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So You Want To Own a Gun (Part Three)

We ended the last article in the series by recommending rimfire firearms for training, and left on the note that "merely buying a gun doesn’t make you a shooter any more than buying a car makes you a NASCAR driver.”

You would be utterly amazed by the number of people that seem to think the mere act of purchasing a firearm and a box of ammunition means they are near the end of their journey, instead of at the beginning.

I’d argue that there are at least three types of training that you need to develop competence with firearms:

  1. psychological awareness
  2. functional training
  3. tactical training

Try not to get ahead of me here.

When I refer to “psychological awareness,” I’m referring specifically to the basic level of maturity you have to embrace within the presence of firearms. Whether you are talking a single-shot .22LR rifle at the range or a concealed handgun carried in self-defense, you have to realize that you are in possession of a tool designed to launch dense projectiles at high velocities. Once launched, these projectiles will only stop when they hit something or are grounded. If you do not trust yourself or someone with that basic level of awareness on which safe gun-handling is built, then touching a firearm is completely out of the question.

When I refer to “functional training,” I’m speaking of the bare-bones instruction and practice needed to safely go through your weapon's manual of arms, which may include ammunition selection and inspection, drawing, firing, addressing malfunctions and misfires, reloading, unloading, cleaning, and storage.

When I refer to “tactical training,” I’m not referring to guys wearing camouflage uniforms and web gear, but the actual tactics and methodologies you would use in an instance where you would deploy your firearm, whether just spending a day at the range, hunting, or in self-defense. In this article, we’re going to tackle training fundamentals for self-defense.

Lets look at these three kinds of training in the context of using firearms for self-protection in the home and for self-protection outside of the home (concealed carry).

Training for self-protection in the home with firearms

Ideally, a gun owner will take an introductory and/or a basics course with their firearms to learn how to use them safely, and will spend time mastering the basic principles of marksmanship and safe weapons handling before even thinking about using a lethal weapon for defense. Shooting yourself, a family member, or a pet because you are unfamiliar with your gun is a sad possibility that can occur if you don’t know what you are doing.

Before or while you are mastering the fundamentals of learning to operate your firearms safely, you can look into getting your head “right” for defense. The NRA, traditional martial arts schools, and many community centers and civic groups offer some variant of situational awareness training, so-called “don’t be a victim” classes. While many people would be tempted to blow them off, I strongly recommend them for every member of your family, from kids to the elderly. Crimes may be plotted out in advance or be spur-of-the-moment acts of opportunity, but they are not accidental. Such classes teach you to be aware of your surroundings and potential threats so that you can avoid them.

Once you have the right frame of mind and the correct foundational weapons training, you are ready to start considering the situational, tactical use of your firearm.

An NRA “Personal Protection in the Home” class and similar courses offered by a wide multitude of instructors will teach you how to construct a layered defense of your home. They may include tips on how everything from defensive landscaping to lighting to security systems to family pets can be a significant deterrent to criminal activity. This kind of training will also show you how to use your dwelling’s architecture to your defensive advantage, and how to refine weapon-specific tactics and ammunition for rifles, pistols, and shotguns. Just as importantly, instructors can provide recommendations on how to store weapons and ammunition safely.

Ultimately, the goal of self-protection in the home course is to put as many physical and psychological barriers between you and any potential threat as is practical to make them think twice about trying to breach your home, and to make it possible to defend your family members as safely and effectively as possible if a home invasion occurs. Firearms are the last-ditch resort in any such scenario, but are an important one nonetheless.

How do you find these classes? Your local gun shops and ranges will often have information about these courses, as will some law enforcement agencies depending upon your location. You can also find out from national organizations, online searches, and firearms message boards.

Training for self-protection outside of the home with firearms (concealed carry)

Carrying a firearm outside of the home is a much more complex situation than using a firearm for home defense.

Once again, I’d strongly recommend the “refuse to be a victim” type courses that teach you to think defensively and to be aware of your surroundings so that you avoid dangerous situations in the first place. There is a lot of truth contained in the statement “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The same holds true of the basics/introductory training. You simply must know how to operate your firearm safely and effectively before you consider doing anything with a firearm. These foundational courses will teach you the basics, and then you need to practice the fundamentals: not until you get them right, but until you can’t get them wrong.

When you start talking about carrying a weapon outside of the home, things change quickly, starting with legal requirements. Be sure to check applicable laws, as most states require you to get a concealed carry permit. To get such a permit typically requires “x” amount of classroom instruction on when deadly force can and cannot be applied, and you can expect to spend from a half-day to more than a day learning merely these legal parameters, along with taking a written test. Afterward, shooters will go to the range and prove to the instructors that they can manage to operate a weapon without shooting themselves ... and sadly, that is just about all that is required in most states.

There is a difference between these legal minimum requirements, however, and actually developing the mindset and tactics required to be “safe and deadly” outside of the home, and the tools you should use. While I’m hesitant to suggest there is any “right” combination of weapons and accessories for concealed carry, the basics are always the firearm itself, ammunition, and a holster.

While I am a strong proponent of .22LR for training, rimfire ammunition is not as reliable as centerfire handgun ammunition, and reliability is the most important aspect of a personal defense weapon. The “conventional wisdom” for years has been that the minimum acceptable caliber for a self-defense pistol is .380 for semi-automatics and .38 Special for revolvers. These are still not bad guidelines.

After the choice of a handgun, the next requirement is the purchase of a good concealed-carry holster that retains the weapon, covers your triggerguard, and helps conceals it, in that order. All too often I’ve seen a new shooter drop $500 or more on a new handgun for concealed carry, then buy a cheap nylon holster that costs less than a box of practice ammunition. The weapon is rarely secure in these “one size fits most” holsters which quickly lose their shape and which are never comfortable, and the uncomfortable-to-carry $500 concealed carry piece now becomes a “safe queen” instead of an important part of your personal on-call life insurance plan. Plan to spend a minimum of $50 for a decent holster (often far more), and don’t plan on having just one. Holsters are situational, depending on what you are wearing at any given time of the year. A pistol carried on an outside-the-waistband (OWB) holster may be fine in jacket weather, but an inside-the-waistband (IWB) may be required in warmer weather. For ladies, the holster choices get even more variable because of the variety of ladies' apparel.

Last but not least, ammunition matters in a self-defense handgun. Buy whatever practice ammunition you can afford and dryfire practice when you cannot afford to shoot, but whatever you do, do not skimp on self-defense ammunition. These cartridges are designed to save your life at the most desperate of times, at which no person has ever been heard to say, “I’m glad I got this on sale.” From a legal and practical standpoint, there is one obvious recommendation regarding your selection of handgun ammunition. Find out what brand and type of ammunition your local law enforcement agency uses, and use that. Odds are that it will be a premium self-defense cartridge that has been heavily tested and proven. It is also going to be very hard for a prosecutor or civil attorney to argue with you for using the same ammunition issued to law enforcement.

Once you have the correct firearm, holster, ammunition, and permit, I’d strongly suggest saving up the money to take training classes, starting with the NRA’s “Personal Protection Outside of the Home” class, which will help impart some useful skills that you can then use in your later training on your own time. I’d also investigate local training schools and instructors. Word of mouth of knowledgeable shooters is essential here in selecting a good trainer, and safety is always paramount. Look at these training classes as a smart investment. One day of training with a top-flight instructor cadre is money well spent, equipping you with both knowledge and a plan to incorporate into your training.

Now that we have self-defense covered, we’ll move on to training for hunting, target, and competition shooting in the next installment.

Don't miss the previous article in this series.