Rifles for Defense
An Interview with John and Vicki Farnam
Interview by Gila Hayes
Renowned firearms instructor John Farnam has a reputation for telling it like it is – even when the reality is inconvenient. One fact that both John Farnam and his wife Vicki Farnam raise frequently in their classes is the relative inadequacy of the pistol compared to the rifle, so when the opportunity arose to spend a little time with the Farnams earlier this year, I asked for an update on rifles for defense, knowing the value of their instruction from personal experience.
eJournal: I remember my first rifle class with you over 20 years ago, when we trained for two days in 100-degree-plus temperatures. You had us keep the rifles loaded and stressed that they’d better be loaded if we had to use them for defense, so we must know how to handle them safely and effectively. I clearly remember thinking, “Here is an instructor who knows first-hand how serious this is.” It is hard to forget that kind of instruction!
Although you gave us a great interview back in 2009 about rifles for self defense (reader, see archives at https://armedcitizensnetwork.org/rifles-in-self-defense), much can change over eight years. Increases in concealed carry have focused newer armed citizens on handguns, sometimes at the risk of eclipsing rifles. What are we missing if all we learn is handgunning?
[Photos: When the Farnams hunt, their rifles are not specialized hunting gear. They test the same rifles they keep for defense. To the right, John Farnam holds the Robinson Arms XCR in .300 BLK at the culmination of a wild boar hunt and to the far right, Vicki Farnam used Robar’s PolymAR-15 VF, an ultra-light weight .223, to take this painted ram.]
John Farnam: As you’ve heard me say before, when you’re called upon to save your life, the first thing your hand gets to will probably be a pistol. I encourage all my students to start their training with pistols, because that is probably the most important gun you have. When students come to a rifle course, I like them to have come to a pistol course first. But then, you’ve also heard me say, there are limitations to pistols. We carry pistols because they’re convenient, not because they are effective.
In relative terms, a pistol’s effectiveness is compromised. With a pistol, when you have to shoot someone, you probably will have to shoot them multiple times and even then, there’s a good chance you won’t notice any immediate behavioral change. The most likely behavioral change you’re going to notice is that they are going to run away. People will ask, “Is that a good outcome?” Well, yes, unless they are running toward your children’s bedroom or something like that. It is a “good outcome,” so long as I know I do not need to shoot any more right now.
One thing I am including in pistol classes right now is longer range shooting, out to 20 or 30 meters with a pistol. In this “Age of Terrorism,” I think this has now emerged as a more relevant issue than it has been in the past. Some say that will never happen, but frankly, I don’t know. Unlikely things have happened! What are the chances when throwing dice, you’ll throw a 12? It is one in 36. What are the chances that you’ll throw six 12s in a row? It is astronomical, but I have seen it happen. I sat there and watched it happen! I guess I’ve come to believe that just because something is unlikely does not mean that it is never going to happen.
As the world situation changes, our whole formula has to change. I have decided that in this day and age we better be able to shoot targets 30 meters away with our pistols–with all the ills that attach. Your pistol is far less accurate than your rifle; it doesn’t hold 30 rounds; pistol rounds are not nearly as effective as rifle rounds! On the other hand, a pistol is probably better than any other option we’ll have readily to hand, so we better be prepared to maximize our effectiveness, be prepared to shoot multiple times, and we need to be prepared that even when we do everything right, we may not get desired behavioral changes.
eJournal: What is a reasonable expectation of how much time may pass between hits and observed incapacitation?
John Farnam: Within five to ten seconds. You’ve heard me use the term, “Dead Man’s Five Seconds.” That is, with no blood pressure at all, how long would a person remain conscious and animated. Well, it depends on which cardiologist you ask. I’ve also heard about the dead man’s twelve seconds, and the dead man’s fifteen seconds, and twenty seconds. The least amount of time I’ve ever heard is the dead man’s five seconds.
