Combat Handgunnery: Avoiding Mistakes

Combat Handgunnery: Avoiding Mistakes

We discuss some common mistakes made by armed citizens and the best ways to avoid making them yourself.

Things People Don't Think About

One reason shooting is such a great hobby is that it’s a tremendously good stress-reliever. A lot of people don’t understand how this works. They think that we go to the range, imagine our boss’ face on the picture downrange, and act out some homicidal rage by shooting it again and again. That’s not how it works at all.

This excerpt is from Massad Ayoob's Gun Digest Book of Combat Handgunnery, 7th Edition, now available at

The reason shooting is such a good stress reliever is that, like sky-diving or rock climbing or SCUBA diving, you have to concentrate on what you’re doing to the point where all other BS is excluded from your mind. You must concentrate or you can get killed! Our focus on safe shooting banishes our thoughts of job stress, family problems or whether our team won the Super Bowl. If at any time we find ourselves on the line preoccupied with other, more compelling thoughts, it’s time to pack up and stop shooting for awhile, perhaps for the rest of the day. Not because we’re going to have a psychotic break, but because we can’t concentrate sufficiently on something that demands our complete attention. We do it this way for the same reason that we tell our teenage children not to drive when they’re upset.

In defensive shooting, as in martial arts, the practitioner seeks to become so skillful that the techniques may be employed automatically without thinking about them when the proper stimulus comes. This is all to the good. However, we must walk a fine line when it comes to firearms safety. Automatic pilot is a fine thing, but it cannot be trusted exclusively. We must always strive for a “conscious competence” level when we’re performing firearms safety tasks. We must think about what we are doing. If we have achieved the ideal Zen state of unconscious competence in firearms handling and do everything correctly without thinking about it, that’s wonderful, but we need to double check once more at the conscious competence level to confirm the good job that we hope our unconscious competence carried out.

We need to be ruthlessly and honestly critical of ourselves. If we have what are currently called “anger management problems,” we won’t be ready to have immediate access to loaded firearms until those things are under control. If we sleepwalk, it may not be a good idea having guns available in the bedroom.

A good friend of mine is a world-class competitive shooter with a strong background in law enforcement. He is one of the most well-adjusted human beings and family men I know. He also happens to be a very deep sleeper, and tends to be a bit groggy and disoriented for several seconds when suddenly awakened. Recognizing that, he has made a point of keeping his home defense pistol, a Browning 9mm semiautomatic, in a secured drawer across the bedroom. It is stored with the chamber empty. He knows that by the time he has gotten up, crossed the room, retrieved the gun, and chambered a round, he will be awake and clear-headed. This is the kind of self-analysis we all need to go through.

Layered Defense

The police officer on the street has layers of physical defenses. He is taught Verbal Judo™, a crisis intervention skill. He is taught “soft” come-along holds and “hard” strikes with fist and forearm, with knee and foot. He carries pepper spray, and can resort, next, to his baton. He will have a handgun on the duty belt, and hopefully a shotgun and/or rifle in the patrol car if things get worse yet.

The citizen should have layered defenses in the home. Good locks in solid doors, secure windows, alarms, perhaps an intercom or even a closed-circuit TV at the door, perhaps professionally trained protection dogs and, of course, firearms.

Gun safety also demands a layered series of defenses. We secure the guns from unauthorized hands. We are constantly aware of where any lethal weapon is and what its condition is. We check by sight and feel. Redundancy is the key. We want to create net after net after carefully deployed net to keep accidents from happening.

Let’s close with a very insightful statement by an NRA Director and firearms instructor named Mike Baker. Says Mike, “Seemingly obsessive concern with firearms safety is the mark of the firearms professional.”

Concealed Carry Faux Pas

Sex and violence: You can’t enjoy the one if you don’t survive the other.

Richard C. Davis, Inventor of soft body armor, armed citizen and gunfight survivor

I don’t mind where people make love, so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.

