History and the Fighting Stance III: what Burroughs found
The wheellock, matchlock, and later snaphance and flintlock pistol designs were all created with single-hand operation in mind. Single-handed use of pistols was common practice for centuries, continuing into the 1900s with the codification of one handed and the widespread introduction of newer two-handed techniques under William Fairbairn and Erik Sykes in their book Shooting to Live.
Fairbairn and Sykes developed many handgun, knife, and hand-to-hand techniques during their time with the Shanghai Police in the 1930s. Shooting to Live became a guide, a bible, and a roadmap for future innovators in firearms techniques. If you were to thumb through this book you would notice something that might be surprising; nearly every shooting position described and illustrated is done so squared to the threat.
Some years later, Jeff Cooper made famous the Weaver Stance and threw all of that out the window. Jack Weaver was an L.A. County deputy sheriff and regular competitor in Cooper’s “Leather Slap” matches in California. With the help of Cooper, the Weaver Stance saw wide use and publication. The Weaver and later Modified Weaver used a two handed technique that incorporated the primary hand extended, the support side bladed away from the threat and the support hand bent at the elbow in a two handed grip to create isometric pressure on the handgun. In competition, this shooting stance was revolutionary. I doubt that, under the stresses of an actual use of force encounter, it ever saw much use (though until very recently that was hard to quantify).
Genetic programming from our earliest days has continually corrected the methods we teach to face our threat. When firearms went from fighting tools to implements of competition, those competitive skills and techniques began seeping into the self-defense realm of training. The study of the effects of combat stress were still in their infancy and training aids such as Simunitons did not exist. As a result the Modified Weaver stance and similar techniques took hold.
In 1977, Dr. Donald Meichenbaum published Cognitive-Behavior Modification: An Integrative Approach and laid the groundwork for what would become Stress Inoculation Training (SIT). SIT as it applies to use of force training, provides mental reference points to increase cognitive reasoning and decrease reaction time when facing mortal danger. From 1977 forward, SIT was improved, innovated upon and further discoveries made. In 1989, Harlan Westmorland published a research article in the October issue of Law and Order. Harlan had a theory based on his own shooting experiences as a police officer; to wit, those trained in Modified Weaver would use Forward Isosceles when confronting a lethal threat. Harlan’s hypothesis was supported by Bruce Siddle (PPCT) who had made similar observations with officers during high stress training exercises. Harlan’s study, Isosceles Vs. Weaver Shooting Stances, the Selection of a Shooting Stance Under Stress, supported his hypothesis overwhelmingly. Looking at 98 shooting scenarios with officers primarily (over half) trained in Modified Weaver, 66 were spontaneous (39 under 10 feet, 27 over 10 feet from the threat) and 32 were not spontaneous (27 under 10 feet, five over 10 feet from the threat). Looking at all 98 use of force scenario, 56.1 percent used Forward Isosceles (55 events), 12.2 percent one-handed stance (12 events), 22.5 percent two-handed Weaver Stance (22 events) and 9.2 percent officer failed to respond.
In 1997, Bill Burroughs (a respected firearms instructor and law enforcement researcher, formerly of the Smith & Wesson Training Academy and Sig Arms Academy) conducted a study using the then-new Simunitions FX system. Burroughs looked at 157 police officers, 47 percent of whom were trained in the Modified Weaver Stance, 17 percent in Isosceles Stance and 32 percent who described their stance as “natural.” Burroughs put the officers through 188 dynamic training scenarios utilizing Simunitions in which justified use of lethal force was required. His study revealed there was a reflexive change in the officer’s shooting stance in a spontaneous use of force situation.
Only 19 percent of the officers adopted a Weaver Stance; 59 percent of the officers adopted an Isosceles Stance; 7 percent adopted a “natural” stance and the remaining 15 percent didn’t respond at all. In his study, Burroughs states,
“By observation, those that remained in Weaver had the opportunity to pre-select their stance before the scenario became critical. Most, however, were so shocked by the suddenness of the scenario that they demonstrated a pure survival response of squaring the body, extending and locking the arms, crouching the posture and viewing the threat binocularly to fire.”
Of my own personal experiences when teaching law enforcement and citizens, especially when using Simunitions FX training cartridges, I have seen many Weaver shooters adopt an Isosceles Stance when facing sudden threats. This goes beyond handguns. Officers, soldiers, and citizens using rifles and shotguns overwhelmingly adopt a Forward Isosceles Stance, especially when confronting a sudden threat; the closer the threat to the individual reacting, the more aggressive the stance.
What does this teach us?
Modified Weaver came from the competition world. Isosceles came from combat world. Isosceles is nature asserting millennium of programming to override a trained response that is counter to what is natural. What we also learn is that our natural programming provides the capacity to stay mobile, to move and to move when we fight. Countless videos of police shootings, citizen shootings, and training exercises (especially those using Simunitions or a similar training system) show the desire to square off and stay mobile as we fight. To train against this natural action, these deep structure motor control responses, is foolish.
Barring those situations when we’re training to fight from the ground, while injured, etc., if there is an overwhelming natural desire to fight from Forward Isosceles, then Forward Isosceles is the only stance in which we should be training.
Aaron Cowan, Sage Dynamics
About the Author: Aaron Cowan is the Lead Instructor for Sage Dynamics, a reality-focused firearms and tactics training company that provides practical instruction for the civilian, police and military professional. Aaron served in the U.S. Army as an infantryman, as a private security contractor overseas, and as a police officer. In addition to patrol he worked as a SWAT team member, SWAT deputy team commander, SWAT sniper, sniper section leader, and in-service police training officer. Aaron holds multiple professional certifications including the National Rifle Association Law Enforcement Division’s instructor training program, California POST-certified academy instructor, Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Active Shooter Response Instructor and Simunitions Scenario Instructor, among others. He welcomes shooters of all backgrounds to his classes as long as they come with an open mind and a will to learn.