Safety and Training

5 Self-defense Gun Myths

Gun and bullets meme

There are many self-defense myths that continue to make the rounds. I am going to pick five of them and explain why they are not true and why you should politely ignore or walk away from any trainer mouthing them.

Man drawing a pistol from under a suit jacket for self-defense
Myth: You should carry a self-defense pistol without a cartridge in the chamber.

#1 – You should carry a self-defense pistol without a cartridge in the chamber.

This is touted as being a much safer way to carry, as there is zero chance of a negligent discharge. As far as that goes, it is completely true. However, the most likely place for a manual of arms error is a high-stress, quick slide-rack attempt. By carrying an unchambered gun, you have effectively disarmed yourself—unless everything goes right.

This additional step slows down and complicates bringing the gun into action. When fractions of a second may count, at least one second has been added to the process, and a fine motor skill has also been introduced. Not to mention you are assuming unfettered use of both hands. Quite often one hand is required to provide standoff distance for the draw. In my estimation, empty chamber carry is not a recipe for success.

Empty gun carry is a great idea—as long as you don’t leave the house. By limiting yourself to the living room, you can practice carrying and drawing your gun without the risk of an accident.  Going out in the wild unchambered is only slightly better than going unarmed. You create the perception of safety, but the reality is likely quite different.

#2 – No self-defense caliber can start with a number lower than 4.

SIG Sauer P238 pistol with Crimson Trace laser
Myth: No self-defense caliber can start with a number lower than 4.

In no way am I knocking .45 ACP, .44 Magnum, .41 Special, .40 S&W, or their brethren. In theory, each of these rounds has a great place in the self-defense arsenal. On the other end, the .22LR and .22 Magnum are far from the most optimal choices, but they are far better than a harsh comment.

Different people have different abilities to handle recoil. This may be due to arthritis or any other malady. It may simply be that the shooter’s hand can’t properly manage the grip of a gun chambered in .4x uberthumper. The best gun for self-defense is the one you can control in the largest caliber you can make quick follow-up shots with.

For any who tell you that .22LR, .22 Magnum, .32 ACP, or .380 ACP are worthless as self-defense rounds, ask them to prove it by letting you shoot them as they charge. I think you will find few takers.

If they tell you .25 ACP is worthless for defense, they are probably right.

The sweet spot for doing damage is certainly .380 ACP and up. The sweet spot for minimizing recoil is usually 9mm down. As you may surmise, a significant portion of people end up with a 9mm or .380 ACP as their primary carry gun. Your mileage may vary.

#3 – Just carry a revolver. They never malfunction.

.22 caliber revolver in a ladies leg holster
Just carry a revolver. They never malfunction.

It is true that a revolver is not sensitive to primer failure, as pulling the trigger on a dud round will rotate a new round into position. This means a second trigger pull will drop the hammer on a different round. The odds of having back-to-back factory rounds fail is pretty close to the odds of winning the Lotto grand prize.

For many who refuse to train, this is a comfort. However, revolvers are machines and have all kinds of issues that may render them useless in a self-defense situation. Depending on how tight the tolerances are on the cylinder, an improperly seated primer could stick up enough to lock the cylinder.

A cylinder can get out of timing and not line up the cartridge and the barrel properly.  Grit and varnish can gum up the action and create a light hammer fall. The list goes on.

Like with a semiauto, most of these issues can be prevented with proper gun maintenance. However, those most likely to be told, “Buy a revolver. They never fail,” are the ones least likely to know how to prevent those failures or fix them.

#4 – On a home defense shotgun, just rack the action. Bad guys will run away.

Woman wearing a dress aiming a shotgun
On a home defense shotgun, just rack the action. Bad guys will run away.

Much like #1, why do you not have a round chambered? The most likely place to have a malfunction is in the reload phase. If your shotgun is already chambered, barring ammo malfunction you will get at least one shot.

I guarantee the discharge of a 12 or 20 gauge will have a greater fear-inducing impulse than merely chambering a shell. Not to mention, the gun is not meant to scare them. It is meant to stop them. If you have the scare mentality, you are very likely to be disarmed and have the gun turned on you. Someone in your house without permission is a very dangerous person, so act accordingly.

