Zen and the Art of Not Shooting

How often are you practicing not shooting your gun?

Before you close this article because “I practice not shooting all the time except when I’m at the range, hurr durr”, hear me out. We like to shoot. We spend lots of money and time on getting faster, competing, and shooting defense oriented drills. We want to draw fast and get that fast first hit. We practice rapid strings of fire to make sure we can rapidly stop a threat. We understand that the only time the gun should come out is when we will likely have to use it. But…

But life happens in the blink of an eye, and a situation can change in the time it takes to clear leather and drop the hammer. If all we’ve ever done in our shooting career is draw and shoot a known ‘threat’ target after a positive ID, and we realize we are creatures of habit, why should we expect to be able to halt the shot cycle before that round is fired? The VAST majority of defensive gun uses require no shooting. The introduction of a gun by the good guy and the apparent will to use it are enough to stop most criminal assaults.

This could also be the counterpoint to having to practice this. Since we are hesitant to actually shoot when it might be justified, maybe the problem will just take care of itself. I personally think practice is warranted, even if it is a very small portion of your practice.

If I’m ever asked in court, “Well, Mr. Mark, in all your years of gun training, have you ever practiced NOT shooting when gun comes out?” I’d like to be able to answer yes.

There are enough situations and real world examples that require the ability to be able to short-circuit the shooting cycle, either before the shooting starts, or after several shots.

When might we need to abort the shot, or shooting?

  • A sudden change of intent/ability/opportunity(jeopardy) by the bad guy upon seeing the gun presented. Verbalization and a show of force will probably solve most issues. But we shouldn’t assume this is the case. If we present the gun, we should only do so if we are certain we will need it. We have to consider several kinds of draws, too. A preemptive draw where you hear a bump in the night, or you draw to a low ready with a vehicle between you and the possible-shoot as you issue a verbal challenge. Or an emergency draw stroke, where there is an immediate need to shoot. All could require halting the shoot cycle or not shooting at different times, and for various reasons.
  • The foreground or background suddenly changes. If you realize your backstop is a playground, it would make sense to not shoot and change your orientation before shooting.
  • You have a righteous shoot, but then follow the injured bad guy and put one in his head for good measure. Then a good shoot becomes murder.


Pharmacist Convicted of first degree murder. This was a good shoot, until it was time to stop shooting. Ersland took it from defense to murder, and now pays the price.

The pharmacist, 59-year-old Jerome Ersland, fired a weapon after two young men entered his pharmacy, one of them waving a gun, in May 2009. Mr. Ersland’s bullet hit 16-year-old Antwun Parker in the head, Oklahoma County prosecutors alleged.

Moments later, Mr. Ersland shot Mr. Parker five more times as he lay unconscious on the ground, say prosecutors who had a security surveillance video to bolster their case.

I’ve found several anecdotes from Police officers and private Citizens who were able to abort their shot in light of a changing situation, and seemed quite relieved that they didn’t have to take a life, though they were fully prepared to. Here’s one.

98Z28 says:

I will also say that you might be surprised how quickly things can change and what you are capable doing in a short amount of time in a dynamic, dangerous situation. I have made the decision to shoot someone, started pressing the trigger, and wound up not firing a single round. This happened not once, but twice in my short seven years in LE. From talking to other officers, my experience is not unique

What are other trainers and practitioners saying?

Renowned trainer Grant Cunningham wrote a post about this topic as well:

There’s still, however, the need to train in how you actually decide not to shoot and how to use your gun when shooting isn’t (yet) a justified act. That’s what my students were doing: they were learning what to do with their guns when they didn’t need to shoot — and a little about why not shooting but still having their defensive firearm at the ready might be necessary. The stimuli were intentionally confusing, forcing them to think and requiring them to process the information I was giving them and making decisions about what to do based on their interpretation of that information.

Here’s a snip from a great interview of Marc MacYoung:

Then you come to skills. This is assessing the given circumstances. How do you mix steering, accelerating and braking, given the circumstances you are in, whether you are coming around a corner or whether someone is merging into your lane. What is the appropriate response? What is the combo? Those are the skills.

Take that into a shooting situation. As I said, you are not even thinking about pulling the gun. Once you’re there, you’re going, “Do I have to shoot?” So all your brain cells are in “shoot or don’t shoot,” assessing the circumstances.

What is really important about this model is that we think this way all the time. As a situation changes, our reactions change. Let’s go back to driving: You’re processing how to get through the curve as you’re driving, but once you get out of that curve, you have to change your behaviors. You are constantly doing these calculations. So there, you’re pulling your gun, you’re getting ready, and all of a sudden the guy turns around and runs away. What’s the important thing to do right now?

