“The ability to remain cool under pressure comes more easily to some people than to others. But it is in no sense out of anyone’s reach. In fact it is the first qualification of a man that Kipling calls for in his immortal poem If. It is illustrated beautifully every time you see a quarterback calmly select and hit his receiver while under the threat of more than one thousand pounds of rock-hard, cat-quick muscle only a step away. It’s a matter of will. If you know that you can keep your head, and that you must keep your head, you probably willl keep your head.” - Jeff Cooper, Principles of Personal Defense
An Early Morning Test
The radio in my patrol car crackles to life, startling me out of my sleep deprived third shift catatonia. “...Rural units be advised, a light colored Chrysler sedan was just seen leaving northbound from the area after a male subject brandished a handgun and threatened to shoot the caller. Registration comes back to an apartment complex in the next town to the north. Approximate time lapse 10 minutes...”
“Shit, they’re heading straight for me.” I think to myself.
They may even be driving down Main Street right now. I blink the sleep out of my eyes, flip on the headlights, and set condition yellow. I should have been there to begin with, but some things do slip at three a.m. I quickly cruise between blacked out, sleeping households as I wind my way back to the hastily built, and just as hastily dilapidated, apartment complex on the northeast corner of town. As I roll past the parking lot I can just see the back end of a big, white Chrysler 300 poking out around the building, running lights still illuminated. Condition orange. I continue past the building and duck down a dark alley where I can observe the complex exit.
“Dispatch, I have located the suspect vehicle. Send me another unit.”
My heart beats faster and my palms sweat. Breathe. In through the nose for four, hold for four, out through the mouth. Repeat. A few more repetitions and I’m back in control.
Nothing changes down the street. A makeshift cavalry of local jurisdictions and deputies has assembled around the block. We devise a plan to take the vehicle as it’s exiting the apartment complex. Now we wait. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Reverse lights and then headlights sweep across the gravel lot. Go!
“Units, he’s moving.” I say as I throw it in drive and hit the toggle for my red and blues. I try to position my spotlight as best I can while accelerating towards the vehicle. A reassuring cacophony of colored lights illuminate my rearview mirror and the surrounding block.
Fifteen yards out I throw the squad in park and exit stage left. My Glock 17 clears leather and my Surefire light adds its lumens to the overwhelming flood of LED illumination on the suspect. Condition red. I can see the driver’s shocked face through the passenger window. White knuckles grip the steering wheel. He doesn’t reach, or even react. After a short exchange of pleasantries the suspect is taken into custody without further incident.
Throughout the encounter I had total confidence that my shots would have found their mark had the flag actually flown. I felt no pressure or doubt in my abilities. I perceived everything at a relaxed pace. I reacted this way because I had repeatedly performed these routines already, under pressure, with a gun in my hand.
When Col. Cooper created practical pistol competition in the middle of the last century he was trying to determine definitively the best techniques and gear for defensive pistol use. While doing so he also concocted the premiere venue for fostering coolness. This was not by accident. And now that the equipment questions have been essentially answered, the primary benefit of practical pistol competition today is stress inoculation. Especially for those who intend to carry a weapon on their person daily.
Waiting for the buzzer at a large sanctioned pistol match is a feeling every pistolero should experience as often as they can. Calming your mind while waiting for the start of a performance which will soon be judged by your peers is a hard earned and perishable skill. And my voluntary confrontation with this challenge repeatedly over years has contributed no small part to my ability to remain calm in dangerous situations. Confidence in my technique allowed me to shift conscious focus to communication and tactics, while my subconscious ran the necessary pistol manipulation programs in the background.
If you are not confident in your skills your subconscious will most definitely let you know. Anyone who performs a skill professionally has probably been startled awake by “The Universal Nightmare”. There are many variations, but for gunhandlers it generally involves some version of the following: the time has come to deploy your pistol, and just as you go to press the trigger it won’t budge. You squeeze until your finger nearly breaks, and then finally a round lets loose. But that round has no effect on the threat. Your gun jams, and you cannot fix it no matter how hard you try. Nightmare indeed.
The only remedy I have found for this situation is to develop, through practice and repetition, an absolute confidence in your ability to manipulate your pistol. This cannot be theoretical confidence, but proven use of the pistol in high stress situations. Situations like timed and scored pistol matches, or force-on-force scenarios. These situations should be augmented by consistent dry practice. Perhaps a good personal indicator that you can confidently identify yourself as an “Expert” in your chosen field is when you no longer experience “The Universal Nightmare”. It’s re-emergence is an indication that your skills have slipped, and your subconscious is sounding the alarm about your waning proficiency. These skills are perishable. Practice accordingly.
In my experience, proper technique has proven a solid precondition to coolness on the street. Another way to cultivate coolness is through pre-programing a proper mindset. Col. Cooper advocated for the use of his “Color Code” to prepare yourself to act ahead of time. From his book Fireworks, “One of the surprising things about the color code is the degree of peace of mind it affords. Having thought the matter through, and thus prepared your alternatives in advice, you can discard your nervousness about how you are going to react when the whistle blows. It really does wonders for the pre-combat jitters. In so doing, it provides a large head start toward achieving the absolute essence of success in combat, which to no one’s surprise, is coolness.”
Impromptu coolness is not something you can count on when the time arrives. It is not something you conjure from thin air, but something you plant and nurture ahead of time in anticipation of coming storms. And that night when my radio startled me back to reality, I was extremely grateful that I had taken the time to prepare my skills and cultivate a proper mindset. The hours spent with friends on the range competing for a two-dollar trophy was just icing on the cake.