Where Modern Technique Went Wrong
It started before Modern Technique even had a name. A consideration of things Decided, and of things just Allowed, and why they're important to us today.
Colonel Jeff Cooper is remembered as the developer and founder of what is now called the Modern Technique of the Pistol, usually referred to as simply Modern Technique or MT. In the development of the system of techniques, concepts, and principles that were codified, collected, organized, and then at some point named Modern Technique, if he was not the primary mover in that effort, he was certainly the first among equals in the group of originators. To the Colonel, therefore, goes the credit for moving the Martial Art of Gunfighting forward in a definitive way.
That forward movement was not carried on after he died, however. Instead, Modern Technique was all but locked into place, it's methodology and skill-sets, concepts and philosophies codified and set firm and deep. As a result, today's Modern Technique has the same 'look and feel' as what are now called Traditional Martial Arts styles, often abbreviated as TMA, which are styles which have been kept (mostly) as exactly as possible the way their founders first developed them.
How was this allowed to happen?
Cooper believed MT to be a complete system and fully 'sufficient unto the day'. He said as much, more than once, in his Commentaries:
I am sometimes asked why I do not do more literary work on the subject of defensive pistolcraft. I hate to say it, but the answer is that I believe that I have discovered what I need to know about defensive pistolcraft.
Just so, I learned what I needed to learn, as did many others, by the same process, and now we know how to use the combat pistol. The purpose has been accomplished.
We did, over a period of some 30 years, discover the best techniques and systems for the use of the combat handgun.
In those same Commentaries, however, he acknowledged the possibility of gaps in the system:
No subject of this sort may ever be considered completely and finally closed...
Truly, pistolcraft has taken tremendous strides in the past thirty-five years, but we have not achieved the perfect solution even yet--mainly because there are too few people asking the right questions. (My emphasis.)
That acknowledgement, however, was apparently not taken to heart by those who followed the Colonel. Instead, it appears that they heard and remembered only the part about completeness, perhaps not understanding that completeness is sometimes relative to time and circumstance. The 'battlefield' that I, as a non-military-non-law-enforcement civilian, expect to face today is different than it was then. But like the long-historied martial arts that comprise the TMAs, Modern Technique has, for the most part, been locked into a battlefield displaced in time and space, becoming less relevant to me and people like me.
This does NOT mean that Modern Technique is totally useless. Like the Traditional Martial Arts it now mirrors, MT has saved uncountable good guys and I expect that it will continue to. So will the Traditional Martial Arts. But just like there are now ways to fight without guns that are more suited to the current environment than TMAs are, there are now ways to fight with guns that fit the needs of people in our time and our space, and not that of the military, of law enforcement, or of the past.
What troubles me is that the Modern Technique Of The Pistol could have been one of those ways. The factors were present when Colonel Cooper was examining and experimenting and conceptualizing and constructing his system. MT could have come from that past into the present just as flexible and 'alive' and adaptable as either Mixed Martial Arts or the renewed and updated Combatives that were originally developed during World War II are. It could have been just as applicable to a wider range of current and possible gunfight situations as MMA and Combatives are to the kind of empty-hand fight you'll have to handle in the 21st Century.
But--it is not.
I don't think that Colonel Cooper intended for MT to be, or become, less than adequate to any kind of gunfight the practitioner would face at any time. In that, he was like the old masters, who built their systems to fit what they saw as the fight that had to be faced, looked upon the fruits of their labors, and saw they were Complete. But the masters died, the students ‘froze’ the systems, things changed, and the systems that were locked in couldn’t stay current and equal to the kinds of fights that we see today. And so we have the Traditional Martial Arts. And so we have Modern Technique.
So what makes it, what made it, less than useful to today's civilian defender? What decisions were made, deliberately or not, that makes today's Modern Technique inadequate to someone who isn't fighting to make an arrest or overcome the enemies of the United States (such fights being proactive as much, maybe more, than reactive), but who is fighting to live and win and go home to his or her family when the fight is over?
Of the various decisions made about what to look at, what to test, how to test it, what information to accept and discard, what evidence would be valid, what to leave in or keep out of the system...of all the decisions made, I believe that three are important, perhaps even critical, to understanding how and why the Modern Technique system first became what it is and then how and why it got locked up the way it was. These three key decisions were:
Core concepts and key elements of Modern Technique were based as much, perhaps more, on the results of competition than of combat.
Actual combat results and reports from life-or-death fights were not ignored completely, mind you; they were part of the evidence and research that the Colonel gathered all through the creation, formation, and maturation of the MT system. But Cooper himself, in relating a brief history of the development of the best way to fight with a handgun, points to competitions he developed and oversaw as being core components of his research and development:
...In 1959 the Bear Valley Gunslingers were established in California with the avowed purpose of introducing realism and variety into sporting pistol competition. In due course the Gunslingers evolved into the Southwest ("Combat") Pistol League......The purpose of all this was to "get real" and to evaluate the systems by which fighting skills with the handgun could be properly evaluated and rewarded. (My emphasis.) The next step was IPSC (the International Practical Shooting Confederation) founded in 1976 in Columbia, Missouri, in an attempt to spread the new doctrine worldwide...