Not having the benefit of a medical school education, I don’t know which one is more authoritative. From my personal experience, I remember I shot a young lad some years ago in Viet Nam at very close range with my issued 1911 pistol, in .45 ACP, which no one ever taught me how to carry and use in a tactical setting. The single round hit dead center at a range less than one meter, and he was so impressed that he ran away, displaying scant discomfort. I remember thinking, “Wasn’t he supposed to explode in a shower of sparks or something?”
That was the beginning of my understanding that much of the training I’d had up to that point was nonsense. I don’t say that maliciously! I think our trainers did the best they could. They did not know, either. The body of knowledge upon which we rely today did not exist back then. They did the best they could with the limited knowledge to which they had access; it just wasn’t very good. A lot of my colleagues paid a high price for that. I was lucky: I walked away from it, albeit through no fault of my own!
Now, we are in this “Age of Terrorism,” and I am telling my students, “You know what? You ought to think about getting a rifle.” Then, just as with your pistol, you need to think about where you are going to put it, when you “go armed,” as we all do. Where are you going to put it?
eJournal: I do worry about leaving a rifle unattended in a vehicle.
John Farnam: Someone could break into your car and steal it; that is possible. You have to balance that against not having the gun. I can tell you what I do. I have a rifle in the back seat of my car. It is in a low-profile case; many are manufactured. I just saw one today [at the 2017 SHOT Show] that is called the “Sneaky Bag.” Blackhawk calls theirs the “Diversion Case,” dancing around the issue. The issue? It does not look like a gun case. Does that mean it won’t get stolen? No, it just makes it less likely.
I have decided to act instead of doing nothing, and risk always attaches to acting. But, risk also attaches to “doing nothing.” The beauty of doing nothing is that “nothing” can always be done perfectly. Ever notice that? The moment you step forward and act and do something, someone will point out where you could have done it better, and I promise you they’ll be right.
When I fly domestically on commercial airlines, it is the same thing. I fly with rifles and pistols in checked baggage. Per TSA regulations, they have to go in a hard case, inside my roller luggage, and away I go. Could my rifle get stolen? Sure. I balance that against not taking it and not having it.
eJournal: What about a rifle that is out of your hands in a home with small children?
John Farnam: We have several good compromises here. You know from taking my course that when a rifle is under your direct control, I like it in “Carry Mode:” round chambered, manual safety “on,” fully-charged magazine inserted. When it leaves your direct control, now we have several options.
A rifle that is not under my direct control–such as when it is by my bedside at night– is usually in “Transport Mode:” bolt forward, dry-fired on an empty chamber, manual safety “off,” magazine inserted. When needed in an emergency, I have to pick it up, run the bolt, the manual safety is already “off.” With most Western-style military rifles, after you dry fire, the manual safety won’t go back to the “on” position. That is by design.
In the Soviet world, rifles don’t work that way. You get a Kalashnikov, the safety will work either way, hammer cocked or hammer down. In the Western world, I think we did a little better job of thinking that through. When I pick my rifle up, when the safety is “off” and will not go “on,” I know there is no round chambered. I don’t have to check further, I don’t have to look; I know it is not loaded.
When the safety works normally, going “on” and “off” manually, what does that tell me? Nothing! That provides me with no useful information at all! There may be a round chambered, there may not. This is why “Transport Mode” is so useful!
Could a seven-year old child run the bolt and then fire the rifle? Maybe. “Transport Mode” does not represent absolute protection, but that is the way my rifle normally is when it is out of my direct control, but I still want it in a reasonable state of readiness.
Most gun safes are not designed for quick access so it really doesn’t make much sense to have a rifle in carry mode, nor in transport mode, while it is inside most gun safes, because I really can’t get it out of there very quickly anyway. There are some low-profile lock-ups, designed for quicker access. Once again, it is all a compromise. How long is too long? A second and a half? You tell me.
I encourage my students to think this through and I then tell them, “You are going to have to come up with a suitable compromise between “safety” and “readiness,” that fits your situation. Risks attach to having guns around; risks attach to not having guns around. Whatever compromise you settle on, it will not be perfect.
eJournal: Let’s say I’m new to rifles, I take your course and decide I need a rifle in the home, place of business, or vehicle. What are the pros and cons?
