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personal defense

WARNING! The video in this posting is graphic and disturbing. Even though it was broadcast on TV, we feel that it is not suitable for young viewers.

I don’t know if you saw this video, but a home in New Jersey was recently invaded by an unarmed assailant in broad daylight. The invasion wasn’t some middle of the night robbery. This happened at 10:30 in the morning. A woman was home with her 3-year-old child, opened the door for a stranger, and was beaten, stomped, choked, and flung down a flight of stairs. It was all captured on a hidden nanny-cam. As I warned, the video is disturbing. The perpetrator of this brutal crime has not, as of this writing, been apprehended.

Home invasions are among the most violent of all crimes. Criminals use the privacy and security of their victims’ home to their advantage. Once the occupants have been subdued, there’s no rush on the part of the criminals to finish their business and leave. They can be leisurely in their commission of the atrocities of assault, robbery, rape, and murder.

Don’t let this happen to you or your loved ones. Don’t be an easy target. Decide in advance not to be a victim.

When anyone rings my doorbell or knocks on my door, they’ve just put me on high alert. My first thought isn’t, “Oh boy! I wonder what the UPS man brought me today!” (OK, that’s my second thought.) My first thought is that an unexpected and uninvited person (or persons) is standing at the threshold of my home with who knows what purpose in mind.

I’m going to let you in on a secret. In my house, the only time I don’t have a loaded gun on me is when I’m taking a shower. And even then, a loaded and chambered gun is just five feet away. When someone comes to my door, I’m already prepared. I’m not going to be taken by surprise. So Lesson #1 is don’t go to the door unprepared. The woman in this video had no time to react after she opened the door. Her assailant was on her instantly. There was no time to retrieve a gun from another room, load it, and be mentally prepared to use it, if need be. Those actions and attitudes have to be in place before the decision is made to answer the door.

If you call me on the phone, I may or may not answer. It’s not that I’m screening my calls. It’s just that I don’t feel an obligation to respond to every unexpected and uninvited ringing bell. The same applies to a knock on my door. If I don’t feel like it, I won’t answer it. So Lesson #2 is that you don’t have to be at anyone’s beck and call. Deal with these unexpected interruptions on your own terms. Don’t be as predictable as Pavlov’s dog. Don’t answer the door if you don’t feel like it, especially if you see someone at the door that you don’t recognize. If the woman in the New Jersey invasion hadn’t opened her door to this stranger, he might have gone on to an easier target.

Whether you open the door or not, don’t assume that the unwanted visitor has actually gone away after you’ve either ignored them or dealt with them. Your failure to answer the door might signal to them that there’s nobody home and the house is available to be broken into. Lesson #3 is to stay on alert after the visitor leaves. If you’re hinky about someone, call the police and report them as a suspicious person. The police will come and check it out for you. Your tax dollars at work.

I don’t want to make you paranoid, but the knock on the door might just be a diversion. The guy at your front door may be posing as a salesman to distract you while his partner sneaks in by another entry point. Lesson #4 is to be alert to the possibility of a diversion or distraction that can give an invader an opportunity.

When I grew up, we didn’t always lock our front door at night. Drivers would leave their keys in the ignition of their car when they went into a store. Those kinds of behaviors are wildly out of place today. Evil is on the rise. Crime is much more prevalent. Despite that, our tendency to trust strangers and to give them unwanted access to our lives hasn’t caught up with the times.

I wish times were like they used to be, but I know in my heart that they’re not. I don’t see things getting any better, either. Trust has to be earned. I don’t trust the stranger at my front door.

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Women, if you have any interest in self defense (and you should), buy Personal Defense for Women by Gila Hayes. It is informative, instructional and encouraging. And it may save your life someday. No, the book won’t save your life, but it may begin or enhance a journey that one day saves your life.

I expected the entire book to be about handguns. I was wrong. Hayes uses the first 20% of the book helping to develop your survival mindset. We have grown up in a culture that doesn’t emphasize surviving, so it is not our first response. In life and death situations, first responses often determine the outcome. Hayes presents very logical and reasoned information that will begin to create a mindset that makes taking whatever action is necessary to survive. As Hayes puts it, “The will to fight has been trained out of socialized humans. If surprised by an assailant, do not expect some defensive instinct to surface automatically. If you have not confronted issues about your right to defend yourself, questions of legality and morality may be foremost in your mind, interfering with the concentration that should be directing your defense.” (page 40)

The author then turns to prevention and non-lethal means of self-defense. She covers safety and crime prevention in the home, on campus and at work. Her practical suggestions made me realize areas where I should make simple, inexpensive changes to reduce the likelihood of ever needing to use my self-defense skills – and that’s the goal of everyone who develops those skills. The information she provides on non-lethal methods of self-defense were largely new information for me. She identified several tools that can stun or stop an attacker giving you time to run to a safe location. (Tools that go well beyond the commonly given advice of carrying your keys in your hand and using them to jab at the eyes of your attacker.)

