I’m not the most detail-oriented or scientifically inclined guy in the world. For proof, just look through the archives here at the Personal Defense Network and read how I usually test guns!
Be that as it may, it was recently pointed out that I’ve been teaching an ever-evolving form of concealed carry training in Ohio, the vast majority at Black Wing Shooting Center, for over a decade. And during that time, it was reasoned, I might have picked up on a few recurring themes that would make a worthwhile article, such as a “Top Ten Frequently Asked Questions” kind of piece.
The Scientific Method
After some consideration, I decided that it wasn’t the questions I am asked that were of particular interest — it was my answers to those questions. Or more to the point, why I answered them the way I did. To my surprise, I observed that I had applied a very basic piece of scientific methodology to almost every question I’d been asked over that ten-plus year period!
What I’m talking about is the presence of variables, all those factors great and small that play some role in any given proceeding. To conduct and evaluate an experiment, the scientific method relies on the identification and control of those variables. In the interest of the aforementioned “Top Ten” idea, I find that most any nuance of armed defense — in my experience, the answers to those frequently asked questions — can be articulated as the simple idea of controlling the variables. So rather than a laundry list of FAQs, let’s look at a few examples of how variables fit into our everyday self-defense preparation.
First off, consider the broad aspects of self-defense. Anything that we do, any proactive measure that we undertake to protect ourselves or our family, could rightly fit under the self-defense umbrella. For example, most of us have smoke detectors installed in our homes and most of us change their batteries on an ongoing basis. We don’t do this because we are planning to have a fire in our kitchen anytime soon. In fact, we are likely taking numerous direct measures to prevent that occurrence, such as not leaving open flames unattended. Still, we ensure that the smoke detectors are powered up and working properly in order to control that variable: if our other fire-prevention measures fail, we want the little disc on the ceiling to emit that gawd-awful shriek so we know to get ourselves out of harm’s way.
Narrow the focus a bit and look at our usual definition of self-defense: dealing with a violent criminal assault. When it comes to this sort of incident, we must acknowledge that we law-abiding civilian types rarely have much warning that violence is coming. We can debate all day about the importance of awareness and our ability to pick up the subtle indicators of an imminent attack but — a few bizarre circumstances notwithstanding — the fact remains that we tend to miss those cues completely. After all, if you knew what was about to happen, you’d get yourself out of there and to some relatively safe location. A police officer or soldier might be in a position that they recognize coming unpleasantness but are obligated to stick around anyway. You and I are mostly not in that position.
What it comes down to is this. In terms of self-defense, you do not get to control the really important variables: time, place, and circumstances. Because you do not know when, where, or under what conditions you’ll be attacked, it makes sense to pay extra attention to the variables that you can control, such as your practice, training habits, and gear.
Here’s a simple example of a gear variable: some guns have manual safeties. The safety lever can sometimes be in the “ON” position and at other times could be in the “OFF” position. Therefore, the position of the safety lever at any given instant is a variable. If the actual position of that safety in the moment of crisis is different than I believe, or than I assume, and I act on that belief or assumption, my proverbial goose could be cooked.
At the risk of having my red-blooded American tough-guy card* revoked, I argue that we get confused when we are scared and under stress — and that the variable created by the safety being “ON” or “OFF” is not only a potential catastrophe, it is completely unnecessary. Mate that safety with a decocking lever? The variables multiply. Can repetition and exposure minimize such a risk? Probably yes, but only by eating up huge amounts of training time. For the long-term gun enthusiast and avid shooter, this is less of an issue — but for the “non-hobbyist” strictly interested in defense, it will become a real problem.
Sometimes, the variable is less apparent but still needs to be controlled. If you hang around guns long enough, someone will ask you, “How long does ammunition last?” This question isn’t easy to answer because of … you guessed it … all the possible variables.
It is clearly unreasonable to assume that a cartridge, never removed from the box, and the box never removed from a climate-controlled indoor environment, will have precisely the same useful lifespan as an identical cartridge being carried daily on duty by an armed professional. What we do have is the knowledge that our ammunition will eventually deteriorate, and that certain conditions can readily accelerate that process. What we don’t have is the exact ratio of longevity, temperature, humidity, etc that renders our cartridge degraded and no longer reliable.
What we are left with is the need for some reasonable system for rotating potentially compromised ammunition out of circulation, so that its reliability is not a variable. I often think of this system as a ritual, because while I might know intellectually there is very little chance that my six-month old ammunition will malfunction, I replace it anyway. How do I know the odds say my ammo works just fine? Simple — my disposal system is to shoot it … and I’m yet to observe an age-related ammunition malfunction. Actually, I am the only component going faulty due to age!
Let’s visit our practice habits for a moment. While we can go out and buy a gun without a manual safety or a holster without a thumb break, thus eliminating those variables, it is completely up to us to control how we use the equipment that we have.
It is critical that we establish consistent behaviors in our gun-handling skills. If we do it one way on Sunday and a different way on Wednesday and an entirely different way again on the Fourth of July, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. The different ways that we could perform a given task become the exact variables that we are trying to eliminate!
So if we are truly interested in becoming more efficient in our defensive skills, it is absolutely crucial that we decide on the best way to do whatever it is … then hold our own feet to the fire and always do it that way. Myriad examples exist: Which digit operates your slide lock lever? Or is it only sometimes a digit? Do you hold your gun in retention while reloading or clearing a malfunction? How about while target shooting? Do you (sometimes) lay everything out on the bench and (sometimes) poke around absentmindedly looking for a magazine?
Defending yourself with a firearm should not be like going to Baskin Robbins and wandering through 31 flavors. Our mechanical skill sets need to be chocolate or vanilla! Daydreaming about Caramel-Rum-Artichoke-Berry-Bacon-Citrus-Fudge-Nut** takes too much time in the moment of need and wastes the time we have to practice.
Identifying and controlling the variables we can while training will make it much easier to cope with the life-and-death circumstances over which we have no control.
*Just kidding — Real Men don’t need a card. **Sounds delicious. Has bacon … and rum.