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The King and Queen of Handgun Stopping Power

Following a discussion with gun writer/photographer Tamara Keel on social media last week about the originator of this quote, I sent an query to Massad Ayoob on Saturday:

Me: I’m looking for the originator of the aphorism:

“Shot placement is king, adequate penetration is queen, and everything else is just angels dancing on the heads of pins.” … or words to that effect. Any clues in that encyclopedic brain of yours?

The response from Mas came yesterday:

Massad: I thought it was coined by Karl Erich Martell, a brilliant now-retired appellate lawyer whom I consider a gun expert in his own right. I reached out to him and he confirmed. His response is cut and pasted immediately below. Please confirm receipt. Hope you are well.

[The following was KEM’s email reply to Mas.]

Karl Martell: ‘Thanks, Mas: my recollection is that I invented it (my wording: “Shot placement is king; adequate penetration is queen; everything else is angels dancing on the heads of pins” and it was regarding handgun usage specifically) for use on The Firing Line forum during the first of the “Caliber Wars” back around (before?) the turn of the century.

‘I was at a period in which I was finding enlightenment on the issue of handgun stopping power after seeing dozens of autopsy reports in murder cases that my office handled (at the time I was working at the Appellate Division of the New Mexico Public Defender, which – at that time at least – handled 19 out of 20 murder appeals in the state – as you know, by the time a person is done with a trial, he is indigent and doesn’t have money to buy an appellate lawyer – the Appellate Division was a great specialized practice). After all the nonsense about kinetic energy in the Eighties, I was surprised to note that injury to the heart/aorta or brain/spinal cord seemed to be the only thing that effected a quick stop with a handgun, and I was starting to see cases in which the expansion of hollow point rounds in small calibers “braked” the bullet too soon for an impact on those vital structures. When I’d hear the folks going back and forth about “You gotta have a JHP in your .380” or “If it don’t start with a ‘4’, it’s not serious,” I started posting the line as a tagline on TFL

‘It’s one of a couple things that I’ve come up with (others were legal
concepts) that have actually spread out into the world.”’

Karl Martell’s observations of the key to handgun stopping power–gained at around Y2K as you can read for yourself above–were made at about the time that a number of people in the ballistics community such as Dr. Gary Roberts and other denizens of IWBA were getting some traction outside of academic literature in terms of what “handgun stopping power” actually was and is. This was, in my view, largely due to the advent of the internet and the sudden release of the free flow of information that this technological revolution produced.

Prior to the advent of the internet in the late 1990’s, if it wasn’t in a published book or maybe a magazine, information on terminal ballistics and especially terminal effects of GSW’s was simply not accessible to the shooting public. As a physician with access to a good medical library and MEDLINE, I was able to get my hands on the entirety of the IWBA Journal, and many other publications in medical journals… including the entire published works of Dr. Martin Fackler (the father of modern terminal ballistics studies). When I say I had access, I mean I got in my car and drove 2 hours to the University of Wisconsin Medical Library in Madison, where I looked up the relevant journals, physically took them down from the shelves, and then photocopied the articles I wanted to study. Which is why I have several cardboard file boxes in my storage unit with photocopies of the bulk of Dr. Fackler’s work as well as many of the articles published in IWBA Journal by other experts such as Duncan McPherson and Gary Roberts, among many others.

In other words, 25 years ago the only people who had access to the terminal ballistics information that most Gunternet Gurus know to be true today were professionals who had to work at it to unearth these truths. To put it into some perspective, the predominant authority on terminal ballistics and handgun stopping power available tot he public at that time were the books written by Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow, “Handgun Stopping Power” and “Street Stoppers”. The contrast between Marshall & Sanow’s books and the ballistics research of the IWBA led to an ongoing debate that many of us came to know as The Caliber Wars.

Karl Martell’s observations on what seemed to work when using a handgun to stop an adversary were gleaned at about that time. Karl was neither a ballistics researcher nor a trauma physician, but an attorney. Regardless of his academic background, he was a shooter and “gun expert” (as Massad pointed out in his email to me). From his unique perspective as a lawyer working on murder cases, he had access to information that most people outside of the trauma medicine field do not see or hear about. And his observations are very, very important.

As it happened, this was also the period in which I was formulating the Shooting With Xray Vision training program, which of course is based entirely on the concept that shot placement with adequate bullet penetration equals stopping power. My observations and experience in the world of trauma medicine were a big part of my understanding of this field. But my observations and experience as a hunter who had killed a lot of animals and done the “field autopsies” on them to determine how my bullets had stopped my quarry were equally important. My readings in the field of ballistics confirmed my own observations, as did my discussions with other ballistically-inclined people.

A good friend and firearms trainer is fond of telling his students, “Think of your handgun as a portable cordless remote control drill. All it does is drill a little hole in whatever you aim it at.” He is absolutely correct.

Handgun bullets stop by drilling holes in critical anatomic structures. The amount of kinetic energy they impart to the target organism is a fraction of the kinetic energy of a rifle bullet. As a consequence, your only hope of stopping a criminal attacker with your handgun is to place your bullet(s) precisely into the vital target anatomy of said attacker.

And you cannot place your bullets precisely if you do not know where those vital target organs are, in three dimensional space. The entire purpose of the SXRV program is to teach you this information.

It ain’t rocket science, folks. If even a lawyer can figure it out, so can you. (JK!!)

We still have slots open in our May 4-5 Shooting With Xray Vision Instructor class, and Operator classes are pending in several locations. Sign up soon!

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Practical Pistol Practice

A recent meme on social media complains that it’s a mystery how “a hundred dollars worth of ammo turns into only 15 minutes of range time”.

We all laugh at this, but there is chagrin behind the chuckles… because we all know that there is an unpleasant truth behind the laughter. Ammo is expensive, and we know it. Which brings up the uncomfortable knowledge that unless we practice, any hard-won pistol skills we have attained in recent months will drain away in a ridiculously short period of time. And practice requires shooting, shooting requires ammo, and ammo requires dollars.

Feeding our favorite blaster is always an exercise in cost-benefit analysis. Since the seemingly never-ending cycle of ammunition shortages and price increases started in the early Aughts, every shooting enthusiast has had to look hard at what has to be given up (money for ammo) and what can be gained (shooting proficiency) and try to find an acceptable balance. It seems to be worse in recent years, but when you look at the inflation-adjusted prices of ammo today compared to 2003, the reality is a bit less alarming. (But only a bit)

I don’t want to get bogged down in politics and economics here, but just to put some perspective on it, the increase in cost of ammunition over the past 5 decades has been consistent with the overall cost of consumer goods and services. (Since 1976, the cost of ammo has increased 482.6%, while the overall cost of consumer goods and services has increased 414.3%. Source: ) So, yeah, it costs more to shoot now than it used to, but it also costs more to eat at a restaurant, or buy gas and groceries, and the increase is more or less proportional.

So let’s us all stop blaming our infrequent practice sessions on cost. Instead, let’s go back to that old standby, the cost-benefit analysis, and see what we can do to put together a practice program that can keep our pistol proficiency up and still be reasonably affordable.

The first thing I suggest you look at is potential benefit. In other words, ask yourself what it is you hope to gain from your practice regimen. Are you looking to advance from rookie to USPSA Grand Master status? Or are you just hoping to knock some rust off your basic pistols skills? Or something in between? Because Grand Master bragging rights is gonna cost you a shitload of ammo and money, whereas the Rust-Knocker project can be done for less than you spend on coffee-&-snacks at work each week.

So now we are looking at cost. Ammunition costs vary depending on where and how we buy our ammo. Let’s use 9mm as our basic example. I personally use 9mm for most of my regular auto pistol practice, about half of those sessions with a Springfield Range Officer 1911 (because my usual daily carry pistola out here in Cactus Country is a 1911), and the other half is done with a wide range of 9mm’s that I like to keep some currency on (because when I go to the Big City I prefer carrying a double-stack striker-fired pistola… and if you’re tempted to go all Gun-Karen on me for having a ‘daily carry rotation’, save your breath for the day you meet me in person). So let’s use 9mm for our pistol practice cost-benefit analysis.

If you order 9mm 115 gr FMJ ammo online and buy it in bulk, your cost at the time of Jan. 2024 can be as low as 24 -26 cents per round. But buy that ammo at the counter at your local gun range, and you may be paying 40 cents or more per round. Which makes more sense? Duh!

It used to be that you could save a lot of money by reloading your ammo, but given current component prices, that is only partly or sometimes true in 2023. Using the best prices I can find online, and using brass you already have on hand at zero cost, you would be paying about 28 cents per round for 9mm practice ammo, in which case you’re better off buying your practice ammo in bulk from an online dealer. This will likely not be the case if you want to practice with your 1911 in 45 Auto or your Dirty Harry 44 Magnum, as the cost of factory ammo for larger/scarcer calibers can be high enough to make reloading more attractive. Each caliber and load will cost out differently. But again: do a real cost-benefit analysis, taking into account the price of your reloading equipment and your time spent loading, before you jump into the handloading game with both feet. For many people it just doesn’t pay off.

The bottom line on our cost vs benefit analysis: you’re gonna have to spend about a buck for every 4 rounds of 9mm ball ammo you fire downrange, best case scenario… so if you’re going to squeeze the maximum benefit from that, you should start planning your practice program instead of just blasting away when you get to the range next weekend. So how do you do that?

The basic principle that should underlie your plan is this: every trigger press should be a high-quality rep. Each rep should be as good as you can make it, because it’s the cumulative effect of all those repititions that builds and maintains your skill. Here’s what I recommend, after expending somewhere between a quarter to half a million rounds of pistol ammunition over the past 25 years:

  1. First thing, get your blaster out of the safe, take it to a quiet room where there is NO AMMUNITION, set a target up against a bulletproof backstop such as a basement wall, and dry fire. I use Massad Ayoob’s dry fire method ( Do this for about 10 minutes, then put your pistol away. Do that every day, or at least 4-5 days a week if you can. Dry firing really, really works. The best competitive shooters do it religiously, and some of the best “street shooters” of the past did it as well: John Wesley Hardin and Wild Bill HIckok are both reputed to have started every day with a dry fire session. And dry firing is not limited to the basement… it works on the range, too. I like to start every practice session with a few dozen dry fire trigger presses with each gun I plan to work with that day.
  2. Second thing: buy (and use) a .22 pistol. Or buy a .22 caliber conversion kit for your daily carry blaster. Bulk .22 LR ammunition can be had for as little as 5 cents per round, and target quality ammo for about twice that price. Which means you can get 3 to 5 times as many bangs for your buck compared to your 9mm practice ammo. Personally, I use my usual .22 pistol (a Ruger Mk IV) to work on pure pistol skills: grip, stance, sight picture, trigger press, and follow-through. I like to fire 3 to 5 sets of 10 rounds, slow fire, at 7-10 yards. Each successive target will show a slightly tighter group. Your last target will typically be quite a bit better. At this point, you’re warmed up.
  3. Use a practice plan. If you’ve never used one, you should get into the habit. When I was shooting IDPA at championship level, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, my practice sessions would consist of a dry fire warmup, a rimfire warmup, then a series of slow fire exercises in basic skills starting from firing from high ready, then from low ready, then from “pushout” position, then from the holster. At that point I would start working with my shot timer on specific skills, using specific exercises to address what my last match had showed me to be the areas I needed to work on. I would finish each session with several Double Bill Drills and finally some slow fire “head” shots at 20 yards. This plan would consume 250-300 rounds of ammo. I don’t practice like this any more, and I would not recommend this level of training for most people. It’s expensive, and its purpose is to get me to the point where I can win another match. Most of us are far better-served, in terms of cost-benefit analysis of pistol practice, by a shorter and very structured pistol practice plan, and shooting more often.
  4. Pick a good 50-round practice drill. A 50-round practice drill every week will benefit you far, far more than a 200-round practice drill once per month. Frequency of training has been proven to be far more effective than total time/ammo spent in training. As for which 50-round drill you should use, there’s a plethora of recommendations out there. This morning, I did a quick googly search for “50-round practice drills” and got pages and pages of recommendations. Pick one, and use it. Most of the time nowadays, when I go to the range I start with my dry fire warmup, then usually a 22 rimfire warmup, then I do one of the many 50-round practice plans that are available online. I’ve used a bunch of different 50-round drills over the years and they all have their strong points, so if you rotate through different ones you’ll find yourself working on more pistol skills than if you stick with a single program.

