There are now over 1,000,000 Texans licensed to carry a handgun in public. As to how many of them actually do, no one knows. Some carry every day, every place that is legal; some carry only on rare occasion; and some carry only in a vehicle, and use the license to prove to police that they have demonstrated the required firearm proficiency.
Whether or not one carries regularly, there is never-ending debate on the subject of carry condition: round in the chamber or not; cocked or not; safety on or not. Those experienced in carrying a gun debate these points mostly for fun, but for those new to carrying a gun, this raises some serious questions.
First, let us set some context. Some guns are hammer-fired (all 1911s, most revolvers, and some other guns), and some are striker-fired (probably most easily-concealable guns). While it is true that some guns use an internal (shrouded) hammer that is not the same as a striker, that is a distinction without a difference in this discussion; the real question is whether or not a gun can be cocked with your thumb. Any gun when cocked is in single-action mode (fireable with minimal effort). If it has an external hammer, it can be decocked (uncocked), either through a decocker lever, or manually (safety hazard). If the gun is a double-action model (DA/SA), it can still be fired immediately while decocked (with more effort), but if it is a single-action model (SA), it cannot. Never decock an SA gun, as it is then useless. Many of these models are difficult and dangerous to cock manually. Except for the hammerless models designed for concealed carry, all revolvers are DA/SA, and without a safety, so these should never be carried (or left anywhere) cocked.
To complicate this discussion more, there is the empty chamber issue (this applies only to semi-autos). While it is true that in many cases, one would have time to rack the slide (hearing reports of an active shooter nearby, for example), in some cases one would not (walking into a robbery in progress, or being car-jacked). In my view, it is a mistake to carry without a round in the chamber.
Since putting a round in the chamber necessarily means the action is cocked, one must then consider whether the gun has a safety at all, and if so, whether to use it. Besides internal safeties over which you have no control, and grip safeties which are automatic (1911s), you basically have two types of safeties extant on some pistols: trigger safeties and thumb safeties. Trigger safeties are really marketing gadgets, and are unlikely to prevent most accidental discharges. All hammer-fired guns will have a thumb safety, and it is mandatory that you use it. Striker-fired guns may have a thumb safety, but usually don’t. If it does not, then carry it as it is; the triggers are usually not so light in pull that this is overly dangerous. If it has a thumb safety, then use it only if you can take it off easily during presentation, otherwise leave it off.
The bottom line is that you need to be prepared to draw your gun from the holster and get to the High Ready position, with a sight picture, and the gun in immediately dischargeable condition, in about 3 seconds. If that requires taking off the safety during presentation, then practice that way, and always carry the gun in the same condition. Pulling the trigger, finding out the action is locked, taking off the safety, and pulling again, could take the rest of your life.
What, really, is the difference between defensive shooting and competitive shooting? Most people would suggest that competitive shooters take a lot of time to make a surgically precise shot at a small target, and the defensive shooter needs to get a shot off within 3 seconds. True, but the real difference is that many defensive shooters do not have the same understanding of mental focus as do competitive shooters. That focus, or psychology, is as important for the 3-sec shot as for the 10-sec shot.
In pistol shooting, there are some basic fundamentals like stance, grip, extension, sight alignment, and breath control. While those are important, you can do those incorrectly (within limits) and still make that defensive shot that might save your life. Trigger control, however, is a different story. I have seen students who did the other fundamentals reasonably well, yet could not consistently put shots within an 18-inch group on a paper target at 7 yards. When you factor in the effects of crisis (panic, adrenaline, blood pressure, tunnel-vision), it is likely that person would have less than a 20% chance of making that shot. In fact, the FBI says police officers in a crisis only hit their target 25% of the time.
The other fundamentals require a mastery of the physical self, but trigger control requires a mastery of the psychological self. Most shooters know that the biggest perceived problem is recoil. In fact, recoil is not the direct problem, but an indirect one. By the time you feel recoil, the bullet has already left, so the real problem is anticipation of recoil. It is a natural human tendency to prepare for the coming dramatic event, so at the last moment, people grip the pistol harder, or change their stance, which causes the muzzle to move very slightly, and ruins the shot. This is a very common problem for all shooters, but especially newer shooters, who also often jerk the trigger so they will have a more precise idea of when the shot will break.
