It’s said ‘handguns are to fight your way to a rifle’. That’s nonsense. The handgun is often ideal, but you’ll need to put in work to be an asset.
The handgun is an ubiquitous tool of personal protection.
While synonymous with both protection and crime, the general public knows remarkably little about the handgun, it’s role in overall security, and why – love it or hate it – there’s nothing else that does it’s job for self-defense. Whether your a seasoned pro, or considering making the jump into firearms ownership, read on as we make the case for the handgun.
“If you don’t bring it, it won’t get there”
With body cameras and cruiser dash cams becoming the norm, we are starting to see good information emerge about what really happens in gunfights ‘on the streets’. Frank McGee’s “rule of three” suggests that gunfights last about 3 seconds, with 3 rounds fired at 3 yards.
…the pistol is a bridge between helplessness and a fighting chance.
Why is that important?
While this is more of an average, it tells us something that we should all instinctively know: When the shooting happens, we usually don’t have time to run and collect a gun from storage, our car, or a safe. If it’s not on us, it might as well be on the moon.
While some variation exists (most of this information is from police experiences; home invasions/robberies are substantially different), we should be able to agree time is one of the critical elements of surviving any emergency.
The FBI recently acknowledge that the armed citizen’s intervention in active shooter situations has stopped greater tragedy. Given that, while we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking the handgun is ‘the great equalizer’, we shouldn’t underestimate it’s ability to work in a pinch. Most importantly:
It’s a tool we can discreetly carry most of the time.
We often say ‘the Handgun is the lowest common denominator’. What we mean is:
- -In terms of tactics, almost anything we can do with a pistol, we can do with a rifle.
- -The pistol requires a draw from concealment, re-holstering, retention, and can be operated one or two handed. This makes it the most complicated personal defense tool. While that may seem daunting, it’s good. If we master it, the rifle is easy by way of comparison. Rifles are more accurate, easy to use with weapon mounted lights, and readily adapt to sighting systems for low light conditions.
- -Lastly, most people can afford and get behind the idea of owning a pistol, even if they have no real interest in guns.
This is why we view the pistol as the most practical and necessary tool for self defense, and almost all of our writing assumes that the pistol is the ‘primary’ firearm available. This stands in some contrast to conventional wisdom.
For ages, sayings like “A pistol is to fight your way to a rifle” have permeated gun culture. Like most great sayings, once they’ve become cliche, they lose their meaning.
The truth is: When shooting starts, the pistol a bridge between helplessness and a fighting chance. More often than not, fighting your way to a rifle is a fantasy.
With that in mind, let’s break down how to select a handgun, train to be effective in its use, and discuss some considerations when carrying it for protection.
Buy quality, cry once.
Often as not, buying a handgun becomes a “big” decision. The purchaser asks friends for advice, considers what they like and don’t like, holds a variety of guns, and matches their preferences to their price point. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but when asked “Why did you decide on this pistol?”, here’s the most common answer:
“It felt good in my hand.”
The pistol’s primary job isn’t to feel good in your hand; it’s to be effective, reliable, and portable.
The way it feels in the hand is often mistaken for shootability. The issue there is that shootability is largely a function of how much you practice. To some degree a pistol needs to be sized to the shooter, but if you buy a pistol that’s too big to carry, it doesn’t matter how good it feels in the hand. It needs to feel good in the holster. Likewise, if it feels good in the hand but doesn’t perform, it fails to meet a critical requirement… So before you decide to buy set the ‘feel’ aside and consider the reliability, weight, frame dimensions, and availability of quality holsters. At ISG, we’re not going to tell you there is one best pistol, but what we will say is:
- -Buy quality, cry once.
- -Budget a holster, 4 magazines (figure these into purchase cost), and give some thought to spare parts. If you train to proficiency, chances are it’ll wear out your recoil spring, striker assembly, or other small, consumable parts. How easy will it be to replace them?
- -Budget in a safe, or some way of safely storing your firearm.
- -Don’t commit yourself to liking guns irrationally. This isn’t a beauty pageant. Think of it more like a job interview. You need to know how well that pistol performs, not what it looks like. When asking “what can it do?” realistically assess it’s performance, and the conditions it’s built to handle. Start with the most critical reviews. Are they well thought out and articulated? If so, it’s probably a real problem. Read the praise later. Everyone wants to believe they made a good purchase.
- -Consider your frame when you buy a pistol. It’s common for grown men to recommend a Glock 19 to a petite woman. Chances are, she won’t be able to carry it comfortably all the time with most commercially available holsters. Sadly, the best choice is not always the most practical. If you’re an instructor, accept this. Women are going to carry in non-standard ways; Flashbang holsters, purse carry, belly bands, fanny packs are all valid options for them. Just because it doesn’t conform to your sphere of violence doesn’t mean we shouldn’t develop support for these carry methods.
We can’t say definitively what will the best for you, only that there are plenty of good options from reputable manufacturers.
The handgun requires a few things that need to be factored in to it’s purchase price: a holster, a few spare magazines (and pouch, if you choose to carry a reload), and some ammunition both for training and some for personal defense. Once these things are in hand, it’s time to start training.
