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Don’t Train To Die

I vividly recall training at the former Blackwater Firearms Training facility (now called Academi Training Center) in Moyock, North Carolina.  We were engaged in simunition training inside a shoot-house.  One member of our team was shot with a simunition round and he stopped fighting.  The instructor said loud enough for all of us to hear:  “Train to live. Don’t train to die.”  By stopping, our team mate took himself out of the fight. He was training to die.

This article presents a rationale for developing mental toughness. Mental toughness is needed to survive the fight of your life. The article explains how to develop this important state of mind.

The Spartan Firearms Training Group, LLC in Maryland has been delivering high quality firearms training since 2016. We have trained thousands of Maryland residents through our Handgun Qualification License courses, our concealed carry courses, our emergency casualty care courses, and personalized 1-on-1 firearms training (handgun, carbine, and shotgun).  We are pretty darn good at what we do.

We also personally train with some of the best veteran warriors in the world:  Army Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy Seals, Marine Raiders, and top secret special operations task force operators, among others.  We don’t train with average instructors. We take what we learn from those warriors and pay it forward to our customers.

One of the things we learned from those warriors and from my personal experience serving as a Ranger-trained Army Green Beret is about the critical importance of being able to perform on demand.  Performing on demand means responding to a deadly force threat quickly and effectively because you will not have time to think about good solutions to that problem. 

The ability to perform on demand requires mental toughness.  Mental toughness does not mean having guts or being exceptionally brave.  Mental toughness is about preparing yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally to perform on demand when faced with a deadly force threat.

You develop mental toughness by designing and following a specific training routine. The training routine we recommend has several components:  combat breathing, using a centering statement, using positive self-talk, performing firearms skills perfectly, visualization, engaging in simunition and shoot/move drills, and combat conditioning. Each component is briefly described below.

Combat Breathing

Learn to use combat breathing (Buck, 2016) before you start your dry practice or live-fire training.  Here’s how: Breathe through your nose. Breathe deep into your abdomen. Inhale for a count of 6 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, and exhale for 6 seconds.  Repeat for a few cycles.

Centering Statement

While training use a slogan, or a thought, to center yourself before pressing the trigger.  This should be something that is embedded in your subconscious and quickly accessible. One I learned from the instructor who teaches our emergency casualty care course is “not here, not now, not this way.”  In other words, “bad guy, you are not doing this to me…not here, not now, not this way.”  When I am engaged in dry or live-fire practice, while looking at the target, I repeat this thought before pressing the trigger.

Positive Self-Talk

Develop the practice of using positive self-talk about your gun handling and marksmanship skills. Don’t self-criticize—do self-praise.  It really does have a positive effect on your subconscious and ultimately on your performance; for example, I often use statements like:  “I am an excellent shooter. I hit the target all the time.  I press the trigger to the wall and then break the shot.”

Perform Skills Perfectly

Many people believe that gun handling and marksmanship skills are developed on the range doing live-fire drills.  Competition shooters and warriors know that firearm skills are developed along several different pathways that include proper instruction, an uncompromising dedication to dry practice, and very little live-fire practice.

You use an unloaded firearm to engage in dry practice with absolutely no ammunition in the training space. You can practice almost all of the firing cycle skills through dry practice.  These skills include: drawing from concealment, acquiring the target, aiming (sight alignment and sight picture), and trigger press.  You will likely be unable to practice resetting the trigger without racking the slide repeatedly (however, a company called DryFireMag www.dryfiremag.com sells special magazines that allow you to dry fire and experience trigger reset without racking the slide. They have expanded their product line to include dry fire magazines for several different handguns). You cannot manage recoil while doing dry practice drills.

It is critically important to practice correct firearms handling and marksmanship skills correctly.  Practicing correct skills incorrectly or practicing the wrong skills correctly creates training scars that are difficult to fix.  We experience this phenomenon on the live-fire range with some of our concealed carry students.  Some of them have years of shooting experience, but have never received proper instruction on correct firearm skills; for example, they use incorrect gripping technique, or they use an incorrect trigger press, or they do not properly align their sights.  When we see this happening we give those students real-time feedback to correct the errors.  Then, when they start to shoot a second course of fire they repeat the same errors again, and again, and again.  The incorrect skills have been programmed into their brains and that programming blocks the learning and use of correct skills.

Neural pathways are created in your brain to accommodate new skills (Pearce Stevens, A.  September 2, 2014).  Myelin coats the neural pathways as you continue to train a particular skill.  The myelin becomes thicker as you train. The neural pathways layered with thick coats of myelin become very efficient which helps you to use those skills quickly and effectively without thinking.  But, there is a catch!

If you practice a correct skill incorrectly you are training your brain and subconscious to use that skill incorrectly.  If you practice incorrect skills correctly you are training your brain to use the incorrect skills. You are training yourself to fail in both instances.

The myelin that is created cannot be removed from those neural pathways that have been trained to fail.  You will need to create new neural pathways to accommodate correct skills practiced correctly, and that requires proper instruction and substantial time.

If you are ever faced with a deadly force threat you must find solutions in the moment to neutralize the threat.  You will not have time to think through your options.  You must react with speed and effectiveness.  If the solutions you need in the moment are not correctly trained into your subconscious you will likely not survive.

When you are engaged in skill-training you are also programming your subconscious to perform. As they say in the data-analysis world, “garbage in, garbage out.”  Once the wrong skills or the correct skills trained incorrectly are programmed into our subconscious it will take double the effort and time to correct and rewrite the subconscious training programs into new neural pathways.