The ammo cost of my weekly practice sessions is about $13.50 for 9mm ammo and another $10 for .22 LR. Which means that I can do a decent job of maintaining my pistol proficiency for about $100 per month, which is a pretty reasonable investment.

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AAR – SXRV Instructor, 05/6-7/2023

We just wrapped up the first Tactical Anatomy Shooting With Xray Vision Instructor Class this past weekend. It was an intense experience for all of us. This material never fails to shake up everyone’s expectations and prior assumptions, including me.

There comes a time in every class when the utter finality of self-defense shooting hits home. The room becomes very quiet, and every student has the same look on his/her face: I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s crystal clear as I look out into the room that the reality of what we are talking about hits home. Every person in the room steps across a threshold of understanding. This class isn’t about punching holes in a cardboard target and taking a smiling selfie with it. Shooting With Xray Vision is about hitting the STOP button. Incapacitation is highly congruent with mortality. And there’s a lot to unpack when you think about that.

This weekend, the moment was on TD1, just before the lunch break. Afterwards, as we all settled down to chow and fraternization, a few student instructors approached me and told me that the class had really hit them hard at that moment.

I can sympathize. I had my own “Aha!” experience at Massad Ayoob’s LFI-I class in Winnimac, IN, in 1998. It’s all well and good to talk about the use of deadly force in the abstract, in intellectual terms, but at some point we all have to come to terms with the visceral. emotional and for some the spiritual reality of what it means. It shakes you up. It makes you question yourself.

Fortunately, the people who were at SXRV Instructor this past weekend were well prepared for the “Aha!” moment, and were able to accept it and move on. I couldn’t be more proud of my student instructors than I was at the point in the class. Moving forward, we were all on the same page.

As I told the class at the outset the topics we cover in the “basic” Shooting With Xray Vision Instructor class are the same as the topics in the “basic” Operator class… but we were going to cover them in a different order, and with different emphasis. This was an instructor class, meaning we intended to show the class how to teach this material.

That’s a critical distinction. As several students told me over the weekend, most “instructor” classes simply present the material to be taught and expect you to be able to teach it. In SXRV Instructor, the whole point of the class is to teach you how to teach the material,

As the class unfolded, the student instructors realized why this class is so important to defensive-minded citizens in our day and age. There is a whole lot of how to shoot training out there, but not a whole lot of why and where to shoot training. And SXRV is all about why and where to shoot bad guys.

We started the day by exploring the realities of officer-involved shootings (OIS)–which reflects the realities of armed citizen defensive shootings (DUGs)–and how SXRV has turned outcomes for OIS/DUG on their heads. And then we spent a good bit of time exploring the “secrets” of Adult Learning theory, and unlocking some mysteries.

We then got into the meat-and-potatoes of SXRV, exploring the subject material on human anatomy and physiology, then short course on terminal ballistics and terminal effects. Following that, we went out to the range and Chuck Haggard did a superb 90-minute educational experience demonstrating how bullets work when they strike ballistic gel (which simulates human muscle tissue). We saw how hollowpoint bullets expand, how they penetrate, and how our bullets sometimes don’t do what they are supposed to, and Chuck explained why this happens. The class was suitably impressed: Chuck did a superb job, as he always does.

We then went back to the classroom to discuss Gunfight Realities. This is a discussion based on my experience as a trauma physician, but also on getting feedback from cops who have taken my class over the past 20+ years. It’s one thing to read about an OIS in a magazine article, and it’s even better to read the reports and analyses of them… but to hear about an officer’s experience directly from him or her, face to face, is another thing altogether.

In the Gunfight Realities portion of SXRV, I share the lessons I’ve learned from all those cops (and the expert analysis of their gunfights). This is not “top secret” material, but it’s not material that most citizens will have access to. In SXRV, I have consolidated that material into a digestible lump that can make sense to the average defensive-minded citizen. The student-instructors were impressed. Moreover, one of the attendees, Greg Ellifritz, has collected a huge compendium of street shootings and analysis, and he was able to contribute a good deal to this discussion because of that knowledge. (Spoiler alert: with Greg’s permission, his shootings data will be included in my soon-to-be-completed book, an updated and expanded Tactical Anatomy Instructor Manual.)

Next topic was all about learning the 3-dimensional relationships of the first 2 Zones of Incapacitatation: the high chest or mediastinum, and the lateral pelvis. This was demonstrated to the class, then we moved on to the core lesson of SXRV Instructor, the how-to-teach-3D-anatomy lesson. This involves tight white t-shirts, marking pens, working with a partner, and whole lot of fun. Listen, figuring out the anatomy in your head is one thing: being able to draw it on another person’s torso is “a whole nother thing” altogother. But it’s essential to the process of learning to be an SXRV Instructor, and I’m pleased to say that the class did very well as a whole.

I traditionally snap a class photo at the end of the t-shirt exercise at every SXRV Instructor class, and we did so at the end of TD1, to the accompaniment of much ribbing and laughter. I love the smiles in this photo. What a great bunch of people! By the way, when we snapped this photo we had spent almost 12 hours in class and on the range. TD1 is intense, as several attendees have told me in emails this past week!

As the sun dipped below the tops of the Oklahoma hills Billy Armstrong, owner and operator of Mead Hall Range, cooked us up a fantastic meal of burgers and brats, and we all enjoyed a fulfilling meal with lots to talk about. Then we went back to hotels and campers and whatnot to sleep and in doing so to consolidate the learning. (There is so much more important stuff to learn about learning and sleep, as we touched on in this class… more to follow in upcoming blogs.)

TD2 dawned clean and bright, and despite the fact that we had had a 12-hour day on TD1, everyone was ready for more. We got into the class by examining the Ethics of Use of Deadly Force with some real life examples. We then moved on to analysis of the terminal ballistics and effects in a couple of real world shootings, demonstrating how these principles play out when actual bullets hit actual flesh.

Then we moved on to the third Zone of Incapacitation, the Brainstem. I was pleased to note that many of the class attendees were up to speed on this zone already. We covered that material, then we went out onto the range to shoot some bad guys.

But first we had another ballistic gel lesson with Chuck Haggard. This time we shot the gel with some shotgun loads, to demonstrate to everyone how a 12-gauge loaded appropriately with buckshot or slugs impacts tissue. We tested several loads, including 00 and #4 buckshot, as well as a 1-oz. rifled slug. Then it was time for the class to do some shooting.

The SXRV Bad Guy Brigade was out in force: 10 tactical dummies from Law Enforcement Targets were set up with nylon stockings on their heads, and we did some more anatomic modeling with our tactical Sharpies. Then the class shot some holes in the bad guys with their personal carry pistols from various angles of presentation, followed by more analysis of shot placement, target organ presentation, and terminal effects.

We rounded out the range session with some rifle work, shooting both high chest and brainstem zones from 25 yards. I am pleased to report that the class did extremely well in this exercise, as they did with ALL the dummy shooting exercise. All in all, this was one of the most capable groups of shooters I have had in a SXRV class over the past 20 years.

We broke for lunch, then spent some time in review of the course. Many questions and comments were forthcoming, which I believe enhanced everyone’s learning. This was a highly interactive class, as I had anticipated. Then we moved on to the computer simulator.

Computer simulators can lend an element of learning you simply can’t achieve with any other modality, I have learned. Even force-on-force training with SIMUNITION can’t do everything, and when it’s available at a training site I always teach one segment of class with the simulator. Since this was an instructor class, we had the student instructors do the breakdown of shot placement. At this point of the course, they were all more than ready to do so. The result was an excellent learning experience.

At the end of TD2 we shot a second class photo, this time in street clothes. The pics are up on Facebook, if you care to view them. I have looked at both class photos this morning, and I must confess I have bit of a grin on my face. Great times with great people.

So it appears we have unloosed at whole new crop of instructors on the shooting world, and they will be able to teach this material in their home states to their home crowds. I could not be more pleased. If any reader has an interest in taking one of their classes, I encourage him/her to do so.

In the event the reader wants to get training at the source, we are planning a SXRV Operator class for this fall at Mead Hall Range, and we may do another SXRV Instructor next spring if there is sufficient demand. Watch this blog for more info as plans come to fruition.

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Gunfight Myths

During the quarter century that Tactical Anatomy Systems has been conducting training, we have come across many statements of “fact” that we have found to be, shall we say, “interesting”.

They’re things people believe because Hollywood, or books, or magazine stories, or the statements of that Guy Behind the Counter down at the local gun store said so. They don’t have any basis in reality, but like any other myths they have their adherents.

Why do people believe in these myths? Well, I guess it’s because they’re comforting. When you know the Boogeyman is out there, and you know he might hurt you if you encounter him, but you have never encountered him (nor have any of your friends), your mind seeks reassurance. Sometimes the easiest way to put those anxieties to rest is to believe in something that you think sounds reasonable.

Some of the more common gunfight myths we’ve heard over the years are as follows:

1. I carry with an empty chamber. It’s safer, and I’ll have plenty of time to chamber a round if the time comes.

2. “45 ball drops them all.” Ditto 8mm, 357 SIG, 338 Win Mag, etc, etc, etc.

