If You Ain’t Imagining, You Ain’t Practicing

If You Ain’t Imagining, You Ain’t Practicing
If You Ain’t Imagining, You Ain’t Practicing
If You Ain’t Imagining, You Ain’t Practicing
If You Ain’t Imagining, You Ain’t Practicing

Last month this column discussed the best mode of carry for personal protection. It was argued that for all possible scenarios one could come upon, only concealment puts the carrier in the best position. That article received a lot of negative feedback as a result from open carriers who took offense after incorrectly believing the article was politically and financially motivated. The point missed by the article’s critics was that the only reason anyone carries a gun is because of the possibility of something going wrong, not the probability of it happening. If we carried our pistols on probability only, the fact of the matter is, we just wouldn’t carry that much – openly or concealed. When we fail to imagine and consider the possible, we fail ourselves as carriers.

The biggest argument used against the encouragement to always conceal your firearm was that the reasoning was solely based on “conjecture” and “fantasy.” This is precisely the point. In the NRA’s Personal Protection courses, students are taught to not just shoot, but to visualize the scenario that is causing them to shoot. It is what separates the Basic Pistol course from the Personal Protection one. Fictional gauntlets based on real possible situations, if not true stories, are incorporated into the drills. Students are not expected to just get good at shooting a cardboard target, but to visualize that piece of paper as their attacker. This is further explored when the students are given a thought provoking and very detailed back-story that will help them get involved personally and psychologically.

By the time live firing exercises are introduced to the student, they are very familiar with this practice. From the very start of the course, the focus is on the development of the student’s defensive mindset. This involves a lot of classroom discussion around nothing more than fantasy and conjecture. The ‘what ifs’ are brought up quite a bit on the first day to get people thinking about why they carry and how prepared they are to defend themselves should the need arise. The student’s legal, moral, and ethical obligations are challenged to see if they will have the proper mindset to pave the way for their successful counter of someone’s attempt to take their life or limb. Then their action is quantified by allowing them to explore if they would shoot and when, before a gun is even placed in their hand. Their skill is worked on far after their mind is, as a gun is nothing more than a tool. Remember, a fight is a battle of the minds first.

Why do the NRA Personal Protection courses place so much emphasis on mental exercises long before physical ones? This is done to ensure that the student doesn’t just get good at shooting, but gets good at shooting at the right time, the right way, and the right amount. If the student is simply asked to, “shoot that target two times in that spot,” they never get to face the single greatest obstacle in defensive shooting – themselves. Being forced to think about the (un)imaginable give the carrier the opportunity to learn what isn’t going to work before it’s too late. This play on fantasy and conjecture doesn’t end there. Students are also encouraged by their NRA instructors to leave the course continuing this practice of imagining the worst, whenever and wherever they can; especially while carrying. This gives them access to a constant stream of real world stimuli and variables they can use to further expand their imagination and as a result, their preparation. They will see where things could have gone wrong even when there was no real probability of it doing such (as is likely the case).

Keep in mind, this process of visualization takes seconds to do and does not have any adverse affect on your health. Unlike paranoia, which consumes a majority of your time in worry and shaves years off of your life. Visualization is simply an extension of being on “yellow” (as made famous by Jeff Cooper) while also allowing us the ability to live a life of liberty. Live; but just know that the worst can happen to you. That you’re not exempt from the newspapers, and just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t. That way, if(when) the worst situation imaginable does happen, your response won’t be “What? I didn’t train for this!” Your response will be, “Right. I knew this might happen. This is what I am gonna do.” You should find yourself participating in this process already as a responsible driver. Perhaps you can relate to those moments when you’re about to drive through an intersection and you notice a car approaching from the left or right. Ever think to yourself, “I wonder if that car is going to stop?” Ever think, “What will I do if he doesn’t?” It’s this kind of imagining we are discussing. A process called developing a plan.

Developing a plan

Just as the driving example above, we can perform this process with the carrying of our firearms. With an automobile you perform this process seconds before its needed and rarely get a chance to practice it, but with firearms you can develop a plan days before its ever needed (if at all) and practice it as much as you want. The level of imagination needed to conjure up such “fantasies” is minimal to begin with. Even if you aren’t good at making up scenarios, you have to look no further than the news media or YouTube to see all kinds of examples of heinous and horrific worst case situations that actually did happen. Not only will you see the “unimaginable” quickly became very real, you will also see many armed victims fail in their ability to act. Instead, you will witness them reacting to their adversary simply because they never thought, that specific event would ever happen, at least not to them. They thought of the possibility of an attack, yes, but not the possibility of that kind of attack happening to them at that time. They were caught surprised and as a result unprepared.

There are two ways to be surprised. One way is a result of not being aware, and the second way is because you didn’t imagine the possibility happening. Both will result in you reacting to the situation instead of acting against it, but with visualization based training, even if you are surprised a result of being unaware, you will quickly turn your reaction to action as you recognize a plan you already developed for that situation. Remember, you put that gun on your hip because of the possibility of an attack, not the probability. Don’t stop there. Realize the possibility of the worst attack happening at the worst time, in the worst way, when everything goes wrong, whenever you can. So when it does, you’ll already have a plan. A person who doesn’t include role playing and visualization in their training will most likely not do so even while carrying. They will view their firearm as the thing that will save them and just assume their skill alone will be enough. In reality their unexercised mind and action will be left to chance at worst and “natural instinct” at best.