SouthNarc (Craig Douglas of Shivworks) had this to say about pointing guns at people before we are sure we will shoot them:

It’s debatable about whether one should or should not point a gun at someone before they initiate the shooting cycle. In a perfect world the muzzle stays off someone literally until a pistol is driving up or to the target and the round breaks. Real life is not that clean and motor skills are driven by decision making that may be changing quarter second by quarter second.

GJM to answer your specific question ideally we don’t point guns at people before we shoot them and our ready positions support not muzzling people AND give us the ability to see and discriminate information about the person we might be shooting in a split second. Also whatever “ready” positon we use allows us to break a fast and accurate shot on a low probability target. So there are three things that a ready position should accomplish.

Mr_White from Pistol Forum discusses how the legalities in your state might change how you think about this:

This gives rise to an approximation of the old and oversimplified adage ‘don’t draw the gun until you are going to fire immediately.’ There are situations where I might draw the gun and point it toward someone but not yet fire it, however, that span of situations is narrowed compared to what it might be in another state with a different legal situation.

When ready positions are legally weakened, the importance of a fast draw increases, but active awareness, and manipulation of environmental and interactive factors to allow us more time to evaluate the potential threat or give us additional or clearer information with which to evaluate the potential threat, or might even allow the luxury of disengagement, are still the most important (creating distance, using obstacles, adding artificial light, verbal interactive skills, recognition of threat cues, etc.)

It seems the majority of these incidents (either bad shoots or narrowly avoided shoots) are a matter of emotional control and data processing bandwidth (seeing more, and thinking faster) in the brain.

So how can we practice “not shooting”? Here’s a few ideas.

  1. Train Force on Force. This is difficult to arrange, and usually only gets the average guy a few exposures to testing these decision making skills in a given course. The scenarios need to be well thought out, with possible ambiguous outcomes, and experienced role players. This is not easy to find. The more of this we do, the less brain-lock we’ll experience the next time (in training or for real).
  2. Get a partner with a whistle, or a random par timer, and begin shooting a drill of your choice. When the random par timer beeps, halt shooting immediately. You are ceasing the firing sequence in light of new information. This can be done with courses of fire, or simple static range drills (Mr_White on PF described this)
  3. Target Discrimination drills which will allow you to practice taking in auditory and visual information and processing it before shooting.
  4. Threat management drills. These will engage your mind so you have to talk and coordinate the gun and possibly a flashlight, etc.
  5. Incorporate it into dry-fire. It doesn’t have to be any significant portion of your time, but consider getting a full firing grip, issuing a challenge, and aborting. Or presenting the gun, touching the trigger, and then not pressing the trigger. Or present the gun, and depress the muzzle to a low ready. You get the idea.

This post sort of got out of hand in length. I don’t honestly know how much worth this has, but it feels important to me. There are legal and moral repercussions that have to be considered. Sometimes it’s hard being the good guy and having to care about the ramifications of our actions. It’s our burden. I hope I got someone thinking.

Protect the Brood and don’t shoot unless you have to.

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12 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Not Shooting”

  1. And remember, when you are done not shooting and decide to reholster, do so without taking your eyes off of the threat. He may be down but not out. Learn to reholster without looking down to see what YOU are doing, because you need to see what the BAD GUY is doing. That ONE SECOND it takes you to look at your holster is enough time for the not-dead bad guy to act.

    1. I disagree. Reholstering for when the threat is gone. ALWAYS take time to “look” your gun into the your holster. That can be a self-imposed dangerous time for you if done incorrectly or if something is fouling your holster.

      If a possible threat remains, surely you would not want to add an extra second or two to your reaction time by having to draw and shoot again. Some would argue that if there is a possible threat remaining that you may have even encouraged them to re-attack by storing your gun back in your holster and giving them another opportunity.

      Holster only when the Threat is GONE, and always “LOOK” your gun into your holster.

  2. In class I always stress to the students that they will practice the draw stroke with the intent of getting it as fast and smooth as possible and end the stroke with a controlled trigger press and the shot; the draw stroke will take them 1.2 – 1.6 seconds and in that time they need to be looking for reasons to not shoot.

    I’d like to see someone make a “responsive” target that could be used as the first target in a drill or a match stage: it presents a tan IPSC target at the start beep but flips/drops/springs up to a no-shoot at the 1 second mark – right in the middle of the draw stroke.

    1. That would be awesome! Like a 3d ‘turner’ but one that leaves view. Actually that’s very similar to Rogers Range steel target arrays. But a humanoid one would be great!

  3. This was an excellent post. I found the post and the ensuing comments very enlightening and helpful. The post was shared with me by my trainer who incorporates “no shoot” scenarios into live fire sessions. Thanks for this great reminder. 👍

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