First, let's deal with the gun and the caliber you have. Ballistics "dicks" can be measured at the sites referenced below.* See the notes below on "shot placement". Yes, you want to practice with ammo that is substantially similar to what you'll use for self defense; i.e., the weight of the bullet and the muzzle velocity rating of the cartridge, as well as the accuracy quality, should be reasonably identical. Otherwise, your sights will have to be adjusted for defense ammo based on its trajectory. Alternatively, if your sights are fixed, you'll have to chose a different sight alignment or point of aim. Don't start off training with a low-power caliber, e.g., .22, .25 or .32. You won't have your grip, stance, posture and breathing properly oriented for recovering from the recoil of high-powered ammo, and for immediately reacquiring your target for the next soonest possible shot (see #3 below).
Notwithstanding trajectory, however, the design and the composition of the bullet (which can really add cost, e.g., bonded-core bullets) can be substituted for the cheapest available; e.g., lead round nose if you don't mind cleaning the lead fouling out frequently. Like "Hot Lips Banana", I prefer Remington's fully copper-jacketed bullets (FMJ) for practice. This factor will not likely change the point of impact on your target at distances you'll likely shoot from in order to either defend yourself, or to qualify for a CCW permit. However, as a check, buy a selection of cheaper ammo (at least two) that is comparable to your reserve defense ammo, and bring some of your defense ammo along for comparison. This way you'll be able to select the pairing that is consistently the most accurate, and that provides substantially the same point of impact on target.
In order to get the tightest groupings to start with, fire your ammo selections in single-action mode from a bench-rested position on a resilient surface. Use an old decorative pillow or cushion case filled with a bag of pinto beans and a bag of rice (don't open the bags). Some people use aquarium pebbles or Styrofoam beads, i.e., whatever is cheaply convenient. Don't use clay-based kitty litter. It will create too much dusty mess if the plastic freezer bag you put it in (in order to line your cushion case) ruptures. You can elevate that cushion with something harder, but don't rest on a hard surface, because it will cause rebound upon recoil and preclude tight grouping.
Bring your shoulders and elbows in, but flex your elbows slightly and lock your wrists. The objective is to provide the most stable shooting platform possible while retaining enough flexibility to absorb and control recoil. Lean slightly but comfortably into the shot, and establish your sight picture and sight alignment. With as firm and as high of a grip as you can get without trembling or overshooting the gun grip, move your trigger finger from outside of the trigger guard onto the trigger. Center the pad of the first digit of your trigger finger in the middle of the trigger. If your finger pad rests too high on the trigger (e.g., if you can feel the top rounding of the trigger on the top (outside) of your trigger finger, lower your grip slightly.
When ready to shoot, exhale, and then squeeze the trigger directly backward. Follow through the trigger pull even as the hammer falls. Don't anticipate the hammer falling or the recoil. It's often helpful to have some other qualified gun handler load the cylinder, leaving one or two bullets out at random, so as to see if you flinch in anticipation of the recoil.
This technique works. I put my first three shots (which were all consecutive) into a quarter-sized group on a target 30 feet away, and with a gun and ammo I had never shot before. If you have trouble getting tightly-grouped shots at 30 ft. while using this method, go directly to step #3 and get some basic shooting coaching.
Although it has it's limitations, a .38 Special/+P is probably the optimal revolver for a petite woman, given that they generally have less body mass, and have less upper body strength with which to control recoil. This affects reacquiring the target, and getting another shot on target with reasonable accuracy in as short a time as possible. Revolvers are inherently more reliable by design, and I highly endorse carrying one as a backup weapon. The most profound deficit of revolvers, obviously, is the limited capacity of the typical six-shot cylinder. Alternatively, you could carry your .380 Auto as your backup weapon.
Considerations for those who are new to high-powered handguns:
Any projectile that breaks the sound barrier (1,126 ft./s.) is going to make a loud, "crack" noise (report), which is likely to knock out your hearing (at least temporarily) when fired within confined spaces. Without hearing protection (but how else are you going to hear an intruder, or a potential attacker trying to blind-side you?), your ears will "ring" (tinnitus) like mad. Perhaps for days. Maybe longer. See #5 below.
