The Gunfighter’s Dream

Let’s talk about your dreams.

A while back we received an email from a nervous reader about “gun nightmares” she’d been experiencing,  and a few weeks later, a different reader talked about them in one of his blog comments, so I know at least some of you are thinking about it. In fact, I’m pretty sure all of you have wrestled with this phenomena at one time or another, so I thought it might be fun to take a small detour from our regular routine and discuss it for a bit.

The first reader I mentioned was new to the gun culture and had been having her first experiences with what older heads sometimes call the “gunfighter’s dream.” For those who don’t recognize the term, the gunfighter’s dream is a nightmare in which you’re the star, but things aren’t going your way. In the dream you’re usually being threatened by some kind of evil, but the defensive measures you’re taking aren’t effective at stopping the threat.

A virtual house of horrors

As an example, you might be facing some kind of scary beast set on your destruction, only to find that your holster is empty when you reach for your pistol (cue the Indiana Jones music), or it’s there but it’s trapped in the holster and you can’t get it out. Alternatively, you might draw the gun, and discover the trigger is impossibly hard to pull and you can’t get it to fire. Another longtime favorite is the gun that shoots bullets which dribble out the end of the barrel and land harmlessly at your feet, to your foe’s great amusement.

When things start to get really dire in the dream, you’ll often find that you can’t run away, because you’re trapped by obstacles or you’re wearing concrete shoes and your feet are frozen in place. If you’re fortunate enough to actually break away, you might feel like you’re slogging through chest-deep mud, while your villain effortlessly closes the gap to seal your doom.

Image from https://www.dreamstime.com

There are some interesting variations on the dream that might not involve a violent threat at all. One that likes to visit me occasionally is the scenario where I suddenly realize that I’m in a location where my lawfully-permitted, concealed firearm is not allowed, and I’m about to be discovered.  There’s nothing quite like realizing you have a brace of guns on your hip (and enough ammo strapped to your body to make Pancho Villa jealous), as you step into the metal detector at the airport, to make you wake with a heart-pounding stop. Honestly, I have no idea how you can suddenly find yourself in the middle of a panicked crowd in Times Square, wearing nothing but your boxer shorts and a fully-stocked war belt, with no idea how you got there, but it’s possible in Dreamland.

Is something wrong with me?

Our first correspondent was a little concerned about having these dreams suddenly show up in her sleep, and wondered if other gun owners experienced the same thing. She also worried that maybe the dream was an indicator of something darker—perhaps a past or future mistake.

I assured her that no, the dream was quite common amongst “gun people” (and many non-“gun people” as well, if we’re honest) and it was harmless, even if it was a little disturbing. “You’re not broken and there’s nothing wrong with you,” I said.

What’s going on here?

I’m no expert on dreams or the brain, but I do have both, and I did sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so let me share my not-so-professional opinion on the matter.

It’s been my experience that dreams usually reflect the action, events, feelings and concerns of our daily lives. When our head hits the pillow and we nod off, there are still parts of our brain that are busy at work, and actively taking stock of the day’s events, trying to make sense of it all. Unfortunately, our brains take all these bits and pieces and mix them all up as they try to organize things into a coherent narrative. This nightly process of organizing, analyzing, and filing away our thoughts is necessary to clear the decks for a new day tomorrow, and runs in the background while the rest of the brain is taking a well-deserved rest from a busy shift.

With all this sausage making going on behind the curtain, some of the scraps leak out onto the Dreamland stage. If you saw something novel, encountered something surprising or frightening, or were vexed with a difficult problem during the day, you might see some of those themes show up at night, when the monsters creep out of the closet, or out from under the bed.

Image from http://www.psdstation.com/tutorials/drawing/making-a-dream-scene-in-photoshop/

For example, when driving home after my late shift last night, I had to slam on the brakes to stop from rear-ending a knucklehead who suddenly came to a full stop in the drive-through lane of the toll booth—just another typical day on the nut-infested freeways around here. After I got home, I discovered that my wife had parked the van too close to the center of the driveway for me to have room to park alongside and get out, but I was too tired to shuffle the cars around at Oh-Dark-Thirty, so I just squeezed in beside the van and exited out through my passenger-side door.  I figured I could move the cars around later in the morning, after a few winks.

Well, a few hours later I was snoozing and had a nightmare about being in a car crash.  I was driving the van, and when everything came to a screeching halt, the driver’s side door was trapped shut by a smoking wreck that was pushed up against me, and I couldn’t get out.  My brain was obviously still thinking about the drive home, while the rest of me was busy trying to sleep, and it influenced my dreams.

