Skills Over Gear, or, Doing More With Less

Clothes don’t make the man. All too often in the Survivalist & Prepper scene a lot of focus gets placed on gear. In fact so much so that a lot of sites devolve into simply reviewing individual pieces, which in turn is basically an overview with nothing else. And don’t get me wrong, I love some good kit and appreciate original or out-of-the-box thinking that goes into really innovative products. But skill, specifically mastery of basic skills, can never be supplanted by a product. And in turn, no product will make you better if the fundamentals ain’t there first. Those fundamentals, with some very basic supporting gear, lay the foundation for you to be effective whether it’s combat weaponcraft, movements in potentially hostile environments, or tactical communications. The basics of anything never, ever change. And you might be surprised at what can be done with just a mastery of what’s simple.

TRP.jpgI was in between deployments somewhere around a decade ago and got bit by the 1911 bug. All my buddies had one, I drooled over an Ed Brown Special Forces model since I was a kid, and had recently unearthed a tattered old copy of SOF that favorably reviewed a Springfield Full Rail Operator. That single soldier money burnt a hole in my pocket and I needed that SA TRP Operator sitting at the gunshop yesterday afternoon like a junkie needs a fix. Bye, bye mid month pay. While I had shot my share of lower to mid-tier 1911s before, this was a new animal. An overly heavy, tricked out, more than I’d ever need animal. And while I shot those GI-Spec guns my friends had fairly well, the first outing with my uber-high-end cool guy hand cannon was disappointing at best. I couldn’t shoot for crap with it. I’d have been better off with something plain-jane and worked my way up, in the process tailoring the pistol to my needs based on my skill rather than getting something with more features than I could comprehend. In turn spending the money on a basic pistol and the rest on ammo would have made me much better much earlier. That cool guy stuff actually made my decent skill with a 1911 look tremendously worse, steepened my learning curve on the platform due to design differences, and in the long run made me feel like an idiot. Joe does Joe stuff, normally influenced by the cool-guy ad gimmicks they see in the PX checkout aisle, and since then my skills grew into that very expensive piece- with a LOT of rounds down the pipe and lessons from training classes. These days I’m more of a CZ and Glock man for a number of reasons but that’s another story. What could have been done with something bare-bones instead I tried to do by being over the top- and the results were poor. I think we’ve all been there. Your equipment only enhances the baseline of your skill, and in many cases, will let you know exactly where your skill level is- or isn’t.

There’s not some magic shortcut to a high skill level, and there’s not some magic wizardry that makes you any more capable than anyone else. There’s only proper application of the basics and those that don’t know what they don’t know.  In my classes, whether its small unit tactics or communications, I emphasize basic operator skills and drive home those capabilities without needing telling you what’s the latest n’ greatest. Because the reality is that most students are bombarded with products and wanna know how to use them, whether it’s that neat QRP rig or brand new Trijicon scope. But what they don’t know beforehand is that the antenna for that QRP rig can be made with less than $15 in parts and a bundle of scrap wire, the stalking skills to get a shooter into position to really use that Trijicon take a lot of time to develop, and that in both cases the skills gained in getting there- through recognizing and training on the fundamentals- can be replicated to everyone on your team. Once you’ve mastered them, don’t let it be lost on you.

None of this is to say just blow your money on bargain-bin junk; quite the opposite; but there is definitely a point of diminishing returns with a lot of the stuff on the market in all areas of preparedness. It’s a happy place a close friend of mine calls “good enough.” A VHF analog radio from a functionality perspective does the same thing any other VHF analog radio does, and what’s important to learn from the operator end is how to maximize the potential of any VHF analog radio if that’s all you have. Or any other piece of gear you’ve got. And learning to run what you have to the pinnacle of its capability has a huge value in and of itself. You’ll develop confidence in your skill and confidence in your gear versus simply throwing money at what may just be a training issue. That confidence in turn makes you and your group the absolute best they possibly can be. Start humble, get good training in the fundamentals, and then set your own training based on building from there, and you can’t go wrong. Your group will end up more capable than you thought you ever could be with far more time and money wisely spent on training rather than that new whiz-bang widget that actually hinders more than helps. The clothes don’t make the man.




