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By Paul Markel

Most everyone has a favorite story teller or someone about whom the stories are always worth listening. In my circle of friends there is one man about whom more stories have been told than any other.  My friend is a retired Special Forces soldier and the story in question took place while his “A” team was in West Africa training the local indigenous forces . . .

Gris-Gris and Good Luck Charms

After being trained and before their first real combat patrol, the indigenous West African forces told my friend they were going to see the local medicine man to get a “gris-gris” (gree-gree) for each soldier. The local troops explained that the gris-gris was a pouch filled with mystical elements that they hung around their necks.

The gris-gris would ward off the bullets from the rebels’ guns and protect them from danger, so they said. Not surprisingly, my friend and his SF troops dismissed the gris-gris as superstition and told the indigenous soldiers that they needed to rely on the training they were given, not some voodoo talisman.

Every culture has had some kind of good luck charm or talisman throughout history. We have four-leaf clovers, horse shoes, rabbits’ feet, lucky coins, etc. In our modern society we often look at these lucky charms as quaint reminders of our past. Most folks don’t hold to the kind of superstitions that their ancestors once did. While modern men might scoff at the idea of carrying around good luck charms or that somehow a gris-gris will ward off evil there is one talisman that is still very popular.

Handguns: the Modern Man’s Gris-Gris

The more I thought about the gris-gris story the more convinced I was that there was a correlation between ancient good luck charms and the habits of modern man. You see, the West African soldiers understood that there were bad men and evil in the world and they were seeking some kind of supernatural insurance to protect themselves.

Many American citizens fall into that same category today. They realize that there are indeed evil men on the planet that might do them harm. The concerned men and women don’t go to see the witch doctor or the medicine man; they go to the gun shop.  In the gun store they search for a talisman to ward off evildoers.

For as long as I can remember I’ve heard gun owners repeat phrases like, “I’m not paranoid. I only carry when I think I might need it.” “No, I’ve never had training, but I’m pretty good I think.” “I keep the chamber empty, it’s safer that way.” I even had someone tell me, “I don’t need to take self-defense course, I own a gun.”

“I own a gun.” That statement really says it all. Many men and women deceive themselves into thinking that owning a gun somehow makes them safe or merely carrying a gun somehow makes them safe. I have bad news for you folks, if you have no training or proficiency with a firearm, dropping one in your pocket is not going to ward off the evil spirits.

Pocket pistols seem to be the favored talisman for modern men and women. Compact revolvers and pistols by their very nature and design are the most difficult to employ effectively. With their short sight radius, light-weight, and small grip surface, pocket .38’s .380’s and .32’s are easy to carry but tough hit anything with. Pocket guns are also the least fun to shoot and so their owners rarely take them to the practice range.

The pocket gun becomes the cross to Dracula. When evil is near the owner imagines pulling it out and showing it to the ‘vampire’. Maybe the villain will flee and then again maybe they won’t.

It’s not just pocket-sized handguns, larger and more costly guns can become gris-gris. If you are carrying a gun that is half-loaded, is loaded with the cheapest ammo you could find and hasn’t been fired or cleaned in over six months that’s not a genuine defensive tool, it’s a good luck charm. If you drop a compact pistol naked into your pocket but have no plan for less-than-lethal force, don’t carry a flashlight or a pocket knife and have no spare ammunition for said gun, it’s a talisman not a fighting tool.

Talisman with Bling

Not all gris-gris are inexpensive.  Just as our ancestors paid extra for charms made of gold and encrusted with jewels, many good citizens will spend thousands of dollars for a handgun with the most expensive custom features available. These folks spend more money therefore expecting greater mystical power. They stand amongst their peers boldly announcing “I have a Kimber loaded with Hydra-Shoks.” The statement is put forth as if casting a spell of protection.

There’s nothing wrong with buying a Kimber pistol or shooting Hydra-Shok ammunition.  But you need to actually train with said gun and practice often if you expect to save your life with it one day. Owning and carrying a two-thousand dollar gun ensure your safety any more than owning Porsche makes you a racecar driver.