Beatrice Tanner Campbell, Arbiter of etiquette in days past

Richard Davis and Beatrice Tanner Campbell aren’t usually discussed in the same paragraph, but it’s appropriate here. We lawfully carry guns because we want to stay alive to enjoy the good things in life. Because we are licensed to wear them in public, we do indeed “do it in the street,” and therefore we must take all the more care not to “frighten the horses.”

In most jurisdictions, concealment is not only authorized by the license, but also tacitly required. Rookie cops are known for the need to “flash,” to just show someone that for the first time in their life, “they’ve got the power.” Armed citizens are well advised to avoid that temptation. The mark of the professional is that few people know that they go about armed. Discretion is critical.

A spiritual descendant of Mrs. Campbell is Judith Martin, who writes the popular “Miss Manners” etiquette column for the newspapers. Some years ago she had a column that read something like this:

“Dear Miss Manners:
“My job requires me to carry a gun. Recently at a party, I sat down awkwardly on a couch and my gun fell to the floor in plain sight. Everyone stared and I was quite shaken. It was most embarrassing. What does one do in such a situation?”
(signed) “Armed and Confused”

The columnist’s reply was similar to this:

“Dear Armed and Confused:
“You should have immediately picked up your firearm and secured it. You should have then self-effacingly stated, ‘I’m terribly sorry. My job requires me to carry a gun. Don’t worry, no one is in danger.’ Then you should have made a graceful exit. And then you should have gone out immediately and purchased a holster that would not let your gun fall out.
—Miss Manners”

Clearly, Judith Martin is one of us!

You want to avoid “flashing” the gun or allowing it to “print,” that is, to become visible in outline under the concealing garments. If you carry in a pocket, use a pocket holster designed to break up the gun’s distinctive outline. Another option is to fold up a road map or pamphlet lengthwise, and put it in the pocket between the outer fabric and the gun. If you have a shallow pocket, this will also prevent someone standing in a waiting line behind you from glancing down and seeing the backstrap of the pistol peeking out of the opening of the pocket.

If you wear a shoulder holster, make sure the concealing garment is made of substantial fabric that the lines of the harness do not print. When you bend forward, use one hand or forearm to hold the garment closed on the holster side. Otherwise, a shoulder holster that is not secured to the belt may swing forward and become visible to someone on the side opposite the gun.

If you bend down to pick something up, do it like a back patient. Keep the spine and torso vertical, and bend at the knees. Bending at the waist causes a gun in a hip holster to print starkly.

Avoid middle-of-the-back holsters. Anywhere else on your waistband, if the gun catches the hem of the garment and pulls it up revealingly, you’ll quickly either feel it or notice it in peripheral vision. Neither will be true if the gun is in the small of your back. It may be completely exposed, and you’ll be the only person within 300 yards who doesn’t know that your gun is hanging out.

It will be apparent in this book that the author is a believer in safety straps. That’s partly so the gun won’t be lost in a fall or foot pursuit or other strenuous activity. It’s partly because if you’re grappling with someone and his hands go around your waist, feel the gun, and begin tugging, you want to buy some “reactionary gap” time. It is also partly to avoid something as simple as sitting in a lattice-back chair and having your gun suddenly leave the holster.

I was once vacationing in Florida, legal to carry a gun, with a 1911 .45 auto, in an open-top, inside-the-waistband holster, under a loose sport shirt. I sat down in a beach chair next to a pool, adjusted the back of the chair up and settled myself. I heard a “clunk.” I thought, “Clunk? Vas ist das clunk?” I glanced down and saw a remarkably familiar combat custom .45 auto lying at poolside. So did a couple of other rather wide-eyed people. I scooped up the pistol and tucked it away, remarking to one concerned onlooker, “Sorry, I’m a cop, they make me carry this damn thing.” Then, like the poor soul who wrote to Miss Manners, I beat a hasty retreat.