48 thoughts on “Skills Over Gear, or, Doing More With Less

  1. Mike Hohmann

    Good story, ncscout… truisms for sure. I love trading them over the campfire at night, maybe while sipping good bourbon and enjoying a good cigar. I remember a friend who traded an oz. of gold for a good .45 and reloading gear… or another, who traded a bag of clean brass for an air compressor… tak’in care of the basics, do’in more w/ less! But it’s a long while since I’ve stood in a PX checkout line. That one made me smile!

    1. 😉 That’s what it’s all about my friend.

      And I’m currently a big fan of La Gloria Cubana’s Serie N line….man…pure elegance in a cigar.

  2. A Dude, playing a Dude, Disguised as another Dude...

    Great perspective, as “perfection is the enemy of good enough.”

    So many folks will hold off doing, while waiting for “it” to be perfect, and “it” never will be.

    Patton, one of my heroes, once opined, ” A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later.”

    One of my primary, main takeaways from the recent RTO class i attended, was to unlearn,
    re-learn and apply and do what was learned…Today, i am looking at another covert, random long wire antenna for my HF station, i set up, with advice/edumecation gleaned not just from NCS, but the other attendees as well. Sometimes we need a sanity check, and working with smarter dudes than ourselves does just that….

    Wash, rinse, repeat, and maybe be in a position to teach our skills to others….

    As an avid fly fisherman, many guys, myself included, get hung up on having to have the best Orvis Helios rods, Hardy reels, Simms Guide waders and boots, all the Fishpond kit, and can’t cast or mend for shit, and walk thru water where Trout are laying up, and miss setting the hooks…

    I have all kinds of cool guys fly shit too, but my favorite thing in the world to do is show up with a group of fellow Trout Stalkers with my 25.00 Eagle Claw 8′ 6″ 5wt hi vis yellow fiberglass rod, cheap reel and orange line, and out fish em…..Happens all the time….Why, because i learned the basics early on while using all the inexpensive gear, cause that was all i could afford, or hand me down stuff, and as my mentor said, “the fish don’t know or care, all they want is “small black shit,” to eat, so our job is to give it to em, set the hook, then release em….”

    Think about this, all you hi speed, low drag wanna be operators..Why is it that the military, especially combat arms MOS’s, spend soooo much time teaching PFC Joe, the basics of fire and maneuver, patrolling and so forth, or SFQC spends sooooo much time on LandNav, being able to find a fence post, kilks away, rain or shine, day or night, using just a Lensatic compass,
    Topo map, Terrain association, and pace count? Because that skill matters big time….

    When shit goes to hell in a hand basket, and it will at the worst possible time, the basics are what will save your ass…

    Whether it is shooting, moving or communicating, now is the time to learn and do because the skills won’t automagically appear when it matters…

  3. Pingback: Brushbeater: Skills Over Gear – Lower Valley Assembly

  4. quietsurvivalist

    I absolutely agree

    I’m at the point in my life where I can afford the best, though that’s definitely not the most expensive

    I attended a class in Phx a few years ago, on a bet I bought a box stock G17 on the drive there

    Loaded it the first time on the class range and outshot the entire class full of 3k 1911 shooters who were convinced I was a ringer the class instructor brought in as a learning tool

    Ability and training on the basics will bring you out the other side, and no matter what you spend ,money will not transition to ability

    Train the basics , and master the basics, whether that’s you draw from concealment or building an antenna to hit another station no one else in your area can hit

  5. PRCD

    Incidentally, what you’ve written is true of almost everything. I see guys go buy high-end mountain bikes and are constantly fooling with air pressures, modifications, and other parts rather than working on basic skills. This is why guys with street BMX backgrounds get on a mountain bike and immediately school guys who’ve been doing it for years. The same is true for any other athletic endeavor: guys with the best gear look cool but that’s about it. Guys with technique don’t even seem to need a lot of strength or stamina. I knew a guy who was captain of a Division 1 waterpolo team who said that his team mates from Eastern and Southern Europe would smoke cigarettes on the pool deck before they got in the pool and lapped him.