Start imagining scenarios during your practice and while carrying. Consider what can happen if(when) everything goes wrong. The next time you’re in the bank you frequent, imagine it suddenly being invaded by a bunch of armed men who take you and the other patrons hostage, locking you up in a vault. Start to think what you might do, where you might go, when you would draw (if at all). Reflect on what’s best for everyone and what’s best for you. Sure, you didn’t envision that being very probable, but just thinking about it allows you the opportunity to develop a plan. You might believe open carry is the best way to politically persuade the public to be pro-gun (as opposed to educating them) and want to exercise that right, but while imagining a situation, you might realize that in some circumstances concealment offers the best starting position for your action and change carry methods based on those specific situations. See Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe for more information on this.

Practicing the plan

With dry firing exercises being safely possible in the convenience of our home, visualization allows us a seemingly limitless amount of preparation for the worst experience of our life. Using the driving example further, any plan you develop to avoid a collision will always be in the moment, so when you are forced to execute it, you will do so with whatever skill you have at that time, since practicing those plans are just not easily possible. Not so with firearms.

With firearms, we are able to conveniently practice the plans we develop in response to made up scenarios, or even real ones we avoided or escaped from, essentially as much as we want. Anywhere we can take our minds and firearms, we can practice our plans. Practicing allows us the benefit of realizing, before it’s too late, things like: a small of the back holster prevents access to your gun when you find yourself flat on your back. That your vehicle’s seat belt is too hard to unbuckle under stress and you have to change your method of carry while in the car from your hip to a seat holster. That carrying spare magazines in pockets is a lot harder to access under stress than you imagined and you purchase magazine belt carriers.

Training to use your gun in self-defense without once considering these worst case scenarios isn’t really training at all and could even be life threatening. Skill training alone will make you good at shooting, but visualization, imagining, and conjuring while improving your skills will make you good at shooting when it counts. With visualization, you get to simulate stress and emotion which have an adverse affect on your ability to accurately place a shot where it is needed, when it is needed. Take the sportsman or woman who “gets good” at IDPA. When before, they treated it as an opportunity to practice their plans, they now treat it as a score and a game. They used to barely expose 10% of themselves when taking a shot behind a barrier, but now they hold to the unrealistic minimum of 50% behind cover rule. Visualization is no longer a part of their participation. They don’t see an attacker, they see a bull’s-eye. Emotional and psychological reactions are quickly replaced with competitive pressure. When they actually have to defend their life they will sense a plethora of strange feelings and their skill will suffer. Much like, the star quarterback everyone is counting on to win the big game fails to perform as expected because of the recent death of a loved one or fresh marital problems, the IDPA champ’s ability to act under the stress and emotion of a gun fight crumbles. Remember, simulating stress and emotion, will never equate to the real thing, but it is far better than not doing it at all.

Executing the plan

The NRA strongly encourages its Personal Protection students to participate in IDPA matches. The biggest benefit of IDPA competition is that it will offer you an opportunity to train through the operandi DVC: Diligentia, Vis , Celeritas (Accuracy, Force, Speed), but it only works when you compete with yourself and not the other shooters. Improving your accuracy under stress is the primary goal and IDPA offers a great instrument for that. Just understand that the reason it is a timed event is because striking your opponent quickly (preferable first) is very important and timing your shooting adds to the simulation of stress, but it was not intended to be used as a vehicle to judge proper skill. Next time you compete in IDPA, wear your actual normal attire (unless wearing your IDPA approved concealment vest is what you take your wife out to dinner in). Mix it up and try a business suit for those times you carry while wearing one. Sure your “score” might hurt, but your competing with yourself anyway, right?

If, God forbid, you should be faced with having to counter someone’s attempt to seriously injure you or another person, having a plan in place before it happens, previously practiced, will provide the driving mechanics for your highly competent skills to be unleashed (under control) on the perpetrator. Your effectual stopping of their criminal attack will be unmatched. Training without once imagining possibilities over probabilities, or carrying in public without once considering what could happen, is essentially the same as not training at all. Unless you are comfortable trusting in your skill alone and take the view that lethal encounters will be as consistent as the paper targets you shoot frequently, then learning to imagine while practicing will help ensure your life isn’t left up to chance when it must be defended – when everything isn’t so… consistent.

That is all for now. Be safe out there.

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Johnathan is a NRA certified firearms instructor currently serving the Northern Finger Lakes Region of New York State. He is qualified to teach the entire PISTOL discipline of the NRA shooting courses: Basic, F.I.R.S.T. Steps, Home Firearm Safety, Personal Protection Inside the Home, Personal Protection Outside the Home, Advanced Personal Protection, and is also certified by the DCJS to teach NYS self-defense and use-of-force laws. He became familiar with firearms through professional instruction and had to learn like most of his students - from the ground, up. Contact Johnathan today to learn what many do not, that, "Knowing when to shoot is just as important as knowing how."
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Open carry: My pistol is bigger than yours!

