Proper use of a firearm for self-defense is more than propping a gun up next to a nightstand, strapping on a holster or dropping a pistol into the glovebox of the family car and calling it good. Truly incorporating a gun into your day-to-day to ensure it is always at hand is a lifestyle change, and there are many things you’ll need to change, tweak or do differently.
In this article, I’ll walk you through a variety of considerations, warn of hazards and share tips I picked up along my path that pertain to defensive use of guns. I’ll talk about everything from skill building to storage considerations, legal concerns and weapon setup. If you are a brand-new gun owner this article will help set your sights on best practices. If you are a seasoned gunhand it will perhaps yield a few tips you might not have heard before.
This info is not a comprehensive, multivariable analysis of all the factors of self-defense. It is a collection of my experiences and observations that I believe are best practices, and shortcuts to both good results and safety. Whoever you are, it is my hope you’ll come away with some new wisdom that will make you a better, more capable shooter.
The Law and You
This is the part of a shooter’s education that is most commonly neglected. Understandable, as it is painfully boring stuff. But learn it you must, because the legal slugfest that will invariably follow a self-defense shooting is the 2nd half of the fight for your life.
If you applied for a concealed weapons permit, depending on the requirements of permitting in your state and the quality of your instructors curriculum you’ll get either a compressed overview of the laws in your state or a very clipped list of things you should and shouldn’t do.
That won’t cut it: the rest of your life hangs in the balance of the following criminal trial, should it occur. It is up to you to know the laws surrounding self-defense, especially involving lethal force, inside and out. Know where you can and cannot carry with your permit, in what condition and locations you can store a firearm in your vehicle, and the fine details of your state’s castle doctrine and stand-your-ground laws, if applicable.
Have a meeting with your family attorney and if he decides defending you after a shooting is not in his wheelhouse, get a referral for one who can, and has a record of successes. Discuss pre- and post-event preparations, to include what you should say to police, and making bail if you are detained.
Ignorance is never a defense in the eyes of the law. Learn and prepare now.
If the legal element is the least talked about factor of self-defense then firearm selection is definitely the most discussed, probably over-discussed. Hey, this is the fun part for a lot of people, nothing wrong with that. On its face, the task is simple: select a reliable firearm that is suited to your specific purpose and then get trained, practice with and carry it.
In reality, the sheer number of guns out there and bewildering variety of opinions about them can make selection difficult, even for experienced shooters. Ultimately, even the most stalwart of us don’t stick with one gun for our whole lives; guns wear out or become obsolete, technology improves or the requirement (or shooter themselves) changes.
Before you trot down to the local gun shop or open up your browser and start shopping, it helps to define what you need; Is it a gun strictly for in-home defense, one that you’ll carry on your person, or both? If it is for in-home defense only, you’ll need to choose between a handgun or long gun. A carry gun will by necessity be a handgun, as will a dual-purpose gun. You may decide to get one for each role, to optimize their performance, i.e. a long gun for home and a compact handgun for carry.
I’ll toss in a few of my favorite “all-purpose” guns at the end of this section, but whatever you choose, it must be adequately powerful for use against humans, high-quality, reliable, and ideally semi-automatic. If choosing a long gun for the house, consider that both rifles and shotguns offer greatly increased effectiveness over handguns, but require the use of both hands to operate efficiently. Manually operated long guns like lever- or pump-action rifles and shotguns will be very difficult or impossible to run if you only have the use of one hand. Being reduced to the use of one hand may not result from injury or being wounded, but could be something mundane like the need to operate a phone, open doors, carry children, etc.
A handgun strictly for home defense will not be constrained by size requirements like a carry gun will, and indeed fullsize pistols are often a better choice within limits; larger handguns are often easier to shoot well and have less recoil, chambering being the same, than smaller variants. A gun you may not dream of trying to carry concealed equipped with an extended magazine, light and silencer makes a fine nightstand gun. Note this is not an excuse to go crazy and use an obnoxiously huge or overly powerful handgun: save your giant magnums and Desert Eagles for the range.
