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Applegate Combat Point Shooting System

September 9, 2011

In late June I took the Applegate Combat Point Shooting System class taught by Steve Baron. This is a bit unique among Suarez International classes in that it was not developed within S.I. The curriculum was developed by Rex Applegate himself. Steve is one of three instructors certified by Applegate to teach the system.

I shot the class with my Glock 17 equipped with the RMR red dot sight. Of course, this being a point shooting class I didn’t get much use out of the dot. I also brought along my iron sighted Glock 17 as a backup. The Glock rode in a Dale Fricke Seraphim and I carried my extra magazines in Dale Fricke kydex as well.

The most common pistol in the class was the Glock (including two with RMRs). Two students shot 1911s, and one carried the Taurus version of the Beretta 92 with a frame mounted decocker.

Saturday

The class had six students, many of whom were also instructors of one sort or another. There were three S.I. instructors (Eric Pfleger, Craig Flaherty, and myself), along with another student who was a police firearms instructor. One of the remaining students was a Marine back from two tours over in the sandbox and the other was a citizen whose only previous training was getting his CCW permit.

The first day began in the classroom rather than on the range. After filling out the usual waivers and promising on video not to sue, Steve began by going through the history of point shooting.

These sorts of discussions often start with Fairbairn and Sykes. While they were the first to codify and popularize point shooting, they were not the first to shoot without sights. Steve began with European coachmen (who, in addition to chauffeuring the aristocracy around were also the predecessors of modern executive protection), American frontiersmen, cavalry raiders in the Civil War, and old west gunfighters. Nothing resembling an instructional text in point shooting from this era survives today, but there are some clues we can infer from. For instance, Applegate located a letter Wild Bill Hickok had written, but never mailed. In response to an inquiry from an eastern newspaperman about his shooting technique, Hickok described raising the pistol to eye level, pointing it like a finger, pausing for a brief moment, then pressing the shot. A more concise description of the basics of point shooting would be hard to find.

Several books written by veterans of World War I provide some more concrete and detailed examples of point shooting techniques. One I had heard of, but never read, is Herbert W. McBride’s memoir A Rifleman Went to WarThe Automatic Pistol by J.B.L. Noel is more explicitly a point shooting text, and is one I had not heard of before. Both of these are available today in reprints and I’ve already ordered both off them.

Steve continued by describing Fairbairn and Sykes’ development of their point shooting system in Shanghai. The level of violence in Shaghai at the time was just phenomenal. Criminals were shooting it out with each other several times per day, and the Shanghai Municipal Police were involved in several shootouts per week. Unfortunately, they weren’t always doing so well. The department lost nine officers in 1919, and an investigation was launched.

One of the repeating themes of this discussion was the constant tug-of-war between combat shooting and sport shooting. We see this today in the difference between the gamers (IDPA and IPSC shooters) and those like S.I. that are more fight focused, but this fundamental division goes back much further. In Shanghai, police training was heavily based on British Army bullseye competition, which was not realistically preparing officers for confrontations on the street. Fairbairn told the committee investigating the police death rate, “More attention is being paid to winning silver cups than in shooting to live.”

Fairbairn had made a practice to responding to every incident where shots were fired, and used this experience to describe a typical gunfight: it would take place at less than four yards, with very little warning, both the criminal and officer would be running, the officer would be in a high state of excitement and firing as quickly as possible, and all of this would probably be happening in dim light.

Fairbairn was given the go-ahead to revamp the S.M.P.’s training program. Together with Eric A. Sykes he refined his system and training methods during the 1920s and 30s. It was published asShooting to Live in 1942.

By that time the outbreak of World War II had led Fairbairn and Sykes to return to the U.K. They were commissioned as Captains in the British Army and put to work training, first the Home Guard, then the Commandos. Sykes remained there to train agents of the Special Operations Executive, while Fairbairn traveled to Canada and eventually to the U.S. to train agents for the Office of Strategic Services.

At around the same time, Rex Applegate, then a 1st Lieutennant in the Army, was assigned to the OSS and ordered to, “learn all there is to know about close combat with and without weapons.” Applegate trained with Fairbairn and traveled to England to train with Sykes and other organizations there. Upon his return, he helped Fairbairn set up a close combat training center for the OSS at a site in Maryland called Area B. Today it’s known as Camp David. After the OSS program was up and running, Applegate returned to the Army and set up a similar program for Military Intelligence at Camp Ritchie. His unit trained more than 14,000 soldiers between 1942 and 1946.

After World War II, many of the hard won lessons, and the success of those trained by Fairbairn, Sykes, Applegate, and others using point shooting techniques was slowly forgotten. Cooper’s Modern Technique, developed from shooting competitions rather than actual gunfights, became dominant.

