Rob Pincus’ CFS program wasn’t on my list of classes to take. First, it’s a basic class. Second, if you bring up Rob Pincus and Combat Shooting (CFS) in certain circles you’ll get eye-rolling and something along the lines of, “I like him as a person. He’s done a lot of really good things for the community. But I don’t like his program.” So when Pincus messaged me on Facebook a few weeks ago and invited me to do a video with him about the things I’ve been doing in regards to protecting children while armed and to attend a class as he came through Iowa on his Personal Defense Network tour, I hesitated.
I messaged several of my instructor friends and they all said the same thing, “Go! And when you get back I expect a full report.”
We all have biases. I think it’s pretty important to challenge mine, however. So I accepted his offer.
Through a little bit of scheduling musical chairs I ended up slated to take his one-day CFS class followed by two days of Advanced Pistol Handling (APH).
Combat Focus Shooting®
I don’t usually go into classes with such strong biases. Knowing I was biased forced me to consciously open my mind and challenge what I didn’t like against what I know to be factual vs what I have strong opinions about. I’ve never gone through a class agreeing with everything an instructor said, but just as unlikely would be going through an entire class disagreeing with everything as well. I needed to be careful to observe, not make assumptions and be ready to challenge myself.
This translated itself into me hiding in the back of the group quietly taking it all in with my notebook and pen at the ready. Other than asking Pincus if he wanted me to switch from AIWB to hip carry, I didn’t speak to anyone until lunch time.
Rob started the day with lecture about how CFS is not a shooting class. I wasn’t sure I understood what he meant by that since we were all standing there with guns on our hips or in our bags getting ready to go shoot but it became evident to me throughout the day that the goal of CFS was not to make shooters–people skilled with a gun. The goal of CFS was to provide people who would not become shooters just enough skill and understanding to defend their lives with a firearm–a subtle distinction but an important one. There’s a fine line between teaching a sport such as shooting that must be practiced and refined over time and giving someone just enough skill to adequately use a gun for self-defense. CFS is meant to toe the line and as the day went on I was able to witness just how effectively that can be done, given the right instruction.
Rob also talked about the principles of safety, comfort and competency and ended the lecture on effectiveness vs efficiency and defining what he likes to call a “dynamic critical incident” or, in other words, a time you might have to shoot someone to save your own life.
He was careful to point out that CFS is not a comprehensive self-defense class and it’s application was limited to using a firearm for personal defense at two-arms lengths away. He spoke of other techniques and skills needed to be learned and applied such as empty hands, medical emergencies, close quarters and others.
After concluding that short lecture our class, which consisted of about fifteen students, moved to the firing line where we would remain for the rest of the day.
I have attended Pincus-inspired classes before and have been less than impressed. I was therefore expecting to be underwhelmed by the original.
On the contrary, I was impressed.
Things seem to be done a little backward in CFS. There is almost no time and effort spent on demonstration or instruction on things like proper grip, stance and the like. Instead, safety rules are laid out and everyone is allowed to take their own, natural grips and stances and then corrections are made as needed.
Reading that, as an instructor myself, if I had not seen it I would be very critical of that style of teaching (and I still am when it comes to the holster work) but the efficiency of the model was impressive. It was a method to see who, amongst the students was going to need the most work, provided the instructor is actually skilled and knowledgeable in recognizing and diagnosing shooting errors and can move efficiently through the students who need work.
Rob demanded everyone come to the ready, watched as a few of us actually came to a high compressed ready position, a few others came into different ready positions and a few others looked around or asked, “What is a ‘ready’ position?”
Rob asked me to step forward and said, “That’s what I mean by ready.” Then he proceeded to go down the line and make corrections. I watched in a sort of slack-jawed amazement as, without a single touch or demonstration, Rob talked a man next to me with a tea-cup grip and weaver stance into a thumbs forward, compressed ready isosceles. It was the moment I admitted that Rob might be a better instructor than some people give him credit for. Even if I didn’t agree with everything he had to say, the man could get people to do what he wanted.
We began slow, working the concepts of simply extending our firearms towards our targets and firing single shots and then multiples. As the shooting and day progressed we added concepts like the startle response, multiple shots, lateral movement, assessment, reloading, movement while reloading and holster work.
Students who were struggling were taken aside for one-on-one instruction with other instructors and some of them were allowed back when they could keep up with the group. This kept the pace of class moving and seemed to work well. At least one individual did not rejoin the group but stayed to observe the entirety of the class.
The Startle Response And Rote Movement
A lot of what Rob gets criticized for in the community revolves around his “startle response” and other rote movements like the assessment and movement while reloading that does look a lot like someone bouncing around in a pinball machine.
Rob explained that he understands that there are multiple startle responses and that you may not always startle. He wants his students to understand that none of us walk around with our hands down by our sides, our hands and fingers itching to pull a gun at any second. Most of us will be doing other things with our hands if we are ever suddenly called upon to use our firearms for self-defense and incorporating that reality into your training model is useful. He also likes that it gives students a fraction of a second’s worth of time to collect their thoughts before firing guns.
As to the rote movement?
I get it.
I don’t necessarily agree with it but I do get it and I don’t have a better solution for a “one-and-done” student–someone who won’t go on to get further instruction–so I can’t be all that critical of it, either.
Training models we typically see in the community revolve a lot around skill building. We learn to operate and shoot firearms. Learning to apply those skills is far more difficult because there aren’t many opportunities to go out and get in gun fights just so you can see how well we apply the skills we’ve learned.
We also can’t be running around our average gun range with a loaded gun. The safety and time constraints would make it a very inefficient training model for your average beginner student. The challenge has always been to figure out ways to cross the line between skill learned and skill applied.