3. A double-tap (or El Presidente, etc) will finish any adversary. Fire and forget it. Stick a fork in him, he’s done.

4. I don’t need to carry a spare magazine, I’m not a cop.

5. If I can’t get it done with six (or five, or fifteen), it ain’t gonna get done by anyone/anything

6. I don’t need to train with my gun at ranges longer than 5 yards. All gunfights happen at less distance than that.

7. I have a gun. He’s only got a knife. He doesn’t have a chance.

8. My Glock/SIG/1911 is superior to that popgun he’s got. My equipment gives me an insurmountable advantage.

9. I don’t need to train with a timer. I know I’m fast enough.

10. Competition shooting is a waste of time. Real gunfights are totally different than matches.

11. I was in the Army/Navy/police. I’m superior to all the bad guys out there already, I don’t need to train.

12. I don’t need to practice clearing malfunctions. I keep my weapon in tip-top condition.

13. It will never happen to me.

NUMBER THIRTEEN is the one Gunfight Myth that underlies all of the others. In psychology, we call it DENIAL. Don’t be Cleopatra, kids.

We could go on and on about why all of the above myths (and many more) are unrealistic and lead to a false sense of security.

But why, exactly, is belief in Gunfight Myths so dangerous?

Because believing in myths sets us up for unrealistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations, when countered by hard, cold reality, lead to cognitive dissonance. And cognitive dissonance in a life-or-death situation leads to Brain Freeze and a Death Spiral.

In a deadly force scenario, a death spiral happens like this: 

  1. You act deliberately, in defense of your life; let’s say you fire your gun at your adversary;
  2. Because of your belief in one or more of the Gunfight Myths, you expect your adversary to respond with one or perhaps two reactions;
  3. However, your adversary DOES NOT react as expected;
  4. Events have departed from your planned, rehearsed, or imagined script, and you do not have a planned response to counter your adversary’s actions;
  5. You experience cognitive dissonance, because what you expected didn’t happen, and worse, your adversary has done something you did not expect: “He was supposed to do this when I did that, but he didn’t do this, he did something else! But he was supposed to do this, but he didn’t do this, he did something else!”  And on and on and on, in a tautological spiral of confusion and failure to act until;
  6. He kills you.

In his landmark reality-based training book, Training At The Speed of LIfe, author and police trainer Ken Murray describes the death spiral in much more detail. I strongly recommend it. We have incorporated the principles of Ken’s excellent SIMUNITION School in much of the material we teach at Tactical Anatomy training classes.

So how do you avoid finding yourself in a Death Spiral and ending up at Point Number 7??

Well, first thing, reject the myths. And second, get some good training, and then get some more. Myself, I’ve been a “training junkie” since 1998. I firmly believe that I can never be too trained.

For more on this topic, look for the upcoming publication of the 2nd Edition of the Tactical Anatomy Instructor Manual, coming soon.

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SXRV Instructor Course May 6-7

I have managed to clear the decks for 2023, and I’m glad to put 2022 in the rearview mirror!

I am pleased to announce that we have rescheduled the 2-day Shooting With Xray Vision Instructor Development Class. It will be held May 6-7 at Mead Hall Range near McCloud, OK. For full details on registration, please contact Bill Armstrong, follow the link below.


As you may know, we had to reschedule last October’s class due to my father’s death the week the class was scheduled. This was a difficult time for me and my family, but not unexpected (he was 95). I appreciate all the kind words expressed by those of you who were aware of Dad’s passing.

We are planning to go forward with all the same content and personnel as we had lined up for October. Co-instructors for the class will be David Maglio of Firearms Academy of Wisconsin, and Chuck Haggard of Agile Training and Consulting. More on those two shady characters to follow.

So, to cut to the chase, people keep asking me: “Why should I take your Shooting With Xray Vision class?” or “Why would I want to become a Tactical Anatomy Instructor?” The answer is complicated, but I’ll condense it for simplicity’s sake.

In 20+ years of law enforcement affiliation, 30 years of Emergency Medicine, and nearly 60 years of hunting (i.e., killing critters with the intent to consume them) I have learned a LOT about what makes gunshot wounds effective, and what makes them ineffective. The facts that I have gathered and systematized into the Shooting With Xray Vision (SXRV) system are the culmination of that experience.

What I have learned, and in fact the demand that compelled me to incorporate TAS and start teaching this material, is that gunshot wounds are remarkably ineffective MOST of the time! That’s right, I said it. Most of the time, bullets do not do what the user of the gun intends for them to do.

This is particularly true for handguns, which a substantial percentage of US citizens possess for self-defense. This disturbing reality is not just true for casual gun owners, either. This applies to highly skilled end-users as well, including cops and military personnel, and retirees from those fields.

As an example of this (and the full discussion and citations are in my book), the medical literature shows that fully three-quarters of the people who present to American ER’s with gunshot wounds to the heart from handguns survive their injuries. You read that right, boys and girls: 75% of cardiac GSW’s from handguns do not result in death. Many, if not most of these, do not immediately incapacitate the GSW recipient!

This means, quite simply, that you can’t count on one or two bullets from your self-defense firearm to stop someone who is attacking you or your loved ones unless you put your bullets in the critical target areas of the body that will result in rapid incapacitation (i.e., the ability to prevent them from continuing their attack).

Quite simply, SXRV training provides the student with the information and skills he or she needs to put fire downrange on a deadly threat and terminate that threat rapidly and expeditiously. It has worked for thousands of police officers whose departments have hired me to train their personnel, and it has worked for hundreds more private citizens who decided to get this life-saving training on their own dime.

One example I often cite to prove the effectiveness of the SXRV method: a major metro police department asked me to train their FTU (firearms training unit) so they could institute this training for their entire department. I held a special SXRV Instructor class for them, and then they picked up the ball and ran with it. Over the next 3 years, they trained every single officer in their force in these techniques. When we evaluated the results, comparing the 2-year period prior to the program to the 2-year period after completing it, the results were outstanding: their Hit Ratio went from 20% (which is about average for US police) to 97%. That’s right, NINETY-SEVEN PERCENT. I won’t give any further details in public, but suffice to say that in the post-training period, not a single officer received a GSW in his/her officer-involved shooting incident, and the majority of the felons shot in the study period didn’t bother the taxpaying public in any way whatsoever thereafter. I have seen similar data from other police departments that have implemented the SXRV system over the years. The results keep proving themselves, over and over again.

Tactical Anatomy has not held a SXRV Instructor class since 2014, and we have no plans to teach another one in the future (although that may change, depending on demand). The purpose of this class is to disseminate the information I have gathered over the past quarter century and put it into the hands of conscientious men and women who can pass this knowledge along. I’m getting somewhat long in the tooth, as they say, and who knows how much longer I’ll only be able to keep teaching this material. This is YOUR opportunity to become one of the people who can keep this knowledge alive, and help good citizens prepare appropriately for the possibility of a deadly threat to their lives and families.

What can you expect to learn at this class? Here’s some of the high points:

  1. Rationale for anatomic target acquisition in lethal force situations
  2. Use of deadly force: ethics, politics, and practicalities
  3. Fundamentals of external and terminal ballistics; practical value of ballistics testing; bullet performance and failures.
  4. Static and dynamic realities of Officer/Citizen-Involved Shootings
  5. Realities of gunshot wounds and incapacitation.
  6. Human anatomy zones of incapacitation
  7. Three-dimensional anatomic visualization: why it’s necessary, and how to do it
  8. Safety protocols for training students in SXRV

This class utilizes a combination of didactic classroom learning, peer-to-peer instructional training, computer simulations, force-on-force scenarios, and live fire exercises.

Participants must be certified firearms instructors (civilian, law enforcement, or military), and be able to show proof of clean criminal record.

Please contact Bill Armstrong at Mead Hall Range at the above link to register for the class.

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Pat Rogers Memorial Revolver Roundup – November 2021

I like revolvers.

This ain’t a secret. I have been shooting revolvers with some regularity for the better part of 3 decades. I have hunted with revolvers, both of the single action and the double action variety, and have taken whitetail deer and hogs with both types. I have done considerable competitive shooting with revolvers, primarily in IDPA, but a little bit in USPSA matches, and a bit more in National Match (Bullseye) competition. I have also become certified as an NRA Pistol Instructor with the revolver (as well as the autopistol) and have taken a good deal of training in the use of the revolver from such luminaries as Massad Ayoob, John Farnham, Clint Smith, and others over the years.

I have carried revolvers for personal defense for many years. Yes, I admit my primary sidearm has been more likely to be an autopistol of some variety more often than not, but I’ve been known to strap a sixgun on my belt for months at a time as my daily carry pistol under certain circumstances, and I’ve never felt undergunned in doing so.

So you might say I have a fair bit of experience behind the hammer spur of a sixgun.

So it should come as no surprise that when Darryl Bolke and Wayne Dobbs started up an annual revolver get-together in the DFW area about 7 years ago, I was very interested in attending. It was not yet called the Pat Rogers Memorial Revolver Roundup at that time. Pat, who had been a huge influence in the law enforcement and tactical training community for many years, was scheduled to be an instructor at the 2016 Roundup, but passed away unexpectedly only a few weeks before that. The fellas who run this show named it after Pat thereafter. (More on Pat Rogers in the postscript, below.)

My schedule did not permit me to do so that first year, and since then one thing or another has undercut my efforts to attend the annual shindig. But this year the stars aligned: Chuck Haggard, who has been an integral part of the Roundup for many years, sent me a text message announcing the Roundup arrived on a day where I could act on it, my ER schedule had that weekend open, my wife gave me her blessing to go, and my credit card deposit wasn’t declined by my bank… and so it was that I found myself at the gates of Gunsite a little over a week ago with a bag full of revolvers and an expectant attitude.

My first contact with the Roundup happened Friday evening, when my training partner and friend David Maglio and I stepped into the Gunsite office and shook hands with Ken Campbell, Gunsite’s CEO. Ken is another well-known gun guy who has been a part of the Revolver Roundup since its inception. I have known Ken online for many years, going back to the 10-8Tactical discussion boards, but this was the first time I met him in the flesh. Ken runs a tight ship on the Gunsite property. But it’s a friendly ship, for all that, and he made us feel more than welcome from the get-go.

Saturday morning opened with an all-hands-on-deck meeting to get the organizational housekeeping stuff taken care of, and then we all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t know about you, but any time I attend a function that starts out with the Pledge I have the sense that I’m in the right place and the right time. So it proved to be.

I should mention that there were 70+ people in attendance. There was more gray hair in evidence than any other color, but that’s to be expected among revolver aficionados. What was truly interesting to me was the wide variety of wheelguns on display in various rigs. I was somewhat surprised to see as many folks carrying AIWB as I did… this was the second most-common carry option seen. The number of folks with their guns on the strongside hip was only slightly greater, and was about evenly split between outside- and inside-the-waistband carry. The types of ammo carriers was similarly highly diverse. HKS speedloaders still dominate, but there were a lot of other speedloader types in evidence from Safariland Comp2’s and Comp3’s, Jetloaders, Zeta, and various iterations of speed strips.

As for the types of revolvers in evidence, they ran the gamut. I saw one Kimber, a good number of Colt’s, but most were S&W offerings. There were one or two single actions as well, which is a viable carry option in my opinion for the skilled user. Most of the revolvers were small or medium-frame guns, but there was a smattering of N-frames as well. The variety in grip types and materials was impressive. I found myself constantly snapping my head around as I caught a glimpse of an exceptional set of horn or ivory grips out of the corner of my eye! There was an equally impressive display of quality leather as well.

