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“The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken,” lexicographer Samuel Johnson observed. When it comes to defensive gun use, this can be a bad, bad thing. If shooting at a “square range” has given you the habit of standing still while firing you might be caught flat-footed in a defensive gun use. And die. Of course, good firearms-related habits can save your life. Like . . . carrying a gun. The trick is to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between. To that end, here are three little-discussed effective habits of successful armed self-defenders. Good good guys . . .

1. Identify the negative

Some people call them “training scars.” I call them bad habits born of inappropriate repetition. As Mr. Johnson pointed out above, it’s incredibly easy to pick up bad habits. Slapping the trigger [as above] is but one maybe obvious example. Here’s one from recent experience . . .

The other day, answering nature’s call, I removed my Wilson from its holster and dropped my drawers. I found myself pushing the frame-mounted safety up. I’d developed this bad habit after a previous visit to the smallest room in the house, when I’d discovered that the frame-mounted safety was off. (How’d that happen?) I’d taken to flipping the safety up to make sure it was on whenever I unholstered my firearm.

I was training myself to push up the safety when drawing. Not good. Luckily, I caught myself making this mistake and corrected it. I now push the safety down, then up again. But not immediately. I do so after a suitable pause for reflection. Otherwise, the up/down motion would become a bad habit. See how that works?

The “train as you mean to fight” mantra is in operation whether you know it or not. And it’s all-inclusive. That’s why I don’t use magazine re-loaders at the gun range. I don’t fire every time I bring my sights on target. I don’t shoot my gun dry every time. I don’t just practice at square ranges. Etc.

There are three keys to detecting bad habits. First, ask someone; it’s impossible to know what you don’t know. Find a trainer or gun guru whose work you respect and show him what you do when you do that voodoo that you do so well (or not). I simply ask them “what am I doing wrong?” Humility is your friend.

Second, become self-aware. Slow down and think about what you’re doing whenever and wherever you handle a handgun. What am I doing, exactly? Is this the best way to do it? Ask yourself the crucial question: what could possibly go wrong? Could I do this under stress? Would I do this under stress?

Yes, there is that.

In the video above, David Kenik advises viewers not to use the slide stop as a slide release; fingers turn to flippers under stress. Which is why highly effective armed self-defenders stress-test their techniques. So should you. How? Competition can create bad defensive gun use habits, but it stress-tests good habits like sight alignment. Force-on-force training may not use your actual gun, but it’s easier to find, cheaper and stress-tests defensive gun use strategy.

2. Eliminate the negative

I love training newbies. I make sure that they observe gun safety protocols, grip the gun properly, assume a proper stance and master the fine art of the trigger pull. In doing so I save everyone a lot of time and money. Truth be told, correcting a bad habit is a bitch. But it must be done.

Once you’ve ID’ed a bad habit (e.g., jerking the trigger) you have to expend a lot of effort to eliminate it. Especially mental effort. Slow down as much as humanly and practically possible and consciously think about what you’re doing. Before you do it. Close your eyes and visualize the new, improved technique before you start. Do it. Stop. Go through the whole procedure again.

The general rule of thumb: it takes 1000 rounds to replace a bad habit with a new one. Yup. A thousand.

When you think you’ve got the new habit locked in – around 500 rounds or so – speed-up to see if the new habit’s taken. The new habit may not have been planted in your subconscious mind. You may revert to prior training. Again, stress test your defensive gun use habits as often and as best you can. If the bad habit persists, it’s wash rinse and repeat.

One more thing: highly effective armed self-defenders address one bad habit at a time. Trying to correct your grip and stance at the same time, for example, will do little to fix either. Habit modification is beast as a single-minded process. Acknowledge and respect your limitations.

3. Accentuate the positive

In a recent Question of the Day, I acknowledged a simple fact: most people don’t train on a regular basis. Take it from a man who reads more defensive gun use stories online than you have hot dinners: an armed self-defender can be effective without any training whatsoever. But to be highly effective, there’s no substitute for regular practice.

It’s that last part – regular training – that matters most. If you don’t have the time or money to go the range on a weekly basis, that’s OK. Go on a monthly basis. Or as often as you can. Dry firing a triple safety-checked firearm (with the ammo removed from the room) at home is a suitable maybe even preferable alternative to range time. There’s no reason you can’t do both. Many experienced People of the Gun book yearly training sessions at schools they like. Good idea.

Plan your practice. Sure, it’s fun to shoot for fun. If that’s what you’re after, maintain form and have at it. If you want to be an effective armed self-defender go the range with a plan and a purpose. A purpose. Singular. Today I’m going to practice accuracy. Today I’m going to practice double taps. Today I’m going to practice long distance shooting. Like that.

That said, it helps to start with a warm-up ritual. I always start my practice sessions by slow-firing at a blank target at three to five yards (maximum). I try to put the bullet through the same hole, wherever that first hole may be. Once I’m confident that I’ve got my grip, stance, breathing and trigger control down, I proceed to the day’s lesson.

No matter what gun handling or shooting skills you acquire you may never be a Chris Costa or a David Kenik. That doesn’t matter. Your goal is to be the best armed self-defender you can be. To be ready to defend your life and other innocent life when needs be, as best you can. You never know, but with a bit of luck, it might be enough.

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  1. I don’t own a speed-loader of any kind. but i do have a couple after-market extended mags. and i have thumbs that could do finish sanding

  2. “I was training myself to push up the safety when drawing.”

    Isn’t thumbing the safety OFF when drawing a little early in the cycle? If there is a struggle for the gun the safety is now off and anything can happen during the struggle.

    Wouldn’t it be better to form the habit of moving the safety off as part of the presentment step?

