Understanding Your Requirements

If your local laws allow, and you are thinking of getting a firearm, do not rush into buying the first “cool” thing you see on the internet, or in a gun shop, or even worse, in a video game, especially if you are unused to using and handling weapons.

It will be really beneficial to take some time to become clear about what exactly it is you want, and why you want it, before handing over your money.

There are four main categories of firearm use which are applicable to private citizens:

Each of these requirements are very different to each other, and while some weapons might be useful in multiple roles, others are not. As a beginner you will most likely have no real idea about the practicalities and details of each different type of requirement.

It’s probably best that you gain some training and actually fire a few different guns, before selecting the appropriate weapon that will suit your needs.

There is a plethora of information available on the internet, which can be used to gain knowledge and perhaps guide you towards a good choice, as well. So do your homework.

But be aware of a few key points:

  • Your body size makes a difference. For example, many of the popular YouTube firearm related channels are run by big guys with large hands. So while they might make handling, manipulating and controlling various weapons look easy, that might not be the case for you. In addition, carrying a large frame weapon around with you everyday, might become impractical, especially if your are a smaller sized person.
  • Whether you are left handed may make a difference, because some weapons are designed only for right handed people and are thus more difficult for left handed people to use, but many new models are designed to be ambidextrous.
  • Handguns are more difficult to shoot than most rifles and carbines (because handguns have a single, relatively small handle to hold onto).
  • Twelve gauge shotguns can be perhaps the most difficult firearm to use for beginners, particularly for smaller people, due to their heavy recoil, as well as the physicality required to operate a pump action.
  • Smaller handguns are harder, and more uncomfortable to shoot than bigger handguns, of the same caliber. This is due to the fact that larger handguns are easier to hold onto firmly, as well as the recoil energy being absorbed more, by the larger mass of a bigger handgun (small hand guns tend to have harsher recoil, which makes the gun “jump” more in your hands, as it fires).
  • Very powerful handgun calibres (such as ‘44 magnum etc) are probably a very bad choice for beginners. A good practical choice of hand gun caliber is 9mm luger (being powerful enough for self defence, but not so powerful that it is challenging to inexperienced shooters).
  • Reliability is probably the single biggest attribute you should be looking for in a firearm. Especially for defensive use. If all goes well, and you are practising good self defence principles of awareness and avoidance, you should never have to use your firearm in a self defence situation, and we all hope that will be the case. But heaven forbid, if you ever do need it to defend your life or your family, you will often have only a few seconds to bring the weapon to bear, and in those few seconds, it better work properly, otherwise you may as well have not had it at all! So make sure you select a model which has a solid track record of proven reliability.

Probably the best thing you can do, is go to your local shooting range and get some professional training. And then hire a few different guns to try them out first. Do not be in a rush. Spend some time over multiple sessions, to establish what weapon suits you best. Get as much professional and experienced advice as you can. That way, you should avoid ending up with a gun that you later realise was not the best choice for you and your requirements.

Personal Responsibility and Safety

Firearm accidents can often result in serious injury or death. They are very similar to motor vehicles in that regard (although far more people are killed by motor vehicles).

The firearms community tends to hold itself to a high level of personal responsibility.

Do not touch a firearm if you are not willing to take complete responsibility for everything that happens while that firearm is under your control. Once a bullet is fired, it cannot be taken back. You are personally responsible for what happens to every bullet fired by your gun.

If you are not willing to take that responsibility seriously, you should not own, or use a firearm, regardless of what the local laws say. You should be honest about this with yourself.

Furthermore, if your firearm falls into the hands of a criminal, or a child, then a lot of terrible harm can be inflicted on other innocent people.

So as you can see, owning, carrying and using a firearm is a very heavy responsibility, which can never be shifted to anyone else but yourself.

In order to prevent accidents, four relatively simple safety rules were developed by Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper. These rules are designed to stop the accumulation of simple user errors which can combine to result in tragic accidents. If you religiously train yourself to ALWAYS adhere to these rules, then the likelihood of having an accident with a firearm is vey low.