#5 – Use a shotgun. You don’t even have to aim it.

This is my favorite. Anyone who has ever shot skeet or trap knows quite well how ludicrous this concept is.

Depending on the load you are shooting, the shot may not even begin to spread at home defense distances. Almost every 12-gauge buckshot round has a wad. This is a short plastic cup that holds the pellets together when the cartridge is fired. Depending on design, the wad falls away at a certain distance. Prior to that occurring, there is very little spread of the pellet pattern.

Gun and bullets meme
Truth: A small gun in your hand will always prove better in a self-defense situation than the one you left at home in the safe.

In a very shallow cup designed to open and drop away early, this expansion begins at 1 to 3 yards. Other rounds are built with taller, sturdier cups, and the wad may stay with the shot for well beyond 30 yards. Think long-range turkey rounds. Once the wad falls away, a rule of thumb for expansion is a half-inch per yard of travel.

This means at 10 yards, the most expansive patterns will cover roughly 4 to 7 inches.  This creates a very powerful hit, assuming you do. But most of us do not have 10-yard/30-foot distances within our houses.

At the more realistic distance of 5 yards (or less), that same shot shell will likely see 2 to 4 inches of spread. If you do not have a wide-spreading wad, the shot column is likely to be just over bore diameter (.729 inch). I am going to suggest that in either case there is a definite need for aiming.

I am also going to suggest patterning your shotgun with a variety of loads. Shoot a paper target at ranges of 2, 4, 7, 10, and 15 yards to see how each load patterns. While you are at it, shoot a pumpkin with 7.5 birdshot to see why that is not the best choice for home defense.

If you think it does a good job on a fresh pumpkin (or cantaloupe) try again with a pork butt. Spoiler alert: You will see massive superficial damage but very little deep penetration. Penetration is the key to stopping aggression in something more animated than a piece of fruit.

Which gun myth do you most often hear that needs to be dispelled? Share it in the comment section.

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Comments (36)

  1. #1 – The 1911 was originally designed for cocked and locked carry. Just because it looks like a 1911 does not mean it works the same way (how many times have we told the opposition this about the AR-15?).

    The USAF in the 1960s issued a revolver whereas the other services issued 1911s. Then they mandated that only 5 rounds be loaded and the cylinder aligned so that an accidental trigger pull would land on an empty chamber. So many accidents resulted from people not thinking about which way the cylinder rotated.

    #2 – The vast majority of confrontations are up close and personal. Law enforcement data lists between 3 and 15 feet. That close, my .380 will meet the challenge. A lot of people kill themselves when they are shot because they believe they are going to die. In the academy they stress ‘keep fighting to live’. One you accept you are going to die you probably will.

    #3 – Revolvers do have lower malfunction rates so long as the user maintains it in tip top condition, and good ammo (often recommended by the weapon manufacturer) is used. This is because there are fewer steps and parts involved. Using a semi-auto will seldom fail as long as the same procedures as for a revolver are followed. The military and police have been using them for decades; the latter since we moved away from the .38SPL/.357 of the 1970s; with very low malfunction rates. In the advanced officer course at the academy, we trained with Marines and LEOs armed with semi-autos. We, with our revolvers, out shot both due to malfunctions which may or may not have been due to lack of proper maintenance.

    #4 – Racking a shotgun WILL have an impact upon an opponent, contrary to some views. I’ve seen combative drunks suddenly go quiet at the sound. Why? Because the sound has become quite familiar thanks to movies and tv, and nobody wants to be hit be a 12 gauge round. With 00 Buck you’re talking about being hit by up to nine (9) .38 rounds. Common view is that few survive being shot.

    Now, I do not recommend having an unloaded shotgun to start with, as Uncle Joe Shotgun taught his wife, but police officers have been known to use the barrels as ashtrays and places to stuff candy wrappers. Fortunately, training with shotguns improved greatly following the The Newhall incident, also called the Newhall massacre, a shootout on April 5–6, 1970, in the Newhall unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, California, between two heavily armed criminals and four officers of the California Highway Patrol. The officers were unfamiliar with the 12 Gauge and ended up being executed by the perps.