The Choices We Make

If you like to buy guns but not shoot them the Firearms Manufacturers of America thank you, the ammunition makers not so much. Carrying a firearm is both your right as an American Citizen and a tremendous responsibility. Not everyone can be or should be a gun carrier, and that’s just fine. That’s why God gave us big dogs.

Having come to the end of this piece, if you are embarrassed or offended I apologize. You can see the lady at the front desk for a refund. However, if you are serious about defending your life and that of your loved ones you need to ask yourself a hard question. “Am I capable of using this gun in a life or death crisis or is it just a good luck charm?” Reach into your pocket. If the gun has rust on it and more lint than your dryer vent, you might just be kidding yourself. Either way, the choice is yours to make.


© Paul Markel 2012

Paul G. Markel became a U.S. Marine in 1987 and served his nation during times of war and peace.  A law enforcement veteran, Paul was a police officer for seventeen years before becoming a full-time Small Arms and Tactics Instructor.  During the late unpleasantness, Mr. Markel has trained thousands of U.S. Military troops prior to their deployment to combat zones. or


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  1. All excellent points. I never looked at handguns that way before. It strengthens my resolve to continue practicing and training lest I have nothing more than a “good luck charm” on my hip / in my pocket!

  2. And yet, many of the DGU’s we hear about in the media are exactly that… an elderly person, untrained housewife, or even pre-teen children successfully defending themselves thanks to the timely availability of a firearm.
    I 100% understand where you are coming from, and I follow your advice. But for my friends and loved ones who don’t have as much time or inclination I feel the following applies:
    Regularly training + gun > little training + gun > basic familiarization + gun > no gun at all

    • Indeed. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of successful self defense gun uses every year. And yet only a few thousand where shots are fired. What percentage of those people had training? Probably in the single digits. Guns might be a gris-gris, but they’re a gris-gris that works.

    • Josh makes an excellent point. Preparedness is a continuum. Training seriously for an armed encounter requires a significant investment in time and money, and it’s just not realistic to think that more than a small fraction of people would be up for it. But plenty more people can keep a firearm accessible and safe, and have a basic idea of how to use it, and there’s still a lot of value in that.

  3. The premise of his article is flawed to the point of being preposterous to even a simpleton.

    I don’t carry a gun as a “talisman to WARD OFF bad guys.” That would mean the gun has magical powers… to WARD OFF evil or dangerous encounters.

    Ward off: debar: prevent the occurrence of; prevent from happening; “Let’s avoid a confrontation”; “head off a confrontation”; “avert a strike”

    To my knowledge, the mere possession of a gun (typically concealed such that bad guys won’t know it’s there) does not prevent anything from happening. I surely wish it did! We wouldn’t need to know how to use it or ever buy ammo!

    Seat belts don’t prevent car crashes. They can only help mitigate injuries from a crash that has already occurred. The fire extinguisher in my business or home won’t prevent fires. It can help put them out and abate fire damage.

    Having a gun will not “ward off” anything, including bad guys. But, like a seat belt, a gun may increase my chances of surviving an encounter with a bad guy that is already happening.

  4. “Compact revolvers and pistols by their very nature and design are the most difficult to employ effectively.”

    An excellent point. Those ‘new’ to firearms, who are most likely to go for those ‘feather-weight’ snubbie .38s and such, and exactly the people who *should* be “test-driving” the full-size, 38-ounce, 5″ barrel models, first.

    • This is why I love my Sig 238. Sure, you can get 380’s that are smaller, and you can get a 9mm that’s as light as the Sig. But the Sig is easy to shoot well, and running a hundred rounds through it is fun, not punishing.

  5. “Not surprisingly, my friend and his SF troops dismissed the gris-gris as superstition and told the indigenous soldiers that they needed to rely on the training they were given, not some voodoo talisman.”

