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Self-defense situations trigger your natural fight, flight or freeze response. As your bloodstream fills with adrenalin you start thinking and moving a lot faster than normal. But your perception of time may remain the same. In other words, you have more time than you think you have. I’ve pointed this out before, and counseled self-defense shooters to force themselves to react slowly. Because you won’t be reacting slowly. You’ll be reacting just as quickly as you would in a less stressful environment, but doing so with more control . . .

When you’re trying to avoid or counter a violent attack, the more mental and physical self-control you can muster, the better. You’ll make better defensive choices and, if necessary, shoot more accurately. You may even use your ammunition judiciously rather than, say, emptying your gun and wondering “OK, now what?”

Bottom line: to survive a violent assault, you need to quit the cult of The Fastest Gun in the West. Which is everywhere you look: TV, movies and down at your local gun range. Doing no one any favors.

To wit: Top Shot competitor Sara Ahrens’ performance during last night’s episode. Ahrens choked under pressure. Which is a less than kind way of saying she didn’t give herself the time and mental space she needed to shoot the lightbulbs in front of her with a Smith & Wesson M&P.

For a SWAT team member, that’s a lawsuit of not good. But it’s perfectly understandable. All police firearms training is timed. Shoot X rounds in X seconds at a target at X distance. Ready? BEEP! If you hit center mass but do so outside of allotted time, you fail. Timing is everything.

Civilians are equally susceptible to this focus on frenetic firearms firing. I see it down at the American Firearms School all the time: shooters practicing unholstering their concealed handgun who rush their draw stroke. Time and time again, they push themselves beyond their skill level. There’s no consistency. It’s a herky jerky affair without the slightest hint of grace.

That’s because they’re forcing their gun on target. While they’re hitting the paper as planned, they’re mentally disengaged. They’re not thinking. There’s no time for that. Must. Shoot. Faster. Throw in pop-up shoot / don’t shoot targets and a bit of stress (e.g. yelling commands) and see what happens. Their accuracy—and judgement—goes to hell.

Here’s a piercing glimpse into the obvious: when the SHTF, thinking’s good. Do I really need to shoot that person? Should I stop shooting or shoot some more? Who else needs shooting? All of these thoughts can save your house, your liberty, your sanity and your life. But they require mental bandwidth. You need time to think. You need to slow down.

The shooters in the video above are whippet quick. They’re also professional shooters on a closed course. Whatever planning needs doing is done before they begin. There aren’t a whole lot of variables involved. No friends and family in the field of fire. No hidden bad guys. No cops or passersby. Equally important, they’re wearing hearing protection. And they get a heads-up when it’s time to start.

Professional shooters have to be quick to win. You? Not so much. They’re trying to keep their job and/or earn brownie points. You’re trying to survive.

If you’re under attack, take your time, bring your firearm to bear (where appropriate) and sort it out. Quickly. If you know what I mean. If you don’t, have a firearms instructor demo the concept. Ask him or her to draw and shoot three times: slow, medium and fast. Notice the difference in technique. There isn’t any.

When that’s true for you, too, you’ll have both the speed and the presence of mind needed to use a gun to survive a life-or-death self-defense situation. Or not.

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  1. Michael Bane said it very well on his podcast this week (and he borrowed it from someone else), “What is ‘High speed, low drag’? It’s the fundamentals applied quickly.”

  2. This is exactly what we learned from Henri in the Personal Protection class. “SLOW IS SMOOTH AND SMOOTH IS FAST” It doesn’t do you any good to be lightning fast if you can’t hit what you’re shooting at. You need to practice being SMOOTH over and over, and eventually you will become fast enough to hit your target.

  3. Self defense is not the only place you need to slow down when using firearms. Just go out on the first weekend of deer season and you see a majority of hunters just blasting away at anything that the remotely resembles something that could/maybe be an actual deer. You have only a few seconds to identify, track, sight-in and understand where the miss is going to go. In many ways it is more demanding than a self defense situation because your miss could go 4-6 miles. The number of decision you have to make before you take the shot is very large and a quick trigger finger can lead to disaster.

  4. I admit, I loathe the speed obsession with a passion. Yeah, it’s impressive when someone can shoot quickly or something, but it’s not the most important thing, and frankly there’s no style.