Concealed carry handguns are subject to more gotchas. They must be small enough to conceal well based on your attire and environment while sacrificing as little as possible in the way of shootability and caliber. You may have need of a gun for business dress, and another for casual attire. You might be a person whose situation dictates a tiny pocket pistol, but for many it is not a mandate. Also don’t forget that your method of carry makes a considerable difference in selection: a gun carried on the ankle or in the pocket will by necessity need to be very small, much smaller than what the same person could get away with if the gun is carried inside-the-waistband with a good holster and gunbelt.
Also keep in mind that as far as handguns are concerned, you really can have a gun that will “do it all” with careful selection of a good compact model. Compact semi-autos offer a perfect balance between handling, accuracy, adequate cartridge and capacity and size that make them the default choice for many carriers. If you are looking for the “all-season” gun, make it a compact.
A few of my favorite choices in defensive guns are below. All are reliable, high-quality choices and most of them are “mature” platforms that have been around for some years now, benefitting from a large body of institutional use, refinement and knowledge. If you can spend a little more for top quality equipment you’ll find you have a much easier road to travel over the life of the gun, one less fraught with malfunctions, breakages and headache. My preferred cartridges are 9mm in a handgun, 5.56x45mm in a rifle and 12 gauge in a scattergun. All offer the best combination of capacity, modest recoil and terminal performance in their respective firearms, and their commonality ensures I have plentiful ammo available and a vast selection of loads to choose from.
- Glock Models 17 or 19, Generation 4 or 5.
- Smith & Wesson M&P9 or M&P9c.
- Heckler & Koch VP9 or VP9SK, P30 or P30SK, USP9 or USP9 compact.
- Sig P226R, P229R or P239.
- Beretta 92G, 92G Centurion, PX4 or PX4 compact.
- AR-15 variant manufactured by Colt, BCM, Daniel Defense or Knight’s Armament Co.
- Remington Models 870P or 1100.
- Mossberg Models 590 or 590A1.
- N. P12.
- Benelli M1, M2 or M4.
- Beretta 1301.
Any gun can do if you can do, but picking the one right tool makes the work much easier. Note there are plenty of other good choices out there, but this is a short list of my go-to favorites.
Carry Tips and Keeping a Gun in Your Vehicle
There are plenty of positions on your body to carry a gun effectively and well-concealed. Success with any gun in any position can be made much more likely by selecting a good holster, and if carrying on the waistline a good gun belt. Merely stuffing the gun in your waistband is rarely a good idea, and chances are a dropped pistol is in your future. A gun carried in the pocket alone may be secure enough, but its tendency to roll and rotate will likely snarl your draw. Don’t even think about tucking a gun, even a tiny one, in your sock for ankle carry. Just. Don’t. You think that’s crazy? I’ve seen things, man…
Leather and kydex holsters are both good choices when well-made and fitted to the specific model of gun you are carrying. Cheesy nylon or fabric holsters are to be avoided. The importance of a gun belt, which is simply a belt constructed in such a way as to be very rigid and stiff in order to prevent the gun from flopping or rolling away from the body, is essential to success when carrying a gun IWB or OWB. Don’t think you can use a flimsy, regular belt and get good results, especially when you are carrying a heavier pistol, or toting extra ammo and a flashlight.
Your holster, belt and clothing form a system for carry. A failure or insufficiency in any one of them will reduce the effectiveness of the whole, and can lead to your gun being detected, “made,” or worse, dropping from your body.
Some folks don’t carry the gun on or about their person, opting instead to keep the gun at home and then take it with them in the car when they head out. Their “carry” gun is usually stashed in the glovebox or center console for the duration, but some people take the time to install a vehicle mounted holster to keep the gun in a ready-to-draw position. A few misguided or careless souls let it roll around in the seat or under it. I take issue with several facets of this methodology.
First, if you proclaim that you are serious about your safety, and choose to arm yourself with a firearm and then choose to not carry it whenever you can, ask yourself why. If you need your gun but are away from you vehicle, it might as well be on the moon. If you can carry, are able to carry, then carry.
