Saturday, February 28, 2009

Home defense shotgun ammunition, the basics

Now that a home defense shotgun has been put together, the question remains: What should we feed it?

First, let’s ask ourselves why a shotgun is being used for home defense. Understanding that will help us make the ammunition choice. A shotgun has some advantages that make it desirable as a home defense weapon.

While any firearm powerful enough to use for defense will penetrate most walls, shotguns are slightly less likely to over penetrate.

A shotgun has the ability to fire a shell with multiple projectiles, increasing the likelihood of a solid hit and thus of stopping the threat. Some say the ominously large bore and unique sound of the action tend to make bad guys choose another activity… one far away from you and your family.

Sticking with the technical, and leaving the psychology aside for now, it’s the ability to fling a small cloud of shot which won’t pass through five houses and a school bus that helps make the shotgun a solid defensive choice. That being the case, lets look at ammunition options for this 'lil beastie.

There are ‘slug’ shells available in every gauge. From cute little 95 grain .410 slugs that almost rival a .380 pocket pistol, on up to 1oz 12 gauge bruisers meant to take down heavy game. Yes, they are available, but are they a good choice for home defense?

Using a slug gives up the advantages a shotgun brings to the table. There is only a single projectile, lowering hit probability. It also penetrates impressively. Used on big game, a slug normally goes clean through. Anything short of a brick wall is unlikely to stop one completely.

On the other hand, slugs give the shotgun a longer reach, allowing buckshot for close in shooting and then being able to reach out to longer ranges with nothing more than a different shell being loaded. There are many schools of thought on this, but I’d like to make two points here. In the heat of the moment, when an attacker has escalated the situation so boldly that deadly force is required, how many people will be able to keep track of which shell they are loading, and for what reason? Also… if the range has gotten long enough to demand a slug (over 50 yards) then maybe the range is long enough that shooting is no longer required defensively. Yes, there might be an occasion when long range capability is required, but at that point the shotgun is simply not the best weapon. A pocket full of slug shells might serve in a pinch, but those ranges speak to the need for a rifle, not a shotgun.

When we speak of defensive shooting with a shotgun, we are really talking about ammunition which shoots shot… and we are left with looking at what size shot and how much. Buck shot or bird shot… and here there really is no choice. Bird shot is just that; small shot made for taking small game birds on the wing. Bird shot will not penetrate well enough to reliably stop an attacking opponent. Sure, it can leave a nasty surface wound and may eventually drop the bad guy from blood loss, but that’s not the goal. Shots fired are meant to stop the bad guy from attacking, and that means stop, not hurt.

For that, penetration is required, and damage to structure and major blood vessels.

Now the choice is narrowed to buck shot. 2 ¾” shells or 3” shells? #4 buck shot or O/O buckshot? Magnum or standard? The choice is actually not all that hard once the performance of the ammunition is looked at.

Normally, a ‘Magnum’ shotgun shell gets that name by carrying more payload, and not by achieving a higher velocity. The extra weight of more pellets means higher recoil; not something to be lightly passed over in a weapon that already has quite a kick. The same can be said for 3” shells over 2 ¾”. Again, they carry more pellets and tend to have significantly higher recoil. There is always a trade off for the higher shot count. 2 ¾ standard shells have a history of doing the job, and there’s no reason to assume bad guys have gotten tougher in the last few generations.

As to shot size, here we have a choice. Typically under consideration for defensive use, ammunition makers load #4, #1, ‘O’, double O, and triple O buck shot. The difference is in the size of the pellets and thus, how many will fit in the shell. #4 is the smallest, and typically has about 27 pellets. O/O is the most common large size with nine pellets being about standard in the shorter shells.

Shown here are four different buck shot shells dissected. Remington 'O' and #1 buck, Federal #4 buck, and Sellier and Bellot O/O buck. The white powder amongst the shot in the Federal and Remington payloads is buffer. It's packed with the pellets to help control deformation on firing. Round pellets fly faster, farther, and maintain better groups.

The smaller the shot, the less mass it has, and the less it’s going to penetrate. #4 buck shot is fairly small… about the diameter of a .22 rimfire bullet but with less than half the weight since it’s round instead of conical. A Double-O pellet is about .33 caliber and considerably heavier. As a result, it penetrates much better.

#4 is considered just a little too light for serious defensive shooting, although it has a place in varmint hunting and pest control. It’s quite effective on fox sized game.