John Farnam: First, let’s ask, “Why do we want a rifle?” Range, capacity and terminal effects. When I have to shoot someone, would I rather have a rifle or a pistol? I’d rather shoot them with a rifle. Why? Because people shot with rifles go down faster and they stay down longer. The entire fight is much shorter than is the case when pistols are used. It doesn’t mean that multiple shots won’t be required, but it is much less likely than with your pistol. With a rifle, I have greater ammunition capacity, greater range, and with some rifles, I have greater penetration, although with .223 there is some argument. Those are all advantages.
Disadvantage? Rifles are not low profile. They can’t be carried in holsters. Maybe the day will come when we all carry rifles around openly, but that day is not here yet. Until then, I have to carry it low profile, close by, but out of sight. Right now, my rifle is in my car, which is nowhere near us, so it is not possible for me to get to it quickly right now. That is a compromise. I made my choice, but I do have pistols on me.
The vast majority of the pistols most commonly used do not have a manual safety. All rifles, on the other hand, have manual safeties. The difference is this: the pistol you carry around sits in a holster, and assuming it is an acceptable holster, the trigger guard is completely encapsulated.
Conversely, when you carry a rifle, the trigger is hanging in space; it is not protected. In my opinion, the rifle has to have a manual safety, and the safety has to be in the “on” position as you are carrying the rifle around. This is why I do not like ambidextrous safeties: one is always facing to the outside. It is just too easy to brush it off and not know it. In addition, I advise you to slip your hand up the pistol grip and check the safety every couple of minutes. It can get inadvertently pushed to the “off” position, just from moving around the rifle.
eJournal: At what point in the defense scenario do we disengage the safety? We’re not addressing SWAT where several officers stack before going through the door, safety off, finger indexed up on the frame, but we might have rifles in our hands facing a home invasion. When do we disengage the safety?
John Farnam: I disagree with some of my best friends about this! I believe when you grasp the pistol grip, the safety comes off and stays off. I have my finger straight, in the “register” position (off the trigger), and I have control of the gun. I have close friends who say, no, the safety stays on until just the instant before you have to shoot, and afterwards, it goes back on right away.
I don’t find that acceptable because I’ve had too many students who had the safety on when they needed to shoot. Then they will try to pull the trigger two or three more times until I say something sarcastic like, “That safety works great, doesn’t it? Listen, that safety should have been off the moment your hand hit the pistol grip.”
You can’t be so afraid of your gun! You can’t be so petrified that something terrible might happen. There are no guarantees in any event! We are not in the happy-ending business. Even when no gun ever discharges, this is not going to have a good outcome, but some bad outcomes are worse than others. I am determined that when someone gets hurt or killed here, it is not going to be me or someone I am attached to.
eJournal: Let’s talk about equipment selection. Over the years, Vicki has taught us a lot about matching the gun to the shooter’s physical abilities, so I’d like to ask about equipment for small-statured shooters. Think, for example, about a couple who just has one rifle. Now what?
Vicki Farnam: We have to have a rifle that accommodates her short arms, so that when she brings the stock up to her cheek she can correctly see the sights, or see through the optic. When the stock is too long, that’s not going to happen. Her husband may not understand that she brings their rifle up and “Oh, wait,” she can’t see anything. We have to have a rifle with a stock that is short enough so that she can adequately see the sights! We know that there are many, many rifles that prevent that from happening for a short-statured person with short arms, man or woman.
Rifle weight is the other thing. Many rifles are so heavy that she can’t hold the front of the rifle up long enough to establish a good sight picture. There are certainly rifle options that are satisfactory in this regard. One of the best is the WW II-vintage M-1 carbine with a wood stock. It is light, short, and recoil is minimal, even less than with a .223. That works well for a lot of women, but it is a rifle that a tall man can shoot, also.
A tall person can shoot a short rifle better than a short person can shoot a rifle that is too long and/or too heavy. The M-1 carbine is a good compromise, and there are many manufacturers making new ones, but there are still a lot around from WW II, also. Caliber is “30 M1" or “30 Carb.” You can get CorBon DPX in this caliber. I killed a very large pig with it; he was close to 700 pounds!