What had happened was that as I shifted my weight upward to settle in the chair, the butt of the pistol had become caught in the open latticework at the back of the chair. When I lowered myself, the movement in essence pulled the holster down and out from around the gun, which then toppled to the pavement.

This is also a good reason to carry a pistol that is “drop safe.” It isn’t enough to smugly say, “I don’t intend to drop my gun.” I didn’t intend to, either. But if things we didn’t intend to do never happened, we wouldn’t have to carry guns in the first place. Out West, a lady with a cute little derringer in her purse dropped the bag accidentally. The pistol inside received the impact as the purse hit the floor and discharged, sending a bullet up out of the handbag and into the chest of a man standing nearby.

When you are reaching upward, particularly with a short jacket on, take care that the garment does not lift so much that it exposes the gun or even part of the holster. If the pistol is on your right hip, you might want to discreetly hold the hem of the jacket in place with your right hand as you reach with your left. If that will flash my spare magazine pouch, which some might find just as unsettling, this writer is of such an age that he can commandeer some passing youngster and say, “Excuse me, son, could you reach an item on that top shelf for an old man?”

If you have an ankle holster on, before you leave the house, sit down and see how much the pant’s cuff rides up when you’re seated. If the bottom of the holster becomes exposed, nature is telling you to pull your sock up on the outside of the holster, taking care that it does not come up over the edge of the holster mouth where it could snag a draw. Now, if the cuff lifts while you’re sitting in a restaurant, it just looks like you have a baggy sock. You may get a summons from the Fashion Police, but the Gun Police will leave you alone.

When in restaurants, try to sit with your gun/holster side toward the wall. This will minimize chances of the gun being spotted as you get up.

If you are wearing a jacket and find yourself seated someplace unbearably hot, you can take off the jacket without flashing the gun. Simply sit down with the garment on, then shrug out of the sleeves and let the jacket sort of fluff up around your waist. Done with care, this will hide the gun. Now you’ll be comfortable, and you won’t become conspicuous by being the only person in the place wearing a jacket.

If you carry your firearm off-body in a purse or fake Daytimer™ or whatever, for heaven’s sake, don’t get in the habit of setting it where you might get up and leave it unattended. There are other countries where people have gone to jail for that, convicted of criminal negligence, if the abandoned weapon is stolen or found by a child. If the container is small enough, put it in your lap. If it’s too big for your lap, put it on the seat against your hip. If you must, put it on the floor against your leg. Have it on the exiting side or between your feet. Yes, the exiting side is more accessible to the purse-snatcher, but ask yourself one question. How many times in your life has a thug snatched your purse or briefcase, compared to how many times in your life have you had to go back into a house or restaurant for a carry bag you inadvertently left behind? Between the feet is better, but on the exit side is acceptable too, because it’s always where you can feel it and you can’t slide out or get up without noticing it and reminding yourself to keep it with you.

Securing Guns In Vehicles

Do the neighbors and passersby need to see you carrying guns out to your car for a day at the range? Dedicated gun bags look more like high-quality gym bags or travel bags, and don’t attract attention. The new-generation fully enclosed golf club cases designed for air travel are ideal for transporting rifles and shotguns. If the case of ammo you put in the trunk looks like a plain cardboard box, no one is going to look twice.

We have a generation of “gun-free workplaces” where an armed citizen can be arrested for trespass after warning if they enter the office armed. Federal buildings such as post offices are normally considered to be off limits for gun carrying, even if you have a license to do so in public, and in many jurisdictions the same is true for courthouses, schools, and even places that sell alcohol. This means that if you’re an armed citizen on a day off doing errands that include mailing a package, picking up a copy of a deed at the courthouse, and purchasing wine for a dinner party, you’ll have to take your gun on and off at least three times during the trip.

You don’t want to do it conspicuously. A frightened citizen who sees someone “doing something with a gun in a parked car” violates Mrs. Campbell’s edict, “Don’t frighten the horses.” A thug who sees you put a pistol in the console knows that he can smash out a window with a rock and steal a pistol as soon as you’re out of sight.