  • ALWAYS treat all firearms as if they are loaded. NEVER simply assume that a weapon is not loaded, without first carefully checking. Even when you are sure that it is not loaded, you should check again. You can never check that a weapon is unloaded too many times. It is good etiquette to always hand a weapon to someone else in the unloaded state. So when handing a weapon to someone else, always check whether it is loaded (and if necessary unload it), beforehand. After receiving a weapon from someone else, you should immediately check the weapon yourself, as well (because once you take control of a firearm, it becomes your responsibility, and no-one else’s to verify what state it is in). Obviously to be able to check whether a weapon is unloaded, you need to know how it works. If you do not know how a specific weapon works, to the degree that you cannot check it properly, nor unload it if necessary – do not touch it.
  • ALWAYS point your weapon in a safe direction when handling or carrying it. Where a safe direction is defined as—if a bullet is fired at any time, no-one will get hurt. Be very careful that the muzzle is not sweeping across your own body, or anyone else’s body as you handle or carry the weapon. This rule should to be adhered to whether you think the weapon is loaded, or not. Never point the weapon at anyone, or anything, that you do not intend to shoot, especially when you think it is not loaded.
  • ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until you have the target in your sights and you have made the decision to fire. This means that the default position of your finger is to be deliberately held well away from the trigger, at all times when you are not about to fire (keep your finger straight, extended up against the outside frame of the gun). The only time you may place your finger on the trigger, is when you have your gun aimed at a target and are about to fire. As soon as your weapon is no longer pointed at the target, or you have decided to stop shooting, then your finger MUST come off the trigger. This is probably the biggest thing that new shooters struggle with (they tend to leave their finger on the trigger too much), so train yourself diligently to make this behaviour automatic. Your finger should be held far enough away from the trigger so that even if you trip and fall, and your hands clutch involuntarily, that you will not somehow get your finger onto the trigger. Most firearms cannot fire unless the trigger is pulled. It’s up to you to keep your finger, and anything else that might snag on the trigger, such as loose clothing, well away from that trigger, to avoid accidents. Pay particular attention when drawing your weapon from a holster, as well as returning it to its holster.
  • ALWAYS positively identify your target, as well as make sure that no innocent person will be hurt, before shooting. If you are ever unfortunate enough to be in a self defence situation, be very sure you are shooting at an actual attacker, who is actively threatening your life (not a family member, or neighbour, or anyone else you have mistaken for an attacker). Never fire at unknown sounds, or indistinct shapes in the dark. During times of high stress and terror, it is very easy to make a mistake, so train yourself to think about this and make sure, every time, before you pull the trigger. Always know where your bullets will come to rest. You are responsible for everything that happens until each bullet comes to rest. If there is any doubt, don’t shoot.

Apart from the four “official” universal safety rules, there are few other rules one should stick to when handling firearms:

  • Never handle, or use a firearm while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. For example, if you are cleaning a firearm while relaxing at home, as many enthusiasts do, make sure you wait until AFTERWARDS, before enjoying a few drinks, if you are so inclined. If you have had a beer or two, DO NOT touch any guns. Do not break this rule!
  • When handling firearms at home, such as when cleaning, or practicing dry firing, make sure that after checking to ensure the weapon is unloaded (as normal), you should also ensure that all live ammunition is moved to a different room, or locked away, before you continue. Double and triple check, that there is no live ammunition anywhere. Especially check any magazines that you may be handling, and that there is no ammunition anywhere in the room. Do not become blasé about this!
  • Make absolutely certain that none of your weapons can ever fall into the hands of children, or anyone else who is not capable of being responsible for their own actions. All weapons need to be either under your direct control, such as secured on your person in a holster, or else securely locked in a safe. If you are cleaning the weapon for example, keep your full attention on it at all times, do not leave it lying around unattended, even for a short while. There are no excuses for any situation, where a child somehow gets hold of any of your weapons.

Lastly, it’s worthwhile knowing that three common activities are when firearm accidents sometimes happen:

  • Drawing a handgun out of it’s holster.
  • Putting it back in the holster.
  • Cleaning the weapon.

So take particular care about how you go about each such activity. Make sure that you are properly trained, as well as identify and eliminate bad and sloppy habits which may creep in. Slow down—take the time to do things properly, with due care and diligence.

Training Objectives

As it should be clear, from the discussion above, like all martial arts, it is absolutely crucial to receive proper professional training, as well as to practice frequently, when using firearms.

Buying a gun, without sufficient training, and not practicing with it, is like buying a car without really knowing how to drive, nor ever bothering to learn properly, and then hoping that when one day, in an emergency, when you really need to drive it fast through rush hour traffic, you will not have an accident and all will be well.

Most martial arts (and most other sports) are about building what is called “muscle memory”. Muscle memory is a popular term which describes how you effectively program yourself to perform specific sequences of body-eye coordinated movements automatically on demand. This can only be done through repetition.

Lots of repetition is required (thousands of cycles). But you need to be repeating the “right” sequence of movements and coordination. If you train yourself to do the wrong things, then that is what you will do, especially under stress.

So get good professional training, to learn the right things, and then put in the hours of practice required to become properly competent.

Shooting is also unfortunately a perishable skill, which means that if you do not practice frequently enough, you lose the skills you previously built up.

