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A few days ago, Rory Miller posted some thoughts on power. It’ll be fascinating to see where he goes with it; the seeds so far look very promising and you should probably go read his post for yourself.

Because, like my friend Tamara, I hate using good material only at away games, I decided to share with you something I said in Rory’s comments section:

Looking back through my notes from a class I took 7 years ago and (thought I) had long since forgotten, I’d jotted down a verbatim quote from one of the other students in the class. It must have resonated with me at the time because it made it into my notes.

But I don’t remember it.

I have no conscious memory of that segment of the class. No idea who said it, even — just the little squiggle next to the words, that indicated it was a fellow student and not the instructor.

That student had power. He or she changed my life. And I know this, because I’ve been using that idea, in those exact words, for the past two or three years at least, as I’ve taught others.

Lots of weird permutations there. I wonder how much of who I am today, I owe to people I don’t even remember. Every idea I’ve ever had came from somewhere — where?

We have the power to change the world. And most of us don’t even notice when we have.

Thinking about this today in the context of teaching others, because I’ll have many opportunties this year to teach other teachers. There’s the Cornered Cat Instructor Development Class coming up in June here in the Pacific Northwest, which should be a lot of fun and a bit of a challenge for all involved. Before that, I’ll be down in Texas for the AG&AG Conference where I’ll have a chance to work with many of the group leaders and chapter facilitators for that organization. This is in addition to the usual round of working with students (many of whom are also instructors) and with my own assistants and apprentices.

Massad Ayoob speaks of teaching as having an ‘oil stain’ effect — when you plink a single  drop of oil into a puddle of water, that oil will spread around and change the nature of everything the water touches. That’s power.

To me, one of the most important components of instructor development is helping new teachers understand their own tremendous power and embrace the responsibility that goes with it. Most of us really aren’t 100% comfortable with having power, with having the ability to change the world for good or bad. So we retreat into denial and reject the responsibility we should be embracing.

“We” means… me. I do that. It’s more comfortable to think “no one listens to me anyway” than it is to measure thoughts, weigh words, think about the potential effects before I throw something out into the world.

What about you? What parts of your own power scare you — and why?

Taking care of others

One of the challenges perennially faced by firearms instructors everywhere: convincing family-minded people that investing in professional training classes for themselves is not a selfish use of family resources. In fact, it’s one of the least selfish things you can do.

Is it selfish to get the skills it takes to protect your family?

Learning to protect yourself and the people you love is one of the least selfish things you can do for your family.

It’s a hard sell, because people who teach defensive handgun classes have traditionally emphasized self defense in their advertising. We talk a lot about being prepared to take care of yourself if the need arises. And it’s true that if you ever need to solve a criminal problem, you are the only person that you know for absolute sure-and-certain will be there and on your side.

But that’s not all there is to it.

If you’re anything like me or most people in this world, you have family members, close friends, people you love, people you care about and spend time with. So maybe you won’t be alone when trouble strikes. Maybe there will be other people there with you — a spouse or a significant other, a grown son, a teenage daughter, a best friend or a favorite niece.

  • Are your skills good enough to protect the people you love?
  • Is someone you love willing to protect you — but you aren’t sure you would know how to help them do it?
  • Do your younger loved ones know what to do to help you solve the problem if the unthinkable happens when you are together?
  • Do you know how to help the people you love learn to protect themselves, so that you are all better prepared to take care of each other?

It’s worth thinking about.

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I have a dream

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the gun-owning world and about my place inside that world. I’ve thought about the gun owners I’ve met at the range and the students I’ve met in class. I’ve thought about the people behind the counter at the gun stores and the people you run into at gun shows and shooting events. I’ve thought about the competitors, the trainers, the hunters, and the regular people who just enjoy plinking on a Saturday afternoon. And I’ve thought about what brings all these people together into one subculture.

It turns out, one core principle drives everything I do: I want to change the way we approach gun ownership in America in some very specific ways. Toward that end, today I’m starting a new series of blog posts: the “I have a dream…” series. It’s about gun culture – what’s good and beautiful about it, and what we need to celebrate, and what we need to change to make it even better. I hope you’ll enjoy reading this series as much as I enjoy writing it.


Just after Christmas, my friend and fellow firearms trainer Greg Ellifritz posted a wonderful, heart-warming story about a woman he met at the range one evening. Greg writes:

I find out she’s a single mom with two kids. Her house has been broken into three times in the last two months. The last burglary attempt occurred while she was in the house with her kids. She has never shot a gun, but she recognized that she had a duty to protect her family. She went to a gun show and bought a Jimenez Arms JA-9.

