In the first article in this series, we looked at some of the factors currently affecting self-defense considerations in this country. In the second article, we discussed assessing one’s own self-defense and security environment, and planning to deal with it. In this article, we’ll discuss the tools, techniques and training we’re likely to need to accomplish that.
The first and most important point to understand is that self-defense is not primarily about our hardware, our equipment. A poor shooter, untrained and unpracticed, even if he’s equipped with the best handgun money can buy, will probably miss with almost every round he fires, because he’s not competent to handle a gun at the best of times. A good, well-trained shooter will probably get good hits on target with even a mediocre, difficult-to-use firearm, because his experience and training will allow him to make the best use of the weapon. The same lesson applies to driving a fast sports car, or climbing a difficult mountain, or swimming a mile. An inexperienced, untrained person is likely to be a danger to themselves and everyone relying on them. An experienced, trained person will be an asset to all around them. We want to be, or to become, assets.
Therefore, unless we’re facing imminent danger that demands a short-term solution, our first firearms purchases should be guns that are suited to training purposes: relatively simple, relatively low-cost, with equally low-cost ammunition that we can afford to shoot in large quantities. As far as handguns are concerned (important because they can be carried unobtrusively, or kept on hand when a long gun would be inconvenient or too conspicuous), I wrote an extended article some years ago titled “.22LR as a defensive round“. In it, I outlined a training program using BB or Airsoft handguns, moving up to .22LR handguns as soon as sufficient basic skills had been acquired. I’ve taught that method of training to literally hundreds of students, and every one of them has become a good shooter. If you have little or no serious training or experience with handguns, and a tight budget, I highly recommend it to you.
As far as long guns are concerned, I wrote a three-part series on personal defense rifles, focusing on AR-15-type weapons. That’s a good general discussion of the topic. Obviously, one isn’t limited to AR-15’s; there are bolt-action, lever-action and slide/pump-action rifles, as well as shotguns. However, if we wanted to go into detail about them all here, this blog would be tied up for weeks. I therefore encourage readers to do their own research.
- Can I hit my target accurately, quickly and effectively with it?
- Is it suitable to have on or near my person as often as possible, so that I’m not caught without it?
- Can other members of my family use it as well?
Whatever gun you buy must be one you can actually use. If its recoil is too hard/heavy, you won’t be comfortable shooting it. If its ammunition (particularly training/practice ammunition) is too expensive, you won’t be able to do enough training with it to maintain proficiency. If it doesn’t fit your hand well, you won’t be as accurate with it as you might need to be in an emergency. You’ll want to experiment with different sizes and shapes of handgun before you buy one, to figure out which makes and models fit your hand well, provide good sights, and lend themselves to fast, accurate shooting in your hands. (Note that they may not fit other’s hands as well as they do yours – ergonomics, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder!)
You’ll notice immediately that tiny, ultra-compact guns such as the Kel-Tec P32, Ruger LCP II and others are very difficult indeed to shoot fast and accurately, particularly at anything outside halitosis range. They offer a very small grip surface, their recoil with centerfire cartridges is often unpleasant, and their sights are minuscule. I don’t recommend them except for those who are prepared to put in a lot of training and practice time with them, to learn to overcome their deficiencies and master their quirks. The only weapons I now own in this size category are chambered for .22LR rimfire rounds, with minimal recoil, making them much easier to control – and I don’t trust them for primary carry purposes, only for backup.
Slightly larger sub-compact, pocket-size pistols such as the Glock 42 and 43 (and the higher-capacity 43X), Sig P365 and equivalents from other manufacturers are easier to shoot than the ultra-compact models, yet small enough to still conceal easily, making them prime candidates for carry in environments where you don’t want anyone to notice that you have a gun. They’re still not easy to shoot well, but they are easier to master than the tiny guns, and have better sights. They also offer models that can accommodate an optical (i.e. red-dot) sight, making aiming significantly easier.
(A quick word about optical sights on a pistol. They stick up higher than the slide, making some modes of carry more awkward: but if one has vision problems – as I do; I’m getting on in years, and my eyesight isn’t what it used to be, so I can’t focus sharply on the front sight of a handgun any longer – they make all the difference in the world to being able to hit one’s target. I’ve had them on my large, full-size service handguns for some years, but I’m now fitting them to my Glock 43X MOS and Sig P365X sub-compact pistols as well. They’re becoming an absolutely vital, indispensable accessory to compensate for my aging eyes. My personal choice for sub-compact firearms is Swampfox Optics’ Sentinel sight, but there are many other models. Select the one that suits you best, but remember – you get what you pay for. I don’t know that I’d trust a low-cost economy model with my life. On my larger defensive handguns, I use Swampfox Optics’ Liberty sight. With conventional sights, I can get rapid rounds into a target’s chest area in a defensive situation out to ten yards or so. With optical sights, I can attempt a head shot at 25-50 yards if I have to. They’re that much more precise, once you’re used to them.)
