John Browning’s revolutionary semiautomatic pistol was still being used like a Colt six-shooter until Jeff Cooper came along.

The Marine Corps Lt. Colonel, firearms enthusiast, history professor, race-car driver, intellectual iconoclast and all-around stouthearted guy was curious as to how best to deploy the sidearm in combat. What he eventually evolved in the early ‘60s is called The Modern Technique of the Pistol, and John Browning has surely been smiling in his grave ever since, undoubtedly relieved that somebody finally figured out how to use the instrument he invented far ahead of its time.

The Modern Technique is an intensive training doctrine that is taught today by Cooper’s former pupils at Gunsite Ranch in Arizona, other serious firearms instructors such as Clint Smith, Max Joseph of Tactical Firearms Training Team (TFTT) in California, the US Marine Corps, virtually all military special forces in the US and most other countries of the world, elite law enforcement SWAT and HRT teams and many cops, soldiers, other professionals and civilians both ordinary and extraordinary worldwide. Few people today shoot pistols the way they used to. The following canons are crucial to the very foundation of The Modern Technique. Shooters who have been trained in Cooper’s 1911 operating doctrine, including all those listed above, consider these tenets virtually immutable. They have been so thoroughly proven in real life it would be foolhardy to disregard them, which is not to say that they are never disregarded.

Condition One And Only

Unless you are one of the unfortunates who is forced to wear a decorative pistol with an unloaded magazine, there are three possible conditions in which to carry your 1911.

Condition Three. Chamber empty, hammer down. This requires you to manually cycle the slide before firing. To return the gun to its carry position after firing, you have to drop the magazine, empty the chamber, drop the hammer, reload and reinsert the magazine, all without shooting an innocent bystander. Condition Three is the slowest-into-action of any method of carrying a 1911 and, as such, is a dangerous concession to those whose nervous systems are conditioned to revolvers whose hammers are always at rest when not in use and which are not equipped with the operator-controlled safety systems of the 1911.

Condition Two. Chamber loaded, hammer down. This requires you to cock the hammer with your thumb before firing. It also requires you to very carefully pull the trigger and lower the hammer over a loaded chamber before returning the gun to its holster. The technique for manipulating a Condition Two carry is best practiced out in the country in a freshly plowed field, where the bullets will not ricochet off the pavement or the occasional rock every time you re-holster your gun.

Condition One. Cocked and locked. Chamber loaded, hammer cocked, thumb safety on. This requires you to snick the safety down before firing and snick it back up when you’re finished. Simple. And as safe as any mechanical safety can possibly make a gun, which is to say as safe as is consistent with practical readiness. Condition One is the fastest way to get your 1911 into action, the least prone to mistakes, and therefore the only way to go.

That John Browning intended the 1911 to be carried in Condition One is evidenced by the fact that a major feature of the gun is the thumb safety. There is no earthly use for the thumb safety -– the part doesn’t even function -– unless the hammer is cocked. It should also be noted that the up/safe, down/fire operation of the single-action 1911 thumb safety is natural and intuitive. Walther, who invented the double-action/single-action mechanism with the little PP in 1929, chose to reverse the safety procedure, and all those manufacturers who have since adopted the double-action design have followed suit. On a double-action auto, the thumb lever up means ready to fire (requiring only a very long and godawful trigger pull), thumb lever down drops the hammer on a firing pin block (or right through the block onto the firing pin, as was not uncommon with a few earlier models). To experienced 1911 operators, the ass-backward operation of the thumb safeties of double-action autos makes it impossible to train anybody in the effective use of both single-action and double-action systems, not that it’s so easy to train anybody in the effective use of the double-action system to begin with. Since a double-action operates in two different modes, depending on where you find yourself in the shooting cycle, you have to teach two different grips and two different trigger pulls as well as the transition between them. And you have to decide whether you’re going to start and end with the safety on or the safety off, because both methods are taught by different instructors.

Bob Young, former Vice President of Operations at Gunsite, told me that back in the days when he was a US Marine Corps colonel teaching recruits how to shoot 1911s, it took him 4½ days and 500 rounds of ammunition to train a 19-year-old Marine to draw his 45 from a tied-down GI flap holster and shoot an adversary twice at seven yards in under two seconds including the draw. When he taught double-action Berettas, it took a full day longer and an additional 300 rounds of ammo and Young never said whether that 19-year-old Marine could pull off the same two-second routine at the end of it.

Jeff Cooper dubbed double-action/single-action autos “crunchentickers” because the first double-action shot is a crunch and the follow-up single-action shots are ticks. Faced with this kind of mechanical derangement, the shooter usually tosses his first shot somewhere out in left field, notwithstanding the fact that, as Max Joseph often says, It’s the first shot that counts.

While there is no problem at all in applying 1911 training to pistols devoid of thumb safeties, such as the Glock and the new derivative generation of double-action-only autos, there are severe and potentially deadly problems involved when you try to apply 1911 training to pistols with upside-down thumb safeties that operate backward.

Here’s one final bit of advice to those who believe the cocked and locked 1911 is somehow out to get them. In addition to your normal carry pistol, shove a cocked and locked, and unloaded, 1911 in a holster or your pants or your underwear or wherever. Check it several times a day to see if it has surreptitiously disengaged its own safety and pulled its own trigger when you weren’t looking. After several weeks or months or years of this, draw your own conclusion.