… She tells me that she has a bad feeling that the robbers are coming back tonight to get the x-mas presents she bought for her kids. She doesn’t know anything about guns and doesn’t know anyone who can teach her. She’s signed up for a CCW class, but no one teaches classes on the week of Christmas and she can’t find an opening until January. The problem is that she thinks the robbers are coming TONIGHT. A January class isn’t going to help.

… That’s why she was there by herself at the shooting range. It didn’t matter that she was by herself, that she was the only woman in the room, or that she knew nothing about guns. She had babies to protect and was going to figure out how to do it, come hell or high water.

Read the whole thing. Of course Greg stepped in to help her. The challenge: in exactly one hour, show a brand new gun owner how to use her gun so that she is better prepared to deal with an immediate challenge to her safety and her family’s safety. Could you do it?

Thinking about Greg’s story, I have a dream.

I dream that one day, every woman who goes to the gun range in time of need will meet a person there who has both the willingness and the skills to teach her what she immediately need to know, with the expectation that she will in time be prepared to turn around and help spread that knowledge to others.

Right now, we can celebrate that there are so many truly Good Guys (and gals!) at every range, people who’d be happy to help others learn. But right now, most of those Good Guys do not have the skills to get someone else up to speed in the most critical basics for self defense. Those who come in the range in time of crisis won’t often run into someone with that expertise unless we – as ordinary people, as shooters, as formal or informal instructors – work hard to learn what we need to know.

We can be the change we want to see in this world.

That’s my dream. What’s yours?

Speed and accuracy with small guns

Back when I was editing CCM, Karl Rehn wrote an excellent article titled, “Is a Pocket Gun Enough?” In it, he discussed many of the common experiences people have with little guns and some of the concerns people express about them (caliber, accuracy, capacity, shootability). It’s worth reading in its entirety, but one of the more fascinating things he did was that he ran a bunch of people through the same shooting test. Each person took the test twice: once with a full-size gun, and once with a pocket pistol.

He tested three groups of people:

  • new, inexperienced, and untrained shooters
  • intermediate shooters who had taken classes
  • highly skilled shooters

Rehn considers a score of 90 to be a passing grade on this test.

What Rehn found was that shooters who were not highly skilled — this would include long-time shooters who had taken no classes other than the basic carry permit class — gave up a LOT of skill when they moved to smaller guns. He also found that well-trained shooters could move down to the small guns with very little loss of skill.

Here’s the data:

"BUG" means "backup gun." These would be the small guns people shot for the test.

“BUG” means “backup gun.” These would be relatively small guns, appropriate for pocket carry or (in most cases) for wearing in a bra holster.


Note that the trained shooters did twice as well on the skills test as the untrained ones. It wasn’t a minor difference.

Bottom line is, learn to be a good shooter. This includes taking professional training classes that help you build your gunhandling skills to the point of automaticity, and practicing those skills on a regular basis. Then you can choose the most convenient gun to carry without giving up anything on the achievement side of the bargain.

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Practice time

While the rest of the country remains locked in the grip of the Winter That Never Ends, the weather here in the Pacific Northwest has been unseasonably mild — so much so, that the daffodils are blooming, the cherry trees are in full bloom, and my youngest son keeps wandering around the house in shorts and flipflops without so much as a glance at the calendar. It’s not normal for us to get even a few days of consecutive sunshine this time of year, and yet for the past few weeks our porch kitty has been drowsing in the sun every afternoon. Weird.

Dot Torture target with one dropped shot on Dot 8, the weak hand only drill.

Dot Torture target with one dropped shot on Dot 8, the weak hand only drill.

So of course yesterday afternoon found me at the range with a buddy. First we shot Dot Torture drills at 7 yards. Those are always humbling, and sometimes annoying. My inner perfectionist (who is a whiny little child) hates DT drills like the whiny little child she is. My grownup self enjoys the challenge, but I always have to stifle the urge to cry for a Mulligan with the first dropped shot.

And yes, there’s nearly always a dropped shot.

That’s because the goal is continuous improvement. You first shoot the entire DT course of fire from 3 yards, untimed, until you can do it perfectly. That might take months of regular practice. Because it requires your full concentration, it’s a surprisingly tough course of fire even at close ranges. Once you can do it perfectly at one distance, you either move farther away from the target or you add some time stress. Or both. It’s a deceptively simple series of exercises, and if you use it regularly you’ll always find yourself being stretched as a shooter.

