Sunday, October 6, 2013


Guns and self-defense with them have generated more ill-informed passion than almost anything other than religion, politics, and sex.  Naturally, therefore, I felt obliged to contribute.  A lifetime of shooting and studying the subject has given me some insight.  I do not claim to know everything, but I do know some things.  Some of this is my opinion, but it is opinion based on observations of reality.  A large number of people have asked for my advice on getting a firearm for personal defense.  I hope this clears up some of the fog.

First, make sure you know why you want one.  Is it for target or sport shooting?  Is it for personal defense in your home or car?  Is it for concealed carry on your person?  Is it for quasi-military action?  Is it because you are concerned this may be your last chance to get one?  Each of these is valid, and each has unique requirements.

Second, make sure you know why you want one.  If you are thinking about anything involving shooting other people, you’d better make darned sure you square that idea with your moral structure.  There is no way to completely avoid the emotional trauma of doing such grievous bodily harm to another person, but if you aren’t fairly certain you have a moral right and responsibility to defend your own life, even at the risk of taking someone else’s, it will ruin you.

The rest of this will be based on the assumption that you are thinking of personal defense.

How about some vocabulary?  I'm not trying to show off or be anally technical, here.  There are a lot of terms that have been so abused and misused that a lot of folks have entirely wrong ideas about things.  So, here's the short list.

Bullet, or projectile – the blob of metal that comes out of the muzzle of a firearm and inflicts damage or harm on whatever it hits.  This is different from a…

Cartridge, shell, round – the entire assembly of components that includes a bullet, gunpowder, a primer, and a case to hold everything together.  The cartridge does not fly toward the target, no matter what Diane Feinstein says.

Hollow point – a bullet that is designed to expand in soft tissue, such as a human body.  It is called a hollow point because it has a cavity in its nose.  In theory, this cavity fills with fluid upon impact, and causes the bullet to swell, or expand.  The greater diameter of the expanded bullet increases the energy transfer to the target.  They do not explode!  Hollow points are used almost exclusively for personal defense, though some are used in long range rifle competition.

Amor piercing bullet – a bullet designed to punch through armor, such as a jeep, an airplane, or light vehicle.  It is made from harder material than regular bullets, though it often consists of a steel core covered by copper, like other bullets.  An armor piercing bullet does not explode or expand unless it hits something it can’t penetrate, in which case it just mushrooms.  Armor piercing bullets are intended to be the exact opposite to hollow points.  Most ammunition manufacturers have voluntarily limited sales of AP rounds to police and the military.

Cop-killer bullet – a myth concocted by people who think Joe Biden is a paragon of intellect.  There was considerable hysteria about these in the 1980’s, all of it utter baloney.  First of all, any bullet that is of sufficient mass and velocity will penetrate a policeman’s armored vest.  The design of the bullet has nothing to do with it, nor does the material of which the bullet is made.  (I exclude from this bullets made of graphite or wood, generally called “gallery” rounds, which are made to disintegrate on impact with a backstop in a gallery.)  I remember seeing people use the phrase “armor-piercing, hollow point cop-killer bullets,” which is one of the most preposterous obfuscations ever perpetrated.  There is no such thing as a cop-killer bullet.

Teflon-coated cop-killer bullet – another mythical item.  Supposedly, coating bullets with Teflon will allow them to penetrate a police officer’s body armor.  In actuality, Teflon is used on competition bullets in very expensive target rifles (not pistols) to prevent wear to the bore.  That’s all.  The British army did an exhaustive series of tests in the 1970’s and found that Teflon coating has absolutely zero effect on a bullet’s ability to penetrate anything.  If anyone brings this up, hand them their sign.

Stopping power – the ability of a round to knock a man down.  Oceans of ink have been spilled in the discussion of what round has the best stopping power, and the argument rages on.  Here are a couple of points:  there is no such thing as a guaranteed ,100%, one-shot stopper, including the 12 gauge shotgun.  Some rounds have a higher percentage of one-shot stops, and these are to be preferred for personal defense, but get it out of your head that anything works every time.  Shot placement is as important in stopping as is the power of the round.  Men have had limbs blown off and kept fighting, killing the man who had shot them.  Drugs, booze, and insanity have a lot to do with stopping.  A man who is sufficiently stoned or crazy won’t even know he’s been shot, and won’t drop unless you cut his spine, blow a hole in his brain, or break major bones, such as the femur.  In general, fat, slow bullets have more stopping power.

