Hollywood Gun-Handling: Don't Believe What You See

posted on May 23, 2018

A few years ago I was working on a story about Tom Horn, the frontier hit man. Checking on facts through my historical sources, I kept finding the notation that Horn used a Winchester Model 1894 rifle during his Wyoming escapades. Well now, heck, that just couldn’t be!  I knew that Tom Horn packed a big-bore Winchester Model 1876 during that time. I had seen the gun, with its worn finish and button magazine.

I blew about an hour going back over the various books that referenced Horn and his various killings. Finally, it dawned on me that Tom Horn did, in fact, use a Model 1894 chambered in .30-30 Win. during his last years in Wyoming. It was Steve McQueen who had used the Model 1876 in that great “Tom Horn” movie, which I had enjoyed watching on several occasions.

Certainly, if you ask any of us if movies influence our ideas about personal defense, we would give you a resounding negative response. But, I really don’t think that anyone really realizes how much they are subconsciously affected by what they see on the screen.

This is especially true with people who have never been involved in an actual gunfight, or folks who have never even witnessed one. It is even more of a reality for people who have never taken defensive training from instructors who know what really happens in gunfights because they have actually been there. The subconscious influence of movies becomes the only reference that they have regarding people using guns to defend themselves. While you can undoubtedly think of more, a few examples might be in order.

In countless films, we have seen the hero whip out his shooting iron, fire from the hip, and smoke the bad guy at 25 yards, or more. In reality, most gunfight survivors will tell you that when they saw their sights, they got hits. And when they didn’t see their sights, they didn’t get fight-stopping hits. Using your sights in a defensive situation doesn’t add to your ability to win, it multiplies it.

Westerns, cop shows and adventure flicks all tend to show the hero stepping out into the open, planting his feet, squaring his shoulders, and taking on all comers. In the movies, heroes don’t hide behind stuff to shoot the bad guys. That’s what cowards and villains do.

In truth, being aware of and using cover is another defensive skill that greatly increases your ability to survive a deadly encounter. When a person quickly gets behind something that will stop bullets, he has gone a long way toward successfully surviving the conflict. We preach this to our students, but it often seems like it just isn’t getting through to them. This is yet another problem I blame on the subconscious influence of movies.

Right in line with this, while we munch away on the popcorn, is seeing the hero facing an attack by multiple aggressors. He solves this particular challenge by standing flat-footed out in the open and shooting with blinding speed, shooting so fast that he knocks down all of his attackers before they can even get a bullet into him.

In the real world, if you tried this with two (or more) attackers, you would, more than likely, get shot. Yes, I know that some people can clean the El Presidente drill with impressive speed. But it is a good idea to remember that those three silhouette targets are not shooting back. If the defensive shooter can’t find a way to get completely away from an attack by multiple shooters, the use of cover and proper attention to the pistol sights are the only hope he has of surviving.

I could go on and on with examples of the faulty pistolcraft that we see in movies. But I’m sure that you get my point. We are all affected, to one degree or another, by the gun handling that we have seen in the movies and on the TV screen. When discussing it, we can quickly see the mistakes, but the bad examples still lurk back there in that part of our mind that we call the subconscious. And those bad examples can take charge of our actions if we don’t have something of value to take their place.

This is why getting good professional training is so important. The instructor who has actually “seen the elephant,” as the old timers used to say, can help us avoid these mistakes by teaching us better skills that greatly increase our chances of survival. They help us build a personal-defense plan that is based on reality instead of fiction.

By now some of you must be thinking that I am really down on movies and TV shows. Nothing could be further from the truth. I find them to be great entertainment. And not all of them demonstrate bad defensive gun handling. Tom Selleck’s “Jesse Stone” series is a good example of one actor who tries to do it right. Sadly, however, for every show that demonstrates good gun handling, we can name many that do not.

So I encourage you to continue to enjoy the movies and good TV shows. Just remember that they are fiction and entertainment, not training films. And be aware of the subconscious influence that they have on all of us to one extent or another. Being conscious of the difference helps us to deal with reality while we still enjoy the fiction.


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