There are also some ARs on platforms that are very light weight; the lightest that I know is made by ROBAR and weighs just over five pounds. It is called the “PolymAR,” and my version is called the “VF.” Weight is not much more than many handguns! A small person who is not accustomed to holding a big rifle will find it very useable. By contrast, a small-statured person with a rifle weighing ten pounds, will not be very successful.
eJournal: When you teach small-statured students, do you modify technique to mitigate the weight and stock length issue?
Vicki Farnam: Yes, and some might be considered “extreme” by a rifle purist, but they work. If she is very slight, short, and her arms are not very powerful, we turn her nearly 90 degrees to the rifle. Although we still have the rifle on her shoulder, it can also actually rest across her chest just below her collarbone. Then the arm of the hand holding the forend can be braced against the body.
That is the position I’ve had to use for a young woman who was about as big around as a pencil. She was a police officer, and she had to be able to use that rifle. She became extremely accurate with it once she realized she did not have to be in the traditional, “ideal” position. “Ideal” is not always what is going to work. Practical is what is going to work. When you have to modify a stance in order to use a rifle, we do it.
John Farnam: I’ve lost count of how many times we have talked about this with chiefs of police who say, “Well, golly, that is just not the way we do it here.”
“Well, Chief, YOU hired her, now don’t tell me we have to do things the traditional way. YOU hired her, now WE have to train her to be successful.”
Vicki Farnam: But, the same goes for families, for husbands and wives, for mothers and sons and daughters. You have to find the rifle that will work for the least physically-capable person. They need to be able to use the rifle. Larger individuals, or the people that are more prepared, can use any rifle. Again, this may not be ideal, but it can work in all practicality. Or, everyone has his or her own rifle, set-up for them individually. That is a more satisfactory, but more expensive, solution!
eJournal: What should we know about rifle ammunition selection?
John Farnam: Most of the practice we do on the range with our .223 (5.56x45) rifles is with 55-grain hardball. Actually, it works fine. When I was overseas, we shot a lot of people with 55-grain hardball, and I found that within 150 meters (so long as the bullet didn’t have to penetrate anything substantial), the enemy went down just fine, and stayed down!
150 meters seemed to be the threshold for this caliber. My troopers were good marksmen. At 200 meters they could still hit them, and the enemy went down, but got back up. That bullet was so de-energized at that point! We’ve known for 50 years now that this is an issue. For military use of the rifle, we need more range.
eJournal: Are there scenarios in which a private citizen might want to up-size to a caliber with a “three in it?”
John Farnam: You mean like a .308 (7.62x51) or 7.62x39 (30 Soviet)? Sure, let’s talk about rifle calibers:
The .300 AAC Blackout (7.62x35) is superior to the .223 in nearly every way. There’s probably technically a little more recoil, but it really doesn’t amount to anything. It is a heavier bullet, longer range, better penetration. All the stuff that a .223 isn’t, the .300Blk corrects. The problem, of course, is I really can’t have .223 and .300 Blackout in the same area, for reasons you well know (see for example 300-blk-ar15-kaboom).
The 30 Soviet, which we call the 7.62x39, is probably the best military round ever made. I wish we would adopt it! It is a genuine 300-meter gun with excellent penetration, but most Americans have not migrated there. They sell lots of Kalashnikovs and most of the guns chambered for that caliber are Kalashnikovs; it is a good choice.
However, for most people who want a rifle for domestic defense, the .223 is probably a better choice, if for no other reason than the ammunition is more easily available. You can find .223 anywhere.
A .308 is a 500-meter gun, it will penetrate whatever you’ve got, and in a military scenario I think you can argue legitimately for that. In a domestic defensive scenario, when do we need all of that range? When do we need all of that penetration? Is there a situation where all that penetration is less than desirable? Yes!
I love the .308; I own several and they’re wonderful, but you know what? When I run a course I have a .223, like most of my students. As a personal defense weapon or as a patrol rifle, I think the .223 is ideal. We don’t need all that penetration; we don’t need that range.