The final half of the book is dedicated to self defense with handguns. I began learning about and training with handguns about a year ago, so I am still a relative newbie. I found her review of the basics to be an outstanding refresher. I especially appreciated the discussion of the mechanics and physiology of recoil. While I have been taught about stance and how to hold the gun properly, I haven’t fully adopted what I was taught because it feels unnatural and quite frankly I was hitting my target better from a different stance and with a different grip. Hayes explained why the stance and grip I’ve been taught is important. It’s an important issue for women. Proper stance and grip minimize the recoil experienced by the shooter. That means my bones and joints are less stressed when I shoot and it means that I can reacquire my target faster. The first can save my body in the short run; the latter can save it should I ever need to shoot in self-defense. Now I’m motivated to let my accuracy suffer in the short-term while I practice a stance and grip that feels more unnatural but is healthier and safer.

The special attention she gives to women’s issues helped me understand things from a women’s perspective. For example, I have been struggling with the issue of concealed carry. Having only men around me to offer advice, I’ve developed this response to most of their solutions: “Men and guns have angles; women have curves. Therein lie my concealment issues.” In other words, all their advice worked well for men but not so well for women. Hayes offers practical advice based on her experience and the experience of her female friends.

As I said in the first paragraph, I recommend Personal Defense for Women by Gila Hayes. Women, buy it for yourself. Men, buy it for the significant women in your life – your girlfriend, mother, wife or daughters.  It’s about more than hand guns – it’s about not becoming a victim.

Semi-Automatic (top) Revolver (bottom)

Semi-Automatic (top)
Revolver (bottom)

In a previous blog I addressed the basics of a revolver as a personal defense tool. In this article we’re going to look at the other type of handgun: the semi-automatic.

If you’re new to guns, most of what you know (or you think you know) comes from movies, TV, and the news. These are probably the three worst sources of information about firearms. Prepare to unlearn most of what you’ve picked up from them.

Semi-Automatics: What They’re Not

If you say “semi-automatic” to newbies, they think “machine gun.” Pull the trigger and a stream of bullets erupts from the gun, continuing to fire until either you manage to get your finger off the trigger or you run out of ammunition. Right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Because this is the mental picture that many people get when the term “semi-automatic gun” is used, it’s no wonder that so many well-meaning but misinformed people are in favor of more strict gun control. I would be too — if it were true.

The “machine gun” that we’ve just described is not a semi-automatic. Machine guns are fully automatic. They exist, but they’ve been illegal for civilians to own since the 1930s. This is one of the many reasons why responsible gun owners say that we don’t need new gun laws; we just need to enforce the laws that we already have.

Semi-Automatics: What They Are

What makes a handgun a semi-automatic is that when a bullet is fired from the gun, it loads the next available round into the chamber to be ready to be fired. The recoil from the gun pushes the “slide” (the top part of the gun) to the back and ejects the empty casing of the bullet that was just fired, allowing the next round to be moved into place to be ready to fire. Here’s a pretty good YouTube video that demonstrates how a semi-automatic handgun “cycles” from firing a bullet to reloading the next available round. Watch as the entire process of pulling the trigger, cocking and releasing the hammer, firing the bullet, ejecting the spent bullet casing, and loading the next round is repeated through several trigger pulls of the trigger.

To repeat, semi-automatics are not machine guns. Only one bullet is fired each time you pull the trigger, no matter how long you hold the trigger back. If you want another bullet to fire, you’re going to have to do something to make it happen. After the last bullet is fired, with most semi-autos the slide will lock in the back position, showing you that the gun is now completely empty.

Semi-autos are a bit more complicated to operate and maintain than a revolver because of all the moving parts that are involved in cycling the gun to eject the fired bullet casing and to move the next round into firing position. Nevertheless, they are simple enough that a responsible and mature child of about age ten can be trained to use one safely with responsible adult supervision.

The Advantages of a Semi-Automatic

So if a semi-automatic handgun is more difficult to operate and maintain than a revolver, and if your misinformed family and friends would think that you own a dangerous machine gun that should be banned (helpful reminder: machine guns have been banned for almost 80 years), why would anyone choose to own one instead of just buying a trusty revolver?

