it's done. In the following study we are going to meet characters that did just that in the field of pistol training. We will compare their techniques and look at commonalities. ALBION'S GUNMEN Today liberal sentiment is highly critical of the British Empire, but whatever the faults it provided the British Army and Colonial Police Services with a wealth of experience. Tribal confrontations, border disputes and insurrections gave soldiers and police practical experience. From these ranks many radical thinkers emerged, men who realised that bullseye target shooting was a woefully deficient preparation for fighting. I've heard of one officer who would take primed cartridge cases and press the casemouths into blocks of soap, forming a hard soap "bullet". He would load these into his service Webley. In the garden he would have his servants surround him, armed with a variety of sticks and bludgeons, then at random rush him. Our hero would then respond with well-placed shots to his human targets, giving him practise in reactive accuracy. (Note the author has been shot numerous times with wax, plasticine and other training rounds, and can only imagine how much those .455 soap bullets sting!)

The earliest influential figure in our study is Arthur Woodhouse, an officer with the United Provinces Police in India. The result of his experiments was offered in the "New Revolver Manual for Police and Infantry Forces" published in 1907, with the stated objective "to give sound advice on how to practise in order to become a good shot- and to urge more practical training. Woodhouse was a proponent of unsighted snap-shooting for close range confrontations. The shot was fired by "whole hand squeeze" while the pistol was sweeping up through the target. As we will see, these two techniques form a common thread. An innovation was his "revolver pit" a 20 yard circular bay enclosed by a 14 foot high mud wall. A series of target zones were marked on the wall, and the shooter had to engage them according to the random commands of the instructor. Scores were noted, then bullet holes filled with wet mud, which quickly dried in the Indian sun. IN THE TRENCHES In the bloody hand-to-hand trench raiding of World War One many fearsome close-range impact and edged weapons were devised and employed (still on view in the Imperial War Museum). At hand to hand range, in ankle-deep mud the pistol was a valued weapon but again, bullseye training proved inadequate. Captain Charles Tracy was a voice of reason. In his "Revolver Shooting in War", published in 1915 he says " Fine drill method is one thing, revolver fighting is another". An advocate of the "whole hand squeeze" and "vertical lift", like Woodhouse his preference was for the revolver rather than the semi-auto pistol. Tracy constructed a number of tactical training ranges, where his students could search a "ruined village", or, navigate an "enemy trench". Targets appeared, moved dropped. At night the student would wander into booby traps, which would detonate; briefly illuminating targets to be taken by snap-shot. Following World War One, the regular army went back to conventional target shooting, but practical minds were still at work in the colonies. THE SHANGHAI BUSTER One place in which considerable development was done was Shanghai. This prime trading city was a hotbed of smuggling, drugs, vice and armed violence. Kidnapping for ransom was so common that all major street junctions had sirens to alert the police to any attempts. A former Royal Marine (who had competed in the then widespread Bayonet Fighting competitions) William Ewart Fairbairn joined the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) and by 1910 was a training sergeant in charge of firearms. Among his many accomplishments Fairbairn became the first foreigner to receive a black belt in judo/ju-jutsu, and also trained in Chinese Kung-fu. Although uniquely qualified the first thing Fairbairn did was reject his own training! He dismissed Chinese Boxing as being 80% ritual, and similarly pared down Ju-jutsu to the most practical core. Likewise, he eschewed the orthodox SMP pistol training in