Myself, I brought one of my competition-tuned S&W 686 revolvers as well as a 3″ S&W M65. I ended up using the M65 exclusively for this confab, and was perfectly comfortable with it. The classes are all geared toward the revolvers that folks actually carry; as such, there were a lot of small-frame revolvers in evidence, J-frames, Colt Dick Specials, SP-101’s, and so forth. David brought only one gun, a 3″ Ruger GP-100 expertly tuned and refinished by Gemini Customs. I’m not a Ruger revolver fan, but this GP-100 is not only gorgeous, but its action is as smooth and clean as any decent S&W I’ve used.

The Roundup was organized so that multiple instructors were able to hold multiple sessions simultaneously. The courses were organized into 2-, 3-, or 4-hour blocks on several of Gunsite’s excellent ranges. There were also lecture-style classes at various times, on various topics. Attendees were free to attend any of the classes as they saw fit. This led to some very full firing lines now and then, but the instructors adapted and so did we as attendees.

I can’t speak for every class, but I will touch on a few that I attended that spoke to me. By the way, all of the instructors were/are very experienced folks. Most are active or retired law enforcement, and all have deep experience with carrying and shooting revolvers.

Starting out, I tried to attend a tandem class taught by Mark Fricke and Wayne Dobbs on revolver carry options and fundamentals, but that class was waaaay oversubscribed Saturday morning, so we slid down one range and joined Dave Dolan’s snubbie class. I had to borrow a snub for this, as I hadn’t brought one with me… next year I will do so. There were several classes devoted to aspects of carrying and shooting snub revolvers, particularly the ubiquitous 5-shot J-frame revolver. Dave covered details on ways and means of carrying and drawing the snub, and he took us through some good practice drills to illustrate ways to train with the snub.

In the afternoon we attended Caleb Gidding’s session on Speed Shooting. Caleb is a perennial IDPA champion, and knows what he’s doing in this arena. This was a highly enjoyable class for me, as a guy who used to live and breathe IDPA revolver competition (and I still do it occasionally, though my zeal for competition has waned somewhat). The short answer to “what’s the secret to speed?” is, in a word, cadence. Caleb covered the concept well, and showed the class ways to improve your cadence, as well as an approach to planning your training in ways to get your cadence (and thereby your speed) to continually improve. I can’t say I learned anything new in this class, but I agreed 100% with everything he said. It flat out works. I’ve used the same techniques myself to win 3 IDPA state titles and a regional title. As most of the folks in that class were not serious competitors, this was welcome new material… and a number of these people told me they really appreciated this new information.

We finished up with a classroom session that afternoon with Darryl Bolke, who has a wealth of knowledge of revolver lore to draw from. In all I attended 4 of his lectures, and was fascinated each time. As my friends will tell you, I don’t sit well in lectures… but Darryl’s presentations were fascinating and I didn’t have to try borrowing anyone’s Ritalin to sit still.

Day 2: Sunday morning we revisited Mark and Wayne’s tandem class, and I was very, very impressed. In the first half of the class, Mark covered a broad range of revolver carry options, particularly the types and uses of the various means for loading and reloading our wheelguns. Now, I have a pretty decent knowledge of loader technology, but Mark’s class blew me away. He had examples of every type of loader I’ve ever heard of, and quite a few I had not. Moreover, he had the latest and greatest offerings out there for us to look at and handle. To say I was very impressed would be a gross understatement. He then took us to the line where we practiced loading our revolvers with various types of loaders using dummy rounds. For me, the most entertaining part of that was the pocket dump we had to do first, to make sure we had no live ammo on the line, and then the frisk-your-neighbor exercise to ensure no live ammo had inadvertantly been brought to the line. There were a few “oopsies” up and down the line, but these were quickly remedied and nobody got shot. So all was well.

We then went on to Wayne Dobbs’ Fundamentals session, ably co-instructed by Mark Fricke, which was simply outstanding. I can’t tell you the last time I had my double-action technique so thoroughly critiqued and corrected. As an instructor–and perhaps like most instructors–I tend to view another instructor’s approach to correcting my technique with a hard squint. To be honest, I often find myself critiquing the instructor’s instructional technique more than I find myself learning from him/her. But not in this class! Wayne and Mark were exemplary in their conduct of the class. I found it perfectly natural and easy to slide into the role of student, as these two gentlemen truly know their stuff. My “aha!” moment came about half-way through the session, as we were working on ball-and-dummy drills to improve our DA trigger roll, and Wayne came up behind me and said, “James, you’re staging the trigger. You don’t want to do that.” And he was right, I was staging the trigger… albeit unconsciously, and perhaps most of the time quite subtly, but staging it I was, and sabotaging my DA trigger roll in the process. BOOM. I consciously watched myself after that, and sonofagun if my groups didn’t tighten up considerably thereafter.

Our afternoon class was “Real Revolver Techniques”, as best as I can remember the title, with Chuck Haggard as instructor. Again, the quality of instruction was superb. Chuck engaged us with a mix of revolver technique and real-world experience, with a smattering of interesting anecdotes to punctuate the mix. He then brought us to the line to try some ball-and-dummy drills. After the coaching I’d received in the morning from Mark and Wayne, Chuck’s contributions sealed the deal for me. I ended up the afternoon shooting what was quite possibly the best 5-yard group I’ve ever shot with a revolver, 24 shots into a single ragged hole… but the 24 shots were punctuated with about 120 dry “clicks” as the hammer fell on fired cases. The utility of the ball-and-dummy drills was brought home to me in a big way.

By the way: the take-home my students get in all my Tactical Anatomy classes is that putting your bullets where they need to go, first shot and every shot, is the most important aspect of using a firearm to defend your life. The instruction I received on Day 2 from these 3 instructors underscored that lesson heavily. Moreover, I am grateful to these guys for actually improving my own accuracy skills with my personal revolver.

On Day 3, we had a mix of range time and classroom. Again, the quality of the instruction was excellent and I was thoroughly engaged in the class material and approach. One highlight of the day was Chuck Haggard’s ballistic gelatin class, in which he demo’d a variety of common revolver ammunition offerings to illustrate their relative utility (or lack thereof). For many of the attendees, who do not have access to this body of knowledge, this was the highlight of the day and perhaps the whole weekend. Knowing WHAT to load your personal defense revolver with is a critical decision, and your life could well depend on it.

Over the lunch hour, Ken Campbell gave us a guided tour of Jeff Cooper’s home, which is preserved as it was when the Colonel and Mrs. Cooper lived there. I will admit to feeling pretty pleased to having my picture taken in Col. Cooper’s office chair in the Crow’s Nest, his tower-top study. The tour was very much appreciated by the attendees.

We finished up Day 3 in the classroom, with Darryl giving a presentation of Pat Rogers’ personal revolvers and retelling of some of the best Pat Rogers lore I have been priveleged to hear. We then segued to his presentation of the “Fitz” revolver, and a discussion of the origins and utility of this unique form of revolver. Many of the attendees had to leave that afternoon, however, so they missed a stellar presentation.

Would I recommend the PRMRR to anyone else? Heck yeah! In fact, I have signed up already to go again next year.

Postscript: For those who don’t know, Pat Rogers was a phenomenal human being whose personality and talents touched a lot of lives in the firearms world. I was privileged to attend one of Pat’s carbine classes in 2008, which I regard as one of the two most important firearms classes I ever took in my shooting life. His untimely passing in 2016 from heart disease was a shock to me, as it was to many others who held Pat in highest esteem. The fact that Ken, Darryl, and Wayne chose to name their annual revolver get-together in Pat’s honor was and is a fitting tribute to the man we all benefitted so much from.

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Home Defense

I watched a video this morning purporting to cover this burning issue: “What is the best weapon for home defense: pistol, rifle, or shotgun?”

It sucked.

Basically, the video personality guy showed 3 types of weapons, covered a few points about each, used a lot of meaningless terminology (yeah, he pissed me off by using the “center mass” nonsense term… again…), glossed over a bunch of important stuff, and completely failed to discuss some of the most crucial aspects of the question.

I’ve spent a lot of time and effort researching the realities of home defense with firearms. (And no, by “research” I don’t mean I opened a bottle of adult beverage and used my google-fu to read some internet articles by people I don’t know whose opinions may or not be valid.) I have taken courses on tactical defense from accredited and nationally acclaimed instructors. I have taken courses as part of my LE training. I have read books. Many, many books. And I have learned and modified my views as a result of this research.

Here’s a brief summary of what my research has told me about how a sensible person should go about preparing for armed home defense:

Develop a Defensive Mindset

Massad Ayoob, John Farnham, Jeff Hall, Marty Hayes, Clint Smith, Henk Iversen, and many others I have taken training from have all said the same thing: your mind is the most deadly weapon you possess.

So use it. Use your mind, your imagination, your ability to assimilate information and process it to fit your unique home defense situation. After all, it’s your home you’re planning to defend.

Start by trying to visualize how an armed aggressor is going to come at you in your home. Will he come through the door? Through a window? Across the lawn, or from behind the shed? Will he drive his vehicle through the plate-glass entry hall? Will there be more than one attacker? Will they come at you from two different directions? Look at ALL the possibilities. Then start to work on how you would have to defeat each type of attack.

Oh, and by the way, this is really important: be sure you know when and how you are justified in using armed force on an attacker. This isn’t something you can get from surfing the web. You need to take a class on this. I highly recommend Massad Ayoob Group for this: MAG-40 is his extensive entry-level class that covers everything you need to know. I also highly recommend John Farnham’s Defensive Tactics International class on this. Marty Hayes, a MAG staff instructor and highly qualified firearms trainer out in Seattle also teaches this material.

Prepare the Ground

The day before the Battle of Gettysburg, General John Buford was scouting in advance of the Union army. His far-ranging patrols had told him where Lee’s Army of Virginia was, and in what direction it was heading. He plotted these bits of information on his maps, and concluded that Lee’s advance could be stopped if the Army of the Potomac could occupy the high ground above Gettysburg. His eye for ground (something that can’t really be taught, although tactical instructors have been trying for millenia!) led to the catastrophic defeat of Lee at Gettysburg, and the salvation of the United States as a union.

Look at the ground of your imagined battle, people. This is your home we are talking about here. You know it better than any attacker can know it. So use that knowledge to prepare the battlefield before the battle takes place. You can choose where and how the battle–if it ever does take place–will unfold.

You’ve already started on this, by recognizing the likely points of attack. Once you know where attacks are most likely to come from, you can prepare the ground. If it’s gonna be through your front door, prepare the doorway and entry hall. Placing a long table or a couch across from the door will dictate how an attacker can move as he enters the home, so you should place the furnishings so that he is directed in the way that is most favorable to you.

Set up your fields of fire. Where is the best place to set up to shoot at your attacker without revealing your position, or better yet, that gives you actual cover against returning fire? Plan your fields of fire so that you can interdict the attacker at the safest distance… close enough to hit him, far enough to allow you to escape to another position, or preclude him returning fire. And set up your enfilade for outdoors as well as inside your home, if you have a large yard or you live on a farm or ranch. What windows can you fire from on an attacker outside your home, should that prove necessary?

