The Self-Defense Pistol

By David Tong

In a recent review of my 9mm Browning BPM-D, our esteemed Managing Editor, Chuck Hawks, took me somewhat to task about my estimation of its relative combat accuracy as marginal. (Instead of simply inadequate. -Editor.) Indeed, a pistol that is more accurate provides confidence in one’s ability to control where those bullets actually hit, which is of no small consequence in today’s litigious climate, as an errant shot could cost one’s future income forever, or worse, one’s freedom.

My Browning shot between 4” to 8” groups at only 25 yards the day I tested it. I would agree with Chuck that by my usual standards, that this on its face seems inadequate, this despite my using a sandbag rest with good quality ammunition. I must also admit to having shot the pistol on a cloudy day, with dark shooting glasses on, with the pistol’s black sights against a large, black bullseye target, so I unintentionally created the worst-case scenario for accuracy testing.

This however begets the question, “how accurate is enough?” What follows is a subjective process, as we both agreed that the answer is related to the range where the pistol will be employed, as well as the nature of the threat involved.

Many shooters, including Chuck, prefer smaller and lighter (medium size) handguns chambered in medium calibers such as .38 Special or 9x19mm for concealed carry. Handguns by their very nature being more difficult to shoot and less forgiving of shooter error than any long arm, require a certain amount of precision to ensure that shots enter the vital areas of one’s assailant, defined as upper thoracic cavity (heart, lungs, major arteries) or central nervous system (head, spine) to quickly incapacitate the attacker, if human.

A smaller caliber, presumably, means that the shot must be more precise to ensure a "stop." Note that we are specifically not saying a kill, because while the use of deadly force via a handgun makes a kill possible, it is by no means a probability. A stop is defined as the cessation of aggressive physical acts against one’s person.

Most experts would agree that .38 Special or 9mm represent the power floor, the minimum reliable handgun calibers that can get the job done, and compact pistols or revolvers in these calibers also mean shorter barrels, which limit both sight radius and velocity for their projectiles. While there are many good shots who can make do with a .22, .32 or .380, what we are talking about here are the commonly accepted calibers recommended by most qualified people.

The smaller handguns are harder to shoot well. Their usually diminutive handles (butt length) and short barrels (and sight radius) makes them easy to carry and conceal, but also magnify shooter error if one does not hold onto the target solidly, even on a well lit range with all the time in the world, let alone when with adrenaline pumping after midnight.

My preference is for large, service type pistols for concealed carry. I prefer a full size, .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol and I value their ruggedness and ease of control compared to smaller weapons. I always carry them in a holster of some kind, made specifically for the weapon.

Now onto the accuracy issue. While a sub-compact auto, or even a derringer, might be just fine across a card table, as the ranges are very short, and while Joe Q. Citizen is not a law enforcement officer, typical shooting statistics are illustrative of the problem.

It has been bandied about for decades that most gunfights occur within seven yards so often that it is nearly a mantra. From what I have read anecdotally, it appears that most shootings for self-defense occur within five feet, which leaves little precious time, though there will be the odd occasion where a handgun must be employed at farther distances. My own predilection for always trying for a flash sight picture under these circumstances could fall short of what is necessary.

From a legal perspective, my state of Oregon does have the “Castle Doctrine,” there being no duty to retreat when within one’s own home or temporary domicile when presented with a legitimate self-protection scenario. However, even while this may appear a hard and fast rule, anyone who has studied the law knows that nothing is black and white; laws typically work in those shades of grey that cause the writing of long legal opinions.

Having studied some law, my view is that while the Castle Doctrine as applied to the majority of the states that recognize this right, or legal concealed carry states that permit armed self defense, I think that when one is hauled into court by either the wounded perpetrator or his antecedents, that a "reasonable" test may be applied.

What that means to this lowly scribe is that while one may have the perfect right to engage someone at 25 yards with one’s pistol, depending on the threat, that right diminishes as the range increases and must be justified by the facts presented. I personally shoot enough to be confident in my ability and my pistol to be able to take care of the majority of situations I can imagine, while hoping that I never have to employ those skills. These situations might include the hostage taking of a loved one and I would pose to the reader the possibility that the likely head shot of the aggressor is going to be tough, even within 20 feet in one’s home.

The FBI has stated in their famous conclusions after the 1986 Miami shoot out that they prefer at least 12” of penetration into a human torso, in order that the bullet smashes through bone, muscle and fat tissues to reach vital areas. The average human torso measures some 14” to 18” in width and some 10” to 16” in depth. If one can keep one’s wits about him or her, and trains regularly, this would seem an easy target to hit. However, law enforcement officers, who train fairly regularly, find that their hit percentage is only about 35%, even at very close range.

Some of this is due, in part, to the larger cartridge capacity of the semi-automatic service pistols that are the overwhelming choice of the police these days. This is the reason I carry one. I am a gun guy, practice much, and want to stack the odds in my favor as much as possible.

One of the little drills I like to do at the end of a range session involving rapid aimed fire at silhouette targets is to practice head shots. To my way of reckoning, a pistol with which I cannot keep at least 75% of the shots centered in the head area, slow fire, is insufficiently accurate.

