Buying a handgun for self defense is like a dog chasing a car. Unless the dog knows what to do with it once he’s got it, it’s not gonna do him a lot of good. Let’s assume that you’re a responsible gun owner. You’ve taken some credible classes, gone to the range and passed your qualifying tests for a concealed handgun license. Great. You’re now qualified to own and carry a weapon. You’re about a light-year away from being qualified to use it. Let me put it this way: How does a concealed carry owner get to Carnegie Hall via St. Nicholas Ave./125th St.? Practice, practice, practice.
Owning a gun is but step one. Now you’ve got to hie thee to the range and run some rounds through that puppy, so you actually know what you’re doing. Think of this in terms of exercise. If you want to stay fit and trim, there is no substitute for reps at the gym. Same thing here. There’s no other way to keep your skills sharp and your accuracy within “acceptable ranges” (i.e.: “hit what you’re aiming at”) than to punch a buncha holes in pieces of paper yards away.
Note: some of you may live in areas where you can practice outdoors, on your own or someone else’s property. Assuming you’re a beginner, DON’T DO IT. The non-gun range world is full of objects which can—and will—deflect bullets: rocks, water, bits of trash, etc. Even if “everyone” stays behind you, a bullet without a proper backstop can travel a mile before ending its flight. What’s out there that you can’t see? This is not a risk you should take.
It’s also true that something can go wrong. Guns misfire, hang fire or worse. As a newbie, if your weapon fails, you need to put it down slowly and safely and call over the range master. The guy at the gun range who knows what to do when that happens. The same guy who will stop you the second you display ANY unsafe or dangerous practice, and WILL NOT let you fire if you have even a hint of alcohol on your breath, or seem impaired in any way.
A gun range has a safety gestalt. You learn a great deal about proper shooting just by being there, by watching other, better shooters do their thing. The way they carry themselves, treat their weapons, pace their shots, reload, etc.
Remember: a handgun is not simply a hunk of metal like a spoon that you can use without care and attention. It’s a deadly weapon that’s part of a system. You must practice and master the entire system—inspection, transportation, inspection, loading, inspection, grip, posture, breathing, sighting, aiming, firing, assessing, re-loading, inspection, transportation, inspection, cleaning, inspection, transportation, etc.
And it’s worth mentioning that the sound and presence of multiple, unexpected gun shots is extremely good for preventing you from freaking out in a gun battle. It also teaches you situational awareness.
To keep your skills sharp, you should really commit to shooting at least 50 rounds per month. At current market prices, that’s gonna run you about $18 for a half-box of Winchester “White Box” FMJ (roundball) practice ammo, plus the cost of going to your local range. That’s the bare minimum of what you should be doing to maintain your skills. If you want to actually improve your skills, it’s gonna take a bit more than that.
When I started shooting, I could get 100 rounds of good quality practice ammo for about $18. I joined a range (about $100 per year), and regularly shot 50 rounds per week. I was able to sharpen my skills to a point where I felt confident that I could hit anything between 7 and 15 yards—as long as it was more or less standing still. Realizing that getting a bad guy to freeze while I shot him was a dicey proposition at best, I looked around for more appropriate local training. That led to my local chapters of the IDPA and IPSC.
The International Defensive Pistol Association and the International Practical Shooting Confederation are dedicated to helping their members acquire the skills necessary to shoot pistols in real-life, defensive situations. While there are differences between the two organizations (which are outside the scope of this article), both groups provide practices and matches that will help you shoot—safely—at moving targets and multiple threat.
Equally important, you learn to do so from a tactical perspective. In other words, you’ll learn the difference between “cover” and “camouflage,” which guy to shoot first, what to do to not get shot by the cops, and what you should say to them after the party’s over (hint: nothing). If you’re uncomfortable dealing with these issues, either get over it or get rid of the gun.
At a typical practice or match, you’ll blow through about 100 rounds. At current prices, you’ll be spending close to $40 for 100 practice rounds (unless you get into reloading). That’s a lot of cabbage. If you’re like me, you’ll begin to find this sort of exercise “cost-prohibitive.” But there is a way you can keep up your skills without costing you the proverbial arm and leg. Enter the much-maligned and under-appreciated .22 rimfire cartridge.