Steven laid out some statistics based on studies of actual gunfights (mostly involving police). 55% are within five feet, 75% within ten feet, and 90% within 20 feet. Most occur in dim light and they are over very quickly, after only a few seconds. This sounds an awful lot like what Fairbarin was telling the Shanghai Municipal Police over ninety years ago.

While the conditions of the average gunfight haven’t changed much over the past 90 years, we now know quite a bit more about how the human body reacts to these conditions. Steve spent some time describing the effects of the Sympathetic Nervous System response, also known as the body alarm reaction or fight or flight response. These include visual changes, like tunnel vision, an inability to focus on close objects, and distorted perception of time and distance. The heart rate accelerates, causing fine and complex motor skills to deteriorate. The body drops naturally into a crouch and squares up to the threat.

Fairbairn, Sykes, and Applegate didn’t know about the SNS reaction when they were developing their point shooting systems; this research didn’t come along until much later. Nevertheless, it’s amazing how many of these reactions are incorporated into their point shooting doctrines. Squaring up to the target, crouching, focusing on the target, the convulsive grip are things that happen naturally. The research on the SNS reaction validates what Fairbairn and Sykes learned by observing countless gunfights on the streets of Shanghai.

At this point we broke for lunch. Steve put in a video of a WWII film taken at Area B, showing Fairbairn training a class of OSS agents, using a young Rex Applegate as a demo dummy, and showing the House of Horrors (a live fire shoot house intended to replicate the disorienting conditions of combat). One of the odd things about this film is that it was produced by John Ford, who in addition to being a noted director of Hollywood Westerns, was head of the OSS’s photographic unit.

After lunch, we had the safety briefing. While it was mostly pretty standard, Steve included a poem by noted English poet W. E. Fairbairn:

When unloaded you think you be,
Please don’t point your gun at me.
That it may unloaded be,
Matters not a damn to me.
So never, never, let your gun,
pointed be at anyone.
(unless justified!)

It was raining pretty good at the time, and we heard one lightning strike with no discernible interval between the flash and the thunderclap. Steve decided discretion was the better part of valor, so we did our initial dry fire practice indoors. We practiced starting standing in the low ready and dropping into the combat crouch. Initially we did this using he one handed point shoulder technique and later using two-handed isosceles. A significant amount of emphasis was placed on getting the crouch deep enough. A good rule of thumb is in a proper crouch, if you let your support arm dangle, the palm should be about level with your kneecap. If the heel of your back foot doesn’t come up off the ground, you’ve either got a freakishly flexible ankle or you aren’t dropping down low enough.

Steve also emphasized that this ‘low ready’ should be fairly high so the gun is visible in your peripheral vision. At close range it should be pointed at about belt level on the opponent. This makes it more akin to what we teach as contact ready than a traditional low ready.

One of the things I observed was that if you start in fairly high ready position and are dropping into a proper crouch, you’re not really swinging the gun up. What you’re really doing is dropping yourself down behind the gun. One of the reasons S.I. doesn’t teach the traditional low ready is that if you’re swinging the gun up, it has a tendency to overshoot. In the Applegate system, if you’re doing it right that’s not really a problem.

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In addition to practicing the combat crouch, we also worked the body point position. This is actually a relatively new addition to the Applegate system, added around the time he wrote Bullseyes Don’t Shoot Back with Janich and made the video “Shooting For Keeps”. It’s similar to the Fairbairn half hip position, except the elbow is braced in the front of the ribcage and the gun is on the body centerline.

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By this point the rain had slackened to a light drizzle, so we moved outside to do some live fire. We began with the same drill we had done in dry fire, dropping down into a combat crouch while raising the gun from the ready and firing one-handed. Steve emphasized the key points were a locked elbow, and flexing the wrist to the right (assuming you’re right handed) to align the barrel with the target. We began doing this at six feet, firing single shots.

In fairly short order, we proceeded to shooting pairs rather than singles, then started increasing the distances. We moved back all the way to 20 feet with this technique, shooting entirely without sights. Steve gave us lots of reps and included plenty of coaching.

Next we moved back up to six feet and did some single shots from the isosceles position (still in a nice deep crouch). Once everyone had the basics down we switched to doubles and started moving back. Steve threw in some triples as well, to test people’s recoil control. You might be able to get away with some flaws in the technique with one or even two shots, but once you start increasing the number of shots, you really have to have everything right. The number one problem with multiple shots is not gripping the gun hard enough. If you’ve got a gun with some nice aggressive checkering, like a Glock, one proof of the proper grip is to see the imprint of the checkering on your hand after a drill. Again, we took the isosceles out to around 20 feet.

With both eye level shooting techniques out of the way, we started working the body point position. This one we did from the holster rather than the ready. One question with this technique is what to do with the off hand. The important thing is not to let it get out in front of the muzzle. Steve favors loading it up for a hand to hand strike, because at the ranges where you’d use body point, going hand to hand is a real possibility. We shot this starting at about four feet and moved gradually back to around ten.