In other parts of his Commentaries the Colonel says the same thing in different ways: That he developed competitions with the central idea of researching methods and techniques best suited to fighting--not competing, but fighting--with a pistol. The Weaver stance, for example, was one of the core elements of MT that came directly out of those competitions. Cooper took great care to design courses of fire, when he was in direct control of a contest, that mirrored actual fight situations in order to best use them as research tools. And he was much saddened and frustrated when IPSC competition devolved into the sophisticated game that it is to this day because it could no longer be used to develop the fighting method of the pistol like he wanted to it to do.
Understand something here: The use of competition as a primary research and development tool does not invalidate the usefulness, however limited it may be today, of the Modern Technique system. To this day, the strictly combat-oriented world of gunfighting continues to look at what is done in competition, and has drawn several useful things from that competitive world. Neither am I saying that any and all information/examples/evidence that came from combat experience, either direct or reported, was categorically rejected. What I am saying is that Colonel Cooper said plainly that core principles of Modern Technique were based directly on techniques used to win competitions. Competition results were apparently weighted at least as heavily as combat experience in the process of developing the system of gunfighting that eventually was called Modern Technique.
Further evidence of the primacy of competition results in the development of the Modern Technique comes from another of the three important decisions made that locked MT more in the past than the present:
Point-shooting techniques and principles were not integrated into the Modern Technique system.
As a matter of fact, the Orange Gunsite rules for instructor conduct included formal proscriptions against speaking favorably of point-shooting and provided for penalties to be applied against any instructor who made positive comments about point-shooting. This is especially interesting in light of the fact that Cooper previously taught point-shooting, which he called "pointer fire". The decision to not integrate point-shooting and to impose these proscriptions was made in spite of three kinds of evidence that supported the idea of including it:
A proven history of combat effectiveness.
It is possible to say that the revolution in pistolcraft in the 20th century began with Fairbairn in China, though his pioneering did not achieve wide acceptance.
Cooper was aware of Fairbairn's work in China and later in Britain in World War II. Not only that, but Col. Rex Applegate was a fellow NRA board member with Cooper. Perhaps Applegate's work training operatives for the OSS was still classified at the time, but Colonel Cooper would still have been well acquainted with what Applegate was teaching and I believe would have known something about Applegate's wartime experience. Still, this was apparently rejected, despite the fact that:
Both Cooper and the men that helped him develop MT could point-shoot very well indeed, thank you very much.
Cooper called it pointer-fire, but it was point-shooting by any other name, and they were very good at it. They knew the method, they knew the principles, they knew the concepts, and they knew it was combat effective. And some of what they thought was sighted fire that won their competitions was actually a point-shooting technique. Don't believe me? Look up Type 1 and 2 Focus sometime. It's used by top-line competitors to this day, and it's point-shooting. It was not left out of the MT curriculum because they didn't know how to do it. It was a deliberate choice, made despite the fact that:
They were fully aware of the most probable kind of fight you'd face with a handgun, which was the kind that point-shooting is most applicable for. At least the Colonel was:
I have been studying this matter of personal combat for many decades, and I have almost never run across a case in which outstanding marksmanship was influential in the conflict...Ordinarily lethal confrontations take place from arm's length to across the table, at distances at which the quality of marksmanship is almost irrelevant.
When we remember that real gunfights take place at very short range - across the room - and that there is usually plenty of time, we see that the brilliant pistolcraft evident in competition is perhaps irrelevant.
As the after-action reports keep coming in, we notice that most defensive shooting situations take place under circumstances which do not call for expert marksmanship. Of course the shooter must know the fundamentals of hitting a target, and he must know correct gunhandling, but in a street fight he is almost never called upon to shoot with match-winning precision.
Colonel Cooper did make a valid point--that becoming confident of your 'sighted shooting' ability provides a great and good help in even an across-the-room face-off situation. Not only that, in his book Fighting Handguns he recommended his pointer-fire methods for just those situations. Still, point-shooting techniques that were ideal for that combat environment were not integrated into the Modern Technique, a factor that has held MT in the past instead of pushing it to the present.
The third key decision, one the Colonel made, that concerns the development of Modern Technique, and one that I believe to be the most critical to it's being frozen in time as it is today, is simply this:
Colonel Cooper stopped working on it.
He did not stop completely, but if you read through the Commentaries, you will notice a place in time where the Colonel in a practical sense stopped paying much attention to developing the fighting methodology of the handgun any further. He did this despite, as quoted earlier, acknowledgement that what he had discovered to date might not be all there is to it.
This, I believe, is the key decision that locked Modern Technique into its current 'TMA mode'. It was not an abrupt, instantaneous decision, nor was it a conscious one in my view. It was just something that happened gradually over time. But it was a decision made nonetheless, and a very important one.