Instead, one must adopt the “tortoise and the hare” concept of the competitive shooter: slow and steady wins the race. Prepare the trigger (gently take up the slack in the trigger until the connector touches the sear; you will feel a stopping point), then gradually put pressure on the trigger until it breaks. Try to have no idea when the break will occur, and be surprised when it does. Continue to pull past that point until the trigger bottoms out on the frame. Do not respond to recoil until it happens; you can’t stop it anyway.
That last point is counter-intuitive, which is where mental focus comes into it. Imagine that you are standing against a wall, and someone is shooting an arrow at your head; I just told you to not duck until after the arrow hits you. That would make no sense, but that is exactly what I am telling you about recoil. Do not allow any change in the shooting process until the shot breaks. Yes, you know it is coming, but you can’t stop it. Learn to “ride the wave” up and back down, reacquire the target, shoot again. Always include these steps:
- Take up the slack
- Slowly squeeze, even when shooting rapidly
Bringing relaxation, calmness, and mental focus into the process has another benefit: besides allowing a more surgical precision and tighter groups, you will be better able to block out fear and debilitating physical responses, and create a mental tunnel-vision that may allow you to deal with the crisis at hand, and perhaps save your life.
Recently I had occasion to test fire a Glock 10mm pistol, the Glock 20 Gen 4. While I am normally lukewarm toward Glocks, I’ll have to say this was a great experience. They have recently re-engineered the recoil spring into a triple spring, and it does a stellar job of mitigating recoil, so that this beast was only a little more stout than a .45.
Some years ago, some FBI agents were involved in a shootout in which several agents were killed, and the investigation revealed that if the criminal’s wounds had had a little more penetration, the battle might have been stopped sooner. As a response, the FBI upgraded to the 10mm as a standard issue. Several years of experience showed the agents were too often unable to qualify on those guns, so they recently downgraded back to the 9mm. The theory is that the ability to rapidly reacquire the target and make follow-up shots trumped stopping power. Critics of this change have suggested that the real problem is that many FBI agents come from a background of law or accounting, and were not properly trained with handguns. The U.S. military changed a few years ago from the traditional .45 sidearm (various versions of the Browning 1911) to the 9mm, and the results have been mixed. While it is true that magazine capacity is increased, many soldiers in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars have complained about the stopping power of the 9mm, especially at distances greater than 30 yards.
Ballistics: 9mm vs .45 vs 10mm
At this point, some physics is required. Stopping power is not a function of caliber alone, but of energy transfer. The greater force applied to the target, the quicker he is stopped. Energy transfer is mass X velocity (E=m*v), so a lighter bullet traveling faster can impart the same energy transfer as a heavier bullet traveling slower. The .45, due to its weight and defined case pressure, travels relatively slowly, and has a fair amount of bullet drop after 50 yards. Many police departments have changed to either the .40 or .357 SIG, because the lighter bullets and higher case pressures result in more energy transfer over longer distances. The Soviets (experts at killing) figured this out in 1930; the famous Tokarev pistol (7.65×25) used a bullet smaller than a modern .32, but traveling at warp speeds. It would drop a man at 100 yards.
Romanian Tokarev, c. 1955
The 10mm cartridge captures the best of both worlds. While the bore is only equivalent to a .40 cal, the weight of 180-200 grains is closer to a .45. The increase in power comes from a much longer case, more powder, and higher case pressures. Penetration tests on a gel block measured 24 inches, which is about 10 inches more than a .357 Magnum.
Self Defense in the Forest
Several times, students have told me that they were interested in a handgun for hiking or camping; one that could protect them from wolves, boars, or bears, as well as the traditional two-legged varmints. I was previously of the opinion that, unless one was strong enough to handle a .44 Magnum, the obvious choices were the .45 Semi, or .357 Magnum revolver. While those are both show-stoppers, I would have to now add the 10mm to that list. If that won’t stop the threat, then you had better be able to climb a tall tree!
Glock 20, Gen 4
Firearms training, pistol training, and related disciplines, are like embracing any other skill; it requires an organized approach, study, and setting both long-term and short-term goals. For some people, goal setting is a nebulous, “touchy-feely” part of the process, but in fact, it’s a very pragmatic step.
