Dan Young's Book Reviews

Louis Awerbuck
Hit or Miss: An Analysis of Practical Range Training
1990, Yavapai Firearms Press.

This short book is unfortunately not an analysis of practical range training--it's an analysis of target systems used in training, and that's about it. Why people persist in fixating on the target system as being the cornerstone of "realistic" or "unrealistic" training is beyond me--the psychological condition of the shooter is much more relevant than the target he or she is using. Nothing heightens a sense of urgency in training like being shot at. Simunitions are realistic. Not much else is.

Awerbuck concludes with a target system only slightly more complex and realistic than the one he begins with (the IPSC target). His system involves a photographic target on a floating stand, so that it can weave unexpectedly while controlled by another shooter. His final recommendations are:

The book's motivation is to show that someone's ability to shoot a 10-second El Presidente is not at all predictive of competence in self-defense. To that extent, it is successful, but changing target systems doesn't provide much of a solution. A more "realistic" target will not teach you to function under stress, take appropriate cover, assess your environment, or exercise any unconventional means of managing the situation. Making a shoot/no-shoot decision based on whether a target is holding a badge or a gun is a long, long, way from the real-life criteria people use to assess threats. Awerbuck's targets, while undoubtedly fun to shoot at, miss the point when it comes to practical range training (as evidenced by the subgun photos in the book--shooters approaching hostage situations completely in the open). If all you're worried about is shot placement, you might as well shoot a bullseye. The target is not the problem.

Ayoob's Stressfire is closer to a solution. So is the National Tactical Invitational. Nothing beats man-on-man simunition training. Check out the Tueller drill for more info in the right direction.

Massad Ayoob
The Ayoob Files: The Book
1995, Police Bookshelf, New Hampshire. ISBN: 0936279168

Those familiar with the regular American Handgunner feature "The Ayoob Files" will know what this book is about--documentation of fourteen incidents that culminated in shootouts, some between the police and criminals, some between armed citizens and criminals. In all cases, Ayoob painstakingly goes over the tactics involved, the subjective testimonies of the survivors, and the legal issues that arose after the shootings. This is not a study of crime or murder, since in all cases, there was a justifiable need for force (although in some instances, the bad guy ends up winning). Rather, it's a book about the incredible psychological chaos of real-life shootouts, written for the police officer or gunowner who wants to learn from the experiences of others.

It's not a book for the squeamish. Ayoob goes into graphic detail evaluating the effect of various armaments used in his examples. The cover photo is a grisly shot of a shooting scene. But the cases themselves, and the lessons Ayoob culls from them, are excellent information for anyone interested in firearm pragmatics. In some cases, Ayoob's findings run contrary to conventional training methods. Among the points he makes are:

Ayoob thinks like a lawyer--he is partisan and interested in vindication. He's the guy you would want on your side if you were involved in a shootout, but on the other hand, he spends little time talking about less violent solutions to the confrontations his officers were presented with. In only one case does he suggest that the firefight might have been avoided--in the Newhall Incident, where the surviving felons said they might have surrendered had the officers immediately demonstrated overwhelming firepower. It's not a book about conflict resolution; it's a book about gunfighting and institutional LE policy. Understanding what happened in prior shooting incidents is the bedrock for building training structures for today.

Gavin de Becker
The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence
1997, Little Brown & Company. ISBN: 0316235024

Gavin de Becker is one of the nation's top names in the field of personal and corporate security, and The Gift of Fear is informed by thousands of experiences in assessing threats and managing client protection. The book concentrates largely on threat assessment--de Becker's specialty--reading behavioral cues to gauge how likely someone will be to initiate violence. It deals to a lesser extent with how to handle people that your assessment tells you are going to be a problem. De Becker systematically goes through cases where violence apparently came "out of the blue" and demonstrates that in each situation, there were plenty of danger signals, and that the victim's intuition had already registered these signals and communicated them as feelings of uneasiness. People invariably knew that something was out of place, but ignored the feelings. The book goes on to inform the reader's intuition with an analytical breakdown of danger signals in different environments: from strangers, stalkers, angry employees, controlling spouses, obsessive fans, and people who deliver death threats. The bottom line for de Becker is listen to your gut-level intuition; people usually have a pretty acute sense of when they are truly at risk.

The book's biggest shortcoming is that it deals only with the above situations--where the potential aggressor is known to the victim, or some kind of seduction is present before violence is initiated. On page 61 de Becker writes:

"I haven't focused here on the criminal who simply walks up, displays a weapon, and demands money. That is because he is distinctly more obvious that those who use the strategies I've described"
And with that farewell he abandons fifty percent of the violent crimes in America to concentrate on the ones where threat assessment might make a more substantial difference in the outcome. This can unfortunately leave the reader with the impression that all crime is avoidable, when in fact, the cases that don't fit his profiles (interpersonal contact with victim precedes violence) simply haven't been discussed. Also conspicuously absent are:
  1. Any evaluation, pro or con, of firearms or other self-defense precautions for personal protection (though indirectly he does recommend IMPACT associates, who provide self-defense training for women). This omission is unfortunate, because "get a gun" is oft-quoted counsel for people at risk, and his analysis would be pertinent.