#1 buck seems to be just at the bottom edge of desired penetration, and jumps the typical number of pellets to sixteen. It has a history of reasonable penetration as well, and the increased projectile count raises the odds of hitting a major blood vessel or nerve center.

O/O buck (double O) is traditional in defensive use and has a long track record. It balances penetration vs. projectile count decently, and functions well in the 12 gauge platform.

There is also the question of choke... constrictions in the barrel designed to control how tight the shot pattern is. A shotgun meant for longer ranges will have a tighter choke, for a more dense pattern. Shotguns for defensive use typically have no choke at all, letting the pellets spread as quickly as possible. Does that mean a hunting shotgun with a full choke is useless for defensive use? By no means, as the following photo shows.

Both targets were shot at 35 feet. The target on the left from a 12 gauge with a short barrel and no choke, the target on the right from the same shotgun with a full choked hunting barrel mounted. Clearly both would be effective shooting and likely to stop an attacker.

My conclusion?... My home defense shotgun will be loaded with Remington 'O' or 'O/O' buckshot. Patterning well, with decent penetration and pellets large enough to reliably have an effect, it's my choice for the house scatterblaster.

(note: A little research can be a good use of time. I'd like to point out that Xavier has had some excellent posts in the past on home defense shotguns. Guns and Ammo
magazine has also covered the topic.)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Defensive shooting with a shotgun

My son and I were doing some shotgun practice today. He was patterning his new turkey/goose/deer/squirrel/trap Mossberg, and I was drilling with the 870 house gun.

He asked my opinion on using the shotgun for defense in the house. “Should I shoot till it’s empty?” He said.

I responded “In my opinion, you only shoot at someone for one reason. They are trying to hurt you or your family, and you want to make them stop. So you shoot till they stop. Then you reload, fast, in case they start again”.

I said “I’m no expert, but I’ve thought about this. If you need to shoot, then make it count. Also, try not to get shot yourself. That means you are moving and shooting, moving and reloading, or taking cover and reloading. One thing is for sure… with a shotgun, you will always be reloading, so practice that a lot.”

Of all I said, one thing is certain; I am no expert. The other things I said, I believe to be true. The single best way to not get hit is not to get into a fight. If you have to fight, make yourself as hard a target to hit as possible. That means moving. If the fight is taking place with a shotgun, it will go empty in no time flat. That means reloading, often. Therefore shooting and reloading should be practiced on the move.

As with any other shooting skill…I take them one step at a time. In this post I’ll show some of the practice I personally do, and explain why. Readers will have to choose what works for them based on their own circumstances, skill level, and comfort level. My son and I... we are just learning. We watch each other, video each other, and critique safety and technique. Formal training would be wonderful, but there is none around here. We are left to fend as best we can, and figure it out on our own. There is nothing new here, and the Internet is rife with information and videos on this type of shooting. That said, here is a look at some of our practice methods.

While shooting pistols, reloading is practiced with magazine swaps. The same is done for the AR and many other rifles. Revolvers have speed loaders. Shotguns… have a pocket full of loose shells. In some cases, a shell holder is on the weapon itself, but still the gun is reloaded one lonely shell at a time. I’m discounting the shotgun speed loaders used in competition. They are not reasonable in a defensive role. Making this situation worse is the almost universal low magazine capacity of any normal shotgun. Four to eight rounds is the rule for pumps and autos, two for a double barrel.

Without question, a shotgun used for defensive purposes is the one weapon most likely to need a reload under pressure. Therefore reloading the gun needs to be practiced. Here are two of the short reload drills I do with the house gun.

One is a reload from dry, after shooting the gun empty. In both reloads the weapon stays shouldered and pointed at the threat. The right hand supports the shotgun and the trigger finger stays near (NOT ON) the trigger. With the left hand, reach under the stock and pull a shell from the holder. Reach over the receiver and drop the shell into the open port. Run the slide forward. The weapon is now ready to fire again, and has remained pointing at the threat the whole time. The off hand now pulls shells from the holder one at a time and loads the magazine till full.

I stage the shells in the holder base down for doing reloads in this fashion. It means I can pull them down and out of the shell holder, rather than reaching over the top of the stock. Learning to keep the visual attention down range while doing this takes work. For me, it was natural to look down at what my hand is doing with the reload.

