Critical Thinking About Defensive Shooting

Being involved in recreational and defensive shooting and training for the past 53 years has allowed me to see a lot of different shooting techniques (and theories) come and go. Some techniques, such as the Weaver stance and its minor variations, have withstood the test of time. Some theories have too; think along the lines of the effectiveness of expanding bullets. Other techniques and theories, though, have been proven to be less than valid.

The key question is this: “Does the information being presented make sense without any supportive background?” If it doesn’t, more examination is needed. (We used to call this “not taking something at face value,” or critical thinking. Sadly, way too much information being put out there today IS taken at face value.)

With this in mind, I thought I would start the New Year with a topic that might ignite some controversy: How to properly reload during a gunfight. If you use some good old critical thinking, I bet you’ll see it my way.

A more recent theory — one that has even affected the manufacture of certain firearms components — that has irked me for some time is the idea that under the stress of a real gunfight, your fine motor skills will be degraded to the point that only gross motor skills will remain, making it impossible to use a slide release lever to complete a pistol reload.

This has led to a host of firearms experts and trainers positing that the proper way to reload an empty handgun from slide lock-back (if the support hand is taken out of action) is to use specially elevated iron sights or other mechanisms to catch the slide on your belt or a boot to return it to battery and complete the reload. (The idea, as noted above, is that you will be so stressed that your fine motor skills will be compromised and your thumb won’t be able to operate the slide release lever.) Many trainers now teach students to always use the support hand to slingshot a locked-back slide forward rather than (heaven forbid) use the slide release to complete the reload. They believe that even without an injured support arm, you won’t be able to reload your pistol by using the release. This theory is now taken at face value, without question by many — a “fact” which compromises the smooth and rapid reloading of a firearm in high-stress situations.

This has even caused some to refer to the slide release lever as a “slide lock” lever, good only for manually locking a slide back for safety inspection or disassembly. I recently observed an otherwise fine firearms instructor teach students in a defensive shooting class to never use the slide release during a reload for the above stated reasons (and because the slide release lever is SO small that you couldn’t possibly engage it), which motivated me to write this column. At the risk of offending some, let’s apply a bit of critical thinking to this theory.

If the thumb of the shooting hand is no longer capable of fine motor coordination in the stress of combat, why is that same thumb still able to manipulate a magazine release button of similar or lesser size? I haven’t seen any shooting experts advocating that a pistol magazine change requires using the palm of the support hand to begin a reload (or to bump it against your boot). Have you? And the surface area of a magazine release button is smaller than many slide release levers. The relative range of motion to perform activating the slide release lever or the magazine release button is roughly the same — so why isn’t pushing a magazine release button with your thumb also impossible?

Want more proof that fine motor skills don’t totally go down the drain under stress? Let’s go back to the days when law enforcement officers universally carried double-action revolvers as sidearms. No one, and I repeat no one, ever suggested then that under stress, the shooting-hand thumb could not operate the cylinder release latch to begin a revolver reload.

If that were the case, the double-action revolver would have no advantage over the single-action revolver. The release latch is located in roughly the same position that the slide release lever is located on a semi-automatic pistol and is operated either by pushing it forward (Smith & Wesson), pulling it to the rear (Colt) or pushing it straight in (Ruger). All three possible ranges of motions were and are able to be accomplished under stress.

And let’s not forget the most important digit: the index finger. The index finger is still able to operate the trigger under high stress. If the theory about the extreme degradation of fine motor skills is correct, then civilians, police and soldiers wouldn’t be able to fire more than one or two shots at best before losing control (and none of those shots would be delivered with any degree of accuracy).

Why is this analysis important beyond a smooth and rapid reload? The proponents of this theory would rather have you, when you are injured, point a gun toward your legs, feet or other parts of your body to hook those sights on a belt to return a pistol to battery than to keep the muzzle pointed in the direction of your threat and push down on the lever with your thumb. Thinking critically, does that make sense to you?

Watch nearly any pistol competition and see if anyone reaches up with his or her support hand to return an empty pistol back into battery. He or she drops the magazine, grabs a spare and moves both hands together into a shooting grip as the fresh mag is inserted. Then the thumb hits the slide release. The reload is done in an almost singular motion, and the shooter stays on target throughout. Competitive shooters know that using the support hand to return the slide to battery not only takes longer to get on target but also increases the likelihood of a shooter-induced malfunction.

Think critically about what I am saying here and don’t take what I say at face value. Do these points I am trying to get across make sense to you? If they do, then maybe make some changes to your shooting technique. If you can’t easily reach the slide release or can’t readily push it down, get an enhanced release lever — all my Glocks have them. If you don’t agree, that’s fine too. At least you may have thought more about this topic, which is what critical thinking is all about.

One last point: If you take a class where the weak-hand slide release is being taught, be polite and don’t challenge the instructor. Do what he or she is showing you in class. You don’t have to use the instructed method after you leave.

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