Ready & Willing

Flipping through the channels the other night, I caught part of a documentary about old West gunfighters. The show had a segment that highlighted Wild Bill Hickok. As you probably know, Hickok was a lawman in the mid 1800s with a revered reputation for his gun fighting skills. But the point that really made me sit up and take notice was Hickok’s attention to detail in ensuring that his equipment was ready to fight at all times.

Hickok’s weapon of choice was a pair of Colt Navy model 1851 percussion cap/black powder revolvers in .36 caliber. Each chamber of the revolver’s cylinder must be hand-loaded. The individual chamber must be filled with a measured amount of gunpowder. A cloth wad then tamps this down, and a lead ball is placed on top. A built-in lever is used to press the ball into the chamber, and then brass percussion caps (primers) are inserted into the rear of the chambers to be ignited with the pistol’s hammer.

I’ve never tried to load such a firearm, but from the show’s description and illustration of the process, I’d tend to believe it would take even an experienced individual at least 10 minutes for two pistols.

Because of the loose tolerances, these pistols were known for developing condensation in the chambers. The moisture would dampen the gunpowder and, predictably, cause misfires. A that fails to fire when you pull the trigger can get you killed, then and now.

So what did Hickok do that caught my attention? Every morning, he’d unload those revolvers, and then reload them with fresh, dry powder and percussion caps. He’d also unload and then reload the first pistol before unloading the second. Thus, he always had at least one pistol ready to fire. That’s a level of professional readiness of equipment that’s rarely matched, even today.

We all know officers that will only draw, fire and/or inspect their firearms when they are absolutely forced to. Such officers, IMHO, are dinosaurs, and we’re all well aware of the fate of the dinosaur.

Don’t Be a Dinosaur

Dinosaurs refuse to practice their draw, even though many are using level 3 holsters that require practice to maintain an acceptable level of proficiency. They refuse to participate in self-initiated live-fire practice, simply because they would have to clean their guns afterwards. I personally saw the slide on a dinosaur’s gun “freeze” on the rails after he discharged a single round at a mandatory qualification. There was not a microscopic drop of lubricant to be found on his rails.

When were the rails last lubed? Why, at last year’s qualification, of course!

These people are living in denial. They think they don’t need to really be ready, because nothing bad will ever happen to them. Although reloading with fresh ammunition daily like Hickok is no longer necessary, a frequent inspection of the cleanliness, lubrication and functionality (i.e. readiness) of your firearm is.

How often is “frequent?” That’s up to you. Do you consider yourself to be an amateur, like the dinosaur? Or are you a professional like Wild Bill Hickok? Let your conscious be your guide, but I can tell you this for sure. I’ve been a student of officer-involved incidents for almost three decades, and I’ve never found a case where an officer was injured or killed because his equipment was “too ready.”

Be Willing

Hickok’s reputation as a successful gun fighter was also built upon his willingness to shoot when necessary. Having equipment that is ready to employ is worthless without the willingness to use it.

Two Daves I know cover this subject very well: Dave Spaulding, in his two Handgun Combatives books, as well as his Developing the Combative Mindset presentation and Lt. Col Dave Grossman, who discusses the willingness to lawfully employ deadly force in his books On Killing and On Combat, as well as his Bullet-Proof Mind presentation. Read the books and attend the presentations. They will be some of the best time and money you could ever spend.

As the Duke Put It

But long before Spaulding and Grossman appeared in the training arena, there was a man who summed up the undeniable necessity of willingness in a way that only he could have.

In his last movie, The Shootist, released in 1976, John Wayne played the character of John Bernard Books. Books was a terminally ill gunfighter with a reputation of invincibility, who had come to a small town to die peacefully. Ron Howard, which at the time still greatly resembled Opie Taylor, played a stable boy named Gillom.

Gillom convinced Books to take him shooting. Gillom had nearly tied him in shooting. After they were done, Gillom asked the great gunfighter how he had won so many gunfights. Books (with John Wayne’s unmistakable drawl) told him the absolute truth about armed conflict: “Friend, there’s no one out there shooting back at you. It isn’t being fast or even accurate that counts. It’s being willing. I found out early on that most men, regardless of cause or need, aren’t willing. They’ll draw a breath or bat an eye before they’ll pull a trigger. I won’t.”


Always remember, it’s the suspect who sets the tone and decides what level of force, if any at all, will be necessary during a contact. Although the vast majority of police contacts involve no physical force whatsoever, the possibility exists at all times. Adopt Wild Bill Hickok’s level of readiness. Bring to it John Wayne’s level of willingness. These two factors, which I consider critical combative concepts, can only help you to improve your ability to prevail in any deadly-force confrontation.

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