guile / ɡīl / noun: sly or cunning intelligence. “He used all his guile and guts to free himself from the muddle he was in.”-Oxford Languages
“Humans are more important than hardware.”-SOF Truth #1, United States Special Operations Command
Americans are gadget people. Always have been. We invent, create, and build gadgets to increase efficiency and convenience in our lives. This is generally a good thing, but at times the tail wags the dog. By that I mean that often times when we encounter a problem or obstacle, our immediate instinct is to search high and low for the gadget that will solve the problem for us. The reason is obvious: If my two choices are to solve the problem through effort and learning, or buying a gadget, buying a gadget is almost always going to be easier, faster, and more fun. Who doesn’t like new toys, am I right? Acquiring cool new toys is fun.
On the other hand, cultivating positive attributes, and building knowledge and skills is hard, tedious, and humbling. Developing “sly and cunning intelligence,” the ability to make optimal choices about how to use those gadgets, and when and where to use them to greatest effect is often painful and unpleasant. Like many tasks which are hard and humbling, the temptation to ignore and rationalize avoidance of difficulty and humility is powerful, and if we surrender to it, it can easily lead us down the path of failure. “Humans are more important than hardware,” simply means that it’s people who are formidable and effective, and hardware merely enhances their formidability and effectiveness. A subtle distinction, but in my opinion a very important one.
As they used to say in my old organization, “The cool gear doesn’t make the man. The man makes the gear cool.”
Kilt In Da Streetz
When I was a young man in my early 20s, just starting out on my journey as an armed citizen, I wondered, “What caliber, type, and brand of ammo should I carry?” These were the nascent days of internet message boards, gun magazines still wielded considerable influence, and it was easy to find contradictory information everywhere you looked. So I pored over the study of terminal ballistics, (What bullets do once they arrive at their terminal resting place-a body.). I just knew the .45 ACP was the cartridge to carry, and had a number of .45 caliber pistols reflecting that certainty, ranging from 1911s to Gen 3 Glocks to an early Springfield XD (Don’t judge me.).
However, I struggled and wrestled with which brand and bullet weight of hollow points to carry, and with each piece of information I could glean from any source, I’d change my mind. Some days I was certain that 230 grain Federal Hydra-Shoks were the answer, then I’d realize what a fool I’d been and buy Cor-Bon 185 grain JHP or DPX +P loads, or 230 grain Speer Gold Dots or Remington Golden Sabers or PMC Starfires. Then two weeks later I’d switch again. I was worried, with varying mixtures of consciousness and unconsciousness, that if I chose the wrong load I was going to lose my gunfight because of insufficient ammo. That sounds silly when typed out that way, but I assure you the feeling was very real, and from what I can gather very common among armed citizens who take the matter seriously. The internet message board saying, now a memetic joke, is that if you’re not carrying or using XYZ, you will get “kilt in da streetz.”
Instead of worrying about getting slain in the thoroughfare due to my poor ammo choices, what I should have been doing? I should have been less worried about what round was in my gun, and instead training more to put whatever round I had loaded precisely where I wanted it to go. Fortunately, bullet technology has come a long way in the last 20 years, as has our general study of terminal ballistics. Here’s a couple things I’ve learned:
- Among the non-large-bore-magnum pistol rounds popular for self-defense (.38 SPL, .357 Mag, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP), there really isn’t that much difference. Some of you will want to go to the comments and protest that your preferred caliber is the only choice. Stop it. (*reaches for spray bottle*)
- Non-large-bore-magnum pistol rounds are weak sauce, compared to large-bore-magnum pistol rounds and centerfire rifle rounds. Pistol rounds just sort of poke holes in people and not much else, and thus without poking a hole in the central nervous system or the heart and lungs pump-works high in the torso, those holes aren’t going to have the effect you think they will.
What’s that mean? It means that the real answer isn’t to choose the right caliber. The answer is to take a caliber and load that you shoot well, and put the rounds precisely where you want them over and over and over until the lethal threat has ended. That’s an armed citizen’s best chance to discourage an attacker from sustaining their use of lethal force. Marksmanship skill is far more important than ammo choice.
