Musings for a Gunfight: Are You Ready?

Sometimes, I think there should be a Ph.D. available for the shooting disciplines, as there are in other areas of study. Certainly, there is as much — if not more — information concerning firearms and associated disciplines to warrant it. Beginners would be first graders and the sad truth is that 90% of today’s gun enthusiasts would be at elementary school grade levels 1–6.

High school would be comprised of high-level military operators, top professional instructors, and shooting champions… with some professional dangerous-game hunters thrown in. College level would be some highline writers, collectors, and gunsmiths. A handful of Ph.D.’s would be reserved for those few who have mastered most of the main areas of the subject. I suspect accreditation would go a long way to eliminating the self-proclaimed internet experts. The ones who don’t know how much they don’t know, and that’s a kind way of putting it.

DOctorate of Firearms Degree from the NRA
What the author’s Doctorate of Firearms degree might look like.

Often, when preparing for a class, I consider what I should present to the group of trainees. I do this by anticipating what might pique their interest. I address issues they no doubt will have about using a firearm. One of the first areas of interest — shooters new to defensive shooting have — is how they might react under the stress of a life treating situation, especially when something goes bump in the night.

Mental Preparation

To answer that, I echo the words of those who instructed me by explaining that the mere possession of a weapon does not constitute being armed. The most effective weapon a person has is their mind. The tools they choose as weapons only serve as an extension of their will.

The state of mind that ensures victory was defined by Jeff Cooper in what he called the combat mind set. As defined by the good Colonel, the key elements of the combat mind set include awareness, anticipation, concentration, and self-control. The major impediment to victory is also found in your mind and that is fear.

What one must understand is that fear is normal and healthy. I takes time to buildup, and it can be controlled. The best way to control that fear is to so use your anger to overcome it and that works very well. Another powerful weapon is mental preparedness, in fact it is the key to crisis management, so use it.

Using your mind in that way, along with good weapon management, will allow you to respond immediately and neutralize your adversary. Remember, any delay — no matter how slight — could be fatal. There is only one thing for you to be thinking about when you are being shot at — your shooting… front sight, press, front sight, press.

Combined Arms tactical classes at an outdoor shooting range
During the lecture portion of one of my Combined Arms tactical classes.

Stopping Power

The next question newer shooters are curious for me to provide a definitive answer for is “How many shots will it take with my handgun to stop an attacker?” Or put another way, how much stopping power do they need, and what is stopping power anyway? To answer that, I must first make them understand that incapacitating a lethal adversary with pistol fire is a debatable proposition.

One of the reasons that’s such a tough question is because of all the misinformation they have been fed by the news media, television, and movies. Additionally, firearms publications, law enforcement, military, and the gun-owning public are forever debating the definition of stopping power. The most common misconception assumes that being shot equates with being killed.

The result is bullet effectiveness suffering unrealistic preconceptions. The truth is, approximately only one-third of people wounded by pistol fire die because of those wounds. One of the most important aspects of handguns, and one I repeat over and over to my students, is that the chief asset of any handgun is its portability not its power. Remember, many of those who eventually die from pistol fire were not incapacitated by their wounds during the fight, even though hit fatally, unless the central nervous system is damaged.

What I try to have my students understand is that “stopping power” is a relative term. It refers to the ability of a projectile to terminate the intent of a violent aggressor, as quickly and efficiently as possible. To do that, a projectile must have sufficient mass and velocity.

Lion and bear taxidermy
Lions and tigers and bears, Oh my! While many realize four-legged threats, they fail to see the two-legged predators.

Without a treatise on ballistics, let me say that velocity, energy, and mass affect the resultant amount of penetration. Sufficient penetration is of paramount importance to the stopping power equation. Without becoming mired in all the scientific gobbledygook, let me say that the .45 Caliber ACP is considered by many experts as the king of the self-defense hill. Everything else falls in around it as either too big or too small.

As a rule of thumb, my advice is that each person should carry and use the largest caliber — up to and including the .45 — that they can comfortably carry and accurately shoot. The projectile launching platform plays big in the final decision concerning caliber size and that should require deep consideration and research before purchase.

Homo sapiens are not African lions or grizzly bears, and comparatively speaking, we are a fragile species. However, some individuals hyped up on drugs, or having a surge of adrenaline, can prove problematic. That said, studies show the advantage of caliber is very slight, compared to the benefit of precise shot placement.


As for ammunition choices, many believe that ball ammo is the best way to go because it provides the best penetration and, after accuracy, it’s penetration that matters. I happen to be one of those by the way. Admittedly, although ball does offer excellent penetration, the streamlined configuration of ball provides the smallest temporary wound cavity. One of the reasons for that is that the air passes around the bullet with minimal resistance and turbulence.

With hollow point ammunition, the air is trapped and compressed within the hollow point. It’s released on impact, with bullet expansion resulting in what is referred to as hydrostatic shock. Unfortunately, hollow points are notoriously inconsistent when it comes to penetration and expansion. Many assume incorrectly that the greater temporary wound cavity and organ displacement mean greater stopping power. However, that is simply just not the case. It’s also important to remember that more expansion equates to less penetration. And, less penetration might not get the projectile to the vitals it needs to disrupt.

.45 ACP 1911 handgun next to a .22 LR pistol for comparison
The largest, or smallest, doesn’t seem to matter much according to studies. I still believe bigger is better however, and that it buys you a larger margin of error.

That is, of course, the $64 question — bullet size, weight, velocity, and shape. What is most important in the stopping power equation? Unfortunately, you can only pick one. Plus. you never know your assailants’ time, place, size, clothing, temperament, ingested drugs, stated of mind, and desperation. It is exactly because of those unknowns that this is my choice in order of importance or preference.

  1. Ball or shape
  2. Size
  3. Weight
  4. Velocity

I want to penetrate deep, make the biggest hole I can, using a relatively-heavy fast-moving bullet in whatever caliber I have chosen.

One final comment on ammunition. Not all ammunition is created equal. For self-defense, I recommend you stick with ammunition manufactured by a frontline U.S. company and use the commercial reloads and foreign manufactured stuff for practice only. Additionally, you should routinely perform a visual inspection of all the ammo you intend to use — especially the self-defense loads.

An assortment of modern defensive ammunition and projectile designs
An assortment of modern defensive ammunition and projectile designs currently available.

Things to look for include:

  • Is it the correct caliber?
  • Are the rounds the same length?
  • Are the case mouths consistent?
  • Is the degree of crimp uniform?
  • Are the bullets concentric with the case?
  • Are any of the primers in backward or missing?

The good news, any defects that cannot be seen are most often more annoying than anything else. A good practice is to take a new box of premium ammo, practice with it, and then load your carry magazine with what remains in that box. That way, it is the same lot that you have tested, sighted in, and proven reliable in your handgun.

Stay safe, train often and practice, practice, practice!

Are you as prepared as you can be for a gunfight? What questions do you have regarding self-defense? Share them in the Comment Section.

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