The other reload drill is a ‘top off’ reload. The weapon has been fired one or more rounds, but is not empty. The only difference here is the off hand loads only the magazine, and not the port. Just as before, the right hand supports the weapon by the grip and the trigger finger stays near the trigger, but not on it. I practice this drill a bit more than the other, as that motion of pulling a shell down and shoving it into the magazine is not an easy one for me. It feels awkward, and requires practice. Considering I would only be doing it under extreme stress during a social encounter, it needs to be something done automatically and without distracting.

With movement drills, these short videos (shot by my son) show a few of our beginning efforts. Lateral movement with long steps to cover a lot of ground, lateral movement with short steps, and one we do for fun. The last is fired at small clay targets placed at random intervals, and shot on the move. It teaches the shooter to aim, not just point.

The boy and I burned up about 200 rounds practicing these drills, and had a great time doing it. We both learned from each other, and discovered quite a bit about handling our own weapons. A few of the lessons we carried away...
  • Missing with a shotgun is far easier than it looks. It's also embarrassing.
  • Reloading from the shoulder without looking is much harder than it sounds. Its also embarrassing. The hole in the magazine looks huge, till you are trying to shove in a shell without looking and with your off hand (righty/lefty).
  • Moving across ground while operating a pump shotgun is akin to patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. There's a lot going on with your body, and if you stop to think about it most of it will stop. Also, it can be embarrassing.
  • Five rounds can go downrange in a real hurry (two seconds), leaving you with nothing but a frustrating click. Thats embarrassing. It also means reloads are critical. Reloads seem to take forever, and the newly loaded weapon is again empty in seconds. Reloading needs to be practiced more than anything else.
  • Dry runs are valuable. For every drill we fired live, we had three runs cold. This let us watch each other and work on finer points, like not falling down in an embarrassing manner (and an unsafe one). The biggest obstacles on the ground turned out to be our own feet.
  • This kind of shooting is fun, and two hours can disappear in gun smoke.... seemingly in the blink of an eye. Two hundred rounds and a sore shoulder later, we are just beginning to understand how much we really don't know.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Remington 870 built for home defense


On the list of firearms held as suitable for home defense, the nearly undisputed king is the 12 gauge pump action shotgun. Whether it’s the unmistakable noise of a round being chambered or the (rightly or wrongly) perceived massive stopping power, the big bore shotgun has a respected place in self defense.

In use since the very beginning of firearms, the shotgun rapidly gained a reputation for bringing down it’s target, whether two legged, four legged, or on wing. When ‘rifles’ did not exist and a single ball hitting it’s target was iffy, a handful of pellets fired from a .75” smoothbore usually got the job done. During the 18th century a coach was often guarded by a man armed with a ‘blunderbuss’, which was nothing more than a short barreled shotgun with the muzzle belled to make loading easier on a bouncing coach seat. From the classic western lawman to today’s patrol car, the shotgun has been a comforting resource to police officers for generations.

The same things that make it suitable for police use make it desirable as a home protection weapon. Heavy firepower over a short range, coupled with an intimidating visual image and ease of operation.

Shotguns can be found in many configurations, but the defensive role is dominated by pump action and semi-automatic 12 gauge guns. Mechanically identical to their hunting brethren, defensive shotguns differ in barrel length, magazine capacity, and sighting hardware.

While a typical hunting shotgun might have twenty eight or thirty inch barrels, this would be too long for easy maneuverability anyplace other than the field. The long barrel that makes easier swinging on a pheasant in flight would prevent effective gun handling in a hallway or small room. For this reason defensive shotguns usually have barrels that are eighteen to twenty inches long.

Hunting shotguns are often limited to three rounds capacity, or maybe five with the ‘plug’ out of the magazine. Defensive shotguns sometimes have a longer magazine tube bringing capacity up to eight or nine rounds. There are even special ‘shorter’ shotgun shells designed to boost the capacity of a shotgun, made just for defensive use. Many shotguns built for home defense also have spare ammunition stored right on the weapon, in special carriers.

While a bird gun might have a ventilated rib with a gold bead at the end, the shorter defensive shotgun more often has a plain barrel with a rifle sight on the end. There is a common misconception that shotguns throw so wide a pattern that aiming is not necessary. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and only a few ‘pointed’ shots at the range will prove this. It’s embarrassing to miss at short range with a shotgun when bowling pins are the target, but it can be disastrous in a home defense situation. Rifle type sights on the shotgun are a helpful aid to aiming accurately.

