Almost all shooting school instructors teach that the conditioned reflex is supreme in a self-defense situation. In armed confrontations, you will, under stress, react as you’ve programmed yourself to do. This is true, as repeated practice builds a set of conditioned reflexes which can serve you well in deadly danger. Conditioned reflexes have their problems, though.
Often, a self-defense situation requires decision making, not a reflex to open fire. If you’re awakened by a noise, it may be a night intruder or a member of your family moving about. This is why giving yourself a space-time cushion is vital. You need time to observe, think, and decide on a court of action. There are tactics to give you this space and time you need to evaluate the situation.
The following won’t give you the answer to every self-defense situation, but some useful guidelines to help you improvise.
Deadly encounters don’t usually burst upon you. There are warning signs prior to an attack. Recognizing these, interpreting them properly, and giving yourself a margin of safety will often help you avoid the two dangers: becoming a victim, or using deadly force without justification.
The need to avoid being a victim is obvious, but the aftermath of a shooting is unpleasant for the survivor, too. Unlike in the movies, he doesn’t holster his gun and walks away into the sunset. He has to explain the incident to the police, and often has the unpleasant feeling of being treated like a suspect himself. He might find that, under the law, his shooting didn’t quite fit the legal definition of “self- defense situation” making him open to prosecution.
Spare-Time Cushion in a self-defense situation
Tactically, space and time are very interchangeable. An assailant needs time to cover the space between himself and you and to develop his attack. You need to put enough space between yourself and him to give yourself time to forestall, block, or ward off the attack. Delaying an assailant’s progress can give you the time to escape if that’s the best course. There are practical ways to enlarge your space-time cushion, ways which will enhance your safety in a self-defense situation.
In traditional military terms, the defender has the advantage because he’s dug in, and the attacker has to advance, exposing himself, to carry out the attack. This doesn’t translate well into civilian life, where the defender’s not behind fortifications and is often as exposed as his attacker. The assailant tries to employ surprise, closing in before showing his intention, to gain every possible second of advantage. If the aggressor can approach without alerting his intended victim, space translates into time.
Space equals time. Therefore, the more space you can keep between you and danger, the more you have working for you. It’s not always possible, because real life rarely follows a prepared plan and you must be aware of this and cope with it. A subway car or staircase, for example, gives you little room to move. In such situations, you must be more alert and aware, as a substitute for distance and time.
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The weapon you have available in a crisis is the one with which you go to war. Despite all of the information and the various opinions about which caliber has the best “stopping power.” individual ability to use it is still the most important factor. It’s not what you’ve got; it’s what you do with it that counts.
Being familiar and proficient with your weapon. whatever it may be is vital. This includes being able to draw and fire without taking your eyes off the target. An armed confrontation is not a shooting match. There’s no place for focusing on the front sight or some of the other techniques that are useful in competition. You need to watch the threat as it develops, and to scan the area for other dangers, as from accomplices.
Gaining Early Warning
A felonious assault can occur anywhere: at home or outside the home. The victim taken by surprise has a grave tactical disadvantage. If he is able to resist at all, it’s only by quick reflexive action. This jeopardizes his chances of making the right decision, endangering him and perhaps his family. This is why it’s essential to get an early warning before an attack comes with sudden danger.
At home, it’s not enough to keep the doors and windows locked. It’s wise to do so, but intruders can break in regardless. An alarm system helps, but few people have them. There are simpler measures which will give early warning. The key elements are sound and light.
Outside lighting helps If anyone’s awake to see it. It can silhouette an intruder against a window or doorway. More important is sound.
Inside your home
Venetian blinds on every window will rattle in case of forced entry. Intruders have tricks, such as using duct tape or wet newspaper, to suppress the noise of breaking glass, but Venetian blinds are not as easy to overcome.
Small items, knick-knacks, on the windowsills, will make noise when an intruder knocks them to the floor. So will potted plants.
Arrange the furniture so that every window is obstructed, and the intruder can’t simply climb over the sill and set foot on the floor. Anything light that’s easy to knock over and that makes noise when falling will serve the purpose. In this regard, the worst thing to put under a window is a couch, with soft cushions that will take an intruder’s weight without alerting you. If there must be a couch next to a window, leave a large enough gap so that the intruder will find it easier to set foot on the floor.
Keeping some items, such as roller skates or a vacuum cleaner, behind the couch will make a boobytrap for the intruder without causing any danger for those who live there. A houseplant in a large, fragile vase will also make noise.
