Normally here on the Lounge, we talk about stuff like guns, shooting gear, and techniques. I like to share what I’ve learned about how to select the right gear and get the most out of your firearms for self-defense. On the other hand, I usually avoid the purely philosophical or strategy-based topics pertaining to personal protection because, frankly, it’s not quite as much fun to talk about and there are plenty of qualified experts out there sharing their knowledge on those topics. But today, I’m going to deviate from that path a bit to address a somewhat alarming trend that I’ve noticed in discussions both on and offline. I’m talking about the practice of relying on intimidation as a primary tactic for self-defense.
Intimidation and Scare Tactics are Not Plan A
The most common iteration of this concept is the old myth that a pump shotgun is the best home-defense tool because the sound of chambering a shell will scare away any intruder. A pump 12 gauge might be the right tool for the job, but the sound it makes is not among its most useful qualities. My favorite response to this mentality comes from another article in which the author says “Scary noises are not a good tactic for saving your life, just like a rape whistle will never replace a gun. Arrive to the fight ready to fight, not with a $500 scary-noise-making device.” Or put more succinctly by Travis Haley, “I don’t use a pump to scare somebody. I use a pump to shoot somebody.”
But this mentality of using “scary guns” to avoid a fight goes beyond the pump shotgun. I’ve also heard similar comments in relation to mean-looking muzzle brakes, bright muzzle flash, extra-loud magnum loads, laser sights, muzzle size of large bore pistols and rifles, bright flashlights, and hollow-point bullets visible in a revolver cylinder, among others.
It’s possible that any one of those things could sufficiently scare an attacker and persuade him to find something better to do. It’s also possible they could further provoke him. More likely however, the encounter will be over before he has a chance to notice some detail of your firearm or ammunition that was selected for its intimidating effect. If you actually have to shoot at the guy, he’s probably not taking note of the bright flash erupting from your barrel because, you know, the bullets might present a more pressing concern.
I understand the mentality. Believe me, I don’t want to be forced to shoot anyone either, and if I thought there was a reasonable expectation that making some sound or hanging the right accessory off my gun would be enough to avoid violence happening in my house, I’d be all for it. The problem is that although some of these scare tactics or “plans” may have a small chance of success, many of them have a 100% chance of making the gun less effective if you do have to use it. Then you’re stuck with a sub-optimal self-defense solution and a false sense of security.
Take the muzzle flash issue as an example. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how premium self-defense ammo has less muzzle flash in order to prevent the shooter from being blinded in a low light self-defense situation. A disturbing number of comments on our Facebook page completely dismissed the desire to reduce muzzle flash because “it’s more intimidating to someone on the other end.” Assuming these guys aren’t just trolls and actually believe this, then they’re essentially admitting that if faced with a choice, they’d rather bet their life on the intimidating effects of muzzle flash rather than their own ability to see what they’re shooting at.
For an even more extreme example, I once read an online discussion where a guy was quite sincerely trying to argue that a Mosin Nagant is a better home-defense weapon than an AR-15 because a bayonet at the end of a 7-foot long Soviet bolt gun will strike terror in the hearts of any criminal daft enough to trespass onto your property whereas the AR will just “blend into the shadows” and not be noticed.
Think it Through
I’m assuming you’re smart enough to spot some holes in that logic. And this article isn’t intended to persuade those who are so stubborn as to base their entire home-defense strategy on bravado and urban legend. The issue is that some of these self-defense “plans” don’t seem quite so ridiculous at first, especially to someone who’s new to the whole self-defense conversation. If that’s you, and you’re trying to discern whether it makes sense to pursue a particular tactic, technique, or piece of gear that has some supposed intimidating effects, here are a few questions to ask:
1. Does it improve your ability to fight?
The reason you have a home-defense gun is to defend yourself and your family from death or serious bodily injury. If you’re lucky, it’ll scare somebody away first, but if that’s all it was good for, you’d probably instead opt for a can of OC spray or a baseball bat or something that was actually useful in a fight. If some alleged improvement to your firearm or ammunition doesn’t actually improve your ability to use it effectively in a fight, then it’s probably unnecessary. On the other hand, some accessories that are occasionally promoted for their intimidating effects might actually be more helpful when they are instead used for their intended purpose like, for example, laser sights and flashlights. I have them because it’s much easier to shoot in low light with them than without them. If they happen to scare somebody, then great, but that’s not the primary reason I’ve invested in them and how to use them effectively.
2. Does it impede your ability to fight?
If the strategy or gear in question doesn’t actually help you fight better, is it hurting your effectiveness with your firearm? If I thought painting sharks on the side of my AR would scare away bad guys, I might do it. Doing so wouldn’t prevent me from using the AR just as effectively as before. As long as I’m not counting on my “improvements” to do the fighting for me, then at the very least, it’s probably not hurting anything.
3. Do the scare tactics pass the reality test?
Who’s suggesting it? Do they have a good reputation for providing reliable information about self-defense? Is their suggestion based on evidence or experience, or just the theory that it “might” scare somebody? Keep in mind that most people who routinely attack others or break into houses are not doing so because they have a track record for wise decision making. Something that might act as a deterrent to a rational person will not necessarily work the same way on a career scumbag or desperate addict. Think realistically about the desired outcome and just how likely it is versus the potential drawbacks of relying on your ability to be frightening to a hardened criminal.
There’s nothing wrong with hoping that you’ll be able to scare off an attacker to prevent a fight before it even starts, and fortunately, that happens fairly often. The best reports we have indicate that the majority of defensive gun uses don’t involve any shots fired. However, usually it’s the mere sight of any firearm or the fact that the potential victim is resisting that sends the bad guy looking for an easier target. There’s no indication that the type of gun or ammo or accessories used often factor into that decision making. But if the appearance of the gun doesn’t have the desired effect, scaring him away is off the table and you’ll want to have the best possible self-defense tool in your hand and the training and willpower to use it effectively. As the cliché goes, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.