    One might be forced to fire from the waist at bad-breath range. If so, maybe move the safety off once the muzzle is down-range.

    • No; well, not “no” since there is no single “right” answer for stuff like this.

      But, for me (and quite a few others apparently…I’ve heard others mention this), thumb safety on the draw.

      You are supposed to still be following the four rules (as a matter of habit), so the safety is NOT the real “safety” anyway.

      I’d say more important than ‘when’ you thumb the safety is that you find whatever works for you and do it that same way every time. It MUST become so second nature as to be done without thinking.

      Good example: In Justin Schnieders gunfight (an excellent story to learn a LOT of lessons from), he does not even remember deactivating the safety.

      Really, if you are worried ‘struggle distance,’ give his story a read. For example, here is the Ballistic Radio transcript:

  3. Practice until what you are attempting to perform works, even if it is not quite text book.

  4. Slightly confused here. “Don’t use the slide stop as a slide release”

    Are you saying to change magazines with the slide locked back, then slingshot the slide instead of disengaging the stop?

  5. Maybe hitting the slide release is a “bad habit,” but it certainly works just fine for me. Even with Glocks. It’s not technically in the manual of arms.

    Another training scar to avoid, in my opinion, is safeties on fighting handguns. Then again, having a safety can help prevent a negligent discharge.

    I also like gun lights for target ID, but maybe that’s because I’m a cop and therefore more likely to shoot the wrong target.

    • “Maybe hitting the slide release is a “bad habit,” but it certainly works just fine for me. Even with Glocks. It’s not technically in the manual of arms.”

      I have read, and really have no idea if this is actually true or not, that using the slide release to drop the slide damages the slide itself.

      “Another training scar to avoid, in my opinion, is safeties on fighting handguns. Then again, having a safety can help prevent a negligent discharge. “

      About a century of real-world data seems to support the opposite conclusion…manual safeties are most definitely NOT a ‘training scar.’

      Use a gun with a manual safety or not – your choice; but there’s no actual data supporting them being some big, bad ugly thing that is causing all manners of problems – except in the fantasies of some POTG.

      • Nope. Had a buddy in a firefight who couldn’t shoot because he had inadvertently / accidentally / negligently activated the safety on his handgun. It could have cost his partner his life. Safeties can kill you.

        Also, safeties that can be activated / deactivated are also similar in size to some slide stops. So if slide stop / slide releases are bad because hands turn into flippers, safeties can be put into the same category.

        I currently use the slide stop method because my work gun has an oversized slide release. The manual of arms for the 4006 TSW, if I have it right, does include using the slide stop. I’ll look into that.

        But Glocks are supposed to have their slides racked, so I’m going to look into that further as well, and will be therefore include that into my training.

        • You have one case. That’s not a rational analysis of risk.

          Accidental activation of a manual safeties can’t “kill you” any more than any other malfunction. Or, if that statement is false, show me the actual data, complete with proper Bayesian analysis of base rates.

          Also, for completeness, the “it’s one more thing” bit is a tired trope; that’s a training issue that is easily solved.

          Really, though, to listen to some of this hysteria about manual safeties, we’d have blood running in the streets from the unfortunate deaths of all those that carry 1911’s, Sigs, CZ’s, etc, etc.

          Blood running in the streets hysteria…hmmm. Sounds like a familiar agitprop from another group.

          As usual, data does not support the propaganda.

    • There are two issues with using the slide stop to release the slide. Under extreme stress, fingers turn to flippers and using the tiny slide stop may be difficult. The gross motion of grabbing the slide with your hand is far more reliable under stress. Also, the recoil spring is not at full compression at lock back. The extra 1/4 of travel when you pull back the slide increases the spring pressure and thereby increases feeding reliably.

      David Kenik

  6. RF,

    I appreciate your honesty & vulnerability when it comes to this site. You have have admitted to nasty firearms habits, getting mugged, and progressive parents 🙂

    You have also entered the foray of force-on-force w/ a blade. Major kudos there. Hopefully some of your humility and willingness to learn will rub off on the rest of us.

  7. The video on riding the Glock trigger to reset and no farther was excellent! Thanks for sharing RF. it gave a lot to think about(and practice).

  8. Train like you “play” and practice correctly enough until a skill becomes an automatic action.

  9. I think the biggest thing anyone can do to avoid being killed in a gunfight is to avoid getting in a gunfight. How? By being aware of one’s surroundings. Stay away from high risk areas and situations. Be aware at all times. Just as every time you enter a building, you should think about possible escape routes in case of fire, be aware. If you need gas in your car, don’t just stop at the first station you see. If it’s in an “iffy” part of town, drive to a nicer area. If you can’t avoid going somewhere, have a plan whenever entering a situation where a higher risk is present. Gas pumps, convenience stores, banks, bars, bad neighborhoods, etc.

    A gas pump is an excellent example. Try to avoid going there at night. When you do go, be aware of who and what is around you. Size up the vehicles and the other people who are at the pumps and going in and out of the quick store. Also, don’t just look for bad guys. Other customers, such as elderly people, or young women could be attractive targets for bad guys.

    Avoiding bad situations, AND being ready with a plan if a situation should occur, are both very effective ways to keep from losing a gunfight.

  10. Doesn’t warm up ritual become a habit as well? If what we habitually do in training, good or bad, is likely to occur automatically under stress, doesn’t this infer that Robert will shoot three well-aimed but s…l…o….w… shots in a defensive situation, without moving?

  11. Years ago I realized the problem of a safety. My solution, very similar to the author’s, is to release the safety EVERY TIME I draw from the holster. After a moment of deliberate delay, I re-engage. I ALWAYS keep the safety ON while holstered just I case I become THAT GUY that is the victim of a successful gun grab.

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