You Can’t Buy Skill With Gadgets

It’s not a new trend, but it certainly has intensified in recent years. It’s the belief that adding gadgets to our firearms will somehow make us better shooters. Does it really work? Can we pour dollars into our firearms and honestly expect an improvement in our shooting?

Perhaps we’re to blame for a lot of this. Who is “We”? The shooting industry. We, as a community, have apparently become enamored with gadgetry of all types. Lights, lasers, dot sights, scopes, rail systems, and aftermarket triggers. It seems that many shooters are in love with modifications to their firearms and bolting on every imaginable gadget that they can get ahold of. And the more expensive, the better!

On the cover of many magazines, shooters wear the latest camo patterns and tactical gear and hold rifles that resemble ray guns, complete with every imaginable shooting accessory hanging off of them. Some of them have become more of a fashion show than anything constructive.

And the weapons in those magazines often have extravagantly wild price tags. A few weeks ago, I saw an article about an AR-15 that cost $7,500. Seriously!! Articles about 1911s costing several thousand dollars are also somewhat common. Who can afford these things?

Too Much Gun?

A number of years ago, I was at my local shooting range. A fellow was at the bench across from me, evidently having much difficulty sighting in his new hunting rifle. By the way, the concussion smacked me in the side of the face each time he pulled the trigger, I could tell that it was a large caliber.

Finally, during a break, he asked me if I could help him zero the rifle in. I said “Sure! What caliber is it?”

He responded that it was a .300 Winchester Magnum. I jokingly asked him if he planned on hunting elephants. “No, just deer,” he replied, referring to our local PA white-tail deer. Incidentally, our local whitetails will go down when hit with a .243, let alone a canon like that.

He continued that friends had told him that he at least needed a .300 Magnum for whitetail deer. All I could think was, where in the hell do these people come from?

At any rate, the guy didn’t know the first thing about zeroing a scoped rifle. On top of that, he’d developed a scathing flinch because of the stout recoil from the rifle.

I showed him how to adjust the elevation and windage turrets to move the impact of the bullet. I explained the fundamentals of marksmanship so that he had a fighting chance to eventually hit a target. The rifle and scope that he was using were just fine, they were good quality. However, it was far, far too much rifle for a novice, especially for the thin-skinned game he was after.

The man was using a rifle that would have demanded all of my skill to master, let alone that of a novice. I could only shake my head.

The moral of this particular story: Make sure the hardware you’re using is realistic for the job. And also realistic for your skill set!

Can you shoot up to the level of the gear?

Let’s look at things realistically. In some cases, shooters have some real skills and can shoot up to the level of the gear they’re using. They’ve gotten training and/or have put in a lot of practice time to build a solid skill set. Others would benefit from training and spending the money on training ammunition instead of gadgets. 

Speaking of gadgets, let’s talk about the different types and how they may or may not be useful.


I have a lot of friends who are gun enthusiasts. Several tell me about the high-end triggers that they spent hundreds of dollars on, and that offer a feathery, light trigger pull. A few guys adjust these triggers to under a pound for the break.

First, it’s dangerous. Too light of a trigger can lead to accidental discharges.

Secondly, the vast majority of shooters just aren’t that great of a shot. And it’s hard to break that news to them. “You’re not really that great, and spending all the hard-earned dough on a super high-end trigger probably isn’t going to help you be any better.” People do tend to get offended, you know?

But it’s the truth. If you can’t shoot decent groups with a factory trigger, chances are that an aftermarket, fancy trigger isn’t going to do much at all for you, except drain your checking account faster. For me, the money would be much better spent on training ammunition.

I know shooters who buy a new rifle and won’t even try the factory trigger, instead installing an aftermarket unit before they even hit the range. They firmly believe that a pile of money has to be spent on the firearm for it to be viable.

Will an 8-ounce trigger really make you a better shooter, and is there a need for such a thing? In the vast majority of cases, probably not.


Lights certainly have a place in the tactical arena, allowing us to Positively Identify our targets during low light conditions. In fact, if you can’t identify a potential attacker in low light, you should not be pulling the trigger. Will they help us shoot more accurately? Probably, and training will help.


This is a hot topic for me. I can’t count the number of people who have told me that they really don’t have a need for iron sights because they have a laser mounted on their handgun or rifle. “All I have to do is make sure that dot is on the bad guy and he’s dead.”

Well, they are flat-out wrong. Electronics can (and do) fail. And we can’t count on them to solve all of our problems.

Using a laser in darkness does not illuminate our target at all. Not unless we also have a light mounted on our weapon. The laser projects a dot. Onto what, we might not be sure. Is it a dot on a wall or a bad guy? In the darkness, we have no way of knowing. We just see a dot on…something. A nice compromise is a light and laser combo, for the best of both worlds.

Glock 19X with Fenix GL22 light/laser
A laser/light combo solves some problems. First, it provides light so we can see the target. It also offers a laser as an option. (Photo: Jim Davis)

Another aspect that many don’t consider is that bad guys move around. In fact, they do it rather animatedly, especially when someone is trying to put a bullet into them. Along the same line of thinking, we good guys also move around a lot for the same reason. Have you ever tried to hold a laser dot steady on a person as you both are moving around as if your lives depended on it? Try it sometime, it’s an enlightening experience. You may find out that it’s nigh on impossible to hold that laser on the fast-moving miscreant long enough to get a hit. Now, add darkness to the mix.