    #5 – Too many people, if handed a shotgun, would have the same view… until the shoot one and look at the pattern on the target. This is especially true if they have a good instructor who has them discover the pattern they get at different distances. In the advanced academy we didn’t shoot “targets” except one steel target placed at distance on the hill side. We went to the range and shot skeet. We learned detection, tracking and shooting.

    I kinda like the 1.5 inch shells for home defense. A lot of people think you only have 4 to 6 rounds available. You can double that with the shorty rounds and give the bad guys a heck of a surprise.

  2. If you do shoot an attacker , your next fight is trying to convince your County Prosecutor you did not break any laws or you will be sent to court and tried for a variety of criminal offenses. If you every plan to use any type of force , from knuckles to firearms, you better have a legal defense fund already set up for your defense from government as they only care about what laws were broken. The best protection I have found is the Armed Citizens Defense League , just see their website. Legal experts say that do everything possible to repel the attacker before pulling the trigger ; once you shoot anyone you are now going thru a living hell with the law enforcement and then the prosecutor. Both your attacker and yourself can end up in prison. You are a free person until you tangle with government , then you will see just how much power they have over anyone. There are thousands of gun owners who have gone bankrupt after a shooting , which had to be proven to be legal at the shooter’s expense.

  3. I’m a gunsmith, so I see more non-functioning firearms than most people. I can also tell you there is no gun that “never fails.” And, most semi-auto misfires, fail to load, or fail to eject, can be cleared in a second or two, and you can be back in the fight. However, most revolvers that fail, are out until they get home or to the gunsmith.

    So, what do I carry? When at home or in my shop I usually carry a revolver. Most other times I carry a Glock in .40 S&W. Either one, point & pull the trigger–they go bang. When at home, my revolver assures I can get to my 12 ga. pump.

  4. Ref myth #2; First, you say no one would want to charge you and get shot with a .22, .32 or .380. Then you say the .25 is probably accurately described as worthless. I submit that the same “no ones” would NOT want to be shot with the .25 either. The real problem with your argument is that you are describing sane, rational, sober people as not wanting to be shot. The insane, schizophrenic, hopped up on adrenaline/dope/meds/etc., are the ones that you are most likely to NEED to shoot. Therefore, the bigger and more rounds on target, the better, until they cease and desist.

  5. Did you know that every year a responsible citizen with a fire arm either prevents, stops or shoots and kills or wounds a criminal 1 million times a year in United States…. According to the NRA… even if it was only once a day that is very important. The gift of the second amendment. So when politicians argue that stricter gun laws are worth it if they save only One Life; that is actually total bullshit because by restricting firearms from good citizens more lives are lost… Look at Chicago. I could cut the murder rate in Chicago by hundred by giving every law abiding Citizen after eight hours of training a firearm to protect themselves! Crime in Chicago would drop like a rock from outer space. Our politicians are insane. Stricter gun laws kill honest law abiding decent citizens. Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about this in the public media.

  6. One failure mode of a revolver that is never covered. I have seen it occur once. A misfire on a cartridge that pushed the bullet out into the forcing cone and locked the gun up. We had to take the gun home to find a rod to knock the bullet back into the cylinder to open the gun. The ammo was reloads purchased for cheap practice. The owner was an Arkansas state trooper. That was the last time he ever purchased reloads. Has anyone else ever seen this problem occur. I have seen other failures as well on other firearms. I saw a Remington 870 pump shotgun drop a shell out of the magazine and lockup a gun. My step son also saw one of these while out shooting with a friend. Another failure was a discharge from a .22 bolt action rifle while the gun was on safe. I jerked back when a wasp flew at my face , the gun fired. I have never been able to replicate this action , but have little faith in safeties ever since.

