The shooting community agrees on many things when it comes to the fundamentals of marksmanship. We can agree on trigger control technique, the importance of trigger reset, proper sight alignment, proper sight picture and can even largely agree on grip (among other topics, of course) but when it comes to shooting stance, there are different schools of thought and different schools within those schools favoring minute changes in this or that. I’ve attended both major schools of thought, that of Modified Weaver and later, Forward Isosceles. What I discovered is that I prefer Forward Isosceles and after many years of teaching, working in the military, contracting and LE world and research, is this; Forward Isosceles is the superior stance and it’s the one evolution intends us to use whether we want to or not. I’ve also learned that history shows this fact (yes, I’m going to call it a fact and then make my case) explicitly throughout the advancement of combat. Forward Isosceles (FI) isn’t just some high speed way to stand and present the weapon that some competitive shooters made up (though they get a lot of the credit for it), it is a natural deep structure reflex we all have lurking in the evolutionary programming of our brain.
Since the dawn of man, when we first fashioned crude weapons from branches, rocks and bone (and before that, I’m sure), man has squared off to his threat. He did this to appear larger and to maximize binocular vision should his attacker attempt to flank him. Squared off to his opponent, he was most able to move in either direction, whereas blading his body would leave one side more favorable for movement than the other. As man evolved and civilization took root, the formations of governments allowed for standing armies. Men could be a professional solider and not have to worry about hunting, gathering or farming, for that work was done for them by others in exchange for their service. Man developed the fighting arts from literally nothing. It was combat skill at its inception and only nature and individual experience of the teacher could be relied upon to lay the foundation for what would continue to advance for all time. When the earliest militaries developed the individual skills of combat, they looked to nature and what their cave dwelling ancestors had done, what the crude spear-wielding hunter-gather had done; they squared off to their threat, one foot to the rear to provide balance and the ability to pivot cleanly in either direction. They took a reflexive program and built on it.
From the earliest depictions of the Mesopotamian and later the Egyptian solider carved in stone, we can see the body squared to the threat, one foot to the rear no matter if the solider carried spear or sword. The development of armor solidified the teachings that evolution had already given us. Further on, the Shang Dynasty of China fielded soldiers using the same stance, with no knowledge of the training found in Mesopotamia or Egypt. As civilization continued to evolve, written records become common and these carry forward to us today. The Warrior class among feudal Japan developed hundreds of fighting styles for swords and pole arms alike and those that survived the test of combat continued to be passed on in regimented training. From the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu (draw and cut) to Tamiya-ryu style, the Samurai faced his opponent, one foot slightly to the rear. The famous Hoplite Soldiers of Ancient Greece, most notably the Spartans, fought the same way.
In the 1300s, Johannes Liechtenauer, a German swordsman (and master) traveled Europe, learning the way of the sword from all who would teach him. What he developed from his knowledge would become the standard of sword fighting that is still consulted to this day. Liechtenauer mastered and instructed four guards, Ochs, Pflug, Alber, and Vom Tag and all begin and end with the swordsman squared to his opponent. You can see a common theme here but may ask yourself, what does this have to do with shooting? Easy, everything.
Firearms went from curious toys to battlefield nuisances to the primary arm of any self-respecting army that wanted to survive their next battle in a short period of time. The training for the use of the weapon was adopted from what was already known; sword, and pole arm weapons and of course the cross bow. What didn’t work with attempts at new tactics was quickly discovered in battle and discarded just as with traditional weapons. The firearm continued to evolve, as did the consistency and quality of training with it (for most organized nations, anyway). Unfortunately for the line soldier, the natural desire genetically encoded in man to remain in a stance that favored quick movement in any direction was, ironically, slowly regimented out of man by the same military training that was initially built on that same natural instinct. Man still faced his enemy, but he did so in closed ranks, beginning with the first known formation of troops in the Battle of Kadesh, between the Egyptians and the Hittite Empire. This early formation was the rough (very rough) draft for what would become known as the Phalanx. The Phalanx obviously needs little introduction to anyone with even a curious interest in history, but it is interesting to note that it may be the most venerable formation ever used in respect to versatility and the sheer length of time it was used as an effective infantry tactic. The Phalanx fell out of favor with the Roman Empire after experiencing the annoyance of facing lighter armored troops who had the audacity to work independently from a massed formation in battle and it largely disappeared from combat after that, though some enterprising Scots under William Wallace dusted off the Phalanx, changed the name and stuck it to the English. By the 18th century it had breathed its last breath. 1274 BC to the 18th century, not a bad run.
