The Failed Strategy of the Defensive Mindset

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Never throw the first punch and Fire only if fired upon are two pieces of pseudo-tactical advice that are thrown out so often that most people now parrot the phrases without ever thinking about what they really mean. When examined at the most basic level, the advice is often given by those who will not actually be involved in the anticipated conflict. Parents tell their kids, “never throw the first punch” and military officers issue orders for their troops to “fire only if fired upon.”

In both of those examples — the parent or the military officer — neither party is likely to be in actual physical jeopardy when their advice is applied. Nonetheless, telling others to exercise restraint, even to the point of putting them in harm’s way, is considered both reasonable and civilized. 

Iin a perfect world where the first punch doesn’t maim you and the first incoming rounds don’t kill you, exercising restraint puts you on the moral high ground. But are those strategies valid or do they simply embolden the aggressors?

The Shield and the Sword

“The purpose of fighting is to win. There is no possible victory in defense. The sword is more important than the shield and skill is more important than either. The final weapon is the brain. All else is supplemental.” That is one of my favorite quotes from renowned American author John Steinbeck Jr. and one I have related innumerable times during training courses.

In those few sentences, Steinbeck sums up the basic mental strategy of combat whether with a fist, a sword, or a gun. As simple and straightforward as it may seem, Steinbeck’s uncomplicated advice is lost on far too many who would issue orders or give instructions for dealing with conflict.

No soldier would go to war with only a shield in their hands. No matter how stout the shield, the enemy would eventually overwhelm it. With the shield defeated and no sword in hand, the soldier would have no option but defeat and failure.

Several years ago I was hired by a mid-sized hospital to run their security department.  The hospital administration had budgeted for soft-body armor to issue the guard personnel. Whether by conscious or unconscious admission, they had acknowledged the fact that security personnel were indeed at risk of injury and death by an assailant armed with a firearm. Conversely, the administration had written very specific language that security personnel were forbidden to possess any type of weapon up to and including firearms.

First of all, for the uninitiated, hospitals, particularly emergency departments, are dangerous places. Hospitals rank at the top of lists of businesses where workplace violence is prevalent. By issuing the security personnel soft body armor, but forbidding any type of tool or weapon, the hospital administration apparently expected the guards to simply absorb all of the incoming rounds until the attacker runs dry or gets bored. I mention the previous example not because it is an anomaly, but rather because that kind of short-sighted, feel-good thinking is all too prevalent.

This same hospital administration asked me to teach personal defense techniques to the staff with the caveat that they must be “…only defensive, you cannot teach them anything that might hurt someone.”

I respectfully declined the offer.

The thought process of today’s “civilized” American is that self-defense is acceptable and moral, but anything overt, proactive, or an action that is somehow deemed “offensive” is unacceptable, immoral, and just plain wrong. Of course, this flies in the face of reality.

First Punch Failure

Going back to the “never throw the first punch” advice, we are assuming that the first punch thrown isn’t going to knock you senseless, unconscious, break your jaw, or nose. As a fighting strategy, I would not recommend giving Alexander Volkanovski the first punch in a fight. MMA fighters aside, neither would I recommend letting the 250 pound belligerent drunk punch you first before you decide to act. That first punch might be the last and only one they need to deliver.

The idea or advice that you should never draw your gun unless you know you are going to shoot is still floating around out there. That advice causes the person in danger to move far too slowly when dealing with a threat and also makes them pause and second guess themselves. Both of these issues can prove fatal in a fast-moving confrontation.

The folly of “only fire if fired upon” is that it assumes the person(s) shooting at you is (are) incompetent or will deliberately miss you as a gesture of fair play. It only takes one single bullet to ruin your day. Unless you are the captain of a battleship, letting the enemy fire first is more of a risk than I’d rather take

Translated Mental Attitude

While you may never be in a position to either throw the first or second punch or return fire, the mental attitude that defense is acceptable, but proactive action is wrong still pervades, even in the subconscious.

