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“A gun is good. A knife is good. A stick is better than nothing at all, and your hands, arms, legs and muscles are to be relied on when nothing else can be. But, without your brain, without thinking and without cognizant awareness you are little more than an animal fighting for survival in a dangerous situation.” – Col. Jeff Cooper, USMC


“When seconds matter, the police are only minutes away.” This is a popular belief about the need to protect yourself rather than depending on the police to save you. We have several friends and relatives who are police officers and each one confirms that the time between when they receive a call for help and the time they actually arrive can be minutes. But a lethal shooting happens in mere seconds.


Furthermore, in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police do not have a constitutional duty to protect individual citizens (https://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/28/politics/justices-rule-police-do-not-have-a-constitutional-duty-to-protect.html). So, if it takes minutes to respond to a situation that unfolds in seconds and if the police are not legally obligated to protect individuals, who is responsible for protecting you and your loved ones? You probably know the answer. You! This is why so many people legally carry a concealed handgun.


Carrying a handgun for self-defense requires a mind-set that prepares law abiding citizens to engage successfully in a gunfight to defend their lives or the lives of their loved ones. Knowing and mastering the mechanics of shooting a handgun accurately is important, but that knowledge and skill is insufficient for surviving a life and death confrontation. More importantly, you must train your brain to engage successfully in those self-defense situations. You must train your brain to adopt and internalize the combative mind-set.


The Combative Mind


Colonel Jeff Cooper identified three elements of the combative mind: marksmanship, handgun manipulation, and mind-set (https://youtu.be/nRLjbG-9zvU). Dave Spaulding, in Handgun Combatives, stated that “…it always has been understood that the mind is the ultimate weapon.”




The next time you go to your favorite gun range step back out of your lane, leaving your unloaded handgun on the shooting bench in the lane, and observe a couple of the shooters working their guns. More often than not you will observe shooters with their favorite handguns (pistols and revolvers) trying their best to shoot their guns accurately and failing. Their shots are all over their targets and instead of slowing down to work on their accuracy they shoot faster and miss more.


Shooting a handgun accurately requires training and practice. The key to increasing accuracy is to align the front and rear sights, focus on the front sight while it is on the target (sight picture) and, most importantly, press the trigger without disturbing the sight picture.


Handgun Manipulation


Shooting a handgun accurately is challenging. Shooters need to master the principles of handgun manipulation which include grip, stance, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger press, and follow-through. As mentioned above, of all these principles sight alignment and trigger press are the most important for accurate shooting.




A mind-set is an attitude. You make up your mind. You set your mind. You create a mind-set. The defensive mind-set must be created long before you find yourself in a lethal life and death situation. It requires mental preparation for what has not yet occurred. It prepares you to react with minimum lag time (the time between when you first recognize a threat and when you actually respond to it) to that situation when it occurs.


If you are caught mentally unprepared when faced with a life and death situation and you find yourself playing catch-up to respond you will likely die. You must prepare yourself mentally for possible life and death scenarios and then if that scenario becomes real you must act quickly and with a fury that is both final and decisive. As Colonel Cooper often said you must adopt the mind-set that “I knew this would happen some day and I know what to do about it.”


Willingness to Shoot


Part of the combative mind-set is recognizing whether or not you have the will to kill or seriously injure someone. The self-defense principle is that you shoot to stop the fight. If confronted by an armed assailant could you shoot him to the ground to stop the fight? If you don’t have the willingness to shoot a person to stop the fight you should not carry a concealed handgun. Dave Spaulding cautions those who carry a concealed handgun that they have a 75% to 80% chance of failure in the event they brandish a firearm with no will to use it.


Shooting Skills are Perishable


The combative mind-set is a lifestyle choice. It must become part of your life and of who you are. You have to live it every day. When you leave your house you immediately transition into that mind-set.


As a lifestyle choice, the combative mind-set requires you to train with your firearm on a regular basis.  Spaulding noted that professional competitive shooters will shoot a minimum of 50 rounds a day, even on their days off.


Once you stop training, even for a couple of days, your shooting proficiency decreases. Spaulding observed that sports psychologists have known for years that a person can spend weeks increasing his or her skill proficiency to its sharpest edge. At the end of a training week they can perform that skill at its highest level without thinking. Then they take the weekend off and on Monday morning their proficiency level can be reduced by as much as 20%, yet police officers and armed civilians practice infrequently with their handguns. You can’t go to the range two or three times a year and think you will be good enough to survive a gunfight.