For the skills covered and the trigger control required, I believe Dot Torture is one of the best practice time investments you can make in 50 rounds. The drill forces you to run through your basic gunhandling and requires excellent marksmanship out of the holster, after a reload, transitioning between targets, single handed with either hand… you get the idea. It’s not just marksmanship, but marksmanship skills performed in context. Some people can’t ever seem to hit the target after a reload, for example. Dot Torture helps prevent that problem or cure it. It’s also a very restful high-concentration routine that forces your mind into the here and now, like some types of yoga.

But my inner perfectionist still hates it.

When we finished our DT workout, we shifted over to the moving targets. The system we use runs the targets on a side-to-side track at varying speeds. We set it up to run a single IDPA target between two barrels set roughly ten feet apart, so that the target would take roughly two seconds to cover the distance between the barrels. We worked out of the holster at 7 yards, to get two shots into the center circle every time the target ran between the barrels.

Target shot on the moving target system from 7 yards.

Target shot on the moving target system from 7 yards.

My first run — which I shot from the holster but without a cover garment — exposed a nasty little flinch problem. You can see the tape over the dropped shot on the outer edge of the -1 zone in the lower left, though I’d rather you didn’t. Two or three runs later, I’d settled down and was getting nearly all my hits in the center circle, which felt nice.

It turns out that watching the front sight and pressing the trigger smoothly really help you hit your target even when it’s moving.

When my turn rolled around again, I put my cover shirt on and worked my draw from concealment. Still plenty of time for a good draw and two smooth presses of the trigger on that moving target, but no time for fumbles or bumbles during the process.

Toward the end, we changed the procedure so we could work on the “trapping” technique for moving targets. With this technique, you simply put your sights over the place where you know the target will appear, and remain unmoving until the target gets there. You must fire a single shot at the exact moment the sights are aligned in the center of the target, before the target moves out of your view.

The trapping drill on moving targets really exposes flinch and trigger mash problems, since it forces you to press the trigger Right Now when the target appears in front of your sights. But it’s very satisfying when you nail it.

Altogether, we each ran through around 100 rounds and walked off the range with smiles. It was a good day.

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Update on ATF’s proposed 5.56 ammo ban

ATF announced today that it will not move forward — at this time! — with its proposed ban of the popular M855 “green tip” ammunition used primarily in AR15 style guns. That decision was driven by the record number of comments it has already received about the issue. More than 80,000 comments came in, and the vast majority of those were against the proposed ban.

The ATF will continue to accept comments through March 16, and it’s still a good idea to contact your politicians about the big picture issues discussed here. You can find contact information for your Senators here and your Representative here.

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It’s not what you think

The skills taught in professional defensive handgun classes sometimes surprise new students. There’s this tendency to think of it as a “shooting class,” and certainly marksmanship remains one of the building blocks to using a handgun for effective self defense.

Shooting well is a good thing. It isn't the only thing.

Shooting well is a good thing. It isn’t the only thing.

But plain marksmanship, as important as it may be, isn’t the only skill taught in good classes. Defensive classes teach students to shoot within the larger context of self defense, which creates the need to cover a much wider and deeper set of skills than simply pulling the trigger.

In addition to simple shooting and smooth gunhandling, serious defensive handgun classes usually offer other important lessons, such as how to build a legally-defensible survival mindset or how to deal with the physical sensations of sudden stress. They might discuss the interpersonal skills that go with avoidance, de-escalation and deterrence. They may teach pre-incident threat management and what to do in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, or how to spot (and thus avoid) a predator looking for a fresh victim. They often teach crisis management and how to solve problems with the gun in hand. They might teach related physical skills, such as how to retain the handgun if the criminal tries to take it away, or what to do if you’re trying to draw the gun in very close quarters. They sometimes throw students into role-playing scenarios to force the students to put their own shooting skills into a realistic defensivce context.

In short, it’s a big field with a lot of closely-related subspecialties.

Well-rounded schools

To quote longtime defensive firearms trainer John Farnam, “The best schools are well-rounded. Our Art embraces an extensive repertoire of psycho-motor skills, verbal skills, and disengagement skills, along with a sound philosophical overlay, all of which must to carefully integrated. Some of the material is dry, but it is still important and must be included.” Farnam also notes that in his own gun courses, “we do a lot of shooting, of course. But, aggressive verbal and postural disengagement are also critical skills and must be learned and exercised in scenario-based drills every time we’re [on] the Range practicing our shooting skills. In this life, you’re going to talk with a lot more people than you’re going to shoot… with any luck!”

Farnam’s outlook is shared by other professional defensive firearm trainers. Almost universally, the pros regard the non-shooting portions of their programs to be at least as important as, or even more important than, pure shooting skills.