In this article, a typical 12 gauge pump action shotgun will get a simple conversion to a home defense weapon. In this case, a Remington 870 Express, but any decent quality hunting shotgun can be drafted to house duty with a few changes. While the 870 is worth investing some funds into for a project such as this, it’s possible a decent working 12 gauge can be bought used for well under $200. As long as the basic quality is there, outward finish means nothing. Worn bluing and a scratched stock don’t really matter much in a defensive shotgun. Dependability and usefulness do.

When I was shotgun shopping, the choice was narrowed to the two major suppliers; Remington and Mossberg. I liked the reliability and pricing on both, and a wealth of accessories are available for both. So, what clinched the deal on the Remington? I handled both at the store, and while I was looking over the Mossberg (a turkey gun) the rear sight fell off in my hands. To me, this is not a good sign. If one part I can see is made that cheaply, then what is there I can’t see?

This Remington came to the author as a used hunting shotgun. It’s been carried in the field, and also spent many an evening shooting trap under the lights. The original barrel is twenty eight inches long and is threaded for interchangeable chokes. It has a ventilated rib with a gold bead at the muzzle, and can hold four 2 ¾” shells in its magazine.

As a hunting shotgun it’s dependable and sturdy. Since it’s the cheaper Express model it came with a matte finish and plain wood. That doesn’t affect its usefulness or sturdiness, and it’s still a Remington 870, a shotgun with a long history of service.

As a home defense shotgun, it needed some changes. First and foremost, it must have a shorter barrel. The original was just too long to navigate the hallways and doorways of a house. It’s possible to cut down a shotgun barrel without too much fuss, but there are some factors that must be taken into account. The barrel length cannot legally be made shorter than eighteen inches without an expensive tax stamp issued by the BATFE. Eighteen and a half is usually the shortest a factory barrel comes, and most police shotguns are that length. Citizens have been killed for cutting off that last half inch… don’t risk it.

Once the gun is fitted with a suitably short barrel, what more is required? Many people seem to think any number of gadgets must be bolted, screwed, or Velcroed onto a shotgun before it can be a real defensive weapon. The reality is… simple is better. One need not feel under gunned because their shotgun does not have a vibrating green laser aiming device capable of highlighting the space shuttle in orbit, nor a twenty seven position tactical recoil absorbing stock with optional cup holder. The gun needs to work every time, and with a minimum of fuss. It needs to be maneuverable inside a building. Once that’s achieved, everything else is fluff and something to break or distract. It’s far better to spend the extra cash on ammunition and training time, which is a better investment in self defense.

If the shotgun is one that’s common, then a shorter barrel can usually be found that’s easy to install. Remington sells police length barrels for most of their shotguns, and Mossberg makes defensive barrels for both their guns and the Remington 870. Winchester has ‘Defender’ barrels for the 1300 and 1200 series of shotguns too. For roughly $110 to $150, a new police type barrel can be bought, and installation is a snap. This is usually a better idea than cutting down a premium hunting barrel, unless the shotgun is a cheap used gun with a value little more than the cost of the barrel.

For this build a new Remington police barrel was purchased from Cabelas. It’s a smoothbore with no choke, 18 ½ inches long, and fitted with a bead front sight. The finish is matte to match the Express shotgun it’s going to be mounted on. At $119 out the door, the price was not exorbitant.

Installing the barrel could not be easier. Simply unscrewing the magazine cap is all that’s required, with the action open, and the barrel will pull forward off the shotgun (beware the magazine spring, as it will probably come un-caged with the cap removed). The new barrel is fitted into place and the cap reinstalled. Nothing else needs be done. The original hunting barrel can be cleaned, oiled, and put away for next year’s pheasant season.

While the barrel is being replaced, the magazine spring will likely be removed to get it out of the way. It’s an excellent time to set aside the ‘plug’ that limits the magazine capacity to meet some states hunting regulations. Also, it’s a fine time to install an extended magazine tube if one is desired. For about $45, a machined metal magazine extension can be bought that will give another two, three, or four rounds capacity.

In this build, the added expense was declined, and the original magazine cap reinstalled.

To carry reloads on the shotgun, many companies make ‘side saddle’ shell holders that bolt to the receiver, or even on the butt stock itself. These can hold an additional four to eight rounds in a convenient place for reloading on the move.

In our case, a simple shell holder sleeve was installed on the butt stock. Made by Uncle Mikes, it holds five shotgun shells securely in elastic loops. Since it’s of neoprene construction it tends to stick to the stock, and won’t slide around during movement. That’s important, and worth a few extra dollars. At $12, it’s an inexpensive answer to the issue of carrying extra ammunition.