[Note: “.22” refers to the caliber / diameter of a given bullet and/or the gun which fires it. I’ll be talking about caliber in my next post.]
.22 rounds are the Rodney Dangerfield of the world of ammunition. They have a (somewhat undeserved) rep as a “why bother” or “not much better than bringing a knife to a gunfight” round. Talk to any cop; they’ll tell you that if they have to get shot, they’d rather get hit with a 9 mm or a .45 bullet. .22s tend to enter a torso and ricochet around, doing a lot of organ damage before they stop moving.
But when it comes to “stopping power” (the preferred euphemism for any given gun’s ability to kill someone), furgettaboutit. A .22 wouldn’t stop anything larger than a small woodland animal. You might kill someone with a .22, but they’d have plenty of time to return the favor before they expire.
However wimpy the .22 might be, it has one virtue that should not be overlooked. They are seriously dirt-cheap. You can buy a box of 500 rounds for under $30. Compare that to $36 for 100 rounds of Whitebox Winchester at your local Emporium du Wall.
“But wait,” you say. “.22 ammo won’t run in my gun! I just bought a handgun for self defense, and you’re telling me I need a second one for target practice?”
If you bought a 1911, a number of manufacturers sell conversion kits that will allow you to swap barrels and magazines that will allow your .45, 9mm or 40 S&W to run .22 ammo, then swap it back to it’s original caliber configuration. On the other hand, having a .22 around as a target gun (and a backup weapon) is not a bad idea.
Besides shooting a .22 is fun. The weapon has practically no recoil. Magazines (bullet holders) will handle double-digit capacities; you can shoot all day and not get tired.
“But wait (again),” you say. ”Don’t I need to shoot my primary weapon so I’m used to it’s feel, recoil, and other factors?” Yup. You do. But you don’t need to blow through 50 to 100 rounds to do it. Head to the range and shoot 50 rounds of .22, then follow it up with one magazine’s-worth of .45 or 9mm, and you’re good to go. The critical thing here: you need the reps.
I also recommend buying a practice gun in the same caliber and configuration as your “normal” gun, preferably with the exact same safety features. Practice guns are frequently plastic knock-offs of the real thing, with the same contours and weight as the real gun – often made in bright blue plastic, just to avoid confusion. Alternately, you can frequently find airsoft pistols that are virtually identical to many models of guns – just without all the lethal stuff. Why by a practice gun? A semi-automatic target shooting .22 is a pleasant and rewarding weapon to fire. But it’s a different beast in the hand than a snub-nosed revolver. You want to train your brain to react instinctively, so that you can perform under pressure. You also want to practice holstering and unholserting your weapon. To begin with, do so very, very, very (did I say very?) slowly. In fact, if you’re using a ‘real’ gun, either practice with it unloaded, or use non-firing ‘dummy’ rounds. Practice reloading the same way. Don’t worry; no one will laugh at you on the gun range. They know this is serious business.
Once you figure out your technique, speed it up—a little. Then load live ammo, slow it down and start again. Do not, under any circumstances, practice “quick draw” techniques. It makes EVERYONE nervous, and quadruples the possibility of a bad thing happening. The real world is not Westworld; a safe, steady, confident gun withdrawal is all you need.
Reps mean powder and primer and powder and primer mean gunk in your gun. Obviously, gun maintenance is essential. Hopefully, you bought a cleaning kit when you purchased the weapon. Clean the handgun after every visit to the range. TRIPLE CHECK THAT THE WEAPON IS UNLOADED BEFORE CLEANING. Darwin Awards are surprisingly easy to win. Do not assume that you unloaded your gun on the range. Ever.
Cleaning is especially important if you use cheap ammo. Low priced ammunition tends to contain stuff (the non-technical term) that literally eats your gun with corrosion, from the inside out. A quality range bag is another good idea. Even if you conceal-carry, you’ll need a way to get your ear protection, eye protection, range ammo, targets, and other gun accoutrement to and from the range.
Practice is the difference between having a gun for protection and having the skills to use it. If you’re serious about self defense, regular practice is the only way to increase the odds that you’ll be ready to defend yourself, your family, and your property, if or when the time arrives.