    This is even true for STEM. Guys who can make do with primitive instruments and equipment have to focus more on the basics because their equipment can’t do everything for them.. Expertise is just mastery of the basics.

  6. Pingback: Brushbeater: Is It The Gear Or The Skills That Make The Man? | Western Rifle Shooters Association

  7. SemperFi, 0321

    I’m still pissed I didn’t buy a Randall Model 1 in the early 70’s……………meanwhile, both my early Gerber Mk1’s were stolen from me back then so I guess I’d be lamenting a Randall also.
    All the rest of my stuff is still basic issue, M1911A1, M-16A1, A2 and M4. Never could see spending $2,000 on an AR. They either work or they don’t.

    1. I still want a Randall. Would I ever use it? Highly doubtful- I’ve got plenty of other knives to beat the tar out of. But Randall is Americana.

      As for the ARs…there’s something to be said for rugged simplicity and not over-encumbering them with useless junk. One of the topics covered in the Scout course is movement and target detection at night, with either irons or how to do it with the stadia lines on a basic optic. Keeping it simple pays off.

      1. Having owned a 1-7, 12-9, and Mod 11 “Alaskan” (still have the Alaskan) I can attest to the toughness of a Randall in the field. My #1 I bought in 2000 after calling Randall and seeing if they had anything on the shelf from cancelled orders. Plain Jane #1; bought it on the spot. I ended up gifting it to an uncle who had never had one….he immediately put it in his safe…..oh well. The 12-9 I waited almost 4 years to get and sent them a monthly payment so that when it was ready, I sent the last $50 in, and I had it in 3 days. I recently passed it on to a younger family member. I used the heck out of both of them in the field (the 12-9 more than the Model 1), and they held up superbly.

        Lately I’ve been impressed with Greg Wall’s Randall reproductions that you can get at prices had by Randall over 20 years ago and only a wait of less than 2 months. They’re pretty bomb proof.

        Can’t help it…I like good knives in the field.

  8. It’s a delicate tightrope to walk between “Buy once, cry once” and “on sale at WalMart”.
    In many cases, the wisdom to know which is better takes years to develop, by which point you are the jedi master who realizes a lightsaber is simultaneously too little, and too much.

    There are some pieces of kit that convey an order of magnitude of performance over “good enough”. A Mag-lite taped to the fore-end of your M-4gery is not interchangeable with an IR laser and a good Gen II or II NOD. But true wisdom is knowing that first, you just have to be able to hit what you’re aiming at, and that takes nothing but time and round counts at the range and in the field.

    In the same way, even that crappy much-hated “bargain” Baofeng p.o.s. hand radio confers an order of magnitude over two soup cans and some string, or cupping your hands around your mouth to yell your message. But only if it works, and even then, only if you know what you should be communicating in the first place.

    Some gear just is what it is. You can buy the same regulation Louisville Slugger and major league baseball the pros use, but you won’t ever get as good as Jose Altuve unless you see a lot of big league pitching, which you won’t do unless you’ve got phenomenal natural gifts and long years of honing the basic skills to take advantage of them.

    In my field, I can save lives just fine with a $20 stethoscope. I bought 15 of them for the same price as one fancy high-tech cardiologist’s stethoscope, and have one in the car kit, one in the field kit, one in the GoTo Hell kit, and I’ve destroyed four or five over the years. Leaving me seven new-in-the-box for when the current one falls apart, or gets lost, which at current attrition, means I’ll probably still have a couple left over when I’m cold and dead, long past caring. There are other pieces of gear in my day-to-day for which there is simply no substitute, and the lack of which means simply lumping it, and doing without. Far more are simply gold-plated, or conveniences. We saved plenty of lives with a four-page chart and a 50¢ pen, before ever needing a $2K computer apiece and a $10M software package to chart medical records (and we’ll do so again when an earthquake or other problem makes the Big Electronic Wundersystem fall on its @$$). But TPTB say we’ve gotta have the hairy scary digital wundertoys, so we’ve got ’em.

    But if you’ve got the skills to do without, you can take advantage of the savings in time, and improvements in accuracy that the whizbang gadgets confer. That’s true in just about every field of endeavor.