    Story turned to BS at this point.

    • haha.. yeah… I thought, “Great way to assimilate (at least try) the local culture.” Naaa… just represent yourself as the “ugly American,” instead. So many Americans do not travel well. If I was one of those special forces trainers, I would have asked for my own gris-gris and worn it while there. Do THAT, and then you will have a much better chance of connecting on a much deeper level with the people you are trying to train. DUH.

      • Likewise, the author who is a “trainer” here in our own country, can’t manage to “teach” without first insulting his audience.

        • No editing allowed yet… so, this is how we do it…

          I think “insulting” was the wrong word. Condescension is more accurate. The author preaches from a pedestal and dismisses any notion of intelligence amongst his audience.

        • Thanks… I’m a spydie fan and photoshopped the carbon fiber effect. It helps me find my posts and any replies. 🙂

        • His basic point is to value effective training, not the dollars spent on guns and ammunition. If that offends you, I recommend manning up some.

          One of the ways mastery is achieved is by learning from those who possess more skill and experience. I have an inclination that Mr. Markel has a good deal more experience “in the shit” than most of our readers.

          Semper Fi.

  6. Overall, I love this article. It was well written, planned, and definitely well presented. I enjoy the relation between being a good luck charm and being good at shooting. But I do agree with previous comments about how training, although is great and definitely beneficial to the person carrying, is not a 100% necessary to their survival. Instincts, reflex, and ‘Gris-Gris’ all come into consideration. Overall though, I still believe this was a well written article! Good job!

  7. I respect your service and I don’t doubt your insight into and talent with firearms but I find this article patronizing and insulting in the sense I only expect from the Brady Bunch and their ilk.

    Look, we all know proficiency with any tool is important – for example, you don’t become a pro with a hammer or wrench (or anything else) by just buying one. Unfortunately, though guns ARE tools they are not treated like normal tools. In most places if you want to improve your skill with most any tool – hammer, wrench, car, what-have-you, all you need to do is start working with it. There’s usually little incidental cost, if any. Firearms, on the other hand, are regulated like crazy. Most folks aren’t able to just take ’em out and practice with ’em (don’t bring up dry firing with snap caps; not nearly the same as using real ammo), and if they are, there are steep costs involved – ammo, range time, etc.

    Frankly, the mere presence of a firearm increases your chances a whole heckuva lot more than a talisman. Why? Because, like with any tool, the key is the OPERATOR. In most DGU scenarios you aren’t facing down the Taliban or the Janjaweed… you’re far more likely to be facing down some misguided (for any number of reasons) individual within a range of 7 yards or so. In this case, having a firearm most certainly gives you a distinct edge (unless you choose not to use it, which is predicated on a number of things aside from formal training and owing more to state of mind/beliefs irrelevant to any tool).

    A gun is a fighting tool, period. The stuff about rusted guns covered with lint reflects on general stupidity – it’s the same sort of stuff you see when somebody with a six-figure car crashes it into the side of a house or does something else incredibly stupid with it – and not the general guy toting a gun without much experience with it.

  8. If you think carrying a gun, knife, flashlight, and spare magazines plus spending thousands of dollars on “training” will somehow stop a well placed (or misplaced) bullet then you too are full of gree-gree.

  9. There 1-2 million DGUs pet year but not a lot of actual live fire engagements. Bad guys look for easy marks and gun weilding targets don’t fit that description. Career criminals generally don’t take the chance that the intended victim doesn’t know what he/she is doing.

    I understand that the right kind of training makes you better able to defend yourself but what most tactical trainets don’t teach god citizen self defense tactics. They teach LEO tactics. A good civilian tactical training syllabus would spend as much time on counter surveillance and evasion TTPs as it does on shooting guns. I will take trainers more seriously when I hear them emphasize the former over the latter.

    About the only thing I agree with in this post is the crticism of pocket pistols. I walk around with a full size 1911 fully concealed. If you can do that then there no reason you can’t carry a compact if you want something a little smaller.