Where do you find them?

These necessary danger management skills may be taught, to one degree or another, in nearly all professional defensive firearms classes. But you certainly won’t find them in “this is the end the bullet comes out” classes intended for beginners, nor in pure shooting classes intended for competitive shooters. They only really show up in defensive firearms classes intended for ordinary citizens. 1

Quite apart from any specific, individual skill they might learn, students walk out of this type of class with a firm understanding of what they don’t yet know and what they can’t yet do. That’s a tricky thing to teach (because confidence is a good thing), but it’s absolutely vital. The self-knowledge that says, “I’ve thought this through, and I’m willing to live with doing This but not That,” or that says, “I do not yet have the skills to do This, but I am able to do That” — that type of self knowledge can keep good people out of a world of hurt. It makes it less likely that you’ll jump into inappropriate situations, and more likely that you’ll survive when you fight back in appropriate ones.

But it all starts with understanding that defensive firearms skills are not the same thing as shooting cardboard targets at the range, not the same thing as playing fun and useful shooting sports games, not the same thing as imitating military and law enforcement tactics. Classes designed to teach defensive firearms skills might have some elements in common with any of those, but they also go far beyond that into life skills that aren’t offered in any of the other venues.


  1. The best value in such classes comes from trainers who deliberately and consciously avoid teaching from either a law enforcement or a military mindset, and instead focus on the tactics and survival rules an ordinary person should follow to tip their odds toward the best possible outcome. Even though many good instructors have such a background on their resume, that background should not form the mindset taught in class to non-LEO, non-military students. See Context Matters for more about that.
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Just keep swimming

The first day of swimming lessons always has at least one little kid holding onto his mom’s leg and sobbing, “But mommy… I can’t get in the water with the teacher. I don’t know how to swimmmm!”


First day of swim lessons, 1999.

A lot of people approach firearms training just like that poor little guy approaches his swim lessons. They don’t want to come to class because they think they should already know the things the class is designed to teach. But the truth is, you come to class to learn something new, not to show off what you already know. If you don’t already know everything – okay, maybe not anything – that’s going to be covered in the class, that’s a good thing. It means you’re in the right place.

Many people are fine with this idea when it comes to taking their first and most basic class. It’s okay to take that first class without feeling a lot of confidence in their skills, they figure, because everyone else in the beginners’ class will be beginners, too. So they won’t feel out of place and they’ll do just fine. But … that’s where they stop. They’re afraid to sign up for the next class after that, because they still feel like beginners. They’re afraid to keep swimming.

Same problem, really. Only it’s slightly more complicated, because as you move through the training cycle you begin to realize that one needy student really can make a slow day for the other students who might prefer to move faster through the material. Good instructors are used to dealing with a variety of skill levels in their students, but there’s always the need to keep people moving at a good pace for everyone in the group. Having someone there who’s far behind the curve can be tough for all involved. So it’s not surprising that some folks feel awkward or fearful when they realize they don’t already know how to swim at the level the next class will be teaching.

You might be afraid of getting in over your head at first.

You might be afraid of getting in over your head at first.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

First of all, the thing we instinctively know about the beginners’ class – that you get in the water with the teacher to learn how to swim, and that you don’t come to class already knowing that skill – that’s still true in the next class up. And in the one after that. The truth is, learning something new often feels like you’re out of your depth at first. And that’s okay. It’s how we learn.

More to the point? If you really, truly feel like the next class up will be “too advanced” for you, like you won’t be able to keep up with the other students in it, that doesn’t mean you have to stop learning entirely. It simply means you’ll need to set some goals, practice diligently, and maybe you’ll need to take that first class again to reinforce what you’ve already learned before you move up. This is not a failure! It’s very much the expected and normal course of events for people who are serious about self defense. In fact, once you start looking for them, you’ll often find very advanced students and even instructors taking classes from other trainers at the basic level. We do it because we know that reinforcing the foundation makes the whole building stronger.

Just keep swimming.

Just keep swimming.

This isn’t theoretical. There’s a Defensive Handgun class intended for beginning to intermediate students at my local school (the Firearms Academy of Seattle) that I’ve taken more than a dozen times. Took it twice as a new shooter before I enrolled in the next class up, and took it again many times after that as I was becoming an instructor. Every time, I learned something new or reinforced good habits I wanted to build.

So if you’ve taken one class, felt it was beneficial but don’t feel ready to advance yet, don’t despair. Keep practicing the things you learned in that first class, and set a deadline by which you will take another class. If you feel ready by that date, take the next class up. If you don’t, take the basic one over again as a refresher.

Just keep swimming.

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