Training can be time consuming and costly; it’s usual for a quality course to cost $500 and last a full weekend. This is where most people’s enthusiasm takes a hit. Provided they never walk through that door, they’ll never know just how much they’re betting on luck. While true that people with no experience can (and do) defend themselves frequently without problem, many others are not so lucky. Not all trainers are competent, even the ones with solid credentials, so read and make a realistic assessment of your threats, and build your training plan to meet those ends.
Your training plan should have three major components:
- Fundamental weapon manipulations and marksmanship training: This introduces you to the firearm, it’s operation, and becoming comfortable enough to perform consistently without pressure.This phase is the most important, and even skilled shooters should return to the basics from time to time to ‘refresh’ their most basic skills. Most of these skills can be maintained through routine dry practice. These early courses should also discuss use of force, and legal ramifications of using force. Don’t skip that part.
- Skill building that emphasizes marksmanship, drawing/manipulations, movement, and time pressure. These are the intermediate skills that, once established, can be maintained through good practice. For most people, this will mean taking a class. If you’ve got a range that will allow some movement, drawing from holster and so forth, it can be done there. A quick side note: this is where most people jump to when they get a gun. The Dunning-Kruger effect takes hold and they overestimate their ability or justify their lack of training with the guise of “experience” (“I’ve been shooting all my life”, “My cousin is Special Forces, and he taught me”, etc). If you have to say those things, you’re not as advanced as you think. Period. Step back, and strengthen up the basics. In the long run, putting your ego in check is the best way to get good.
- Full contact Force on Force with Sim/FX rounds. This sounds pretty extreme to people when they’re starting out but think of it analogous to martial arts. If you trained in a martial art and never ‘sparred’ against another person, how would you test the integrity of the system? Force on Force requires us to test our skill, fitness, tactics, and ability to rapidly process information about threats in a somewhat controlled environment. It also incorporates decision making into shooting.
As a side note: You should also be training to hold your fire. The vast majority of shooters pull the trigger as a part of their draw stroke, but it’s absolutely critical that we hold ourselves to a higher standard. There needs to be a conscious effort to assess the threat and environment continually. Please check out this article when you’re done here:
“Zen and the Art of Not Shooting“.
Once you’ve committed to Force on Force, congratulations. For most people, this is as close as you’ll ever get to a real gunfight, and it’ll likely be more difficult. While we hope you’ll indefinitely maintain these skills, once you’ve hit this level of competency, the chances of making a horrible mistake are low, and you should be reasonably well prepared mentally for the realities of a gunfight.
In order for the handgun to be useful, it needs to be present.
Carrying your Handgun
Often as not, people buy a handgun in response to fear. Something terrible happens and they think to themselves “I sure don’t want to be in that position.”
They may carry briefly but generally don’t put much effort into finding a good holster or dressing around the gun, and it quickly finds itself relegated to a dusty drawer somewhere. In order for the handgun to be useful, it needs to be present. Having a quality holster, a sturdy belt, and clothing that help you conceal will go a long way in keeping antipathy away.
One of the things we feel compelled to mention about carrying is comfort. Not just physical, but being psychologically OK with carrying a weapon. Often times legal gray areas, irrational fears (like the gun discharging), the prevalence of “gun free zones” and the like make it complicated. All that tends to make people nervous, as if they’re hiding something.
There are all sorts of “tells” that trained people look for to tell if someone is carrying a gun, but the bottom line is that you need to just accept that what you’re doing is legal. The guys who are good at carrying guns will be almost impossible to spot, and if you’re not good at it, it’ll be impossible to hide. Like anything else, being subtle comes with practice, but reflect back on selection… have the right holster, clothing, and pistol for the job.
Another thought on this matter is that tells go both ways: criminals see things like types of holsters and where you’re carrying. For most criminals, a holster is a “tell”. If you’re sticking people up, the last thing you want to explain (after you ditch your hold-up piece) is why you’re still wearing a holster… so pocket carry and “Mexican carry” are far more common in those circles.
I got made by a thug while in a drug house once because I was carrying a holstered pistol that was too big for me under poor cover garments. He could have easily overpowered me and took it, but being aware delayed his action just long enough to get out of there. Criminals have internal risk matrices as well – they’re not fall guys and they won’t throw themselves into a suicidal death for no gain.
In any case, this is why we constantly preach a multi-faceted approach to defense; you want your first line of defense to be awareness and spatial recognition. If that fails, the physical fitness to escape or fight your way to a dominant position is mandatory. If the altercation continues (or escalates to a lethal force encounter), you need to be able to work your handgun with consistency at ranges from contact to 25 yards.
Don’t end up in the position I did. Learn from our mistakes and find something you can comfortably carry, and look like you belong.
In the Urban Environment
So, let’s talk about defensive application for when you’re out and about. As we’ve discussed at length, awareness is the first and most important skill you can cultivate. It’s free, it’s not overly complicated, and you can train yourself to do it anywhere.