Fortunately, firearms training is not limited to live-fire shooting at a gun range, although you should do some live-fire training as often as you can afford. You can practice daily at home with an unloaded firearm doing what is known as “dry firing.” In fact, some of the most successful competitive shooters (e.g., Jerry Barnhart http://jerrybarnhart.com/) sharpen their accuracy using the dry fire training protocol.


Internalize the Principles of Personal Defense


Another aspect of the combative mind-set are is what Colonel Cooper identified as the “principles of personal defense.” Those principles need to be internalized to the degree that they can be used without thinking. The principles are:


Alertness (situational awareness…paying attention to your surroundings…following Cooper’s color code; staying “left of bang”)



Decisiveness (when faced with a life and death threat select the right course of action and following through)

Aggressiveness (when attacked respond with an explosive counterattack)

Speed (when faced with a life and death threat work as fast as you possibly can to address the threat)

Coolness (keep your head, don’t panic, say to yourself “I knew this would happen someday and I know what to do about it”)

Precision (your handgun is only as effective as your ability to keep cool and shoot carefully)

Ruthlessness (if under attack, don’t be kind…don’t fight fair…be harsh, tough, and ruthless. As Colonel Cooper once said “if you find yourself in a fair fight your tactics suck.”)

Surprise (do something the attacker least expects you to do to disrupt his thinking process)


Minimize Lag Time


Lag time is the time between when you first notice an attacker and your response to the attack. If you are mentally unprepared your lag time will be long and it will get you killed.


Former Navy Seal Richard Machowicz in Unleashing the Warrior Within described seven ways to reduce your lag time.


  1. Limit the number of possible responses in your “tool kit.” Hick’s Law (https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/Hicks-law) suggests that for every additional shooting technique you learn the lag time for responding quickly will increase significantly because you have to decide on which technique to use (by the way, Hick’s Law also applies to martial arts).
  2. Simple techniques are faster techniques. When learning a new technique it should make sense, be simple to learn, and be useable in real life.
  3. Practice your techniques. You need to become proficient at using your firearm.
  4. Practice to develop natural, smooth, and efficient movement and handgun manipulation.
  5. Your reaction time increases with simple, fast techniques.
  6. Practice informed situational awareness (https://www.usconcealedcarry.com/situational-awareness-lets-stay-left-bang/). If you can anticipate a threatening situation before it unfolds you will be positioned to win the fight.
  7. Lag time is shortened when you have advanced information about a potentially dangerous situation.


Managing the “Chemical” Dump


At the moment you are faced with a lethal encounter you will experience a startle reflex and you need to respond quickly to the threat; that is, your lag time (the time between when you first recognize the threat and your response) needs to be short.


At the same time you experience the startle reflex your body will start dumping a chemical cocktail into your system preparing you for fight or flight. These chemicals are powerful and have a significant effect on your body: fine motor skills deteriorate, tunnel vision occurs, thinking ability declines, blood flows to large muscle groups, and hearing deteriorates (auditory exclusion—you hear some things, but not others).


As the chemicals flood your system you may emotionally and mentally move into a state of denial; that is, you might think “this can’t be happening to me.” Remember Colonel Cooper’s recommended attitude when facing a deadly threat: “I knew this would happen some day and I know what to do about it.” If you stay in a state of denial you will die. Don’t get caught unprepared.


You need to factor this chemical dump phenomenon into your mind-set; that is, you need to know and fully understand what will happen to you when faced with an armed attacker. The seven recommendations for reducing lag time, described above, will prepare you to manage your body’s chemical reaction to a deadly threat.




Part 1 of this blog focused on the basic principles of developing the combative mind. Those principles are marksmanship, handgun manipulation, and mind-set. Of the three, the most important is developing the proper mind-set for defending yourself with a handgun.


In Part 2, we will dive deep into the importance of scenario-based training. Scenario-based training is when you imagine possible scenarios where you need to defend yourself or your family and you envision how you must respond.


A final quote is appropriate for bringing Part 1 to a close. Clint Smith, the director of the Thunder Ranch Training Center, once said: “Get the best training you can afford…train with the understanding that firearms practice is about 75% physical and 25% mental. However, a gun fight is about 25% physical and 75% mental.”

Firearms Training: It’s Harder Than You Think (Part 1)

Carrying Concealed: Eight Moral Obligations