The last drill of the day was not part of the Applegate curriculum (as Steve emphasized whenever he deviated from the original scrip) but it was fun nonetheless. The drill simulated opening the door to someone who turns out to be a home invader. You fire two shots from the body point position then raise the gun to eye level and fire two shots to the head.

At this point the day was done and we wrapped things up.

Sunday

This morning we eschewed the classroom and began the day on the range. We started out with some review of the positions from the previous day. First was body point, worked at very close range. Next was shooting one handed from point shoulder, which we took back to fifteen feet. Then we did the same with isosceles.

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With everyone warmed up, Steve brought out the timer. This was another difference from most other S.I. classes. The idea was not so much to force people to meet a particular time standard, instead it was used to induce some stress into the drills. We ran most drills several times as a group, with the par time signaled by a beep or Steve calling out the time of the last shot. Then we ran it for a few reps one at a time, so we would each know our own time and feel the pressure of being on the clock. He also taped over our sights, to make sure we weren’t falling back on them for any of the drills.
Applegate2025

First up was drawing and shooting from body point. When you start with your hand on the gun (a typical police traffic stop situation) this is fast. Par time was 1.5 seconds, and everyone achieved that. I did it in 0.77, but Eric Pfleger had me beat by a hundredth of a second. He also had us run it once with our hands in a relaxed position (which in my case also meant from concealment). Even so, it was still quite speedy.

Applegate2069

Moving on, we did some work on the timer shooting from one-handed point shoulder. We started at five feet, then stepped back to ten, and fifteen. From the ready, we were doing single shots in half to three-quarters of a second. Next up were one-handed pairs at ten feet, which most folks were able to do in about 0.75 seconds. We saw some accuracy issues here, usually attributable either to not flexing the firing hand enough, or not locking the elbow. As Craig Flaherty put it, “When you actually use the technique, it works.”

Our next drill involved addressing adversaries to the sides or rear. The Applegate solution to this is to turn the whole body and shoot with the gun on the centerline. Swinging the gun arm only makes it likely you’ll either overshoot or undershoot your target under stress. Steve had us experience this by having us swing our arm and try to shoot under a very short par time.

Applegate2113

Because this drill involved having us face someplace other than downrange with the gun in low ready, we started out with a lot of dry work using either an empty hand or a blue gun. The key is to turn to face the target (preferably by stepping towards it rather than pivoting without moving your feet) and bringing the gun up at the same time. One thing he pointed out about using this to address targets to your rear is that stepping also moves you to the side a bit, so if someone is pointed in at you (particularly at the back of your head) you’re now out of their line of fire and in a position to shoot them. There were some houses a relatively short distance up range, so Steve didn’t have us do the full 180 with live guns, but we did 90 degree turns live.

At this point we broke for lunch. Steve arranged for his daughter to bring pizza and we watched “Shooting for Keeps”, a point shooting video Applegate made in the early ’90s.

Applegate1003

After lunch, we moved back to the range. The only position we hadn’t shot on the time yet was isosceles, so we did that from ten, fifteen, and twenty feet. Par time for a pair from the ready at all distances was one second.

For our next drill we started out at about twenty-five feet and moved in, shooting at twenty, fifteen, and ten. The hardest part of this drill for me was stopping to shoot. Applegate was not a fan of shooting on the move and this class remained true to that.

Next up was the body armor drill. This is another of the newer additions to the Applegate curriculum, as body armor was not that common (or effective) in the World War II era. Steve demonstrated three different methods for doing this. First up was the conventional body armor drill (also known as the Mozambique drill) of two to the body and one to the head. Next was two to the body and one to the groin area, beneath the vest. Third was the vertical track. You started at belt level in the ready position and worked your way up to the head, firing four or five shots along the way (basically what we call a zipper).

We shot this at around six feet. Steve had us shoot each method a couple times, then we shot it one at a time on the timer using whichever method we wanted. Most folks chose to do two to the body and one to the head. I did the vertical tracking, because I like the zipper and prefer being generous with my ammo. Interestingly, even though I was firing five shots and everyone else was doing three, I was in about the middle of the pack in terms of overall time (around 1.1 seconds). Besides the fact that I can run the trigger pretty fast, I think this shows how much time it takes to reposition the gun from the body to the head, versus just moving it smoothly up the torso, firing along the way.

We moved on to multiple adversaries. One of the perennial debates is whether you shoot each adversary multiple times, or if you give everyone one helping before giving anyone seconds. I get the feeling that Steve personally favors the latter, but in the Applegate system, the minimum number of bullets fired at each target is always two, so we shot pairs at each. We did this from around six feet, with two targets placed about two feet apart. We ran it from one-handed, isosceles, and body point. From each position we shot it left to right and right to left. What was interesting is that if you followed the Applegate method and reoriented the body by moving your feet, which direction was easier really depended on your footwork, rather than which hand you were shooting with.