  2. Any analysis of victim selection in predatory crime, or suggestions for avoiding appearing "victimizable." The latter is a particularly unfortunate omission, since the perceived vulnerability of a victim is a significant factor in whether or not they will be selected for violence, and it is something that people can take steps to counter.

The book is also remarkably short on suggestions about what to do once you know someone means you harm. In only three scenarios does de Becker have a set of proactive recommendations: firing an angry employee, leaving an abusive spouse, and cutting off communications with persistent or obsessive callers. His recommendations in these cases are excellent, but in the rest of his examples (stalkings, children known to be at sexual risk, violent assaults by strangers, burglars in the house, credible death threats, persistent violations of restraining orders, recreational assaults by teenagers) he has little to say beyond identifying risk factors. As my wife pointed out, his primary, recurring scenario (that of Kelly, who, knowing that she was going to be killed if she followed a rapist's instructions, instead silently followed him down a hallway and let herself out the door) is a fantasy of non-violent conflict resolution. All she had to do to break contact was to get up and leave. Far more common is the situation where the threat is known, but options are uncertain. De Becker investigates the situations where neighbors say "We had no idea; we would have never suspected," but pays less attention to the situations where the neighbors were expecting it all along, had known for years that there was going to be trouble, and who it was going to come from.

I think the fundamental conclusion of the book is correct: people usually do have an accurate and powerful sense of their own risk. If you go for a ride with the LAPD, they know who the drug dealers and gangbangers and chronic offenders are, and often have a good idea of who their victims will be. What to do about it--now, there's a more difficult issue. Threat assessment needs to lead to threat management.

That said, I think this book is looking in the right direction: victim empowerment. It's not a book for law enforcement or security professionals--it's a book written for the individual at risk. It emphasizes that you are the person who makes the difference in your own security--especially in situations where the probable aggressor is someone you know. It encourages people not to participate in their own victimization, and repeatedly shows that in critical moments in the commission of crimes, you are the only person who can make the difference. His information on threat assessment is excellent, written with the honest intention of giving the reader enough intelligence to recognize risk when they see it and to take proactive steps toward their own security. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest.

Other recommended reading: John Douglas, Mindhunter, and Robert Ressler Whoever Fights Monsters, on FBI's profiling of serial criminals; Paxton Quigley Not an Easy Target: A Women's Guide to Self-Protection on victim selection and pragmatic threat avoidance; Linden Gross, To Have or to Harm: True Stories of Stalkers and their Victims.

Other reviews: Amazon.com.

Read the author's response to this review.

Mike Dalton and Mickey Fowler
Handguns and Self-Defense: Life Without Fear
1983, 1996. ISI Publications. ISBN: 0961095407
Available from
International Shootists Institute

All kinds of people have written introductory books on weapon skills for self-defense, but Handguns and Self-Defense is my pick of the litter. It trains people to handle situations, not just the weapon. Dalton and Fowler's approach is firmly grounded in the idea that the shooter is not first learning weapon skills and then moving to the "advanced" topics of personal defense, but learning defensive skills from the first time the shooter handles the gun. Large portions of the book are given over to legal and ethical issues of self-defense, and home defense tactics. Their chapter on tactics is the best I have seen written for beginning shooters--not presented as something "difficult" or "advanced," but natural and necessary to the proper use of the gun.

That said, the book is dated. I would not feel comfortable giving this book to a novice shooter as a stand-alone handbook on technique. Barricades are taught in a close, "braced" position, so is kneeling (braced), the weak-thumb-over-wrist grip (as a revolver alternative), arms locked when using the isosceles stance, a "swinging" draw, etc. It's mostly what you'd expect from the modern technique, just more open-minded than Cooper or Taylor. The discussion of handgun safes is dated, as is the discussion of lighting and home security. But these things do little to detract from the primary focus of the book: examination of the handgun as a tool for self-defense. The recommendations for defense and tactics are still unimpeachable: pragmatic, down-to-earth, and very much concerned with the business of personal safety.

While there is a section on concealed carry (and the chapter on tactics would be useful to CCW holders), the primary scenario is home defense from an intruder. Readers are walked through several possible responses to noises in the night, and alternatives are analyzed, not dogmatically argued. Both shooting and non-shooting situations are discussed, along with 911 contact and post-shooting topics. The photos are excellent--shot in a home rather than on the range, each emplifying some aspect of a good response to a threat. It may not succeed as comprehensively as it once did, but as a supplement to training in current methods, it's worth its modest cost many times over.

See also my own essay on noises in the night.

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Last modified Sept 8, 1997