If you regularly carry a gun, it makes sense to get a small lock-box that easily opens by feel with combination push buttons, and bolt it to the floor or the transmission hump of your car, within reach of the driver’s seat. This allows you to secure the gun as you approach your parking space, and carefully slip it back out and put it back on as you drive away. Why do this while you’re in motion? Because most people won’t be able to see you. (Take care about being observed by people in high-seated trucks, however.) You’re much more likely to be noticed by a pedestrian who is walking by your parked car, since his natural visual angle is downward into your vehicle.

You might also want to slip the gun into a sturdy cloth shopper’s bag (a fanny pack might become a target for a thief because it looks like it might contain a wallet) and lock it in your trunk when you go into the post office, then retrieve it into the passenger compartment when you return to your car.

While we’re talking about guns and cars, it’s not sound tactics to have gun-related decals or bumper stickers on your vehicle. Did you ever make a political decision and change your vote because you saw something on someone’s bumper sticker? Probably not, and no one will vote for your gun rights because they saw your bumper sticker, either. However, those things put some cops on hyper-alert when they pull you over for having a taillight out. Your NRA bumper sticker may give some road-raging bozo the idea to call the police and say you threatened him with a gun. When the cops pull you over and find out you do indeed have a gun, you “fit the profile.”

You also have to consider that the criminal element isn’t entirely stupid. When they see a gun-related sign on your car, it tells them that you feel strongly about guns. That tells them you probably own several guns. They love to steal guns because firearms and prescription drugs are the only things they can steal from you that they can fence on the black market for more than their intrinsic value, instead of maybe a nickel on the dollar. Now they know that if they follow this car to its home, they can watch the house until people are gone, and then break in and steal guns. This is why the bumper sticker thing is just not wise. Show where your heart is on your rights to own firearms by working and contributing to gun owners’ rights groups, instead. It’ll do everyone, and the cause, and particularly you, a lot more good.

The Routine Traffic Stop

It can happen to any of us. We’re driving along and suddenly the red, or blue, or red and blue lights start flashing in the rearview mirror. We’re being pulled over! And we’re carrying a concealed gun! What do we do?

Well, since we are law-abiding citizens and carrying legally, we pull over. Smoothly, steadily, turning on the signal as soon as we see those lights. At roadside, we park and turn off the ignition and engage the emergency flashers. At night, turn on the interior lights. Stay behind the wheel. If you get out and approach the officer unbidden, you not only indicate to him that there might be something inside the car that you don’t want him to see, but your actions mimic the single most common pattern of ambush murder of police during traffic stops. Just stay in the car. Leave your hands relaxed in a high position on the steering wheel. Do not reach for license and registration in the glove box or console or under the seat, either now or before coming to a stop. From a vehicle behind you, these movements mimic going for a weapon.

Remember Mrs. Campbell’s advice. No cop gets through a police academy without horror stories of brother and sister officers murdered in traffic stops. The officer is carrying a gun and this is the last of Mrs. Campbell’s horses that you want to frighten.

The officer will ask for license and registration. Make sure that when you open the glove box for the latter, there isn’t a gun sitting there. If you have indeed left la pistola in the glove box, tell the officer, “I’m licensed to carry, and I have one in the glove box with my registration. How should we handle this?” It would be much better for the gun not to be in that location at all.

In some jurisdictions, when a permit is issued, there is a requirement that you identify yourself as armed any time you make contact with a police officer and are carrying. The easiest thing to do is carry the concealed handgun license next to the driver’s license, and hand both to the officer together. Don’t blurt something like, “I’ve got a gun!” It sounds like a threatening statement. If you try to explain about the pistol and passing traffic obscures some of your words and the only thing the officer hears is “gun,” your traffic stop can go downhill. Just hand over the CCW permit with the DL.