Don’t overlook the advantage of a small but noisy dog who barks when anyone approaches. A dog can serve as a deterrent because the intruder has to consider the prospect that the householder’s been awakened and may be lying in wait for him or calling the police.
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Use the space inside your home to best advantage, combining the layout with obstructions to delay the intruder’s getting to you.
If your bedroom is upstairs, a folding child’s gate across the stain will delay him, and if there are some bells on it. he won’t be able to negotiate it without noise. Keep your bedroom door locked. This can be troublesome for you, but it’s more troublesome for the intruder because it will give you time to get fully awake and to get a weapon in your hand.
Keeping the bedroom door locked is best if there are no children in the home, but if there are. it can be counterproductive. An intruder, if he gets to the bedroom doors without awakening you, can try each door-knob, and he’s more likely to go into an unlocked room to avoid the noise of breaking in. This can direct him into the children’s room, which dangerously complicates the situation.
Outside your home
Outdoors, your alertness will vary with the situation. If you have to go into a high-risk area, take precautions. If driving, keep your doors locked and try to avoid being boxed in by traffic. Street gangs face a serious problem if the motorist stays in his car and if the situation deteriorates the car itself is an effective weapon.
The kinetic energy of a moving vehicle is far more than that of a bullet from the most powerful weapon. If walking, stay away from the building line, avoiding doorways and entrances to alleys. Parked cars can also conceal an assailant, and walking down the center of the sidewalk is the best compromise. Crossing the street often to the other sidewalk helps prevent an attacker’s predicting your path and planning an ambush.
In buildings, be especially wary in closed spaces such as hallways, elevators, and staircases. If followed on foot, turn around suddenly and walk in the other direction. towards your “tail.” He may be an innocent passerby, but scrutinizing him closely as you approach is far better than waiting blindly as he catches up to you from the rear. This seems to contradict the principle of keeping your distance, but tactically it’s better to scan the person carefully and elevate the situation than to wait blindly.
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The about-face also throws a potential attacker off his stride as he will lose the advantage of approaching his intended victim from the rear. He’ll have to decide quickly between abandoning his plan or making a frontal attack, under the watchful eye of his victim.
If an attack develops, get something between yourself and your assailant. This is critically important if he has a contact weapon, such as a club or knife. Distance means safety in such cases. A car, bench, mailbox, or even a phone booth will keep him from getting to you easily. If possible, get behind cover, but even if no cover is available, anything which will obstruct him will give you a few precious moments to think.
Cover and concealment in a self-defense situation
Tacticians view cover as protection from gunfire, and concealment as protection from being seen. They’re also more than that. Both can buy you time in a self-defense situation. If an intruder’s unaware that you’re there and watching him, he won’t have a target. Without a threat to your life, there’s no urgency to open fire. This is extra protection against a mistaken identification and helps to prevent the tragedy that can follow when a householder shoots at a moving shadow in the dark.
Staying behind cover or concealment gives you not only time to identify the target, but to evaluate the situation. This is the moment to plan whether or not to open fire and when. Not all situations require deadly force, and much of the decision hinges on the individual’s inclination, apart from the law. A defender may decide not to shot if the offender is young or if he’s about to leave. A defender taking cover or concealment gives him time to think and denies it to the aggressor. This is using surprise against the intruder.
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Skilled gun handlers have a technique known colloquially as the “stroke” drawing and tiring in one quick, fluid motion, pressing the trigger as soon as the weapon comes up into line. This is very fast and efficient, but it’s tactically unsound in many cases. It can lead to shooting someone who’s merely reaching for a handkerchief and the distasteful complications that follow such a mistake.
There’s a need to plan the appropriate response for each situation. This doesn’t mean taking hours for deliberation because there are only three types of responses possible, and the situation will usually eliminate one or more possibilities at the outset. The three are: Warning, Counter-attack and Flee.
In the home or outside, displaying a weapon will often deter an attack, and eliminate the need to open fire. We have to follow the principle of using minimal force for two reasons: it’s the law in many jurisdictions, and it’s also simpler practically. A mugger with a knife who suddenly sees a gun appears in the hand of his prospective victim and breaks off the attempt has solved the problem for the victim.
It’s easier to walk away from a self-defense situation in which a shooting did not happen than to explain a body to the police. In many situations. there are no witnesses. This is both good and bad. It’s bad if it becomes necessary to justify self-defense as corroborating witnesses can be very helpful. It’s good if you want to walk away from a situation without hassle.
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In some large cities, persuading the mugger to leave quietly is the best course of action. Some citizens carry weapons for protection in jurisdictions where they’re forbidden. This automatically brings complications, no matter how much legal justification there may be for a self-defense situation. In some jurisdictions, carrying a concealed weapon is a felony.
