Courage is often thought to be a personality or character attribute that you are either born with or you aren’t. If you think of courage this way, chances are it isn’t a word you’d apply to yourself. If you aren’t brave, how can you become so?

What does courage mean to you? Does it mean doing foolish, dangerous things without a thought about the possible consequences? Do you think it is brave to have unprotected sex, walk alone at night in a high crime area for no good reason, or get falling down drunk at a fraternity house that is infamous for date rape? Those things don’t “Courage!” to me, they say “Stupidity!” Don’t confuse bravery with bravado, that foolish pretense of fearlessness that doesn’t deceive anyone.

There are two kinds of courage, the kind you feel internally and the kind that other people impose on you.

As an example of the internal kind, perhaps the bravest thing you ever did was to overcome claustrophobia long enough to take an elevator up 2 floors; nobody knew, nobody gave you so much as a pat on the back, but you basked in your achievement for weeks because you knew you had done something despite your fear.

An example of external, imposed courage is a well-trained, well-equipped firefighter who carries a child out of a burning building. He may be seen by others as a hero, but decline the honor if he knows that the situation was actually quite routine, with little real danger to either the child or himself.

Women who own guns for defensive purposes are often asked, “Are you sure you could really use it?” This is insulting, demeaning and undeserved, but it makes many women question whether they have the courage to defend themselves. Since women have few courageous role models to follow, it is easy to conclude that maybe you aren’t “brave enough” to use a gun.


Here’s a radical concept: Courage isn’t something you are born with, or without. It is something you can develop.

Courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear. Sure, some men and women say, after the incident in which they showed extraordinary bravery, that they weren’t conscious of being afraid, but that is generally because whatever happened to them happened so fast they didn’t have time to become afraid, or they were concentrating so hard on what they had to do that they weren’t conscious of being in fear. Other, equally brave people admit freely that in the circumstances in which they were tested they were terrified the whole time they were doing something “brave”.

Basically, courage is doing what you have to do, or what you were trained to do, even if you are scared. So, to develop courage, you need to have training that prepares you for how to act in an emergency. The closer your emergency is to what you were trained for, and the better your training was, the more courageous you will be.

Some of the bravest people I know are people who didn’t start out particularly brave. They learned to be brave by learning what to do in emergencies.

So if you have been scared, so scared that you felt like a rabbit in a trap, with courage so absent from your psyche that the experience stamped “Coward” all over your self-image . . . don’t listen to me. Listen to Walt Rauch, who knows a lot about courage from making hundreds of felony arrests during a long career in law enforcement.

Walt says, “Courage is not a god-given attribute, and, once acquired, it is neither permanent nor constant. It’s not always with you, to be summoned on command. If this most necessary of attributes is lacking on one occasion, it may well be present on others. Finding a lack of courage once is not a reason to surrender to fear and defeat forever.”

So, if courage comes and goes, how do you develop it? By learning and practicing the actions that you want to be able to perform in an emergency.

Having a few small, effective actions to perform gives you something to concentrate on instead of the looming threat, or your own fear. It doesn’t do a lot of good to think, while you are being attacked, “I’ve got to be brave”. If there are specific actions you can concentrate on, think about them (“I’m going to take cover behind that mailbox” or “I’m going to hold the front sight on his chest and shoot if he takes one more step.”)

This concentration on specific, small activities works for the stress of competition, too. None of the combat masters goes into a shooting competition saying over and over to themselves, “I’ve got to win. I’ve got to win!” because that puts their focus on the wrong thing, raising stress and anxiety instead of increasing confidence. In fact, you can’t “win”, you can only perform actions that are totally under your control. Instead, the winners say to themselves, “I’m going to watch the front sight” or “I’m going to get a perfect grip when I draw” or “Front sight…squeeze” or whatever mantra they have chosen to help them concentrate on the minutia that comprise superb performance.

Walt says it , too, “Courage needs to be nurtured, and appreciated when it arises within you, but not despised when it is absent.”

I’ve said it before in these pages, and I’ll say it again and again: confidence comes from competence, and competence comes from good training and good practice. Whether or not you get to the range as often as you’d like to practice, use mental imaging to think yourself through situations in which you come out a winner.

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns July 1996, Copyright © 1996, Lyn Bates