Heavy bullets (> 180 gr.) propelled @ > 1300 ft./s. will cause a blinding muzzle flash in the dark, especially out of a barrel < 6". This will knock out your night vision for the likely duration of the gunfight. Have a tactical flashlight in hand and ready to use, with a wrist lanyard on for fast reloading. Again, see #5 below.
The .357 Mag. "report" is particularly egregious, and the muzzle flash out of a short barrel is ridiculous. In comparison, both a .45 ACP and a .45 Colt make a tolerable, dull "boom", and a slight flicker at the muzzle.
Be sure that the grip of the gun fits your hand properly, and that the weapon "points" well for you. Practice thrusting and pointing the UNLOADED weapon with your eyes closed few times, and then check the sight picture and sight alignment. Don't try to accommodate to the results. Go on to the next choice of gun and compare. Keep your finger off the trigger and outside of the trigger guard, even in the gun shop. Yes, they are always loaded.
Either under or over-sized grips reduce control commensurate with the recoil. However, it's better to err (slightly) to the under-sized grip. With an oversized grip, the muzzle tends to pull slightly laterally and toward the back of the hand, because the grip is slipping toward the thumb during recoil; i.e., the muzzle pulls to the right for right-handed shooters, and vice versa for left-handed shooters. This tends to put the bullet into the 9 or the 8 ring on the target. Regardless, at the range of most gunfights, if you aim for the solar plexus, you're probably going to hit close to center of mass, even if the armed assailant is moving. This is a big help already.
Hire a competent, certified, combat shooting instructor (preferably one who's actually survived a gunfight) to teach you how to:
Evade attackers and alert help on the fly.
I dissuade people from using shriek alarms. Nothing gets a response like a blood-curdling female scream. It's a biological trigger programmed by thousands of years of evolution.
Similarly I dissuade people from using chemical mace/pepper spray and other "less lethal" implements. If you resort to using these items, chances are that the assailant is already within your zone of capable defense (i.e., the distance an attacker needs to cover in order to get to your before you can draw a weapon and get it on target). And nothing dissuades an obstinate, persistent intrusion into your "safe space" like the defensive brandishing of a firearm. Women can get away with that much more than men can, too.
Using chemical mace in a confined, inadequately ventilated space is unwise. You're more likely to disable yourself and your family. Asthmatics will likely be in critical jeopardy.
- A Stampede that left bodies piled at least four in height in the main doorway was caused by discharging mace in a Chicago nightclub.
Quote: "You could see a mound of people," said Cory Thomas, 33, who went to the club to pick up two friends. "People were stacking on top of each other, screaming and gagging, I guess from the pepper spray. The door got blocked because there were too many people stacked up against it."
Forget about all those other "less than lethal" do-dads too. That stuff is for cops with backup on the way who are trying to control unruly behavior. This post isn't about all the subtle nuances and contingencies you may encounter during a home invasion, but if someone you don't know enters your home uninvited, you still have the right to produce a firearm to change their mind about visiting you unannounced (without pointing it directly at an unarmed intruder, unless they present a clearly imminent threat of great bodily harm or death). Again, sex matters for jurors.
Properly draw your weapon.
Avoid being disarmed by an assailant.
Take a proper stance and adjust your body posture accordingly.
Properly grip your weapon.**
Observe your target over the weapon's sights (not through them -- we're way beyond sight picture and sight alignment -- which should be practically rote by now).
Control your breathing and heart rate.
Get your finger's "sweet spot" properly on the trigger, and depress the trigger properly. This includes the direction of the trigger pull and the follow-through that is proper for your weapon. Forget that "squeeze the trigger" crap they teach you for target shooting. This is about combat. And unless retrained, you'll revert to old trigger squeeze habits that are too slow. Combat with handguns at relatively short distances requires a controlled, rapid depression of the trigger; i.e., so that you aren't jerking it.
