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Last year, in May of 2022, I talked about the idea of “tactical minimalism.” The main idea is that on the path to becoming a capable marksman, there are many important skills and capabilities to learn a long the way. To be capable across a spectrum of skills, you need to spend the bulk of your time practicing a few high-impact basic items to the point of complete mastery.
Mastering those few basics serves you better in the long term than knowing twenty variations of every shooting position. This principle expands to other areas as well, such as starting fires, building shelters, radio communications, physical fitness, and more.
Last year, I started talking about prism optics and how I thought they were due for a comeback. Sure enough, the big social media channels and YouTubers were ditching their LPVOs in favor of prism optics with piggybacked red dots. I’m already seeing chatter about a push towards medium power variables (MPVO). The cycle continues, telling everyone to switch to the new “thing.” It all gets so tiresome.
Today, I’m approaching this idea from a different angle. It’s an idea that’s been rattling around in my head for a few months: there is no optimum.
What is Optimum?
By nature, I love diving down rabbit holes. I enjoy the challenge of learning about a topic, then imagining how I would apply different variables to meet different situations. It’s fun, if not also exhausting and expensive.
It’s this personality trait that leads me to buying and configuring six different sets of load bearing equipment, battle belts, and chest rigs. Each one with subtle differences tailored to variations on the intended purpose. It’s this same mindset that leads me to spend weeks and months agonizing on whether I would be better served by a 6mm ARC or 6.5 Grendel for a particular project and how I might use it. All this despite knowing that in reality, they would perform about equally as well for me with what I would actually do with it.
So I bought a shotgun instead.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this. In fact, I think the majority of traffic to the site and questions I get comes from people trying to find the “optimum” answer to their shooting needs. Whether it’s the perfect barrel length for a particular task or load, or just the right amount of magazines to carry, the best optic for a particular situation. Fitness discussions are loaded with people looking for the optimum workout program, even if they’re novice enough that literally anything would work for them. I’ve come to the mindset that optimum doesn’t really exist.
I know that it does, sort of. For any challenge, there’s likely an optimum way to approach it. The optimum barrel length for shooting .223 at long range is probably somewhere between 20″ and 26″, and definitely not down around 12″ to 16″. Flip that for shooting close quarters. The optimum way to to grow your chest musculature is 20 sets per week of chest exercises from three different angles (and a healthy dose of steroids).
You get the idea.
The Problem with Optimum
These situations have clear definitions and solutions, but they aren’t the real world. The core issue I’ve developed with “optimum” solutions is that each one relies on a fixed set of circumstances and boundaries. As long as the scenario you’re facing doesn’t cross these boundaries, then everything works great. This is fine for controlled events like a shooting match or a power lifting meet, but completely falls apart if you’re trying to live in the real world where you have limited time and resources to accomplish many goals at once.
As a general rule, I offer that the more you optimize for a specific outcome, then the worse that solution performs at just about everything else.
Jeff Gurwitch provided a great example of this in one of our recent conversations. He, too, is an advocate for not configuring your weapon to a specific mission. He saw first hand how teams of special operations members were geared up to be the absolute best at close quarter indoor combat, only to find out that their “optimized” weapon configurations held them back when they had to fight their way to and from the target building at distances that were anything but close quarters.
Think of how you configure your load bearing equipment. If you optimize for speedy reloads and square range training events, then you’re probably using a bunch of open top pouches and a holster relying only on friction to keep your pistol in place. That’s well and good right up until you have to crawl through the dirt or underbrush, then climb over an obstacle. You end up filling your mag pouches with crud and losing your pistol and magazines along the way.
Strength training? You have over 600 muscles in your body, and spending all your time focusing only on a few over the long term causes imbalances, injuries, and neglects other important aspects of fitness.
Forget About Optimization
In the end, it’s easy to spend a huge amount of money chasing optimum configurations for this or that. The question that we rarely ask is what do we really gain? Are the improvements with the “optimized” configuration worth the tradeoff?
When I wrote my primer on magazine pouches, I tested my personal relatively unpracticed reload times from each different style. The open top style was indeed the fastest at 1.8 seconds from beep to trigger pull. Velcro flap pouches were about one second slower than that, and fully enclosed jungle pouches with fastex buckles were about 4.4 seconds. You have to ask yourself, in the real world where the conditions and boundaries are unknown, is the risk of losing or gumming up your magazines actually worth a one second better reload speed?