Many training schools then resort to separating the skill-building and application work with more advanced classes using force-on-force and shoot houses. The problem is that a vast majority of students don’t return for the advanced classes and consider themselves prepared to apply skill they have learned without having put those skills in context.
CFS attempts to do the melding of skill and application immediately in the live-fire context.
You’re expected to make low-level decisions while shooting, think about targets and at least get your feet moving during things like reloads where, in real life, one should hope to be running to cover in the event of a reload (as rare as reloads are).
The problem that arises with all of those movements, be them the startle response or the movement on the reload, etc, is that people start to do the movement for movement’s sake without understanding it’s application or why they are doing it. Some have gone on to do those movement to their detriment in force-on-force. Others who go on to instruct may fail to fully explain the context and you end up with a bunch of people flailing and flopping around a range without any purpose or understanding of why. They end up looking as silly as they should and application is completely lost.
It is what it is and the conversation on how to teach application and skill will continue. In the mean time, there will still be people shuffling back and forth in CFS classes. The hope is that they’ll realize they aren’t fully applying those skills and if they were wise they would go on to skill application classes that actually incorporate use of force against other people.
We did a variety of drills from the basics of “extend, touch, press” to the “balance of speed and precision.” There were decision making drills, some movement as well as a sort of walk-back that wasn’t meant to teach students how to shoot at those particular distances as much as it was to show the students the distances at which they were most effective with their firearms and where they may need work.
The only drill I’m going to spend any time talking about is the figure-eight drill. Many people have seen drills like this in classes and the set up is pretty straight forward.
You have students walk, one at a time, around barricades in the infinite loop of a figure eight. Down range, multiple targets are set at different distances with different identifying marks on them. A target is called, the student must startle, move, draw their gun, identify their target, orient toward it, shoot, possibly reload, assess and continue on. The decision making process is engaged and, for many first-time students they experience true stress being singled out to perform in front of a class and put all of the pieces of the puzzle into a ghost image of what a self-defense situation might look like incorporating a firearm.
The only thing that might make the drill better is incorporating true no-shoot decisions as well. But I digress. It is a very effective drill.
As an experienced shooter I wasn’t expecting to find CFS to be challenging. While it was not difficult, it was not without challenge for the simple fact that were no limits on how far you could push yourself. If you were getting perfect hits every time, Rob would be behind you telling you to speed up. If you were missing, he would be there to tell you to slow down and make your hits.
Another challenge, as a seasoned shooter, was submitting myself to Rob’s version of shooting at close distances. I’m a stickler for perfect sight alignment and while it makes for very pretty one-hole groups, it also does not allow me to maximize the speed at which I can shoot when I allow flash sight picture. Letting go of that crutch did buy me a little more speed and my groups only marginally opened up telling me I could go much faster if I simply got out of my own way.
I also asked Rob if I could do the holster work from concealment which he allowed after seeing me demonstrate competency.
The most common question I’ve been asked since CFS was, “What did you think of Rob Pincus, himself?”
I have three responses:
- I wanted to punch him in the face.
- I like him.
- He’s a very good instructor.
CFS was very fast-paced.
There were a lot of students and Pincus was in an authoritarian mode that made him very off-putting to me off the range (I have zero problems with people being authoritarian when gunfire is in play, just so you know).
When we went to lunch he told me I had been entirely too quiet and encouraged me to ask questions. The questions I did ask were met with more of a lecture than a conversation which made me feel argumentative and combative. The next day, when arriving for APH (AAR coming soon) it was like an entirely different man showed up at the range. He was far more conversational and I think we both warmed up to one another considerably. Had CFS been my only experience with Rob, however, I would not like him as much as I do.
In attempts at unbiased honesty, however, APH or no APH, no matter how I felt about it, I had to admit from the get-go that he was (is) a very good instructor.
He knows how to watch a student, diagnose errors and get students where he wants them in a very short period of time. I think anyone who accuses him of being a bad instructor hasn’t seen him instruct. You can disagree about his program, but, Rob, himself, is a good instructor. If there was a single flaw in his program it would probably be the lack of understanding by others teaching his program and the vocal fanboyishness that comes from some of his students making his system come off as a type of fiefdom rather than a self-defense training program.
Meeting Rob myself I got no impression that he was attempting to set himself up as a feudal lord. He gave credit to other instructors. He encouraged research and training while also being firm in his opinions. He’s also very direct and does not spend a lot of time trying to make anyone feel like special flowers. If he doesn’t like what you’re doing he will tell you about it. Some people may have found him too direct or maybe mean. Provided insults aren’t slung, I have no problem with directness and I didn’t see anything too harsh in the class I took.
Would I recommend a CFS class?
Provided it’s being taught by Rob Pincus, himself (not knowing anyone else who currently teaches the program I trust enough to recommend).
The way the class is structured and the instruction method demands an excellent instructor to pull it off. Where I think the CFS program starts to get a black eye is with instructors who try to emulate his program without a thorough understanding or ability to apply the shooter diagnostic skills required to pull it off.
One overtly positive thing about the class is that it immediately challenges people to think with guns in their hands to at least a minimal level right off the bat. Something we could all do well to see more of in shooting classes centered around self-defense with a firearm.
I would also encourage people to go further than that class in trying to learn the application of skills and to gain experience and learning from all over the community. CFS tries to impart application but no live-fire class with limited space and time will ever succeed entirely. If you understand that and don’t pretend it does you will be better off because of it.
As I was leaving the range, hot and exhausted I got a message from John Johnston who said, “Consider this: CFS is mechanics for the lowest common denominator and intellectual honesty and motivation for the highest common denominator.” I can’t think of a better way to sum it up so I won’t try.