I think the biggest advantage is ammunition capacity — one of the very factors that the gun control advocates has such a problem with. Semi-auto magazines come in a wide variety of capacities, based on the physical size of the gun and the caliber of ammunition used in it. The larger the gun the more bullets it can hold (generally), but the higher the caliber the less it can hold. If you want a small gun for concealed carry, you’re going to have to live with less rounds of ammunition. There’s just no place to put a lot of bullets in a sub-compact gun. If you want to carry a high-caliber gun, such as a .45, you’re going to have to live with less ammo. Those big bullets take up a lot of space, so a .45 generally doesn’t carry many. For both of these options (small gun or large caliber), you’ll be looking at guns that hold seven or eight rounds. But with all the variations of gun size and calibers, there are plenty of choices. The highest standard ammo capacity of any handgun that I’m aware of is the Kel-Tec PMR-30. It holds 30 rounds of .22 Magnum. I want one. It’s a gun you load on Sunday and shoot all week long. By comparison, a typical full-sized 9mm semi-auto will hold about 15 to 17 rounds of ammo.

Why is a higher ammo capacity such a plus? Because handguns are hard to shoot well. You need training before you ever consider buying and using one, and then you need regular practice to maintain your skills. A low-powered rifle, such as a .22, is very accurate at a range of 100 yards or more with very little practice. With a handgun, you have to practice a lot to become a good shot at 10 yards. This is why some folks define a handgun as a tool that you use to fight your way back to your rifle (which you shouldn’t have put down in the first place).

If you’re in a situation where you need to use a handgun for self-defense, you will be under the greatest stress of your life. Even though you’ll be at close range (most self-defense shootings occur within seven yards), the stress can cause you to miss your target unless you are highly trained. Even police officers average a first-round accuracy rating of only something like 50%. If you’re carrying a 5-shot revolver, you’re going to have very little margin of error for stopping your assailant. Forget a warning shot — you’ve just thrown away 20% of your ammunition. (Warning shots are a very bad idea for a number of reasons, which we’ll go into in a future article.) And if you’re defending yourself from more than one assailant, you’ll need to be packing more ammo than a revolver can hold. The weight of fifteen rounds in a semi-auto may not be comfortable to carry, but it’s very comforting to carry.

To Be Continued…

This is running long, so I’m going to wrap it up here, but in my next article on semi-autos I’m going to discuss why a semi-auto can be more accurate than a revolver. This is another reason why someone would choose a semi-auto over a revolver.

Firearms are a basic tool for self-reliance and home or personal defense. Today, I’m going to speak to readers who don’t know much about firearms, but have a growing awareness that having one and knowing how to use it might be a good idea.

Let’s start with handguns — revolvers in particular. This might not be the best place to start from a training perspective, because handguns are much more difficult to shoot well than rifles, but they have a number of benefits going for them that lead many people to acquire a handgun before they move on to rifles.

Many of the advantages of a handgun have to do with their smaller size and weight. Handguns are lighter, more portable, and more concealable, meaning that they can go with you wherever you need to go. You can carry a handgun on your body or store it away in places that a long gun wouldn’t fit.

The Pros and Cons of the Revolver

Photo credit: Mitch Barrie on Flickr.com

Photo credit: Mitch Barrie on Flickr.com

There are two basic styles of handguns: revolvers and semi-automatics. So what is a “revolver”? I’ve included a picture of one here. Think of the old-style cowboy handguns. A revolver has a big cylinder in the middle of the gun that holds all the bullets. When you cock the hammer, the cylinder rotates (or “revolves”) and puts the next bullet in line with the barrel, ready to be shot. There aren’t a lot of mechanical things going on with a revolver, which contributes greatly to its reliability.

Between revolvers and semi-automatics, revolvers are generally regarded as being more reliable. That means they go “bang!” every time you pull the trigger. Revolvers are also easier to operate. With a revolver it’s just point and shoot. You don’t have to fuss with a manual safety. (Is it on or is it off? How can I tell?) You don’t have to “rack” the gun to get a bullet in position to shoot like you do with a semi-auto. Revolvers don’t jam like semi-automatics do. Semi-automatics have to mechanically feed a bullet into the chamber to get it ready to fire, then eject the empty cartridge after the bullet has been fired to get the next bullet ready to shoot. When the gun fails to do either of those functions properly the gun “jams.” You have to fix the problem before you can fire the next shot with a semi-auto. Revolvers don’t feed and eject bullets like that, so they don’t jam.

The disadvantages of a revolver are that they’re thicker than a semi-auto (and thus harder to conceal), they don’t carry as many bullets as a semi-auto, and they can be much slower and more difficult to reload.

Cocking a revolver

Cocking a revolver

How Do These Things Work?

Revolvers come in two different designs, “single-action” and “double-action.”

A “single-action” revolver requires you to manually pull the hammer back with your thumb to cock it. Once the hammer is cocked, pulling the trigger performs a single action — it releases the hammer, causing the gun to fire. This design is very safe because you can’t pull the trigger at all until you have cocked the hammer. Once you’ve cocked the hammer, it only requires a light pull of the trigger to fire the gun, but the process of cocking the hammer is a very deliberate one, not likely to happen by accident, making a single-action revolver a very safe device even though it doesn’t have a manual safety like many semi-automatic handguns.