Mid-size defensive pistols, often referred to as compact models, are bigger and easier to use than sub-compact or ultra-compact firearms, but more easily concealed than full-size service pistols. Examples are the Glock 19, Sig P320 Compact, and equivalents. They generally hold up to about 15 rounds of ammunition.
Full-size service pistols such as the Glock 17 or Sig P320 are standard issue in many military and police forces. Being the largest models, they tend to fill the hand (sometimes too well, such as the Beretta 92: its grip is too fat to fit smaller hands). They’re relatively easy to aim, and their size and heft absorbs recoil better. As I get older, I find I’ve graduated to full-size handguns as my “go-to” weapons when concealment is less important (i.e. in more gun-tolerant environments), and also for home use. When I have to carry in deep concealment, I drop down to the sub-compact level, bypassing mid-size/compact models.
I’ve used Glock and Sig models as examples in the above paragraphs, but there are literally dozens of alternatives out there. I strongly suggest you buy a model that’s in widespread use, particularly with police departments, because that means it’s been thoroughly tested and has measured up to their standards. Of course, you can still find “lemons” in any product range. That’s why it’s important to fire several hundred rounds through your chosen defensive handgun, using your own magazines and good-quality practice ammunition, plus 50-100 rounds of the defensive ammunition you’ve selected. Doing so should reveal any problems before you trust your life to that combination. If a difficulty (e.g. jamming, misfeeding, etc.) is encountered with more than about one in 200 rounds during the “burn-in” period, have a gunsmith check it out; if that persists, change to a different gun. A misfire or misfeed at the wrong time might be very dangerous. You want a gun that’ll go BANG! every time, without fail.
There are those who like revolvers more than pistols. I have no problem with this, and own more than a few revolvers of my own: but in today’s defensive environment, where quantity of ammunition may be an important factor and speed of reloading even more so, I submit that a revolver is no longer an optimum choice for self-defense for a reasonably well-trained shooter. I know many will differ with that view, and that’s OK – I’m not a guru preaching the “only true way” here. You’ll have to make up your own mind. All I can say is, if I have a choice between a Smith & Wesson Model 442 Airweight snub-nose revolver, holding 5 rounds of .38 Special ammunition, or a Sig P365 pistol holding 13 rounds of 9mm, both guns being of roughly comparable weight and dimensions – guess which one I’m choosing?
In the process of selecting a handgun, find out whether your spouse and/or older children can also handle it if necessary. Please God, they’ll never need to: but if home invaders come calling, or you’re accosted by street thugs, you might find yourself grappling with them, or injured, and thus unable to use it. In that case, they’d better be able to, or they’ll be in as much trouble as you will! Ideally, find a gun they all can use well, and then buy everyone their own copy of the gun, so that you can train as a family.
As part of your selection process, rent different guns from a shooting range offering that facility, and try them out. Find out which of them fit your hand well, come into line naturally as you raise them, and are easy to use and accurate. If you have friends who own guns, ask them to show you theirs, and if possible go to the range with them to fire as many different types as they have to offer. It’ll make your final selection much easier. However, I suggest you avoid “exotic” or “fringe” brands and manufacturers. If they’re not in widespread use by police or armed forces, why not? They may be perfectly good, but I’d still prefer to have a firearm that’s been tested and wrung out by people who literally bet their lives every day that it’s good enough to defend them. YMMV, of course…
You’ll need a good holster or two, even if you carry in your pocket rather than on your belt. A holster protects your gun from damage, and holds it in a steady position so your hand can find and draw it quickly in case of need. Again, there are dozens of examples out there. Read up about them in gun magazines and elsewhere, pick well-known brand names, and select accordingly. (If you’re on a tight budget, I gave a shout-out to We The People Holsters a couple of years ago. I’ve provided several of their models to disabled students I’ve taught, and will shortly be doing so again. Recommended.)
Remember the first rule of a gunfight is: HAVE A GUN! If your defensive firearm is locked in a safe at home, how will you fight off home invaders if they burst through the front door? If it’s at home and you’re out shopping, how will you defend yourself and your loved ones if a mass shooting event occurs, such as at Greenwood Mall a couple of weeks ago? If that young man hadn’t had his handgun with him, and hadn’t been well trained, how many people would that murderer have killed before being stopped? For that matter, how about last weekend in West Palm Beach, Florida? If you’d been there, and got caught up in that, would you have been trained and equipped to stop that threat? It can happen anywhere, anytime. Therefore, you need to buy a primary defensive weapon that you’ll be willing and able to have on or near you when it’s likely to be needed. If it’s not suitable (i.e. too big/heavy/whatever for that purpose), it may be a perfectly good gun, but it’s not an ideal choice for everyday defensive use.
