by Jim Higginbotham
Gunfight Realities When Choosing a Handgun
Choose Your Weapon Part II
Last month in Part I of this series you may have been shocked to find that I didn’t instruct you to go out and buy my “pet” favorite carry pistol. I have one of course, but I have changed what I carry over the years as my preferences changed. The point was that there are a lot of factors, but the most measurable “correct” answer is to measure what you are shooting well, and weigh those choices against the standard “bigger is better” considerations when choosing a handgun for carry. No, I’m not going to tell you what to buy this month either, but we will get into some interesting details about aspects that many people just gloss over, but that are vitally important and will affect your ability to survive your gunfight.
Choices have consequences. People have died for the inability to stay in the fight until they prevailed. Just recently I had a student report that he won his second fight, immediately following his first, because of a technique we taught him for reloading in combat. An enemy fighter suddenly materialized after the first fight was over, presumably out of “nowhere.” He was able to choose the best option, and simply shot said bad guy, because his head, and his gun, were still in the fight! He did not “unload to reload”. He did not stick his muzzle into the air where it might take a lifetime to re-index or block his vision (or act as a flag to tell every bad guy in the vicinity that someone is going to be out of action for a brief period). Rather, he had kept up his guard up when his first attacker fell and, after a threat scan to insure there wasn’t another immediate threat, he started to execute a reload. When a threat did materialize without warning he was able to stop mid-stream and change gears. I could not, of course, be more pleased.
Within the same week we received a report (in the form of an excellent but sad magazine article) from a young Marine who is disabled for life because he did not know how to do this. That of course was not pleasing. Forward this article to your friends! Nobody wants to learn these lessons the hard way, whether carrying a gun as a CCW, as a Police Officer on duty or off, as a security guard, or in the sandbox so far away protecting our freedom.
Whether you went so far as to shoot at index cards with a shot timer or not last month, hopefully you have now gotten yourself thinking about what guns you shoot well. I intentionally steered clear of the factors we are going to talk about this month. Some things here you will take very seriously, others you will say “that isn’t a factor for me because… ” None of these are light issues. What balance you find will depend on your personal commitment and the threat level you feel you need to be prepared for.
Take the choices you considered last month and view them in the light of these factors:
Except for a job in one of the world’s really hot spots fighting terrorists, you will probably run out of time before you run out of bullets, unless you are a lousy shot! If you refuse to train hard the answer is not more bullets (though more ammo is not necessarily a bad thing) but to learn to stay out of trouble. But since these days trouble can find us in our home that may not be an option.
People obsess about caliber and the latest and greatest bullet technology but gloss over the fact that if you drop that bullet just 1″ off the upper spine you have likely increased the duration of this fight by factor of times 10! You can get killed during that time. The same is true if you select the latest “whiz bang” bullet that “transfers all its energy” and you put it right where it belongs but it fails to reach the spine! Will it lead to more rapid incapacitation with a hit to only to the heart or lung? Perhaps, or even probably, but giving up the ability to instantly stop the fight to increase the rapid stop – which can still be a lifetime – seems a poor compromise. On the other hand, your attacker may simply decide to quit (psst that does happen). Don’t bet your life on it.
Capacity benchmarks vary with effectiveness. I strongly feel a 6 shot .44 or .45 wheel gun is the equal or even superior of a 15 shot 9mm in effectiveness (IF you shoot both equally well). But you must decide, not me. The latter is however easier to keep running in a long fight. Tough choice! Don’t get lulled into a false sense of security! No one can tell you how long your gunfight will last. Through years of research I have discovered that most fights are short, no more than 2 to 3 seconds, but I have not found a guarantee that they would be that short either. You should be prepared for a longer fight regardless! But If you have a gun that holds 15 rounds then you had better also plan on doing a lot of dynamic movement and use cover to help you keep from getting shot during the time it takes to use those 15 rounds effectively.
|6 Rounds of Effective .45 Auto that can be reloaded rapidly or 6 Rounds of even more effective .45 Colt at a slower reload – it’s your choice!|
Recently I had a law enforcement student involved in a fight that evolved around his police cruiser. Eventually the bad guy even got into his cruiser. It was one of those unusually long gunfights that took more than 20 shots from his Glock 17 before he actually hit the bad guy. And no he was not a bad shot. Every bullet was well directed they just did not reach the subject (we saw most of it on film). Neither did the bad guy’s bullets reach him. This officer’s ability to reload under pressure was definitely a factor in the ending of this fight, he says. But based on what I saw and some experience shooting cars, and the result of the subject’s actions upon finally being hit, the fight most likely would have been over during the first two shots with a .45, or even a .40. The officer traded off his 9mm for a Glock .40 the next day!