For some people, if you’re literally racing the clock, that answer might be yes. But I wager that for most people interested in community defense and a broad spectrum of circumstances, the answer is no. Such minute differences in performance do not matter unless you’re shooting at the highest levels. Until that point, there’s a lot of room to practice with good-enough equipment and master it.
So What do I Suggest?
I’m not someone who completely ascribes to the idea of “fear the man with one gun.” I think there is a lot of room for multiple guns set up for different general needs and purposes. But, and this is the huge caveat, I think those needs and boundaries are much further apart than most people think.
Take a pistol, for example. The message we all hear is that you need an EDC gun, a bedside gun, and a competition gun. Each optimized for the purpose. In reality, for most of us, a reliable compact-sized handgun with minimal modification will do all of those tasks just fine. The same thing applies to a general purpose AR-15. Grab a .308 for more “oomph” at distance and a a shotgun for a variety of purposes as well.
Are there objectively better and more “optimized” ways to do this? Yes. Is the marginal gain in performance actually worth it for you? Probably not.
My suggestion is to go back to idea of the tactical minimalist. You’re far better served by picking one “good enough” configuration and using it a lot.
Of course, that’s easy to say, but what does it mean?
Everyone’s requirements look a little different, so it’s impossible to prescribe one rule for everyone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use some starting templates.
Get to It!
In the first draft of this piece, I went item by item and starting listing what I think make the best “unoptimized” configurations for rifle, equipment, and other traits. The thing got way too long, and instead I’m going to break these apart into a series of posts.
The one I don’t really need to write, though, is the rifle. For that, let’s fall back to our old standby.
The Main Rifle – Minimum Capable Carbine
For our purposes, your main rifle is an AR-15 platform. It’s ubiquitous, well-known, has a lot of support, and most load bearing equipment supports it.
If we consider that the 5.56 cartridge is the result of years of study of infantry combat, we know it’s primary operating parameters are 0-300 yards. It should be a lightweight, easy to carry, and reliable in all weather.
The Minimum Capable Carbine is a solid starting point here.
- 16″ lightweight barrel with 1/8 or 1/7 twist
- A2 flash hider
- Pinned gas block
- Standard M16-style bolt carrier group
- Standard trigger
- Adjustable stock on a mil-spec tube
- Quality optic and sights of your choice, but keep it light
- Two-point adjustable sling
- Mounted weapon light
- Thread locker used on all screws and fasteners
This configuration serves you perfectly well for a long time. Until you get to the highest levels of precision or rate of fire, there’s not much here to change. This is the mindset we should apply to all of our gear and training.
Everything is a Compromise
Last year, the theme was becoming “minimum capable.” We laid out a few standards for things like rifle, pistol, first aid, radio, and few other topics. You could probably extend that further into the Everyday Marksman fitness assessments.
If there’s any major takeaway I want you to have from this, is that’s there is no such thing as a perfect answer to the Everyday Marksman’s needs. Real life is not a controlled event where you know the rules, obstacles, and requirements ahead of time.
The world is full of unknowns, and your training methods, equipment, fitness level, and mindset must be flexible enough to meet those challenges- even if it means compromising on the “best” for any particular situation.
Don’t over-optimize on any particular point. Realize that there are no rules and boundaries for your adversaries, and the main boundaries you face come from your own skills and abilities. Act accordingly.
I loved this post. You echo many of the sentiments I often ponder. It’s easy to fall prey to marketers and companies trying to sell us the latest and greatest. They are masters at convincing us we ‘need’ a bunch of stuff that we really don’t. Over the past few years I’ve really been trying to distill my choices in the direction of tactical minimalism.
Thanks William, I’m glad you liked it! The marketing impact is huge, as is the flex culture so prominent within the gun world where everyone seems compelled to one up each other by purchasing ever more expensive stuff.
Hey Matt – great post! Chasing ‘optimum’ is how we end up with a room full of unused gear. All that money! I could probably outfit a small militia. In the end, you’re right about the minimalist approach. Keeping your rifle clean of gadgets, your LBE simple and your techniques basic will serve most of us well for 99% of the situations we’ll find ourselves in. It’s also true that well practiced skills will do more than any piece of gear.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being able to equip a small militia, lol
Looking forward to the general purpose 308 bolt gun and shotgun posts…
I have gradually been trending toward the same conclusion, but not so clearly articulated. This conclusion only came after filling all the niches and finding them mostly inflexible.
My current mindset is adaptability and optimized for generality. Adaptive gear, adaptive skills.
It is Darwinian.