Why did he, mostly, stop? I can only speculate, but an examination of the Commentaries indicates three reasons why the Colonel turned his attention mostly away from the development of the art of fighting with a handgun and toward other areas of inquiry:
In spite of acknowledgement that more could be learned, he decided that he knew what he needed to know and that was enough.
His quest for how to fight with a handgun started as a personal investigation that developed into a public and commercial success, but still apparently remained a personal investigation throughout. It is possible that he developed the training program he did as much to provide ongoing feedback about the validity of his conclusions as it was intended to propagate and spread the method to others who would find it useful. What I cannot see, but suspect, is that the feedback was unconsciously filtered to support the conclusion that what there was was Enough, and that little more if anything was to be found or was necessary to add to the perfected methodology.
He was always more focused on the rifle and ways to properly employ it.
The more I read the Commentaries, the more I become convinced that Cooper was in heart and soul a Rifleman and nothing else. So much so that some aspects of Modern Technique practice appear to be a subconscious attempt to make a pistol into a handier, very portable rifle. Yes, he had an interest in and a focus on the handgun, but that only went so far. I read much more in the Commentaries about the rifle than about the pistol, especially as the Colonel travelled through the latter years of his life. The method of the Modern Technique was interesting, yes, but mainly a necessity. The Method of the Rifle was a thing of both interest and a kind of beauty to him though, and once he had what he needed of the first, it was to be expected that he would devote himself more to that which called him the strongest.
The most important reason he stopped? He probably expected his successors, the instructors and students he trained, to move the art forward after him.
I say 'probably' because it's not clear to me that he did, in fact, expect this. It's possible, though evidence does not support it, that he did not encourage additional research, experimentation, and innovation because he really did think that Modern Technique contained all that was necessary. What does seem clear is that he did not take pains or go out of his way to encourage additional development of the art after a certain point. Evidence such as the very careful crafting and control of the curriculum and course content and his careful training of instructors to do certain things a certain way, supports the possibility of a lack of such encouragement. I don't believe it was a deliberate thing to not encourage additional development, though. I think instead it was that he was satisfied with what was and that there were other things on his mind.
So the Colonel stopped. And because the Colonel stopped, so did those who followed him, students and instructors both. So large was the forward step in gunfighting that Cooper had made, so large his contribution to the method and ways to teach that method, so great was his contribution and so large had the Colonel become in the eyes, minds, and hearts of his followers, that when he stopped his personal investigations they, not understanding what he really was doing, also stopped their forward movement in the art. His satisfaction with his own work became their satisfaction with the entirety of the system, and so the Modern Technique of the Pistol became stalled on the battlefield of the past.
In this, they misunderstood, I think, both the man and the intent. Colonel Cooper was not as rigid and dogmatic about technique and methodology as some people think:
Over the years I have concluded that certain body and hand positions are helpful to deliver better and quicker hits, but if a student chooses to disregard my teachings it is all right with me, as long as his results are good.
Statements like this are confirmed by those who knew him and who worked for him. But because of the way he conducted himself and because of the way he conducted his work of training and taught others to conduct it not everyone that was close to him, personally or professionally, came to understand it. So Modern Technique stopped moving, and other developments, other instructors, other thinkers and innovators and experimenters went ahead of it and beyond it.
Think of what Modern Technique would be today if those others had understood.
There would be ongoing investigation, research, and testing. Every concept that was a part of it would have been re-examined. The concepts that were discarded would be re-examined. All of this would be undertaken in the light of what went on in today's threat and combat environment. New technologies that allowed combat simulations and testing against independent, thinking, resisting opponents such as Simunitions on the LE side and Airsoft on the civilian side would be incorporated into not just the research and testing, but actual training curriculums. Feedback and communication between class and test and the street and the field and the alleyway would be ongoing and regular. Martial disciplines such as knife and sword fighting and empty-hand styles would provide ideas, concepts, and techniques for incorporation. Everything would be tested by experienced fighters and instructors, and nothing that worked would be discarded because it didn't somehow fit someone's idea of The Way It Should Be.
It would be what Jeff Cooper wanted it to be. It would be what Suarez International is teaching today. SI is continuing Cooper's legacy. SI is doing today what Jeff Cooper wanted his students and his instructors to be doing from the beginning. And we will keep doing it in the future.
The others? They appear to be content to join the ranks of the Traditionalists. They appear to have succeeded in doing so. And so there is what Suarez International does, and there is Modern Technique. Present and past, ongoing and stalled, open and locked...
Will Modern Technique ever be completely superseded? Will MT move into the historical records of gunfighting systems and become something to be studied only by scholars and hobbyists interested only about how it was done, not how it is? In some ways it already has. If and when it finally goes into memory, though, it won't be because of Jeff Cooper. He did not intend it to be that way. If MT does go onto the shelves of history, it will be because those that followed him--some of them, at least--for whatever reasons and rationales they had, were unwilling to do what the Colonel was doing until the day of his death, which was pushing forward and looking ahead.
That, in the end, is Colonel Cooper's real legacy and his most important message: To Go Forward.
It is sad that some people did not get that message.