  10. This article has some good advice or at least food for thought, never the less why do I feel like I am being sold something?

  11. I agree with the author that too many people stick an unfamiliar firearm in a drawer and think they’re “safe” and or purchase something they don’t even know they can’t use effectively. My father in law was carrying a new .32 for months when I showed up for a visit and wanted to go shooting. His first round knocked the slide off the rails and locked up his new pistol. He had no idea his carry piece was defective until then. It could not be repaired and when he got a replacement from the manufacturer, he actually went out and tested it.

  12. Paul, good piece. Thanks for writing it.

    “if you have no training or proficiency with a firearm, dropping one in your pocket is not going to ward off the evil spirits.”

    Neither of course is having extensive training and practice time along with lasers, flashlights, and high-capacity mags, just saying. Having a gun in the pocket or hand may or not give that extra bit of confidence or too much confidence.

  13. We must remember, that we who comment on this medium do not represent the ‘typical’ gun owner. Most shooters , sadly, are greater dangers to themselves than they are to determined criminal opposition. I would chalk this up to people being mentally unaware or unwilling to confront the deeper responsibilities of gun ownership.Going to firearm training beyond the state minimum requires recognition of two facts:1, that you suck at shooting starting out and 2)you are subject to attack by anyone at any time. Most shooters can’t even get past Fact One:that low left pattern at 7 yards is the guns fault, of course. Ill bet 90% of negative reports on firearm accuracy can be traced to a novice shooter in denial of their own inexperience.

    Fact #2 is so frightening to many people they reject the idea out of hand.One downside to living in a first-world society with relatively low crime is that people can pretend crime doesn’t exist at all. To someone who thinks home invasions are events which happen to other people in the bad parts of town, just carrying a gun itself is of questionable merit. Getting more instruction in “how to kill people” just isn’t considered necessary to this kind of social optimist.
    Fortunately for most shooters ,crooks value their health more than the desire to seize a car or plunder a home.

    • Your #1 point was excellent.

      I know I’m not a very good handgun shooter, just adequate. I don’t much care for handguns. My preferences lean more toward bolt action .308 and a 500 yard target. Your point about accuracy is dead on – although I’d guess 95% of inaccuracy is primarily shooter related.

      That said, handguns have a purpose – concealable defensive firearm use. So do mouse guns, although I’m negatively disposed toward them. I actually prefer a (somewhat weighty) single stack ACP 9mm. Call me odd…

      I’d like expand on your point #2:
      It’s been mentioned here before, but training when NOT to shoot along with development of strong situational awareness is more important than being able to execute a perfect, accurate, 25m double tap under controlled range conditions.

  14. The author is missing the whole point of talismans. That bag of unusual stuff hanging around the necks of the soldiers has the same purpose as a crucifix hanging from a chain around his neck or the St. Christopher on his dashboard. Markel really should reconsider his claim to superiority.

    • I think he was trying to draw the parallel with folks buying and owning a gun, but not training at all. Kind of like I own a gun so I am safe, not realizing that you need to train and train often.
      Although I so want to get a gris gris.. Looks like someone in LA is making them, anyone have the website where we can order them from… 🙂
      I think I get his point though which is train, and train often with your carry weapons. You should be able to clear jams with out thinking, break down and clean with out hesitation. You should know where your controls are with out having to look or think. Only then is it truly an effective weapon. You should be able to hit center mass from 5 feet to 15 yards or more in different conditions.

      • Sanchanim, I get it. But I think his comparison to the gris-gris was condescending, to say the least.

        • Ties made of spider web maybe?
          Funny thing is there are folks I know who think it almost is a gris gris. They could even find the safety if they wanted to. Then again we are not your average audience for something like this either.

  15. Markel is talking about mind set….and wrote the best piece I’ve seen on this site in a while. I guess you really did “have to be there.”

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