Tactically reload your weapon.
As long as your assailant has a grip on his weapon and has any reasonable capacity to fire it, thus presenting him/herself as an imminent threat of serious bodily harm, continue shooting until he/she is unquestionably nullified as a threat. These police department policies of "double-tap and reassess" are nothing but public relations and public liability CYA postures. You're fighting for your life in the real world, and a jury is highly unlikely to find that a petite woman used excessive force while her assailant still retained the capacity to shoot her. You'll know that the danger is over when:
He's not looking at you or he can't see you, and;
- He's off his feet and is either laying prone or supine.
His weapon is no longer practically within his reach, and:
- He cannot or will not attempt to recover it, or;
He doesn't appear to be breathing, and all those raspy gasping and gurgling noises he's been making have stopped, and;
- His complexion has taken on a ghastly pallor heretofore unseen by you.
- A priest who happened upon the scene starts to perform Last Rites, just in case.
- Take an advanced combat arms course to learn how to properly safeguard your loved ones and search and clear your house if you suspect it's being intruded upon while you're home. If you're not there yet, don't enter your house if you think it's been burgled. Call 911. Have a plan and practice it enough to keep it fresh.
Although it goes without saying, you'd be surprised at how many people get this wrong. --> If it doesn't compromise your safety, always call 911 before investigating that bump in the night. You'll be no good to anyone if you're later incapacitated after failing to have first called 911. Moreover, you may bleed to death while waiting for help to arrive. And all the while, you'll anguish over whether or not someone else called after hearing gun shots. Alternatively, you may need to call 911 post-incident because some people have been ambushed and shot due to their 911 call having revealed their location, as well as having eliminated the element of surprise. The same goes with making noise while inserting an ammo magazine, and while racking either the slide or the charging handle.
That's why if my home defense weapon (HDW) cannot be safely stored and ready-to-shoot when not under my immediate, exclusive control, I don't need it. It's also why my HDW preference is a .45 Long Colt/.454 Casull revolver loaded with two .45 LC frangible rounds, two .45 LC jacketed hollow points (JHP), and two Hornady JHP Casulls. Although the hammer is always strapped down with a thumb-break, the gun is always loaded. It never jams. There is no safety to forget about. For self-defense, I fire it double-action only (DAO). Be certain that you have the hand strength to rapidly fire your revolver in double-action mode.
- Yes, some semi-auto pistols come DAO with no safeties. Typically their trigger pull is lighter than is that of a magnum-sized revolver. But limp-wrist that bad boy and... see the second footnote below.
Your initially-fired ammunition (i.e., in self-defense) should be both subsonic and frangible (more on frangible ammo below). Most confrontations will probably take place while you're taking cover in an interior hallway, a bathroom, or in a similarly confined space (the idea being, of course, to keep the intruder out in the open, if possible). Under these conditions, most supersonic rounds, particularly when shot through a muzzle brake, and particularly one that directs expelled gas up and back toward the shooter, will probably cause some irreversible hearing damage; e.g., tinnitus, at the very least. If not, your hearing will be compromised at least temporarily, which means you can't hear where that intruder you missed ran off to.
Even a discharge from a shotgun that's powerful enough to take down a large man from across a room will be only slightly less loud than supersonic pistol and rifle rounds. Got a silencer/suppressor? Good for you, but remember, there are always 3 sounds to consider: 1) The weapon's discharge, 2) a supersonically-propelled bullet breaking the sound barrier, and 3) the sound of the intruder either collapsing on the floor, or running away. If you hear a fourth sound, you screwed up. It may either be a scream, or possibly, a hammer dropping. Whatever it is, it won't signify the most optimal outcome, and you may not get a do-over.
The other disadvantage to supersonic ammo is the blinding muzzle flash on weapons that don't feature flash concealment. The closer the flash occurs to you, the more your field of night vision is disrupted. Don't think that you can just close your eyes when the trigger trips. You'll inevitably jerk the trigger, and on a short-barreled weapon at greater than point-blank range, you'll likely miss the target. And an armed intruder may immediately return fire now that he knows exactly where you are.
