Concealed Carry

It’s Not the Hardware That Wins the Gunfight, It’s the Shooter

Bob campbell shooting a semi-automatic handgun topped with a red dot one handed practicing for a gunfight.

I’m here to stimulate thought and get the reader interested and thinking about their own survival. And that is the bottom line, surviving. Internal motivation is something we all need. This is what motivates us to train. External motivation is events that catch our attention. Such events provoke thought concerning the right tools to prevail in an increasingly likely defensive encounter.

My goal is to provide solid information that you can use to make choices. The primary reason we own firearms is personal defense and home defense. Sure, hunting and collecting are enjoyable, but the bottom line is always personal defense.

Bob Campbell firing a revolver at an outdoor shooting range practicing for a gunfight
Revolvers are not second-rate defensive handguns. For some shooters, the simplicity and reliability of a revolver makes it the best choice for a gunfight.

New Gun Owners

A new gun owner — and millions have joined the ranks of gun owners over the past few years — may not have a well-defined idea of the threat he or she faces. They hope to be prepared for the great ‘what if.’ The statistics may favor peace, but the possibility of attack is endless.

Hopefully the new gun owner has proofed their firearm. Just the same, I’ve had many students who have carried a gun they have not fired, sometimes for extended periods and on occasion, ever. Before you are surprised and feel the need to belittle them, I have known cops who have who went far too long without firing their service gun.

My son is an Army Major. He often deploys rack-grade M4 rifles and Beretta or SIG pistols that he has not fired. They are service grade and proofed by someone else. When we are deploying personal firearms, no one has proofed the piece for us — it is our responsibility. Taking a self-defense course and firing 50–100 rounds with a seasoned instructor is a good start.

Don’t necessarily buy the cheapest gun but neither must you purchase the most expensive handgun. Those in the median of price are often the best choices. In terms of personal protection, the shooter is everything. Hardware comes second.

Firearm Selection

A service gun, whether it is police or military, must meet certain criteria and fit most hands reasonably well. An individual has the advantage of choice and taking the time to choose a pistol that fits their hand well. Some handguns are just a better fit for certain shooters. If the grip stretches the hand, you probably won’t control the weapon well during a gunfight.

Bob Campbell shooting a semi automatic handgun that is in recoil with a spent shell casing in the air practicing for a gunfight
Sure, the most modern optic-equipped pistols are nice to have but not a necessity for a gunfight.

There is a huge difference between somehow managing a large pistol on the range and controlling it in a life-or-death situation. A mid-size gun such as the SIG P365 strikes an outstanding balance. Be certain trigger reach is comfortable. The first pad of the trigger finger should easily rest on the trigger face.

Leverage to press the trigger to the rear should be good. The ability to reach the slide lock and magazine catch with the hand in a firing grip are not quite as important as some make out. It isn’t difficult to twist the hand, out of register, to operate the magazine release or slide lock.

To drop the slide on a loaded magazine, you may prefer using the weak hand to pull the slide back. Hand fit and trigger reach are much more important. Check to determine how difficult the magazines are to load. Some compact handguns have magazines that are very difficult to load to full capacity. The owner ends up loading eight rounds rather than the 10 or 11 rounds the magazine should hold.

Racking the slide of a semiautomatic pistol
Being able to rack the slide and handle a firearm is a soft skill problem.

The ability to rack the slide without a great deal of difficulty is important. Smith & Wesson’s Shield EZ Rack is among the friendliest handguns to use well — especially for those with arthritis or weak hand strength. This may be a baseline.

Check this pistol out and then look further to find your ideal pick. It doesn’t have to be an expensive pistol. Don’t purchase what people in the family or shop expect you to own. Instead, purchase the gun that fits your hand, and you can control. Buy quality and purchase a handgun that is safe and reliable. Avoid oddball types such as Derringers or trick guns that fire more than one round with the pull of a trigger. Avoid .22 rimfire handguns of any type. The cartridges are not reliable enough for defense use, even if the firearm may be.

Bob Campbell obscured by gunsmoke firing a 1911 pistol at an outdoor range
The author finds the Rock Island 1911 an excellent protection piece.

It’s the Individual

The person behind the handgun is most important. I repeat… Make certain the handgun fits your hand well, regardless the type you choose. A self-loading handgun offers every advantage in hit probability and a fast follow-up shot, not to mention the reserve of ammunition. On the other hand, if you grew up shooting revolvers don’t give up now.

