Guns and Gear for Self Defense
An Interview with Vicki and John Farnam
Interview by Gila Hayes
Experienced armed citizens owe newcomers more than the commercialized gimmicks so often marketed to shooters, of whom our newest gun owners are the most vulnerable. We owe sound guidance to these newcomers; we owe them the benefit of our experience and hard-learned knowledge, lest all armed citizens suffer public backlash from unwitting, but preventable errors.
John and Vicki Farnam are at the forefront of responsible armed defense instruction, teaching a demanding training regimen, free of meaningless fluff, and based on what they well know will be demanded of an armed citizen using a gun in self defense.
When we saw John and Vicki at the SHOT Show in January, we asked them if they could synopsize the critical experience and knowledge so badly needed by new students of the armed lifestyle. Here is what they had to say:
eJournal: What are the top two or three issues that all new gun carriers need to work out? Gun selection? Caliber? Concealed carry skills and equipment? What are the leading concerns?
John Farnam: Most of what we teach, and most of what we do, is not glamorous; it is just work. There is a world of ignorance out there, as you know, and people will be attracted to shiny things that work like colorful fishing lures to attract attention of a certain segment. I guess I was no different when I started doing this 45 years ago! “Wow, I get to carry a gun,” but pretty soon, the gun selected becomes uncomfortable. The first gun you buy, probably won’t be the last!
At this show, we see a lot of really silly guns that are marketed as serious guns, but they are too big and too heavy and bulky to be genuinely useful. Some are really ridiculous. Mainstream serious guns now are polymer-framed, striker-fired, with no manual safety, no decocking lever, no magazine safety, captured recoil spring, and have variable grip-geometry.
There are people who do not have room to conceal a double-column pistol, but they can at least begin to fit a flat, single-column pistol on their body. I have women students whose attitude is far more style-oriented than mine. Any concealed pistol represents a “lump” that she must try to “fit” on her somewhere, but most double-column guns are too much of a “lump” to realistically hide. By contrast, a single-column gun is a good deal flatter, and we might be able to fit that one into her life!
Kahr had the single-column concealment pistol business all to themselves for the longest time, with their excellent PM9. Then came S&W’s M&P Shield. Then, the Glock 42 and 43, the Kimber Solo, the Beretta Nano, the Springfield XDS, and the Walther PPS. All these guns are acceptable, I like some better than others, but they’re all fine. Of all the ones mentioned, the one Vicki likes best is the XDS in .45 ACP.
Vicki Farnam: Recoil is very manageable, and it has a good, crisp trigger, and snappy reset.
eJournal: Haven’t you carried a pistol in .40 S&W or .45 ACP for most of the time I have known you?
Vicki Farnam: Yes, I shot a .40 for a long time, until it caused physical damage to my arm! Now, I have the XDS in .45 ACP, which I like very much.
However, yesterday I shot the double-column Walther PPQ in .45 ACP. It was astounding how soft the recoil was on that gun! When I subsequently shot the single-column Walther PPS M2, in 9mm, I found that my left hand didn’t fit it well, and consequently I had trouble with the slide cycling. In order to get enough hand on the gun, I had to have my grip rotated so much that the gun didn’t function as well as did the PPQ.
eJournal: Is this a gun-fit decision, or a caliber preference?
Vicki Farnam: Both! Since I don’t carry a double-column 9mm, I revert to carrying a single-column pistol in .45 ACP, because in my mind, that can help make up for the reduced capacity.
eJournal: Does your preference for the larger caliber influence advice you offer beginners? Would you start him or her in a .40 S&W or .45 ACP?
Vicki Farnam: I would put a beginner in a 9mm.
John Farnam: [Emphatically] Yes!
Vicki Farnam: I think the .45 has two issues: One is weight, especially when a woman is carrying a pistol in a holster or a handbag, the .45, even with only six rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber, is going to be heavier than a comparable 9mm, and she may not like that.
