My Approach to Shooting Qualification Courses

Passing a qualification course is an interesting phenomenon in the world of firearms (and really every single other discipline in which people are assumed to have a minimum set of skills or knowledge to be accepted).  But just like every other test, they most often serve not to measure someone’s true ability, but merely to provide a reassurance that they’re at X level.

My issue with them in general is that they *can*, in some circumstances, actually decrease someone’s potential; once they meet the standards provided by the test, the incentive for further growth is removed.

Nonetheless, they’re here to stay.  We use them, and nearly every firearms class I’ve taken has concluded with some kind of test, written or shooting, in order to call yourself a graduate.  Got it.


All that said, there are some things that I’ve found make people more successful in big tests like these.

Increasingly, the “LFI-1 Qual” – or whatever it’s real name is – is used by many instructors I know, and it’s great at testing several different things at the same time.  My understanding is that it has its roots in Massad Ayoob’s Lethal Force Institute and is still used today in his MAG-40 classes.  It’s similar to many police qualification courses I’ve shot including one I only know by the uber-descriptive name Police Pistol Qualification Course that I’ve shot in a few classes.

Here’s the course of fire:

  • 6 shots, off-hand, in 8 seconds.  Start from low ready with the gun in your off-hand. (4 yards)  That’s 1.3 seconds per shot.
  • 6 shots, strong hand, 8 seconds.  Start either from low ready or holstered. (4 yards)
  • 12 shots (6, reload, 6) from 7 yards, 25 seconds.  Start either from low ready or holstered.  That’s 2 seconds per shot, including a reload.
  • 18 shots (6, reload, 6, reload, 6) from 10 yards in 75 seconds.  That’s 4.17 seconds per shot, with 2 reloads.  This comes from the New England police course.  Start from low ready (do NOT draw from a holster here – most people will “cross” their own leg with this one), get into deep cover crouch (6 shots), then 6 shots from high kneeling, then 6 from low kneeling.
    • The deep cover crouch: it’s like a normal crouch; legs very wide
    • The high kneel: gun-side knee on the ground, body is very upright – picture yourself shooting over a car hood
    • The low kneel: either keep your high kneel stance and then just rock backwards onto your foot OR bring your weak-side foot underneath you and then sit on both your feet.  Don’t forget to lean your body a little forward to help with recoil.
  • 18 shots (6, reload, 6, reload, 6) from 15 yards in 90 seconds.  5 seconds per shot including 2 reloads.  The first group will be from the traditional Weaver stance (gun arm bent, good isometric tension), the second group will be from the Chapman stance (gun arm extended straight, feet slightly wider apart), the third group will be from the isosceles stance.  Remember that if you have shots to make up that you did not get off in time from an earlier stage, you make them up here.

Passing score is 225 out of 300 or 75%.  I should note that it’s usually shot using standard IPSC targets.  The “A-ring” (center chest) counts 5 points per shot.  B- and C-zones and the A-zone in the head count 4 points each.  D-zone is 3 points.  Everything else is zero points.  60 total shots, for a possible score of 300 points.

It’s a good test.  And it’s not easy.

But it’s not the shooting that makes it difficult – it’s the concentration.

With a little instruction and some practice, most people can get their baseline skill level above a passing score.  Hopefully well above.  But here’s the catch: it’s very easy to stress out over the entire test.  We’ve all been there:

  • “OMG!!  I’m about to take this test that everyone tells me is really hard!!  People are watching!  OMG OMG OMG!!”

My experience is that when we get into that mode, even when it’s inevitable, the stress can either cause us to crack – and we bomb the entire thing – or we funnel that stress into a state of hyperfocus that gives us some short-lived benefits.

Most or all of us have experienced a time when the world seems to slow down, if only for an instant.  It’s that period nanoseconds before the car wreck, or when that fine china is… OMG!… it’s… slipping… slipping… slipping out of your hand.  When you enter this zone, the elements of time and space change, allowing us to accomplish things we probably wouldn’t be able to accomplish otherwise.

It’s a cool thing, for sure.  Unless you actually drop the china, in which case your wife doesn’t let you live it down.  Allegedly.

The down side, however, is that it’s extremely mentally exhausting.  Most of us can’t maintain that state for long, let alone for the entire duration of a qualification test.  Unfortunately!  It looks something like this:



The hyperfocus gives us some short-lived benefits: we can actually shoot above our skill level, but only for a short time.  And then either due to mental or physical fatigue, we get worse and worse.  Add to that our own expectations of “but I’m a much better shooter than this, honestly” and we have a recipe for disaster.  We tend to absolutely beat ourselves up when we don’t do as well as we think we’re capable.

The solution to shooting well on these courses, clearly, is to raise your baseline skill level.  Hopefully this isn’t news to anyone.  Take a class.  If we could take the entire test with zero stress, or even shoot just our favorite stage on the test, in a relaxed, positive environment, most of us would have a much higher score.  But that’s usually not possible or even preferred… as long as we can limit our periods of hyperfocus to only the parts of the test that need the extra attention.

If you allow your periods of hyperfocus to work for you instead of against you, we can be more successful overall.

Here’s what I mean.

On the LFI Qual course, there are in effect 5 very different mini-qualification courses.  Each of the 5 have their own challenges.  But if we’re being honest with each other, not all of the 5 are intimidating.  By themselves, none are even really all that hard.  Most of us find one or two to be especially challenging, but can do pretty well on the others.  Excellent.  Here’s where my advice might differ from some other instructors: start your practice with the stages you find the easiest.  Yes, the easiest.

The goal on the final exam is to breeze through as many stages as we can and not use up our “worry” until we need to.  Save your hyperfocus until you get to a stage that needs 100% of your attention.

I don’t mean relax on the others, I mean don’t worry about them.  If we start our practice on the areas we’re already strong, really nailing those stages down, then we can buckle down and focus on the others.

Here’s what I mean: The first 3 stages are all time-critical.  There isn’t much time for dilly-dallying.  But for me, the A-zone is huge from 4 yards away.  I have long arms, so I’m really only shooting from 3 yards… but don’t tell anyone.  My attention on the first 3 stages is about being smooth with my movements, seeing the front sight, getting the reloads without fumbling (stage 3), and having a smooth trigger pull.

Starting with the 4th group, time is less of a factor (for me) than accuracy.  I keep telling myself “slow down, breathe, smooth pull” on each shot.  Still no dilly-dallying, but I don’t feel rushed.

But the last group for me is where the stress hits.  My heart rate goes up, I start thinking about mistakes in the past, and my brain becomes more my enemy than my friend.  So let’s turn that into the hyperfocus.  Bring it on.  5 seconds for each shot can be an eternity in a test like this.  Feel the trigger, concentrate on the front sight, squeeeeeeze… bang.  In slow motion.

Whichever part of the test is your nemesis, hit it head-on.  Practice the heck out of it.  Allow the shooting fundamentals to work through you without letting the stress overcome you.

Then nail it.  Don’t try and be perfect – try and be better.

Carry on, Colorado!

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