The Cornered Cat
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Lesson from an old guy

Roughly three or four years after I first began learning to shoot, I met an older gentleman – Jim – who had a profound influence on my shooting development. Jim bounced into the room on the first day of a shooting class I was taking, and he was loudly enthusiastic about another class he’d taken just a week or two before we met. “That class was amazing!” Jim said, and went on to tell the group of us standing there all about that other class: who the instructor was, what he taught and why he taught it, how he’d shown this old guy a new technique he’d never seen before. Jim was very excited about the new technique, and told me that he thought it might save a few lives.

At the time, Jim was 72 years old. He’d also been around guns his entire life, from the time when he was very small. Not only that, he also held several regional and even national titles in competition shooting. He held instructor credentials in several different disciplines, and had worked as a law enforcement trainer for a number of years. During his law enforcement career, he’d been the victor in several gunfights. If anyone could claim they knew so much that taking a class was just a waste of his time and money, Jim would be that guy.

Despite all that, Jim also believed – strongly! – that life was full of new things to learn. So he kept exploring new thoughts, new ways of doing things with a firearm, and kept taking classes from other people right up until his untimely death in a car accident at age 76.

Whenever I hear an old guy saying he doesn’t need to take a class because he “grew up around guns,” I also hear Jim’s voice telling us what he’d learned the week before.

When I meet a newly-minted instructor who simply won’t ask any questions where others might hear because she thinks she’ll lose her students’ respect if she takes the learner’s role, I think of Jim and the great respect his students had for him.

When someone tells me they already know as much as they need to know about using firearms for self-defense, I think of Jim and his eager enthusiasm for learning more or better ways to save innocent lives.

Jim’s last name was Cirillo. It’s safe to say, Jim Cirillo knew a thing or two about guns. And if that man, with his background and at that stage of his life, thought there were still new things he could learn, what does that say about folks who think they already know all that stuff and don’t need anyone else to teach them anything?

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Historical teaching note

The soldier should acquire the above by degrees. If the soldier’s attention be at first confined to aiming his piece, he will more readily acquire this than if he were required to aim, and to take a prescribed position at the same time. Having acquired a knowledge of the principles of aiming his piece, and then a prescribed position, he will readily acquire the habit of aiming correctly from this position.

He should now learn the proper manner of pulling the trigger, and, when putting this in practice, to keep his piece steady.

The soldier will next be taught to support the recoil, and become accustomed to the report of his piece, by first using caps, and then blank cartridges.

Such appears to be the natural order of instruction to overcome the difficulties attending the proper use of his arm when firing. …

In the spring of 1856, a company in our service, drilled in a similar manner, improved three hundred per cent. in accuracy of fire in six weeks’ time.

A System of Target Practice. For the Use of Troops When Armed With the Musket, Rifle-Musket, Rifle, or Carbine. By Henry Heth, Captain 10th Regiment US Infantry. Published by Order of the War Department. Philadelphia. 1858


Putting this up here as a reminder that firearms training is not a new endeavor.  That is all.  :)

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Power tools and foolish toys

An oldie but goodie from my email box: a note from someone who has a loving family member who really wants them to carry a gun for self defense. The person who sent me the email really isn’t interested in guns, but wants to keep their loved one happy. The question was,

“What gun do you recommend for someone who will probably not practice very often or learn much about it?”

My answer:

I recommend NO GUN for someone like this. Save that money and tell your loved one to stop pressuring you.

Owning a self-defense gun is a heavy responsibility. Although popular right now, it’s not a lighthearted fad or a trend like owning a pet rock. The gun isn’t a magic wand or a rabbit’s foot that will keep you out of trouble all on its own. Using it safely takes work and practice. Using it well takes more work and more practice. Using it in self defense often creates serious, lifelong consequences. It’s okay to count those costs for yourself and walk away if it’s more than you’re willing to pay.

Don’t let anyone pressure you into doing anything with a gun if you’re not ready to accept the responsibility that comes with it. Doesn’t matter who they are or how fond you are of each other; you are the one who must live with the choices you make.

When you are ready to own a gun – really ready, including being willing to learn something about it and practice with it – I’m more than happy to work with you to find the one that’s right for you and help you learn how to use it well. Until then, leave the most serious self defense tools for people who take them seriously.