The other is recoil: Recoil of most small .45 ACP pistols may be “manageable,” but we don’t want to start her there, because we could build bad habits right away. Later, she can upgrade to a .45, if she wishes.
eJournal: John, does that advice apply to men starting to shoot, too? What caliber would you recommend for a gentleman’s first gun?
John Farnam: 9mm. That is the trend right now.
eJournal: Is ammunition so much better these days that a 9mm is a good choice?
Farnam: That is the bottom line! In terminal effect of high-performance ammunition, there is not enough real difference to justify the discomfort and muzzle blast, and gun-breaking characteristics, of the .40 S&W and the .357 Sig. Peter Pi at CorBon tells me that he’s on the verge of dropping .357 Sig from his product line. He says there is just not enough demand, and there is no reason to tool-up a production line. Demand is so low that in a single day, he can make a year’s supply!
.40 S&W will be around for a while, as it has a significant following. .45 ACP will always have a following. Combined, they may make up ten percent of the market; everybody else is going to 9mm!
Here’s the history of this: I became a police officer in 1970 – AD! It hasn’t been that long ago, but a lot has happened since then. When I became a police officer, we had height and weight minimums–165 pounds and 5’11” or don’t bother applying. When your name ended in a vowel, you need not apply. Females needed not apply.
I don’t have to tell you how this has all changed since. Now, a significant number of our officers have small hands and minimal upper-body strength. One size no longer fits all, if it ever did! We have to have flexibility. When I talk with chiefs of police and administrators about this subject, I say, “Listen, you must understand this: we are not going back to 1970! Those 110 pound gals you just hired are never going to shoot any .40 S&W caliber pistol well. They are not going to like it, and they are not going to want to shoot it.”
Conversely, we can get just about everybody shooting a 9mm comfortably and successfully.
I can’t tell you how many people have said to me that those smaller officers should never have been hired. Moot point! They’re here, and bleed red blood! We have to train them, and they have to have equipment that fits and that they can genuinely use, instead of imagining that with enough “determination,” they can make-do with anything. Oh, please! Don’t insult my intelligence! She needs a pistol that fits her hand, and one that does not beat her up. Is that too much to ask?
eJournal: You mention gun fit. Thank goodness the private citizen can choose a gun with intelligently designed fit and function. That takes us back to Vicki’s comments about the slim Walther PPSM2, or her Springfield XDS, and the way grip geometry influences the amount of strength she can put into gripping it.
Vicki Farnam: First, the gun has to fit! Look at the G42 and G43. The G42 (.380 Auto) fits my hand perfectly! It is the first Glock that I’ve been able to hold and use competently. But, the G43 (9mm) does not fit my hand. The way the trigger guard is designed, it wants to remove my middle knuckle, whereas the G42 fits perfectly. There are individualized subtleties that can only be discovered through personal experience.
The G43 hurts to shoot. The G42 does not, so I am going to make a choice based on whether it fits my hand, whether it is painful or not painful to shoot, and the caliber that I think is going to work well for me. When I have to choose the .380 Auto, because the 9mm hurts and doesn’t fit my hand, I will deal with the .380 Auto!
eJournal: That is a sensitive issue! People at the gun range may very well say, “Oh, Vicki, that .380 Auto is not going to knock down a mouse.”
John Farnam: [Forcefully] And I would reply, “I would rather have her routinely carry that .380 Auto, than her have a 9mm that sits in the safe, under a layer of dust!”
Vicki Farnam: I think we have to have that flexibility and not be ridiculed, nor discouraged, from choosing a caliber, and a pistol, that really fits.
eJournal: The three of us have been at this so many years, we’re probably immune to bullying, but that is not true for the person who just this year realized that they want to be able to defend themselves. They are so vulnerable to prejudice and uninformed opinions that are stated as fact. Where can new armed citizens find the help they need?
Vicki Farnam: Women usually go to numerous people for advice, probably starting with their spouse. He will suggest, “Oh, you ought to shoot this because…” maybe because it is the spouse’s favorite gun, or it is the gun most written about in the gun magazines, or it is the gun that all of his friends have. This is all said without taking into consideration how that gun fits her. It does not consider how the ergonomics are going to affect accuracy and comfort. Maybe it is a good brand and everybody else loves it, but it doesn’t fit her hand. Unfortunately, it usually takes a lot of hit-and-miss experiences.