favour of his own radical concepts. Fairbairn didn't confine himself to the range, he went out on raids, and attended every high-risk incident. In 1919 nine SMP members were killed in shootouts. The SMP Watch Committee investigated and asked Fairbairn what the problem was. "There is nothing wrong with the men. It is the antiquated methods that you insist they be instructed in. More attention is being paid to winning silver cups than in shooting to live." Fairbairn then outlined his own ideas, and was given power to research and upgrade weapons training. . Keypoints of the Fairbairn pistol system included:1] The Battle Crouch. By observing and taking part in armed encounters for many years Fairbairn noticed that men naturally tend to adopt a crouching stance under imminent gunfire threat. He thought it logical to train the men to shoot from this position. 2] Instinctive Point. SMP officers often had to shoot under conditions of adverse lighting. Many encounters were at night. Others entailed going from a sunny street into a dim dwelling. In these conditions Fairbairn reckoned that reliance on the sights was unworkable, and he trained the men to shoot by use of their innate sense of direction. As an exercise to clarify the instinctive point, Fairbairn would have the trainees face a partner. In turn, each would point at their partner's eye, shoulder, or foot so as to become accustomed to the idea of aiming by sense of direction. 3] Convulsive Grip: "Grip the pistol firmly, as if it weighed thirty pounds" Regarding equipment, Fairbairn recommended Colt 45 Autos for European Officers (Chinese officers carried .380s due to their small hands). While uniformed officers carried in Condition-3 (chamber empty), plainclothes CID officers were allowed to carry concealed in Condition-1 (round in chamber). Although ammo allocations are tiny by current standards (22 rounds for initial training, followed by 16 round qualification tests every six months) it must be seen in perspective. At that time most US Police Departments had no annual qualification tests. Fairbairn sought to maximise the training effect of even this tiny allocation, by, for example having 6 rounds fired after running an obstacle course...what would be termed "stress shooting" today. Also, during requalification officers had to engage moving targets, a practice still not done by the majority of current police/military units. Fairbairn introduced a unique training target, which was a massive 8' square, with a silhouette printed in the centre. Previously, a trainee would get feedback from hits, but would have no idea if his misses were off to the left, right, high or low. The new target provided feedback on the missed shots too, and feedback promotes learning He created his famous "Mystery House", a structure representing a Chinese lodging house, which the trainee had to negotiate as if on a raid. Pop-up targets, dim lighting, friend/foe target identification problems, sound effects (music,

screams), distractions (firecrackers) made this the most advanced CQB training course of the time. SPECIAL DUTIES The Fairbairn influence continued with the onset of WW2. Having retired from SMP Fairbain offered his services to the British Government. He became the close-combat and silent killing instructor for the Commandos and for the SOE. Later he was sent to Canada and the USA to train instructors for the OSS. We must not neglect Eric A. Sykes in this discussion. He was a reservist with the SMP Sniper Unit, and a close associate of Fairbairn. One SOE source remembers hearing that Sykes was "the fastest shot on the Shanghai Police" Together Fairbain and Sykes authored "Shooting to Live" the textbook of their system. While Fairbairn stayed in the US, Major Sykes continued to train SOE and other Secret Service personnel until his death in 1945. World War Two produced several other prominent close combat instructors, notably Rex Applegate who was involved in training OSS and Military Intelligence. Colonel Applegate trained with Fairbairn, Sykes and other British instructors then brought the system to America. As this article is concerned with British instructors we will leave the illustrious Colonel Applegate to move on to our next study, a British officer who brought his training from America to England. This was Hector Grant-Taylor, and this is what I've been able to find out so far. SCHOOL FOR MURDER As a boy Grant-Taylor (GT) was taken to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show when it toured England. The lad was entranced by the displays of shooting. With his father he made several trips to the American West which further hooked him on shooting. He credits Charles Tracy for teaching him to shoot, but this was not the officer previously mentioned, but rather a Montana cattleman. Curious. For some reason the during the 1920s British Government arranged for him to be attached to the FBI and the Chicago Police Department, and he spent several years training with weapons, going on raids and debriefing shooters. It is rumoured that he took part in the Dillinger hit. At the start of WW-2 GT was involved with Combined Operations, working in some capacity with the Commandos. In 1941 he led a six-man team to Norway to kill eleven enemy collaborators. Shortly afterwards he was tasked to kill a group of Luftwaffe pilots in France. Landed by submarine GT and a backup shooter did the deed. Later in the War he operated in Italy, the Middle East, then finally, the Far East, where he worked under Field Marshal Slim's 14th Army in Burma. With this wealth of operational experience, GT was a sought after instructor in close-quarter combat. He would announce the subject thus..."This is a school for murder, murder is my business. Not the vague shooting of people in combat, but the personal, individual killing of a man in cold blood. It's an art which you have