Hardware vs. Software
You see, I was worried about hardware, meaning gear, when I should have been more worried about software, meaning attributes, knowledge, and skills. Make no mistake: A baseline of quality, reliable gear does matter. Lifesaving gear that is reliable is a must. However, beyond reliability and baseline function of hardware, well cultivated attributes, knowledge, and skills are what will carry the day. This seems so evident, yet we overlook it constantly. I play guitar a bit, but I’m not going to blow anyone’s doors off with my axe skills. If you were to give me Eric Clapton’s nicest guitar, and gave him an $80 pawn-shop Fender Squire, who do you suppose is going to sound better? I’d put my money on Slowhand, regardless of gear. Likewise, you could give me the nicest and fanciest race pistol in existence, but if I’m shooting any kind of test of marksmanship against guys like Jerry Miculek, Rob Leatham, or Ben Stoeger (Note: Those are Eric Clapton-level pistol shooters.) with bone stock $400 pistols, I’m getting whipped convincingly.
It’s pretty clear that technical skill is important, but savvy, guile, and judgment are perhaps the paramount assets we should be striving to develop. I’m a relatively big, physically imposing guy. I can fight and shoot passably well compared to the general populace. None of that does me any good if I’m pumping gas with my head buried in my phone and a 120 lb crackhead fractures my skull with a tire iron, or if I let a carjacker get close enough to me to put his screwdriver to my throat because he feigned that he was selling tire and wheel cleaner as he approached me in a parking lot. My sub-1.2 second draw to first shot or 0.2 second split times (time between shots) aren’t helpful if I don’t understand when I am legally permitted to use lethal force. If I execute that draw to first shot and split times in a legally and morally unjustifiable manner, I’m just rushing to jail-time. In fact, being ignorant and wrong with lots of speed is probably worse than just being wrong, because it’s a lot harder to get on the brakes in time.
Let’s define a couple important terms when discussing knowledge and skills: “technical” and “tactical.” The word “tactical” is especially abused these days, as it seems everything from sunglasses to toilet paper are marketed as “tactical.” Technical: How to perform a task. Simple. Tactical=tactics: What task to perform, where, when, and why. Tell your friends to stop calling their coffee mug “tactical.” Put another way: Technical skill is how a person moves their body to perform a task. Tactical Skill is when a person makes decisions and takes actions in a given situation to gain an advantage.
Making a List, Checking It Twice…
Here’s a list of some gadgets a citizen serious about self-defense could purchase to carry daily:
- Handheld flashlight
- Less-lethal tool such as OC/pepper spray
- Life-saving medical gear (ex: tourniquet, pressure dressing, chest seal)
- Reliable handgun with adequate sights and manageable trigger
- Quality holster
- Small fixed-blade knife
Fortunately, in most places in America you could pick nearly all of the above up in an afternoon, budget permitting.* That’s easy and fun, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that once we have the gadgets we’re “ready.” I generally have all of the above about my person, but that alone is insufficient.
*Most quality holster makers, like PHLster, Dark Star Gear, JM Custom Kydex, Henry Holsters, and Tenicor aren’t stocked in gun shops and sporting goods stores (where the holster selections are typically suboptimal). So it may take a few days to a couple weeks to get your quality holster in via internet order.
Now, here are some knowledge, skills, and attributes in which a citizen serious about self-defense should cultivate proficiency or understanding:
- Baseline technical skill with all the above tools
- Laws on use of force
- Understanding what constitutes realistic violent threats in the context of your lifestyle
- How to pay attention and what to pay attention to
- Pre-assault indicators
- Verbals skills to seize initiative in interactions and steer or de-escalate as needed
- Empty-handed fighting skills
- Physical fitness
- Timing (When to do the thing)
- Spatial intelligence (When to: seek cover, create distance, close, or “stand and deliver”)
- Poise (Ability to remain calm, think coherently, and act intelligently under duress)
Do you think perhaps it will take a bit more time and effort to develop the knowledge and skills than it will to acquire the tools? I think so too. In my work with Citizens Defense Research, teaching applied violence concepts to the public, I codify the goals for virtually any self-defense scenario to be, sequentially: avoid, deter, recognize, prevail. Notice that gear, and to large degree technical skill, only really come into play if the software programs of avoidance, deterrence, and recognition partially or wholly fail, and we need to go into the prevail phase. The better you upgrade your software of tactical awareness, judgment, and “soft-skills” like verbal agility, mental poise, etc., the lower the likelihood you’ll need your hardware and “hard-skills” like take-down defense, striking, shooting, etc.
I understand that gear is fun, and I like fun. I like gear. Cool gadgets are…cool. I certainly have my share of cool gadgets and superfluously upgraded tools and gear. Still, we must always be mindful for whether or not we are cultivating those soft skills that, at best forestall the need to use our hard skills and gear, or at worst enable us to use our hard skills and gear prudently and expertly to protect ourselves and our loved ones. We must never forget that our most useful gadget rests between our ears, and we should continually upgrade it as eagerly as we do the other gadgets upon which we depend.