John Farnam: One of the more popular drills we do in our classes is “Battlefield Pickup.” Get your hands on it, and form your own opinion. I have my opinions, and I will be happy to articulate them if you want, but who cares? Answer your own questions through personal experience. Get your hands on all of them, and start forming your own opinions about what is most appealing to you, and what is not.
Ultimately, what you are going to get is the product of many compromises. Nothing is ever going to be “perfect;” you are going to give up some things in order to get other things. Ultimately, it is your choice, but you need to have a sound factual basis upon which to form an opinion, not just what Farnam says!
eJournal: Where can a beginner get reliable facts?
John Farnam: Facts come from personal experience. Listen politely to everyone, but verify through personal experience!
Vicki Farnam: …and facts come from gathering information, and trying over and over; experimenting, borrowing, going to a gun range and renting guns. That takes time and motivation, but you need to do it.
John Farnam: [Grinning] They can subscribe to the Farnam Operator Series and listen to me pontificate! (Editor’s note: more information on this resource at http://www.dtioperator.com). It is relatively new, and we have over 1,000 subscribers. It is a way for me to share my experience with a bunch of people, but that is not enough. I’ve got my opinions–some of which are right! [chuckles] But students need that personal experience, and they need to listen to me and to other people, too, because I’m wrong about some stuff–I just don’t know which stuff!
All considering carrying a gun for personal defense need to be members of Armed Citizens’ Legal Defense Network (http://armedcitizensnetwork.org)! The Network provides its members with much valuable information and advice, along with a host of other benefits.
eJournal: When choosing a carry gun, what do you think is the lower limit for trigger-pull weights?
Farnam: When you look at most pistols manufactured and intended for serious purposes, including the ones I tested at the range yesterday, trigger pull-weight is five-and-a-half to seven pounds.
eJournal: Is that heavy enough?
John Farnam: It is a compromise! Too heavy for some. Not heavy enough for others. I think that range is about right, but I know manufacturers are not comfortable with triggers on factory guns much lighter than that. God knows, we have enough accidents as it is!
Vicki Farnam: But, some guns, like the little Kimber Solo, have “heavy” triggers. When I tested it, at first, John said there must be a magazine safety, but no, there is not; you just have to keep pressing. Or, for instance, Glock is saying that the G42 trigger pull-weight is five/six pounds, when I would say in reality it is closer to eight pounds. In fact, I had to have mine replaced, because it was so heavy, I could hardly press it.
John Farnam: The smaller the gun, the heavier the trigger! Manufacturer won’t say that in so many words, but all small guns’ trigger-pulls are a pound or a pound-and-a-half heavier than that on full-sized pistols. Manufacturers know that a small gun, like the G42, or the Kimber Solo Vicki mentioned, is never going to see the inside of a holster. It is going to be thrown in a pocket or rattle around in the bottom of a handbag, along with lipstick-tubes and everything else in there. When the pistol spends its life in a holster with a protected trigger guard, even a five-pound trigger is probably fine. For example, the trigger on the Sig 320 I’m carrying now has a five-and-a-half-pound pull-weight.
eJournal: Is limited ammunition capacity in the smaller guns you mentioned a problem? Arguments in favor of carrying high-capacity pistols may keep someone from getting a five-shot revolver, when that is actually the one gun they might carry 100% of the time.
Vicki Farnam: Let me recount something that happened yesterday at the range: We ran into a holster-maker we’ve known for a long time who asked me what guns I need holsters for. I said, how about for a S&W Shield? He said, he always liked his Shield, but recently, with things that are happening in the world, he’d decided to go back to carrying a full-sized, high-capacity pistol. He went on to say that he wanted sixteen rounds, without having to reload, and he went on and on. I was thinking, “Know what? That is wonderful for you, but I don’t have that choice!”
