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Why this title?  Because if you think just having a gun is all you need and you are good to go, think again.  Mark Moritz is often quoted that the first rule of a gunfight is "have a gun."  People  forget that this is the first rule, not the only rule.  

Realistically speaking, the handgun at your side is not the best tool to get you out of, as a friend put it, "whatever situation you might be stuck in," and in fact could very well prove to be incapable of doing so.  Assuming that it will is not a good idea.

I've been studying this topic for three decades and have taken professional training to include a big city police academy and military police training.  Doesn't make me an expert!  Just shows I'm interested and not completely without any experience.  Others have been around much more and may have better ideas, so listen to them.  I'd like to think I've condensed many of these ideas here, however.  What I've put together should start you on the right path, and perhaps burst a few bubbles if you've already started and have some ideas you've developed from other sources.

These things that will increase your odds of survival:

A) Assume a proper mindset.  By that I mean be prepared for violence, even when none is expected and it actually seems most unlikely.  Be alert and aware at all times.  Don't look like a victim.  Act tactically--don't move into tight quarters in public places--small lanes between cars in a parking lot for example.  Leave lots of space around you to move away, or, if necessary, fight.  Look ahead.  Very good drivers are trained to always look a block ahead and thus are rarely surprised by "sudden" traffic problems.  In the same way trained armed citizens should always look beyond the usual couple of yards most of us look and be aware of surroundings far more distant, plus we need to look around in all directions and not focus strictly ahead. 

If we are ever attacked we need to fight for our life because that is what is at stake.  Be ruthless, fight like you've never fought before, give no quarter, no mercy, because this is not a civilized fight.  Even if you are hurt and hurt badly, keep fighting!  Fight until your attacker can no longer harm you.  An excellent book on this topic is Principles of Personal Defense by Jeff Cooper.  It is not about guns, it is about mindset.

B) Get training in weapons and tactics.  Fortunately and unfortunately there are more schools and instructors out there than ever before.  I say that because the best known ones are expensive but well worth your money.  The not-so-good ones may be expensive or inexpensive but may not be worth your money.  Then there are some schools known only locally that are like finding a pearl in an oyster.  How to tell the differences?  You must do a lot of research, there is no way around it.  Ask around at shooting clubs, gun shops, and do research on the web.  If you can afford it attend more than one training venue as instructors as a rule are an egotistic bunch and often will tell you their way is the only way.  This is emphatically not true, and if you attend more than one school you will find there are multiple ways to do things.  Then you can choose the ways that fit your body and athleticism and preference best. 

But understand having a gun does not make you a shooter anymore than owning a Ferrari makes you ready to race in the Lemans or owning a violin makes you ready to perform in the symphony.  You must get that basic training on its use, and after you get training you must practice on a regular basis.  In addition to training, augment your knowledge base by reading books such as In the Gravest Extreme, Concealed Carry, and Combat Handgunnery.  These all happen to by Massad Ayoob, an expert in the field, but others abound.

C) Carry a weapon that stacks the odds in your favor.  Handgun wounds in general are usually survivable.  If you really want to "stop" your attacker you need to carry a shotgun or a centerfire rifle.  As this is not practical and in many states not even legal under your concealed carry license, we carry handguns.  Believing that a handgun will always result in a "one-shot stop" is ridiculous, an idea unfortunately brought about partly by Hollywood and partly as an unintended side-effect by the otherwise useful research into real life shootings reported by Evan Marshall and Edwin Sanow in their series of books on "stopping power." 

So if you are wise you will accept the fact that handguns are underpowered as firearms go, and exist primarily because they are convenient.  If all handguns are wimpy compared to a rifle or shotgun, why would you choose from the bottom power level in the handgun realm?  If the "hassle" of carrying a gun is more of a bother to you than being prepared should you or your family  ever be violently attacked, stop reading this and turn in your carry license as you're just playing at this concealed carry thing and not willing to take it seriously.  For the rest of you, this is no place to carry a small caliber gun, a snubnose barrel that robs velocity from your cartridge, or a very small gun that is hard to shoot.  In a real-life attack you are going to be scared and your skills are going to diminish, so a difficult-to-shoot handgun is a poor choice under those circumstances. 

You'll note that at your training classes everyone was shooting a gun that was either full-size or compact, and, occasionally, a subcompact.  But no one shoots mini-guns at training schools.  Why?  Because they are impractical--hard to aim, hard to hit with.  If mini-guns don't work at shooting schools, how can we think they will possibly work to repel a violent attack?!  We must understand that carrying a gun means a lifestyle change.  You must change your wardrobe a bit to fit the gun.  Don't be dumb and try to fit a gun into your wardrobe because that usually means tiny pocket pistols that are only effective in near contact shooting into openings in the skull, and those comprise a minuscule percentage of all defense shootings-not something you can count on being presented.