You’ll want to do the same in jurisdictions where such identification may not be required by law, but where the Department of Motor Vehicles cross-references with issuing authorities on carry permits. In those jurisdictions—Washington state, for example, and many, if not most, parts of California at this writing—the officer will have been told by dispatch or will have seen on his mobile data terminal that you’re someone who carries a gun. If you don’t bring it up first, such action can seem to the officer as if you’re hiding something from him. Again, hand over the CCW with the DL.

In jurisdictions where neither is the case, it’s up to you. If I pulled you over for a traffic stop in my community and you are a law-abiding citizen who has been investigated, vetted and licensed to carry a gun, it was none of my business. If I was worried about it, I would have asked you if you had one, and I would have expected at that time the honest answer the law demands.

If at any point the officer asks you to please step out of the vehicle, things have changed. Either someone with a description similar to yours did a bad thing (which means you’re going to be field interviewed and patted down until it’s clear that “you ain’t him”), or your operation was careless enough to give the officer probable cause to believe you’re driving under the influence. This means there will be a roadside field sobriety test. In the typical Rohmberg test, arms will be going straight out to your sides, coats will be coming open and this would be a very bad time to “flash.”

So, if the officer asks you to step out, I would suggest you reply with exactly these words, if you haven’t already handed over the CCW: “Certainly, Officer. However, I’m licensed to carry. I do have it on. Tell me what you want me to do.” The cop will take it from there.

Now you’re seeing why those of us who’ve been carrying for a long time understand a principle the courts call the “higher standard of care.” It holds that we, of all people, should be smart enough not to make stupid mistakes with guns. This is why, among many other things, those of us who carry guns tend to rely more on the cruise control than the radar detector, and actually make an effort to drive at the speed limit, so we won’t get pulled over in the first place.

Gun-possession laws and carry reciprocity change constantly. The best source I’ve found for staying current on the 50-piece patchwork quilt of such laws is at

Securing The Combat Handgun

Shooter A is a professional instructor in combat arms. He’s on the road about half the time, usually alone. He keeps a pair of handcuffs in his suitcase and travels with a primary handgun and a backup weapon. When he goes to bed at night in a hotel room, one loaded pistol is in one of the shoes he plans to wear the next day, at bedside. The other is in the other shoe on the opposite side of the bed. He untucks the sheets and blankets at the bottom of the bed before turning in.

Rationale? He can reach the gun immediately if there’s an intrusion. If he has to roll to the other side of the bed, he can reach a gun there too. If, like some of the victims he has met over the years, he wakes up with the attacker on top of him in bed, there will be no tucked-in bedclothes to bind him like a straitjacket and he can roll the attacker off. If he has to leave the guns behind for any reason, he can lock them in the hard-shell case he keeps inside his regular suitcase, then use the handcuffs to secure the case to pipes under the bathroom sink.

The latter tactic is because research has taught him that many hotel burglars have suborned hotel staff and use their keys to enter rooms while guests are out. It’s unlikely that these punks will have handcuff keys with them. If they break the pipes to get at the case, it will call immediate attention to their activities. Hotel management will alert to what’s going on, change locks and keys and kill the golden goose.

Shooter B is a police officer with young children not yet at the age of responsibility. He is subject to call-out from off-duty status at any time. He has arrested and sent to jail some people who aren’t too happy about it, and he feels that nothing less than an instantly accessible loaded handgun will keep him and his young family safe enough for his peace of mind.

The solution is a lock-box secured in his closet. When he comes home from work he is carrying his duty sidearm, a .45 auto, as an off-duty weapon. He simply leaves it on his person until he goes to bed. When that time comes, he goes to the lock box. The .45 goes in, and out of the box comes another gun that has reposed safely there all day. It is a Smith & Wesson .357 Combat Magnum revolver, loaded with 125-grain hollow-points and customized with a device called MagnaTrigger, which is not externally visible. When he turns in, he slips this gun under the bed where it’s out of sight but he can reach it immediately. From his night-table drawer come two simple-looking stainless steel rings. He puts one on the middle finger of each hand, and goes to sleep.