    The problem is what happens when those who learned things the hard, low-tech way, are gone, and the new kids have to make do having never functioned that way in their whole lives.

    It’s like turning an entire graduating high school class loose on a parking lot full of cars with stick shifts. It’s painful to watch, unpretty, hard on the ears and the gearboxes, and little resembling locomotion or transportation will occur. At first.

    Which is why everyone should probably always aim to be able to function with gear from two generations ago. Then they’ll have a better skill set, and far more robust in hard times. Or when technology craps the bed, like it will. And they’ll not only salivate at high-speed, low-drag gear, but they’ll understand what it brings, and have a much better idea how to take advantage of it when they’ve got it, yet without being functionally worthless when they’re without it.

    Clothes don’t make the man. They make the man look better.
    But some of the sharpest dudes in a tux started out in hand-me-downs and barefoot.

  9. boggy

    I watched the transition in SF from unconventional to what we called ‘toys for boys’ and gear-queers. I was taught ‘special’ is being able to take another country’s equipment and beating their own army with it. If what you strap on makes you special, you’re not special – your equipment is.

    1. SemperFi, 0321

      So true.
      How many can pick up a Mauser, RPD, Uzi, etc and resume fighting? Well rounded knowledge in all aspects of warfare are essential, and it will prove itself here as well as any 3rd world shithole.
      Looking down at others because their stuff isn’t as new or cool as your will also be your own undoing, there’s too much of that going on right now. Wait until it really counts. Many of us still know use to use M1956 or older field gear, let alone foreign stuff. Even that will become precious in time.

  10. Yeah, those, “I JUST GOTTA HAVE THIS” moments are pretty bad….lol…have had the same reaction on several items, just to find out that, ‘I think I just over did it’ and then selling said item for a loss (demand for ‘like new’ said items is NEVER as high as the magazine puffery).

    Nice post – have a peaceful Easter!

  11. Pingback: Skills Over Gear, or, Doing More With Less | The Defensive Training Group

  12. Ray

    I always love how I could be out training with my gear and have some fad driven gear whore walk up and sneeringly tell me how “worthless and outdated” everything I had was. How he had the latest “XYZ” gear. The latest cammo, and latest fad gun. How HE had spent “X” thousand dollars , to be “better” than me. A lot of this is driven as much by the latest fashion trend, to the point where “Gunny” groups are often as fashion driven as any 16 year old cheerleader. IMO The funniest part is how the guy telling you how “outdated and worthless” your gear and clothing is always has on brand new, never been used, equipment.

    1. This is more often than not the case. I don’t hang out with those types for long…they usually are far too eager to let me know how cool they are.

      The one thing I’ll say about camo is this- in classes, I’ve seen Woodland work gangbusters at long range, and I’ve seen it make a guy standout up close. I’ve seen Multicam and Marpat make the guys wearing it literally disappear not even 10m into the woods. And some of the newer patterns coming out now are really good- but in all cases, the person wearing it has to be cognizant of the basics of camouflaging- using the foreground and background while creating shadow.

  13. libertyandlead2

    Spot on post.

    There is without doubt an art to knowing when it is good enough.

    But the real warriors are not dependent on specific gear…. or any gear.

    Men are naturally gear whores, that is OK but we must focus on the how much harder than the what.

    1. Mainly because it’s cheaper to shoot more often and holds more rounds. That and I’m very accurate with the CZ platform as are all the members of my family- and that to me is pretty important. Glock is good because it’s so common, and pretty much everything for it is very cheap.

  14. James

    While I agree that good practice of skills with basics is the way to learn/grow as a carpenter always justified bought the best tools whether hand or power,I then could as long as maintained not blame the tools due to my lack of skills and have a lot of stuff good for life.That said,would rather be able to cut say nice clean stringers ect. with a basic circular then have the nicest/lightest saw but just make firewood.

    1. I agree and that’s a great analogy. But you can justify having that higher end circular saw by needing specific requirements to you- only after gaining that experience.