Chuck routinely carries a snubby revolver and prefers to shoot in single-action mode, where its crisp, under three-pound trigger increases hit probability. I would agree that it does and I understand, as I typically prefer a 1911 (a single action autoloader), though I also believe that this does open oneself up to the potential of a negligent discharge of a round, as well as making one’s legal case a bit less defensible in a courtroom because one is thus subverting the design intent of the revolver’s double-action trigger system.

(Obviously, I disagree about those points. My view is not to draw a gun in the first place unless I intend to use it and, further, not to cock it until I am ready to shoot and it is pointed at the target, so negligent discharge should not be an issue. In addition, manually cocking the hammer was the "design intent" and preferred method of shooting DA revolvers from their inception. Trigger cocking was intended only as a desperation, contact range expediency, which is how I would use it. -C.H.)

My recent results with the Browning indicate that it may not meet my own expectations for accuracy, though again, my little accuracy drill is more a confidence builder for myself and in my arm, than (probably) a practical matter that I am likely to encounter. It may be trite to state so, but there may be a difference between minute of angle and “minute of bad guy.” Never-the-less, I have returned to a Kimber TLE as my carry gun, as it most certainly shoots well enough even for extreme hypotheticals.

After establishing the mechanical accuracy of the pistol from a bench rest, to find out what one can practically do with a handgun, one must shoot from two-hand supported Weaver or Isosceles positions. My personal standard is the ability of the pistol in my hands (not fired from a rest) to shoot five-shot groups into 3” or better at 25 yards, using the typical jacketed hollow point ammo I would carry. The Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training targets have an “eyebox” in the head portion of the IPSC style cardboard measuring approximately 3.5” wide by 1.5” tall, so I don’t think my standard is out of line.

Self-defense scenarios are fraught with Mr. Murphy, in that if something can go wrong, it probably will. What if Mr. or Mrs. Homeowner or concealed handgun carrier perfectly places two or more shots into the “vitals” of an attacker, and still fails to stop the aggressive actions? What should happen next is what used to be called the “Mozambique Drill,” by the late Jeff Cooper. If two in the body fail to get the job done, one or more aimed shots to the head are called for. The problem with this, even for those who are well practiced, is that the head is a much smaller target, say 10” in diameter, and is moving about more.

Massad Ayoob has discussed the loss of fine motor control in his book, “StressFire,” when the adrenaline coursing through one’s system makes what would be a relatively simple target task on a sunny range day much more difficult when the green flag drops. This is why Mr. Ayoob continues to shoot so-called “combat competition” matches at over 60 years of age, with both IPSC and IDPA sanctioning bodies, to at least provide some semblance of stress and time element based shooting in order to evaluate his own (rather higher than average) skill set.

I have an acquaintance with whom I used to work with long ago, a still-active Navy SEAL, who has publicly stated that they routinely practice the Mozambique with their SiG P-226 issue sidearms, thus acknowledging both the relative ineffectiveness of the non-expanding M882 9mm NATO bullet and the presence of Mr. Murphy, rather than any lack of training. It is well known that our Special Forces soldiers shoot many thousands of rounds per year and can be expected to be among the best shooters in the world. (Given the proliferation of both body armor and terrorism, the ability to deliver an accurate head shot looms larger every day. SAS commandos, for example, now train exclusively for head shots. -Ed.)

I might also add a few comments about the nature of the threat, as so far in this article I have concentrated on self-defense against human beings. Here in our western Oregon coniferous forests, we face the admittedly rare appearance of the cougar, black bear, or even an angry bull elk, any of which can ruin one’s day.

While the need is great enough for the pistol to be accurate against a bad person, if the assailant walks on fours and is faster, more heavily boned and muscled, plus equipped with fangs, claws or horns, the pistol’s accuracy requirement increases. Here is where both the greater power and accuracy of the large bore revolver supplants the magazine capacity and handiness of the semi-auto. One can usually carry a larger arm when dressed in the bulky cold weather gear often worn in our wet climate.

As a rule of thumb, I’d say that keeping a five-shot group at 50 yards in a 4” circle from a sandbag rest would be adequate accuracy with one of the Magnum caliber revolvers shooting full power loads. From a two-handed standing position, you should at least be able to shoot 3" groups at 25 yards. At 100 yards, one should be able to keep all shots on a 9" paper plate from a rest and, with a little practice, achieve the same accuracy from a sitting position in the field.

I suppose that all this leads me to several conclusions. First, one had best practice a lot with the handgun that may be called upon to protect yourself or a loved one. Second, practice at the range under good conditions, plus in the crucible of competition. The latter is a good way to self-assess your capabilities. Third, I would choose a medium or large size handgun, chambered for an adequate caliber, as they are easier with which to hit under stress. Clint Smith’s famous dictum, “A pistol should be comforting, not comfortable” is possibly applicable here and it pretty much ensures that handguns of adequate caliber will be used. Finally, simply being situationally aware, knowing by visual observation what one is traveling toward and one’s immediate surroundings, may extend the time available to react to a threat and employ the skills so diligently pursued in practice.

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Copyright 2009, 2012 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.