Learning the rolling action of the double-action revolver is an acquired skill that will serve you well. The revolver may be braced against a door jamb or furniture to steady the handgun during a gunfight with no little of a malfunction. The revolver may be pressed against an opponent’s body in a worst-case scenario and fired repeatedly without jamming.

Consider your shooting style and which type suits you best. At close range — all handgun fights will be close range — handling, balance, and a natural point mean the most. Medium-sized handguns seem to suit most shooters best.

Pistol being fired at three paper targets at an outdoor range practicing for a gunfight.
Multiple targets are a common problem — the shooter must be able to shoot and move quickly.

You do not need an expensive handgun. I have enjoyed good service with the SAR 9 9mm, a good quality but affordable handgun. The EAA MC 28 is a clone of the Smith & Wesson Military and Police. The trigger is good, and the pistol performs well. Ruger offers rugged and reliable handguns. Taurus revolvers and self-loading pistols are an uncommon value. I have to say, the handgun should be a .38 Special revolver or 9mm semi-auto as a minimum. Avoid hard to find oddball calibers. Larger calibers will demand a significant amount of training and expense compared to the mid-size calibers.

That covers the hardware and leaves us with the question, which is really important, the shooter or the handgun? The answer is simple. The shooter is much more important.

I have trained quite a few shooters. Don’t be discouraged with your development as a shooter as you will get it soon enough if you put the time and effort into learning. A few months of training gets you to a plateau that takes a great deal of practice to rise above. You will be proficient and able to handle the handgun quickly, if you have practiced.

Racking the slide of the Kimber semiautomatic 1911 handgun
Some handguns are more difficult to handle than others. Don’t choose something trendy but the handgun you really need.

Preparing for a Gunfight

At the close ranges inherent to a gunfight, the average skilled shooter and the expert will not be widely separated by performance. The shooter should practice at 3–7 yards. This will cover 95% of the defensive encounters you may experience. A few shots at 10 and 15 yards are needed as you progress.

Those who pay attention in training do well. The difference between a student and an experienced shooter isn’t great at three yards.  The adversary you face may be unskilled or they may not. They may simply thrust the pistol out, point it, and shoot at you. If the range is short, they may hit you.

The shooter using correct technique will not fumble the draw and will not miss during a gunfight. A fast six-inch group into the arterial region will save your life. Sometimes a handgun with a heavier trigger action is better than a more expensive handgun with a light action. You are less likely to jerk the trigger and the action will be consistent. Get on target, use the sights, and get a hit.

Three semi-automatic pistols. Top: Double action only, middle: single action. bottom: double action
While double-action, single-action, and double-action-only handguns handle differently. either of the three is viable for personal defense.

Hardware will never make up for determination in a gunfight. Quite a few shooters purchase a handgun and trade it when it doesn’t afford them X-ray type, superhuman accuracy. SIG, Glock, CZ, HK, SW, Canik, SAR, they try them all. None suits their style whatever it may be. A person who is legitimately limited by the handgun’s performance is a rare individual. There is little that may be achieved tactically with one handgun over the other.

The shooter is what matters in a gunfight. The shooter who understands the grip, trigger press, sight picture, slight alignment, and follow through is the shooter who will be prepared to save their life. Is that you? Share your answer and advice in the comment section.

  • 1911 Commander .45 ACP handgun cocked and locked
  • Bob Campbell obscured by gunsmoke firing a 1911 pistol at an outdoor range
  • Bob Campbell shooting a semi automatic handgun that is in recoil with a spent shell casing in the air
  • Racking the slide of the Kimber semiautomatic 1911 handgun
  • Racking the slide of a semiautomatic pistol
  • Pistol being fired at three paper targets at an outdoor range
  • Three well used handgun including a revolver, Browning Hi-Power, and 1911
  • Three semi-automatic pistols. Top: Double action only, middle: single action. bottom: double action
  • Bob Campbell shooting a revolver at three paper silhouette target on an outdoor range
  • Bob Campbell firing a revolver at an outdoor shooting range
  • A Stoeger and Arex pistol on a shooting bench with mage magazines each
  • Bob campbell shooting a semi-automatic handgun topped with a red dot one handed.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (13)