The lawful citizen, those with families and careers and reputations to uphold, will tend to cling to the strategy of defense as their default for all matters or problems they encounter, not just physical combat. These ‘civilized’ and ‘enlightened’ people, when faced with trouble and threats, rather than moving forward to deal with them will step back and take the defensive posture.

The Wolf

Consider this. When our ancestors’ livestock was threatened by wolves, they went out to find the wolves and killed them. They didn’t bar the doors in a vain hope that the wolves would get bored and go away. They took action because action was the appropriate response.

In our modern, enlightened society, rather than band together and hunt down the wolves in a most proactive way, most of your friends and neighbors would do just the opposite. They would try to hide from the wolf. Many would even go so far as to kill the weakest of their calves and leave it as an offering for the wolf thinking that it might appreciate the gift and go away.

But the wolf doesn’t appreciate weakness or sacrifices. The wolf won’t get bored and leave. Quite the contrary, when faced with no opposition, the wolf becomes emboldened. The wolf invites other wolves to join him.

The Failure of the Defensive Mindset

While the shield is indeed a tool of defense and one that has some use, you can’t rely on it exclusively. A professional boxer may have the best guard in the business, but unless he throws a punch now and then his guard will eventually be worn down and even a mediocre fighter can defeat him. The greatest defense in the NFL is of little use if the offense can’t put points on the board.

The defensive strategy is merely a stop-gap. A strong defense is put up to give a person time to unleash their own offense. When you choose defense as your only option it becomes a recipe for eventual but certain failure. The “Defense Only” ideology puts the defender in a constant state of reaction versus action. From a completely practical standpoint, the defender, by definition, is constantly in a reactive mode and at a distinct disadvantage.

Many citizens look out at the landscape of this nation and wonder how it has come to this sad state. How is it that we’re constantly losing ground in the fight of good versus evil? When faced with the pressing problems of the modern world, one can put up their shield and hide in their castle. However, given enough time, the enemy will eventually defeat the shield and breech the castle walls.

When is the time for an offensive strategy? Only you can answer that for yourself.  However, first you must have a truly proactive mindset to put an offensive strategy into motion. If you, like so many others, have bought into the defense is good/offense is bad mentality, your defeat is imminent.


Paul Markel has been a United States Marine, Small Arms & Tactics Instructor, Police Officer and Medical Trainer for some thirty years. Mr. Markel has trained thousands of military, law enforcement, and citizens nationwide in the use of arms. He is the founder and host of the Student of the Gun radio and television show and the author of dozens of books. 

Paul is also the author of Beyond the Boo Boo: Traumatic Medical Care for Citizens.

You can listen to Paul every week on Student of the Gun Radio. The show can be heard on demand on iTunes, iHeartRadio, or your favorite media player. Tune in right now.


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  1. Defensive mindset can also include a first strike strategy, first shot or not you have got to be right… Hope for the best prepare for the worse and live to fight another day…

    • Agree. Kyle absorbed multiple assaults prior to going offensive. The kid is a hero and a warrior! Thank the Lord he survived! Mindset, physical fitness, and training should be our focus. And as a fourth element, lightening fast discernment must be practiced to be on the right side of the law.

  2. I get where the guy’s coming from but the standard for when to go “offensive” is when you feel that you are in danger of losing your life or may suffer severe bodily injury. You are not required to wait for a punch or shot. Preemptive strikes are also a time honored act for defense. Sadly, however, all too often a jury of your “peers”, who are not in that moment of decision and probably never have been, gets to Monday morning quarterback your decision to act. It is that concern more than any other that causes hesitation in most people. Somehow, you have to make a split-second decision that 12 people will consider the decision to act “reasonable”.

  3. This is possibly the shortest “lesson” from Markle I’ve ever seen. On SOTG it’s endless. If you shoot 1st in Cook county you’re pretty much screwed!!!🙄😕

  4. “When is the time for an offensive strategy?”

    Considering that video cameras are *everywhere*, think long and hard on that one.

