Technical Excellence Supports Tactical Preparedness: Gabe White and the Martial Art of Shooting
It's long been a bone of contention within the martial arts world as to whether shooting guns should be considered a true martial art. Though traditionalists might scoff at the idea firearms training could have the same mental or aesthetic benefits that arts like karate or kung fu possess, kyudo, traditional Japanese archery, which shares many physical characteristics with shooting a gun, is readily accepted as part of the budo family.
For those who doubt there may, indeed, be a commonality between firearms and martial arts training, they might want to attend a shooting class by Gabe White, where the simple act of drawing and firing a handgun is referred to as tai chi at hyperspeed and explained with descriptions like "You go from zero to a maximum of fluidity and speed, then round off to infinite stillness at the end."
White, 45, is one of the most highly regarded and sought after firearms trainers out there, a figure universally respected in the shooting community for his ability to merge both the self-defense aspects of shooting with competition-oriented sport shooting, all while demonstrating some pretty incredible feats with his Glock pistol.
White can take off on a sprint and reliably shoot a bowling pin jangling crazily in motion at the end of a string 7 yards away. He's capable of drawing a gun hidden under his shirt and firing an accurate shot in less than three-quarters of a second. He can fire off six shots that way in less than 2 seconds. He's best known within the shooting world for reaching the competitive "master" level using his everyday gun and concealed carry gear in the United States Practical Shooting Association's limited division, where all the other guns are heavily modified for competition and almost no one else wears concealment over their holster. In martial arts terms, it's akin to a mixed martial artist who handicaps himself by always wearing boxing gloves, rather than MMA gloves, but who's still good enough to make it all the way to the UFC.
The martial arts analogy is particularly apropos when you consider White said his shooting career can only be understood within the context of his being a martial arts enthusiast.
Born in Oregon, White grew up in a wooded area near a marsh and said, from a young age, he recognized the cycle of life where big creatures feed on small creatures.
"As far back as I can remember, from the time I was maybe three years old, I came to the philosophical realization that everything has a right to try and protect its life, to continue it's existence," said White. "That's the right all others derive from because you have to be alive before you can exercise any of your other rights."
White describes himself as a brainy, nerdy kid who wasn't particularly big, strong or mean. Though he didn't suffer from a great deal of bullying in school, he was still bothered by this perceived weakness and said most of his life has been an effort to correct it. He started training in taekwondo at age 7 looking for self defense but was observant enough, even at that young age, to see the complete lack of contact in the training wasn't conducive to his needs.
He eventually moved on to hung gar kung fu, which, though perhaps not as practical as some other arts, he still readily calls upon in his teaching and explanations of shooting technique.
"I think of shooting as an internal martial art. Hung gar is considered an external art but it has both a hard and soft energy. It's an interesting dichotomy that in gun handling everything, other than the actual shooting process, is mostly a soft art. The great internal struggle of shooting is to relax," he said. "Drawing the pistol out of the holster is similar to the sword drawing art of iaijutsu. It requires you to be relaxed to have hyper fluidity along with hyper speed. But once you get the gun mounted to your eye line and start the process of actually pulling the trigger and shooting, you need more of that hung gar hard energy because of the tension necessary for your grip."
White explored several different arts over the years. He was a nationally ranked fencer as a junior, dabbled in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and practiced kali for a while. His pattern was often to practice something to the point where he went through the steep learning curve of getting the basics down but then, when improvement became about continually training to grind out smaller and smaller gains, he'd quit and move on to something else. He started seriously shooting at age 21 and it became the one "martial art" he stayed with and never lost interest in improving on.
"I definitely think of shooting as a martial art. My experience is like a lot of people who have come into it from the martial arts world. They get into it for the self defense aspects but then stay for the self-improvement aspects of it. They become what I call an 'enthusiast.' They're no longer there to just check a box and get a certain minimal amount of training but they become dedicated to it because they see what it can do for them as people," he said.
What White developed in his obsession to improve his shooting skills was an understanding of the difference between being outcome oriented versus being process oriented. It's something he learned from committing deeply to handgun training but which applies equally well to more standard martial arts training or any other skill development.
He cultivated the mental discipline to not be constantly obsessed with the overall results of his shooting but to take refuge in the small details. Rather than fixating on the target and thinking about the success or failure of his accuracy, he instead thinks about something much more minute like the success or failure of how he pulls the trigger each time. He knows if he takes care of the small things, the bigger successes will follow. And by having laser focus on those little details, he avoids the trap of allowing his mind to start wandering into concerns over results, which ultimately leads to distraction and errant shots. He caches it in Buddhist philosophical terms as "being here, now."
