Retention Shooting: Why It’s Important and How to Train for It

As much as we would like to think gunfights always happen at a safe distance with lots of cover and concealment between us and the bad guy, it doesn’t always work that way. It would be great if the threat never got close enough to take our gun away. This scenario might play out if the attacker is using a gun because he could shoot from far away. But what if he’s not?

Many times our attacker is using a close combat weapon such as a knife, bat, or other blunt object and is within arm’s reach, in some cases right on top of us, grabbing at whatever we are using to defend ourselves. We may even get knocked to the ground and have to wrestle our way to freedom and safety. In situations like this, you won’t have the luxury of standing up straight, pointing your gun with both hands in the perfect thumbs-forward grip, and firing shots from a safe distance with time to think about what to do next. This is not a range session. You’re finally faced with a life-or-death struggle, and it’s not as neat and tidy as the last time you shot at paper targets in a controlled environment.

Real-life gunfights are messy. And the bad guy gets a vote as to who wins.

What is Shooting from Retention?

To “retain” something means to keep it. While that sounds elementary, it’s good to define terms with respect to the application. In a gunfight, you want to retain your gun, hanging on so you can use it and the bad guy can’t get it.

Shooting from retention means that when you’re firing your gun, it’s in a position where you can keep maximum control and away from the bad guy’s grasp. Often this involves keeping the gun close to your body and using your support hand to fend off the attack and keep your assailant away as much as possible, understanding that he may be in contact with you, making this task extremely difficult.

The key to shooting from retention is understanding how much space there is between you and your assailant and how you need to control your gun to be effective. He will likely either be just inside arm’s reach or in contact with you, grabbing at you, punching you, or stabbing you. He’ll be near enough that you can smell his rotten, stinking breath.

How do you shoot from retention?

The first principle of shooting from retention is understanding that it necessarily means you can’t stick the gun out at full extension like you would at the range before pulling the trigger. You must keep the gun close to your body because your assailant is too close to push out. If you extend your arms all the way out like you’re shooting a faraway target, the gun will either extend through your target and poke him in the gut or end up too close to your assailant, near enough that he can take it away from you, thus negating the whole idea of retention and putting your life at increased danger because you’re unarmed or struggling to maintain control of your firearm.

Sometimes our attacker is too close for us to push the gun out to full extension. In this case, keep the gun tight while you fend off the attack and deliver shots to the lower body. Note how the support hand is up and out of the way of the muzzle.

Instead, shooting from retention requires that the gun stay tucked against your body and your shooting arm bent. Notice I didn’t say shooting arms, plural. This style of shooting is always one-handed, usually your strong hand. It can be done with your support hand if your strong hand is injured, but typically it’s a strong hand function because it happens immediately after drawing from a holster.

Engaging a threat from retention involves the following steps:

  1. Draw the gun but keep it by your side with the muzzle horizontal and facing the threat.
  2. You won’t want to or be able to straighten your arm, so keep the gun between your waist and your armpit with your elbow bent behind it.
  3. Cant the top of the gun out slightly away from your body and away from your clothing. Why is this step important? If you’re using a semi-automatic pistol, the slide reciprocates each time you fire. Tilting the gun slightly away from your clothing allows the slide to operate free of obstructions such as a shirt or jacket that might cause it to malfunction—not a good situation in the middle of a fight.
  4. Fire the appropriate number of shots for the situation to stop the threat or at least temporarily stop your attacker. Chances are these shots will enter the target in the pelvic girdle or somewhere in the midsection and can be incredibly effective and disabling.
For retention shooting, cant the gun outward.
Cant the gun outward to avoid the slide getting stuck on your clothing.

The point of shooting from retention is to quickly disable an attacker with your firearm while maintaining control of it and not shooting yourself. In all likelihood, the first shot or shots you deliver will not be enough to fully stop the threat, although they might be. Engaging the bad guy from retention is the first step in ending the confrontation.

Once you have engaged the threat from retention and delivered the appropriate shots to get yourself free, move away from your attacker to create space so you can reassess the situation and decide if more action is required. Re-engage as necessary, keeping in mind the level of response legally allowed in your jurisdiction.

Training for Retention Shooting

Understanding that this is an unconventional method of shooting, how do you train for it? It’s not like standing behind a bench, picking up your gun, loading it carefully, forming your grip, and shooting a few shots at a static target five yards away. To properly train for retention shooting, you need to go beyond the bench, downrange, where you can move and shoot freely.

It’s best to use a full-size silhouette as a target for these drills as it better simulates the size and shape of a real attacker. If you’ve never shot a gun from beyond the bench, it will feel strange the first time. But it’s important to do this to better simulate the real-world environment you will find yourself in should you ever need this skill for real.

  1. Start off close to the target to replicate a real threat inside arm’s length. Be so close you can touch the target with your hand. We don’t often train this close to targets, so it might feel awkward at first, but you need to understand how close potential threats can be when you might need to use retention shooting to defend yourself.
  2. Practice your normal draw from concealment, including clearing your cover garment. This is critical because you have to get the gun into the fight before you can use it to deliver shots on target. Try this at first as a dryfire exercise so you get used to the motion without the risk of accidents. Start out slow, making each movement deliberate. Once the motion is committed to muscle memory, increase speed to more like real life. Only after this motion and speed are working smoothly should you introduce a loaded gun into the equation.
  3. With a loaded firearm, draw and deliver the first shot or shots on target from the retention position and then create space between you and the threat by backing up while continuing to deliver follow-up shots from a normal shooting stance and position. Be sure the path behind you is free of trip hazards and obstacles before starting this exercise so you won’t fall and hurt yourself.
Create distance to deliver any necessary follow up shots to stop the threat.

Important note: Protect your support hand from getting shot by placing it on your chest or above your head when shooting from retention so it is out of the way of the muzzle. Practice this skill until it is second nature, which is how you will react should you find yourself needing to deploy this tactic in real life.

Start off slowly, practicing the fundamental movements with an unloaded and safe firearm. Then work your way up and add the live firearm when you are ready.

Get Help

Like all other aspects of firearms training, shooting from retention is a learned and practiced skill. Practice with a good trainer who can watch what you’re doing and help you get better. It’s also safer to have someone with you when working on advanced skills such as this.

David Workman is an avid gun guy, a contributing writer to several major gun publications, and the author of Absolute Authority. A logophile since way back, Workman is a quickdraw punslinger and NRA RSO and Certified Pistol Instructor. He helps train new shooters on basic handgun skills and CCW requirements and is a strong advocate for training as much as practicable. "Real-world shootouts don't happen at a box range."

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