3 Goals of Self-Defense Training: Learning How to Shoot, When to Do It, and What Now?

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The saying goes, “Anyone can teach you how to shoot. Some people teach when to shoot. Almost no one talks about what now?” When we consider the subject of legitimate self-defense training that involves firearms, we must understand that there should be three goals for that training, not just one.

We’re going to consider all three goals here and discuss why each one is as important as the others and how proper mindset governs them all. Let’s take a look at the How, When, and What Now of training. 

How to Shoot

How to Shoot is the starting point for 99% of all people who are interested in learning how to use a firearm for self-defense. Of course, this makes sense. Happy thoughts and good intentions don’t direct projectiles to the target. The physical manifestation of causing an attacker to cease their assault by disrupting their physical structure with bullets is a skill that must be learned and practiced.

Shooting a gun and hitting your target with predictable regularity is a mechanical skill. From a physiological standpoint, learning how to shoot a firearm isn’t that much different than learning how to drive a golf ball from the tee or playing a guitar. A professional instructor guides you through basic operations, makes small corrections, coaches you, and provides you with practice routines that will enable you to eventually master the skill if you apply yourself.

We can learn to skillfully operate firearms without ever considering or discussing the idea of self-defense or the reality of dealing with vicious and deadly human monsters. Millions of Americans every year participate in the shooting sports where they shoot paper, steel, or flying clay targets and never consider ‘self-defense’ or the use of ‘deadly force’.  

The How to Shoot is the enjoyable or the fun part. Nonetheless, if we’re truly concerned with defending our lives and the lives of our family members with a firearm, we can’t with good conscience stop at the how to shoot part.  

When to Shoot

It’s the When to Shoot part that trips people up or causes confusion. Folks will take their self-defense advice from myriad poor sources; the TV and movies, gun shop gossip, Internet forums and social media, relatives with good intentions, etc. Unfortunately, they often don’t get self-defense advice from bona fide or accredited sources.  

When to Shoot comes down to the Big 3 Checklist for Deadly Force. Before using deadly force, and firing a gun as a human is deadly force, we must establish that the threat had the Ability, Opportunity, and demonstrated Intent to harm us or innocent persons with lethal force. We elaborate on this in our new book, Living Armed: Understanding Guns for Home Defense and Concealed Carry.

All three criteria of the aforementioned checklist must be present for a self-defense shooting to be legitimate and lawful. Take the case of Kyle Rittenhouse. He was exonerated by a jury because they were able to put aside the emotions and propaganda and examine the Big 3 Checklist. Those who were attacking Rittenhouse had the ability, the opportunity and the demonstrated intent to do lethal harm to him. Therefore, regardless of other circumstances or media spin, his actions in using deadly force were morally, ethically, and legally justified.  

What Now?

Life is not the movies. Unlike our favorite action heroes, we can’t just smoke all the bad guys and then walk off screen as the credits roll. In the real world, when the shooting stops, the fight continues. Men like Massad Ayoob, John Farnam, the late James Yeager, and others have taught us that our duties extend beyond shooting straight. 

The most important thing you can do when the noise of gunfire stops is check yourself and other innocents for life-threatening injuries. You might be bleeding and not even realized it. 

Winning your gunfight only to have your spouse or child then bleed to death isn’t a win. Do you have the skill and ability to stop-gap a life-threatening injury while you wait for the professionals to arrive? If not, you need to get it.

Who should call 911? What should you say to the 911 operator? When should you call your attorney? What should you say to arriving police officers? Should you answer questions from the media? All of these things matter. Doing the wrong thing in the What Now category can undo all the correct things you did in the How to Shoot and When to Shoot categories. 

Just knowing How to Shoot and When to Shoot need to be parts of your legitimate self-defense training, the What Now portion must also be addressed, discussed, and even practiced to a certain extent in a training class. For example, we have a prop cell phone for students to use to call 911 during certain drills in our training classes. 

Parting Thoughts

When you’ve made the decision that you want to have the skill and ability to use a firearm for self-defense, your mindset must be one that accepts the reality that your undertaking should include not just How to Shoot, but also When to Shoot and What Now.   

Far too many people who buy guns for the stated purpose of home defense or concealed carry put the majority of their focus on the How to Shoot part while totally disregarding the others. A successful outcome during a deadly force encounter requires you to be thoroughly versed in all three of the goals for self-defense training. 

You don’t get to decide whether or not you’re going to be forced to deal with a deadly attack. You can, however, decide how well prepared you will be if and when that happens. 


Paul G. Markel is the founder of Student of the Gun University and has been teaching small arms and tactics to military personnel, police officers, and citizens for over three decades. He is the author of numerous books and is a combat decorated United States Marine veteran.   

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