The Cornered Cat
<— Older Posts Newer Posts —>
Top 10 Myths About Self Defense
  1. Self defense starts and ends with owning a gun. You don’t have to learn anything about violence dynamics or how criminals work. Simply own a gun, that’s all.
  2. A woman should never carry a gun because it will just get taken away and used against her. A woman should carry less effective tools instead, like silly little keychain doodads, because those lesser tools are so ineffectual that even a bad guy who can beat her to death with his bare hands won’t be able to hurt or kill her with one of those.
  3. Learning anything about the law will just slow you down and make you hesitate when you should be shooting. Nobody ever hesitates because they don’t know what’s legal; they only hesitate because they do.
  4. You will always have enough time and space to use the same type of drawstroke you’ve practiced on the range. You won’t ever need any empty hands skills for any reason: not to clear the way for a draw, not to protect yourself from a physical attack while you create an opportunity to use the gun, not to maintain control of your firearm if someone grabs for it.
  5. If someone tries to take your gun away, all you have to do is shoot them. That always solves the problem immediately, 100% of the time.
  6. Learning how to protect yourself from an attempted gun grab takes a lot of hard, painful work. You can’t learn anything worthwhile about it in any amount of time that’s measured in anything less than “years.”
  7. Never carry a round in the chamber. That’s dangerous.
  8. You can just rack the slide to show the attacker you mean business. The bad guy will run away at the sound.
  9. Situational awareness means you can never be surprised or taken off guard. You will never fail to see something in real time that a different observer believes they definitely would have seen, and says so as they watch the surveillance video in slow motion for clues to the violent crime they already know is about to happen.
  10. Learning better skills with firearms will make you more violent and less able to solve problems without violence.

Just for the record, none of these things are true.

What myths would you add to this list?

What does training do?

John Johnston, of Ballistic Radio, blogs the following:

IN MOST INSTANCES YOU DON’T NEED TRAINING TO SUCCESSFULLY DEFEND YOURSELF WITH A GUN. … You don’t need hundreds of hours of training to survive most self-defense encounters. Untrained people prevail, with varying degrees of success, against bad guys all the time.

The caps and red letters are his. Johnston goes on to say that he believes that the primary value of training is that it makes us “much less likely” to get involved in a shooting in the first place, and more likely to avoid the kind of situations that turn deadly.

I don’t disagree with much of what John said, and want to add one more important point to the discussion. My point … well, it’s a bit like touching the third rail of American gun culture, but I’m gonna do it anyway. It’s about safety. After 15 years of learning and teaching defensive handgun classes at the professional level, it’s my deeply held belief that people who have not had serious defensive handgun training are not as safe with a firearm as they believe they are. 

Yes, this means you.

If you haven’t had at least one serious training class — over and above the state-required permit class — the chances are that your gunhandling isn’t as good as you believe it is. This is especially and particularly true if you grew up in a gun-owning family and have handled firearms throughout your entire life starting from childhood.


“Hey, I grew up around guns!”

That’s not a sin, by the way. It’s simply a thing that’s likely to be true. It doesn’t make you a bad person or anything like that. If it’s something that bothers you, it’s also something you can change. No judgment here; everyone lives their own lives and ultimately makes their own choices about their priorities in life. It’s okay.

Oh, and if you have had such training? Don’t get too cocky; people who have had such training tend to behave less safely than they believe they do, too. (Yep, that includes me.) We’re all human. Not being able to see our own blind spots is simply human nature and again, not a sin.

The blind spot problem is why it’s good to have someone outside ourselves watch us handle the gun and help us spot what we’re actually doing, compared to what we think we’re doing, when we handle the gun. But simply going to class, without making a commitment to changing our habits as needed, really isn’t a cure all. By itself, it certainly doesn’t erase the human tendency to overestimate our own skill levels. It isn’t magic. In fact, the not-as-safe-as-we-think-we-are problem may be especially strong for those who have had some training (in classes or from military or law enforcement experience), but who haven’t had that training recently. The work of Professor David Dunning almost certainly applies here:

But education, even when done skillfully, can produce illusory confidence. Here’s a particularly frightful example: Driver’s education courses, particularly those aimed at handling emergency maneuvers, tend to increase, rather than decrease, accident rates. They do so because training people to handle, say, snow and ice leaves them with the lasting impression that they’re permanent experts on the subject. In fact, their skills usually erode rapidly after they leave the course. And so, months or even decades later, they have confidence but little leftover competence when their wheels begin to spin.

Grab a cup of coffee before you follow the link to Prof. Dunning’s article. It’s an excellent article and worth reading. But it’s long enough to make people think, which means most people won’t bother to do more than skim it, if they even do that. Be special and read the whole thing. You’ll enjoy it!