When you hear somebody make the pronouncement that a small-capacity pistol is “unacceptable,” I think how lucky it is that he can make that choice, because it is not a choice that is available to me. Now, when the world degenerates to the point where potentially lethal encounters become a daily occurrence, I will indeed have to compromise the way I dress, move around, and find a way to carry a high-capacity pistol. No doubt!
However, as the world stands right now, I will opt for my XDS .45, as opposed to a small 9mm, because I perhaps have a little bit more power, if you will. “Power” is a word that defies definition, but when I have my .45, I might be thinking I’m better off, and when I’m thinking I’m better off, I’m less likely to be picked on, and I will be confident when I have to use it.
As John is fond of saying: “Where you stand, depends on where you sit.” When I can’t deal well with a large-capacity pistol, I want to be able to stand here with confidence and say, “I am satisfied with my choice, at least as world conditions stand right now.”
eJournal: John, what is your opinion on capacity?
John Farnam: There are going to be limits, no matter what you have. There are certain flaws I consider “annoyances,” but that I can live with. There are other flaws I consider “deal-busters.”
I can live with limited capacity, even slow reloading, when you’ve done a lot of good practice, including tactics. You have to understand, yes, giving up capacity is a limiting factor. I will go along with that. It’s not a deal-buster, when what you are getting in return (concealability) is valuable. I have several snubby revolvers that I carry now and again, mostly as a back up, but sometimes as my only gun.
eJournal: What other features can you compromise on, and which are deal-busters?
John Farnam: A “magazine safety” is a deal-buster. Absolutely not on your life – no pun intended.
Ambidextrous magazine release buttons are not a good idea, but not a deal-buster. You roll around on the ground, something is going to push that button and you are going to lose your magazine. Just understand it’s an issue.
Some manufacturers put it on there, so their marketing people have a little box to check, “Our gun is ambidextrous.” I consider most ambidextrous controls to be useless bulk. When you are left-handed, learn to use right-handed guns, because the rest of the world is right-handed, so get over it.
Forward slide serrations! How stupid can you get? Every time I’ve seen someone grab the front of the slide, their little finger drapes over the muzzle. I’ve had students ask, “Should I grind them (forward slide serrations) off?” No, just ignore them! They don’t hurt anything, so long as you ignore them. I wish they weren’t there, but I also wish rainwater was beer, and I wish I had wings! They are an annoyance, but we can just disregard them.
eJournal: New armed citizens have a lot of questions about concealed carry. Personally, I prefer to carry in a traditional holster on a belt. Others do not. When off-body carry is the one way that will allow some to go armed consistently, how can they do that safely?
John Farnam: I think some, women especially, really do not have any other choice than to carry off body. Some women are compelled to carry off-body all of the time, but all women are compelled to carry off-body some of the time. Just understand the weaknesses.
You need a purse/handbag that was specifically designed for concealed carry, and that has a competent holster within it. The worst choice is to let your pistol rattle around in the bottom of a handbag, mixed in with a bunch of other stuff. When your pistol is secured within a holster, at least the trigger is fairly well protected. There are any number of companies that make such purses. The best are made by GTM (https://guntotenmamas.com/).
I don’t consider off-body carry to be a deal-buster. I know instructors who say we are absolutely not going to allow anybody to carry a gun in a handbag. As Vicki would comment, “Easy for you to say!”
Vicki Farnam: When we choose to carry off body, then the purse/handbag that we use needs to be efficient in its capability in allowing us to securely store, and to draw, and to reholster.
John Farnam: Remember, when the handbag is in physical contact with your body and thus under your direct control, it is a “holster.” When it is not under your direct control, it becomes a “storage container,” and thus must be “adequately secured!”
eJournal: I’ll enthusiastically endorse what Vicki mentioned about the need to be able to put the gun safely back in the holster–whatever the holster is!