When I told this tale on a private forum back when it initially came into my mailbox, some people suggested that my correspondent could use less-lethal tools instead, such as a rape whistle, pepper spray, or even a roll of quarters. “No practice needed,” wrote one of them.

I beg to differ!

There’s really no such thing as a self-defense tool that works if you aren’t willing to do the work it takes to learn how to use it effectively. (See Niven’s Law #17 for more on that.) If you’re not willing to do the work it takes to master a handgun, you might be willing to do the work it takes to master some other kind of defense tool. And that’s good — highly recommended, in fact.

But if you’re not willing to learn anything, practice, or do any other type of work at all, there’s really nothing out there that does it for you.

Power tools

Extended analogy follows. For the analogy-impaired, in the story below, “power tools” equal handguns, and “less powerful tools” equal things like rape whistles and pepper spray.

Most people can figure out a hammer without too much effort, but even so, an overconfident hammer-user can easily break their own thumb if they aren’t careful. As our tools become more powerful – think buzz saws, hydraulic presses, and combine harvesters – we need to spend a little more time learning how to safely use them before we’re ready to go to work. The payoff, of course, is that power tools help us get the job done faster and with less effort than we could otherwise do it. That’s why they were invented!

If power tools seem frightening because of their power, choosing a less-powerful tool might feel safer in an abstract sense. That’s especially true when we look only at the tool itself, and not at the job that needs to be done with it. But that doesn’t mean the least-powerful tool is actually a safer choice or a better one.

You may be less likely to accidentally amputate your own arm with a butter knife than you are with a chainsaw, but if you really need to cut down a tree, you’ll probably need a chainsaw.

Not only that, but if you need to cut the tree down right freaking now, a power saw would almost certainly be the safest tool for the job. Once you know how to safely use the power tool, using the power tool would be a lot safer than trying to hack the tree down with an inappropriately weak substitute such as a butter knife.

End of analogy.


The rule of thumb is that the less powerful your defensive tools are on their own, the more direct energy you have to put into using them, and the harder you’ll have to work in order to learn how to do that.

Effectively defending yourself with empty hands takes more training than defending yourself with pepper spray. Effectively using a keychain weapon, no matter what it is, requires a lot more training than using a handgun. As our tools become more powerful, they become more risky to use without training, but the same power that produces the risk to an untrained user also reduces the amount of work we must put into mastering them — and greatly reduces the effort it takes to use them effectively.

People often want to hand silly little toys to women for self-defense. Keychain doodads. Illegal ball-bearing dingleberries on a rope. Non-Taser buzzers about as powerful as the gag-gift handshake toy your brother had when you were kids. Whistles you can use to call the dog or that a rapist can use to strangle you.

No matter how tempting it is to think that these toys will erase the need to study and learn defensive skills, there’s still no such thing as a free lunch. And there are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going in this life.

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Mirror, mirror, on the range…

Did you know there are special cells inside your brain that are actually designed to mimic the people around you? Yup. It’s true. They are called mirror neurons, like holding a mirror up in front of your face. Imitating others is actually hardwired into human beings. If you make a face at a newborn baby, pretty soon that baby will make the same face back at you. Stick out your tongue, the baby sticks out her tongue. Growl and make a monster face, and the baby makes a monster face back at you. Pretty cool!

Make a face at a baby. What does the baby do -- and why?

Make a face at a baby. What does the baby do next — and why?

Those same mirror neurons that help a baby learn to use his face also work throughout our lives to help us build connections with other people. You might think of them as the wiring for empathy, because they are the neurons that fire when you see someone else do something. For example, if you see someone hit her thumb with a hammer, you might cringe. Watch a TV show where someone gets kicked in the crotch, and watch every guy in the room cross his legs in sympathy. That’s mirror neurons at work.

But mirror neurons don’t just fire when bad things happen. They fire when good things happen too. When you see someone demonstrate a skill – whether that skill is using a sewing machine or a pottery wheel, driving a stick shift or shooting a gun – the mirror neurons in your head start firing. They actually fire in the exact same area of your brain that would be active if you were doing the skill yourself. Demonstrating skills for others actually pre-primes their brains to learn the skill much more easily. Giving people a good model to work from is one of the hallmarks of an effective teacher, because humans are hardwired to imitate others.