The rings have magnets attached to the palm side. There’s one for each hand because he learned in police training that the dominant hand could become disabled in a fight and he might have to resort to his support hand. He is now the only one who can fire the MagnaTrigger gun, whose retrofitted mechanism blocks the internal rebound slide. At the bottom of the block is a piece of powerful cobalt samarium magnet. Only when a hand wearing a magnetic ring closes over the gun in a firing grasp will reverse polarity move the block out of the way and make the gun instantly “live.” This device has been available and working well since 1975, and is currently available from Tarnhelm Supply, 431 High St., Boscawen, NH 03303. It can be applied only to a Smith & Wesson double-action revolver, K-frame or larger, at this time.

Two very different people, and two very different approaches. Neither is likely to have a gun stolen. Neither is likely to have an unauthorized person handling their guns without their knowledge. Yet each is ready to instantaneously access a defensive handgun if there is a sudden, swift invasion of their domicile.

The MagnaTrigger is also useful for any time you want to have a gun in off-body carry instead of attached to the wearer. If the container is snatched, only the legitimate owner wearing the rings can make the gun go bang.

Why have you not heard about the MagnaTrigger from the mass media, in all their articles about gun control advocates calling for “smart guns?” Well, simply because those gun control advocates don’t really want smart guns. They want no guns at all. Their strategy is to pass legislation requiring something that does not yet exist on the market: electronically controlled pistols. This will give them an avenue to ban “stupid guns” as dangerous, and then leave gun owners with nothing because the “smart guns” promised to replace them don’t come through. If the public found out there actually was a smart gun that worked, the anti-gunners fear that people who don’t buy guns now would buy these, and that would thwart their plans. The smart gun that works now is indeed the MagnaTrigger, hampered only by the fact that the technology has not yet been successfully translated to semiautomatic pistols.

The Handcuff Trick

Since long before this old guy pinned on a badge, cops have been securing their guns at home with their handcuffs. With the conventional double-action revolver, the bracelet goes between the rear of the trigger and the back of the trigger guard, and over the hammer. This at once blocks the rearward travel of the trigger and the rearward travel of the hammer, positively preventing firing. On a “hammerless” style revolver, the trigger is still blocked.

On a single-action such as the 1911 or the Hi-Power, the handcuff’s bracelet is applied differently. On the 1911, which has a sliding trigger, it goes under the outside of the trigger guard at the juncture of the grip-frame, and over the back of the slide in a way that holds the hammer down if the chamber is empty, or back if the gun is cocked and locked and loaded. With the Browning, which has a freestanding trigger, it can be done just as on a revolver or between the hammer and the slide while also blocking the trigger’s travel toward the rear of the guard. A double-action auto would be secured the same way, holding the hammer in the down position.

I don’t see any way to effectively lock up most Glock-like pistols with handcuffs. What the Glock does lend itself to better than most other guns, is a home safety concept I first heard suggested by Peter Tarley, the world-class instructor who used to work for Glock. Simply unload the pistol, and field strip it. The Glock’s barrel/slide assembly comes off en bloc as with many other guns, but unlike most others, there is no takedown lever that has to be manipulated a certain way during reassembly. When danger threatens, grab the barrel/slide assembly with your non-dominant hand, your frame assembly with your dominant hand, and put the two back together. Then holding the gun in the dominant hand, seize the loaded magazine, insert it, rack the slide, and you’re holding a loaded Glock pistol. It’s surprising how quickly this can be done. The old HK P9S, no longer produced, was one of the few other guns with which this trick works as well.

Remember, it’s our gun. Power and responsibility must always be commensurate. When we need the power, we must accept—and live up to—the responsibility. In the end, most of the time, you never need the power, but you feel good about having fulfilled the responsibility.

Editor's Note: This excerpt is from Massad Ayoob's Gun Digest Book of Combat Handgunnery, 7th Edition.

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