  15. CDG

    I like thinking gear makes a given task easier, not possible. I’d rather have some old boy with a 30-30 lever gun that’s deer hunted his whole life rather than Range Rambo with his X5000 collapsible stock death ray emitter that bought it because the sales person told him it was the latest and greatest.

    The head of the martial arts school I study in says “All is basics.” Mastering those are your starting point.

  16. RHT447

    Yup, spot on. I cut my marksmanship teeth in NRA Highpower Rifle. Got my Master card in 1990. I very much enjoy helping out those new to that game. I tell them that the only way to improve is range time, and the only way to afford that is to load your own ammo. Like we all did at some point, they look at a box of Sierra Match Kings and start to grow a uni-brow and fangs. So I repeat “affordable range time”.

    Go find the cheapest bulk fmj bullets you can to start. When you can out-shoot them, you’ll know. Then move up to the cheapest bulk flat base soft point hunting bullet you can find. When you’re good enough, and it’s time for the green box of bullets, you’ll know.

    I also point out the they will at that point be very good at shooting at a stationary target that arrives on schedule, standing flat footed, on a sunny day, at known distance, on level ground, with no return fire. This is only the first step. But it is a solid first step.

  17. J.J.

    I seem to remember that minimally equipped Russian snipers wreaked havoc upon the Germans in WW2.

    I suspect that there will be plenty of fancy gear laying around to be salvaged should there be a shooting CW2 in America. Most of it barely used.

  18. Gryphon

    Weapons are like every other Sport – it is Easy to Buy more/better Gear than your Skill Level can Use – the Hard Part is Objectively figuring out your Skill Level first. Once you accomplish This, then You can ‘Gear Up’ and Practice, Practice, Practice until You have the capabilities to Use high-end Gear. Spending More Money on Range Time is usually a better ‘investment’ than a bunch of Guns that Shoot Better than You can.

  19. honeycomb

    So .. I guess no night vision then?

    lol .. heck yeah .. 15k later .. this stuff is great .. now I have to go shoot all the time at night 👍.. suppressed!

    1. More importantly, ask yourself- Do you know how to move at night without making noise? How about the rest of your team? Do you happen to know what senses are deprived while using NODs? Have you run a lane or twelve counting the difference in the number of noises your team makes while moving at night with and without them? If you haven’t, you might want to.

      STANO is great as force multipliers, provided the basics are there.

      1. honeycomb

        Yeah .. NODS are new to me .. I’m an old ex-navy submarine guy (ie I didn’t use’em in th military) .. so I’m training as quickly as possible with’em .. it has been a blast (heh).

        It’s the weapon mount IR laser stuff that I’ve really enjoyed.

        Albeit a great tool .. one bright light from a foe & we are back to square one.

        So a 100 buck light can make a 15k set-up worthless .. but that is a double edge sword .. you just gave your position away.

        So far it has been a great learning experience. I tried single & dual tubes in gen 3+ white phos before I bought. The duals are expensive .. but have been worth the added cost. And at my age .. 10000 to 15000 hours of useful life is a lifetime of use.

        Still hopin to attend a comms class with yenz towards the fall.

      2. Just keep in mind with regard to the laser- it becomes a two way pointer if both shooters have NODs. 🙂

        I’ll have some new dates up soon covering the summer and early fall.

      3. LodeRunner

        Agreed. You might as well try to run a lane in zero-G and a space suit, as do it in NODs for the first time. It’s a complete different animal. Heck, just moving as a team in NODs has a learning curve similar to that of basic combat pistol mastery (and is almost as perishable as the pistol skills, too).

        To put it in perspective – a typical SF operator has over 2500 hours of specialized training before even being assigned to a group. (He was already a top-cut soldier before that) Close to 200 of those are hours in NODs. With cadre that have multiple tours down range doing it the right way, and doing it hard.

        And he’s still a Cherry until he completes his first deployment.

        EVERY force multiplier, when employed incorrectly, works against you instead of working for you. Count on it.

      4. A Freeman

        Have you ever rammed your eye into a branch at night in the woods? The one not wearing a PVS series? Try not yelling afterwords, staying composed, and not imagining the warm stuff running down your face isn’t your eyeball bc all you see are stars, darkness, and green, true story, your eye is pretty tough. Anybody for a night hike?

