Handgun Retention Training

As I write this, we are gearing up for a class next week that is for the most advanced students of Mas Ayoob's Lethal Force Institute. By the end of the seven-day course, the participants will have completed a number of different firearms qualifications that require rapid, smooth and confident operation of their chosen handgun. They will also participate in other types of training, designed to test their mental response to tactical situations. But the one activity that many find the most challenging is that at the end of the week. They will be teaching a group of local law enforcement officers the critical, potentially lifesaving skill of handgun retention.

The students will themselves be instructor candidates, and every one of them knows that his or her "students" will be going in harm's way the next time they put on their uniform. When you stop and think about it, that's an awesome responsibility. How well they communicate their knowledge can protect, or endanger, someone who faces danger on their behalf. Each of our students has been learning handgun retention techniques during at least two prior LFI classes. We introduce them to handgun retention skills for a very important reason. These folks are mostly ordinary citizens, some police, some military, who regularly carry a handgun. We, of course, train them in the proper use of such weapons, should the need arise. But we also discuss the responsibility that goes with the decision to be armed in our society. We tell them that there is one immutable "law" for which they must accept responsibility: "There is always at least one gun present...YOURS!"

This holds true for law enforcement personnel as well. So we believe that a critical part of any officer's training is to be able to control his or her own weapon. Every year, about ten percent of the officers who are shot have their own gun used against them. That alone should motivate everyone involved in police training to make sure officers are effectively trained in handgun retention techniques. The equipment suppliers have been constantly improving the retention features of the holsters they manufacture for uniform, plainclothes and even off-duty use. But engineering can only accomplish so much. Officers need to learn retention skills.

Bambi vs. Godzilla

The techniques that I feel are most effective are based on leverage principles. The reason I feel that way is because leverage-based techniques address what Mas Ayoob calls the "Bambi vs. Godzilla" rule. A person who is smaller or does not posses the physical strength of their opponent must still be able to defeat any attempt to grab their gun and turn it against them or others. Leverage, properly applied, will accomplish that.

There are many techniques currently taught that involve either impact or the use of some other tool to counter the gun grab. Most rely on pain or physical injury. They certainly CAN work. The thing is, in a potentially life or death struggle, whatever you're doing MUST work. If you are striking a part of your opponent's body with a part of your body, which one will "break" first? If you incapacitate yourself before you have controlled your gun, you lose. If you are attacking your opponent with a tool, such as a club, knife, spray, TASER, etc., your attention is now directed in at least two different directions: hanging onto the gun AND doing another task. This can distract you from the primary objective: Keep the Gun!

Many of the leverage techniques were developed by Jim Lindell, when he was the Chief of Defensive Tactics Training for the Kansas City Regional Police Academy. He began his research in 1975 and began training officers with these techniques in 1976. Massad Ayoob visited the KCRPA in 1977 and began studying Lindell's program. After learning those methods and being certified to teach them, Mas began to refine the techniques, based on experimentation and comparing them with similar martial arts techniques that could be adapted to the task. Over time, some were changed, some were dropped altogether and some new techniques were developed. This is still an ongoing process.

The important measure is still the Bambi vs. Godzilla test. Many cops tend to be physical beings and see themselves as Godzilla. Or, at least they want to prove that they can be Godzilla. Officers who spend any time on the street, however, find out that there is always someone bigger, or stronger, or meaner, or just psychologically or chemically "enhanced" beyond any cognitive pain threshold. And those are the ones who are likely to want to take your gun. You need to focus your maximum strength on one task at a time, do it smoothly and effectively, and then move on.

Retention--Gun and Knowledge

How complicated are leverage techniques to learn? Well, our class next week will last a full eight hours. It will also include practice on disarming, using the same principles. There are cases, particularly in close quarters confrontations with an armed opponent, when it is easier to take their gun away than it is to access your own--if you know how.

Periodic refresher training, at least annually, is important. When Mas Ayoob was studying Jim Lindell's methods, he interviewed officers at the KCRPA who were returning for annual refresher training. He was able to question them before they refreshed, and observed that, although the officers did not retain all the fine points, they were able to remember enough to make the techniques work. The biggest stumbling block I've seen seems to be that officers want to revert to brute force whenever they are attacked. I've seen officers who, on their own time, trained in martial arts at the local dojo. But, when some bozo on the street attacked them, they got into a "wrasslin' match," rolling around on the ground and trading punches. I suppose there's some primal psychological forces at work there. But, for me, having been like the "before" picture in the Charles Atlas advertisements for most of my life, I just want to keep control and get it over with. Leverage will do that.

And now, a few words about safety. Safety precautions that ensure that there are no live weapons or ammunition in the training environment are mandatory. Departments should consider investing in some dummy guns that will fit their duty holsters. If real guns are used, they MUST be effectively disabled before they can be used for training. We have a procedure that involves taping up triple-checked unloaded duty guns. Others may remove barrels and firing pins from old guns that are no longer in service. The key is they have to be identifiable as "safe" training guns. And, there can be no practicing allowed outside of the training environment with any gun that can still function as a firearm. In other words, no locker room: "Hey, just show me that move real quick" kind of thing. Loaded guns find their way into such situations and tragedy follows.

In a time when department firearms training budgets are stressed by high ammo prices and sometimes short supplies, incorporating other aspects of firearms training, such as handgun retention, is a good, less expensive way to work on other essential firearms skills. The biggest investment in handgun retention training is the time it takes to practice. About a day of initial training, then a few hours for a periodic refresher, and officers can have real confidence in their ability to keep control of the deadly weapon they carry every day--the one weapon that is always present.