    I remember when I heard about cowboy action shooting, I was excited to check it out. Then all the youtube things I could find on it were just guys doing ridiculously speedy things with old west guns and wimpy loads. Maybe there’s more to it, I don’t know, but that turned me off.

    Fast does not equal quality, the same way a larger book or longer movie doesn’t mean it’s good. Quality over quantity (or speed).

    And I can definitely see how becoming speed obsessed can lead to some unintentional “oops” moments in a self defense situation.

  5. The real key is learning very slow. Any time you’re learning a new skill like drawing and firing a gun, riding a bike, driving a car… you do everything slowly to start with so screw ups aren’t as catastrophic. It also lets your teacher see very plainly what you are doing incorrectly. The earlier you correct these things, the easier it will be to apply fundamentals properly. Once you can do something consistently slow, it’s not difficult to ramp the speed up a bit without having to think about it.

  6. Martial arts teach speed and power based on a foundation of technique. Technique is learned slowly, with complex movements broken down to many simple ones. Repetion is huge. Practicing an incorrect motion quickly is counter-productive. You need to get it right, at whatever slowed down speed you need, before you can speed up. Same thing with sports, or any physical skill. If you have the technique in muscle memory, adrenaline will help speed you up in a live situation. If you have poor technique, it can wreck you.

    • This was also one of the key characteristics of Clint Eastwood’s role of Will Munny in “Unforgiven”. He won a lot of gunfights because he shot more straight, not quicker.

    • There is no such speed as “too fast”. Just like there’s no such thing as “too accurate”. If I can shoot all my rounds in a 4 inch group at 25 yards, then next I’ll try to shoot them in a 2 inch group at 25 yards! Same thing is true with speed, when you think you’re “fast enough” you need to try and reach for more speed.

      I cannot imagine anyone who has had to use a gun in self-defense thinking “man, I wish my draw hadn’t been so blazing fast”.

        • There’s a difference between “going too fast” and “going faster than you’re able”. I will never be able to shoot fast enough, but I could certainly shoot faster than I’m able.

      • Go on YouTube and see if you can find a video in which a cop or store clerk defended himself with an old-west style quick draw. I’m betting you won’t find even one. In every shooting video I’ve seen, the shooter needed to be quick and accurate, not “blazing fast.”

  7. Any irony with the amazingly fast Team Benelli video at the top of this post? (-:

    Should I take this post as an implied slap against the competitive practical shooting variants (USPSA, IDPA, ICORE)? Speed is one of their variables, although they attempt to balance accuracy and power into the equation.

    My own take, in agreement with folks like Jim Cirillo is that competitive shooting, like varsity athletic participation and military service are key preparation factors for an actual self-defense event.

    I didn’t carry until I was an IDPA Expert and a strong USPSA B class shooter. I felt my accuracy, speed, gun handling, failure handling were best tested and proven in competition before I left home packing.

    I enjoy the blog. Keep’em coming!

    • “Should I take this post as an implied slap against the competitive practical shooting variants”

      I sure hope not. When I was very young and very small, I got beat up several times. I asked my father (who could punch his way through a brick wall) if he would teach me to box. When I told him why, he said no. “Boxing is a sport,” he said. “I’ll teach you how to fight.”

      Which he did. Shortly thereafter, the beatings stopped. So to answer your question, practical shooting disciplines are absolutely phenominal sports. I love ’em! But no, they don’t teach people how to fight.

  8. To quote Larry Vickers as originated by Wyatt Earp:

    “Speed is fine but Accuracy is final!”

    Another favorite quote:

    “Question: How much time do you have in a gunfight? Answer: The rest of your life.”

    Source I have heard for the above is Pat Rogers.

    There is nothing wrong in pushing speed in your training regimen. I do try and push my speed as instructors like Ken Hackathorn and Larry Vickers have istruced me to do. But you should be getting hits. If your rounds are all over the place, dial it back a notch and start over.

    Where people mess up under stress is they start dropping their wrist and snatching the trigger. Trigger control at speed is the objective.

  9. Distance will also affect the speed you need to move with. If an assailant is at point blank range you don’t have any time to think. If you have some distance you can take more time to take good aim, notice anyone in the line of fire and try to find good cover.

