Up Close and Personal: Handgun Tactics for Self-Defense

Dark alleys. Abandoned buildings. Empty parks after the lights go out. Burglars, muggers, rapists, and the underbelly of society that feeds from the lawful prowl, intent on doing harm, taking advantage of the meek, and exacting a hefty price in the meantime. When escape isn’t an option, when the police are a phone call too far away, and when imminent danger has breached your personal space, self-defense is the only option.

You can find yourself suddenly fighting for your life, even in the most peaceful neighborhoods. Add escalating factors such as natural disasters, civil unrest or widespread economic hardships and the dangers are heightened. You’ve read all of the articles recommending which firearms to buy. You’ve made your choice, purchased a handgun and maybe shot it a few times at the range. Now what are some of the tactics you’ll need to know to survive a deadly encounter?

First understand that no article, including this one, is a substitute for training. You need to train and review your tactics regularly. You need to learn from those who have been there and done that. I’m merely going to give you some things to consider.


Have you given much thought to how you’re going to carry your handgun? The climate and the type of clothes can affect your decision, but don’t make the mistake of choosing the way you carry your gun exclusively on the basis of comfort and convenience.

Each carry method has advantages and drawbacks. For instance, small-of-the-back carry will enable you to conceal a larger handgun, but it can be uncomfortable when seated in an automobile, can cause spinal injuries if you’re thrown off your feet and you land on it, and might be hard to deploy if surprised from the rear.

> The bellyband holster is one option for concealing a handgun. While this holster holds the gun in place well, it can be uncomfortable in hot weather  > A pocket holster is an easy way to conceal a small handgun. The drawback of this carry method is that it’s more difficult to get at your handgun while seated in a vehicle.> The hip holster is a tried and true way to carry a handgun other than the largest hunting handguns. Choose a holster that offers a good retention system, such as this inexpensive Tactical Reflex holster from Uncle Mike’s.

Shoulder holsters can be a good choice when seated in an automobile if your draw isn’t impeded by your seat belt. I used to prefer a shoulder holster when riding a motorcycle. The downside of these rigs is they require a jacket to conceal them, and they can become uncomfortable if the straps aren’t adjusted just right. Ankle holsters sometimes seem like a good idea because they conceal well, but have you ever tried to run with one on your leg? It can also be difficult to get to your gun, especially if you are fending off an attacker at the same time.

Cross-draw rigs are also good when riding in an automobile, but in close quarters while fending off an attacker, you are either exposing your gun side or risk getting your arm pinned to your body when you attempt to draw your weapon.


Dominant-side hip carry is the quickest and easiest to learn and, with a good retention holster, can be defended well in close quarters. This method is harder to conceal and it’s been my experience that the gun and holster get knocked into things more often. Belly band holsters can be an effective way to conceal a gun, but they can be uncomfortable in hot weather.

One way to get to your gun from its ankle holster is to lunge forward, taking a big step. While lifting your pant leg with one hand, you retrieve your gun with the other. This can be difficult if your attacker is within contact distance
One way to get to your gun from its ankle holster is to lunge forward, taking a big step. While lifting your pant leg with one hand, you retrieve your gun with the other. This can be difficult if your attacker is within contact distance
An ankle holster may be an effective way to conceal a small handgun, but it’s awkward if you have to run while wearing it.

Women might opt for thigh carry when wearing a skirt. There are holsters now for small guns that attach to the front of a bra too. Both methods can make it difficult to get to your gun and during a struggle can put other ideas into an attacker’s mind. Worse yet is when a woman opts to simply place the gun in her handbag. There’s a good chance an attacker is after that handbag. Do you really want him to have your wallet and your gun? The same goes for keeping a weapon in a backpack when you’re on the move. You don’t want the bad guy to get your weapon and your supplies. On your body is the best place for your gun.

My preferred carry method is in the waistband. Yes, you still need an additional cover garment or you can opt to go casual with your shirt untucked. With in-the-waistband carry the gun doesn’t bump into things all day long. It can be drawn easily under stress and can be defended well in a close-quarters attack.


Odds are that if you find yourself in a lethal conflict, you’ll be so close you’ll be able to smell your attacker’s bad breath and sweaty armpits

Deploying your gun can be a tricky endeavor depending on the circumstances and often requires split-second decision-making. Drawing your gun too early because you merely suspect a threat could mean trouble. And you don’t always want to let people know you are armed.


If you draw your gun too late, there might be a physical struggle for your weapon and that could mean bigger trouble. If you can’t maintain a safe distance to either retreat or draw your weapon, you have to be prepared to fend off an attacker with one hand while drawing your weapon with the other. Don’t make the mistake of carrying your gun with an empty chamber because you think it’s “safer.” It’s not.