If, like many people, you are learning to shoot a handgun to protect your family from a home invasion, then you would want to be able to hit the bad guy at a distance of at least 10 yards. Why would you think that accuracy at 3 yards is sufficient? Especially given that the FBI, and all law enforcement sources, estimate that, under crisis pressure, the average shooter only performs at 50% of his/her skill level. In fact, according to the FBI, police officers in crisis mode only hit their target 25% of the time. Accuracy is an issue under the best of circumstances, but when someone may be shooting back at you, blood pressure and chemical changes in the body are a major problem, and are only exacerbated by greater distances.
The solution is to be better trained than necessary, and by a substantial amount. Then, if half your skills evaporate under pressure, you still have a fighting chance. A few months ago, in a Dallas suburb, a police officer was faced with two terrorists in body armor, carrying rifles. He took out both, with one shot each, saving many lives. Head shots, at night, under pressure. If he missed either, he had about 4 seconds to live, but his superior skill level saved the day.
So, how do we get to that skill level? Consider these steps:
Long Term Goal
Set the final goal, perhaps the ability to hit a human-sized target at 25 yards, center mass, 50% of all shots. Put a date on it, at least 6-12 months out.
Short Term Goals
- Hit a 3×5 card at 3 yards, a 5-shot group (all 5 shots). When you can do that 3 times in a row, move to the next goal, but not before.
- Same thing, at 5 yards.
- Hit a paper plate at 7 yards, a 5-shot group.
- Same thing, at 10 yards, then 15 yards.
- An excellent goal is to put 10 out of 10 shots into a paper plate at 15 yards, then 8 out of 10 at 25 yards, but you can’t skip any of these steps.
Most authorities support the belief that dry-firing will not harm a modern center-fire pistol, but there are skeptics. If you want to be certain, buy some snap caps (dummy cartridges) for practice. Cock or prime your pistol, aim at a spot on the wall not more than 2 feet away, and practice pressing the trigger to the break while seeing no movement at all of the muzzle. The gun needs to be as stable as if in a gun vise. Do 10 minutes a day for 30 days.
Live Fire practice
While all the fundamentals of shooting are important, supreme importance should be attached to
- Trigger pull
- Time in the saddle
Sight-alignment requires a very precise view of both sights, to the accuracy of a hair’s width, and intensely focusing the vision on the front sight. If necessary, shift focus to the target just long enough to verify position, then shift back to the front sight, like a TV camera changing subjects.
Trigger pull requires studious attention to the part of the finger on the trigger, the gradually increasing pressure on the trigger, and balancing lateral forces on the trigger so the muzzle does not move. Dry-firing helps that immensely. I also let my students practice some with a SIRT Training Pistol, which is a great tool.
Finally, there is time in the saddle (this is Texas, after all). If you can find ammo on sale, buy 1000 rounds. There is no reason to think that you can achieve the kind of gun-handling skills, poise, and accuracy that will not desert you in a crisis without having shot at least 1000 rounds. In addition to dry-firing, go to a range once a week for 2 months, and shoot at least 50 rounds. Then go every 2 weeks for 2 months, then monthly from then on. To accelerate the process, go every week for 6 months. You will see the results.
First-time handgun buyers, especially those with little experience, frequently make a mistake with their choice. They usually don’t know they’ve made a mistake, and they can still learn to shoot, but this mistake often sets them back months or years in their progress toward becoming a skilled marksman. The mistake is using the wrong criteria in choosing a gun. Many people will instinctively make that choice based on one of these factors:
- Physical size (concealability OR who will use it at home)
- Caliber (larger for men or home defense, smaller for women)
- Manufacturer reputation
- Salesman recommendation (you do realize they are on commission?)
Most of those are valid for a second or third gun, but not so much for a first gun. Why? You should give primary consideration to the learning curve, and also reliability. Let’s cover those in reverse order, as reliability is easier to quantify.
This is very simple; you get what you pay for. I learned many years ago, never buy the cheapest of anything, or, for that matter, the most expensive of anything. Granted, I have never owned a Rolls-Royce, but I have owned a small Mercedes. While it looked like a Toyota, it very definitely did not drive like a Toyota. Reliability of a handgun is closely related to its cost. If you pay less than $350, you will often be frustrated by jams and misfeeds, and it could fail you in an emergency. At this writing, $400-500 represents a decent value in a handgun, and $600-800 would be significantly above average in build quality and reliability. Above $1200 is an exceptional value in all respects.