The late, great Jeff Cooper once pointed out: “Owning a handgun doesn’t make you armed any more than owning a guitar makes you a musician.” You need good, sound training in how to use your firearm(s), and ongoing practice to make sure you don’t lose your edge. At the top of the market, consider courses at Gunsite, Thunder Ranch or similar establishments. They’ll cost thousands overall (fees, travel, accommodation, ammunition, meals, etc.), but they’ll give you the best possible grounding in defensive shooting. I highly recommend Massad Ayoob’s courses on managing the lethal threat environment: they combine shooting with legal, social and cultural issues that affect our actions and their aftermath. If you can’t afford any of those options, buy the DVD’s offered by those places and equivalent establishments; they’ll show you material you can’t get any other way. Locally, as a beginner, look for NRA courses at many shooting ranges, and if necessary check the NRA’s Web site or contact them directly to find out about instructors and courses in your area.
Don’t rely only on teaching yourself, without more knowledgeable input. You’ll make, and learn, too many mistakes. Also, don’t necessarily trust family and friends to teach you well. Too many people develop bad shooting habits that should not be passed on to others. Better to have a professional show you what to do and how to do it. As for ongoing practice, remember what I said above about training with BB/Airsoft and rimfire guns. It’s much, much cheaper than shooting centerfire ammunition, and you can still work on the basics of marksmanship, fire-and-movement, etc. Shoot a magazine or two of full-power ammunition to conclude each training session, to ensure you remain familiar with the noise and recoil of proper defensive rounds.
Don’t neglect non-weapon aspects of defensive equipment. Let’s say, for example, that you have to drive through or near a high-crime area on your way to and from work each day. What if you had a flat tire there? How long would it take you to change a wheel and be on your way? If your plan is to call for roadside assistance, then sit in your car and wait, allow me to suggest that’s a good way to get robbed, mugged or worse. Why not carry a can of tire inflator and sealant, to get you back on the road as fast as possible? How about practicing changing a tire in your own driveway, so you know what to do and how to do it, and can get the job done and leave the area as quickly as possible? Do your spouse and/or children – everyone in your family who drives – know how to do the same thing? If not, why not? Teach them! (IMPORTANT NOTE: Maintain situational awareness while carrying out those running repairs. It’s no good having some low-life sneak up behind you while you’re changing a tire, and hit you over the head before making off with your car. Don’t get over-focused on the problem – keep your eyes peeled and your head moving.)
This applies to many other areas of preparedness as well. Do you have a fire extinguisher in your car? I don’t mean one of the cheap, lightweight, use-once-and-throw-away toys, but something with enough capacity (at least 2½ pounds, if not 5 pounds) to actually put out a car fire. (It can also serve as a useful deterrent when sprayed liberally into the eyes, nose and mouth of an aggressive person. How do I know this? Trust me. I know this.) Do you have in your vehicle a can of motor oil, and a bottle of automatic transmission fluid, and another of brake fluid? If your engine starts leaking any of those liquids, or you come across another motorist with that problem, the emergency supplies in your car may be enough to get the vehicle to a service station, or at the very least to a safer area. What about a bottle of window cleaner and a roll of paper towels? (The latter is also useful as emergency toilet tissue!) Also, don’t forget duct tape. It can temporarily seal engine hoses. All those precautions may help you to avoid or minimize situations where you might need your self-defense weapon, which is far better than having to use it and then facing all the complications that may follow.
Finally, remember John Farnam’s maxim, cited in yesterday’s article: “A superior gunman is best defined as one who uses his superior judgment in order to keep himself out of situations that would require the use of his superior skills.” No matter how much you learn, always maintain situational awareness. Try to detect or anticipate problems before they develop into real dangers. By all means be prepared to defend yourself and your loved ones, but it’s even better if you don’t have to use those skills and tools. Avoid and evade, rather than confront, unless you have no alternative.
For many people in “safer” areas, all we’ve discussed in these three articles may seem like overkill. My suggestions may seem unrealistic and unjustified. That’s their call: but, as we saw in the first article in this series, the threat environment is changing almost by the day, and it’s getting worse. In particular, if you live in or near a bigger city experiencing a surge in crime, you are under threat. If you close your eyes to that, and refuse to live in such a way that you enhance your security options and give yourself a better chance of avoiding and surviving crime, then on your own head be it. The old Latin tag still applies: Si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Applying it to our modern situation, if you want to survive the growing crime wave, prepare to avoid and/or repel criminal attack. It really is that simple – and that complicated.