A “double-action” revolver doesn’t require you to cock the hammer as a separate step. Pulling the trigger will perform two actions — it cocks the hammer and then releases it to fire the gun. This design is also very safe because the trigger pull on a double-action revolver is much longer and stiffer than with a single-action revolver. The long, stiff trigger pull is a deliberate action that becomes the built-in safety.

At the risk of confusing someone who hasn’t used any revolver, a double-action can be used in either double- or single-action mode. You pick ’em. Just pull the trigger and it will cock and fire the gun (double-action). But the trigger pull is long and stiff, so it’s harder to keep the gun aimed while you’re pulling the trigger. So if you want a lighter trigger pull, you can cock the hammer with your thumb and pull the trigger to fire it (single-action). The trigger pull in single action mode is always much lighter, making it easier to stay on target.

[ FYI — Any idea why we used a drawing of someone cocking the hammer on a revolver rather than using a photo? We purchase and use professional “stock” photos for these blogs. In every photo of someone cocking a revolver hammer, they also had their finger on the trigger at the same time. Unless you are in a combat situation, DON’T DO THAT! It’s not safe. The photographer may have been a professional, but the model that they used to hold the gun wasn’t knowledgeable of safe gun handling habits.  We don’t want to show improper safety practices, so this drawing was the only image I could find where the shooter had their finger off the trigger. ]

Suggestions for Buying a Revolver

  • As with all guns, get one that fits your hand. I good fit will feel comfortable in your hand and allow you to reach and operate all controls (trigger, hammer, cylinder release) easily.
  • Revolvers come in many different calibers. The higher the caliber, the more powerful the gun. The most common calibers for revolvers are .22, .38, .357 magnum, and .44 magnum. There are several others, but these are the most common, and therefore the most practical to consider.
  • If you’re buying a revolver for  personal defense, don’t even consider a single-action gun. The process of cocking it with your thumb before every shot takes so long that it will get you killed. A double-action revolver can be operated in either single- or double-action, giving you the best of both worlds. When you need speed, just pull the trigger and shoot (double-action). When you have the luxury of time to take a carefully aimed shot, cock the hammer with your thumb and pull the trigger (single-action).
  • Determine how you are going to carry it before you commit to buying it. Will you do concealed carry in a hip holster or purse? Barrel length may become an issue.
  • The shorter the barrel, the more difficult to aim accurately. Snub-nosed revolvers are “cute,” but they’re only practical for shooting at very short range (as in about 10 feet or so). But they make great back-up guns if your primary piece jams or runs out of ammo.
  • The lighter the gun, the greater the recoil. Recoil makes a gun hard to control. It will buck after every shot and you will have to re-acquire the target. That takes time that you may not have. Excessive recoil can also make the gun very uncomfortable to shoot. If your gun is uncomfortable for you to shoot, you are less likely to practice with it. If you don’t practice with it regularly, you won’t be able to deploy it competently if the need arises. So a light-weight gun will be easier to carry and conceal, but it has the serious trade-offs of controllability and increased recoil that have to be considered. Find a gun that does the best job for you of balancing weight, control, and recoil.
  • What about brands? Go with a good one. In my opinion, you can’t go wrong with a Ruger or a Smith & Wesson (if you keep the considerations of the previous point in mind). Both are great brand, but I think the Rugers are a better value. If you don’t find a Ruger that meets your needs, look at the Smith & Wessons. They’re more money, but they make great guns. Colts can be nice, too, but they’re prohibitively expensive (for my pocketbook, at least). Taurus makes a broad line of popular revolvers, but there is a long-running debate about the reliability of Taurus products. Those who have had a good experience say they’re great. Those with a bad experience perpetuate the notion that Tauruses are junk. Personally, I’ve never used a Taurus, but if I found one that had everything I was looking for in a gun, I’d buy it.

Having just laid out the case for a revolver as an excellent choice for a beginning handgunner, I must now confess that I’m not a revolver kind of guy. I own one and I love it. It’s an old .22 that was made in the 1960s. I bought it from a friend at church. (That kind of transaction would be illegal if the newly proposed gun control legislation gets passed which would require a background check for every sale of a gun. Since private owners don’t have the ability to run background checks, the sale of guns between friends and family members would become a crime.) I have a wish list of future guns and I have a revolver on the list. It’s a Ruger GP100 in .357 magnum. That’s the gun in the photo near the top of this blog. Ain’t she a beauty? If you’re in the market for a good revolver, this is a fabulous one to take a look at. Or if you just really, really want to be nice to me…