            Visualization is a process for using mental imagery to see yourself doing something before actually doing it.  Top athletes and elite military operators use this process to imagine how they will perform in real time.

            We advise our wear and carry students to engage in visualization.  We tell them to imagine possible scenarios in which they could possibly find themselves; for example, imagine yourself walking across a parking lot and gunfire breaks out.  What will you do? Imagine you are in a convenience store and an armed robber enters.  What will you do? 

            The late Colonel Jeff Cooper, founder of Gunsite Academy (www.gunsite.com), famously offered advice to his students if they should ever face a deadly force threat.  He said something like this:  If you face a deadly force threat you must think “I knew this could happen one day and I know what to do about it.”  Visualization combined with your skills-training helps you to “know what to do about it.”

Earlier, I wrote about the need to have solutions in the moment for dealing with an imminent deadly force threat. You will not have time to think through your self-defense options in a real-time threat to your life. This is why having solutions pre-programmed into your neural pathways is so important. Visualizations provide you with mental scripts that will be converted into solutions in the moment.

Here is one way to engage in a visualization process:

  1. Visualize yourself perfectly performing gun handling and marksmanship skills while training (dry practice or live-fire);
  2. Find a firearms training facility that has a 300 degree simulator that you can walk into and have bad guys on a screen shooting at you while you return fire with a handgun outfitted with a laser (where I live in Maryland there is a facility like this called the Guntry Club of Maryland— guntryclub.com).
  3. Visualize situations that you might find yourself in and imagine what you will do to survive.
  4. Occasionally, visualize a “worst-case” scenario where you are wounded or injured. Visualize how will you stay in the fight and go home to your family.
  5. Always—always—see yourself winning the fight

 Simunition and Shoot and Move Drills

Some of the most realistic firearms training we have ever engaged in used simunition and shoot and move drills.  A simunition round looks like a real cartridge, but the projectile is replaced with a plastic tip filled with a paint-like substance.  Getting shot with one won’t kill you but it really hurts (even with all the protective gear there are still parts of the body that are exposed—I still have a scar on my bicep from getting shot with a simunition round).

When you engage in live-fire training on a flat range the targets are stationary, they don’t shoot back, and you stand in one spot.  This is not training for the fight of your life, although it is good for improving your marksmanship.  Finding a training venue where you can engage in shoot and move drills, especially with other role players shooting at you with simunition, is truly realistic and effective training.  We experienced this kind of training at the Academi firearms training facility in Moyock, North Carolina (formerly called Blackwater).

Combat Conditioning

Armed or unarmed self-defense requires physical strength and the aerobic capacity to “stay in the fight.” Although strength and aerobic conditioning can improve your odds of surviving a gun fight, most deadly force encounters with a handgun don’t last long and some only last a few seconds. However, if you have to move quickly to find concealment or cover then strength and aerobic conditioning become very important.

Combat conditioning has three major components:  strength training, cardio training, and proper body composition.  Each is briefly described below.

Strength Training.  Mark Rippetoe (source unknown), a famous strength trainer once said “Stronger people are harder to kill….” Strength training makes it easier to move your body weight for longer periods which means your stamina increases.

Cardio Training. The cardio-respiratory system includes the heart, lungs, and circulatory system. This system experiences significant stress when faced with a deadly force encounter. That level of stress requires an increase in cardio-respiratory capacity if you want to survive. We unequivocally advise our wear and carry students to incorporate cardio training with their strength training.

Proper Body Composition. The final component of combat conditioning is healthy body composition. Body composition is the relative proportions of protein, fat, water, and mineral components in the body. It is calculated by measuring total body fat and fat-free body mass that includes muscle, water and bone.

Body composition varies among individuals because of differences in body density and degree of obesity. Healthy adult males have 6% to 24% fat while healthy adult females have between 14% and 31% fat. Your level or percentage of body fat will be significantly affected by your diet and training regimen.

A sensible and consistent combat conditioning program accompanied with a healthy and balanced diet will facilitate proper body composition. Don’t neglect this important aspect of combat conditioning.


Training to use your handgun to defend your life or the life of a loved one is critically important.  Your life or the lives of your loved ones will depend on your ability to find fast and effective solutions in the moment for neutralizing the threat to your lives.

Remember, that competition shooters and elite warriors relentlessly engage in dry practice.  You should too.  This means you have no excuse for not training because you can dry practice any time day or night and it won’t cost you a penny. However, you should occasionally engage in live-fire training and shoot/move training with simunition rounds.

As you visualize possible deadly threat scenarios you might face imagine yourself dealing effectively with the threat.  Every once in a while imagine a worst case scenario where you have been wounded while imagining staying in the fight and living for another day.

Finally, do not forget to work on your strength and conditioning. Not only will you improve your ability to survive a deadly threat, you will also improve your quality of life.

Train smart—train correctly—train often—don’t train to die.


Buck, L. (2016, March 15).  Survival stress management for self-defense–combat breathing. Downloaded on August 9, 2021, at http://www.tacticalarts.com/articles/entry/survival-stress-management-for-self-defense-combat-breathing.

Pearce Stevens, A. (September 2, 2014).  Learning rewires the brain. Downloaded on July 15, 2021 at www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/learning-rewires-brain.

Wilson, W. (June 14, 2021). Why police should take a John Hearne firearms training class.  Downloaded July 15, 2021 at www.police1.com/police-products/firearms/training/articles.