And while you’re at it, why not create some cover? A shelf packed with dense books or a heavy wooden cabinet with sandbags piled inside it will absorb bullets as well as any purpose-built armor, and you can set it up without making your house look like a fortress. If you’re going to fire from a window, is the paneling below that window bullet-resistant? If not, you need to make it so.

And speaking of fortresses, think about ways of “fortifying” your home that will make it as impenetrable as a castle. How good are your doors and locks? How about your windows… are they lockable? Do you use deadbolts? Experts tell me that the most cost-effective improvement you can install as part of your home security plan is good door and window locks.

Then look at construction. Do you have easily-breached entry points? Are your entry doors flimsy? How about the frames they’re mounted in? If you don’t have the construction know-how to assess this, hire a contractor to look at them and give you an opinion, and perhaps an estimate for installing upgraded doors and frames.

Finally, think about electronic security: alarm systems, cameras, and exterior lighting. You can go cheap and still put up a really good defense. Or you can spend a bundle and get a worthless security system. It makes a lot of sense to talk to a security expert who doesn’t sell alarm systems before you commit to an alarm system.

Make a Family Plan

Unless you live alone, your entire family needs to know what the home defense plan is. Each person needs to know where to go, what to do, and when. Someone needs to be on the phone to the police while someone else is shooting (or preparing to shoot). Kids need to move to a safe place, preferably near the defender(s), but behind bullet-stopping cover. All persons capable of handling a firearm need to have one, and know what they are supposed to do with it. Yes, it’s possible that your spouse could panic and shoot you in the back of the head instead of shooting the armed attacker. This has happened.

Choose Your Weapons(s)

You may have noticed I have put this last on my list of priorities. That’s because figuring out what type of firearm you’re going to use is less important than any of the above.

Now, I’m a firearms guy, so I’m obviously gonna tell you to have a gun. Or maybe even lots of guns. But every person who is armed in your home defense plan needs to have training. It’s not good enough to take your spouse to the range and let him/her plink at targets… we are talking about life-and-death situations when we are talking about armed home defense, so let’s train as if it was actual life-and-death stuff, okay?

I personally feel a handgun and a long gun for each trained home defender is the basic firearms equipment package. I know people who have a veritable arsenal in their bedroom, but let’s be honest… you aren’t Buford, and this ain’t gonna be Gettysburg. But the basic rule of “have a gun” does apply.

I firmly believe having a handgun on your person in your home is smart. Concealed carry is the smart way to go about life, in my longstanding considered opinion. Be deadly, but don’t advertise it. I have a handgun on my person at all times. If the doorbell rings and I answer it, my firearm is concealed. That way I don’t alarm the UPS delivery guy or my neighbor stopping by with a piece of misdelivered mail. But if it’s someone about to attempt a home-invasion type robbery, I don’t have to run back to the bedroom and hope I get to my gun before the attacker gets to me.

There’s an old police adage: “My handgun is primarily for fighting back to my squad car, so I can get to my rifle/shotgun.” There’s some merit to this. Any long gun, whether rifle or shotgun, is a better fighting weapon than a handgun. Long guns fire more powerful projectiles, and they are inherently more accurate. So having a dedicated home defense long gun makes sense.

But long guns are hard to carry around all day, every day, which is the primary deficiency of the long gun. Okay, but if we’ve covered that by being sure to carry a handgun all the time, we’re good. So let’s look at the other drawbacks of the long gun.

First, long guns are really, really loud. Muzzle blast is directly proportional to the amount of gunpowder in the cartridge and the chamber pressure of the firearm. The muzzle blast from a handgun is therefore pretty mild, but will still cause hearing damage if you aren’t wearing ear-pro. The muzzle blast from a shotgun is really loud, and when fired indoors will instantly deafen you, at least temporarily. (I have had this experience… firing shotgun inside an abandoned farmhouse while researching bullet penetration through walls for a long-ago magazine article. I only did it once, and then put on extra ear-pro for the rest of the projecat.)The muzzle blast from an AR-15 is REALLY loud, much worse than a shotgun. The hearing damage you sustain from firing one of these in your home may be major and may be permanent.

So if you’re contemplating using your 5.56mm carbine or your 12-gauge for home defense, you need to have a set of ear-pro right next to the long gun. Preferably active-protection earmuffs, so you can hear what’s going on while protecting your ears from damage. While you’re at it, put on some shooting glasses, because there may be a lot of flying debris if you let loose with a long gun in your house.

Which specific firearm(s) do I recommend? I don’t. You need to determine what works best for you. If you live on a farm/ranch or your home is huge, a rifle might be a better choice. Ditto if you are recoil sensitive. An AR-15 or M1 Carbine is a kitten compared to a heavy-loaded 12-gauge.

Personally, I prefer a shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot as a home defense long gun. I have many years of experience in hunting, competition, and police training with shotguns, and I have fired hundreds of thousands of shotshells, so I am very, very familiar with the platform. This is the most important criterion in choosing your weapon: use the type of firearm you are most proficient with, which is usually the gun you have the most experience with.

I have had several good defensive shotguns, but I’m not married to any of them particularly. I prefer 12 gauge, but a 20 gauge is suitable, too. A pump gun is good, but an autoloader is good, too. I prefer autoloaders for this purpose, for two primary reasons: 1) I can put multiple shots downrange with accuracy much faster with an auto than I can with a pump; 2) a gas-operated auto like the Remington 11-87 reduces the recoil of the gun by its design. Put an extended magazine tube on your shotgun so you have at least 5 rounds available without reloading. Then put a butt-sleeve or side-saddle on the shotgun, with another 5 shells.

My experience and research (both personally conducted and that conducted by others) into the question of shotgun ammunition has led me to unequivocally choose 00 buckshot for anti-personnel use. Birdshot is a very poor choice, and the smaller sizes of buckshot aren’t any better, with one exception: Number 1 buckshot–but only the hard-plated kind, which is really hard to come by–will work almost as well as 00 buck. But 00 buckshot is readily available, and it works. Why fix it if it ain’t broken? But whatever type of buckshot you buy for your defense shotgun, make sure you pattern it. I have done so with all my defensive shotguns, and the results have been surprising. You won’t know what ammo makes good patterns in your gun until you test it yourself.

Test your shotgun pattern at realistic defensive distances: 5 through 25 yards. Shoot several patterns at each distance with each load. You’ll know in short order which ammunition does or does not work well enough in your shotgun.

Keep in mind that the shotgun must be aimed. It’s not going to work if you just point it in the general direction of the attacker and pray some of the pellets find the target. At home defense ranges, the pattern of buckshot will be very, very tight… 2 or 3 inches wide at most. So you need to aim your shotgun as carefully as you would aim your rifle or pistol. (But you’ve taken tactical shotgun training, so you know that already, right? No? Well, go take a tactical shotgun class and get back to me if you have questions.)

Now: what about rifles?

OK, I’ll confess to being a fan of the AR-15 platform. I’ve owned a bunch, fired a bunch more, and liked almost all of them. The AR is light, ergonomic, and accurate. The standard 20- and 30-round magazines hold plenty of ammo, certainly more than enough for effective defense against a single attacker, or even a handful of attackers.

The best ammunition choices for anti-personnel work are soft-pointed bullets in the middle range of weights: 60-70 gr. Don’t cheap out and use mil-surp FMJ ammo, and for goodness sake don’t EVER use armor-piercing ammo in your defensive firearms. There are a lot of effective loadings available from the major ammunition companies in this class. These include (but aren’t limited to) Federal Power-Shok 64 gr, Winchester XP 64 gr, and Black Hills 60 gr (Nosler Partition).

I’ve heard supposed authorities state that you need to shoot bad guys 5 times with 5.56/.223 rounds. This intel supposedly comes from warfighters from the Sandbox, which explains a lot. First thing, our military rounds in the Sandbox were all FMJ, which is a really poor choice for shooting people… they don’t expand, so they simply drill a little hole through the subject. Unlike an expanding bullet, either a hollowpoint or a softpoint, FMJ rounds are not designed for maximum tissue destruction. Law enforcement agencies use expanding ammunition, and you should too.

Do you need to shoot a bad guy multiple times? Maybe. I often quote a guy who once told me, “I don’t shoot the bad guy until I think he’s dead. I keep shooting him until he thinks he’s dead.” In more professional lingo, we shoot until the threat is effectively neutralized. Which means until the attacker is no longer able to press his attack. But as I teach in every Tactical Anatomy class, “Effective neutralization by firearm is highly congruent with mortality.” So govern your shooting accordingly.

That’s about all I have to say on home defense with firearms today. To distill it down to its basic elements: get your defensive mindset straight; harden your home so it is harder to attack; get training in effective tactical use of firearms; and lastly, choose your home defense firearms according to your training and proficiency.

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Why the U.S. Medical “System” is Broken in the Year 2020

First thing: I realize most people who bother to read this blog do so because they are interested in things like guns, shooting, ammunition performance, ballistics, tactics, and the like. I get that. But if you’ve read any of my older blogs, you know I occasionally stray on to political topics. This is one of those meanders into the political realm. Don’t worry, I’ll be back onto the blood-guts-and-gunsmoke side of things next column.

I recently quoted an article on my personal Facebook page, an article about the “system” relying upon the work ethic of doctors and nurses to keep running. You can read that article here:

Yes, it says that the health care industry is kept afloat by exploiting doctors (and nurses, too, but this site is a doctor site, so they emphasize that side of the article in the headline). And this is 100% true.

The scary thing is that this exploitation is getting close to squeezing the last drop of blood from the turnip, so to speak, and in many places it’s already happening. Doctors are just flat out refusing to keep running faster and faster on the hamster wheel to please the insurance companies and the corporate medical system.

The result is becoming apparent: as a patient, you can’t find a primary care doctor in your area who is taking new patients. This means you have to go to walk-in clinics or ER’s to get basic medical care, which has a higher co-pay, which penalizes you for something you can’t control.

And it’s going to get worse in the very near future. A lot worse.

American medical schools aren’t producing enough doctors to meet the demand of our growing population. This isn’t a new thing, it’s been going on for decades. As a result, our hospitals and corporate health care entities have been importing foreign doctors to meet the need. Which explains why you often have to see someone who speaks English poorly and has no empathy for the culture in which you live when you “go to the doctor”.

The reasons medical schools aren’t making enough doctors are complex, but essentially it’s because the number of quality applicants to medical schools has declined sharply, and the medical industry has done nothing to incentivize medical school enrollment and output. Why do young people not want to go to medical school, you ask?

Well, they look at the cost and duration of a medical education, and they look at the (relatively) low earnings doctors can expect when they finally start to work, and they realize they can get a better deal by going into a business career track such as law, or an MBA program. Think about it: a board certified family doctor can expect an annual income of about $250,000, after spending 11 years in training (4 years for a bachelor’s degree, 4 years in medical school, and 3 years in residency). Student loan debt at the end of that will be about $300,000 for most kids. On the other hand, if that same college freshman does an MBA, he’ll be out of school in 6 years, with half the debt load.