Second, vehicles are not secure containers. Tons of guns are stolen from locked vehicles every year. The best place for a gun to be is in your possession. The next best place, if you are out and about, is in the trunk of a car, which is more taxing and slower to access for smash-and-grab thieves. The glovebox and center consoles are not secure containers at all, being made of plastic on most makes of car with flimsy latches and locks. Unless you have upgraded them to metal strongbox type containers, don’t store guns here when away from your vehicle. Any of this makes little difference if your car gets stolen, of course.
Third, for those that choose to mount the gun to a magnet, holster or similar in the cabin, be very sure of your state’s laws regarding keeping loaded guns in the passenger compartment. The law varies so much state to state that a detailed breakdown would be beyond the purpose of this article, but most fall into one of a few camps: gun is OK in the glovebox, console, or both; gun is OK when “securely encased” or; gun is OK on your person, permit required or no.
It’s that “securely encased” provision that will get you in trouble. Some states may interpret that as a holster with a securing device, like a thumb-break or strap, or maybe a lockable gun case instead. A magnet will in all likelihood not meet that criteria. Furthermore, if you are choosing to mount a holster you need to make sure it is affixed to a firmpoint in the cabin with an appropriate mounting solution and quality fasteners, lest the gun come loose from vibration or, worse, become a missile in the event of a crash. I advocate disregarding magnets entirely for use in a vehicle no matter how wazoo powerful they are. The likelihood of a launched or lost gun is simply too great.
Regardless of how you position the gun in your vehicle you need to know what your state’s laws are on declaring the gun to any law enforcement officer who may be interacting with you if stopped. You may be required to declare at once, only if asked, or not required at all. I always recommend that you politely inform an officer that you do have a gun with you, that it is legal, and where it is located. Ask them what they want you to do, then follow their instructions. DO NOT reach for your gun under any circumstances.
This is a contentious topic, and everyone, layman and LEO alike have an opinion. I have been pulled over a half-dozen times carrying all kinds of guns, and always informed the officer no matter what the state laws were. The officers appreciated this gesture and all the stops went smoothly with no drama.
Some professionals, even a few cops among them, recommend that you don’t bring it up unless asked by the stopping officer or state law requires it. They have their reasons, and I am not going to tell you they are wrong. Ultimately it is up to you to know the law on this issue and then act accordingly. If the law does not mandate disclosing the presence of your legally carried gun, you’ll have to make the call if pulled over.
The one additional item that you positively must commit to carrying along with your gun is a flashlight. Weapon mounted or handheld, light is vital to both discern the presence of and ID possible threats in low or no light conditions. A WML will allow you to shoot better in conjunction with the light, but where the light goes so goes the muzzle of the gun. This takes considerable practice and training to mitigate.
A handheld light is useful for a multitude of mundane tasks aside from being employed in a defensive scenario, but will require a considerable amount of practice to run well in conjunction with a handgun. For a home defense long gun, a WML is the only option worth considering.
The other piece of kit you should make a mandatory component of your daily carry setup is a proper first-aid kit, one designed to treat a gunshot wound. Think about it: you have the ability to make a hole, shouldn’t you have the ability to fix one? You may wind up needing to fix yourself: bad guys shoot back, and sometimes an accident can happen. Modern micro trauma kits can be made about the size of a thick wallet and carried anywhere. Dark Angel Medical and ITS Tactical, among other make nice EDC trauma kits.
If you can’t or won’t commit to carriage of a proper medical kit, at least carry a tourniquet. Tourniquets are effective at halting one of the top killers resulting from a gunshot: extremity hemorrhage, which is bleeding from a wounded limb. Tourniquets are widely available, affordable and easy to carry. Get a couple. Learn how to apply them properly. Practice with them. There is little reason not to have the equipment and training to save yourself or someone else from bleeding to death.
Don’t forget, you are far, far more likely to need to employ medical tools and skills for a host of less-exciting reasons than an attack on your life. Get the skills, get the tools, carry them. No excuses.
Choosing a gun for defense of life and loved ones is a lifestyle change. As you can see from the advice and tips in this article, there is much to consider, even more to learn, and sacrifices to make, and not just about the guns themselves. With some careful forethought, dedication and smart use of your time, you can achieve a holistic level of readiness that will result in greater capability, skill and confidence with the gun.
Any tips you’d like to add? What do you make of the author’s advice? Let’s keep the conversation going in the comments.