Five Fundamentals of Self Defense with a Firearm

Once I had a student ask me what he needed to work on to be a good shooter.  Naturally, I gave him the standard, front sight focus and trigger finger discipline answer.  Drilling down on things there are only two things a shooter must do to hit the target.  Remain focused on the front sight and move the trigger to the rear without moving the muzzle.  I then asked him what type of shooting he wanted to do.  After some hesitation, he said, target shooting and some plinking.  He then added, “oh yeah, I want to be able to defend my family if necessary.”  Wow!  Way to bury the lead there guy.

The type of shooting you are doing matters, and self defense shooting is a completely different world.  Once we drilled down to what he was really asking,  I altered my answer to the five physical skills anyone must master if they are serious about self defense.  Those are: Communicate, Move, Shoot, Reload and Clear a Malfunction.

Communicate seems obvious, but so few seem willing to do it.  I am referring to the need not only to communicate with those around you, but more importantly to communicate with your would be attacker.  The bad guy has a preset plan in mind.  You are supposed to do certain things.  When you don’t, you interrupt his decision making process and he has to react rather than act.  Essentially you try to get him caught up in between decision and action.  A harsh, loud and dominating verbal challenge, such as “Stop, Leave me Alone,” will likely buy you time to move yourself and your loved ones while drawing your weapon.  Post shooting communication with things like “Is anybody hurt, Call 911, I’m a Good Guy,” are equally important.

Move.  Get out of his line of sight.  The bad guy is most likely experiencing the same physical effects caused by the encounter as you are.  The difference is that his heart rate has been up longer and he has developed “prey focus.”  If you move out of his line of sight, even for only a half of a second, you buy yourself a tactical advantage in time.  Your attacker will have to reacquire you and will once again, be facing and error 404/file not found syndrome.  Unless he has a lot of experience and training as a robber, what you are doing will come at him as a surprise.  Use that to your advantage so that by the time he finds you again and makes a new decision all he sees is muzzle flash.

Shooting is the easy part.  Unless you are highly trained, it is not likely you will ever see your front sight.  Many of us will be so target focused that we will just point shoot our way through it.  If you are one of those cool blooded and experienced gunfighters, you will probably still focus on the threat.  Our basic instinct is to focus on the threat.  Ten thousand years of evolution and it is still around.  We probably aren’t going to change it anytime soon.  Accept that you will be target/threat focused and train to hit that way.  The new mini red dot sights are a blessing when it comes to this.

Regardless of the method you choose, learn to deliver effective shots rapidly and learn to move them around the target.  Self defense ammunition is expensive.  Make each dollar count and share the love with multiple wound channels. Two rounds in the same hole is not nearly as effective as 2-3 rounds 4 inches apart in the “A” zone. Get your money’s worth out of those shots.  Train to deliver multiple  shots quickly and accurately.

It is important to note that Communicate, Move and Shoot are parallel processes.  That is to say they all are done at the same time.  With practice you can easily master this.  Any hesitation or lag time will cost you the advantage you are trying to gain.  Once committed, you must act without hesitation.

Since we tend to equate trigger press with survival and no one is so good that they can keep an accurate count of shots fired every time, reloading becomes very important.  If you are looking at a slide locked to the rear, you must instantaneously know what to do.  This requires training and practice.  There are several methods for a slide lock reload.  Choose one that works for you and train it until you cannot do it wrong.  Equally important are tactical reloads, aka., reloads with retention.  Knowing when to use this type is important, but knowing how and being able to do it without taking your eyes off of the bad guy(s) is critical to survival.  Pick a type that suits you and train it until you are smooth and flawless.

Clearing malfunctions. Flawless operation of any machine is a naive expectation.  Therefore we must plan for failures and expect to have to fix them under stress.  Now if your solution for a malfunction is to toss it aside and grab your BUG, then make sure you train to do just that.  Not set it down gently or pocket it, toss it aside and get on to the next gun.  However, if your plan is to smack, rack and assess then you must train for this.  Use dummy rounds and train until it happens without thought.  Equally important is recognizing that not all malfunctions are cleared this way.  Take the time to set up a double feed and work your way through it.  Most importantly, have a plan for catastrophic failures.  Will you run away making use of cover and concealment or will you simply stand there?  Mastering malfunctions means mastering your escape and evasion plans as well.  We have a term for those poor souls who stand still in a gunfight. That term is “the deceased.”

Regardless of the weapon type, make or caliber, you must master these five basic fundamentals of self defense shooting.  If you can not Communicate, Move, Shoot, Reload and Clear a Malfunction at anytime under any circumstances, whether it be a shotgun, carbine, rifle or pistol,  you have no business moving on to the more complicated skills.

This entry was posted in Modern Service Pistols, Training by Scott Ballard. Bookmark the permalink.