  1. The title say,”It’s not the hardware that wins a gunfight, it’s the shooter” I have to say they are equal. As a SO in the IDPA, Ive seen my share of malfunctions and catastrophic failures. IN fact, whenever I get a new gun, I immediately repleace the MIMS parts with forged parts and polish all internal parts to make it as reliable as can be. Also, afetr seeing those failures, I have decided that the whole issue of mags dumped oon the ground or not is moot to me. If you’re in a gunfight for your life and oyu have a catastrophic failure, all the mags in the world, dropped on the ground or not , will help you, when what you need is another working pistol, so now, I’m a fan of the “New York Reload”. AFA training, the advice above is legit, at a static range. IMO, survival is the ability to amek all the right decisisons, all the time. ONE wrong decision can be fatal. In a gunfight it’s a wrong decision to assume that your opponent is going to stand there and let you perform your practiced draw stroke and shoot him. The reality is, most likely, YOU will be behind the OODA loop, as you will be reacting. SO, how to train for that? Well, the cloesest thing I ‘ve found is “Force on Force” with airsoft pistols ( not to mention the countless BB gun fights I got into as a kid). @ men face off at 7 yards and at rhe beep, they both draw and shoot. First oen to get a hit wins. So, lessons learned: it’s not who gets the first shot off, it’s who gets hit first. Beleive it or not , ther is a way to make THEM have to reset their OODA loop, giving YOU the advanteg to get the first hit, even if they drew first, BUT, you can’t hesitate. How long does it take to pull the trigger? You have to act faster than that. So what you do (and what you should REALLY be practicing is “getting off the X” while drawing your pistol and by ‘getting’I mean double time. As SOOn as yu see them go for thei rpsitol or if they already have it in thero hand, yu doubel time at a 45 degree angle, toward them, on their gun hand side. YES that sounds counter intuitive, but hink about it: It actually does two things- it really disturbs them to see you coming towards them, many times, flustering them to where they freak out and fumble, AND they have to swing their gun outward, to their backhand to get on target- YOU. Try it, it’s almost impossible to hit a moving target that way. Oh they’ll shoot, out fo desperation, but they’ll miss (cause you’re double timing it past them), while YOU are drawing and shooting them. You’ll be so close, you can almost shoot from the hip. Now keep in mind, yuo want to have drawn and begin shooting them just as you’re breaking the plane of ther gun hand, but before going past their body plane. If you get a good hit, keep firing and moving. In fact pre determine how many shots you’re going to make at once, before re-assesssing. I like 4. Not many prosecutors are going to try and say that’s excessive. Especially when I say I shoot in double taps, so i only shot twice.

  2. As a retired FBI/Post instructor, I constantly preached what wins a gunfight? “The Accurate placement if the first disabling shot” If you deliver, it you win! Make sure you deliver it!

  3. I am a retired RN as well as a retired USAF officer. As a RN, I once took care of a young man, around 25 years old recovering from gunshot wounds. He had been shot 6 times in the lower abdomen with a handgun firing .40 S&W hollow points. My patient was lying on the ground outside a bar where the confrontation started. He had been knocked down by a punch. The perp then shot him six times while standing over him. The victim survived. He’s lucky he wasn’t shot in the head or chest.
    My carry is a Sig P365,12 plus 1 of 9 mm Critical Duty HP, Condition One, with one 12 round spare mag. I practice mostly with my own reloads, but add commercial brands same as my daily carry. I practice double taps to chest followed by double taps to the head. Pause, evaluate. Shoot some more if needed. I practice this over and over at distances 3 to 10 yards. Accuracy is important and I strive to keep my rounds within an 8 inch circle. When out with my wife, I exercise situational awareness, looking for Exits, and scanning people as the come in and leave my area of around 5 to 10 yards. I hope to never be surprised and to have enough warning time by being vigilant.

  4. Grumpy 49 I agree When I taught the New Deputies, I told them drop that mag on the ground, if your more worried over a mag I will replace it, I can not replace your Life, also do not just shot at range qualifier, but train couple of days a month. Never had No one take me up on the training even if I supplied the ammo.

  5. After reading this article, I have to say nay – my opinion states its the caliber that is most important. I have two acquaintances that are EMT’s and I have discussed this with each separately on a couple of occasions. Both EMT’s have stated that they arrive at the scene of a bad drug deal or whatever and when someone is shot in the chest 3 – 4 times with a small caliber(.22lr or 25ACP) the wounded person is usually alive and taken to the hospital where they recover. But, when the EMT’s arrive at the same scenario except the wounded is shot with a 9mm etc.. the wounded is usually dead or dies shortly after. While I agree any gun is better than no gun. People today do have choices. In conclusion, with the advent of the many 9mm micro-pistols available today, its best to use a 9mm etc. for defense of self and family, friends etc.. just train and train and train and follow the law!

