In the blog entry below this, you’ll see a retrospective on a helicopter crash a couple of years ago, with links to discussions on it at the time. You’ll also find what we didn’t have then: the Go-Pro camera’s recording of the crash, and how quickly and unexpectedly it happened.
A profound lesson from it relates to the third of the now-standard Four Rules of Firearms Safety created long ago by the late Col. Jeff Cooper – so long ago, apparently, that some today neglect to give Cooper credit for creating them.
Rule Three was to keep the finger off the trigger until one’s gunsights were on target. Today we go a little more depth into that; I for one teach it as “Keep the finger outside the trigger guard until you are in the very act of intentionally discharging the weapon.” In any sort of moving vehicle, that’s all the more critical…and in a small helicopter aloft in the wind, it’s even more so.
When the aircraft went down, there were three fully loaded hunting handguns on board, two of them holstered; only John Strayer’s was drawn. He was the one who had spotted the first quarry of what none of us could have known was going to be a shorter day of hunting than we expected, and his gun was appropriately drawn and ready. It was a Smith & Wesson Model 29 Mountain Gun, a relatively lightweight .44 Magnum loaded with powerful, deep-penetrating hunting ammo. Powerful enough that if it had unintentionally discharged in the wrong direction, it was totally capable of killing both the man on his immediate right (the pilot) and the man to his right, which would have been me.
It was John who was wearing the Go-Pro camera, and if you look closely, as the Hiller was coming over the copse of trees looking for the hog he had spotted, there’s an instant where he glances down and the camera catches his .44.
You can see that the double-action revolver is in his right hand. The hammer has not been cocked. His gloved left hand (it was cold in that open-side-cockpit helicopter on a January morning, even in Florida, with the wind coming through) is securing the gun in place, grasping it around frame and cylinder.
Then, the rotors hit the trees and the aircraft went down. (Helicopters, it turns out, don’t have much of a glide path.) At about the instant of final impact or just before, what may have been a reflexive reaction to the rotors hitting the treetops caused John to reflexively duck his head, where the Go-Pro was mounted, and the camera catches a very brief glimpse his revolver in hand.
John Strayer’s hand, still holding the .44 Magnum, was driven through the front of the cabin’s Plexiglas bubble by the impact, the jagged shards cutting his hand to the bone, including both the middle finger (primary grasping digit) and the trigger finger.
THE GUN NEVER DISCHARGED.
This photo, taken shortly after the crash, shows the severe damage Strayer’s hand sustained. John is grasping that very gun, with his index finger along the frame, as it was through the crash, and after, until he was able to exit the wreckage and re-holster.
Let’s review Col. Cooper’s rules, not exactly word for word but close enough:
Rule 1: Every gun is loaded. (Even if you’re sure it isn’t, treat it as if it was. Strayer’s most certainly WAS.)
Rule 2: Do not point it at anything you are not prepared to destroy. (Strayer never let his gun come inside 90 degrees toward his partners. The muzzle of his S&W did punch through the “bubble” of the cockpit, but that part, along with the rest of the bird, was destroyed by other forces in about the same fraction of a second by forces beyond his control, so…)
Rule 3: Do not let your finger inside the trigger guard until your sights are on target. Or, ideally, until you are in the very act of intentionally firing. Here, I think, is the most telling lesson of this particular incident: Strayer’s self-discipline in this regard was simply extraordinary.
Rule 4: Be certain of your target and that which is beyond it. (John Strayer had that under control, too.)
John Strayer is not, by any means, just “a guy with a gun.” He owns a gun shop. He has won more shooting matches and championships than he can remember. In the International Defensive Pistol Association, he is one of about only a couple of dozen people who’ve earned “Five Gun Master” status, out of more than 20,000 registered competitors.
And he is a “poster boy” for firearms safety, as at least one reader of this blog has already pretty much said before now.
Somewhere, I like to think, Col. Jeff Cooper is reflecting on this, and smiling…
An attorney friend wrote me this morning to say, “… been following your blog, great stuff. Forgive my crass, sniveling, pond-scum lawyer attitude BUT, you ought to be plugging Deadly Force in the blog to boost sales …”
Which does, frankly, make sense. My new book “Deadly Force: Understanding Your Right to Self-Defense,” just came out. So far, according to Amazon, it’s doing well, and listed as their best-seller in its category.
I grovel in gratitude to my beautiful and long-suffering editor, Corrina Peterson, who managed to get it out in time for Christmas.
It’s actually my third book this year, all from the same publisher (FW Media, the Gun Digest folks). The earlier two are “Gun Safety in the Home” and “Gun Digest Book of SIG-Sauer,” second edition.
One more class to finish this week and another mid-month, and the old guy here is gonna kick back for Christmas.
And if anyone says, “OMG, you self-promoting SOB,” well, I guess I can honestly reply, “I did it on the advice of a lawyer.”
A few weeks ago in Arkansas, I was teaching a 40-hour class for armed citizens and off duty cops. The course finishes with a tough written exam on deadly force law and tactics, and a 60-shot live fire qualification encompassing dominant hand only, non-dominant hand only, speed reloads, shooting from cover positions, and cetera. Before the students shoot, the staff runs a “pace-setter”: we shoot the timed course of fire while they watch, so they can get a good mental image of what the stances and techniques they’re expected to perform look like, and how fast they’ll have to do it to score well. Given that there are fixed time limits, this also lets the observers kinda “set their internal clock.” Part of the incentive is, whatever score I shoot, if the student ties me they get an autographed dollar bill inscribed, “You tied me at my own game,” and if they outshoot me, they earn an autographed five-dollar bill that says, “You beat me at my own game.”
