One of the most often said phrases during entry level training and initial equipment selection, especially during civilian courses is, “Find (or pick) what’s comfortable for you.” Unfortunately, this common approach is based on a series of myths—specifically that 1) initial comfort is important and/or relevant and 2) that entry level students are capable of making good decisions regarding subjects about which they know nothing. This both sells students short and has the effect of limiting their safety, their performance potential, and (especially for civilians) their ability to functionally defend themselves.
“Find what’s most comfortable for you” is something often heard in gun stores, especially with female customers, but often with any entry-level shooter making a first-time purchase, especially if the purchase is for self-defense applications. There are three points I want to address. First, the organic capability of a person new to the concept of self-defense with firearms and the tool characteristics to effectively choose a tool that suits their needs; second, the relevance of this question for self-defense applications; third, what we are really asking people to do psychologically when we tell them to pick a firearm that is “comfortable” for them.
I have plenty of opinions regarding hardware, as, most likely, does everyone reading this article. I have no intention of igniting a discussion about platforms, calibers and the like in this forum. Suffice it to say that, in 2016, the choices between make, model, caliber, size, color and accessories are so varied as to be virtually limitless and, quite frankly, overwhelming.
Ignoring the specific characteristics of individual platforms, what’s functionally critical about making these choices with respect to specific hardware is understanding that self-defense firearms are tools—tools that are intended to help the user solve problems. As such, what’s important about the tools themselves are the capabilities and limitations inherent to each tool, with respect to the problem set.
So, in other words, in order to make a “good” selection regarding firearms platform, other equipment such as holsters, safes, magazine pouches etc., or specific techniques and tactics, the person choosing must first have (and understand) some information. Most importantly, they must have information that defines the problem set (along with associated terrain/conditions) that they would like to possess the capability to solve. They must also understand the parameters of the potential tools, techniques etc., specifically the capabilities and limitations of each and how those affect their individual capability with respect to addressing the problem(s).
Without possessing (and understanding) this information, I submit that it’s functionally impossible to make operationally good decisions about hardware, techniques, or anything else. So, the question is, how many people who are completely new to firearms, armed self-defense, threat analysis, and tactical analysis of terrain both have this information and are capable of making a quality decision—before they take the time to learn anything?
The next point I want to address is the actual relevance of the comfort level of the student with any specific tool, technique, or tactic—especially upon their initial exposure to it. Looking at this issue purely from the self-defense angle, let’s not forget that what we’re ultimately talking about is a tool for applying deadly force. More graphically, as an armed professional friend of mine who I have great respect for and who has over 50 years in the business often describes it—for effect, it’s a tool to stick in somebody’s face and blow their brains out all over the wall if needs be. Quite frankly, nobody should be “comfortable” with it.
Looking more acutely, just at the hardware angle, how many people are “comfortable” with any relatively complex tool—especially one that provides a harsh stimulus back to the user—within the first few minutes of using it, or even worse, without using it at all? If bike riders used this same type of approach, everybody but the professionals would ride around with training wheels on.
Furthermore, how relevant is a new user’s “comfort” with the appearance or feel of a piece of hardware in the first few minutes with respect to that hardware’s ability to help them win a gunfight? I’ve met many instructors, especially for civilian carry courses, who tend to guide a great deal of their students (especially females) towards using .22LR pistols in the course. I’ve seen many vendors who guide their customers (again, especially females) to tiny little pocket guns, or ultra-light, 5 shot, snub-nosed revolvers (sometimes with pink handles)—even when they struggle to actually press the heavy double action trigger hard enough to cycle the action more than twice in a row.
I’m not knocking these specific types of hardware; they have their uses. However, does a student’s comfort—in a store—with something, based mainly on the fact that it looks “cute,” or “really small and light” do them any favors? Are they set up with optimal chances for success during a lethal encounter because of “cuteness?” I submit that the answer to these questions is no. I also submit that “I really wish that I had a smaller gun with fewer bullets in it,” is a phrase that has never been uttered during a gunfight. Ever.
Finally, I would like to address the psychological meaning of this question, when posed to a “new” student or customer. I’m assuming that the reader of this article is an experienced shooter, probably a skilled armed professional, experienced instructor, or both. When you and I look at a firearm, we see a simple tool, nothing more, nothing less. It’s a mistake to assume that entry level students see the same thing that we see—and making this assumption ultimately sells the students short.
Where we see the equivalent of a wrench or cell phone, a new student often sees the equivalent of a tarantula or poisonous snake sitting on the table in front of them. The more “tactical” looking the weapon, and the more often the weapon is featured in news articles and/or entertainment media, often the more powerful this effect is. Several years ago I ran a home-defense shotgun course for a female client who was new to—and somewhat intimidated by—firearms. The weapon that we used for the course was a 20 gauge pump shotgun, which she became quite skilled with. For reference, by the end of the course, she was hitting head plates at 10 yards with sub-second pairs—starting from the high ready with the safety on. Her consistent par time for an aimed pair from the high ready was 1.1 seconds.
We had spoken about varying types of platforms in relation to domestic politics during the course itself, so when we completed the course, I asked her to fire a couple of rounds from an AR-15 platform, just for comparison and familiarization. This student, who was by any measure comfortable, familiar with, and, in fact, highly skilled with a pump shotgun, was terrified of the AR-15—although we all know that it is, in fact, far more comfortable to use than the shotgun. She didn’t want to touch it, and when she did pick it up, she only touched it with her fingertips—handling it like it carried a highly contagious disease.
This example illustrates an important point. Students, especially new students, don’t see the same thing that you see when they look at a firearm. Not even close. Asking them to pick the firearm they are “most comfortable” with is similar to handing somebody a bucket of spiders and asking them to pick their favorite. Without any knowledge of spiders, which is someone most likely to pick? The relatively harmless (yet enormous) tarantula or the deadly (yet relatively small) black widow or brown recluse?
The point is that people, at this stage, often aren’t making selections based on anything that resembles sound decision-making. They’re making decisions based on whatever visual stimulus causes the smallest negative emotional reaction. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily set them up with optimized chances of success, for training, or for defense.
A better approach, one that we’ve had great success with over the years, is to teach students to use a specific platform that meets their needs, and that will address the problem(s) they may need to solve, before asking them to buy anything or make any decisions themselves. Admittedly, (and unfortunately) this is functionally impossible for one-day carry permit instructors, who are limited by both the existing course structure and the students themselves. However, looking more broadly at the industry, this is a shift in approach that can be made, one which would greatly improve the effectiveness of our training programs, the competency of our students, firearms safety, and self-defense capability.
As an industry, let’s stop asking people to choose the spider they’re most comfortable with. Instead, let’s start teaching them to turn wrenches.