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Your Gear Buying Philosophy is Probably Wrong, Here’s Why

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As a community, we often lose sight of the important stuff. One of the reasons I started this blog was the realization that I was spending far more time purchasing gear than I was actually working on becoming a better marksman. Since then, I’ve slightly returned to more gear buying than practicing, but for an entirely different purpose and under a very different philosophy. I’ll get to that later.

John Buol Jr. recently put up an article about the Lie Against Competition shooting. He relays a story from a police department that I found illuminating:

Not long ago, I supervised a standoff situation where our officers were placed in positions to engage a dangerous suspect. Several officers were armed with M4s. Bystanders were thickly mixed-in! Range to suspect was between 10 and 30m. Happily, our situation was resolved without our officers having to shoot.

As a precaution, I asked all officers to report, with their red-dot-equipped M4s, to the range the following week. I set-up a situation with paper targets that exactly duplicated the situation with which were confronted a week earlier.

Given generous time, stable, braced firing positions, and stationary targets, not one of our officers was able to deliver required shots, even after several attempts! When asked about sight settings and zeros, most officers were not prepared to answer definitively. Some didn’t even understand the question! An examination of the M4s present revealed that, in most cases, the red dot and the back-up iron sights did not agree. Some were not even close!

Similarly, Ned Christensen of Michiguns posted a thread on M4Carbine.net whereby he shows some of the “Sub Awesome” sling setups that he comes across while training law enforcement. The point of the thread is not to make fun of anyone, but to show that even the “pros” are not necessarily doing things right, either. John Buol Jr. shares that he has seen this repeatedly in the military as well, as have I. The underlying message of these articles is that competition has a valuable place in training, since you will simply not see these kinds of issues concerning zero distances and equipment configuration among competitive shooters. It’s a valid point, but not what I’m driving at.

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Identifying the Problem

All the Gucci gear in the world will not amount to a hill of beans if the person wielding it is not competent in the fundamentals. I sincerely believe that 95% of gun owners are better served by purchasing a basic (but quality) weapon and investing the rest of their time and money into training and focused practice. Hardware is not a substitute for software, even if the gun-owning community tries to prove otherwise every day.

Consider my thoughts on barrel selection as an example of how this gets out of hand. It’s probably the most popular post on this blog, which means there are a lot of people searching for information about what the “best” barrel is. In the real world, barrel configuration just isn’t that important. I was recently in a discussion with someone who absolutely believed that they needed a heavier SOCOM profile barrel for their first AR because it was the most “combat ready” of all the configurations out there. This individual could not speak to why the SOCOM profile was developed, and what made it particularly more worthy than any of the other profiles that have existed in the last 50 years (hint: it’s not), but he just knew it was what he needed.

Different types of barrel profiles and materials only matter when comparing two equally skilled shooters doing the same activity. It’s one thing to take two career door-kickers from an elite military unit and compare who performs at clearing a building using a 10.5″ barrel versus a 20″ barrel. But simply owning the “high speed” configuration doesn’t automatically make Average Joe perform like a career door-kicker. In fact, Average Joe may actually be hindering his growth as a shooter by limiting his future potential.

In the firearms community, we have developed this obsession with weapon capability. Instead, we should be focused on our own personal capabilities.

  • If you are unable to hold your rifle steady enough in field conditions to hit a target, is the solution for you to spend thousands of dollars on new gear to help you see the target better? No, it is not. You should be spending hundreds of dollars on some training and practice ammunition.
  • If you have never been trained to tactically clear a building, but think you might need to, then you are better spending money on seeking that training and putting in the practice with what you have. You are not well served by spending the money on NFA hardware when you don’t even really know how to use it right (or what its limitations are).
  • If you plan on getting involved in three gun, immediately purchasing $5K in “gaming hardware” is not in your interest. Instead, show up to a match with what you already own and learn how to push your current equipment to its limits. Burn out your barrel in the process and then figure out what will better serve your needs and techniques.

These things sound perfectly reasonable, but many of us don’t follow it. Our behavior as a shooting community still trends towards the things we shouldn’t be doing.

Why is this? My guess is that we inherently understand two things: First, it is difficult to admit where our skills are weak. Either because we lack enough experience to determine what we need to work on, or because we view admitting fault as weakness, we don’t talk about it. Secondly, we recognize that actually investing the time and money into improving ourselves is harder than buying “stuff.” It’s not as if the temptation isn’t always there. In the first hour after starting to write this post, I’ve received three emails from companies telling me that I need to purchase stuff from them to trick out my gear and “give me an edge.”

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How do we fix it?

This is a difficult challenge to overcome. It goes back to the death of mastery in our culture. Collectively, we want the easy fix so that we can go on experiencing a continuous series of “climaxes” when it comes to shooting. We reject the idea of riding the plateau. We don’t want to put in the work, because have been led to believe that work is for suckers.

Suggesting that everyone get involved in training and competition is certainly one path, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a realistic one. Not everyone lives where it is easy for them to do. For instance, my living in California means that the opportunity to use my ARs in any real training is extraordinarily limited and there just isn’t much of a competition scene. Sure, I could compete/train in another state- but then I have to factor in not only the cost of traveling, but also the cost of a different set of equipment (non-neutered rifles, 30 rd magazines, etc.) I’m not saying this is insurmountable, but it reduces the likelihood of participation for much of the population.

If I had my way, we would be establishing a culture that puts more emphasis on simply being good marksmen. Our language would shift away from what kind of gear we own to how we practice with it and, more importantly, what we are capable of doing without it. We would spend more time teaching others how to perform well, rather than telling them what they should buy.