  6. I had a friend that was at a train station in Atlanta ga when he got into it with another guy over a domestic dispute. He was shot five times with a .25 cal automatic. Two shots were to the head and three to the torso. He was back at work in less than two weeks. During the incident he was able to knock his attacker unconscious. No, I don’t believe I would use such a small caliber!

  7. I carry an Remington 870 tactical 12 gauge in my car trunk and keep a similarity rigged Mossberg 500 in my closet along with an AR. The only pistol carry is my S&W 40 on my motorcycle. The pistol requires constant practice, and I get rusty fast. There’s a huge danger of a poorly trained “hero” intervening in a violent situation and killing a bystander. Violence should always be the ultimate situation, not the go to. I’m obviously prepared for it, but it’s not what I think about.

  8. I have a S&W mod19-5 that I installed a Jordan grip on from Herret’s. They made the grip from a tracing of my hand that I sent to them. I love it.

  9. @Grumpy,
    I must take issue with that old saying about a solid hit with a .25 ACP being better than a hit with anything else. I say that as a former ER nurse who, in a career that spanned more than 30 years in ER, saw hundreds, if not numbering into the thousands, of GSW’s in just about every caliber out there. Over that time, I worked in the top three busiest ER’s in my state in two different metro areas. There were some calibers that we soon recognized as being more dangerous to the shooter than to the shootee. We, being the ER staff and the local cops.

    I will bring up one very good example, but I must say, this is not an isolated incident, I have seen it happen time and time again with a number of lower calibers. We got this guy in who had been shot 5 times in the chest, all center of mass, with a .25 ACP. All what some would call “solid hits.” The cops told us it was a drug deal gone bad. We cracked his chest and found 3 of the slugs that were stopped by his sternum, one of them fell off as we were cutting his clothes off. It was pulled out of the hole it created when we pulled on his shirt, leaving a small hole where it had been lodged against bone. Two slugs missed the sternum and penetrated between the guy’s ribs only to bounce off ribs in the back and bouncing around in the chest cavity opening several holes in the guy’s pulmonary arteries and veins. One bullet nicked the aorta. He bled out from those very small holes in his vasculature and died in our ER.

    Lest you think that the gun was better than nothing, the cops told us that when he was shot, the shootee became rather irate and beat the shooter to death, before he collapsed. The shooter was dead before our victim collapsed, but, the shootee was a BIG dude. The shooter was pronounced DRT at the scene.

    Unfortunately, as I said, that was not an isolated incident, but a rather common scenario we saw repeatedly in cases where people were shot with lower caliber handguns. This is the reason most of the lower caliber handguns were referred to as “The last bad choice of dead people everywhere.” The calibers that enjoyed that ignominious reputation were .22 LR, even the .22 magnum, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, and even James Bond’s caliber of choice in several of his movies, the .380. I have seen dozens of people who used these calibers in self-defense and died after shooting someone with their gun. In too many cases, the shootee took the gun away from the shooter and used it shoot the shooter. For the record, a .25 ACP placed inside a person’s mouth and fired upward into the brain has a higher probability of killing someone than shooting them in the chest will have. Seen it a number of times. From my real world experience, those calibers failed to deter the attacker enough to prevent him from killing the shooter. Even when shot, those calibers had a mortality rate of less than half. Some of those people who were shot with those calibers are still in prison, serving out their life sentences. The shooters are still permanent residents of the cemeteries where they were interred, lo, those many years ago.
    As I have stated more than once, these calibers are more dangerous to the shooter than the shootee. The shooter is more likely to end up dead than the shootee when using these calibers as real weapons of self-defense. They are inadequate as weapons, of any kind, good only for recreational purposes, to go plinking with, not as a self-defense tool.

  10. Old saying – Not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. Other old saying – A solid hit with a .25 ACP is better than a miss with a .45 ACP. IF you need to use your firearm, remember that most felons have no remorse to harm, or even kill you. Also, the maximum distance you can put 5 shots into a 4″ circle should be considered you effective “fighting” distance. Once bullets start coming back at you, precision accuracy goes out the window. Still, training should be a major consideration. When LEOs still used revolvers, many were wounded or even killed because they would drop the empty rounds into their hand, so as to not litter the gun range. Today, some LEOs are still taught to retain their empty magazines. Empties or magazines dropped on the ground should never be given a second thought.

  11. I have a shot gun for bed side gun but when I carry I use my old smith and Wesson 640 38 cal love this gun

  12. Internal motivation is all fine and good but legal,non violent replacement of the tyrants in both parties,the media,bug pharma,academia
    is the bottom line!

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