Ambidextrous by Choice: Training Your Off-hand

training off-handWant to better understand your limitations when it comes to your own self-defense? Want some fun around the house for a day?  Tape your hand into a fist and then go about your daily chores.  It won’t take long to find it inconvenient and I promise and if you’re sport enough to leave the tape in place by your first bathroom break you will be going through mental gymnastics to will your offhand into working as well as your dominant hand.  Now consider:  if such mundane and familiar tasks give you problems, what kind of success will you have in a setting where your life is under attack and fate calls upon you to operate your sidearm with your off-hand?

In my opinion there are two immutable truths in violent conflict:  one, people will get hurt and two, violence will happen when you are at your greatest disadvantage.  Ever since I realized this, I have mandated ambidextrous drills in all my training efforts and I have to caution anyone who’s training doesn’t reflect this, that your chances of survival could be drastically diminished.

When first approaching ambidextrous training, the essential questions are straightforward.  How do we get sound off-hand skill levels?  What drills do we do and what modifications to our current training regime should we incorporate?  What are the challenges to becoming ambidextrous?

In answer to the first question, the mantra that exceptional performers are those who do the basics better than anyone else is absolutely true and what will truly translate into ambidextrous capability is the discipline of practicing basics techniques… again and again and again.  When beginning to practice off-hand drills, remember the maxim that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” because in order to set the proper motor skills into your learning schema, you need to make each repetition perfect.  So go slow.  Speed will come with adrenaline when the time comes but the basic motions need to be there in order to allow the brain to speed it up effectively during a crisis scenario.

Hence, the bottom line for drills and modifications in the training of our off-hand is to use the firearm in every situational setting you would normally train with your dominant hand and to do all movements slowly to set the patterns.  The goal here is to get the pattern so ingrained it can be done without consciously having to remind yourself of each step.  Practicing cross drawing, hand to hand transition, transition from sidearm to open hands and the reverse in all firing positions are all essential skills that require many hours, rather than innate talent, to feel comfortable.

A way to start off-hand training is to put all of your steps to a cadence and drill the cadence relentlessly.  Here is an example cadence for a sidearm:

1 – Search and Assess
2 – Acquire threat and decide to engage
3 – Sweep clothing and securely grip weapon (add support hand to chest for at least half of this as uninjured hand swap is good for cutting the pie on room entry and cornering)
2 – Draw, rotate (as your holster is likely on your dominant hand side) and position trigger finger on frame
3 – Extend arm to target acquiring in front sight
4 – Finger to trigger
5 – Engage target (use any combination of targeting you are used to or required by ROE to use.  I use two shots bladder one shot head top.  This is because you never know who has armor and who doesn’t and a bladder shot bends them in a reflex response and brings head to bladder area giving instant stop and minimal targeting adjustment)
6 – Trigger finger to frame and sidearm to high ready
7 – Search and Assess
8 – Return to high ready
9 – Deep breath and Search and Assess
10 – Safety and holster sidearm (de-cock, or whatever step is required by your sidearm for safe return to holstered hot)

Count steadily and your focus should be on precise clean movements—make each step clean and crisp—then analyze the weakness and repeat the process.  Again, move slowly through each piece of the cadence until it is perfect and then start speeding it up and increasing your pace until you make mistakes.  Forcing mistakes and speeding up your movements is training with stress and will alter the brain chemistry and invariably the way the body accesses memories.  If you want high stress recall you need stress in your training.

Outlined above is an effective process for engaging threats with your off-hand; unfortunately the skills you may be called upon to use in a deadly scenario does not end with engagement.  Magazine changes between your knees, racking the slide on belt, forearms or boot lips, clearing malfunctions and reloading magazines are all skills you may be asked to perform with a wounded wing.  To practice these and because of the somewhat more dangerous nature of say racking a round off your belt, I strongly suggest getting a gas operated replica airsoft of whatever firearm you carry and keep it by the couch so any “idiot-tube” time isn’t lost training time.

It has been said that if you want to master something learn to teach it and one of the best skill enhancers is what is called reciprocal teaching.  If you train with friends take turns watching each other and try to teach your partner how to operate off-hand by critiquing his technique. If you find yourself training alone video yourself at each stage and watch it repeatedly.  Then get in front of a mirror and correct any motions that the video shows you.  View yourself from multiple angles to perfect stance changes, draw habits, magazine reloads and holstering.

What are the challenges to becoming ambidextrous?  The first and most difficult to overcome is mindset and the frustration of expectation.  If you’re an experienced shooter you’ll expect to learn it fast and regardless of whether you’re a veteran or a novice you’ll be thwarted by the lack of dexterity in your off-hand.  The best way to combat this is to make a conscious effort to remember you are learning a brand new skill set and starting to create new neural pathways in your brain, so let “it” learn at its own pace.  This is the latitude to learn that your brain and body need to get better.

The second challenge is the issue of dominant eye which is critical in defensive sidearm use and can prove puzzling for off-hand neophytes. If you are not cross dominant you can do one of three things.  First, if your dominant eye is on the same side as your strong arm close it and force your other eye into service.  Second, you can simply rotate your head slightly to bring your dominant eye into the sight line.  Third, you can bring the firearm up, slightly altering the position of your arm and hand, to align it with the dominant eye while controlling with the non-dominant hand.  No matter which you choose you will have to practice.

If I can leave you with anything it is that the key to all of this is to do it with your ego at the door.  Finding your own learning strengths is key so if you need to take notes take notes; if you need to see it, tape it; if you need to hear, it repeat the cadences by rote and verbalize your errors and repairs.  And no matter what keep practicing the physical skills with unending attention to detail.

(Photograph courtesy of riebschlager)

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