An honorable mention is fitness. Don’t overlook this, please. Just playing the odds, your physical health is orders of magnitude more likely to kill you than gun violence. You don’t have to be a gym bro/bunny, but make activity a routine part of your life. If you do, you’ll add options to your personal defense playbook; it’s easier to run, fight, and maneuver when you’re not sucking wind. It’ll also help in our other skill groups, which will make you a stronger person in general. Choose a martial art, and multi-task.
As to the handgun and it’s role in personal defense, there are a few basic skills we want to develop for urban spaces.
- -First, something that’s widely understated: It’s more important to NOT get shot than it is to shoot. If you can get the shot, get it. If they’ve got the drop on you, maneuver.
- -An continuous assessment (Applied Situational Awareness) of the best places to move to if you have to draw without being shot and killed. If you don’t have the initiative, you’ll never draw fast enough to beat a guy who’s already got a gun on you. Timing, maneuver, and judgment are critically important.
- -If you’re at conversational distances, fully understand the concept of the timing error: don’t draw when the guy could grab the gun and take it from you.
- -Understand the legal ramifications of using deadly force. Even if you’re in the right. Keep in mind that as Tom Givens says, there is “liability attached to every bullet”.
- -Tactics are largely about using angles to minimize exposure. Understand angles and how to use them to your advantage.
- -Become comfortable with drawing and shooting from various positions, to include sitting.
- -Train to use a light and cell phone in your off hand. One Handed Shooting is an essential skill. Don’t neglect it.
In The Home
Similar to in urban spaces, if you grab a handgun for home defense, be mindful that you may have to shoot from an irregular position and that bullets that pass through light walls and windows may still strike bystanders. Be ready to manage spaces that may include children, pets, a spouse/significant other, and that may catch you while you’re relaxing (in pajamas, sleeping, watching TV, etc). For that reasons, give some thought to the following:
- -Recovering your firearm quickly from a safe or secure storage area.
- -Moving through your home without inadvertently pointing the firearm towards occupants of the rooms, and;
- -Consider the “540 bubble” this includes the overhead space in addition to the 360 degree view we’re used to. If you have stairs, or a basement, pointing your pistol up or down could send a round into rooms above or below. Be aware of different techniques for moving with a handgun that take into account the muzzle position.
- -The pistol is not the most effective solution for the home. There are better, but it does allow for one handed use. If you have a dedicated home defense pistol, consider equipping it with a light for;
- -Target Identification. There are no shortage of tragic stories in which a homeowner shot his (grand)child who was coming in late at night. If you can’t positively identify who it is, DO NOT SHOOT. Fall back, and issue a verbal challenge. Don’t prioritize shooting someone – prioritize not getting shot and not unintentionally shooting the wrong person.
- -Train for compliance! Let’s say you challenge a bad guy and he does give up. What then? What if you shoot and he’s incapacitated but still alive?
The longer you hold him at gunpoint, the greater the chances he’ll try and flip the script on you, so think about this and train for it now.
There are many more considerations, such as ways of isolating the threats, safe rooms, getting children, and interacting with responding officers, but for now, let’s try and consider the complexity of the situation. As always, start with good, routine security. Prevention is the best win.
Our “To Don’t” List
There’s always a litany of good advice that people ignore, but here’s some of the common items:
- -Don’t implicitly trust the guy selling guns. Much like the guy selling lumber at Home Depot, there’s a good chance he’s never worked construction.
- -Don’t look to friends for training, even if they’re competent. There’s a dynamic at play that doesn’t facilitate learning (They might assume you know more than you do, and vice versa).
- -Don’t look to a significant other for training. Same concern as above, but magnified, and can bleed into your home life, creating resentment.
- -Don’t rush yourself. You’re not going to get good at this overnight, and the more you learn, the more you’re going to realize that proficiency in one area (marksmanship, for example) doesn’t mean you’re good at fighting with a handgun.
- -Don’t jump from gun to gun to gun. People tend to start liking guns, and wanting more. In the early years of your training, get good with one gun. It’s less exciting, but ultimately, you’ll have to decide if you want to impress people by having a lot of guns, or being good with your guns. There is typically an inverse relationship.
- -Don’t rely on YouTube for training. Please, please, please, go to an actual, reputable instructor. Don’t watch one – you won’t be getting the full picture, and it’ll send you off with concepts that are incomplete, and frankly dangerous. Not only that, but YouTube is a cesspool when it comes to gun handling. It’d be like reading “The National Enquirer” for your news.
This article is meant to be a broad overview of how we at ISG view the handgun’s role in our lives. Like any other tool, it has a specific purpose and developing skill with it will require experience, effort, and time. At present, the handgun is legal to carry in most states, sufficiently effective, allows for self defense without advertising to the world you’re armed, and can be applied to the broadest range of likely situations (home invasions, robberies, active shooters). For this reason, we hope you’ll give the handgun consideration and work towards a high level of proficiency with it.
Violence in the civilian sphere requires that our actions be ‘beyond reproach’. We will not have unions or JAG supporting us. We won’t have backup, or air support. Those who come to the scene of violence won’t do so with a gun and a commitment to help you… they’ll come with cell phones and disbelief.
While the chance that you’ll ever be in this situation is low, it’s a very high impact event. As such, we hope you’ll consider it important and treat the responsibility with the respect it deserves.