    How will your opposition (the prosecuting authority where you are when this happens) potentially use it against you?

    • Geoff, therein lies the problem. Prosecutors, judges, juries etc were not present when you were under distress and stress nor did they feel the urgency of the moment when facing a bad player. Just like you did not know the intentions of the other person, the prosecutors, judges and juries don’t know either; but, they think they can reason away the circumstances to a position not favorable for the true victim. They don’t know and since they don’t know they figure you could not have known and in the process they surmise that you acted in haste and used unnecessary force. A real tightrope to experience.
      Plus, the fact that the bad player started the event means nothing to the twisted mindset gang.

  5. You have to consider the individual situation. And do so very quickly. The Army trained us way back in the day to attack if ambushed or an overt threat was displayed. Bad guys want to take a potshot at your position? Strike with as much force as you can muster.
    In the current world, my mindset is come at me with intent, I will attack. Too damned old to wait for a first punch or being shot at. While I may end up facing charges, at least I will still be alive to do so. And, likely those with me, or the innocent potential victims will be alive to go on with their lives.
    Nope, I’m not superman or John Wayne. Just an old grunt and country boy. And, yes, I can very easily be defeated or killed in a fight. However, you will at least know I was there and if possible, I will send at least one attacker down the hell road ahead of me.

    • If you live in a state with adequate self-defense laws. the Law of the Land is your shield.

      If you don’t, my sympathies – I have been in the “sure he shot at you twice, but he missed, now you gonna rot till the trial, and get sued no matter what, because the survivors are after the same thing he was – fast money” place, and it is highly deleterious to your quality of life.

      Whatever state you live in, learn that law in black and white. It’s even more important than range time.

      I’m agreeing with you, BTW. : )

  6. i dont know
    it seems kind of cowboyish to me
    at least as far as concealed carry goes for the ordinary average guy
    i feel like
    if somebody is involved in a self defense shooting
    and it goes to trial
    and the anti gun prosecutor
    asks you on the stand
    in front of an anti gun judge
    and an anti gun jury
    why you pulled the trigger when you did
    and you said
    “because i was using an offensive mindset”
    it doesnt increase your chances
    of beating the charges
    im pretty sure your defense lawyer would recommend against that
    vehemently even
    any time you pull the trigger on an assailant
    i feel like it should be done with the knowledge
    that its at least as likely as not going to go to trial
    and 4 hours of your life could be spent on the stand trying to save whats left of your life
    going over and over what happened in a 5 second span of time
    i think a lttle bit more caution is advised
    than the author of this article is recommending

  7. Fact: The survival rate is higher when people do not shoot it out in an armed robbery.

    Fact: The legal nightmare one can get into even in a justifiable shootout can end up bankrupting you even if you win in court.

    One friend of mine simply escaped out the back door rather than shoot it out when a person broke in his home. He told me that he could always replace material goods but could not replace his life or his families lives. A shootout was just not worth it.

  8. So much bloviating. We’re not police, we’re not allowed to kill someone because we think they might be about to attack us. Following this blowhards advice is an excellent way to end up in prison

    • We’re not even allowed to draw. “The idea or advice that you should never draw your gun unless you know you are going to shoot is still floating around out there.” If you draw when deadly force isn’t imminent, you can be charged with brandishing in many jurisdictions. Like firing, you may need to prove to a jury that you (and a reasonable person who was in your place) were in fear of death or serious bodily injury to yourself or others. If a situation is going south and you think violence is about to happen, you can be justified, but don’t draw “just in case.”

  9. I have been reading a book on the Powhatan Nation and their value of non-retaliation in Virginia from 1607. What happened to them is that they continued to receive violation after violation from the English until they no longer had the power to resist. It seems that history is repeating itself as we have been invaded by Marxists who have co-opted the once Democratic Party. The Republicans have long had the same practice as the Powhatan non-retaliation. It may prove to be the death of us, which is what they, in the long run, desire. The symptoms are all around us as is the history of what Marxists do to those they conquer.


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