The pertinent question most often is not how many bullets your gun holds but how much damage you can do in the short time you have. It is failing to get good results at the outset that turns a short gunfight into an epic one. Caliber is always going to be a trade off with capacity. The same gun comes in three calibers and they are all the same size. One has 17 rounds of nine, one has 14 rounds of .40, and one has 10 rounds of .45acp. What you choose depends partly on what we covered last month, how you shoot and recover from shooting the gun. Capacity is just another factor.
I suggest that you plan to carry at least one reload for your weapon regardless of its initial capacity when full. A full gun is better than a half full gun at the start of any new fight or new part of the old fight! The wise man will reload every time he sees an opportunity, in anticipation of the next engagement. I consider 2 extra magazines or speed loaders the bare minimum. It does not matter if those magazines hold 7 rounds or 20, you need at least two! Three is better (or even better a spare gun). Remember the mantra: “Reload when you can, not when you have to.” (i.e. When the gun is empty) Also remember the military axiom: “two is one and one is none!”
You may find it extreme to carry extra magazines or speed loaders, but ask yourself why do we carry guns at all? It isn’t convenient to carry a gun. But we inconvenience ourselves because we think that we may find ourselves in a situation where a gun is required. And if a gun is required, do you want to find yourself waiting for the smoke to clear and new threats to appear with three rounds left in your nine?
5 Rnds .38+P 17 Rnds of 10MM
18 Rnds of 9mm 9 Rnds of .45 +P
Name Your “Poison”
The rule is: never leave a place you have cleared with a partially empty weapon! Not my rule, it comes from Capt. Eric A. Sykes of “Shooting to Live” fame (as well as the famous knife he designed with his co-author William Fairbairn). His actual quote was “Never go through a door without a full magazine in your weapon.” It applies to back up guns too, everything gets topped off, but keep your head about you while doing it!
There is very little difference in the amount of time it takes to reload most common autoloaders, unless you have one of those with the European style “heel clip” magazine release in which it will take twice as long. This is also where revolvers come in last place. Not only do they take longer to reload, they have to be taken out of action to top them off, and unless your gun is empty, you will be flipping loaded rounds out into your hand to insert a full speed loader if you hope to reload without a long down time for the gun. This is a very good reason to carry two revolvers if your wheel gun is not already your backup gun.
A word here; do not measure your reload like the competition boys and girls do it. You may not be familiar with this. If you watch just about any pistol or revolver action shooting competition, at some point there will most likely be a “reload” where the shooter will drop the magazine, insert a new one (or speedloader in the case of revolvers) and keep firing. Timing is measured from one shot to the next. In a real gunfight, this would mean that you are trying to reload while being shot at, while presumably returning fire. Gunfighters, or at least those who have thought about this, don’t reload like that. They “stay in the fight”. Keep up your threat scan as you draw a magazine ( or a speed loader) and get it up to the gun which is held in the “workspace, ” not up in front of your face blocking your view of the environment. Practice this!!
In this case it does not matter much how fast you draw your spare ammo because at any time you can stop drawing it and engage a threat with what is left in the gun. That is why we don’t empty the gun if it can be helped. That spare might not be there! NOTE – IF YOU ARE IN THE OPEN AND THE THREAT IS STILL THERE THEN SHOOT DON’T RELOAD!
It does matter how fast you can draw the spare ammo or spare gun if you run out of bullets during an engagement and are standing still in the open – don’t do that!