Keep in mind that most companies that build $800 guns also build entry level models with a lower price tag. Their reputation should not be dismissed in this case, but the basic economic rule is still true: you get what you pay for.
When a gun is easier to learn to shoot, that user can more quickly acquire the skill set to become a better marksman, and accurate marksmanship is more important in self defense than caliber. I have a fair number of students in my Concealed Handgun License classes (now License To Carry) who are able to pass the minimalist Proficiency test required by the State of Texas, yet would be hard-pressed in a crisis to actually save their life. Many of them learned to shoot on a gun that was difficult to learn on.
What then, makes a handgun have a flatter learning curve, or be easier to learn on? Physical size, but in terms of being larger, not smaller. A gun with a longer barrel, and/or more weight, will always be easier to learn on than a little gun. I have proved this many times in pistol classes. When a group of 6 beginners were each given a chance to shoot all 6 guns used for the class, in every case, those beginners preferred and shot better the larger guns, and uniformly disliked the smaller guns. If they had only been allowed to experience the smaller guns, they would have simply thought they were not very good at learning to shoot, and this was not a lot of fun. As it was, they realized they could do quite well for the first day, with the right gun. In my experience, once a shooter has acquired a moderate skill level with a larger gun, they find it much easier to transfer those skills to a smaller gun, than it would have been to learn on the smaller gun in the first place.
In terms of physical size, handguns are typically put into three categories:
These are full-size guns of the type that would be carried by uniformed police or combat troops, and are not what most people would call concealable. Some examples include Glock, the CZ 75 (and virtually everything made by CZ, and the many clones of those), the Beretta 92 series, all full-size 1911-type semi-automatics, the S&W M&P series, and most models made by SIG Sauer, as well as 4- and 6-inch revolvers.
Most manufacturers of full-size guns also build a scaled down version, in an attempt to appeal to people looking for a concealable weapon. Springfield Armory, Glock, CZ, and S&W have all done this, often with great success. These are available in all calibers, including .45. The snub-nosed .357 Magnum revolver goes here as well. It is not fun to shoot, but has massive stopping power.
These are best described as “pocket-sized“, are usually lower priced, and are typically only available in .22, .32, .380, and 9mm, and also the 5-shot .38 Special revolver. The .22 and .32 are only slightly better than no gun at all. The .380 is practical at short range, although somewhat limited in stopping power. It has had enormous growth in popularity in the last two years, due to its small size and easy concealability. The 9mm is very practical, especially loaded with +P ammo. In this price range, the .38 Special revolver has an added benefit: it is extremely reliable.
However, with all subcompact guns, the learning curve is quite difficult, due to the short sight radius, smaller grips, and the light weight.
Start big, trade down
My recommendation? Start with a duty size home defense gun, and if concealed carry is the ultimate goal, add the smaller gun later. If the budget makes that difficult, still start with the duty size, then sell it later to get the compact (preferred) or subcompact. Although you will lose a little money, the smaller gun will likely be less expensive, anyway, so you will probably break even. Alternatively, there are some guns that are concealable, but on the large side, which makes them better for new shooters than a small gun. Examples include the Glock 19 and 23, and the CZ 75 Compact.
Despite what you hear from the media, selling a gun privately (at least in Texas), is not difficult, and there are no legal issues. Unlike our friends in NJ and CA, Texans still live under the 1787 Constitution, at least for now. 🙂
Every two years, the Texas Legislature meets to create yet more laws to govern the populace. A variety of gun laws are included in that mix. Since those usually take three sessions (6 years) to reach the Governor’s desk, a few emerge from the “sausage factory” in July of every odd-numbered year, and take effect either the following September or January. The Texas Concealed Handgun License law has now been in effect for 21 years, but there have been numerous changes over that time, both to the process and to the underlying law. I hear every week from people who have incorrect ideas about either the process or the law, based on things they were told by a friend or relative. That is especially true lately, as there have been several major changes in the last four years.
Here are several important changes:
- The Concealed Handgun License (CHL) has been replaced by the License To Carry (LTC). The training and testing are essentially the same, but the new name reflects the new support for Open Carry.