  7. I too have heard these myths. I can understand a person who does not train, not wanting to carry a round in the pipe. I always carry with a round in the pipe, but I also use double/single action pistols with a hammer, granted it creates more chances to hang up during the draw but I feel confident and shoot enough to keep up my muscle memory.
    Except when carrying my .45, I run cocked and locked.
    “if you are not shooting, you should be reloading”

  8. Please notify the IDF, and correspondingly most if Israel, about Myth #1. I realize they don’t deal much with terrorism or street fights, so I’m sure they’d appreciate the wisdom.

  9. Another myth that is cringe worthy: “Use a laser sight, wherever that laser is pointed, that’s where the bullet will hit.” I heard a man tell a woman this (presumably his wife) one day at the gun store. While lasers are useful for shot placement, this broad statement is patently false. Anyone who has spent time as an instructor has heard their fair share of exasperated exclamations “My sights be be off. there’s no way I missed that shot!” Only to find that the shooter was jerking/slamming the trigger, anticipating the shot, squeezing the support or strong hand too much, or a myriad of other crucial elements to shot placement.

  10. I have a revolver for 5 years and shoot 100 rounds per week. I have never had a misfire or jam. I doubt any semiautomatic can say this. When your life is on the line, I would bet on the surer thing.

    1. I have seen a revolver in the hands of a young lady jam because a round (factory loaded) upon firing, so expanded the casing/shell that the cylinder could not rotate and the shell could not be ejected. Cylinder had to be removed and shell tapped out.

  11. I wonder how many people who “know so much” have actually been in a real ‘guns drawn live fire incident with bad guys’ to give them so much knowledge. I am a retired ER nurse and a veteran US Army medic from back in the early 70’s where we did Search and Rescue and Recon overseas.
    As I read what many people pontificate about, I can’t help but believe most of them have never used their weapon outside of the range.
    Myth #2.
    That being said, I have seen multiple people shot with a lot of calibers that not only did not kill them, they barely slowed them down, and certainly not enough to keep them from killing their shooter with either the gun they were fighting over or beating the shooter to death with another weapon. Blunt force trauma kills you just as dead as a gunshot does. Smaller calibers create smaller holes which do not bleed as fast as larger holes. Smaller holes give the shootee more time to kill you, the shooter. If he does not bleed out, he is still a threat and can kill you. In Oklahoma City, more than 20 years ago, an OKCPD officer was killed by a man who was shot in the head three times with a 9mm.
    I have seen many people with head shots in a variety of calibers, some of them died, but not all. I have seen shootees shot in the chest with .32’s, .380’s, .38’s and 9mm’s who shot and killed their shooter before they died. The shooters died before the shootees because the shootees had larger calibers.
    Smaller calibers can kill, but they make poor self defense rounds because when the adrenaline kicks in, the shootee realizes he is on death ground (A la The Art of War) and is much more dangerous to the shooter. The shootee will die but not before he wreaks death and destruction on the shooter.
    As a student of military history, there are too many examples to present here. Many Medal of Honor winners demonstrated what I just related. They continued to fight in spite of mortal wound and carried on to save their own team.
    The US Army went to the .45 because the .38 pistol used by the Army during the Spanish American War were entirely inadequate to stop the Moros who were using opium to build up their courage. Too many Americans were lost. (https://www.browning.com/news/articles/history-of-the-1911-pistol.html)
    .38, huh, isn’t that the same size hole as a .380? Why, yes it is.
    The bigger the hole, the more he bleeds, the more he bleeds, the sooner he dies. If a man dies from the smaller caliber, it was his day to die, but he may well kill his killer before he passes on. Seen it more times than I can count.
    I carry a 1911, started in the 70’s still carry it today. I have seen very few survive a .45 to the head or chest because that is a big hole and they bleed out faster than a smaller hole.

  12. Excellent points especially carrying an empty chamber
    Having said that, there is a real risk of accidental discharges during the draw for the same stressors you mentioned. Today’s SA striker fired pistols don’t help things either, so what’s the solution? Handgun selection. A DA/SA pistol will mitigate the risk of an accidental discharge while allowing the readiness of a loaded chamber.