If you reload, do it properly and intelligently, or transition to a backup gun. This is something that you can time and examine closely. Done right you will be out of the fight for .5 to 1.5 seconds. That is a time we can live with – literally! If you cannot produce your reload or backup gun in 1.5 seconds you may want to start carrying it somewhere else.
Just a note about backup guns, because many many people reading this are probably just now considering carrying one gun, let alone two, or have recently made the jump to finally carrying a gun after years of putting it off. It isn’t that I’m not sensitive to the absurdity of carrying several pounds of steel on your person every day because of a remote possibility that you may need it. I personally have seen the worst of gunfights and the best of gunfights, and I am just reporting what I have seen. A spare gun in a handy place (not buried somewhere you cannot get to it quickly) can go a long way toward making reload speed irrelevant. A serious spare gun that is!
This is not just about the caliber of your handgun. It is rather the physical size of the weapon and how you carry it. Size and weight effects should be apparent from the tests we covered in Part I. Caliber is going to be a part of size, but within the reasonable caliber effectiveness of a firearm there are a lot of weights and sizes.
The popular excuse for carrying an inadequate weapon is represented by the line: “The .380 I carry is better for me than the .44 I leave at home on the night stand.” OK, maybe, and maybe not! I personally know (or knew) four people who used a .380 in a close range gunfight. Even though all shot really well (hitting the high chest multiple times in every case) none were successful in winning the fight. All the .380 users received grievous wounds.
This is not to say it has never worked for others. It obviously has. I just don’t know anyone who has done it. It may be well worth your effort to find a way to carry something more effective. A .380 does not always beat a rock or a sharp stick. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. You will shoot a larger gun better, as you should have discovered in Part 1 last month. If you must carry a .380, your best bet is to avoid trouble at all cost rather than rely on a gun that may be worse to pull out than to keep in your pocket.
This is not the advice you are going to find everywhere I admit. It is a very strong argument that the casual CCW permit person will just elect to leave the gun home when dressing lightly, or for comfort if he feels that he is not entering a “threat likely” environment. This is extremely common actually. But my argument is that if someone is going to leave the gun home they are going to leave the gun home. It is an internal commitment level that governs the decision to leave a gun home. It is not just confort.
And as for comfort, for the last couple of decades I have carried two full sized .45 autos (or .44 Magnums or .45 Colts), and two J-frame revolvers (one a .357 Magnum) plus flashlights(2), handcuffs, knives and spare ammo every day! I am “heavy” but not uncomfortable, and it is a very easy load to get used to.
By no means do I think everyone needs to emulate me (and to many of you I probably seem a little nutty), but the likelihood of threat is extremely high for me in much of my life, and I don’t find it uncomfortable or inconveniencing. I wear those in casual clothes or dressy clothes, Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. I have worn them to church. Churches can be dangerous places!
It may not be an option for you. Depending on where you live, what your permit says on it, or even where you work, you may not be able to carry a gun that could be discernable by a passerby, and you may not have the ability to carry something bigger than a .22 mag mini revolver even. Just don’t get killed for comfort or convenience. To quote Clint Smith: “A handgun should be comforting, not comfortable.” Repeat after me: There are NO powerful handguns! Shoot a watermelon with a hunting rifle and a .44 mag. and you will see the difference. But handguns are also not at all equal.
If you are not into belt holsters, that is OK, you can find much more effective guns than the .32s and .380s that will fit in a suit pants pocket.
Aside from that, comfort is often a function of the type of accouterments you choose. I am not discomforted at all by my choice of carry, witnessed by the fact that I do not take all those guns off until I am ready for bed. I wear them around the house. It is all “mind over matter”; if you don’t mind it doesn’t matter!
Simply measuring the length and height of a handgun can result in a figure that might not be informative enough for a good comparison. A 1 7/8″ barreled J-Frame .38 is approximately 6″ long and 4.5″ tall. That is very close to the dimensions of a Colt .45 Officers Model. But if you stick it on your ankle or in your pocket you quickly find that the little J-frame is a much more comfortable package than the Colt. Even though it is also thicker, the revolver is “rounder”.
