The Cornered Cat

Defensive firearm skills are not learned in a vacuum—or they shouldn’t be. The context where we intend to use the skills really dictates which skills we need, how well we need to learn them, and how we prioritize our time in learning them.

Ordinary people use firearms for self-defense in very different contexts than law enforcement and military people do. That’s because they have different missions, different rules of engagement, and different available resources.


The mission for ordinary citizens is radically different than the mission for the military, and somewhat different from the mission for law enforcement.

The difference in mission means that both law enforcement and military, to some extent, go through times when they fully expect to come in contact with people trying to kill them, and often, they actually set out to make that contact happen. But an ordinary person who wants to protect her own life will do the opposite: rather than seeking out dangerous people, she will avoid people, places, and circumstances that might put her life in danger. The ordinary citizen’s only contact with violent criminals will therefore be at a time and place of the criminal’s choosing, during circumstances most advantageous to the criminal and most dangerous for the good person.

The other day, I was talking with Rory Miller (author of several excellent books, including the recent Scaling Force: Dynamic Decision-Making Under Threat of Violence, which he co-wrote with Lawrence Kane). Rory pointed out that law enforcement officers usually get very, very good at talking to people and at dealing with situations where low- to mid-levels of force are appropriate responses. That’s what they do most often, and it’s what they know best. They also become well-practiced at managing planned dangers, such as traffic stops and warrant searches.  Ordinary people don’t often face even low levels of violence, and they aren’t experienced at interacting with criminals. On the other hand, when an ordinary citizen does interact with a criminal, it will often be in very extreme circumstances—circumstances where the skills involved, and the difficulty of performing those skills, may be far beyond what a law enforcement officer might ever expect to need at work.

The skills needed by ordinary people are not the same as the skills needed by a SWAT officer managing the planned danger of a drug bust. If a mere display of the weapon isn’t enough, 1 the encounter will very likely demand different skills, and higher levels of skill, than even the most experienced officer will ever exercise on the job. When ordinary people face violence, they face a violent criminal attack from the standpoint of the intended victim, during a time when they are almost certainly caught off guard. That’s a very different thing from dealing with a crime from the standpoint of someone assigned, after the fact, to find out what happened and who did it.

Rules of Engagement

The rules of engagement are different.

For more about the rules of engagement for ordinary people, see the booklet, “What Every Gun Owner Needs to Know,” written by Marty Hayes of the ACLDN. You can also find a somewhat briefer overview, written by me, right here: using deadly force in self-defense. That’s an entire field of study on its own—a critical one that has too often been neglected or glossed over.


The available resources to accomplish the mission are totally different. “Bring all your friends who have guns” applies very nicely to a military combat unit, and it works somewhat well for a law enforcement officer who can call for backup before serving a warrant. But it does not work too well for John and Jane Doe in their everyday lives.

Techniques and Tactics

Obviously, the differences in mission, ROE, and available resources tend to dictate that different techniques and different tactics are appropriate for these different groups. For example, if we took a guy straight out of military combat in Afghanistan and put him to doing law enforcement work in an American city, that guy would find that a lot of what he learned overseas just did not translate well to domestic police work. It isn’t that it would necessarily get him in trouble; it’s that most of the skills he had used as a soldier operating in a war zone simply would not apply to the new task. Knowing how to launch a grenade at an enemy combatant isn’t going to help him when the task is to talk a confused drunk into complying with a roadside sobriety test; being well-practiced at transitions from a slung long gun to a handgun in a thigh holster doesn’t help him one bit when the rifle is either in his trunk or locked up back at the station under his supervisor’s control; knowing the proper military protocol for organizing an area engagement doesn’t mean anything when the mission is to find and arrest a single individual. It’s just a different mission, with different resources on hand and different rules for using those resources.

The physical skills required to manipulate a handgun under stress remain the same, no matter who you are and not matter what you’re wearing. Or do they? Change the full-size handgun typically carried by law enforcement and military people for a compact or sub-compact model more typically worn by concealed-carry folks, and you might find yourself making some changes in how you hold or manipulate the gun. Carry just a few rounds, as many ordinary people do, and you might have to make hard choices about your priorities in some situations—choices that wouldn’t be faced by law enforcement or military personnel. Carry a spare magazine in a pocket rather than in a pouch on your belt, and you’ll find that the physical act of reloading has become a very different thing—especially if you are crouched or seated when you need to reload. Carry the gun in a tuckable holster or put the gun in a pocket, and the well-practiced drawstroke you see in law enforcement qualifications is going to look a bit different. Law enforcement trainers sometimes recommend a specific stance based on the presence of body armor, which is a factor that does not apply to most ordinary citizens. That specific stance might still be a good choice, but we can’t simply accept it without looking at other reasons for it that would apply to our own context. Military trainers often recommend a specific reloading technique because it’s critical that their people maintain control of their magazines at all times, never leaving a bit of equipment behind them on the ground. Does that apply to ordinary people in a civilian setting? Almost certainly not—and yet some teach the same technique without considering whether their non-military students have the same need.

All of this means that while we may learn a lot from military and law enforcement trainers, we also recognize that their needs are not always the same as our needs—and that our needs aren’t always the same as theirs. When someone recommends a technique, we should always look carefully at the context it came from and the need it was designed to meet. Then ask, “Does this technique work within my context and meet my needs?” If not, look elsewhere!


  1. Which it is, the vast majority of the time!