    Great article!

  13. Good Article. There’s a fine line between carrying an empty chamber (safety) and one in the chamber (Ready). As long as the person carrying is PROPERLY trained, in the Safe handling of the firearm. And goes to the range at LEAST several times a year. Then PRACTICES, pulling out the firearm and shooting it. THEN the one in chamber is better. If they refuse to practice several times a year. An empty chamber MIGHT be a safer option. It’s a toss up as to the attacker is going to harm them, OR they are going to shoot themselves, because they are not “Muscle Memory” familiar when they are experiencing a major stress environment. I’ve heard stories where when needed, the person carrying got so excited, they COULDN’T REMEMBER WHERE THE SAFETY WAS OR HOW TO USE IT. Solution: PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. You Life COULD depend on it.

  14. In most instances I agree with the author on his assessment with one exception that being the use of a pump shotgun I am retired from law enforcement and over the years I used a pump shotgun carried in my patrol car, for crowd control in prison yards stopping violent assaults(think five on one stabbings) and because of agency requirements no rounds chambered until brought to shoulder. I found that the racking of that pump with loud clear direction 9 times out of ten would stop the action without a shot. The author is correct stopping is what it’s about not scaring but also remember once you fire a shot your accountable for every pellet of buck shot and what it hits. Including the neighbor’s house that has to pellets in it the car parked on the street that has 3 pellets in it and the bad guy in the ambulance carrying 3 and the one you can’t find since standard double ought buck has 9 (2 3/4 inch). So if you can stop the bad guy with the racking of the pump why wouldn’t you.

  15. Good article. I especially like the line “let me shoot you with it while you charge me..” I’ve used a line very similar to that. I’m a LE firearms instructor and I get all kinds of macho BS comments about smaller calibers. The best one is one you’re comfortable with because if you’re comfortable with it, you’ll train with it more and you’re more likely to carry it. I also HATE the empty chamber carry. As you said, fractions of seconds make a difference. All things being equal (which in real life, they never are) if we draw at the same time but you have to rack the slide and I don’t, I win. Keep up the good work. Stay safe.

  16. I, a 6’8” full grown man, can proudly say that I carry a .380. Why? Well, I really don’t think that I need to know what it really feels like to kill another human. If I ever find myself in a situation where I deem it necessary to pull a trigger, I want to stop a threat. As the article states, there are many calibers that will do that without putting your attacker in the next county. Other plusses are that second shot target acquisition is almost instantaneous and conceal ability is great! I can’t get second shot accuracy like that with anything less than a full frame 1911! I’ll keep my .454 Casull for its true purpose, hunting in the true wilds, and keep my .380 nestled snugly and quietly where nobody can see it.

  17. Good article up to the point that the author degnegrates any birdshot 7.5 or smaller. It is correct that #8 shot will give minimal penetration, but in a point blank scenario penetration may not be as important as kinetic transfer (hydraulic shock). A 2 3/4 shot shell with about 1 1/8 ounce of #8 shot and a good load (not overly hot) will not hardly penetrate 1/2 inch sheet rock- which is good if you don’t want to miss and kill a family member is another room, it will however, transfer enough kinetic energy to put a 220 pound man on his ass. While the shot itself doesn’t penetrate, the tissue damage is wide and a couple of inches deep from energy transfer, not penetration. You can’t see this shooting cantaloupes, pumpkins or dead pork butt- but on live flesh the affects at close range are frightening. A friend of mine at the ER explained a fatality from a close range skeet shot. The deceased didn’t have a single pellet in a vital organ, but the hemorrhaging was so wide spread he bled out and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

  18. One myth that you didn’t mention is that ammo doesn’t make much of a difference. The first time I practiced with the 124 gr. XTP 9mm that I carry in my Sig P938 several years ago I discovered how much more accurate it is than even a name brand of 115 gr. FMJ. I typically practice at 7 yards unless I’m doing a draw and shoot drill which most ranges, especially indoor ranges, don’t allow. One day about 4 years ago I was at an indoor range in Colorado with a friend. I was shooting Federal 115 gr. FMJ and the grouping was pitiful — 5 – 7″. The range monitor was watching, and asked if that was my EDC and if that was the ammo I typically carried. I said yes and no. He suggested I try my carry ammo if I had some with me, which I did. Same distance, 7 yards, same gun, less than 2″ group. I was amazed. I tried some 147 gr. JHP I had in my range bag with similar results, although the baby Sig doesn’t feed them as reliably as the 124 gr. XTP.