To be sure, there are big pockets that you can carry a sub compact high cap autoloader in, and they do have their advantages! The problem is that you can’t judge relative pocketability by simple length, height and width. Instead I chose to use the “String” measure or what I call “The Boone and Crocket” measure since it resembles the way we score trophy racks on antlered animals. Simply put you take a long string and wrap it around the outline of the gun and keep track of the end point then start with that and wrap it around the midpoint of the grip and the around the horizontal midpoint including the trigger guard. Now measure the total length of your string. Some common guns, when measured by this method compare like this:
- S&W M-36 2″- 29″
- Browning P-35 9mm- 35″
- Glock 22 .40 S&W- 39″
- Colt 1911 .45- 38.5″
Simple, look in the catalog right? WRONG! By all means, look in the catalogs if you intend to pack your “heat” without ammo, in which case it has become an impact weapon and heavier will be better. I suppose manufacturers do this because it is simpler but it can be very misleading. If you have followed along so far, you really need not only a fully loaded firearm but also a couple of extra reloads. To be sure, your choice of ammunition might make a slight difference in the total weight so by all means use your own preference here. But just for example let’s look at a few popular choices and compare them in their street ready conditions with two extra reloads:
- S&W M36 2″ .38 Spl. – 1lb. 14 ounces
- S&W M15 2″ .38 Spl.- 2lb. 10 ounces
- Glock 22 .40 S&W – 3lb. 7 ounces
- Browning P-35 9mm – 3lb. 5 ounces
- Colt 1911 .45 Auto 3lb. 13 ounces
As you can see, actually carrying ammunition can change the picture drastically. Weigh your choices and choose wisely, pardon the pun.
This is more about what you carry than what you carry, but what you carry effects how you are able to carry. If you find yourself in a situation that requires a gunfight there is going to be that moment that there is no longer any doubt that deadly force is warranted and required.
The quicker you are able to draw your weapon and fire effectively, the less chance there will be that you will be hit before you are able to fire, or return fire. Not all situations, and I would say not even most, require a lightning draw. You may not be the primary target and you may have time to get a gun out of deep concealment. You may have cover, or be able to avoid the gunfight completely, which is something you should always consider.
Your situational awareness and your mental attitude will probably have more effect on how quickly you can respond to a threat than how you are carrying the gun, but it is still a good idea to time your ability to get into action with your weapon. It is good to remember the “Tueller Drill”, which recognizes that the average miscreant can cover 21 feet and slit your through in about 1.5 seconds. This is a good time to try to reach, but don’t forget, if you miss the spine (and again, most of us cannot guarantee every round will hit that) then it might take from 5 to 10 seconds to stop the threat even if you are shooting a 4″ .357 Magnum, and that is under the best case scenario. So tactics must play a part, and the first part of tactics is getting your gun out and ready. Be sure you can draw on the move with your mode of carry!
Real Gunfights Happen Every Day
Many of us walk around with a gun in our pocket or on our belt for the majority of our lives and never see a gunfight. It is a blessing. But real gunfights do happen, and not just to military and police. You don’t hear about them because it isn’t politically correct for the mainstream media to tell you about the crime that didn’t happen because Joe crack head got shot when he tried to rob the 7-11. The NRA reports on it, and of course we have the great work of John Lott who has effectively crunched the numbers on defensive use of firearms. But day to day we don’t live with the reality of a real gunfight in our face. Don’t get killed for lack of shooting back – effectively! It isn’t like you think! When I was attending a course at the F.B.I. Academy some time back one of my favorite sessions was by an excellent instructor, who happened to be from my home state, and who had a lot to do with the way we look at firearms training today. One thing I took away in my copious notes was his “4 Rules to a Gunfight”:
- Rule 1 – Bring a Gun!
- Rule 2 – Bring a BIG Gun!
- Rule 3 – Bigger is ALWAYS Better and More is ALWAYS more.
- Rule 4 – Pretty is not important.
I could not agree more but after a few years of reviewing shootouts I had to add Rule 1a – make sure it’s loaded.
As I said at the beginning of part one, I cannot advise you one what is best for your situation. Neither can anyone else. You must work out your own salvation!