  10. My music teacher stressed (a long, long time ago) that to play a passage fast, you needed to practice slowly, to play very loudly, you needed to practice very softly.
    It is all about committing the action to memory, both mental and muscle, so that when it is needed, it is automatic with a minimum amount of distraction from inconvenient things such as adrenalin and stress.

  11. Bottom line: to survive a violent assault, you need to quit the cult of The Fastest Gun in the West. Which is everywhere you look: TV, movies and down at your local gun range. Doing no one any favors.

    Not Everywhere

    A man who will keep his head an' not
    get rattled under fire... he will
    kill you like as not.

    Little Bill is pointing his pistol, aiming.

    But if the other fellow is quicker
    and fires first...

    He will be hurryin' and he will miss.
    That there is as fast as I can pull
    an' aim an' hit anythin' more'n ten
    feet away... unless it's a barn.

    But... if he doesn't miss?

    (laughing and
    holstering his pistol)
    Then he will kill you. That is why
    there are so few dangerous men like
    old Bob there... an' like me. It
    ain't so easy to shoot a man anyhow...
    an' if the sonofabitch is shootin'
    back at you... well, it'll unnerve
    most fellas.

  12. The Shootist.

    “First of all,friend, there’s no one up there shooting back at you. Second, I found most men aren’t willing, they bat an eye, or draw a breath before they shoot. I won’t.”

  13. The shooting sports to an important thing, they teach us to pull the trigger and to hit the target. Too many folks still think of a shootin’ iron as a magic wand, point a firearm at someone and they will do anything you tell them. Hummph!

    Silver, there are a lot of folks in Cowboy action shooting who do not blaze away with powder puff loads. Many, perhaps most, of us no longer have the wheels to fly through a set of four guns at all different targets. Some of us still use light loads, in spite of age, there is a subset, though, called Warthogs, who delight in calibers that begin with four and full charge loads. Others are called Soot Lords, we like the old cartridges and the original powder. There is a special joy in shooting a .45 Colt with a full charge of The Holy Black and a 250 grain soft lead boolt.

  14. There is an old adage from a Texas Ranger Captain, quoted in Bill Jordan’s little gem of a book “No Second Place Winner”. IIRC, it goes like this: “In a gunfight, take your time, quickly !”

    That has a lot of wisdom in it.

  15. The same thing is true in surgery. I look slow, but no movement is wasted, and decisions about what to do if this-or-that happens were made during the last step of the procedure, not the one being done at the moment. The result is faster, cleaner operations that look like they were done by an old man.

  16. I think I’m in agreement. Don’t attempt to execute skills in a combat situation faster than you are capable of doing adequately. However, if you’re serious about self-defense you should have an awareness that adequately does involve the element of time. It’s different for confronting an intruder who’s hands are full of your stuff, and an intruder whose hands are down around his waistband at night in your darkened home. (Taclight anyone?). The joker in the deck is you don’t know who you’re up against and what they are willing to do.

    Ok. Here’s a website with draw and shoot times for college kids inexperienced with firearms. It also has reaction times for LEO, these were experienced LEO simply firing in response to a light coming on. So, actual reaction times would expected to be longer, for the reasons mentioned above (think OODA loop) uncertainty as to what perps motion meant, disbelief, reluctance to kill, assessment of background etc.
    Anyhow, if you take the time to peruse the website and read their papers you find that a perp deciding to shoot will probably get off two rounds (possibly 3) prior to a LEO getting his first round out.

    Police have used these studies to defend LEOs to boards by explaining (I personally know of 1 case) how a criminal can be shot in the back in a perfectly justified shoot. By the time the LEO observes and starts to fire the perp has already got a round off and turned– human reaction time is insufficient to stop the trigger pull in the time this happens.

    The brits have a term I heard when flying with them ‘Spare capacity’. When you are unfamiliar with something or new you have very little ‘spare capacity’ for judgement, assessment etc. because most of your mental abilities are still taken up exectuing the basics. The goal of training is to get the basics down- the monkey skills- sufficiently so they can be performed perfectly, reliably and to the level required for the circumstances one is training for. It is why training also involves planning through scenarios and having pre-planned responses- certain judgements have already been determined, if X happens I’ll do y shortens decision time. For example, noise at night get family members and barricade if possible. To free up ‘spare capacity’ for the judgement required in these situations. And the requirements should include the reality of how fast things can occur.


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