- The training requirement has changed from 10 hours to 4 hours.
- The handgun one is certified to carry is no longer dependent on what you qualified on.
- Open Carry of a handgun is now allowed, except where restricted by either state law or private business policy, provided the handgun is in either a belt- or shoulder-holster.
- Private businesses may disallow concealed carry, open carry, or both, with proper signage (PC 30.06 and PC 30.07).
- The penalty for carrying a gun in a location posted with 30.06/30.07 signage has been reduced from a Class A Misdemeanor to a Class C.
- Churches are no longer automatically off limits, unless specifically posted.
- Persons caught with a gun in the security screening area of an airport are no longer automatically detained, but are given one chance to leave without argument.
- Citizens now have the right to report to the Attorney-General any tax-supported facility (other than schools) which improperly post notices under PC 30.06/30.07. These are typically city/county offices and city halls.
- Starting in August, 2016, all public 4-year colleges in Texas have to allow Concealed Carry in almost all areas of the campus (private colleges are exempt).
There are dozens of new gun laws in the pipeline, including such proposals as Constitutional Carry, arming poll workers, lowering the fees, and allowing .22 pistols for qualification. Those that survive the committee process will make it into law over the next few years.
Some difficulty encountered by a student recently reminded me how easy it is to overlook the simple things. Dry-firing is one of those (NOTE: do not do this on a rimfire [.22] firearm unless the manufacturer approves it).
Dry-firing is simply
- Verifying the gun is unloaded
- Putting it in condition to fire (cocking or racking)
- With the proper stance and grip, aiming at a spot on the wall, and squeezing the trigger
The goal is to go from the beginning of pressure on the trigger to the break with absolutely no movement of any part of the gun, especially the muzzle, like you are a statue. To make it even better, draw a circle the size of a nickle on a sticky note, stick that on the wall, and stand with the muzzle only 6 inches away from the wall. It should be very easy to tell if there is movement.
After firing, cock or rack as necessary, and repeat. There are four important tricks to help you do this with no movement:
- Identify the amount of take-up (slack) in your trigger; pull back to that point of resistance before starting the mental process of the trigger squeeze, otherwise you will hit a bump.
- Take enough time in the trigger squeeze. For new shooters, there should be at least 1 1/2 seconds between start of pressure and break. It should be gradual and deliberate.
- Consider which part of your finger in pulling the trigger. If it is either the pad or the joint, you may be exerting lateral force on the trigger that causes the gun to move. Find that spot in the middle where those lateral forces cancel out.
- After the break, continue pulling until the trigger touches the frame.
For striker-fired guns that have to be racked every time, sometimes you can just remove the magazine to make that process easier (if you don’t have a magazine disconnect safety). You can also use Snap Caps (dummy cartridges) so the action works normally.
Do this exercise 10 times, rest for a minute, and another 10 times, every day for 30 days. You will be amazed with the results.
There is a long, winding forested area in Dallas called the “Katy Trail”, popular with hikers and joggers. Recently, there have been several armed robberies of joggers there, so a number of people (with the appropriate licenses) have started carrying handguns on the trail. Since open carry will be legal in Texas in about 6 weeks, some guns rights activists have started walking the trail with rifles (which is legal now), to promote to people that having a visible handgun will make it very unlikely that a robber will even approach you.
In relation to this story, a TV news crew interviewed a woman on the trail. Her reaction was,
“Why would you carry a gun? What are you so afraid of, that you have to carry a gun with you?”
She was both perplexed, and clueless. People don’t carry a gun because they are afraid, but because they are responsible. Times have changed; it is not 1950 anymore, when this proposal would have been absurdly paranoid. In these times, everyone who is legally allowed, physically capable, and psychologically prepared, should carry a gun everywhere it is allowed. Both government and the private sector should get rid of “gun free zones”, as there is no substantive evidence that trained and licensed carriers are a danger to the public.
Consider it as insurance. I have had fire insurance for over 30 years, but have never had a fire. Most people will never have a house fire, but they have insurance (even when not required), because, if the unthinkable happens, the personal cost is unimaginable and catastrophic. I have also never been a victim of a violent crime, but I owe it to myself and to my family to have a “Plan B” in that event. I am not going to be herded into a back room and shot like a dog.
Recent events in Paris should put a fine point on this issue.