to study, practise and perfect." Following this the trainees would be introduced to what GT called "The Laws of the Gun", which included: 1] The Grip, what Colonel Grant-Taylor called "fitting the metal hand of War" 2] Cocking and Firing. GT was a great fan of the modern revolver, however he emphasised single-action shooting." Whenever a gunman's gun clears the holster it arrives in his hand cocked and readied for action" The DA shot was excused only if the gunman was crowded or rushed. Firing is done by the convulsive grip.... "normal Army weapon training methods talk about how to squeeze the trigger. Forget the trigger. Concentrate on squeezing the orange" 3] Vertical Raise. Weapon held on centre line and raised through target. GT emphasised shooting with the forearm parallel to the ground, bent, at navel height. 4] The Battle Crouch..."this is an offensive stance, the gunman means business!" The standard of accuracy GT demanded was that all shots were placed on a target zone the size of a playing card. Once the basics were mastered GT put the men through his "execution shed" a series of live-fire shooting houses, similar to Fairbairn's "Mystery House." Like Fairbairn GT was a master of all forms of CQB. His unarmed combat syllabus is concise and elegant. THE SAS In 1960 Major John Slim was officer commanding D Squadron, 22 Special Air Service Regiment. The son of Field Marshal Lord Slim, he had trained under Grant-Taylor in the Far East. The SAS was in a retraining mode following their victorious campaign in Malaya and were preparing for future conflicts. On a training excursion to Kenya Major Slim took the opportunity to introduce the GT system to the SAS. A rudimentary CQB house was dug on the slopes of Mount Kenya, and the troops began hitting the playing card. The GT system was used for several years, then, when urban operations in a hostage-rich environment were envisaged, greater precision was demanded. A shoulder-point was adopted, which was, essentially the wartime Fairbairn stance. By the Way, John Slim eventually became Commanding Officer of 22 SAS as is generally regarded as one of the best. THE TECHNIQUES IN COMPARISON This brief overview should give the reader an indication of what the various instructors distilled from their experience, and what they regarded as the essentials of close-quarter shooting. The following chart should provide further clarification:

THE GREAT DEBATE The literature is full of discussions of "sighted fire versus point shooting" This article, obviously, presents the views of our highlighted British experts that some form of "sense-of-direction" shooting is best. This writer is going to swerve this debate, and put the case that a more important topic needs to be addressed. Every one of these authorities emphasised firing with the "convulsive grip", that is by using a "death grip" on the stocks, and pressing the trigger by use of the whole-hand squeeze. In my opinion sighting is not as critical as trigger action. You can be quite sloppy on the sights, and still hit the target.... even a playing card! This is easily demonstrated on range. However, trigger mistakes cause bad misses. The orthodox, target-shooting approach is to learn to isolate the trigger finger from the rest of the grip, and ensure that the trigger is pressed smoothly, while the remaining fingers maintain an even grip. Not easy to do on the target range, it really goes haywire when the bullets are coming the other way! As we now know, the fingers are the first thing affected by the motor-tremble of psychogenic stress. Rather than try to disarticulate the trigger finger the British experts suggested the convulsive grip, using your natural startle reaction to fire the shot. It is this, rather than the debate over sighting, which needs consideration, but I know of only one modern pistolcraft teacher who uses it, and that is Mass Ayoob. VALIDATION At the end of the day we need realistic training now more than ever. Modern innovations such as scenario work, using role-players, Simumition marking cartridges and with video review are to be welcomed. Also, the increasing use of surveillance video has given us a growing bank of actual shooting caught on camera. Now we are in a position to see exactly what happens under intense stress. It may be a long way timewise from firing soap bullets to Simumitions, but conceptually it's a short leap. Finally, in your training are you using methods designed to win silver cups, or, are you shooting to live? SOURCES: "Practical Pistol Shooting, a legacy of Empire?" by David Penn. Handgunner Magazine, issue 1. "Murder is his Business" by Frederic Sondern, Reader's Digest 1943 "Hector's job was Murder" by Cal Tinney, True Spy Stories, 1961 "The Close Combat Files of Colonel Rex Applegate", by Rex Applegate and Chuck Melson, Paladin "Ghost Force" Ken Connor, Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, London.

Personal information provided by former members of British Special Forces. ------------------------------Dennis Martin teaches regular VIP PROTECTION, CLOSE-QUARTER COMBATIVES and TACTICAL BLADECRAFT Courses. . Any individuals wanting to attend, or, any organisations wishing to book a course contact CQB Services 17 Dumbrees Road West Derby LIVERPOOL L12 6RB England Please include a Stamped/addressed envelope. Alternatively, E-Mail:








22 SAS troops working on the Grant-Taylor pistol system in Kenya. Supervising, on right, is Major John Slim


(Scroll to bottom of page for larger picture)

22 SAS troops working on the Grant-Taylor pistol system in Kenya. Supervising, on right, is Major John Slim Diagram of "enemy trench" range used by Captain Tracy to train soldiers during World War-One