John Farnam: By far, the most dangerous thing that we do with pistols is put them into holsters! Safely holstering/reholstering loaded pistols is a critical skill!
eJournal: That must influence holster selection, and that concern applies whether it’s a traditional belt-holsters or a carry option like a bellyband, an ankle holster sometimes, a pocket holster, the Flashbang bra-holster (http://flashbangstore.com/products/the-flashbang), or a purse/handbag. With some holsters and carry-options, the gun cannot be safely reholstered without putting fingers of your non-gun hand near the muzzle. Is that a deal-buster for you?
Vicki Farnam: Some of those choices can be more dangerous to you than carrying a gun in a handbag! I saw some yoga pants, ostensibly with a place to carry a pistol. A lot of women will buy those and think, “Now, I can carry my gun while jogging or attending yoga class,” and they never think about having to safely put the gun back in the holster.
John Farnam: One of the things I try to emphasize to my students is that bellybands, ankle holsters, pocket holsters, Kangaroo Carry, et al all have advantages, but the one disadvantage that is shared by all is that the holster is “one way.” That is: we can draw the pistol quickly enough, but reholstering is slow, requires you to look at the holster, and requires two hands. Sometimes, when it is necessary to get the drawn pistol out of sight quickly, “reholstering” is not a viable option. The pistol will have to go in a pocket, at least for the short term.
Vicki Farnam: Safely reholstering into the Flashbang requires much practice.
John Farnam: When you use a more traditional, belt holster you have the advantage of being able to reholster quickly, one handed, and without looking.
Vicki Farnam: One of the best bellybands I’ve seen is by CrossBreed (https://www.crossbreedholsters.com/Product/Modular-Belly-Bands?nosto=pagetemplate-nosto-1), because it features an integral Kydex® holster. Everything is a trade off! The holster within the bellyband is convenient for quick reholstering, but you have to cinch it tight enough to make sure the holster stays in place.
John Farnam: We have to be careful about kidding ourselves! An example is the patrol rifle, secured in the trunk of the patrol car! We did that for years, and then it became obvious that a rifle in the trunk of a patrol car has no chance of ever being used in a gunfight, which has now been painfully demonstrated more than a few times. As it turns out, we were, in fact, kidding ourselves. We didn’t know that from the start, but as situations developed, that rifle never came out, because there was no time to go back to the trunk and get it.
With regard to personal concealed carry, when more than two seconds elapse before you have your pistol in hand, you’re probably kidding yourself!
Vicki Farnam: No more than two layers of clothing! When you add a shirt, and maybe a coat or jacket over that, that is two layers you have to go through. Any more than that, and I think you are going to spend too much time getting past all the barriers for a pistol concealed deep inside your pants, or deep inside your bra or underarm. I like the Flashbang, because you can keep your shirt untucked, and now you only have to get under one layer. You have to think about accessibility every time you get dressed!
eJournal: Tom Givens made a profound impression on me when he said every morning when you get dressed and put on your gun and holster, you should say to yourself, “I may have to shoot someone with this today,” to remain serious about why we carry guns. That same level of honesty must apply to realistic concealment. Now, what about consistency? Should we always carry the gun in the same place?
John Farnam: There’s another good question. The answer is “No.”
For many, it can’t be done, because of the way they dress, the places they go. Women, especially! Sometimes you wear pants; sometimes skirts; and sometimes dresses, so your pistol is probably going to be carried in different places on different occasions.
Men sometimes have less of a challenge in this regard, but if I were a lawyer and had to wear a coat and tie, a belt holster might not be practical. I might have to alter what I carry, and where I carry it. I might have to entertain several options!
Vicki Farnam: We have a lot of students who are doctors.
eJournal: Where do you secure a pistol in scrubs?
John Farnam: Some put a small pistol on a lanyard/holster, around their neck.
Vicki Farnam: Or, some use a bellyband. There is also a thin shoulder holster that goes under the shirt, but over the undershirt, called Kangaroo Carry (https://www.kangaroocarry.com/).
Even men have different challenges, depending on what they’re doing and where they’re going. I have learned over the years that when we lock our students into, “It has to be this way,” the gun gets left at home!
John Farnam: We have to understand that we are there for the student, and we have to help them find answers, not find answers for them. “Answers” will never be perfect. Remember Farnam’s first rule of tactics: “Do the best you can.”