Distance is one of the most important factors in surviving a gunfight. The bad guy might be drugged-up and shaky, untrained or simply just as scared as you are. Still, if he is close enough to touch you, chances are great that he can put a shot in your vitals.

Create a few feet of distance, however, and our shaky gunman might make peripheral, nonlethal hits or miss you entirely. Better yet, move so there are obstacles between your attackers and you.

The engine block of your vehicle can provide better cover than the thin metal of its doors. The tires too can help protect you from bullets that might bounce under the car toward you.

Sometimes, when an attacker is upon you and he’s drawing his own weapon, you can distract him or slow him down by striking out with one hand to his face or throat as you step back to draw your own weapon. This movement, practiced by police as the “shove-and-shoot” drill, puts your opponent off balance, gives you time to deploy your weapon and creates some distance between the two of you.

There are no guarantees. It’s always possible that an untrained adversary can make a lucky shot and that could be very unlucky for you. Create as much distance as you can. Stay on the move until you find cover or until you put the bad guy down. If you forget everything else, this can increase your odds of surviving the encounter.


Sometimes having a handgun can give you a false sense of security. Despite what you see on television, you don’t want to be standing out in the open, exchanging bullets with the bad guys. Practicing at a typical shooting range can set you up for failure. Think about it. At the range, you stand up straight and tall. You draw your gun, stand perfectly still and concentrate on aiming at the target.

Fending off an aggressive passenger can be difficult from the driver’s seat if you’re right-handed. A good option is to keep a firearm accessible where you can reach it with your left hand.

This is fine when you’re working on your shooting fundamentals such as sight picture and trigger control. It can also get you killed because it can condition you to stay put when you should be moving quickly to cover. Find a place to practice moving as you draw your weapon. If regulations prevent you from doing that at your range, practice in your home with an empty weapon.

Cover is defined as anything that will stop a bullet before it gets to you. Many times what you think is cover offers only concealment. Keep in mind, interior walls and doors, furniture and car doors will often allow a bullet to pass right through.

You’ll have a big advantage if you can get to cover before the fireworks begin and you can pick your spot to defend, such as when you are upstairs in your home and you hear an intruder below. Knowing your cover options ahead of time and choosing a vantage point that gives you the edge, is much better than wandering through your dark house playing hide and seek with a burglar who might be armed.

In the event of an extended emergency situation, “home” may be wherever you set up camp. Always choose a spot you think you can defend if necessary.

When you’re on the move outdoors, if you are alert enough to spot a possible threat but there’s no opportunity to avoid it or to retreat, look for places where you might be able to dive for cover – that huge tree, boulder or concrete wall – in the event things escalate into a lethal confrontation.

>One way to fend off an attacker is to thrust or shove your non-shooting hand to his face or throat. Don’t leave your hand out there where he can grab it. >As you complete the “shove” to the attacker, take a big step backwards as you begin to draw your weapon.


Don’t let the bad guys get your gun. Most confrontations don’t start out as lethal encounters. Arguments deteriorate into physical conflicts – pushing and shoving, wrestling, fist fights. If you’re carrying a firearm and you are pulled into one of these situations, you don’t want your opponent to grab your gun and use it against you.

Start with a holster that has a good retention system. Remember, those aren’t foolproof. Lacking that, try to conceal your gun where it’s not easily seen as a weapon of opportunity by someone in the heat of the moment.

You complete the move by getting your gun on target. This “shove and shoot” tactic is an effective way to put an attacker off balance, buying you the time to draw your weapon and create some distance.

Having a knife as a backup weapon to slash at an attacker can save your life if there’s a struggle for your gun. If it’s absolutely necessary to move room to room or around places of cover where an attacker could be lurking, don’t lead with your firearm extended at arm’s’ length. Keep your handgun pointed ahead, but close to your chest where it can’t be easily grabbed by someone around the corner.


A vehicle that runs is often the best way to escape an emergency situation or devastated area. For that reason, desperate people might do you harm to take your vehicle away from you. Be prepared to defend it.

The first rule is to be very careful who you let in your vehicle. If you are in the driver’s seat and are right-handed, it can be difficult to draw your gun to defend yourself without it being grabbed in those close confines by an adversary seated next to you. And you are at the mercy of a backseat passenger with ill intent.

Consider stowing an additional weapon between your seat and the door that you can access with your left hand. Threats from the outside can’t always be handled by just driving away. If you are blocked in, you are basically a sitting duck. Those who might want to smash your windows, drag you out and take what you have might be dissuaded by the sight of your gun.

If you’re being fired upon, however, you have to be prepared to fight your way out. Don’t count on your doors to stop a bullet. Once you are out of your car, your vehicle’s engine block might provide the best available cover nearby. Your wheels can provide extra protection as well from bullets that may bounce off the pavement toward your legs.


Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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