Whether it’s a side saddle or an elastic shell holder such as this, strong consideration should be given to carrying reloads on the weapon. Even with the longest magazine tube the shotgun will hold only eight or nine rounds at the most. In the event the long gun is used in home defense the user is almost surely going to be under pressure and rushed. Grabbing extra ammo can’t be counted on. The fight will be fought with what’s on the gun. A ready reload mounted on the shotgun is the way to go.

The Remington 870 Express usually comes with swivels already installed for a sling. This is something to be considered. Combat slings in a dozen formats can be had, and our troops use them every day. That said… do we need a sling on a home defense shotgun?

A sling is for carrying a weapon. In a home situation the shotgun will be carried in the hands, not on the shoulder. Unless there is property to be patrolled, or a guard post to be maintained, a sling just isn’t needed. On the other hand, a sling can be a problem when moving through a building. It catches on things, and is a loose grab point for an opponent to use in taking the weapon for themselves.

Sling mounting points are not a bad idea; just for the thin chance a sling would be helpful. In a situation such as hurricane Katrina when long watches might be held over house and home to deter looting, the ability to sling the shotgun could save fatigue.

There are slings which double as bandoleers, holding an extra twenty or thirty shells in elastic loops. While they might appear pretty menacing, accurately firing a weapon with five pounds swinging loosely from it can be difficult. If there is a need to carry that much extra ammunition there are excellent cross shoulder bandoleers available, and they won’t get in the way of using the weapon.

A home defense shotgun does not need to be fancy, just dependable and suited to the job. Once the ‘riot gun’ is put together or bought, one more thing needs to happen and that is practice. Like any other tool, a shotgun won’t use itself. Practice is demanded, just as with any other weapon for self defense. Range time getting used to the recoil, noise, reloading, and aiming of the shotgun is central to its effective use. Even if it’s just a box of shells a month, the practice needs to happen.

Converting this shotgun from faithful hunter to reliable defender cost less than $140. Considering the return on investment, it might be the best way possible to spend money on home security. Its value won’t go down, and in the event it must be used every penny will be well spent.

In upcoming pieces we'll gut some shotgun shells and look closely at what is found, and discover how they perform on various targets. We'll also look at some simple drills for using a shotgun defensively.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Defensive shooting: Movement drills

.(Weasel words: These drills carry risk, just as any shooting does. There is a real danger involved in drawing a loaded weapon and firing it, even on a controlled range during practice. The shooter does so at his own risk. The drill presented here is the authors own practice method, and is shared only as an example of a defensive drill. The author is not a firearms instructor. In any shooting involving movement, falling is a dangerous possibility. It should never be done on an insecure surface. )

Movement drills… Defensive shooting practiced while in motion. In other words, learning how to hit the target while being a very uncooperative target yourself!

Among combat and defensive shooting instructors (which the author certainly is not) there is a general agreement. Moving targets are harder to hit. There are studies to back this up, mostly built on police involved gun fights. The officers who were in motion were rarely hit, while those stationary were hit more often.

A civilian’s goals are different than police officers. Officers may be required to run into the battle, while civilians are usually required to avoid one unless there is no other choice (I’m comfortable with this difference, and it’s reflected in the defensive training drills I design for myself).

Shooting like this is something most ranges do not allow. If for no other reason, there is the danger factor of having people shooting on the move. Falling with a loaded weapon is dangerous, especially to on-lookers. It’s possible, for many shooters, the only way they’ll be able to practice defensive shooting on the move is by taking a training course. There is a solid value to many of these courses, and it’s something anyone serious about CCW and self defense should consider doing.

If one is are lucky enough to have a range where free movement is allowed, then perhaps the shooter can do some of the drills on their own. Very few shooters ever get formal training, and almost none train in movement. Surprisingly, a fair percentage of criminals do train as such, as is revealed in this sobering report. Reading this should encourage anyone serious about self defense to re-evaluate their strategies. Most telling is the point of many criminals getting military training and practicing regularly. ( More articles on the use of lethal force can be found here).

In this post, we’ll try to outline one type of practice used, which is simply called ‘Movement drills’. As the name implies, this is shooting on the move. Letting the legs carry one away from the threat while still engaging the attacker with force.

The basic premise is simple. Hitting a moving target is hard, and if we are the target we would certainly prefer not to get hit. Therefore, we should be moving. On the other hand, shooting defensively while moving is also hard, therefore we need to practice shooting on the move because it’s difficult and requires practice. The goal is to make ourselves harder to hit while improving our chances of stopping the threat by making solid hits ourselves.