About Scott Ballard

Scott Ballard is an instructor at the Sig Sauer Academy with 25 years of experience working as a private security contractor and executive/dignitary protection specialist. His experience includes training and development of high-value/high-risk protective security details and corporate security teams. Scott has over 15 years experience as a security detail trainer that includes specialties such as protective tactics, firearms and less-lethal weapons, defensive driving and detail operations. Scott is a certified executive protection specialist, master firearms instructor, force-on-force instructor and range-master. He is also a member of the United States Concealed Carry Organization, the Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network and is a life member of the NRA and SAF.

18 thoughts on “Five Fundamentals of Self Defense with a Firearm

  1. Thank you scott for putting out the 5 fundamental skills for people to look into.You said it best by asking the shooter, WHAT KIND OF SHOOTER Do YOU WANT TO BE . STUDENTS want to shoot, but I think it’s getting harder to find shooter’s that want to learn the skills of defensive type shooting. Oh don’t get me wrong they have the hardware, they are not willing to learn how to use it. Shooting at trash in a field with your fellow key board commandos is not training the right way, it wasts time and money.
    Thank you sir.

  2. Damn…one of the better articles on this subject…thanks for clearing up the issue I had with 2 rounds in the same wound channel vs. multiple wound channels.

    • Was that intended as a serious objective; for hits to be deliberately distributed around a torso? I have heard of it but never considered it a serious consideration; “spread your hits out”.

      • This is part of the article I don’t agree with. I have not seen a big rash of rounds in the same hole. What I have seen is that the people who are training on very tight accuracy standards have been able to translate that standard to bad guys. Everybody is going to have some depreciated accuracy once things go dynamic when the “targets” are now moving on both sides. That is why those who are consistently able to deliver surgical shots understand what is required to do that. The people who train to “spread trauma” I have found to be an excuse to train with no accuracy standard and with poor marksmanship skills. Another interesting thing about human anatomy is the reality that a solid shot to the center chest may be a lung only hit or not connect with a major organ, while a follow up round a inch away may do significant damage to the heart or end up in the central nervous system.
        I would also much rather tell students that you can see your sights in a fight than that they can’t. The fact is they can, and can see them with perfect clarity-I know this for 100% first hand fact. Is it always possible, no, but I would rather emphasize visually verified shooting combined with as much sight focus as possible to get significant hits. The other “reality” of the “spread the trauma” school is actually a bigger issue with horrific trigger control more than sights. You will also find that the ability to shoot very tight, very consistent small groups has been more related to input on the trigger than a level of focus on the sight. So should we be training with a crap trigger press because nobody can press a trigger correctly under stress along with the myth that you can’t see your sights in a gunfight? I have had better success with my people winning gunfights decisively (many being a flat out shooting…which is better) using a methodology that centers around consistent surgical shooting under pressure than the the “shooting all over the place fast”.

  3. Excellent article. Agree 100% that you will not use your sights in a gunfight situation. Indeed, as the heartbeat accelerates past 150 bpm, you LOSE THE ABILITY TO FOCUS ON CLOSE OBJECTS. That’s why I teach instinctive shooting and all my “serious social occasions” firearms have lasers mounted on them.

    • No you won’t. The other problem is that shooting is not “instinctive”. It is a operation of a firearm, something humans have been doing a very short time in the big scheme of things. I can tell you to this day EXACTLY what my front sight looked liked plastered on a suspect on one of my shootings. I also had reports from numerous people that I changed an debriefed on use of sights.
      Now focus is essentially range, target and time dependent. I like the term “visually verified shooting” that we teach outside of contact range in which the eyes provide an additional input to grip and stance to verify that you are in fact on target. At times, the entire back of the handgun will work (and your brain is still seeing those sights), at others (think of a tight hostage shot in close range) will require sharp focus. Moving targets (which most become in a fight) also require the sights to track. Once the shooting decision is made, do I really want to be focused on and reacting to what the target is doing or on what I need to be doing to get solid hits. Focus will need to change constantly during a fight, and we need to be training for it.

  4. Back in my service days our mantra was two shots in rapid succession delivered to the center of visible mass, (then reassess), the “Double Tap”. It has been reassuring over the years to find that the countless drills I carried out back then are still imprinted into muscle memory. Thanks for the excellent article.

  5. While I think most of this article is directly on point, I am with Darryl and disagree with the concept of attempting to “spread your hits” to maximize the number of wound channels. Shootings are typically dynamic, and usually the shooter, suspect, or both, are moving. While I haven’t studied the number of documented cases where bullets were stacked through the same wound channel, I would bet my next paycheck they are unusual at best.

    Secondly, I also disagree that one should count on not seeing the sights. While we should mentally be prepared for anything, training to see your sights in practice will help you see them when it counts. There are plenty of documented shootings and gunfights were the prepared individual were able to see and utilize their iron sights at the critical moment.