- Yes, I know that .454 Casull is supersonic. But if I don't nail the intruder with the first four .45 LC's, he's probably either got a ballistics vest on, or he's behind good cover that I need to shoot through. In the event of the former, I just hope that the blunt-force trauma from the Casull load will disable/incapacitate him long enough to disarm and secure him. For the same reasons, in high-power supersonic calibers, as a last resort, homeowners should load ammo that will also penetrate hard cover objects, e.g., heavy furniture. This consideration also militates favorably toward revolvers as a HDW weapon of choice. I can easily distinguish the .45 LC's from the .454 Casulls because the primer of one is like shiny chrome, and the other is like dull brass. You could even color-code them with fingernail polish. Therefore, if I absolutely need to get to the last two .454 loads without reloading, I can quickly "dial them in" by opening the cylinder and repositioning it to advance to the first .454 load on the next DA trigger pull.)
In a field trial of several common pistol, rifle and shotgun rounds put through the "Box O' Truth" from 12 feet, the test revealed that all of them, except .22 LR, but including 5.56 ball ammo, penetrated 12 sheets of 5/8" drywall. Don't forget about your closely situated neighbors, either.
* Notice from the ballistics comparison sites listed below, however, that 9mm +P is roughly equivalent to the average .40 S&W round in ft./lb.'s of muzzle energy.
There's a lot of talk about "shot placement" being key to bringing the perp down. But in studies of actual crime scene shoot-out video, where well-trained cops were shooting (with the exception of SWAT teams), lots of rounds were expended and most of them either missed their intended target, or were simply ineffectual. With the majority of people, when they're under mortal threat, sight picture and trigger control go on vacation as adrenaline narrows perception (you may get "tunnel vision" and you may cease to be aware of other crucial developments/sounds going on around you), limbs tremble, the heart beat wildly, blood pressure soars, and breathing becomes labored if not erratic.
Remember, to avoid being pinned down, you cannot freeze in place unless it's the only position of practical cover. You must keep moving and issuing sufficient cover fire whilst doing so, either to escape, or to obtain strategic advantage, and to keep your opponent reacting/adapting to you.
All this suggests to me is that when faced with a justifiable threat, the goal is to put more rounds on target, with reasonable accuracy, and in a shorter period of time than your armed assailant can. The trick is to do that while optimizing the following:
Recoil recovery time.
The devastation capability per round.
Capacity, i.e., the number of rounds available until needing to reload.
** Regardless of how much primary weapon ammo you carry, always back that gun up (reasonably). I've seen actual crime scene shoot-out video where a well-trained, experienced police officer "limp-wristed" her semi-auto weapon during a shot, thus causing an otherwise perfectly functional weapon to irrevocably jam during recoil, and she admitted to it on camera. It could happen to anybody (and at least for that gunfight, it may be all over except for the crying, and you may never have the opportunity to get into another shoot-out again... forever... catch my drift?). Luckily, this police officer's backup was on-scene within a couple of seconds, and the perp was none the wiser. CCW carriers are not likely to have responding backup appear on scene so timely, or to be so readily disposed to intervene on their behalf.
An interesting study from July 2011.
It says that a high percentage of assailants are "psychologically" stopped by being shot with almost any caliber of handgun. It's the ones that aren't "psychologically" stopped that count. See the charts and discussion about various caliber's "failure to incapacitate" rates.
Given the data in the featured study, the whole equation indicates (to me, anyway) that the high-capacity (i.e., more than 10 rounds per magazine), semi-auto 9mm is the optimal choice for most CCW applications; i.e., it's the primary go-to weapon. Notice that the proportion of hits to people shot is the highest for 9mm (chart at right). This indicates a higher probability of attaining an immediately disabling shot, hence nullifying the threat sooner (or at least keeping him pinned down whilst you vamoose).