These types of drills require an open range and considerable room. One target might be used (simulating one attacker) or a string of targets. The primary goal is to make room between the attacker and oneself, while still making good hits on the target. This means backing up if possible. Backing at an angle is preferred, as this is more likely to throw off the attacker’s ability to follow and rush in, as well as throwing off the opponents aim.

Whether straight back, angled back, or horizontal to the target all these movements should be practiced. By definition a defensive shooting will be by surprise and unplanned, and there is no way to know ahead what options will be open. Movement is good, if possible, but the circumstances will dictate what is possible. A defensive shooter should practice and drill for every eventuality he can.

The following video shows a series of movements the author uses while practicing. Much of the shooting is done with a .22 auto for economic reasons, but every carry weapon gets a turn at bat regularly. Shooting the .22 allows ten times the shooting practice that centerfire only would allow. On the day this video was taken, the author fired more than 400 rounds of .22 (about $12), and another 50 of 9mm and 50 of .38 special (about $30).

There are many schools of thought on such movement, but some things are consistent. The feet should never be put in a position that throws the shooter off balance. The legs should seldom, if ever, be crossed while moving. The torso should stay pointed directly at the target if possible, and one should remain aware of the surroundings at all times.

Here, we see demonstrated the wrong way. Crossing ones legs in this manner is a recipe for a hard fall with a loaded weapon. It places the body off balance, and subject to disaster.

In the second photo, The feet are not crossed and the torso stay in better alignment with the target. This allows better balance, stability, and smoother shooting.

An obstacle or slick spot on the ground should always be in the awareness of the shooter. One encounter with an icy patch or a stray rock can cause a fall and serious injury. In a negative social encounter, falling is a sure way to eliminate any chance of escaping quickly.

In practice, a simple movement drill might go thusly: Place a line of five targets on the backstop(s). The shooter begins at the five yard line, and moving left to right engages each target with either one or two rounds, depending on the firearm used. Reload, and do the same thing, only right to left.

Now, reloaded and ready again, the shooter begins on the left at about the three yard line and moves backwards laterally at an angle to the targets, engaging each in turn. Finally, do the same again, only right to left.

This series of drills is repeated several times, beginning with slow movement and carefully aimed fired, and increasing the speed as the shooter becomes more comfortable with the movement. Any movement too fast to allow a solid too fast.

If enough targets are available, they should be replaced with fresh each time the drill is run. Hits count, misses don't, and a clean target is needed to see the hits. 8" paper plates serve the role nicely for the bulk of the practice, but occasional use of full silhouette targets is a good idea too.

As in almost all drills, there is a need and value to running the drill first dry without ammunition or firing. Go through the movements slowly, with an empty weapon, paying attention to the foot movements and aiming skills.

Practicing drills such as these fairly often will ingrain them into memory. The more practice, the more likely a person is to use the skills instinctively in a stressful situation.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Defensive shooting drill: Rapid draw and point shooting


(Please note: This drill carries risks, just as any shooting does. There is a real danger involved in drawing a loaded weapon and firing it, even on a controlled range during practice. The shooter does so at his own risk. The drill presented here is the authors own practice method, and is shared only as an example of a defensive drill. The author is not a firearms instructor. Many ranges will not allow this type of practice, and the shooter should consult with range management before attempting defensive drills involving draw and movement.)

A tourist walks up to a cab driver in New York City and asks him “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” The cab driver promptly responds “Practice!” as he drives away laughing.

I suspect if a civilian who caries a weapon for self defense asked an experienced soldier the best way to survive an attack, the answer might very well be “Training!”.

For a pistol shooter, practice and training comes in many forms. Safety is paramount at all times, and practicing it should go without saying. Beyond that each discipline has it’s forms and methods. Bull’s-eye shooters spend hours upon hours practicing breathing and trigger control. Steel shooters practice rapid target acquisition. IPSC shooters even practice explaining away all the misses.

For the defensive shooter, all these are needed, and more. The point of carrying a weapon for self defense is it’s there when it’s needed. Predicting exactly what will be happening when that need arises is nearly impossible. If one could predict every dire situation, one could then avoid them. Almost by definition the defensive situation a CCW holder might face will be a surprise, and come on rapidly. If it were any other case then it would probably be better to escape than fight.