The big difference no one talks about is this: the kid with the MBA can expect his salary to keep rising at or above the rate of inflation as he gains experience and knowledge. The kid who goes into medicine is a fool if he expects that to happen to him. Medical salaries have not kept up with inflation for decades, and doctors with 30 years’ experience are hired at the same salary as doctors straight out of residency by almost all health care systems.

It’s a mess, isn’t it? We often hear people say they want their doctors to be “the best and the brightest”… but for at least 20 years (by my admittedly biased count) the best and the brightest have been going into other fields than medicine: engineering, computer technology, and business. Because they know their future prospects are much brighter in those mostly non-regulated fields.

How did this happen? How did the “rich” doctor of the 1960’s become the corporate wage slave of 2020? Well, like the frog in the pot of slowly heating water on the stove, it happened so slowly no one realized what was happening until it was too late. Here’s a primer on the history of the corporate takeover of medical care in America:

In the 1950’s, virtually all doctors were in private practice. If you went to the doctor, you paid cash for your visit. If your doctor prescribed medicine, you paid cash at the pharmacy. If you had your appendix taken out at the hospital, you paid the doctors and the hospital cash for your operation. The bill you were given was exactly what you paid. If it was more than you could afford today, they would work out a payment plan for you and in a couple of months you’d have the bill paid off.

But by the 1960’s, medical care had become more complex. We could do more to save lives than we had in the immediate post-war era, which actually saved lives. But these more advanced procedures and medicines were a lot costlier. Soon, enough people had had catastrophic medical problems come along that were so expensive they began searching for a way to defray that cost, and medical insurance companies sprang up to meet that need.

This was a boon for patients who had to have a major operation, or cancer treatment that exhausted their savings. In fact, it was so much of a change to people’s personal finances, people were opting to have medical care that they wouldn’t have done if they were paying for them out of pocket.

As a result, the medical economy began to boom. Doctors and hospitals saw their workload–and their incomes–increase dramatically. Doctors had had decent incomes before this, but with the advent of healthcare insurance, they learned they could move up from a split-level in the ‘burbs to a big two-storey on the fairway at the country club; they could trade in their old Lincoln for a new Mercedes-Benz; instead of sending their kids to college at State, they could send them to Harvard.

And the insurance companies saw this happening. Their profit margins hadn’t exactly suffered, of course. As people used their insurance more, the premiums were increased to keep corporate profits healthy. But the sharp thinkers in Omaha and Akron saw the exponential growth of the medical economy, and they coveted a piece of the action.

So the insurance companies invented a new concept. It took time and effort. They catalogued all the failings of the medical industry, and played them up to the news media and to government. They pointed out how the medical system was so ineffecient, how it was wasting money, how negligent doctors were hurting patients, how greedy hospitals were price-gouging, and so on. It didn’t take much, really… lots of folks are envious by nature, and they were easily led to blame “the doctors” for any an all ills. Once public awareness of the “flaws” of the smoothly running medical economy was high enough, the insurance companies proposed a solution: Managed Care.

They said it was an easy fix, and everyone would love it. Everyone would benefit: patients, doctors, hospitals, everybody. The way it would work was this: you could keep your personal health insurance (but the premiums kept going higher and higher), or you could enroll in a managed care plan. The managed care plan had lower premiums, and you could get coverage for everything: routine doctor visits, prescriptions, medical appliances, the works. “What a great concept!” said just about every healthcare consumer, and they flocked to the new Managed Care plans (called HMO’s, or Health Maintenance Organizations) in droves.

So many people went from regular insurance to HMO’s that doctors and hospitals had no choice but to accept those plans, or face economic ruin. But for doctors and hospitals, the HMO’s were a very mixed blessing. Sure, they got paid promptly, but they got paid less for the same services and there were strings attached… they had to meet certain “performance criteria” set by the medical experts hired by the HMO’s.

The “strings” weren’t onerous, at first. Doctors and hospitals were still getting paid, although they had to work a little harder to make the same profits. But every year the HMO’s paid a few cents on the dollar less, citing high costs, of course; and the “strings”, the restrictions on practice, kept getting more and more restrictive. The panel of labs and other tests a doctor could order for his HMO patients began to shrink. The panel of surgeons he could refer his patients to began to get more restrictive. And so on.

On the patient side, the problems were equally apparent. Your new insurance plan wasn’t yours, any longer. Your insurance had become a part of your employment package. The insurance companies lobbied government to pass laws that made employer-provided health insurance the norm, rather than an exception.

The incentives to move from private health plans to employer plans were great for employers and for patients, initially. But insurance companies made it harder and harder for non-HMO plans to stay affordable. So gradually Managed Care took over the employer-based healthcare market.

By the 1980’s, HMO’s and quasi-HMO’s were the dominant form of health insurance in America, and the problems with HMO’s were manifest. Patients were forced to see new doctors, if their old family doctor wasn’t a part of the HMO plan. They were also starting to have to deal with higher and higher personal costs… their cover-it-all insurance was starting to only cover 90% of it, or 80%, or less. The medicines they had been taking for years were no longer covered (but a cheaper, less effective medicine was covered, so guess what happened?).

As consumer groups shouted in protest to these changes, governments and insurance companies felt the heat and made some changes. Not a lot of changes, but some. Restrictions on patients became a bit less severe, provider panels grew larger and portability from one hospital to another became a bit easier. But the changes were truly very small, even inconsequential.

By this time the “cost savings” of managed care were manifestly a Big Lie. Insurance companies had created an entire new industry, employing millions of office workers, to administer their HMO’s. And government, bumbling along with them, had created multiple new regulatory entities to watch over both the insurance and medical industries, which again required millions of employees to administer.

So by the early 2000’s, our health care system had become an amalgam of two enormous bureaucracies: one private, run by the insurance industry, and one public, run by various levels of government.

The costs and complexity of dealing with these bureaucracies were staggering for private practice doctors and small hospitals. In the 1950’s, a doctor could run his office with a receptionist who did all the filing and billing, handled the phones, and so on. By the 1960’s, that same doctor had to add a billing clerk to deal with insurance claims. And by 1985, the average doctor had to employ 2.5 billing clerks working full time to keep up with insurance paperwork. Moreover, the increased restrictions imposed on the doctor’s medical practice by insurance companies and governent regulators required employing a compliance officer (usually called an office manager) to keep up with the constantly changing rules of the game.

By the early 1990’s most private practice doctors were no longer able to keep up with the increased regulatory load imposed by HMO’s and government. It was simply too costly, both in money and in time. And corporate America was there to take advantage of the situation.

Hospitals had been mostly privately owned up until the 1960’s. Groups of doctors, sometimes with other investors, were often involved. More often, communities owned their hospitals, and a sizable share of the hospital market was owned by charitable organizations (often churches and religious orders). But in the 60’s, private corporations began buying hospitals. A corporation could operate multiple hospitals much more economically than your local hospital board, because they could use their economies of scale and bulk buying power to bring down costs. Corporate hospital ownership had become the norm by the 1980s.

So when private practice doctors in the 80’s began to fail economically, these hospital corporations saw an opportunity: they bought up private practices like hotcakes. The doctors loved it: they were paid good value for their practice (usually around 2X their annual gross billings, a common standard purchase price for decades), but they no longer had to manage their own billings or compliance. The hospital/corporation took that over for them. The corporation also took on all his employees, and absorbed all the employer obligations the doctor had previously had to do (or pay his accountant to do). The doctor stayed in his office, kept his staff, drew a good salary, and had money in the bank. What could possibly go wrong?

What went wrong was that there were strings attached. Just like the deal with insurance companies in the 60’s and HMO’s (which were still the insurance companies) in the 70’s and 80’s, these Physician-Hospital Organizations (PHO’s) proved increasingly restrictive. Corporate profits were now the driving factor in all decisions. Doctors found themselves forced out of their “inefficient” private clinics into large group practice offices. The nurses and receptionists they had employed for years were moved to different locations, or simply laid off in favor of cheaper, less experienced staff who could be easily replaced if need be. Work that had been previously delegated to nurses and medical assistants became the responsibility of the doctor.

And the doctor’s salary no longer reflected the amount of work he was putting in. Instead, it reflected the Corporation’s balance sheet.

The worst was yet to come. First, the federal government mandated implementation of Electronic Medical Records nationwide. This sounded good, but proved to be a millstone around doctors’ and nurses’ necks. Rather than a streamlined and efficient means of recording medical encounters, procedures, and so forth, Corporate medicine designed it as a means of monitoring and controlling “production”, then added the clinical components doctors and nurses need as almost a second thought. Government went along with this philosophy whole hog, of course, because governments are all about monitoring and control.

By the year 2010, the full mess had arrived. Doctors and nurses, being paid far less for their work than they had been in 1970 (in inflation-adjusted dollars) were seeing roughly the same number of patients than they had in 1970, but because EMR’s required so much data input, these front-line, hands-on, hearts-out practitioners of medicine and nursing were spending more time in front of a computer terminal than they did interacting with patients.

The Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, exacerbated the problem. For everybody. Patients immediately noted that their health care plans were costing them a LOT more, and providing a LOT less service, with a MUCH higher co-payment responsibility. Doctors noticed that the regulatory hurdles for prescribing medicines and getting procedures pre-approved had become a LOT more common and a LOT higher and harder to jump over. Insurance company and government bureaucracies thrived, however, as the increased revenues fed both. The reason for these changes, quite simply, was that Congress more or less wrote the ACA at the behest of the health care insurance company lobby… so the insurers got everything they wanted, while patients, doctors, hospitals, and other players in the health care community were allowed little or no input. Obamacare “expanded” the number of patients with healthcare insurance primarily by expanding the Medicaid program, but numerous studies have shown that it: 1) made health care insurance unaffordable for millions who previously had it; 2) increased regulatory restrictions on doctors, nurses, hospitals, labs, and other providers of health care services and increasing their workload without any increase in reimbursement; 3) eliminated “safety net” plans that paid for catastrophic medical care only, but were affordable for even low income folks; 4) forced everyone to buy plans with higher premiums, higher copays, and higher deductibles, thereby decreasing health care insurance companies’ payouts and increasing their revenues simultaneously.

Until the devastating provisions of the ACA are repealed, we will continue to see everyone except the insurance companies struggle under these increased burdens. The net effect on the front line health care workforce has been loss of experienced doctors and nurses due to early retirement, change of careers, or both. These experienced providers are not being replaced by the medical and nursing training systems fast enough, so an influx of foreign medical grads has been allowed to try to meet the demand.

There is some hope, however. A significant change in the makeup of Congress in November (we need removal of the Democratic House majority) could mean the end of the ACA. Whether there is a comprehensive plan to replace it is not relevant; the ACA needs to die. A healthcare insurance reform bill, opening healthcare markets nationwide (in the same manner that auto insurance was opened up a number of years ago), is badly needed, and the insurance companies need to be free to offer low-cost plans that don’t cover every possible medical situation. By opening up competition we will inevitably see some price relief for the medical consumer.