Killing power – Another irrelevant myth.  Ignore the concept.  Bubonic plague has killed many millions of people.  That doesn’t make it a personal defense tool.

Gun – a firearm.  Contrary to some magazine writers, it is perfectly acceptable to refer to any firearm as a gun.  Anyone will understand what you mean, especially if you are pointing it at them.  In the most technical sense, a “gun” is a smoothbore, as in a shotgun or an unrifled cannon. In historical writing, you may see reference to things like “twelve-pounder gun,” which is a smoothbore cannon that fires a 12-pound round ball.   

Rifle – a firearm with a rifled bore.  If you look down the barrel of a rifle – look into it from the breech, not the muzzle! – you’ll see two to ten ridges called “lands,” that spiral the length of the bore.  Rifling spins the bullet and gives it great accuracy.  Rifling does not make a bullet more lethal or destructive.  Technically, any firearm with rifling can be called a rifle, hence you will occasionally hear of the giant guns on battleships called, “naval rifles.”

Smoothbore – a firearm lacking rifling.  Shotguns are smoothbores, as are some muzzleloaders and tank cannon.  Like rifles, smoothbores can be anything from shoulder-held firearms to artillery pieces.

Handgun – a firearm that is meant to be held in one hand, as opposed to being held against the shoulder.  Almost all handguns are generically referred to as “pistols,” and I consider this entirely acceptable unless you in a highly technical discussion with someone who knows the difference.  These terms are included for general reference, only.  Don’t get anal about them.

Pistol – a semi-automatic handgun that is loaded with a magazine containing cartridges.   Oddly, single-shot, muzzle loading handguns were also called pistols. 

Revolver – a handgun with a round cylinder that holds the cartridges and rotates during operation in order to bring an unfired cartridge into firing position.

Semi-automatic – a firearm that fires one shot for each squeeze of the trigger.  This refers to the way in which the firearm presents a fresh round for firing.  It has absolutely nothing, whatsoever to do with the destructiveness or lethality of the round.  You have a single-shot gun and a semi-auto chambered for the same round, and it will have precisely the same effect downrange, no matter which you fire it from.

Full automatic – a firearm that will fire more than one shot for each squeeze of the trigger.  These are machine guns, and have been closely controlled since 1934.  There are a great many machine guns in private hands in the US.  At the time Clinton tried to ban them, there was not a single case of a machinegun being used in a crime by its lawful owner.  They are incredibly expensive, and most are very bulky.  As with semi-automatic, this term refers solely to the way in which the next round is presented for firing.  It has nothing to do with the lethality of the round.

Machinegun – a fully automatic firearm that fires a rifle cartridge.  Same bullet, same velocity, etc..  Just fires more rounds faster.  Contrary to Hollywood and the press, most machine guns are superbly accurate.

Submachine gun – a fully automatic firearm that fires a pistol cartridge, such as the 9mm or .45 ACP. 

Machine pistol – a myth of Hollywood and the press.  There’s no such thing.  Some submachine guns can be fired with one hand, but they are  not pistols; they are just short submachine guns.

Okay.  Enough of that.

There are several very dangerous myths about the defensive use of firearms.  One is that there is such a thing as a “woman’s gun.”  If anyone tries to show you such a piece, get away from that person immediately.  They are stupid.  The effectiveness of a gun is measured by the effect its bullets have on the target.  If one is to consider gender at all, it must be from the perspective that, should the gun malfunction or not do its job, women are often less well-equipped to handle hand-to-hand combat than are men, and therefore need a gun that is even more reliable and more powerful than a “man’s gun.”

Another myth is that a smaller-caliber, less powerful gun will be somehow more humane, or less likely to kill someone.  Bull crap.  Such a gun will likely guarantee that you’ll have to shoot him more than once, and every study on gunshot wounds says that a single hit from a large, slow bullet is much less likely to be fatal than several hits from smaller, less powerful bullets.  Not only does the number of wounds increase the chance of fatality, but it wastes ammunition. You only have so many rounds, and since predators often roam in packs, you might need those extras.  I have personally witnessed a biker, who was undoubtedly drunk, get shot 7 times in the chest with a .25 automatic, and yet be on his feet when the police arrived, and cheerfully surrender the 10-lb sledge hammer with which he had beaten to death the guy who shot him.