Nothing makes me prouder of my students than giving them one of those dollar bills. I confess, however, to mixed feelings about having to pay out a fiver. On the one hand, as I tell them beforehand, there’s no greater compliment a student can pay an instructor than to outperform the teacher in the skill being taught. On the other hand, there’s the personal excoriation of “Oh, crap, I blew it!”
I normally shoot it with a perfect 300 out of 300 points score, as I damn well should, having run this course for decades. But – less than half an hour after telling them to stay at a “conscious competence” level and think about every shot as they’re squeezing it off, I violated my own rule and let myself slip into the “unconscious competence” mode sometimes called “automatic pilot.” The sight alignment was hard and solid from the fifteen yard line, but my stance wasn’t quite perfect for natural point of aim apparently, and about the time that I saw the well-aligned sights had drifted to the right and realized that I was automatically pressing the trigger, there was a very brief instant when I thought, “The sights need to come more left but my finger is pressing the trigger and” — BANG!
The sights told me the story before I saw the bullet hole: I had broken the shot prematurely with the gun aligned to 3 o’clock of where I needed the shot to go, and that was exactly where the 230 grain Winchester .45 ACP hardball bullet hit…just outside the maximum 5-point zone and into the four-point zone. I did what I should have done beforehand, and turned off the auto pilot and went back to conscious competence – thinking about what I was doing. The rest of the shots went center, but I finished with a 299 out of 300…and yes, that cost me more than one five-dollar bill.
The “snub-nose .38” revolver, dating back to the Colt Detective Special of 1926, is a standard prop in noir movies. Most see it as an urban gun, something to hide under the suit in the dangerous streets of the big cities. However, country folk like ‘em too. Where I live nowadays, I often spot one in the jeans pocket of a workin’ man, or even the front chest pouch of a farmer’s overalls (where it’s pretty handy to get to, actually).
A general rule of little guns is that “they’re easy to carry, but hard to shoot.” A Google or Amazon search should get you to some useful advice, such as the book “The Snubby Revolver” by my old friend Ed Lovette, who has “been there and done that.” Now we can add a small but meaty booklet by an old friend, Michael deBethencourt.
A lifelong martial artist, Michael is best known for his expertise with two weapons: the knife, with which he has developed his own simple, primal, and highly effective series of techniques, and the short-barrel revolver. The reading matter in question is titled “Thirty Eight Straight Tips for Better Snub Shooting.” The short-barrel Smith & Wesson .38 depicted on the cover sits under a fedora from the snub-nose .38’s heyday, appropriately enough.
While Michael and I differ on some things, as all instructors do – speed reload techniques for the revolver, in this case – brother deBethencourt gives you advice you can take to the bank. I’ve been in this game for a long time, and I learned some new stuff from “Thirty Eight Tips.” For instance, I hadn’t realized the JetLoader people (Buffer Technologies at www.buffertech.com) were making their super-fast loader for the J-frame Smith & Wesson. I immediately ordered three, and they’ve become my new favorite speedloader for these little five-shot .38s and .357 Magnums.
You can order Michael’s monograph at http://snubtraining.com/thirty-eight-straight-tips-for-better-snub-shooting/, and you can get info on his excellent training at snubtraining.com. In addition to knowing his stuff and imparting it superbly, Michael is a funny guy who uses his humor positively as “enter-train-ment,” and genuinely cares about his students. He embodies something I learned from one of my mentors, the supercop Col. Robert Lindsey, and have shared with instructors I’ve trained ever since. “We are not God’s gift to our students…our students are God’s gift to us.”
Three weeks ago today, on Sunday June 8, I was in the fourth day of a MAG-40 class in Kankakee, Illinois. Among other topics of the day, I warned the students that one of the dangers of armed intervention was “tailgunners,” criminal accomplices who cover their “point man” while pretending to be shoppers, and will assassinate anyone who interferes with their fellow thugs. That same day, some 1800 miles away, that scenario was acted out with tragic results.
A vicious psycho couple walked into a pizza joint where two Las Vegas Metro officers were taking a meal break, and ambushed and murdered them. Taking the slain officers’ pistols and spare ammo, they made their way to a nearby WalMart. The male of the pair fired a shot into the ceiling and ordered everyone out. One armed citizen, Joseph Wilcox, drew his own Glock and moved toward the gunman. The tailgunner, the gunman’s wife, sidled up beside Wilcox and shot him dead. The two nutcases then shot it out with police, and died.
I’ve waited this long to address it because it takes that long for the facts to shake out. Early reports said one of the first two officers returned fire and wounded one of the perps; turns out that wasn’t true. Early reports said the armed citizen was female, and had wounded one of the cop-killers; turns out, no and no. First reports said the female psycho killed her husband and then herself; later reports say a police bullet killed him and she didn’t shoot him at all, though she did put a slug in her own head after being anchored by a police bullet in the final gunfight.
No one with a three-digit IQ has blamed officers Alyn Beck and Igor Soldo for their own deaths: they were bushwhacked suddenly and without discernible warning. Not so the private citizen, Joseph Wilcox. An amazing number of people on the Internet accused him of “getting himself killed,” with one idiot even suggesting that he died while “playing Barney Fife.” An interesting parallel was seen on two threads over at www.glocktalk.com. In the “Carry Issues” section, quite a few people thought Wilcox had overstepped his bounds. They took the position that the gun they carried was only to protect themselves and their families, not the public. Interestingly enough, in the “Cop Talk” section of the same forum, police officers felt he had done the right thing and agreed with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, who publicly proclaimed Wilcox to have died a hero and probably saved multiple innocent lives by interrupting the plans of the two whacked-out murderers.
Readers…I’d be very much interested in hearing YOUR take on this.