In the meantime, the world of medical practice is changing. In 2020, doctors in private practice are rare birds, but the number is growing. More and more primary care physicians are spurning the government/insurance/hospital-corporation cabal (the healthcare equivalent of what Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial Complex in the 1950’s) and returning to a direct-pay system for their patients. Since patients are essentially paying cash for most primary care services anyway due to high copays and deductibles, they are starting to say they will pay a premium to have a GOOD family doctor or internist work with them and their families. This is taking the shape of things like concierge medical practices, where folks pay a set fee monthly to have access to first-rate personal medical care from a doctor they trust and who will commit to them for the long term.

The government/insurance-company/hospital-corporation cabal is teetering. It is not sustainable. Whether the feds do anything about it or not, the system is going to collapse. Whether that collapse will be a “market adjustment”, or a catastrophe, is all that remains to be seen.

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The Soulis Incident, and the Myth of Center Mass

This article from popped up on my Facebook feed this morning, and it struck me as important in more ways than one:

To summarize: bad guy in a car, cop decided he was a suspicious person and went to investigate; stuff went sideways, lots of shots were fired, cop was hit 3-4 times, bad guy was hit 22 (Twenty-Two) times with 40 caliber bullets and eventually succumbed.

For you coppers who follow my stuff, this may have some lessons for you in your continuing upgrade of your felony carstop/vehicle approach tactics, so look it over carefully. For everybody else, there are some terminal ballistics/effects lessons here that need to be understood.

First thing: the author of this piece, Brian McKenna, is a guy I’ve read before and I think he does a pretty good job. He’s a good writer and a former street cop with some real experience behind him.

Second thing, and to my mind, the most important thing: Brian uses terms like center chest and Center Mass like they are actually meaningful. Saying “Center Mass” sounds cool… it has the sound of the expert about it, I guess. But these terms are ANYthing but meaningful. They are not clearly defined, not clearly understood, and the result of this is that good people are getting injured and killed.

That’s right, I said it: if you persist in teaching your people to shoot “center mass”, YOU are contributing to a training scar that is going to get good cops/armed citizens KILLED.

I have multiple cases in my files that illlustrate this problem. Every one of my SXRV students for the past 10 years has seen my breakdown of the Pennsylvania OIS where the scumbag cop-ambusher absorbed nearly 22 police bullets (17 rounds of .223 and 5 rounds of 40 S&W) before he finally went down. So every one of my SXRV students knows that by shooting for Center Mass the coppers in that incident experienced a failure that resulted in the wounding and permanent disability of one of them, and could have led to their deaths. The FBI broke down the gunfight at the request of the Agency in question, and to no one’s surprise, they blamed the ammunition for the bad outcome of that fight. (The actual blame should have been placed squarely on the Agency’s firearms training program for failing to train their officers appropriately, but that would have been embarassing. It’s easier to blame ammo, since ammo doesn’t have feelings to get hurt or a career to get sidetracked.)

But it wasn’t bad ammo. The ammunition performed as it was designed to do, and the FBI proved this. It was bad shooting, which wasn’t the cops’ fault, because they had received faulty training. Despite the fact that Tactical Anatomy Systems and other trainers have been training cops on anatomically effective target acquisition for more than 20 years, the majority of cops and LE firearms instructors are still propagating the same old Center Mass bullshit.

And bullshit it is. Don’t believe me? Get you copy of Gray’s Anatomy out and look up Center Mass in the index. (What? It’s not there?!? How could that be?) Center Mass isn’t a place, or an anatomic structure, or a physiological zone of incapacitation. Center Mass is a bullshit police trainer term that means nothing more than “shoot them somewhere in the middle”. People use it to sound cool, like they know what they’re talking about, like they’re experts. It’s not just a bullshit term, folks: it’s a term better suited to use by posers than by actual trainers.

Here’s an interesting story: in my early years of teaching Tactical Anatomy, I would ask class members to write down their definition of Center Mass on a piece of paper and hand it in. I stopped doing it after a couple classes, because the results were predictable. No one could define Center Mass with any precision, and the average answer basically came down to “in the middle”.

Twenty years into this training business I am still amazed that people think it’s OK to just teach their students to shoot an armed opponent in this manner. “Oh, don’t worry about it, just shoot somewhere in the middle. You’ll be fine.” (Poser.)

If you were to walk into the bar in any hunting town in Zimbabwe or Mozambique, order up a Pimm’s with ginger, and then tell the assemblage of African dangerous game hunters that it’s OK to just shoot a Cape Buffalo “somewhere in the middle”, you’d be laughed out of the saloon, chum. DG hunters know that when you’re trying to kill something that could very easily kill you, it is essential that you put your bullets where that dangerous creature’s life depends: the heart/great vessels, the spine, or the brain. Failure to do so will not only fail to incapacitate the beast, it just might enrage him and cause an attack on your person that you very likely won’t survive.

Yet law enforcement trainers persist in telling cops that they can shoot an armed and dangerous felon–arguably the most dangerous of dangerous game on Earth–“anywhere in the middle” and expect a good outcome!!

How has this become acceptable practice? In fact, how does this not constitute malpractice? We are arming our police with deadly implements, teaching them the law of the application of those implements, then failing to teach them where their bullets need to be placed, with precision, in order to carry out their lawful duty in the most effective and efficient manner possible!

If YOU are a deadly force firearms instructor and you are doing this, I submit that you are committing malpractice. You are creating a training scar in your students that might get them killed.

I’ve had police firearms instructors tell me that teaching their people where to shoot the bad guy is ridiculous. “They’ll be so fired up in a gunfight, they’ll be lucky to hit the bad guy at all, so we teach them just to shoot Center Mass.”

Did it ever occur to one of these Neanderthal (no offense to Neanderthals, mind you) that this failure to teach precise target acquisition is precisely why their officers can’t hit the bad guy in an officer-involved shooting? Did they never hear the marksman’s axiom, “Aim small, miss small”?

Here’s what I think when I hear a firearms instructor use the term Center Mass: I think they are ignorant, and probably lazy.

Are you insulted by that? Too bad. Prove to yourself and to me that your umbrage is justified. Look at the OIS data, as I have; read the after action reviews, as I have. The evidence shows that officers who know where to shoot the bad guy are able to end the encounter faster and more effectively than those who simply try to hit the bad guy “in the middle”. Well-trained officers have a higher hit ratio, they stop the offender more effectively, and they are less likely to be shot or killed in the encounter than officers who are not so trained. The data don’t lie.

The first major metropolitan police department that adopted the SXRV program for their entire force did so nearly 20 years ago. They dropped the Center Mass nonsense and adopted 3D anatomic targeting as their standard. Their OIS hit ratio went from 20% to 94% in the first 2 years after the program was implemented, and remains above 90% to this day. More importantly to my mind, in that same 2 year period not one cop was hit by a felon’s bullet. And these numbers have been repeated in other police departments across America since then numerous times.

Here’s the deal, kids: Center Mass is a term that has been in the vocabulary of deadly force trainers waaaaaay too long. There is no excuse for continuing to use this term. “Center Mass” should never be uttered by a firearms instructor anywhere, any time, except to correct their students who come to class believing in the myth. There is far too much information out there proving that teaching our students to shoot this way is leading to bad outcomes in OIS’s and it’s getting good cops injured and killed. It should be as hated as the dreaded C-word or the N-word is in public conversations. It’s a useless concept, and the persistence by our instructors in using it needs to go away.

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Handguns for Bear Defense? Yep!

Well, the verdict is apparently in, and I for one am pleased to hear it. 

I have enjoyed a lifelong and mostly happy relationship with wild bears. I have watched them, studied them, and (occasionally) hunted them. For many years I held the belief that handguns were poorly suited tools for defense against bear attacks, based on the experience and advice of woodsmen and bear biologists who I considered more authoritative sources than I was myself. However, as early as the late 1970’s I began collecting anecdotes of hunters, campers, and other outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen who had successfully defended against bear attacks with handguns. By the time Stephen Herrero et al. came out with their report in 2012 supporting bear spray over firearms, however, my compilation of bear attack stories stood in stark opposition to Herrero’s findings. My studies and critical experience told me while Herrero’s findings confirmed that bear spray was and is effective in stopping some bear attacks, firearms were and are more effective than his study showed. 

I was still leaning toward preference for long guns as opposed to handguns for such purposes, but the lean had become a lot less acute over the years. Over the years, I had become enough of a convert that I had begun carrying a handgun while hunting in all places and at all times where legal to do so. I had in fact tested my own handguns on wild game, including small game as well as deer and hogs, and was satisfied that handguns are effective hunting tools.

In this article by journalist Dean Weingarten ( ) he and his colleagues have compiled a list of 73 bear attacks defended against by handguns. They found that 96% of these attacks were successfully defended, and in many cases the handguns/calibers were what I and many others would consider suboptimal. So at this point I must concede that I am convinced of the soundness of carrying a handgun for defense against attacks by bears and other North American predator species including wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions.

So, the question of if it is practical  to carry a handgun for bear defense has been answered, but this leaves other questions wide open. These questions should include: 1) what type and caliber of handgun is truly appropriate for such purposes, 2) what type of ammunition is best suited for this purpose, 3) how should the handgun be optimally carried, and 4) how should it actually be used if and when the bear scat hits the fan?

The following answers are only my opinion, and your views may vary. But keep in mind that my answers are based on a lifetime’s experience in hunting and shooting wild animals (including bears and other Dangerous Game), on almost 30 years of critical care medicine (which involves a lot of scientific study of anatomy and physiology), on nearly 30 years of study of the effectiveness of handguns in stopping violent human offenders by police, and on a strong basic education in mammalian anatomy and physiology.

1. Caliber Choice for Bear Defense

Bears are big animals. Using a little gun (or a small caliber) just doesn’t make sense. Your bullet(s) have to reach vital anatomic structures: the same principles that we espouse in Shooting With Xray Vision for human-on-human defensive situations. Which you will recall mean either the cardiovascular bundle (CVB) in the chest, or the central nervous system (CNS).

The CVB in quadrupeds, including bears, is a lot farther inside the body than it is in humans, who walk upright with our CVB’s front and center. Unlike humans, your bear bullet(s) have to get through a thick fur coat, through much thicker and tougher skin than human skin, and tunnel through the muscle, bone and connective tissues of the chest to get to the bear’s considerably bigger- and tougher-than-human heart and great vessels. Yes, you can kill a bear with a .22 bullet to the heart… but it might take several hours, and an aggressive bear can kill you in an attack lasting seconds to minutes. So if you do that math, you might want to select a firearm of sufficient caliber to get to the CVB with a tad more energy and destructive capability than a .22

Likewise, the brain of a bear is encased in a thicker bony cranium than the human brain is… and while a light handgun caliber might get in there with enough power to end the attack, it might not.