This is where having time helps. You need time to draw the weapon. The attacker needs time to see it and to think the situation over. You can, by displaying the weapon and by “body language,” show him that you’re willing and able to defend yourself effectively. A “street smart” thug will usually realize that he should seek an easier target and leave you be.
Fire a “warning shot,” or not? Most current thinking is against it, and the householder also has to consider that the bullet has to go somewhere, perhaps into an adjoining apartment. He’s also the one who’ll have to patch the wall or buy a new TV if it’s in the way of his warning shot.
Counter-Attack during a self-defense situation
If you decide to open fire in a self-defense situation, you need time for several reasons. In the home, the most important one is to avoid endangering innocent people, who most likely will be family members. You need to know where everyone is, and that the noise in the kitchen is truly that of an Intruder, not someone raiding the refrigerator. Tragic mistakes don’t happen as often as the anti-gun people claim, but if one happens to you, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.
Unless you live alone, a family can be both a liability and an asset. While they’re in potential danger, relatives can phone the police while you prepare to meet the intruder. Again, this takes time. Time enables you to identify the target. It also gives you time to place the shot properly. A study by the New York City Police Department a way back showed that in armed confrontations even trained police officers hit with only 25 to 35 percent of their shots. The felons did even worse, scoring only 10 percent hits.
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This shows that shooting on the range and under stress are two very different tasks and that under pressure it’s easy to miss. It’s important to be forewarned about this because wild shots in a built-up area can endanger innocent people. The intruder may not care, but the householder does.
Taking that extra second to place the shot properly is essential. Safeguarding innocent people has two facets: avoiding stray shots, and putting the intruder down before he can open fire. One well-placed hit is tactically better than several misses with a wild firelight developing afterward. This is also a point to consider when buying a weapon. A large magazine capacity seems attractive, but not always helpful. Only hits count! It helps to rest the weapon on something. Under stress, the adrenaline pumps hard, and there may be muscular tremors. Stabilizing the weapon gives that badly needed edge.
Running away from danger in a self-defense situation is not “macho”. That’s the biggest mental barrier that the defender has to overcome. However, in some instances, it’s smart. Standing and fighting when outnumbered, for example, is not brave; it’s stupid.
Discretion really is “the better part of valor.” There’s another aspect: you may choose to stand and fight, but if your family is with you, you’ll want to get them out of danger. On the street, having your wife take the kids and run while you delay the pursuer is one way of coping with the danger. In the home, your plan may include having your family seek refuge at a neighbor’s while you cover their escape. You need time to give them the distance. In some instances, fleeing is tactically and practically justified.
An assailant with a knife, for example, must be within reach to harm you. If the situation allows you to back up a few steps, you’ll gain time to dissuade the attacker and to stop the attack, if it comes. Turning and running, especially if the attacker knows you’re armed, can be a lifesaver.
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The attacker, knowing you’re armed, will have to contend with the possibility that in pursuing you he may run into an ambush. He’ll have to follow cautiously and slowly, which may enable you to get away completely. If running results in pursuit. and you feel that you can’t reach safety setting up a hasty ambush may be your only choice.
Waiting for the attacker around a corner, preferably behind cover, will give you a good position from which to confront him. It’s important, but not essential, to be out of sight for a moment. If there’s no corner, but good cover available, getting behind it will do very well, even if he has a gun. If he has a knife or club, no cover is necessary, only enough distance to enable you to stop him if he continues.
In that regard, it’s tactically essential to turn and light before he catches up to you. Running away from a self-defense situation can also avoid trouble with the law. We’ve already covered the prospect of armed citizens in jurisdictions with restrictive firearms laws.
Residents of large cities say cynically: “The cops are never there when you need them.” However, once there are shots fired, people seem to come out of the woodwork, and there are so many cops that it seems like a Saint Patrick’s Day parade. At the very least, the defender can expect to spend an unpleasant night at the police station. At worst, he faces arrest and prosecution.
This is why a “macho” attitude can be unproductive. It’s good for the ego, but often not practical. A realistic response to a bad situation, even if it means retreat, is often better. It’s possible to integrate various defensive measures Into your lifestyle to protect yourself, without making your home look like a fortress and without yielding the streets to the bad guys.
Intelligence and discretion, as well as an understanding of tactics, will enable you to protect yourself more effectively and to protect your family in a self-defense situation. Reflexes are not enough. Forethought and the ability to improvise, using the basic building blocks of tactics, are vital. These take time. Give yourself time to think and act in a self-defense situation!
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