Gun Retention: Retaining your advantage when you need it most

It’s the defensive shooter’s nightmare. You’re in that difficult moment you’ve trained for, the one where your gun is drawn for valid legal and ethical reasons. It’s a bad dude standing before you, perhaps in your house or your business, and you genuinely fear for your life and the life of those around you.

You think you are in control of the situation. But suddenly, your gun is in his hands. You’re not sure what happened. There was a quick step and a flick of wrists. A bullet went into the ceiling. Your wrist aches, and you are pretty sure your trigger finger is broken. Your life is about to get a whole lot worse, however.

For the record, Jason Bourne didn’t take your gun away. It’s much more likely that your assailant has street smarts, acquired in a gang, the penitentiary, or maybe even at a commercial karate school. You simply made a mistake he was trained to recognize.  Now let’s talk about not making that mistake…

Shifting Viewpoints

My understanding of the techniques surrounding gun retention began from the muzzle end. Back in the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s, I worked as a crime reporter in East Tennessee and Atlanta, Ga., an occupation that allowed me to see the aftermath of real-world gun usage by both the good guys and the bad guys. Parallel to this career, I also was a karate instructor.

In the early ‘90s, these two parts of my world converged as I began to notice a disturbing trend: crime victims who were shot by their armed attackers despite offering no resistance to the criminal’s demands. I also noticed that several of the survivors reported they had a sense they were about to be shot. When the gun went off, they weren’t surprised; some were shot after dropping to the ground in a defensive fetal posture.

The standard advice in many karate schools at the time was to cooperate with a gun-toting assailant. The risk of engaging with a gun pointed at you seemed too high. It became clear, however, that we, as karate instructors, needed to spend more time dealing with how to take a gun away when intuition screamed, “I’m about to be shot.” Good martial arts technique just seemed preferable to curling in a ball and hoping the bullet would miss vital organs.

Hours of training with dummy guns and cap guns taught us something surprising—it’s always a risky move, but when circumstances are right, taking a firearm away from someone can be a relatively easy thing to do.

I am also, however, someone who values firearms as a way for weaker, moral people to fend off stronger, immoral thugs and as such I now want to jump around to the grip end of the gun, and discuss how you can avoid the takeaway that could cost you everything. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume your weapon is drawn and you are beginning with some control of the situation, along the lines of what was described at the opening of this article.

Location, Location, Location

Distance is everything. People without training are often shocked at how rapidly someone with minimal training can close distance. At a bare minimum, if you are trying to hold someone at bay, you want to keep that person at least two large steps away from you. By that, I mean two of your attacker’s large steps—if he’s 6 feet tall and you’re 5 feet tall, allow for the difference.

Remember, you are pointing a firearm at the person for a valid reason. Your life is threatened. If your assailant attempts to close the two-step gap, his attack is underway. Establish your distance and use your voice to draw the line clearly: “Stay where you are. No closer or I fire. No closer!” Order the attacker to his knees and then face down on the ground. If he doesn’t comply, again, the attack is underway.

When I was learning to take a gun away from someone, my first goal was to close within a step, even if I had to cry, shake or throw up to seem less threatening. Once within a step, I was nearly always successful, even though my training partners knew I was coming for the gun.

Firm, Two-Handed Grip

Shooters learn a two-handed grip largely for accuracy’s sake, but a two-handed grip also aids mightily in gun retention. Most gun takeaway techniques rely on the bad guy grasping as much gun and as little gun hand as possible and then quickly rotating the muzzle against the natural movement of wrist and fingers.

If the attacker understands how to also use footwork and body movement to get out of the line of fire while executing the takeaway, the technique can happen faster than the shooter can reflexively fire. Grabbing the gun in certain ways can even keep it from firing, by taking the slide out of battery or interfering with the drop of an exposed hammer, for example. Two hands simply make it much more difficult for an assailant to grasp the gun and rotate it against wrist and fingers. He’s not going to want to be in a wrestling match with you—he’s on the muzzle end, and he’s going to get shot.

Keep It Close

What if you have to hold the gun one-handed, perhaps to dial a phone or guard a child? Well, don’t hold it straight out, like you’re taking target practice at the range in 1954. Keep the gun close to your body; practice firing it while it is braced against your body.

I’ve found that I’m firing level if the wrist of my shooting hand is pressed into the bottom of my rib cage, giving me a good “memory point” I can go to reflexively. From there, I can point shoot the kill zone of a silhouette target with relative ease out to about 10 feet. You don’t see a lot of people practicing in such a way at the range, but it’s a good exercise, provided you keep careful track of your non-shooting hand.

And even if you have two hands on the weapon, close to the body is a strong position to go to if your assailant moves toward you suddenly. You’re likely going to be firing at point-blank, anyway.

These are just the basics, but following them will go a long way toward keeping your gun in your hands. In the future, I’ll offer some additional techniques for use when your assailant comes at you hard, disregarding the firearm in your hand.