The big issue in the police business has been car doors. The .223 is very disappointing on car doors. I just did a vehicle defense course last weekend. My students were astonished at the percentage of .223 rounds that did not go through.
eJournal: What about getting rifle bullets through auto glass?
John Farnam: Auto glass can be almost equally disappointing. Not only do bullets often not go through, when they do go through they are badly deflected. Cars are a big part of our lives, so that has been an issue. This is at least partially addressed with any good bonded-core bullet. However, my favorite is CorBon DPX, a homogenous all-copper bullet that does go right through car doors and auto glass without deflection.
It goes through auto glass without deflecting, because you don’t have the traditional “cup-and-core,” a brass jacket over a lead core. Jacketed bullets often separate when penetrating auto glass: the jacket peels off, and the lead goes in a different direction. That does not happen when the bullet is homogenous. For serious purposes, DPX is the best way to go. But, any good bonded-core bullet will render performance superior to 55-grain lead hardball.
eJournal: What are we balancing between failure to get through obstacles vs. over-penetration? Can we buy our way out of that problem with top quality ammunition?
John Farnam: What is the probability my bullet is going to go through-and-through a human body, and squirting out the other side? I don’t know, somewhere around 50-50, depending upon caliber, and all kinds of other things over which I have no control.
This is a question that is difficult to answer, and I get asked it a lot. Some people who like shotguns for home defense advocate using 7½ birdshot just to address that problem, because none of those 7½ birdshot pellets will probably come out. When you do that, I suggest that you’re kidding yourself. Half the time 7½ shot does not stop fleeing birds, much less charging felons!
The best way to address this issue of over-penetration is through accurate shooting. We have to be competent marksmen, but there is still always a chance that my bullet will squirt out the other side and injure someone else.
However, when the wrong person is shot, it is not usually not the result of accurate shooting combined with over-penetration. It is the result of panic! Panicking on the trigger, that is your worst enemy, but it invariably generates shots that miss altogether!
eJournal: Instead of spending big bucks on specialized guns and ammunition and gewgaws, invest the money and effort in honing marksmanship capabilities.
John Farnam: That is so important. We don’t look for excuses to lose; we find ways to win. That is the difference between the live professional and a dead amateur.
You paint yourself into a corner when you say, “Unless I have this gun, or this ammunition, I can’t be effective.” Don’t you see what you are doing?! (exasperated) It is a gun, let’s run it! That has little to do with equipment, and everything to do with attitude. We have got to change that attitude.
eJournal: By showing us a winning mindset, you set yourselves apart from being just teachers, of which there are many, and you both are mentors, of which there are very few.
John Farnam: So much of what we teach students is the attitude, and it comes back to what you project to them. The student thinks, “I need to sound like that when I talk. I need to have that attitude.” You set the example, articulate it, and try to help students understand that, without that attitude, all the mechanical stuff really is superfluous.
eJournal: It may turn out that with a “can do” attitude, questions about adding rifles to our defensive capability have fewer real downsides and more upsides.
John Farnam: In answer to your question, “Should I get a rifle?” Well, of course the answer is: I don’t know, because there are people out there who shouldn’t own any kind of gun, but when you do get a serious rifle, then come to us, or any good instructor. Train with it, learn how to run it, how to store it, how to carry it, how to keep it with a reasonable degree of safety, how to camouflage it and how to have it near by when you need it.
There is no doubt: rifles give you a whole new level of capability. Most of my students tell me, “Once I learned how to use a rifle, I don’t want to be without one.” That’s probably good.
eJournal: Best of all, you’ve opened our eyes to different ways of addressing today’s dangers more proactively and with less hesitation. I hope more of our Network members can take one of your courses and learn from both of you personally. I would not trade the times I’ve been privileged to be your student for anything.
Don’t miss the chance to train with John and Vicki Farnam of Defense Training International when they travel to your region. See defense-training.com/training-courses/ for information about classes with the Farnams and learn more about John and Vicki Farnam at http://defense-training.com/about/. Between them, they have written a number of books, with one dealing specifically with the topic of this interview. See this link. Also check out http://dtioperator.com, their video subscription series.
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