Ride The Thumb Safety High

You can only snick the thumb safety down and off when your thumb is resting on top of it. This is, therefore, where your thumb belongs -– from the moment you grip your pistol in its holster throughout your firing sequence until you temporarily move your thumb down to the magazine release button to reload or until you are finished firing and decide to return the safety to the on position at which point your thumb momentarily glides over and beneath the safety so that you can snick it up. At no other time does your thumb leave its assigned position on top of the thumb safety, and it always returns immediately to its high-riding position and stays there until your gun is holstered.

This is not a difficult concept to understand, yet many untrained shooters grip their guns with their thumbs planted beneath the thumb safety, where its only possible function is to prevent the weapon from firing. A low-thumb position under heavy recoil often does exactly that.

There is one precaution. A high-thumb grip on a 1911 tends to lessen the pressure the web of your hand exerts on the grip safety. If the grip safety is not compressed far enough to disengage it, the gun won’t fire. This is obviously a potential calamity, and it is the reason John Browning did not specify a grip safety for the 1911. The government made him do it. The 1911’s grip safety was insisted upon by the US Army because some paranoid bureaucrat thought it might be a good idea. As a general rule, unnecessary and imperfect safety devices have an uncanny way not only of annoying people half to death but of actually killing more people than they protect, which is undoubtedly why the gunban-creatures lobby for their adoption. Some professional 1911 operators have been known to pin the grip safety to the frame in the down position, and some competitors tape it down for the duration of a match. Some manufacturers, notably Kimber, place a huge bulge on their grip safety so there is no way you can grip the gun in any kind of firing position without pressing the safety all the way down. You might remember that the pistol John Browning designed in 1935 without benefit of the US Army looking over his shoulder -– the estimable Browning High Power –- functions almost exactly like the 1911 in every way except one. There is no grip safety.

The Weaver Stance Is The Fighting Stance

The Weaver Stance was developed (perhaps discovered is a better way to put it or, even better, first applied to combat handgun shooting) by Jack Weaver, one of the original group of shooters who made up the core of Cooper’s fast-shooting crowd in the days when he was evolving The Modern Technique. The Weaver is very much like most other classic martial arts stances, from boxing to karate to spear-throwing, and offers the obvious benefits of flexibility, control, compactness, body dynamics, directed strength, and did I mention flexibility?

Still, even today, some instructors continue to teach the isosceles, a girlish and Gumby-like stance which works best if the objective is to plant the shooter in one place and make him the biggest, slowest-moving target possible, sort of like a life-size Pepper popper. The isosceles stance will do for shooting scenarios that are known in advance, fired with light-recoiling handguns, and do not include the most remote possibility that you might need to advance, retreat, unexpectedly shoot from side to side, over or under, make a fast 90- or 180-degree swing or take cover at any time during the imagined or real firefight. Otherwise, the spread-eagle locked-limb inflexibility of the isosceles can make it as life-threatening to the shooter as the Weaver is to the target.

The Weaver not only gives you the strongest isometrically reinforced recoil-controlling grip possible, a crucial factor if you’re shooting full-power 45 ACP loads, it also allows you to quickly pivot on one foot to cover any adversary’s position –- fixed, moving, multiple, up, down, through a small opening, around the corner, or appearing out of thin air which is something adversaries have been known to do.

Think Only About The Front Sight

One of my favorite Jeff Cooper quotes is: “Blessed are those who, in the face of death, think only about the front sight.” Shooting well, especially in a life-threatening situation, requires an enormous amount of concentration. Only a depth of training will direct you to automatically concentrate on the right thing, the thing that will save your life, that thing known as the front sight.

Iron sights present three possible planes for your viewing pleasure -– the rear sight, the front sight and the target. Eyes being what they are, in your need to align these three planes you can only focus on one of them. Focus on the rear sight makes the front sight fuzzy and the target little more than a ghost image. Focus on the target renders both sights useless. Focus on the front sight gives you a fuzzy but useable rear sight and still allows you to identify vital areas on your target. There is only one possible choice. When your target is shooting at you, however, there is a very strong instinctive urge to focus on that, thus the need for concentration cultivated by training.

There are instructors who don’t believe the human mind is capable of such discipline, and who therefore advocate hip-shooting, point-shooting, “instinctive” shooting. In other words, just thrust your gun out there and pull the trigger. This technique can be relied upon only if, when you thrust your gun out there, your muzzle makes actual physical contact with a vital point on your opponent’s anatomy before you pull the trigger. Otherwise you’re in trouble, because you won’t be shooting to make a hit, you’ll be shooting to contravene your panic.
There is plenty of African hunting literature which includes instances where otherwise fine shots with years of experience have been known to miss elephants at ten feet. If you are out of powder-burn range, the only thing you can rely on to save your life is your front sight.

These Are The Facts Of Life

Carry your weapon cocked and locked and ready for anything. Ride the thumb safety high for instant response and complete control. Take a flexible, fighting stance. Focus on the sight plane that will deliver the most vital hits.

Oh, there’s one more thing. Mindset. Cooper likes to tell the story.

“One of the best examples of technique I can recall is, a couple came home one night over in West Los Angeles and they were greeted on the second deck by a creep with a gun. The creep says to the man, Lay down on the floor. He was going to tie him up with tape, and so the guy lets him do it. While the creep is tying the guy’s hands the girl reaches around and pulls the pistol out of the creep’s waistband and kills him with it. Now, I don’t know how good a shot she was, but she was good enough.”

Lesson: forget the first four facts. In an armed confrontation, what counts is mindset.