Book Review (Historical Handgun) – Shooting To Live (1942, Fairbairn & Sykes)

I’ve been developing a new course for KR Training, Historical Handgun, that teaches the history & evolution of defensive handgun skills.  Part of that work includes reading as many old books on shooting technique as I can find.

The 1942 book Shooting To Live, written by W.E. Fairbairn and E.A. Sykes, was a very influential work, introducing many concepts that remain a foundation for modern defensive handgun training.

Fairbairn and Sykes were in charge of the Shanghai Municipal Police in the 1930’s. During this time Shanghai was a very violent city.  During a twelve year period, there were 666 armed encounters with criminals documented by the authors.   They credit their techniques with producing a record of 260 criminals killed and 193 wounded, compared to 42 police killed and 100 wounded.

Key Principles

Their 3 key principles were:

  1. Extreme speed, both in drawing and firing
  2. Instinctive, as opposed to deliberate, aim
  3. Practice under circumstances which approximate as nearly as possible to actual fighting conditions.

This was in stark contrast to slow fire 25 and 50 yard bullseye shooting, which was still a mainstay of most law enforcement training, even in the FBI program.

Until Jeff Cooper, Jack Weaver and others in the late 60’s and early 70’s challenged the idea that there was “not time to use your sights” in close range gunfights, variations of what Fairbairn, Sykes and “Jelly” Bryce of the FBI were teaching were the standard.

As trainer Tom Givens points out in his instructor training courses, the duty and carry pistols of that time had tiny, hard to see sights, compared to the higher visibility sights that became common in the 1970s and beyond.  Similarly, the amount of light, and reliability, of flashlights of that era were significantly less than what became available in the 70s and later years. As Fairbairn observes in the book:

In any case, the sights would be of little use if the light were bad, and none at all if it were dark, as might easily happen.  Would it not be wiser, therefore, to face facts squarely and set to work to find out how to best develop instinctive aiming to the point of getting results under combat conditions?

Semi-auto vs. Revolver

Fairbairn favored the semiauto, referred to in the book as an “automatic”, over the revolver, for these reasons (which remain valid today):

  1. It is easier and quicker to recharge.
  2. It can be fired at far greater speed.
  3. It is easier to shoot with.

The authors write “that a beginner can be trained in the use of the automatic in a third of the time, and with the expenditure of less than half the ammunition required for the revolver.  Furthermore, once trained in the use of the automatic, men appear definitely to need less subsequent practice to maintain the standard of shooting which has been attained in the course of training.”

Unlike most gun writers that extolled the virtues of the double action revolver for beginners for decades after Shooting To Live was published, the authors were responsible for training over 1000 officers with less than 100 rounds available for annual training per officer per year.


The authors recommend an hour of dry fire practice before any live fire is performed, gripping the pistol in one hand, using a thumbs forward technique.  (The conventional wisdom in one handed shooting is to drop the thumb to make a full crush grip, which provides more grip pressure on the gun than “floating” the thumb.)

They taught a technique of starting with the pistol at a low ready position, arm fully extended, raising the pistol to eye level, but not taking time to find the sights, and firing.

Raising the pistol to eye level made it possible to use a rough form of visual alignment of the pistol (the back of the slide, the top of the slide, or even the front sight by itself without alignment with the rear sight) with the target.

This technique was taught by the US Army, as shown in the 2nd half of this video.  As you’ll see from the film, standards for acceptable hits were low compared to the 6″-8″ center mass hits expected in the modern day, and many had difficulty getting rounds on paper at all — but this technique produced better results than hip shooting techniques favored by the FBI.

The use of the fully extended arm ready position influenced the low ready positions used when two handed shooting became common. This article by Ralph Mroz is a good summary of different ready positions, with pros and cons.

One of two handed positions they recommend looks like the modern thumbs forward grip, with thumbs lower on the frame than is currently taught, and the other is a precursor to a Weaver stance, with bent elbow, but with the support hand grabbing the dominant hand wrist, as opposed to gripping the pistol itself.

Fairbairn and Sykes show other positions for close quarter shooting, that will look familiar to students of the 4-count draw stroke.

This video from Paul Gomez shows the modern manifestation of the idea of shooting from positions 2, 3 and 4 of the draw – same as Fairbairn/Sykes quarter hip (2) and half hip (3) positions, with Paul showing a 3/4 hip technique as “also shooting from the 4 position”.

Handgun Loading

Fairbairn and Sykes advocate carrying on an empty chamber, and racking the slide as part of the drawstroke. The pictures in the book show a shooter loading with gun down at waist level, finger on trigger, using a “pinch” method to manipulate the slide.  None of those techniques are considered acceptable at most (any?) modern schools.

They felt that the tiny thumb safety on the automatic pistol was too difficult to manipulate as part of the drawstroke.   Cooper, Weaver, and others, who began using timers and stopwatches and man-on-man shoots to understand what techniques produced effective first shot hits fastest, proved that it was faster to start with a round chambered, taking the safety off while drawing.  The development of larger safeties that were easier to manipulate were definitely a factor in that evolution.

Training Drills

Fairbairn and Sykes advocated firing multiple rounds each time the pistol was brought to target – a technique that is still taught today.  They used live fire shoot houses with realistic mechanical moving targets, incorporating no-shoot targets (with penalties for hitting the no-shoots), psychological and physical stress on trainees, ball and dummy drills to teach trigger press and malfunction clearing under stress, and many other concepts and techniques still in use today.


In addition to contributing to the evolution of shooting technique, Fairbairn (and Col. Rex Applegate) also contributed to the evolution of unarmed self defense, as shown in this video of them teaching their techniques in this vintage film.

Shooting to Live is definitely one of the top 10 most important books written on defensive pistol, with significant influence on the change from one handed long range slow fire bullseye shooting to what is considered standard training today.  Highly recommended.