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The Value of Mirror Image Shooting

That’s me shooting lefty in the lead photo, and no, I’m not a natural southpaw. I’m shown in Utah teaching a MAG-40 class and shooting the Pace-Setter, the staff demonstration of the qualification our students will have to shoot immediately thereafter. It goes to the adult education principle known as “modeling,” or the theory that if students are about to undergo a physical skills test, seeing the instructors perform the task gives them a template of what’s expected. Since we’ve been doing it that way, overall class scores have improved. Though I’m right-handed, I try to do it once a year as a lefty. I don’t do it just for them. I do it for me, too. Here’s why.

A Lightbulb Moment

I met Ray Chapman, the first World Champion of the Combat Pistol, in 1978 at the IPSC Nationals in the Los Angeles area. He impressed me enormously, and I decided to take his famous Advanced course at his Chapman Academy in Columbia, Missouri. The 1979 plan to attend was disrupted when I had to write and tell him I was bowing out because I had a manslaughter trial that week. It was my introduction to Ray’s dry sense of humor: he wrote back to tell me I was welcome to take it the next year…if I was acquitted. It made me chuckle, as I was not the accused.

So, 1980 rolled in, and en route to Chapman’s, a freak accident smashed my trigger finger at the base joint. The attending physician described the bone damage on the X-ray as dust and shards. I wound up at Chapman Academy with my gun hand in a cast from finger to lower forearm and had to shoot the whole thing non-dominant hand only, including the reloads.

Among other things, it was one of my most profound training experiences of what turned out to be a half-century-plus career as a firearms instructor. In what we’d call today a “bucket list” class, I had to do it all with the “weak hand” only. I managed to pass the course. In fact, Ray and I worked out some “weak hand only wounded defender” techniques that are still taught today. But I learned other important lessons.

An Epiphany

My dad had started me early. I literally grew up with a gun in my hand. A .22LR rifle at age 4, handguns at age 9, carrying one loaded in the family jewelry store from age 12, competition starting in the teens, and a police firearms instructor at age 23. Drawing and firing a pistol had become as natural, as auto-pilot, as taking out a pen and signing my name.

I had done weak hand-only training, as we all did even back then. But doing everything the “wrong” way? Auto-pilot was gone. The gun was no longer an extension of my hand. It was an awkward, alien, and almost threatening thing.

We should all practice shooting with our non-dominant hand only, but mirror image training goes further.

As a temporary southpaw, I rediscovered what it was like to be a new shooter. I had found myself getting impatient with the students who just “couldn’t get it.” And I came back from that experience a much more patient instructor, and a better one at that (I hope).

The Ignored Values of Mirror Image Training

Think about it: if we can’t teach our own non-dominant hand to do something, what makes us think we’re qualified to teach a whole separate human organism the same skill set?

In a few weeks, my right hand had healed enough to help out a little as a support hand, although auto pistol reloads weren’t quite as fast. I continued to compete, but now as a lefty. Something happened that surprised no one more than me: during six months of recuperation, I won more IPSC and PPC matches left-handed than I had with my naturally dominant right hand running the gun. I could only conclude that before, I had been trusting the auto-pilot of unconscious competence. But now, having to “shoot opposite,” instead of thinking, “I’ll beat Tom Campbell this time, dammit,” I had to think, “High hand, crush grip, front sight, smooth-roll that trigger!” It forced me back to conscious competence, thinking about what I was doing.

Back to the Basics

Any pilot will tell you that auto-pilot is pretty cool, but when the aircraft is in danger, the first thing they do is turn it off and go to manual override of the controls. The same thing happens with physical skills in a stress-inducing environment.

Most experts will tell you that the key to advanced practice and ability with any skill is simply mastering the basics. Mirror image absolutely forces you to go back to those basics.

I discovered other values in mirror image shooting. Some of you readers are old enough to remember when Glock pistols first came out. Many of us old gunnies said, “It’s different from my 1911. Therefore, it sucks!” Many of you remember the Weaver versus Isosceles debates of yesteryear and are experiencing the current debates over appendix carry, carry optics, etc., that often reach a level approaching religious warfare.

SIG legion mamipulated in the left hand
If you carry a legacy SIG like this P229 Legion, use your index finger to de-cock with your left hand.

Mirror image shooting can mediate the question, at least for the individual shooter. Take the new gun, the new sight, or the new stance or grasp and shoot it over a chosen course of fire mirror image, and then, with the same non-dominant side running the gear, do it your old way or with the new hardware. Our non-dominant side has developed fewer habits and preferences that get in the way of an honest assessment of new things. It’s more of a clean slate that gives the new concept a fairer chance against our natural bias toward “I’ve always done it this other way.”

Two pistols in ambidextrous holster
If you don’t have an opposite-side holster, at least have an ambidextrous one. Left: .40 Glock 22 in Glock’s own ambi holster, right, Kimber Custom II .45 in ambi from Leather Arsenal.

Street Value

Even if you’re not an instructor, if you are reading this, I presume you keep or carry firearms for self-defense. In each beginning class, we teach one-hand-only handgun work with either hand for the obvious reason that our gun arm can be taken out of play in the course of a life-or-death fight. I poll the class: “Not counting Simunitions, how many of you have ever been wounded in the gunarm in a gunfight?” Only rarely does even a single hand go up.

I then ask, “How many of you have at any time in your life had an injury to your dominant upper limb, from finger to collarbone, which took that dominant upper limb out of action for a while?” More hands than not go up in every class! And then comes the follow-up question: “When you got out of the hospital with that limb in a cast or a sling, hurting like hell, maybe on painkillers, was that a lousy time to start thinking about defending yourself and your family during the recuperation period, which may take days, weeks, or months?”

Two Glock30 and two Berettas in matching mirror-image holsters
Matching mirror image holsters. .45 Glock 30s in Aker Flatsiders, Langdon Custom (left), and Wilson Combat Berettas in Galco Silhouette High Rides.

In Closing

If you are serious about defending yourself and your loved ones, you will own at least one handgun and at least one holster that will serve you if you suddenly become an unwilling southpaw, or if you’re a lefty, a newborn “northpaw.” Ask your left-handed fellow shooters how long it takes them to get an ambi safety installed on their 1911 or the left-hand holster of their choice.

1911 and Beretta with ambi safties
Your “possibly someday wrong-side gun” wants ambi safety or decock levers, seen here on Springfield Armory 1911A1 and Wilson Combat Beretta 92, both 9mm.

Most of all, you’ll have practiced enough mirror image that you’ll have a substantial balance in the bank of so-called “long-term muscle memory” of running a defensive firearm that way. In our third-level regular classes that I teach and in our MAGIC (Massad Ayoob Group Instructor Course) run by shooting champion David Maglio, you’ll have to qualify as a lefty if you’re a righty, and vice versa.

Give mirror image training a try. It seems to be something of a lost skill in the world of defensive shooting, but it has much to offer you and those you may teach.

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