When people talk about “killing power,” get out.  An icepick has the same killing power as a cannon.  Dead is dead.  The critical factor in a gunfight is not how dead you can kill him, but how fast can you incapacitate him.  The first and greatest objective of a gunfight is to stop the fight, NOW!  Put him on his back and out of commission NOW!  That leaves you free to engage his buddies, run like a rabbit, shoot him again, cut his throat, or, if you are of saintly inclination, take his weapon and administer first aid.  But before you have ANY options, AT ALL, YOU MUST STOP THE FIGHT!  Big and slow stops the fight.  Period.  The biker mentioned above would probably have died – sometime.

Now for some basic physics.  Don’t freak out; this is going to be very general.  There are at least three factors in what they call “terminal ballistics,” or what a bullet does to the target.  One is the diameter of the bullet – called “bore size,” or “caliber.”  Another is the velocity of the bullet, and the third is the design of the bullet.

The bigger the bore, i.e., the larger the caliber, the more energy will be transmitted to the target.  One caliber is 1/100th of an inch.  A .50 caliber bullet is ½ inch in diameter. A fat bullet has more surface area to shove through the target, which means it has to displace more tissue, which means it transfers more of its energy into the target.

Penetration – how far a bullet will go into a body – is more a function of mass than of velocity.  At rifle velocities, you might get decent penetration with a lighter bullet, but at handgun velocities, you need mass. (“Rifle velocities” tend to be in excess of 2000 feet per second, or 2000fps. Handgun velocities are usually under 1000fps, and almost never over 1200fps.)  If your bullet has too much penetration, it passes through the target and wastes its energy on whatever is behind it, including walls and other people.  If your bullet has too little penetration, it may be stopped by a heavy leather or down-filled jacket.  The bullet must get into his vitals and either paralyze his nervous system or break major bones.
Too much velocity can cause overpenetration.  To demonstrate this principle, set a glass on a tablecloth and jerk the cloth from under it.  If you jerk fast enough, the glass will stay right where it is.  In terms of ballistics, your bullet drills a neat little hole, and the guy may not even realize he’s been hit.

Big and slow stops the fight.  Period.  It has been proven in every gunfighting environment from barrooms to battlefields.  In my opinion, the .45 ACP (for Automatic Colt Pistol) is the ideal combat cartridge. It’s almost ½” in diameter, and travels under 1000fps in most variations. There is no reason a person of normal strength and dexterity can’t handle a .45.  The .40 S&W is also an excellent choice, being only slightly below the .45.  The .357 magnum is a crushing defensive cartridge, but generates substantially more recoil and is prone to over penetration. A .38 special in one of the new defensive loadings is little below the .40, and produces far less recoil than a .357.

Why is velocity not as important as bore size?  Put a vase on a tablecloth, then jerk the tablecloth out from under it very quickly.  The vase remains, right? If a bullet is going faster than necessary, it can pass through the target without imparting much energy to it, and just like that vase, the guy is still standing there thinking, “That bitch shot me!  [pause]   I think.”  Rifles shoot at much higher velocities because they are meant to shoot at longer ranges.  A defensive handgun should shoot around 800 to 1100 feet per second.  A rifle is, by far, more powerful and effective at stopping people than is a handgun, but they are much less handy in confined spaces, such as your car or a hallway, and they are impossible to conceal.  The role of the handgun in combat is absolutely valid, but is also very specific:   short range, instant access, and concealability.

There is an old saying that if you expect trouble, take a rifle.  Another says to use your pistol to keep ‘em off you until you can get to your rifle. If someone offers to coach you, watch for indications that they may be giving you rifle advice for a handgun situation.

Imagine your assailant having a target on his chest, with his heart and spine being in the center, with concentric rings around it.  A big ol’ fat .45 bullet might be able to deliver a paralyzing shock in the 2nd ring out, where a small bullet, like from a .22 caliber, might have to be in the very center to have the same effect.  Power and/or bore size will not compensate for poor marksmanship, but it will give you a little bit of an edge.  Nothing is certain in gunfighting noise, but, in general, a bigger, more powerful bullet is less demanding of precision shooting.  This is why you need the most powerful weapon you can physically handle.

Ah.  I almost forgot recoil.  Newton said, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” 
When you fire a gun, the bullet accelerates very rapidly inside the barrel.  That acceleration produces force in the opposite direction.  That force is recoil, or “kick.”  Recoil takes some getting used to, but there is simply no way to make a bullet go fast enough to do its job without some recoil.  At any given velocity, heavy bullets will kick more, and for any given bullet mass, higher velocity will kick more.  The idea is to find a cartridge with that combination of mass and velocity that will do the job without hurting the shooter.