Chris Wood

Hmmm… really? Sorry to hear that. My Open Carry: Comfort.

Chris Wood

If this article was an attempt to defend your last article and justify concealed carry over open carry it is truly a failure. Everything you stated here can be applied to open carry and is by the vast majority of us both open and concealed.

As you stated, situation awareness is your most valuable asset when carrying…open and concealed. Having a plan pertains to both open and concealed carry.

A great article… for all of us.

Johnathan Celso

Thank you for your feedback. You are right about that – it is good for both to learn. However, the point of this article was to dispel the ridiculous argument that: Concealed carriers “make up” situations that just won’t ever “really happen” in order to argue against open carrying and try to point out that it is strategical disadvantageous.

If you can think of it, it can happen. To think otherwise is just ignorant of true personal protection development. That is the point of the article.

Chris Wood

Yeah, I guess that’s like open carriers making up situations that may happen to concealed carriers. Situations may happen to either one and neither is safe from everything.

Yes, it is ridiculous argument if there is no basis behind it. Can it happen? Yes, Has it happened? No. Prepare for it? Yes. There is no “Best” way of carrying. There is the way that is best for you and there is the way that is best for me. Strategical disadvantageous? In some cases yes, just like it is disadvantageous to conceal in some cases.

The thing we need to remember is situation awareness is #1 regardless of method of carry or even not carrying.

Practice using your method of carrying. Makes no sense to support one over the other. It’s just a different way of accomplishing the same result.


I read in another forum and agree with it completely. You have a preference to how you want to carry most places, not saying all but most people who conceal and carry are against people who open carry, but people who open carry don’t care what the other person prefers. It’s sad how we have to fight each other when we both believe in the 2nd amendment and the right to bear arms. Do what you prefer and let the other do as they want and fight gun control together, if we stick together and stop fighting among ourselves I think we can get more done, and they will listen to us more. Now I sound like my Dad, thanks!


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Johnathan Celso

Thank you for your feedback. You are correct – there is no point in fighting. This article is simply one point of view. Someone else can write an article covering the other point of view. Everyone will have to decide what’s best on their own after reading both. I have already made that decision for myself. Personally, I do not respect anyone who “forces” their controversial political beliefs on me by making me “get used to it.” I respect education and logical convincing. Therefore, I carry primarily for personal protection, not just to “exercise my right” and as a result, I require a mode of carry that is best for most of the possibilities – concealment.


Great article, but I’d love for a follow up that elaborates on the plan one might develop. Is there a mental checklist, as in “Where’s cover? I’m up, they see me, I’m down. Safe to draw? What’s distance/ beyond?” or is it more along the lines of keeping a standard level of yellow alert and not leaving after dark? Can you give an example of a sufficiently complete plan (even if not yours)? Thanks!

Ps- as a concealed carry, I love to see open carry. Reminds me I’ve got some brothers out there, and let’s me know who to team up with when bad people try to do bad things.

Johnathan Celso

Thank you for the feedback. I am in the process of writing that as we speak. Be safe out there.


Johnathan- I would be interested to know if any follow-up has been done (by you or others) with Armed Citizens that have been in an actual situation as you described in your article to see what level, if any, of visualization they used prior to their incident? I used the ‘Armed Citizen’ tag because when reading the NRA pubs with the real life situations, I place myself in their situation in my home, business, grocery, etc. to see how I would have reacted.

Good article- look forward to more on the topic.

Andrew Cataldo

I don’t care how someone chooses to carry their firearm. Yes, there are time when I prefer to be more discrete and carry accordingly, but most of the time, I prefer to carry openly.

While I agree that visualization and imagination helps us as carriers to prepare for a possible worst case scenario, one thing that does come to my mind is “what can I do to prevent my gun from even being drawn in the first place” – my answer: open carry. It isn’t a fool proof 100% solution, but thinking from a criminal’s perspective, it is a matter of risk vs. reward to them. If they know they could wind up riddled with holes, they won’t be likely to attack, not unless they have a death wish. It is IMO an added element in my overall defense strategy. The element of surprise tactic doesn’t benefit me since the act of surprising an attacker requires me to use my firearm or otherwise present it in a fashion that would equate to use of deadly force. I would rather not get to that point if possible. If that level of deterrence fails, then I go to battle stations and act accordingly – I can also deploy my firearm more quickly given my level of training.

I understand people like “out of sight, out of mind” in the minds of others. Some carriers don’t want the exposure OC gives them. I respect that and I don’t think it is detrimental. What I do mind is getting flak for how I choose to defend myself – including my tactics. We are all on the same side here. How can we resist the actions of the antis when we complain about how our fellow gun owners choose to carry?

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I just want some data. People always put these scenarios out there… where is the data saying open carry is dangerous?


Open carry means only two things to many criminals. You are carrying something they can sell for cash, they just need to be a little more careful when they come up behind you with a brick.
Maybe one more thing, they would shoot you first in the event you were in a location being robbed. That’s just my opinion, no stats, no facts, just my reason I wouldn’t open carry. I could be wrong.