  19. 6. I don’t need to practice – I know how to shoot.
    7. The recoil of the XXX (insert caliber of choice) will blow your arm off/knock you down, etc…
    8. Them police are always XXX (insert your own modern myth…).
    9. Southerners all know how to shoot…usually from birth…
    10. Military and law enforcement (active or veterans-thanks, but…) all know how to shoot.
    11. Vests make you invulnerable…
    Enough?

  20. Good information and for the most part I agree. I carry a 45 USP Compact but I have no doubt a 9mm is perfectly adequate for self defense. Being able to hit the target is way more important than the stopping power of the round. I would argue that #3 is not a myth. A small 38 caliber revolver with a concealed hammer would seem to be an excellent choice for a less experienced shooter. I own both revolvers and semi-automatic pistols and in my experience revolvers are simpler to operate and more reliable. I have never had a revolver jam after thousands of rounds being shot. Not the case with even the best semi autos. As far as simpler to operate there are a number of factors. One, a single action automatic will require the shooter to either chamber the first round (Not easy or reliable for an inexperienced shooter) or maintain the gun in the cocked and locked position. I don’t really like either alternative for concealed carry. Two, an inexperienced shooter is more likely to experience “limp wristing” particular under pressure. Having a round fail to eject will likely leave them defenseless. Three, yes revolvers can have mechanical issues but given an inexperienced shooter who does not frequent the range I find it unlikely they will create issues through wear and tear. Not saying that a revolver is always the best choice. A DA single stack compact pistol has reduced printing and reduced trigger pull than a comparable revolver. Easier on the hands too. Just some other things to think about.

  21. I am retired fire/law. I always thought a revolver was more reliable than a semi auto, until I had the primers in two different manufacturers of ammo over a several year period, back out and actually expand into the firing pin hole and lock the cylinder up. This was in a S&W .357

  22. I know nothing about 25 acp i always assumed it was kind of just a weird 22 wantabe. Can you you tell me why it wouldn’t work as defensive caliber? Thank

  23. I love #5. Anybody that thinks you can’t miss with a shotgun should shoot sporting clays with me. They’d change their minds within an hour.

  24. I believe the revolver is the most dependable. In a stressful situation, all you want to do is point and shoot. No time to think of safety release and cocking. Also, the newer revolvers have a easier trigger pull. I believe a small 22 magnum hollow-point double action revolver is the best weapon to keep close for protection.

  25. Thank you for this article. A lot of good information, especially about the shotgun patterns. I will be sharing that with several friends. I bet they don’t even have a clue about the spread rate or even what they have home, loaded, but un-chambered.

  26. Caliber size. I carry a S&W M&P shield in 9mm, and several people laugh at me. You can not see my concealed gun and the rounds I use are devastating (RIP’s). They all say carry a 1911 in 45 acp. But I can see there concealed.I could carry my DE 50ae but they are hard to hide. I’m actually thinking of getting a .22 or a .17

  27. I have had my CCW for 4 years now. I carry a 9mm as my everyday weapon, however I also have a .40 and .45 on my permit. Carrying a weapon is meant to defend your family, yourself or another from harm. I have heard many who carry the larger calibers. I will refer back to what my Deputy Nephew said when another Deputy asked him why he carried a .380 off duty. He stated that all he needs to do is win the battle-not wage a war. It is the same with us civilians. We are not likely to get into a running gun battle. We only need to carry for defensive purposes. For me, a 9mm is sufficient to defend myself and my family. And geez, don’t carry with an empty chamber and keep your weapons clean.

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