This has a whole bunch of implications for how we learn to shoot and how we learn to teach. First and most obvious: smart instructors demonstrate skills for their students. Instructors who make excuses not to demonstrate are often allowing their own egos (often, fear of failure or looking bad) get in the way of their students’ best opportunities to learn.

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Rehabilitating Predators

Over on the Chiron blog, Rory Miller mused:

Nothing about survival or self-protection or self-defense or whatever you want to call it is difficult or unnatural. This is exactly the problem we were evolved to solve. Not being a victim is part of our deepest wiring. Mind, body and spirit have all the tools. This is not about forging warriors, this is about rehabilitating predators.

I can corroborate that eight ways from Sunday, as my dad used to say. Talk to any cop or bouncer who has ever had to fight an untrained woman for real and ask if they want to repeat the experience. Read Strong on Defense and look at what the survivors did and the mindset they tapped into.

That’s for me. But the students have to hear it too, and further, they have to be told a really ugly truth: Almost all of society is set up to perpetually brainwash them so that they never remember their own power.

At the risk of repeating a well known cliche, “Go read the whole thing.” There’s a lot of very good and thought-provoking material that follows those brief paragraphs.

In the comments on that post, someone asked, “Are women, like men, natural predators?” He seemed to doubt it.

In response to that question, I’d like to show you a picture that I took at the Oregon Zoo some time back.

Are you designed to be a predator, or prey?

Are you designed to be a predator, or prey? (Click to embiggen and read the writing.)

Perhaps, like That Guy, you half suspect that women just aren’t wired for this stuff. Maybe you privately fear that you yourself would never be able to access the fierceness of a Cornered Cat to save yourself from danger, because it just could not be part of who you are.

If you’re in that boat, I’d like you to ask yourself one simple question: where are my eyes located, and why are they there?

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Living in fear

Too many people live in fear.

I’m not talking about the fear of crime. I’m talking about the fear of understanding crime: understanding that it happens, understanding how it happens, understanding where and when it happens, and especially fear of understanding that violent crime can happen to an ordinary person living an ordinary life on an ordinary day.

Fear, terror, paranoia...

Fear, terror, paranoia…

Most of all, many people live in fear of making the decision to do something about it should they be attacked.

That’s why when we make the decision to carry a gun for ourselves, we so often face pushback and disapproval from people around us. The psychological name for that reaction is simply “projection.”

Because these folks live with a constant, steady, unacknowledged fear — one that they refuse to do anything about — they believe your decision to defend yourself must mean that you live with at least that same level of fear or even more.

When you tell them about your decision to protect yourself, they feel offended because you’ve just dragged their fear out into the open and made it impossible for them to ignore.

That’s why they’ll accuse you of being “paranoid” when you make your choice. If you’re not actually paranoid, they have to accept that they could do something about their fear and not have to feel that way anymore. From their perspective, that’s just not possible. So you must be lying.

Hold the criminal at gunpoint?

On the video embedded below, you’ll hear a statement from a law enforcement agency about an officer-involved shooting that happened during a traffic stop and you will see the dashcam recording of the events that led up to the shooting. As ordinary citizens, it would be tempting to think that such things could not possibly apply to us, or that there’s no information we could gather here that would be useful for us to know.

That would be incorrect.

First, the video. If you’re in a hurry, you may want to start it playing at around the 2-minute mark.



Now, the food for thought:

  • Have you ever pictured yourself holding someone at gunpoint? (See here for one recent example of how that could happen; see here for another.)
    • If you have never considered this issue before, what is your plan for dealing with a would-be attacker who throws down his weapon, throws his hands up into the air, and starts apologizing?
    • What is your plan for keeping yourself safe during an ambiguous but potentially life-threatening situation, such as protecting your family from a potentially violent home intruder who is mentally disabled or plainly too drunk to realize where he is?
    • It’s tempting to believe that we would never be put in such a situation, or allow ourselves to be there. But that’s not realistic. Nearly all defensive gun uses do not require the defender to fire the weapon in order to defend herself effectively. This means we can and should know what to do about it if the criminal surrenders before we have pulled the trigger. “I’ll just shoot him!” only works if the elements of Ability, Opportunity, and Jeopardy are all present at the exact moment we pull the trigger.
  • Do you know how to produce — and have you practiced producing — a strong and easily understood command voice? Many of us think of it as “Mom voice,” because it’s the same voice we use to stop a 5-year-old in his tracks when he’s about to run into the street. It’s not hard to do, but it is something that must be practiced.
  • Do you know — and have you practiced using — a series of commands that would lessen the danger of an uninjured criminal being able to attack you?
  • How many pre-attack indicators can you spot on the video?
    • Can you see the physical behaviors that led the shooter to believe his life was in immediate danger?
    • Can you explain the physical behaviors you see, and why they are dangerous?