The implications for other martial arts should be clear. Rather than thinking about winning a fight or even just landing a punch, focusing your attention on correcting the small parts of the process that give you trouble, such as not telegraphing your punch by pulling your hand back first, is what will ultimately improve your skills and make you successful.
Though White originally came to shooting from the defensive side, what's called "tactical shooting," he eventually became interested in sport shooting, primarily practical shooting competitions where competitors have to run a course shooting a series of targets at various distances while being scored on a combination of speed and accuracy. He'd been cautioned by his early tactical instructors to stay away from competition as its unrealistic nature would harm his defensive skills. Nowadays, it's a meme-like joke bandied about by elite shooters that "competition will you get you killed in the streets" but 20 years ago, when White was coming up the ranks of defensive shooters, that wisdom was still taken seriously by many.
Again, the commonalities between shooting and martial arts are hard to miss. Just as there have long been debates on the merit of "practical" self defense training versus sport training in martial arts, or traditional versus modern methods, these same debates play out in the shooting world. And just as in martial arts, where it's hard to deny the evidence of how good elite sporting fighters like Jon Jones are, it's hard to deny just how good the top practical shooting competitors are in firing a handgun quickly and accurately.
White recognized the high level of skill those shooters possessed and wanted to see if he could wed that with his base in proper defensive tactics to become a holistically superior practitioner of the handgun. He did so by not only throwing himself into a fanatic level of training going to the range 3-4 days a week and doing dry fire practice with an unloaded gun at home every single chance he got, but forcing himself to compete in his everyday carry gear. Working under the assumption if he ever did have to defend himself with a handgun, he'd be using what he normally carried, White wanted to get as good with that equipment as he possibly could.
While he readily admits that the tactical shooting world has it correct in emphasizing the need for awareness and learning to avoid trouble as the most effective means of self defense, White also said there may be times when our awareness slips or we face a particularly difficult threat that can't be guarded against. It's on these rare occasions he feels the high level of skill developed through serious competition, particularly learning to cope with performing on demand in a stressful situation, becomes necessary. His motto is "technical excellence supports tactical preparedness."
"It's generally recognized, when it comes to real situations, you're not going to perform as well as you do in training because of stress. So isn't it better to start from higher up on the mountain so when you fall, you're still at a higher skill level than your opponent?" he said. "The tactical side has it right that things like awareness are the most important part of self defense. But you also want a deep well of technical skill so when the taxman of reality shows up to drain your account, you still have enough left to pay the bill."
White makes the fascinating observation, which is just as true for empty hand martial arts as for shooting, that if you're practicing all the things self defense experts preach about being aware and avoiding trouble before it happens, unless you happen to be in a profession like soldier or police officer, you'll likely develop very little real life combative experience. Yet real experience is one of the most valuable things a person can possess when it comes to improving their actual physical skills for self defense.
You're then left with the conundrum that when you master the mental aspects of self defense allowing you to avoid real life combat, you'll lessen your physical self defense skills by the omission of experience. The way around that, White believes, is to delve into all realms of training.
"All forms of training are unrealistic. But they've all got two or three elements that are worthwhile. It's a big puzzle and each part of it has a small piece they're good at. Tactical training with a handgun may teach you how to use cover properly. Competition won't do that but it will develop your shooting skills to a high degree. But neither of them has an uncooperative opponent. Force-on-force training is done against live opponents but with simulated ammunition, often in a prearranged scenario which is less realistic. The answer is to get facsimile experiences from all those things so if you're ever in a real situation, you have all those fragments to draw from," he said.
That variety in training is something that can certainly be carried over into the larger martial arts world and is the method that the very best martial artists interested in practical self defense already incorporate. White believes martial artists can draw other benefits from learning to shoot, as well, even if they choose to never carry a gun in self defense.
"You'll learn what to do with a gun if you ever have to pick one up but the main thing you can get is in the self improvement that focused practice on shooting can give you. It's very much about mental self control, about seeing tiny details in high speed and recognizing them in real time," he said.
On the other side of the coin, he feels any shooter can benefit from martial arts training, both in terms of the body control it helps develop and the wider array of self defense options it gives you.
"You absolutely shouldn't be married to the idea that self defense equals using a gun," he said. "Shooting is using deadly force while martial arts provide a non-deadly alternative. And you can't be one dimensional when it comes to self defense."
To learn more about Gabe White, you can visit gabewhitetraining.com
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