In its most extreme the armed person might have just fractions of a second to commit to shooting in defense. It’s likely to be close at hand, if not at arms length. It’s entirely possible the first rounds will be fired as snap shots on the draw, and without aiming.

If this is the case, then shooting like that should be practiced! Like anything we do under stress, practice and training will always improve how we react. The more training, the better we can deal with the stress of a sudden life and death situation. The more muscle memory we can use in that moment, the freer our mental faculties will be to access the danger, if that’s even possible.

Practice should be pointed, with a goal in mind. Not just standing up at the bench and blasting away someplace down range, but firing with deliberation and purpose. Often, even the firing should be omitted as finer points of the draw and reload are repeated over and over with an unloaded weapon.

One range session for sight acquisition, and another session might concentrate on trigger control. Yet another on reloading and failure drills. If possible, movement and firing from the draw should be done as well. Later, as each skill is learned, they can be combined in drills, such as using action dummies to force a surprise tap+rack malfunction clearing (another post!). In the event a weapon must be pulled from concealment for purposes of self defense, all these skills can and may be needed. The only thing that can be certain is not enough time will be available and something will probably go wrong.

Here, we’ll look at a drill designed to practice rapid draw and point shooting at very close range, a skill that might be useful in an extreme social encounter of the worst kind. Emergency situations don’t normally announce themselves well in advance and from far away. In the event of a personal attack the perpetrator probably took pains to remove the victim’s response time and options. The ability to draw quickly, point the weapon properly, and fire reliably could a life saving skill.

As the illustrations show, this drill has the weapon holstered on the belt in a normal concealed carry rig. The non-shooting hand comes forward and up to at least shoulder level, and probably higher. During the drill this gets the hand out of the path of firing to avoid unwanted and unauthorized bullet wounds in that hand. In a real life defensive situation, the off hand would be coming up to push away an attacker, distract attention, and possible deflect a weapon.

Care should be taken to not allow the muzzle to cover any part of the shooters body during the draw and handling.

The gun hand draws the weapon and brings it muzzle forward just in front of the body, but not extended. The pistol is pointed at the attacker, and multiple rounds are fired; at least two, but three is probably better. Without aiming, the assurance of a disabling hit that will stop the attack is lower. Multiple rounds will increase the odds of stopping the attacker.

The video shows the whole drill, first at speed, then in slow motion. It also shows one reason eye protection should always be worn while shooting. Firing this close to the backstop puts one right in the path of dirt and debris flying up from the impacts. Such shooting should never be done someplace bullets might ricochet or bounce back. The danger of being hit is far too great. (The linked post by Brigid is an excellent primer on eye protection!)

The drill should be performed dry (unloaded) several dozen times, and then done at very slow and deliberate speed while concentrating on a safe draw and motion to fire. First the safe draw, and then the safe draw and pointing the weapon, and then the draw, point, and fire, all done at slow speed. As the actions get smoother, the pace can be picked up. After a few range sessions it should begin to fall into place.

Like any drill, it must be practiced on a regular basis to keep the skills alive. Once the motions and actions are learned and ingrained, periodic refreshers are needed. Shooting the drill once or twice each range session is recommended, if possible. Regular range sessions should already be on the agenda of any conscientious CCW holder.

This drill, and many others like it, can be used to build a shooters skill level. In the event the carry weapon is needed in the gravest extreme, such skills may be life savers.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Shooting pocket pistols..... from the pocket?!?


Becoming more and more popular these days, pocket pistols have snared a serious market share with the shooting public. They are carried as secondary hideout weapons, or often as a primary gun in situations precluding a full sized weapon. Walking around the house or dropped in a pocket for a quick trip to the corner store, more and more gun owners every day are choosing to make a small pistol part of their defensive strategy.

This is nothing new in history. At one time no gentleman left home without a small pistol carefully stowed in a vest pocket or purse. Both in the former Great Britain and the United States, men of stature and moral standard went about their community armed as a matter of course. Then, as now, a small weapon that could be carried easily was often favored over a larger caliber but heavier pistol.

The ‘Baby Browning’ and little Beretta are considered classics for concealed vest pocket carry, and many a shopkeeper carried a top break revolver under his apron as well. Police officers routinely had a small backup pistol as part of their daily kit, and still do.