      5. Slow down, catch the branches before they hit you and make a bunch of noise, and don’t let them hit your buddy either by handing them off. We do this all the time, with or without NODs. Go coon huntin a time or two in a river bottom, you’ll learn.

        Or maybe that’s why country boys (usually) make better field soldiers. 😀

  20. Gator

    This post has good timing. Had a first timer show up at a USPSA match recently with a brand new 2500$ STI. Had never done any competitive shooting in his life, and between the gun, fancy race holster and top end mag carriers he was well over 3k to shoot his first match. I told him he had a very nice pistol, and it was. I’d never tell anyone what to do with their money, but he’d have been much better off buying a G34 or a CZ to start with. Or just show up with whatever semi auto handgun he has in the house and see if he likes shooting these matches first. My entire belt setup including my G34 cost about 800$. He’d be much better off doing that and spending the rest of the money on ammo and a class or two. And, as the above poster said, when he can outshoot that glock, he’ll know it. I sure as shit can’t outshoot mine, not even close. Hopefully there will be a point when my skill has developed to the point where my current gun is holding me back, but Im not there yet. Not even close. Just about all the best guys at my club use custom built STI’s, but none of them started out with those. I, personally, think that buying one of those to start with is skipping a couple of critical steps in the learning curve.

    Also, if you are doing these competitions to make you a better shooter overall, especially with your concealed carry weapon, as I am, you aren’t getting a whole lot of useful practice out of shooting an STI if you carry a little glock or something similar around, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want to carry an STI every day. I shoot a lightly modified G34 in competition and carry a mostly stock G19.

    1. SemperFi, 0321

      My last hitch was as an armorer in a tank unit and 40 yrs of gunsmithing/gunmaking, so this is a reoccurring problem for me.
      Not only is there an issue with buying the latest newest most expensive shit possible, but I also see a certain mindset among the younger civilian shooters. A friend bought a SA Saint last week and I had to explain to him how to go online and download a US Army or USMC M-16A2 manual and STUDY IT! (we live a long way apart or I’d have shown him with his own weapon) Learn to disassemble and clean every crevice and know how it works. Some don’t want to do it, it’s too much like homework and boring!
      They want hot shit now and don’t care about the care and maintenance, I tell them to get a buttstock cleaning kit so it’s always there, never happens, they just blow it off until something breaks. Kind of like driving a car, then call the mechanic when it’s TU in the ditch.
      I still preach the KISS method, it’s worked well for me.

  21. As always NCScout good article and the comments to follow are always worth my time. I learn important things like adding the “La Gloria Cubana’s Serie N” to my to-try-list – Thank you.

    Your article as always was timely at least for me.

    I was coming back home from my weekly visit to see my mom in the Philly area when my phone rang. It was a good friend who is a fellow prepper that I hadn’t chatted with in a coon’s age. After the usual quick catch-up on family, politics, and things, he proudly announced that he had completed his prepping to-buy-list. His list was extensive that covered all aspects of the 3B’s and all that he bought was ‘top shelf’.

    I of course gave him a verbal high-five followed with some follow-up questions like: What was the last gun class had he taken? Had he gotten his Technicians License yet? Had he planted his seeds yet for this year’s garden project? Along with others.

    His response was typical, “No/Nope not enough time/There’s a veggie stand down the road/Et cetera” – All excuses. Then to justify his lack of practice he said in a joking way, “What the heck JohnyMac, there will be plenty of time to learn that stuff if [not when mind you] the SHTF.”

    Well now that is a plan… I guess, but not a plan I would pick. I am sure you and all your readers would chuckle at that mindset.

    In closing, do not be the guy/gal who checks off his/her prepping ‘to-buy list’, puts those purchases into storage and never takes the time to use them. Go take a gun course or two, get licensed so you can use your cool Elecraft K3S Transceiver, and plant that garden way before you will need it to survive.

    “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” – Vince Lombardi

    Wishing all who visit and comment on Brushbeater, peace and happiness during this Easter season.

    He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. Matthew 28:6

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