Should you carry a back-up gun?

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Many people believe that if you carry a gun, you should also carry a backup. How sound is the reasoning?

“Two is one, and one is none.”

You may have heard that saying, or something similar, in regard to carrying two guns. The rationale for doing so is usually some variant of “stuff happens.”

Let’s go back to the article I wrote on the idea of plausibility (and why not paying attention to it can actually leave you less protected) and apply the concept to the backup gun. In private sector self defense, if reloading is almost never needed how much less likely is it to need a backup gun?

(Yes, there are one or two specific instances involving backup guns where the victims were knowingly marked for death by violent gangs and were saved by having backup guns stashed around their places of business, but beyond those extreme cases finding instances of the need for a backup gun in the private sector is virtually impossible. If you’re ever knowingly marked for death by a gang, then by all means carry a backup gun!)

Most of the arguments illustrating a need for a backup gun usually involve scenarios of protracted gunfights with multiple assailants; instances where your primary gun is taken or knocked away from you; or where you need to arm another person to help fend off the hordes of attackers. I know them all, because I for many years I used them to justify my own carrying of a backup gun. I eventually had to admit to myself that none of them even remotely resemble how the best research says private sector defensive shootings actually happen (or are resolved), even in the worst case scenarios.

Yes, it’s possible that one of those nightmare scenarios could occur — but remember that lots of things are possible, in the sense that the laws of physics don’t prevent them. Very few are plausible and even fewer likely. In the meantime you’re devoting time, money, energy, and space to carry an extra and almost certainly unneeded gun around with you.

In a perfect world that wouldn’t be a concern, but in the real world — where our time, money, energy and belt space are limited — those are consumed resources you can’t use preparing for the things that are more likely to get you killed or injured.

The logic of carrying a backup for the “worst case” scenario isn’t complete, either, because there’s no way that you could ever carry all the hardware you’d need for an absolute “worst case” event. This is why it’s vital to remember that you can’t prepare for everything; it’s simply not possible, which is why you have to make logical, plausible choices.

Even with a backup, you won’t be prepared for everything that could happen; after all, it’s possible that your backup could break, be taken from you, knocked out of your hand, or run out of ammunition. By the worst case scenario logic, then, you should be carrying a backup for the backup. Extend the logic: how about a backup for the backup of your backup? See how quickly talking about what’s merely possible, without a realistic assessment of the actual risks and the resources needed to prepare for them, gets downright silly?

The training time you have available is perhaps your most precious resource, and the backup gun is going to consume it out of all proportion to its utility. If you’re carrying a backup gun you not only need to practice with that gun, but you also need to practice a variety of implementations: employing it because your other gun is gone, because you’re injured, or as an alternative to your primary because of access issues. That’s time that you can’t spend working on vital skills with your primary gun, or in a broader context time that you can’t spend learning other skills that could both save your life and which you are considerably more likely to need.

Is there a plausible rationale, then, for the backup gun in defensive shooting? Perhaps there is: carrying a backup gun as an alternative to reloading your main gun. This makes far more sense than some of the Red Dawn scenarios I’ve heard, but remember that reloading during an incident is so uncommon as to be rare, at least in the private sector with which I’m concerned.

It’s perhaps more plausible to think of the backup as a ready solution to a primary gun malfunction, in the same way that needing a reload to fix a malfunction is plausible. If your main gun stops running it’s likely to be faster to access the backup gun than it is to clear the problem (if it can be done at all.) We know that pistols do occasionally malfunction, and it’s not at all illogical to assume that it could plausibly happen during your response to an attack. Looked at in this light, a backup gun in lieu of the reload starts to make some sense.

The big issue is, again, training. You’ll get plenty of opportunity to practice reloading skills in your normal training and practice, even if you don’t train that skill specifically. Employing the backup gun is more complex: you have to recognize the need for the backup; you have to fight against the natural grasp reflex that causes you to hang on to the malfunctioning gun; you have to either stow or jettison the primary (or decide to shoot one-handed); and you have to access and deploy the backup.

All of those thing require a pretty specific procedure and at least one option (dropping the primary on the ground so that you can shoot the backup with maximum control) is both hard on equipment and generally not allowed on most ranges. Another of those options (shooting one-handed, likely weak-handed) also dramatically reduces your ability to deliver rapid, accurate shots at any given distance.

To use the backup as a preference to a reload, then, is simply going to take more of your limited training and practice time; without it, your response is likely to be less efficient than the reload/malfunction clearance would have been, if for no other reason than it’s easier to practice.

(None of the foregoing is meant to address the unique needs of the law enforcement officer, whose need for a backup gun is far more established than for those of us in the private sector. Their mission is not our mission, and their risks are not our risks. Using police incidents to illustrate a need for those of us in the private sector is a context mismatch.)

So, should you carry a backup gun? You have to make that decision based on your perception of the actual (not imaginary) risks you face, along with an honest assessment of your available training and practice resources. In most cases, I suspect the answer is likely to be “no”.

-=[ Grant ]=-


About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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