For generations, firearms makers have catered to this segment of the buying public, but today’s selection is better than it’s ever been before. The variety of small revolvers and automatics designed for concealed and pocket carry is almost staggering. Taurus alone offers more than thirty variations of its small revolvers, and numerous builders now offer sub-compact autos clearly designed for pocket carry. Pocket ‘holsters’ have now come to the market (and about time) that hold the weapon safely at the proper angle for trouble free carry and draw. Perhaps best exemplifying the pocket pistol genre, the concealed hammer ‘bodyguard’ type of snubnose revolver is showing resurgence.

One question that comes to mind… at least to the terminally inquisitive amongst us is this; can pocket pistols be fired from…well… the pocket? Certainly a firearm can be fired from within ones clothing, or through a barrier, but what about from the pocket it’s carried in?

There can only be one good reason to fire a pistol from the pocket instead of drawing it first. That would be a threat so close, so sudden, and so dangerous that an armed response in a split second is the only reasonable reaction. A situation so close and so dire the second it takes to draw the weapon is one second too long.

In such a situation the pistol takes on its most important role; bodily defense. The requirements of a defensive pistol are many, but chief among them is reliability. The weapon must work as expected, and do so every time.

In that situation, we can assume the range will be close. Arms length probably, and even touching is possible. With an attacker trying to gain physical control, even the act of sliding a hand into the pocket might be all that’s possible. Accuracy is not an issue, as aiming would be instinctive. It would be a true case of ‘point shooting’.

The question remains… will the pistol function as designed when fired from the pocket? If it fires once (as almost all surely will) will it be able to fire again, or be rendered inoperative at a time when it’s needed most?

Follow along as this small scale test is run……

Several weapons were chosen for the testing, with common types of pocket pistols represented. Truth told… it’s what I had available. In this case, a 1934 Beretta in .380, a Taurus snub nose (external hammer) in .38 special, and a Harrington + Richardson top break hammerless in .38 S+W. This gave us one small automatic, one external hammer revolver, and one internal hammer revolver, all pistols noted for typical pocket carry. In fact, I have carried each pistol at one time or another for just such use, and in just that manner.

For a ‘pocket’, a typical pair of blue jeans pants was used. Jackets would have suited as well but I wished to explore a worst case scenario; a pocket just loose enough to grasp and fire the pistol. Made of fairly stiff fabric and having an inner lining, it approximated a light jacket pocket as well.

First up was the Beretta auto in .380. Typical for a small carry pistol, the Beretta is noted for outstanding reliability. Its slim build fits the pocket nicely, and it’s miniscule sights and rounded hammer rowel leave little to snag the fabric. Certainly it would fire from a pocket, at least once, but how serviceable would it be afterwards?

The very first attempt showed an immediate problem. The pistol fired once and then malfunctioned. The slide had operated normally, extracting the fired case and beginning to load the next round from the magazine. That’s where it all ended, as the fired case neatly ‘stove piped’ in the action, blocking the slide from going forward. The fabric close to the pistol had not allowed the empty to fly free, and the weapon was inoperative till cleared.

Attempted again, this time three rounds were fired before the same malfunction occurred. Once again, a stove piped empty blocked the action and took the weapon out of service.

Forming a generalized conclusion from very limited data, it seems that firing an auto from within a pocket is a recipe for trouble. There is every chance, If not likelihood the weapon will be rendered inoperative when it’s needed the most.

Moving on to revolvers, the external hammer .38 snubnose came up to bat. The pistol managed to function for four rounds before fabric bunched under the hammer and blocked the mechanism. Not only would it not fire again, but it was thoroughly snagged on the pocket lining and difficult to remove. It took two hands and several moments to clear it.

Once again making a fairly general observation, a revolver with an external hammer has problems functioning with wadded up cloth stuffed under the hammer. This is not the weapon for firing from within a pocket reliably.

Finally, the vintage H+R concealed hammer revolver in .38 S+W. This pistol is reasonable small, quite light for its type, and has nothing on it to snag fabric. In these features it shares the stage with the Bodyguard type revolver, excepting the potency of its cartridge. The .38 S+W is a weak sister compared to even the .38 special, and is a holdover from the days of low pressure black powder cartridges.

Fired from the pants pocket, the H+R hammerless top break performed flawlessly. All five rounds fired smoothly, and the pistol was withdrawn afterwards without a hint of snagging. It appears the shop keepers and barmen of the roaring twenties had an idea what they were doing!

There really wasn’t enough testing to arrive at a solid conclusion, but the anecdotal evidence found here suggests only one type of pocket pistol can be reliably fired from the pocket in a split second defensive situation; The hammerless or concealed hammer revolver.