Our next drill was shooting with obscured vision. This was included as a substitute for a low light section. Given that we were doing this on an outdoor range, and it doesn’t get dark until after 9:00pm this time of year, we would have been out here really late if we wanted to shoot in low light. Instead, Steve had some clear shooting glasses that he’d taken steel wool to to scratch them up. This left the lenses translucent, rather than transparent. These simulate something like getting doused with O.C. (without the accompanying pain) or having your vision obscured in some other way. When you put these on, you could vaguely see that there was a target there, but you certainly wouldn’t get any visual feedback from your gun. Nevertheless, if you were squared up with the target and performed the technique correctly, you got good hits.

The penultimate drill was one that goes all the way back to Fairbarin’s days with the Shanghai Municipal Police. The marching drill involves moving back and forth in front of some targets at successively closer distances. On each pass, the instructor calls out the fire command and you stop, turn towards whatever target you happen to be in front of, and fire twice. From the twenty foot line, you use your sights. From fifteen, you point shoot from the isosceles position. From ten feet, you use one-handed point shooting, and from five you use the body point position. This was the first time in the entire class I got to use my fancy red dot sight.

The last drill was the serpentine. Steve put target sticks up at four, eight, twelve, sixteen and twenty feet, in a line between a pair of targets. We had to slalom between them, stopping next to each stick to fire at the target on that side, using whatever position we thought appropriate.

That wrapped up the live fire portion of the class. Steve had been saving all the cardboard targets from the class. He laid them out and asked us to count the number of holes on the cardboard outside the silhouette. There were 64 misses. Throw in a few more that missed the target entirely and it works out to better than 97% hits, all without using sights. Pretty impressive.

Applegate2009

After policing up the brass, we adjourned to the classroom and wrapped things up. Steve had a feedback form for us to fill out. In addition to answering any remaining questions we had, he also gave out his phone number and email address to the students, in case we had any questions after we left. He gave Craig Flaherty, the local S.I. instructor, a chance to promote his classes. Steve’s daughter had taken a class photo for us earlier, and had been taking some other pictures this afternoon. She made a run to Walmart to have some prints made and we all got a nice big version of the class photo and a chance to snag any of the action shots that showed us looking particularly cool. Steve passed out the certificates and with this, we were done. I have to say I was sorry to see the class end.

Conclusions

I was really happy with this class. Steve is definitely a top flight instructor and he clearly knows this material backwards and forwards. It was pretty cool to get the Applegate point shooting system directly from someone Rex Applegate certified to teach it.

Much like Roger’s Point Shooting Progressions class, this is a point shooting marksmanship class, with relatively little emphasis on gunhandling or the context of the fight more broadly. While this class does a great job teaching shooting skills, I think it definitely needs to be accompanied by a more general gunfighting class like CRG that covers stuff like malfunction clearance and after action drills, and places more emphasis on drawing from the holster.

Speaking of PSP, I’m sure folks are wondering how this class compares to Roger’s. Let me state up front that they’re both great classes to take and very worthwhile. PSP is at a more advanced level, but in a lot of ways it’s like drinking from a fire hose. This class, and the Applegate curriculum going all the way back to World War II was designed to start with inexperienced shooters and get them trained up. I think that if you took this class first, it would give you a really solid foundation for the stuff that Roger does.

Speaking of inexperienced shooters, one of the things that really impressed me was how well this curriculum works for getting people up to speed quickly. There was a pretty wide range of experience levels in the class. As I mentioned earlier, the only previous experience one of the students in this class had was the class to get his Ohio CCW permit. That he was able to keep up with shooters of considerably more experience is a credit both to him and to the curriculum. Steve mentioned that the average training time Applegate had to train an agent during World War II was only 16 hours, and in that time they had to cover the pistol, rifle, and submachine gun. If you need to get someone up to a functional level with a pistol very quickly, this sort of point shooting is the way to go.

This was a really great class. Steve has been teaching firearms for a long time and does an excellent job of it. In addition to the point shooting skills, I picked up some tips as an instructor that are going to be really useful in the future. I want to thank my fellow students, particularly Craig Flaherty and Eric Pfleger. Their camaraderie and fellowship helped make this a really fun experience. I also need to thank Steve’s daughter for bringing lunch Sunday and some excellent photography.

I would highly recommend this class, both as a solid introduction point shooting and as a historical link to those who have gone before us. It’s not often you can train with someone with such a direct link to Applegate, and through him to Fairbarin and Sykes. I would highly recommend this class, and indeed anything Steve teaches.

Discuss the Applegate Combat Point Shooting System class on Warriortalk.

Photos by Eric Pfleger and Steve’s daughter.

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