The officer very likely had, in his mind, a very clear decision tree that included a specific distance that would trigger his decision to fire. There’s a clue there, for us.

There’s no doubt that the officer was able to explain his decision in a way that helped the people involved in the legal system understand why he made the choice he did. More than that, when he made his decision to shoot, he almost certainly leaned heavily on the things he learned in his formal training. He may have even been able to bring in testimony from the expert instructors who taught him how to deal with noncompliant people being held at gunpoint, and what specific behaviors to look for that would indicate life-threatening danger.

Probably a lot more potential lessons for all of us on this video. What do you see?

Build the building

A real-life attack is not the same thing as training for such an event. Training prepares you for something and by definition cannot be the identical to the real thing. I though that was obvious, but apparently, it isn’t. Especially in the fighting arts, people seem to miss this point. Not so in other sports though.

When was the last time you heard somebody claim line drills in football are useless because nobody plays football in a line like that? – Wim Demeere 1

Whenever I hear people complain about the futility of building basic defensive skills on a “static range,” I think of Wim’s comment.



Everything starts somewhere. The foundation might not look much like the rest of the building, but it’s what holds the whole thing up. You might never even see the framework, but it’s what holds the whole thing together. Those who only look at the outer walls have missed seeing almost everything that makes the building remain solid in the midst of an earthquake.

In the same way, some folks only see the chaotic reality of violent encounters — and miss seeing the foundation that makes a meaningful defense possible, or the framework that holds the shooter together long enough to get the task done.

All practice and all training — every last bit of it — involves some level of unreality. Unless and until we’re actually shooting people who violently resist our attempts to get away and survive, we’re practicing an unreal activity on some level.

No matter what the setting, the deliberately-induced flaws that we endure for practice almost always include (but are certainly not limited to!) the following:

  • Shooting cardboard, paper, or steel instead of human bodies;
  • No social interaction with potential targets;
  • Shooting immobile targets, or targets that move only in very predictable and rhythmic ways;
  • The 180 rule, or similar constraints dictated by the surroundings;
  • No expectation of interference from bystanders;
  • Being able to check that the gun is loaded and our mag pouches positioned just so before we start the string;
  • Every drill is a shooting situation;
  • Clearly-measured results that will be known within seconds after the dust settles.

Instead of practicing pure shooting skills (which obviously involve most if not all of the above possible unrealities), we might choose to be “more realistic” by scripting slightly more interactive drills in shooting bays that allow us to move around a bit. But no matter how much physical movement we do as shooters, we’re still dealing with fake targets, meaningless shoot/no shoot signals, and no life-threatening stress.

We might choose to eliminate the fake targets entirely, and decide that we need to practice working with other humans at the other end of the gun. That means that unless we’re utter fools, we’re going to use fake guns. In force on force and scenario based training, the unrealities include — but are not limited to! — the following:

  • Actors with varying levels of skill;
  • Scripts that limit potential outcomes;
  • Scripts that may or may not be well-considered;
  • Narrow contexts;
  • Mindsets that can in no way approach the out-of-the-blue, wasn’t-expecting-this!! reactions that would be normal in everyday life;
  • Fake weapons that produce unrealistic levels of accuracy, recoil, noise, etc;
  • Most scenarios will be shooting scenarios;
  • Levels of fear that in no way approach life threatening.

The challenge for us is to be aware of each one of those potential factors. No matter which type of practice or training we’re involved with, the temptation is to gloss over and dismiss the fakeness that we’re necessarily working with.

Instead of handwaving dismissals, we should be able to clearly identify which type(s) of unrealism we’re working with in a given drill. The real trick is to never become so in love with our own preferred type of training that we stop being aware of the unrealism it always contains.


  1. Wim runs an awesome blog at The exact quote can be found here.
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