Carrying a handgun has a lot in common with riding a bicycle. Both are skills which require practice, good hardware and are typically done for enjoyment and health benefits. Both practices require common sense for safety. For example, donning black clothes and riding a bike in the middle of a busy highway after dark would negate any benefits from improved cardiac health. Many smart people who are new to carrying a sidearm do things which are at least as counterproductive. Let’s consider the case of a certain Joe Above-average.
Joe’s first handgun was a full-size model. For the first days, he relished the feeling of heavy metal riding on his hip. By the second week, that weight became a bit of a nuisance. After a month, just as the weather got hot and concealing that gun became difficult, he left his pistol at home when running errands. After all, making a run to the local grocery store wasn’t a high-risk mission. One day, he read about a hold-up at his local convenience store, thought about the large handgun left in the safe and decided that a small gun in his pocket would be far more useful than a big gun behind. He got the smallest weapon available and carried it with him at all times.
Fortunately, he got to test that theory…and survive[d].”
We all rationalize going with the most comfortable solutions. Joe reasoned that bringing any gun to a fight would be enough to scare any potential adversary. If that failed, surely a few shots would be enough to get him out of trouble. Fortunately, he got to test that theory and survive.
Joe’s kids were playing in the yard when a clearly rabid raccoon wandered in. Joe had his tiny pistol in a pocket holster. As a good father should, he shot to stop the immediate threat to his children.
He hit the animal with all six rounds and watched it limp off into the nearest bushes. Although the danger was averted, Joe got to thinking about the incident. If a full magazine from his gun did not stop a twenty-pound critter, what good would it do against a motivated two-hundred-pound human adversary?
Why not get the best of both worlds, a gun which is powerful yet light and small? Joe did just that, and found this solution to have drawbacks of its own. Painful recoil discouraged regular practice.
Joe did the manly thing and ignored the pain until he could no longer feel his right hand. At that point, he decided to talk to other gun owners and find out which other bright ideas did not work so well in real life. Learning from their experience would save him time and money.
Too many gun owners treat the serious business of going armed as an extension of their shooting sports hobby. Some carry a revolver one day, a double-action autoloader the next, and a single-action collectible on the weekend. Alternating between dissimilar designs invites trouble should one of the weapons be actually needed for defense. Why? Drastically different manuals of arms within the various handguns can lead to confusion during operation. An M1911 requires a downward swipe to disengage the safety. Consequently, a person accustomed to that design is likely to re-engage the safety on a Beretta 92 or a S&W autoloader, which require an upward sweep to make ready.
A user habituated to using a Glock would find a Sig decocker lever where the slide stop was expected. In general, it is best to use different versions of the same line of handguns, such as compact, medium and large frame double action revolvers. Similarly, it is a good idea to stick to a consistent holster type and carry location. Forgetting which pocket contains the weapon, or neglecting to disengage a thumb-break on a holster could have fatal consequences.
Even simple techniques are best tested under controlled conditions, with hearing and eye protection.
Firearm enthusiasts like us sometimes carry a particular weapon just because they enjoy variety. I have observed a person who could have concealed a full-size handgun carry a Beretta Minx in .22 Short on a whim. While doing so made use of his right to carry, it provided only a tentative defense from any real threat. On another occasion, he carried a .45 Colt Derringer for a week before learning that the gun was extremely inaccurate, shot well away from the point of aim, and that the trigger was so heavy that both hands were required to press it. Unusual or classic designs may be fun to use, but most of them are much inferior to the more conventional options.
The phrase “It will never happen to me” is an obvious example of comforting self-delusion. A slightly less obvious example is “This gun is meant for close range.” That statement presumes that the defender will get to pick the range of the encounter, an obviously optimistic statement. Moreover, if the user can barely hit a passive, stationary silhouette target at just a few feet, how would he do against a moving, ducking opponent who is shooting back?
At the other extreme, selecting a target .22 pistol would help with scoring hits…but human foes are far more resilient than paper silhouettes.
Fans of small calibers like .22 Magnum like quoting paper ballistics to support their choices. They overlook the much-reduced velocity due to short barrel, and the unimpressive terminal effects of the diminutive projectiles. Although no handgun offers truly impressive stopping power, most common chamberings work well enough. The benefits of choosing exotic guns or calibers are slim compared to the high cost and certain hassle of procuring enough ammunition for regular practice.
Despite the advertising claims, magic bullets simply do not exist. At two dollars per round, few people can afford even a day’s training with unconventional ammunition. Carrying untested cartridges is an invitation to malfunctions at the worst possible times.
Realistic and extensive training is essential for safe and effective deployment of the side arms. In seeking training, it is wise to avoid “miracle workers,” trainers who promise quick and overwhelmingly effective results through mastery of a single technique. Proper training mixes multiple methods of presenting and firing the weapon, and includes instruction in tactics as well as marksmanship.
Competitive events, such as IDPA shoots, are useful for learning to function under stress. They aren’t as good for developing tactical savvy.
The lessons of competitive shooting tend to be of the “what not to do” variety. Learning that a gun cannot be drawn from under a zipped up full-length coat, or that glove material can get under the trigger of a revolver, disabling it, is best done at a safe range.
Uncover the weak links before the weapon has to be used in a real fight. If an enthusiastic draw breaks the holster in half, or causes the front sight to come off the gun, then the choice of gear may have to be adjusted. Same goes for trying new loads, testing new magazines and any other variables introduced to the personal protection equation.
Even simple techniques are best tested under controlled conditions, with hearing and eye protection. For example, most people instinctively get close to their cover. Not only does that expose them to hostile fire, it also reflects revolver cylinder gap flash off the nearest surface back into the shooter’s face. Training with a partner and an Airsoft pistol also discourages other common but dangerous ways, like carrying an autoloader with an empty chamber.
Few people can make both hands available to rack the slide while fending off an attack. Point shooting, sometimes advocated to the exclusion of other techniques, should be similarly tested with targets placed above, below or to the side of the shooter. Learn your personal limitations as well as new skills.
Carrying a handgun is not a hobby. First and foremost, your sidearm is a tool for stopping aggression against you and yours. Just as a surgeon would not use antique tools on a patient, you shouldn’t carry a weapon just because it is neat or unusual. Considerations such as effectiveness and efficiency should take precedence over all others.