Red Dot Sights

Some people have disabilities, and technology can help them overcome those.

For example, red dot sights (RDS) on pistols (and rifles). Those who have aging eyes sometimes experience blurring of the sights on guns (including your author). Red Dots can help people overcome that and make it far easier to see pistol sights.

Compare that with the latest craze in red dots on pistols for the mainstream crowd. I’ll admit that I haven’t delved much into them, but then I’m not really in the “In-crowd” much. Being a traditionalist, I slog along with iron sights on my handguns. Most of my handguns are not set up to accept the RDS, and at the moment, I’m not about to shell out a ton of money to buy slides that are cut for them. Add to that the cost of the actual RDS itself, and the dollars can stack up very quickly.

Do most people “need” an RDS for their handgun? I don’t think so. They’re tacticool gadgets that a lot of people use to keep up with the Joneses.

Do they improve shooter performance? Maybe. What most people don’t realize is that there is a marked learning curve with the RDS that does not just happen overnight. A lot of repetition must be invested to be able to use one instinctively. And believe me, during a lethal force encounter, our tactics must be instinctive and ingrained, because adrenaline is going to mess with us big time during such events.

Skill Building: It Takes Practice

We’ve heard the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.” That’s not true. Perfect practice makes perfect. If we are practicing inferior techniques, then our performance will likely mirror our practice.

Once we ascertain some solid training techniques, it behooves us to work on those techniques.

But let’s be honest, we live in modern times. Kids need to be chauffeured here and there, parents have appointments, we have demanding careers, yard work needs to be done…there are a million things that demand our time and attention. How high are weapons manipulation skills on our list? It’s very likely they’re below helping the kids with their homework.

Have a Plan at the Range

At the range, I almost always see people pull up, set up targets, and then begin leisurely and robotically banging away at the target. There’s no rhyme or reason to their shooting session. Frequently, they’ll step back and admire their target, convinced that they are an excellent shot and well-prepared for any armed confrontation that might come their way.

Conducting a speed reload.
Do you train to reload under stress? You should be. (Photo: Sue Davis)

Never mind that they did not put any time constraints on themselves. They practiced no stoppage drills. No multiple targets. No magazine changes under stress. In fact, no stress whatsoever in any of their shooting. No shooting drills at all. Just robotically banging away at a target.

All of these things are worthy investments of time and money, and they only cost the price of the training ammo.

Start With the Basics

If you’re just getting into shooting, it’s a good idea to start with stock firearms. Iron sights, no scopes, lasers, etc. You want to get the basics down before you advance to more exotic methods. Crawl before you walk, walk before you run.

Get Training!

To quote Gunny Hathcock in our conversation a long time ago: “Train, train, train! When you go to the range, don’t just shoot to put rounds down range. Shoot as if a life hangs in the balance of every round you fire.”

If you approach training with that philosophy, your time and resources will be much better spent.

Author during Vehicle Tactics class.
Training helps a lot. It pushes shooters to go beyond their normal limits and offers new perspectives. Here, I’m engaging targets from inside a vehicle. (Photo: George Matheis)

Delta/Special Forces/SEALs

These guys have no limit to the gadgets that are available for their weapons. Yes, we do see them with lights, scopes, dot sights, lasers (both visible and IR), and all sorts of gadgets on their carbines. Here’s the thing: they don’t necessarily depend on all of those gadgets for their accuracy. They’ve trained exhaustively in the fundamentals of marksmanship without those electronic doo-dads.

And you can bet they’ve trained a ton with those electronics too. Another thing is that they face a huge variety of different scenarios, and they have to be ready for just about anything in the field. That’s one of the differences between them and us; we are defensively oriented. They are not.

Operator with souped-up carbine with plenty of accessories.
This operator has filled a lot of the space in his rail system with plenty of add-ons. (Photo: Recoil Magazine)

These days we see people emulating the special operators by bolting on every conceivable piece of gear to their “lightweight” carbines. And when it’s all said and done, those lightweight carbines now resemble crew-served weapons because they weigh about fourteen pounds (when they should really weigh about seven or eight pounds). They’re very ready for “Show And Tell,” but not very practical.

Bottom Line

The fact of the matter is that it’s the shooter, not the gun, that makes the difference! I know guys who have trained to a very high level, who, if handed a stock weapon, would clean the clock of average shooters in competition or a real gunfight. Most of these guys are either law enforcement or military, and they’ve trained under stress to a high level.

If you can really use the piece of gear you’re attaching to your weapon, then it’s justified. And by “really use” it, I mean, is there actually a need for it? And if there is a need, have you practiced to become proficient with it?

AR-15 with Leupold scope.
My carbine. The only add-on so far is the Leupold 1.5-4x scope. I plan to add a light to it, but that’s about it. I go by the KISS Principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. (Photo: Jim Davis)

And is there a backup for it? For example, dot sights can be an advantage. However, can you still use the iron sights as a backup in the event of an electronics or battery failure? Many sights do allow that, and it’s a good idea, just in case.

Master the Fundamentals of Marksmanship. After you’re done with that…do it some more.

I like how Gunny Hathcock used to put it: “It’s the nut behind the butt.” You, the shooter, are the weapon. Select your tools carefully and thoughtfully.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

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