Guides Self Defense

Building Survival Skills 2: Defensive Pistol

Personally, I think defensive pistol skills are the second most important survival skills to have (next to first aid skills). In this post, I'll talk why I think that and how I recommend going about developing that skill set.

A few days ago, I started this series of posts designed to highlight the skills I think are needed to use the gear that I have been reviewing on this blog. I started off with talking about building up first aid skills which I believe to be absolutely critical to survival. Arguably, first aid skills are perhaps more valuable than the defensive pistol skills I’m going to cover in this post. This might sound blasphemous, but bear with me.

Defensive pistol (and really all self defense) skills correspond to responding to situations where the threat of death or serious trauma (which could lead to death very quickly) is imminent. As such, I consider defensive pistol skills to be tier 1 survival skills right along with first aid. Recall, the survival rules of three indicate a person can only survive for:

  • three minutes without air (or in icy waters),
  • three hours without shelter,
  • three days without water,
  • three weeks without food.

I realize this sounds backwards. On the surface, it may seem that having serious gunslinging skills to stop the threat of death or serious injury before death or serious injury occurs would be preferable to having the first aid skills to deal with the serious injury. If real life was a movie, then this would be correct. The reality is serious injury doesn’t often stem from a threat that can be solved by gun slinging hence making first aid skills one is more likely to use. The other thing to remember is that a deadly threat that needs to be stopped can and may fight back. While the ideal result is the elimination of the threat before any injury occurs, there is a very strong possibility that a positive result is the elimination of a threat while sustaining a survivable amount of injury.

So why am I talking just about defensive pistol skills and not defensive rifle or other self defense skills?

For several reasons.

First of all, guns are often referred to as the great equalizers. I’m a strong believer in that. Regardless of age, health issues, and fitness levels, if one can fight with a gun, then the stature, strength, and agility of a deadly threat is not as relevant.

Next, pistols are small and compact weapons that are more likely to be carried (and significantly more concealable) than a rifle. As such, it’s much more likely that a person will keep one within reach. While this may be anecdotal, I have a concealed pistol holstered on my belt as I am writing this post. Yes, I have a defensive rifle nearby and given enough time to respond to a threat at this very moment I would reach for the rifle instead of reaching for the pistol. However if a threat at this moment didn’t provide me with enough time to reach the rifle, the pistol would come out.

One more reason is that learning to shoot a pistol effectively is much more difficult and requires a lot more practice than learning to shoot a rifle effectively (in the context of defensive situations). Borrowing from Tom Givens’ Combative Pistol course, it’s a lot harder to shoot a 2 pound gun accurately while applying 6 pounds of pressure to its trigger than to shoot an 8 pound gun accurately while applying 3 pounds of pressure to its trigger. It’s physics.

I’m assuming that anyone still reading this wants to know how to improve their defensive pistol skills. So I’m now going to lay out what I think is the best way to build up this skill set and in many ways it’s going to be an echo of what Clay Martin covers in Chapter 5 of his book Concrete Jungle.

Before starting down this path, it’s imperative to become familiar with the gun laws in one’s local jurisdiction. Contrary to the beliefs shared by the many folks who claim we need common sense gun legislation, there are a myriad of laws already on the books that can land one in very hot water if caught not following them.

Step one is to learn the rules of safe gun handling, which I’ve previously distilled in a series of posts. Learn them, live them, love them. Seriously, I can’t stress this enough. It would be tragically lame to wind up dead in a survival situation because of a self inflicted gunshot wound as a result of a negligent discharge. Key word there is negligent.

Step two is to learn how to safely operate the defensive pistol. Spend a few dollars on some snap caps and use them to learn how to load and unload the firearm. Obtain enough proficiency with these tasks so that performing them with live ammunition is just as comfortable as performing them with the snap caps. Also learn how to take a part, clean, lubricate, and reassemble the gun. Getting some help to get familiar and comfortable with these tasks is a good idea. I’d recommend spending a bit more money on an introduction to handguns course like the Basic Pistol 1 offered by KR Training.

With those steps completed, a person will have everything they need to safely handle and shoot a defensive pistol. However, there is still a lot to learn. The next things I will suggest can be done in any order, but I will suggest them in the order that in my opinion is optimal with the benefit of hindsight.

I’d start with picking up a good dry fire book, like DryFire Reloaded by Ben Stoger, and do the dry fire drills in the book. Establish a daily dry practice routine. This doesn’t have to be a significant time investment, but I can’t emphasize the importance of frequent practice. Ten minutes six days a week will yield much more skill development than one hour once a week. Dry fire is inexpensive and can be done in the comfort of one’s own home. Frequent dry practice is the not so secret, secret ingredient top gun slingers use to develop and maintain a high level of skill quickly. Virtually everything except recoil management can be learned through dry practice.

The next thing I recommend is taking a defensive pistol course from a reputable instructor like Tom Givens’ Combative Pistol course. This type of course should equip the student with a lot more knowledge about developing a defensive mindset and leave a handful of live fire drills that can be practiced at a shooting range. The drills should not only help further develop defensive pistol skills but also provide a way to measure improvement and provide objective feedback.

At this point, I suggest finding a local gun club that hosts IDPA, IPSEC, or USPSA matches. These activities provide a safe environment in which to practice pistol skills under the stress of a competitive environment. Additionally, the shooting stages will be significantly more dynamic than what most folks will be able to set up at a local gun range. Be careful, it’s easy to get lured into the competitive aspect of pistol shooting and start buying competitive shooting pistols and gear. I’m not recommending against doing that at all. Just realize that high speed gear is not likely to be the equipment one will end up using in a real defensive encounter. Personally, I participate in local IDPA matches and use the holster and gun I carry every day most of the time. Granted this puts me at a competitive disadvantage with other participants, but besting other participants with their fancy competitive equipment definitely builds confidence in my defensive pistol abilities.

Along with getting involved with competitive pistol shooting, I think it’s the right time to establish a live fire practice regimen. Like dry fire practice, short frequent live fire practice will yield better results than long infrequent practice. If one’s budget can absorb it, I suggest shooting a 50 round box of ammo on a weekly basis. The key here will be to have a practice plan laid out before heading to the range to make every shot count. This is serious practice time. Not mag dumps for shits and giggles time. Make the time and ammo count, especially given the ever increasing price of ammo we are seeing during the never ending ammo shortage of 2020. Remember to keep up that dry fire practice regimen as well.

Last but not least, I highly recommend taking an advanced defensive pistol class from a reputable instructor, like Gabe White’s Pistol Shooting Solutions course I recently attended. This type of class should teach the student how to run the gun harder and faster while shooting accurately. As a result, it should help the student reach the next level with their defensive pistol skills.

So there you have it. That’s how I would do it. Defensive pistol shooting isn’t easy and it will take both a monetary and time investment to build up those skills. That said, I think defensive pistol skills are extremely important to have in one’s survival skill repertoire and are there for well worth the investment.

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