"Childhood play taught me all I need to know about firearms."

“Childhood play taught me all I need to know about firearms.”

Anyway, safety. Let me mention a few statistics that are not widely known nor widely repeated in the firearms training world, though they absolutely should be. The numbers below came from the Centers for Disease Control (WISQARS), and you can check them yourself using the widgets at [this link] and [this link].

In 2013 (the latest year for which these numbers are available) 16, 864 people of all ages presented themselves at hospital emergency departments suffering from unintentional gunshot wounds. This number does not include suicides or deliberate shootings, only mistakes where “the gun just went off” and someone was injured badly enough to need the services of a physician. This adds up to one avoidable, preventable injury happening every 33 minutes, all across the country, all day long, every single day.

During that same year, more than 500 people died from unintentional gunshot wounds. That’s one or two desolate gravesites, one or two devastated families, one or two grieving communities every day of the year.

Do you find yourself marveling at how many unreported unintentional discharges must happen, in order to create this many tragedies? After all, catastrophe doesn’t always follow these potentially-deadly mistakes. Nobody tracks the close calls. We do know that private, unreported mistakes are more common than reportable accidents where someone got hurt or killed by a stray bullet.

Caution: May have unexpected side effects.

Caution: May create unexpected side effects.

This horrendous toll of injuries and deaths does not need to happen. It’s preventable with good education and training, and especially with education and training geared toward teaching people how to defend themselves from violent crime.

People come into defensive handgun classes mostly to learn how to protect themselves using firearms. But there’s a beautiful side effect: learning to live safely with a firearm is an unavoidable side effect of learning to effectively use one for self defense. That’s because, when students are properly motivated in professional defensive firearm training classes, they keep going until several things have happened:

  1. The formerly naïve student consciously understands the things his hands need to do in order to safely manipulate the firearm. He may not yet be able to make his hands do these things every time, but he can describe what he’s trying to do.
  2. The student becomes able to make his hands safely manipulate the firearm – as long as he moves slowly while carefully paying attention to everything he does, and as long as he feels little or no external stress while he handles the gun. By doing each action slowly and repeatedly, with conscious attention to what he’s doing, the student builds neural pathways dedicated to safe gun handling.
  3. The student’s neural pathways become stronger, better organized and more efficient. He can now load and unload the gun, and perform other basic firearm manipulations, without thinking through each individual step along the way. His movement patterns for basic tasks begin to approach automaticity. Now we can add stress and interest to shooting and gunhandling drills: how fast can he draw the gun and get good hits? How quickly can he hit the target, and at what distances? How fast can he reload or clear a malfunction?
  4. As the student handles the firearm safely under the mild stress of time and performance standards, his neural pathways become strongly optimized to maintain good habits even while he thinks about other things. It is at this point that we challenge the student with decision-making drills and realistic scenarios, because we can finally trust that his gunhandling will remain safe despite having a mental focus on other topics. We reasonably believe his gunhandling will remain safe under many different types of stress: performance stress, the fear of failure, time and accuracy standards, etc. We can trust that he will handle the firearm safely and competently as we help him expand his problem-solving abilities through repeated challenges.
  5. The student’s safe and skilled gunhandling finally becomes sturdy enough to stand up to the extreme stress of a life-threatening encounter. This is the point where every student who intends to use a firearm for self defense should strive to reach, and strive to remain. 1

By the time our students have reached this final step, safe gunhandling has been engrained so deeply that it will hold up even when the student is highly focused on a life-threatening problem and accurately fearful that he’s about to die if he doesn’t use the gun immediately.

This creates an obvious corollary: as a result of our efforts to teach skills that remain under life-threatening stress, the student has built safe gunhandling habits that will almost certainly withstand the more mundane danger of everyday distraction in far less stressful situations.

This is why I say that good training can save your life, even if you never become one of the 60,000 to 460,000 people who use the firearm to defend themselves from violent criminals every year. Being prepared to live with the gun is every bit as important as being prepared to live by the gun.

Stay safe.



  1. Sadly, all too many students quit at step one or two. Good instructors must motivate students to continue, and help them understand the value of having well-practiced skills that will stand up under severe stress.
1 Comment
The surprising burden of ignorance

The less we know about a subject, the less we think there is to know about it.

That’s why the boss who knows nothing about your specialty will demand impossible time frames on your projects, unless someone speaks up to tell him otherwise.

It’s also why casual, amateur photographers can’t see — literally cannot see — the difference between their badly-done snapshots and a well balanced, properly focused and composed work of photographic art.

And especially, that is why people who have never had serious defensive handgun training think there’s nothing to learn and no reason to invest in it.

1 Comment
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?

Leave a comment
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.  :)

Leave a comment
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.

Leave a comment
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.

Leave a comment
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?

Leave a comment