Carry guns should be:

  • chambered for a cartridge no less powerful than 9mmP.  .38 Specials work best in 4" barrels but if you must, a 2" barrel with proper ammunition is at the very bottom of effectiveness.  Not what I would recommend given all I've said above.
  • Have a long enough barrel for the caliber you've chosen to achieve standard velocities for that caliber--thus subsonic cartridges like .38s and .45s do better in longer barrels while supersonic rounds like the 9mmP or .357 Magnum can do okay in shorter barrels.  Rounds that straddle the line based on bullet weight must use appropriate bullet weights with the chosen barrel length.  The .40S&W is a good example.  Always remember that proper expansion is what allows bullets to work, meaning to effectively stop the fight.  Note the two identical handguns below, differing only in barrel length, firing the same bullet:

Barrel length


  • Large enough to be comfortably held in the hand while shooting, the larger the better while not compromising concealment.  (Mark's tip: you can conceal a bigger gun than you think with a proper holster and clothing.)
  • Have large, easy-to-see sights that your eyes will pick up instantly.  Forget forget forget what the gun magazines or the gun dealer tells you about the best sights--everyone's eyes are different and you have to find what works best for you.  Trying them on the range is best, but even bringing the gun to your eye quickly in the store and seeing if you can align the sights on a target--most stores have some hanging around--is helpful.  For example, three-dot sights are the standard today, but a smaller percentage of the population cannot align these three horizontal dots quickly because their eyes just don't work well that way.  They might prefer two vertical dots instead, or a white outline rear and a dot front, or perhaps a white dot front with a plain black rear sight.    Keep in mind sights can be changed but that will add to your cost; if you can get the sights you want on a new gun, all the better, so shop around.
  • Have a good trigger.  It should be about FIVE TO SIX POUNDS and smooth, creep-free, and break crisply or with a slight "round off" as the sear or striker breaks.  I read an article by a well-respected senior writer in a well-respected senior gun magazine yesterday.  The writer is well-known for writing on 1911s and of course likes the light triggers found on most new 1911s and has said so in numerous articles on defensive 1911s.  Yet here he was extolling the trigger of a new pistol with a DAO-style trigger that broke at 7.5 to 8 pounds, saying that a long moderately heavy trigger is a desirable feature on a defensive pistol because in a high stress situation where our fine motor skills are degraded it helps to ensure a conscious deliberate decision to fire the pistol.  You can't have it both ways, folks.  Bill Laughridge of Cylinder & Slide was on TV recently and said a defensive 1911 should never have a trigger lighter than 4.5 pounds and five is better.  So, I'm not alone in my advice.  Regardless of the style of trigger you choose--SA, DA, DAO--it should not be too light or too heavy, and it should be of a quality that it does not inhibit good shooting.
  • Hold enough rounds in the gun so that you can end most fights without having to reload.  This is called an odds-beater.  The odds are that you will never need your gun, but if you do the odds are that the fight will be over with very few rounds fired, and either you or your attacker will be on the ground.  If you run out of rounds first this is not a good thing.  The bad guys like high capacity pistols, so he's not going to run out of ammo first if you carry a five shot snubby or 6-7 shot mini-pistol.  You'd better be very very good.  Are you very very good when you life is on the line?  And even if you carry a spare magazine, the odds are that you aren't going to reload it very fast so if you have a high capacity pistol you've evened the odds--maybe beat them.  Why bet your life on a five or six shot handgun?  Don't listen to the idiots who are serious when they say "if you need more than five rounds you should have brought a couple marines."  Ha ha, it's funny, but when it's your life it's suddenly not so funny.  Yes, you should be a practiced shooter.  Yes, you ARE responsible for every round you shoot NO MATTER WHERE IT ENDS UP (and NEVER forget that), but if some six-foot-four 22-year-old punk on PCP attacks you and your first 6-7-8 rounds don't seem to do anything, your only choice is to keep hitting him.  If you are out of ammo you are in deep doo-doo, aren't you?  What now, Mr. "Should have brought some marines?"  There is such a thing as being under-prepared.  Is there such a thing as being over-prepared?  So your wife or buddies laugh--does that bother you more than the possibilities I've outlined?

You should also:

  • Carry spare ammunition.  Yes.  Carry spare ammunition even if you carry a high capacity pistol, and especially if you carry a low capacity revolver (which I don't recommend).  A pistol is only as reliable as its magazine and if you drop it out of the gun or have a malfunction, a spare magazine is your only hope at turning your expensive hammer back into a gun.  If, God forbid, you shoot your first magazine dry, a spare will put you back into the fight.  Bad guys do run in packs, and even if you are one formidable dude, five or six of them might think they can take you down.  And what if they all have guns.  Prepared, right? 
  • Practice shooting regularly, and dry fire (empty gun) at home regularly.  If you don't have a range where you can draw from the holster and shoot at speed, consider shooting IDPA matches.  They are the closest thing to defensive shooting.  Yes, they are a shooting game to many people, but if you forget about winning and making fast times and turn it into a chance to use your carry gun and holster, use cover and concealment, and move and shoot, it will help you a lot.  Just don't get sucked into the gamesmanship--some guys are there to make the best times and get the titles of "Master shooter" etc.  That is going to go in the opposite direction of good defensive practice, so be forewarned.

I believe it you take these things to heart you will be prepared to defend yourself.  You will understand that a handgun is not a magic wand, you are not Superman, and bad guys can win.  But if you prepare yourself, you can win and the bad guys can lose.  Be the winner.

copyright 2012 and author, all rights reserved.

Uploaded: 5/11/2011