As such, I lean strongly toward a caliber heavy enough to be used for hunting of big game. These calibers start with the 357 Magnum and larger. To be specific, this would include the 40 S&W, 41 Magnum, 44 Special, 44 Magnum, 45 ACP, 45 Colt, and any of the big magnums from 454 Casull up to 500 Linebaugh. I do not endorse the 9mm cartridge for bear defense, even though the estimable Phil Shoemaker killed a brown bear with one a few years ago. You and I ain’t Phil, with his intimate knowledge of grizzly/brown bear anatomy, and his extensive experience stopping charges by wounded bears, and we shouldn’t pretend to be. Oh, and btw, Phil habitually carries a 458 Winchester Magnum rifle and a 44 Magnum revolver when guiding bear hunters, not a 9mm.


1A. Handgun Type

As you can see, I’m not one of those guys who thinks you need a huge thumper of a caliber to defend against bears/predators. I am a bit more picky on handgun type, however. 

Anyone who knows me from IDPA and USPSA competition knows that I am a revolver guy. No surprise, this holds true for my hunting and predator-defense choices, as well.  Specifically, a double-action (DA) revolver is in my considered opinion the best handgun platform for bear defense. 

Semiauto pistols are not a good option, for a couple of reasons. First, they tend to be designed to shoot light-for-caliber bullets. Second, semiauto pistols have a glaring deficiency in CQB situations (and if being mauled by a bear isn’t a CQB situation, I don’t know what is!): if the muzzle is pressed against the body of the intended target, the slide and barrel may be pushed out of battery, and the weapon will not fire. Folks often discount this issue, but I have numerous reports of exactly this happening in cop-on-felon CQB gunfights.

Single Action (SA) revolvers are often cited as a good choice for bear defense, and while I own and enjoy shooting and hunting with my SA revolvers, I disagree with this option. The SA handgun can only be fired if the hammer is manually cocked. Normally this is done with the thumb of the support hand, but it can also be done with the thumb of the dominant hand. Again, if you’re in a CQB situation with an angry bruin, your support hand is very likely going to be engaged in other activities (like keeping the bear’s jaws off your skull), so you can’t count on using it to cock the hammer. And if you use your firing hand thumb to cock the hammer, you’re relinquishing more than 50% of your grip strength to do so… which doesn’t sound to me like a good firearm-retention technique in the midst of a ground fight. 

Soooo… it comes down to the double-action (DA) revolver. The DA revolver does not have the shortfalls of the semiauto pistol or the SA revolver. You can press the muzzle against your adversary and fire without fear of coming out of battery and you can fire it one-handed with your fully functional grip strength. More than one successful bear-attack survivor has noted that it took several rounds to end the attack, and a DA revolver will reliably give you 6 rounds (or more, in the case of large capacity revolvers like the S&W 696). And DA revolvers are readily found chambered for big calibers such as the 44 Magnum and 45 Colt. If you step into the custom revolver venue, Ruger Redhawks have been chambered in powerhouse rounds like the 50 AE, 460 Rowland, and even the big 475 and 500 Linebaugh. Bowen Custom Handguns in particular makes beautiful and very functional big-bore DA revolvers using the Ruger Redhawk and Super Redhawk as the base gun, and I really need one… But Ruger’s Redhawk Alaskan model is a fine factory revolver in its own right, so you don’t need to fork out the big bucks for a custom revolver unless you really want to. 

Regardless of your choice of DA revolver, make sure you can use it effectively. Take into consideration the size, grip frame, and weight of your bear-defense wheelgun, because the variations possible are enormous. A Ruger Alaskan weighs 45 ounces empty, which means you’re toting nearly 4 pounds of metal once it’s loaded. That can weigh heavy on a small-framed person. Conversely, I’ve seen folks tout the ultralight S&W M329, a Scandium frame revolver chambered in 44 Magnum; while it’s a breeze to carry at 2 pounds fully loaded, I have found it painful to shoot due to the stout recoil impulse. If it’s too painful to shoot and practice with at the range, you’re not really going to be properly prepared to use it in a life-or-death situation.

Personally, I routinely carry a S&W M625 Mountain Gun chambered in 45 Colt or a M29 chambered in 44 Magnum when I’m hunting or backpacking in bear country. These are steel guns, with 4″ barrels, and even with heavy-recoiling loads they are very manageable in my hands. I am very confident that anyone who chooses something along these lines for bear defense is about as well-armed as can be.

2. Ammunition

The bullets you load in your handgun are also important.  You want deep penetration, which is best accomplished with a flat meplat FMJ bullet or a moderately hard cast bullet of heavy weight for caliber. In a 357 Magnum, this would anything from 148 to 180 grains. In a 44 Magnum, 240 gr or up. And so on. Bullet type? A Keith-style SWC bullet or a LBT profile bullet will suit: anything with a wide, flat meplat, to cause maximum tissue destruction. Roundnose bullets may penetrate well, but are less likely to do the necessary tissue damage to stop an actively attacking predator. 

Factory ammo versus handloads? Not much to argue about there, I’m afraid. They can all work. Buffalo Bore makes some great loads for virtually all major handgun calibers. I like my own handloads in my revolvers. I use LBT-type bullets for the most part, cast to a hardness of BHN 11-14, which is plenty hard enough for bear medicine, and loaded hot. My favorite 45 Colt loads for DA revolvers employ 265 gr LBT WFN bullets, with muzzle velocities in the 1000-1100 fps range. These loads will shoot crosswise through a deer’s chest or pelvis, will penetrate 14+ inches of ballistic gelatin, and will smash through 10+ 1″ pine boards. They are plenty for bear, but not so stout that they can’t be fired fast and accurately with one hand. In the 44 Magnum, a 240 gr bullet loaded to 1100-1200 fps serves the same purpose. In my 357 Magnums, a 158 gr WFN bullet at 1300 fps or 180 gr WFN at 1100 fps will get the job done. You get the idea.  Don’t discount good JHP bullets, either. A friend of mine who was responsible for “bear control” on paper company land for a number of years culled a large number of black bears with his 44 Magnum revolver and 240 gr Hornady XTP bullets. This bullet, among others, has a great reputation for deep penetration and reliable expansion.


As a final observation on caliber, let me be clear: you are not doing yourself any favors by carrying a handgun that is too powerful for you to shoot effectively. Your choice of caliber and handgun needs to be based on your ability to use it. If you can’t hit the vital organs of the CVB or CNS, your handgun is pretty much a useless noisemaker. Practice with your chosen gun and ammunition. You should be able to hit a 4-6″ circle 6 times out of 6 with one hand at a range of 4 yards, and an 8″ circle with a 2-hand hold 6/6 times at 10 yards, rapid fire. If you can’t do that reliably, you need to practice more.

 3. Optimal Carry Methods

Here’s the deal, kids: a gun in your backpack or at home is not going to help you in a bear attack. In my life’s experience backpacking and camping in the mountain west, I’ve learned that close bear encounters can usually be avoided. But when they do happen, they are almost always a surprise. In most cases you won’t have time to go back to your car to fetch your rifle, or shrug off your pack and dig into it to find your handgun. You’ll either have it right there, or you won’t have it at all. Carrying your handgun in an accessible location is of paramount importance.

I tend to carry my handguns most of the time on my belt, strongside hip. This works fine if all I’m toting is a rifle or a day pack. But if I’ve got a full pack on, or I’m weaing a longer coat in cold weather,  this doesn’t work very well. Under those conditions, I prefer a holster across my chest, such as the El Paso Saddlery Tanker holster. A chest rig allows rapid one-handed access almost as quickly as a belt holster. But keep in mind that your draw and even your firing cycle will be different if you’re wearing gloves. Some DA revolvers will bind up when the trigger comes forward, trapping glove material in the action. You don’t want that to happen in a bear attack. If you must wear gloves, wear tight gloves that will not bind, and for goodness sake practice with them at the range to be sure they don’t interfere with your gun’s functionality.

When you bed down at night, you might want to consider having a lanyard loop installed on the butt of your revolver, with a lanyard around your neck and shoulder so you can pull the gun to you in a hurry if it’s needed in the middle of the night. Same thing with your flashlight. If you can’t see it, it’s real hard to shoot it. 

4. Deploying the Defensive Handgun

So when it all comes down to it, how should you use your handgun in defense against a bear attack? Well, I can’t speak from experience: even though I’ve had a lot of encounters with bears in the mountain parks of Alberta and British Columbia, none have turned violent. However, I spent a lot of time learning about bears and bear behavior in my undergraduate years, and continued in those studies so that I could avoid the circumstances that would lead to a violent bear encounter… and I’m pretty sure that a number of my bear encounters could have been nasty if I had not used my knowledge of bear behavior to reduce the risks.

So my first advice to bear-naive persons is this: learn about bears and how to avoid pissing them off. There are a number of very good books in print that you can learn from, including Stephen Herrero’s Bear Attacks, and the very good bear attack series of books by Canadian bear expert Gary Shelton. 

My second set of recommendations is based on training I received as a young biology student, and on advice from Professional Hunters of dangerous game in Africa with whom I’ve hunted dangerous game.  Basically, it comes down to this: don’t shoot until you have to. Most bear charges are “bluff” charges, and if you stand your ground the animal will break off well before contact. By waiting to fire, you will reduce the odds that you will badly injure or kill an animal that is only trying to scare you off. By waiting, you also increase your odds of hitting the animal in its CVB or CNS (depending on your point of aim). If you wait until the charging animal is very close, your odds of making a lethal/stopping hit increase immensely. Once you’ve fired, follow it up: fire as rapidly as you can hit, aiming into the vitals, and keep firing until the bear is down for good. 

Is there a place or time for a warning shot? Well, according to some experts, there is. Firing a round into the dirt at the bear’s feet while he is still posturing or even walking toward you (but not yet charging) may discourage a curious or mildly pissed-off bear enough to end the encounter.  But once the bear has started to run at you, wasting a potentially life-saving bullet makes no sense. Put your sights on the bear’s heart or brain and track him in until you know you can hit his vitals, then hit him hard and repeatedly.

Bottom Line

 In the course of my 65 years on this rock called Earth, I have spent hundrds and hundreds of days and nights in wild country occupied by bears, including many nights under canvas or sleeping under the stars. I have cooked thousands of meals, gutted game and fish, and otherwise done things that most city folks have no knoledge of, and which put me and my companions at some degree of risk of bear attack. But I have never been actually attacked by a bear in all those years. I think this is important to consider when one considers the risks any outdoorsman faces in spending time in similar country. In reality, the risk is very, very small.

I have personally killed only 3 bears in my life, and in all 3 cases, I hunted those bears with the intention of killing them. All 3 were killed with a rifle. I don’t know that I will ever care to hunt a bear again, but if I do, it will likely be with a handgun. I have that degree of confidence in my ability with my revolvers, and in their effectiveness as bear-killing machines.

And in the meantime, I will continue to carry a handgun in bear country whenever I go there, confident that such tools–along with bear spray, and my knowledge of bear behavior–will keep me and mine from serious injury. Dean Weingarten’s study underlines the sensibility of this approach.

Thanks a bunch, Dean.