Consistency can certainly be argued for, but don’t argue for it too passionately, because there are some people for whom absolute consistency just does not work.
What ever we come up with will be the product of a thousand compromises. As noted above, it may not be perfect, but it may be the best we are going to do. As Vicki said, right now, you dress in a particular way, but maybe tomorrow morning, we may all be wearing fatigues and carrying rifles. Our whole conversation will be rendered irrelevant by external circumstances!
eJournal: We have got to be aware enough that we adapt and evolve.
John Farnam: And do it fast! We have to have the capacity to quickly change-up combinations as necessary. So today, we talk to students and we say, this is how we do things right now. What we are doing right now is probably acceptable, not perfect, but acceptable.
I’m reminded of the story of when Einstein was a physics professor. A student approached him and said, “I noticed that all the questions on this year’s final exam are the same questions as on last year’s final.” Einstein said, “Yes, son, the questions are all the same; the answers are all different!”
Maybe that is a good way to put it. The questions don’t change; the answers change, depending on a bunch of stuff over which we have no control. We have to be flexible enough to make good decisions based on the best information we can get, and as fast as we can, and hope some of them are right.
eJournal: For years, you’ve taught that it is better to make a decision and go with it than stand around dithering.
John Farnam: I’ll add: Better that you have a sound, factual basis to rely on, rather than rumors and gun-shop gossip. When you have a solid, factual foundation, verified through personal experience, then you’ll make sound decisions. Still no guarantee they are always going to be right, but it will be better quality decisions than when you rely on vacuous myths.
eJournal: A subscription to the Farnam Operator Series (http://defense-training.com/2015/dtis-operator-series/) is one source for facts by which to inform better decisions. How does that work?
John Farnam: You can subscribe by the month or by the year, and I put out about one video lecture a week but the subscriber can access any of them. We have filmed some here at the SHOT Show, and more at the range day a few days ago. It all comes down to me trying to relay my years of experience.
eJournal: There are also books. Both of you are authors. Vicki, what are your titles?
Vicki Farnam: The first book is Teaching Women to Shoot: A Law Enforcement Instructors’ Guide and the second edition of that book has just come out and is available as an eBook from Amazon and is available in hard copy either from us (http://defense-training.com) or from Amazon. The second book is Women Learning to Shoot: A Guide for Law Enforcement Officers.
eJournal: John, is your fundamental instructional guide, The Farnam Method of Defensive Handgunning still in print?
Farnam: Yes, and it is now in its second edition, as is its sister book on rifles and shotguns! We have a lot of demand for rifle training now.
eJournal: That can only increase if terrorist attacks and other mass murders become more frequent.
John Farnam: We teach people to use lethal force to solve security problems they can’t solve otherwise. Without a gun you have few options. With the gun, you have a few more options, but there are still no guaranteed outcomes.
Vicki Farnam: The very first question you asked us was how do we provide answers to the beginner who is starting to carry a gun. The answers have to start before they decide to carry a gun. I am firmly convinced of this.
When the person who comes to a class has not already started thinking about the burden and responsibility that they are taking upon themselves, they are not ready to carry a gun. They first have to be aware of themselves in their environment without a gun. What do they do, and how do they observe what is going on around them when they are not carrying a handgun, so that by the time they make that choice to carry a gun, they are ready for the responsibility.
Learning how to carry must become integral with every moment of your life, if you are going to carry that gun. Too few people think of it in those terms. They think, “Okay, today I will put a gun on, but it has nothing to do with the rest of my life, when I don’t think I’m in danger.” We have to help our students and plant in their minds that the gun has to become an integral part of their lives, not an appendage, nor fashion accessary, that you attach to your life when you want.
eJournal: Words to live by! Thank you so much for sharing your solutions with us here in this interview and for all these years in your classes, books, videos and through example.
Learn more about John and Vicki Farnam’s work at http://defense-training.com, https://www.facebook.com/defensetraininginternational, and https://www.facebook.com/dtiwomen/?fref=ts
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