Doctrine or Dogma

Over the course of the last 20 + years I have attended dozens of classes involving firearms and tactics. My last ten years as a police officer they mostly occurred on my own dime. Critical training at the time, it supported me in my responsibility as a SWAT team leader, firearms instructor, armorer, patrol sergeant and eventual tactical commander. What I passed on to my officers may have saved theirs or others lives. Keeping that in mind, It quickly became clear there was a need to discern the difference between doctrine and dogma.

The last few years the training I attend has mostly been with the assistance of Harris Publications. Covering classes nationwide in large academies, small facilities, and at various media events the chance to learn from a wide variety of instructors has been invaluable. It has included many styles, doctrines, and yes, a bit of dogma. Whether from the worlds best shooters and trainers, real world officers, battle hardened veterans, or local firearms instructors the need was still there – separating the doctrine from the dogma.

Merriam-Webster defines doctrine as “a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief” Dogma is “a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted” Simply put, doctrine is how you believe something should be done, Dogma is a belief it is the only way, without doubt or question. Dogma often includes a fanatical adherence to one doctrine combined with an equally fanatical belief every other doctrine is wrong. It is something you might expect in a religious belief, unfortunately it also infects the firearms and tactical training world. Infection was chosen purposely, as it is a festering open sore on the training world that grows when untreated infecting those it touches. If left unchecked it just may get those infected injured or killed, especially they carry a gun into harms way for a living. Fortunately the cure is an open mind, not something impossible to find, although it seems frequently absent these days.

Sounds harsh, I know, but having had instructors insist “this” or “that” tactic or method is the “only” way to do something it has become endemic. Not only have some of the tactics been downright scary, the idea it is the only way could prove lethal. Real life is not that simple, and each situation dictates what works and doesn’t work. People are different, what works for one may not at all for another. Its a cliche, I get it, but honestly the more you know and can apply, the more likely you are to win, or survive. It is critical you learn what works for you, not what the latest guru thinks is best for all.

Interestingly, the best instructors with the greatest level of experience seldom suffer this disease. More often than not, just like all dogma, it is the recent convert who is the biggest offender or carrier, along with the pretender who feigns at real experience. For centuries teachers were expected to broaden their experience and training and gain perspective before passing on knowledge, with good reason. Does every firearms instructor need to have experienced a gunfight, of course not. In fact, some of the worst courses ever attended were taught by serious combat veterans, or officers having been in shootings. They are neither mutually explosive, nor always compatible. However, some of the MOST valuable training has come from equally experienced trainers coupling that same experience to an open mind, strong teaching skills, and a practiced calm and professional demeanor. You can learn from anyone, but It is often easier to learn from someone that has walked the walk IF they can teach you the same steps.

So what should you look for? Here are three things I think help to separate dogma from doctrine. .

Professionals act Professionally: Instructors who spend more time criticizing other systems then showing you the value of theirs should be avoided completely. Professionals teach you what they know with purpose and dedication, they do not waste time denigrating others. They are courteus to you, insure your safety, and act responsibly at all times. It is the strongest evidence of dogma, what they do is correct, all else is wrong. That is not teaching, it is indoctrination.

Professionals have an open mind: Good teachers are able to demonstrate what they teach so you can understand it, then patiently teach you how to best use what they know. If you are doing something different they should be open to you explaining why (at the next break not on the line). It may be because you are clueless, happens all the time, its why you are there. It may be antiquated, or some goofy thing picked up on the latest website video or video game. It may be down right dangerous. Good instructors will stop you from shooting yourself, then patiently explain why what you are doing may or may not work and why, or why it may just cause you to blow your foot off. That will be followed by a solid explanation of why they are teaching you what they do. Its about knowledge and passing it on and that takes an open mind.

Why is critical: Good students ask why, good teachers can answer them. If not then and there, then later. If the answer is “because we do it this way” there is no learning. Having an open mind as an instructor means you learn or try to understand what other doctrines teach and their application. Experience may tell you that technique or other doctrine is well suited for other environments. It may be perfectly sound, just not applicable. It may be it IS just plain stupid, there is plenty of that out there. Solid instructors will know and explain why. Tactics and techniques that may be perfect for an entry team may have no place for concealed carry holders. Military tactics often have little or no value in a civilian environment. It does not mean they are wrong, just not applicable. It is experience and an open mind that allows good teachers to answer the why questions. Dogma by its very nature ignores why, focussing only on how. You should leave training with a better knowledge of why you do things, not just how to do them.

There are more for sure, but if these three exist you are probably going to learn a ton, and enjoy yourself at the same time while leaving the range with no new holes in your body or gear. Tactics, techniques, and doctrine can very, although not nearly as much as many would like you to think.

Lastly, all of what was explained above applies to you as the student as well. Paying someone to teach you while adhering to some already held dogma is a waste of everyones time and your money. I promise that if you ever train with me I will act as the professional just described in this piece. If you do the same we both win!


Dave Bahde