Other notable battle formations occurred during and after the Phalanx, though the mainstream acceptance and dependence of the firearm on the battlefield. The volley line of forward rotating soldiers saw use with the Pike and Shot formations and as the technology improved from Arquebus to musket and the tactic took hold as an accepted and effective form of combat with all armies. Variations, such as the Infantry Square were developed to combat charging cavalry but used the same technique of fresh loaded rifles rotating forward to replace those troops who had already fired. We fast forward though the Revolutionary war, the civil war and arrive at WWI, when the volley fire tactic became finally became obsolete (along with cavalry) due to an inventor and later a more eccentric inventor, John Gatling and Hiram Maxim. The Maxim machine gun, developed in part by the innovations and new technology invented by Gatling, changed the way war was fought forever. Mass battle lines stood little chance against its power, though that didn’t stop countries from trying. Nature had the decency to say “I told you so” and tactics (slowly) evolved towards smaller, more flexible and mobile units. Man was facing his enemy again, free (to some extent) to move.
Science was behind in all of this. The study of combat was mostly relegated to tactics, techniques and medical research. The mind was examined and discussed by some early pioneers in the 19th century, though didn’t develop into a complex field of study until WWI. From there it advanced quickly in the civilian world and moved at a snail’s pace in the military world. The psychology of combat would not be connected to the exercise of tactics in a meaningful way until the close combat nature of law enforcement necessitated it. Due to the litigious nature of our society, officers sometimes made decisions under stress that had no ready explanation. Officers experienced things under stress that had no ready explanation (obviously the same affects are experienced by soldiers, but only during times of war and not in the same civil context). The nature of investigations into use of force begged answers for decisions made under extreme stress and the study evolved rapidly through the late part of the 19th century until today. What we have learned of the about the human mind and its actions and reactions under stress is amazing. From performance thresholds to motor skill function, the science is being perfected. What we have also learned is what nature has programmed into us and we are hard pressed to fight, even with repetitious memory; squaring off to our threat.
Firearms training in law enforcement as we know it today began with a focus on the handgun. This hasn’t changed. The handgun takes emphasis because it is the law enforcement officer’s primary weapon for defense against a sudden attack. For decades, the handgun was also the only weapon a line officer had at his disposal. The revolver was the dominant firearm in law enforcement and for the citizen until the semi-automatic designs came down in price and went up in reliability. Because they held the spot as the handgun of choice for so long, many shooting techniques were developed around them.
The Wheellock, matchlock and later Snaphance and Flintlock pistol designs were all created with single hand operation in mind when it came to firing the weapon. 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 LA 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 which incorporated the primary hand extended, the support side bladed away from the threat with the support hand bent at the elbow in a two handed grip to create isometric pressure on the handgun. Under the pressures of competition, this shooting stance was revolutionary. Under the stresses of pistol use in an actual use of force, I seriously doubt it has seen any widespread use.
You see, I have laid out a history of man’s confrontation against a threat, the use of weapons and how the genetic programming from our earliest days has continually corrected the methods we teach so that we face our threat. When firearms went from only tools to methods of competition as well, the skills and techniques used by competitions began to seep into the self-defense realm of training, citizen, soldier and officer alike. As the study of the effects of combat stress were still in their infancy and training aids such as Simunitons did not exist, the Modified Weaver stance and similar techniques took hold. In 1977, Dr. Donald Meichenbaum published Cognitive-Behavior Modification: An Integrative Approach and laid the ground work 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 or Law and Order. Harlan had a theory based on his own shooting experiences as a police officer; 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 V 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 ten feet from the threat) and 32 were not spontaneous (27 under ten feet, 5 over ten feet from the threat). Looking at all 98 use of force scenario, 56.1% used Forward Isosceles (55 events), 12.2 % one-handed stance (12 events), 22.5% two-handed Weaver Stance (22 events) and 9.2% officer failed to respond.
In 1997, Bill Burroughs (A respected firearms instructor and law enforcement researcher, formerly of the Smith and Wesson Training Academy and Sig Arms Academy) conducted a study using the then-new Simunitions FX system. . Burroughs looked at 157 police officers, of which 47% were trained in the Modified Weaver stance, 17% in the Isosceles stance and 32% of the 157 officers stated that they used a stance that was “natural.” Burroughs put the 157 officers through 188 dynamic training scenarios utilizing Simunitions in which justified use of lethal force was required. Burroughs study revealed that in a spontaneous use of force situation, there was a reflexive change in the officer’s shooting stance. Only 19% of the officers adopted a Weaver stance, 59% of the officers adopted an Isosceles stance, 7% adopted a “natural” stance and the remaining 15% 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, we 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, whereas Isosceles came from combat world. Isosceles is nature asserting its millennia of programming on us even when trained against it. What we also learn is that our natural programming has within it a desire to stay mobile, to be able 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) shows 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. If there is an overwhelming natural desire to fight from Forward Isosceles, this is the only stance we should be training.
By Aaron Cowan