As a beginner, you should probably set yourself goals in stages, especially when it comes to becoming proficient at using a handgun, which is quite difficult.

From my very limited experience, I would suggest setting yourself staged objectives as follows:

  1. Learn how to use, manipulate and fire the weapon safely. So that you do not pose a risk to yourself, or others around you. This would include knowing the safety rules backwards, and more importantly, being able to consistently enact those safety rules with the firearm in your hands, as well as when firing the weapon. You should demonstrate good muzzle awareness and trigger finger discipline, naturally, at all times. You should be able to reliably check the weapon to make sure it is unloaded, and safely unload it if necessary. You should program yourself to be able to do this all automatically, without too much thought. This level of skill should not take too long to learn, but do not go forward until you can do it all consistently, and without fail. Do not take short cuts, hard-code these safety practices into yourself.
  2. The next stage is to understand and implement the fundamentals of good shooting which are a good grip, good stance, controlling the trigger pull so that the weapon is not jerked off target as you squeeze the trigger, following through so that you see your sites return to the target after each shot. You should not be in a hurry to get through this stage of learning, because these fundamentals create the entire foundation of everything you do later.
  3. Once you have mastered the fundamentals of shooting, you can start progressing to more advanced skills such as shooting faster, and/or moving about while shooting, tactical reloads etc. In addition, you might want to learn other skills such as retaining and using the weapon if your attacker is at close enough quarters to be able to grab you, or the weapon.

But remember that being able to draw and shoot within a second is useless if you cannot hit the target reliably and consistently. Ten fast shots that all, or mostly miss, are useless. The higher level skills are all useless, until you can consistently hit what you are shooting at. So do not try and rush to the higher level skills before you have mastered the fundamentals.

Concentrate first on learning how to hit what you aim at consistently. Concentrate on developing a good solid consistent grip, which naturally aligns your weapon to the target as you bring it up to eye level, and then seeing your sights align precisely with the target, without seeing them move off target, as you squeeze the trigger. Shooting seems to be as much about controlling your vision, in terms of being able to find and focus on your front sights, as you bring the gun up towards the target, as it is about what you do with your hands, fingers and body. There is quite a lot of non-intuitive body-eye coordination going on. You need to hard-code all of that into yourself through lots of repetition.

A good way to practice some of these skills, is dry-firing the weapon at home. This means that you remove all ammunition (double and triple check that the gun is definitely unloaded and that all ammunition is safely locked away before you continue), and then practice firing the gun “dry”, without any ammunition loaded. Choose a target on the wall in a deserted room such as the garage, away from other people, and go through some drills, to practice your firearm handling skills as well as implementing all the safety rules. Concentrate. Make all your movements slower than normal (at least to start with). You want to program yourself like a robot.

While dry-firing cannot replicate the dynamic nature of a gun recoiling in your hands, you can practice establishing a good grip, safely drawing your gun out of a holster, the correct stance, finding and aligning your sights as you bring the gun up to eye level, controlled trigger squeeze, general gun handling, and basically hard coding your body on how to correctly use your firearm. All of which is invaluable practice. You can do this without having to spend money on ammunition, or without making a lot of loud bangs, all in the comfort of your own home. The more you do this, the better you will get. Even a small amount dry firing practice, if done correctly, will quickly show results, when you next visit the shooting range and fire real bullets.

As a beginner it’s probably a good idea to dry fire at the range as well. For example, do a sequence where you dry fire ten shots, taking particular care about not moving the sites away from the target, as you pull the trigger, and then shoot five real bullets, and dry fire another ten shots, and so on. This sort of drill is a very good way to stop yourself from flinching, just before you pull the trigger, which is a common problem for beginners. It also gives you more repetitions, for less cost in ammunition, while at the range.

Another thing to remember, is that like all martial arts, you cannot do something well at speed, if you cannot yet do that well slowly. So do not be in a rush to go faster. To learn how to go fast, you first need to learn how to go slow. Once you have mastered the skill at slow speed, it becomes relatively easy to pick up the pace afterwards.

Applying for Competency and Licenses

While the laws will differ in different countries, in most cases you will have to apply for some sort of licence or permit to own a firearm, as well as pass some sort of competency test.

This is best done with professional training (for the competency test) and advice about how to fill in the paperwork properly, because the rules are strict, and the process can be long.

You will also probably need to demonstrate good knowledge of the law.

But remember, while you wait for the applications to be processed, there is nothing stopping you from going to the range, getting more training, hiring a gun (under supervision) and getting more repetitions in. The process of improving your skill levels should never really stop, and there is no reason why that should not start, while you wait for the authorities to approve your applications.

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