Here’s one of my favorite myths:  “A .45 kicks so hard it will split your head if you don’t lock your elbow.”  Baloney.  I have held my .45 with my thumb and two fingers as I pulled the trigger with my left hand, and it just spun in a circle and came right back down into my right hand.  Now understand, there was only one round in the weapon, and I was standing on a pad to protect the pistol should I drop it. 

The two most dangerous, but widespread myths concern warning shots and the value of “flashing” your gun.  People will tell you that you don’t even need to get bullets for your gun; just show it to ‘em, and they’ll run.  Bullshit and more bullshit.  People have two basic reflexes when threatened:  flight or fight.  If you show your gun to a flight person, you might – MIGHT – get away with it, but that reflex can be overridden by drugs, booze, or utter terror.  If you have a fight person, you are going to have to shoot him, anyway, and maybe even sooner than otherwise.  I have stood, gun in hand, in front of a young man who had ripped his shirt open was screeching at me, “You think you’re bad, old man?  Shoot me, motherfucker!  You ain’t got the balls to shoot me!  Come on, you white motherfucker!  Shoot me!...” and so on and so forth.  I ended up having to shoot him, anyway, because he was full of angel dust and Budweiser, and totally unaware that I had beaten him to within an inch of his life.

Warning shots are much the same. This is for anyone who still thinks Joe Biden is not the idiot’s idiot.   People will tell you that if you fire a shot into the air, the bad guys will run.  Bull….  Well, you get the picture.  A warning shot gives away the fact that you are armed.  It allows him to say he heard a shot, thought you were shooting at him, and was therefore justified in blowing you away.  If you were hidden, it gives away your position.  It endangers innocent bystanders because, even though you were warning the bad guy, that bullet thought it was on a deadly errand, and it WILL go somewhere.  Even a shot into the air has to come down sometime. Finally, a warning shot expends a round, and you might need that round shortly because the bad guy might have friends, you might miss when you fire for effect, or he may be stoned enough that your fire doesn’t have the desired effect.  If the situation warrants busting a cap, put it in his center of mass.

In general, you want to get the biggest gun you can handle, and most high-quality arm you can afford.  A $1500.00 Kimber or Wilson is a superb arm, indeed, but a $400.00 Taurus or Springfield is just as effective.  If you can afford the Kimber, go for it, but most folks can’t.  Put the money you save on the gun into practice ammunition and a good training program.

Get a gun you are comfortable with, that is, with one that fits naturally into your hand and feels good.  There is a sensual element in the feel of the right pistol.  I felt it the first time I ever picked up a single action Colt cavalry model.  It was instantly an extension of me.  You’ll know it when you feel it.  If you like a gun, you are more likely to practice with it, and that increases your odds of hitting what you mean to.  Remember, though, that the smaller the caliber, the greater the importance of accuracy.  No matter how good you are in practice, you will not be anywhere nearly that good in a fight.  Your target will be moving, maybe lunging or even shooting at you, you will be blown sky-high on adrenaline and stress, you’ll have tunnel vision, and you’ll go deaf.  Your entire nervous system shunts all resources to whatever is necessary to stay alive.   You’ll forget to breathe, blink, or swallow.  The muscle patterns inculcated by practice will take over.  If you haven’t practiced enough, all of the distractions will still apply, but you won’t have the established patterns to rely on.

Going to the range once a month is not enough.  Once a week is a minimum for the first 1000 rounds, and a good coach is above price.  Make your practice realistic.  Almost all gunfights occur at less than 10 feet, and a lot of them inside 5 feet.  Getting your gun out and into play is the first problem you will face, so study and practice how you will store or carry it.  Spend money on a good holster.  Carrying it in your purse is a good way to lose it to a purse snatcher, or be caught fumbling among your makeup while he’s wailing on you.    Have a way to store it safely when not in use, especially if you have kids around, or if strangers are frequently in your home, but remember the point of having the gun, in the first place is to allow you to do deadly harm; a gun that is 100% safely stored is likely to be inaccessible when you really need it.

Finally, after doing all the above, pray with all your heart that you will never have to shoot another human being, and that you will never have to choose between jeopardizing the safety of yourself or a loved one and inflicting grave bodily harm on another person.   I and most men have a tendency to speak somewhat flippantly about this subject, but rest assured, there is nothing flippant or casual in the intent of this lesson.  One of the most significant choices any person can make is to take up arms against their fellow man.  Do not do so lightly, but if you do so, do it right