  6. Great responses. Thank you for reading through and commenting. Please let me clarify a few things.

    “Unless you are highly trained, it is not likely you will ever see your front sight. ”

    Please note the first five words of this sentence. I would submit that if you have a viable opinion on point verses precision shot placement in an actual gunfight, that you are part of the, “highly trained” group. The sentence continues on with, “not likely.” I phrased this in such a manner as to avoid making the definitive statement that all humans will react in a certain manner. No two human brains are alike and no two human experiences are alike. What I do, what you do or what thousands of others do is not a guarantee of behavior in the next man. I would point out serial and spree killers as an example.

    You see your front sight all the time, others do not. I have debriefed numerous shooters who could support either side of that argument. The thing that I found was that the more experience/training the shooter had, the more likely that shooter was to report that they had seen the sights in a definitive manner. Experience has taught me to be suspicious of those who speak in absolutes during post use of force discussions. I would suggest that the more experienced shooter is likely going to say, with certainty, that they did use their sights because that is a trained expectation. (please just consider this is an option, I am not referring to anyone specifically)

    I do not accept excuses for poor accuracy in those I train. I am not suggesting that group spread in a defensive situation is an excuse for poor marksmanship skills. My point about group size, although poorly made it would appear, is about shot delivery while the gunfight is still going on. In other words don’t be so concerned with perfect grouping that you create a training scar. The point I wish to make is that we deliver shots to an 8″ circle where I teach and to use that full 8″. If the shooter, while under stressors, keeps their shots in a 2″ group, they are shooting too slowly. That shooter needs to push themselves harder on shot delivery. If they push too far and get sloppy, it is my job to reign them in and then push them back to that edge so they continue to grow.

    “… learn to deliver effective shots rapidly and learn to move them around the target. ”

    “Deliver shots rapidly,” is the point here. A double tap involves 3 sight pictures. A hammered pair requires 2. Which one delivers shots on target faster? “…learn to move them around the target,” is a poor choice of words for making a point about being able to shoot anywhere on the target that the shooter deems necessary. Ultimately I expect my shooters to be able to deliver precision when required, which means using those sights, and delivery effective shot rapidly when required. There is no room for sloppiness or excuses. Most important of all, I require my students to know when and how to apply each of those shooting skills. I require them to think with that gun in their hands. My conscience and the law will not accept Pavlovian response as justification for a shooting.

    This article is not directed at those pros out there who have their own well ensconced doctrines. I meant it more for what we, as trainers, should focus on with our students before we teach all the sexy new techniques. Teach them to make one hole groups at 7 yards. That is perfectly acceptable. However, if they can’t reload it or even reliably get it out of the holster before the fight is over, what are you really doing for them? I do not discuss BC with basic precision scoped rifle students any more than I would discuss clearing rooms, shooting in or out of vehicles or low light operations with someone who can not communicate, move, shoot, reload and clear a malfunction.


  7. I won’t further belabor this, but I disagree with with “Highly trained”. I spent most of my time with limited resources and limited enthusiasm from students. I try to “Efficiently train” so that I can send my people out with a sense of what they can do and don’t tell them or train them to what they “can’t” do. It is why we are doing any training. Most people when faced with a skid in a slippery condition in their vehicle will “Instinctively” (said with a huge level of sarcasm because driving is as much a human instinct as shooting is) do the wrong thing….which means they will make a mistake (or several) due to little or no training. We train people to input a correct response under stress in their vehicle. We don’t tell them to just slam on the brakes (slap the crap out of the trigger) and turn the car the direction of the skid (don’t use the sights), because that is what the people with little or no training do, so it is “instinctive”. We train them in the proper response to a situation, and hope that they will be able to retrieve this under stress because we were effective in our training.
    Shooting too slow……..sorry, just haven’t seen an issue with this in actual incidents. The problem is very much reversed which is why the accuracy suffers so badly. When you combine this with a very distinctive alteration of the concept of time in these incidents and I would contend that getting people to train to the highest level of accuracy possible under realistic time constraints is a good thing. I had to change a lot of my training doctrine over the years that started as a theory of what is possible. The results have been that continual reinforcement of proper execution of the fundamentals at speed (which is a case by case situation). The key is that the fundamentals are the priority and they need them repetitively hammered in so that the response to threat is hardwired into the system.

  8. Thanks Darryl.

    I think you missed what I was saying. My fault. My reference to speed of shot delivery was referring to training scenarios, not actual shooting scenarios. I have seen countless scenarios where the shooter was too slow due to a host of reasons, a main one being trying to take very careful aim when other methods were appropriate. My point there was to deliver effective shots quickly.

    Your last sentence lets me know we agree. “The key is that the fundamentals are the priority and they need them repetitively hammered in so that the response to threat is hardwired into the system.”

    Apparently the rest is being lost in semantics. At least there is agreement that fundamentals are the priority.

    Good Luck!

  9. I was going to comment but my other brother Darryl beat me to all of the points.

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