At some point, we all need to realize that the idea of the “best” gear is fleeting. For example, I’ve been following the military’s strategic pivot to the Pacific theater, and I’m seeing some pretty interesting trends. We, as well as the Brits, have been renewing our emphasis on jungle warfare and I’ve been reading training reports and looking at pictures of the guys who are doing this training. Many of the advancements in gear and optics we’ve seen over the last 15 years of desert warfare are being reversed. Chest rigs are getting ditched in favor of belt rigs. Optics are being removed in favor of irons because the environments simply aren’t conducive to magnification, electronics, or really anything that has lenses. All of the things we decided were “the way to do things now” aren’t necessarily true anymore.

Do you know what hasn’t changed? The importance of knowing your own capabilities, working within them, and working to improve them. The one constant in all this evolution is the importance of the user.

When I said in the beginning that my gear buying philosophy has changed, I wasn’t lying. Whereas I used to buy “stuff” because I thought that’s what I was supposed to want (and the internet told me so), I now buy things based upon my needs. I don’t look to expand a particular weapon’s capability, I look to support mine. I realize that this distinction may not look significant from the outside, but it is a distinction. It’s taken me a lot of time and potentially wasted money to get here, and I want to help prevent others from making the same mistakes.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want some things just because. There isn’t a practical need for the new rifle I’ve been working on, it’s just something I would like to have. But I’m not telling myself that if only I had a lightweight 18″ rifle-gassed iron sight rifle, I could finally be comfortable carrying a rifle in the field and still be able to land hits at targets past 300 yards.

Where are your priorities? Do you desire to “look the part” and buy things to make it happen? Or do you buy things based upon careful analysis of your capabilities and analyze the most appropriate way to fill any gaps?

 

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6 thoughts on “Your Gear Buying Philosophy is Probably Wrong, Here’s Why”

  1. Great article!

    >> … a magnum caliber rifle to “put that deer down for good no matter where you hit it.”

    Competitive shooters started adopting cartridges in 6-6.5mm caliber to retain ballistic performance while reducing recoil because knowledgeable shooters that actually practice realize recoil’s negative effect.

    >> Instead, show up to a match with what you already own and learn how to push your current equipment to its limits.

    Also worth pointing out that nearly every shooting event recognizes Classification, grouping participants by roughly equal skill. Even if equipment already owned is actually holding you back (it’s not, but let’s pretend) and the shooters in your Division have nicer/better gear, you’re still on equal footing based on Classifier results.

    >> This is a difficult challenge to overcome. It goes back to the death of mastery in our culture.

    I liken it to hygiene. Brushing and flossing your teeth takes a couple minutes, adding up to 15-10 minutes every week. Three dry practice sessions each week can take less time than basic dental care and can yield real results, especially for more novice-level shooters that really need the work. There are many Master-class competitors that got that way by regular dry practice sessions that didn’t last much more than 5-15 minutes each.

    1. I never took the opportunity to go hunt when I lived in Montana, which is something I still regret. I used to ask around about what rifle I should use for tagging some deer or antelope, and was repeatedly told that my .223 was way too small and my .308 would be borderline. They said that the animals would take the hit and run away, and I was just going to injure them. It was common to see old guys sighting in their 300 WM rifles at 50 yards in preparation for hunting season, and I will never forgot the wild groupings (if you could really even call them “groups”). It was then that I understood why the caliber suggestions I was receiving seemed so excessive. These guys would buy a single box of 300 WM at it would last them three seasons of hunting. They simply could not fathom that it was common for me to shoot upwards of 200-300 rounds in a single practice session.

      You are absolutely spot on about just a little bit of practice each day is enough to maintain and build skills. Most folks just don’t seem to be in it for the skills, though.

    2. Thank you for your analogy to simple hygiene practices which bring great benefits from relatively minor input — it really puts the return-to-effort ratio into perspective. You could say dry firing practice is keeping up with your shooting hygiene!

  2. Your observations and commentary are spot on here!

    I acquire above-average firearms & gear, but not because I believe they make me a better shooter. I do so because I appreciate the quality and engineering, but also because I know they will suit my needs for a long time to come because they outstrip my capabilities by a noticeable amount. I have a lot of growth to do before my firearms & gear are the limitation on my results.

    I see this to a great extent in another area of interest — motorsports. I autocross (Google it if you don’t know what “autocross” is) a mid-’80s BMW against other vehicles that are often several generations and one/two/three decades newer — and significantly more capable on paper. However, I usually come out on top, as the combination of my skill with my older vehicle outstrips the combination of their skill with their newer vehicles. I know I still have room to improve when I have fellow high-skill competitors to drive my car and they beat my own best times.

    Dunning-Kruger applies to firearms, motorsports, and so many other areas!

    1. I definitely understand the thinking that says, “If I bone this up today, I’d rather know that it was something I did wrong and not that my equipment was faulty.” I certainly put myself in that category. The hazard is what comes next for a lot of folks who then perform poorly and look for the next thing they can spend money on in order to “fix it.” If the equipment is sound and correctly functioning, which can be done at a very reasonable cost, then the next step should always be practice.

      In my youth, I used to drag race a 2003 Dodge SRT-4. I felt like I was always looking for the next engine mod or suspension tweak in order to increase performance. In hindsight, I would have been far better served by practicing my timing, shifting, and coordination skills. As you say, a combination of skills and quality will always outshine extraordinary quality without the requisite skills.

  3. I touched on some of this in the first chapter of my rifle book. Spending money on cool stuff is fun, putting in serious work on the range or in dry fire, not so much (“work” is a four-letter word).

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