Not just guns

Incidentally, the “gunfighter’s dream” is known in other circles as the “occupational nightmare,” because professionals in a variety of fields experience these kinds of dreams frequently.

The cops and soldiers out there all share versions of the gunfighter’s dream with their fellow members of the gun culture. When I was a military pilot, I would sometimes wake up in a cold sweat after nightmares about wrestling out-of-control jets, or having to ditch an airplane into stormy seas at night. Then I’d wake up, clear my head, and get back to flying the plane as my copilot and flight engineer continued their snoring. ; ^ )

Old Parovoz – by artist Andrei Riabovitchev

Railroad engineers dream about runaway trains barreling towards busloads of nuns stranded on the tracks. Doctors and nurses are plagued with dreams about the patients they can’t save. Somewhere, there’s a fireman whose nights are interrupted with visions of lumpy La-Z-Boy recliners, missing TV remotes, and broken cappuccino machines (just kidding, we love the hose monkeys!).

It’s normal to think about the risks inherent in dangerous situations, tasks or jobs, and it’s normal for those thoughts to intrude on us at night. There are few things which are more perilous than using a firearm to defend yourself, so it’s no surprise that these themes show up in the nightmares of people who carry guns for the gravest extreme.

Triggers

It seems there’s certain things which can trigger the dream, at times.

If you’re taking an intensive class or doing a lot of self-directed study or training, that concentrated focus on self-defense and firearms can promote the dream. This happened to me several nights in a row when I first took Massad Ayoob’s flagship LFI-1 class (now, MAG-40), many decades ago.  The intensive classroom study on the lawful use of deadly force, coupled with lots of practical instruction on the range and some scenario exercises, set the stage perfectly for a nightly screening of the gunfighter’s dream.  I wasn’t alone—many of the other students admitted they’d experienced the same during the intensive class.

Just as training “too much” can trigger the dream, so can training too little. If you haven’t been to the range in a long time and you’re starting to worry about how much your skills have atrophied, you’re liable to get a nocturnal visit from the gremlins too. Think of it as your subconscious telling you that it’s time to do some dry-fire practice, or bust some caps.

Fixes

In fact, that’s often one of the best fixes. Use your nightmares as a guide for your training program, and get busy.

If you’re struggling to get your gun out in your dreams, do some work on your presentation from the holster.  If you’re struggling to pull the trigger, do some dry-fire at home, and follow it up with some live drills at the range which emphasize trigger control. If your lifesaving shots are straying far and wide, and missing the boogeyman in your dreams, go shoot some precision targets and make sure to get your hits.

Similarly, if you find that you’re cognitively paralyzed at the moment of truth in your dreams, pick up Andrew Branca’s book on the Law of Self Defense or Mas Ayoob’s book on Deadly Force, and make sure that you have all the legal matters sorted out in your mind, so that your confusion about the law doesn’t promote a deadly hesitation when the balloon goes up.

If your subconscious is telling you that you’re not ready, then the best way to fix that is to get ready, right?

Relax, you’re good.

The dreams usually go away on their own, after your brain has done the organizing and the filing, but if they persist, then a good training session usually fixes things nicely in my experience.

In any case, there’s no need to fret that there’s something wrong with you, if you’re having the dream.  In some ways, it’s a good sign, because it indicates that you take your self-defense seriously enough that your mind is truly engaged in the task of figuring out how to do it right. The only reason you’re having the dream is because you know the stakes are high, you have to act properly, and you have to be ready. That’s a sign of maturity and responsibility, I think, not a sign of weakness.

So, let your brain wrestle with it and don’t sweat it. Just make sure you don’t wear your Superman boxers when you’re carrying, OK?  It would be really embarrassing to have everyone in Times Square snickering at you, while they’re calling the police about the disrobed “man with a gun” that appeared out of nowhere.

Author: Mike

Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Mike Wood is a certified revolver nut, an NRA Law Enforcement Division-certified Firearms Instructor, and a columnist at PoliceOne.com. He is also the author of Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis, the definitive study of the infamous, 1970 California Highway Patrol shootout in Newhall, California. Please visit the official website for this book at www.newhallshooting.com for more information.

24 thoughts on “The Gunfighter’s Dream”

    1. Hi Mike. Twenty years law enforcement. I still get the dream where a fellow officer is on the radio yelling for assistance and I keep turning down the wrong streets. I also had a recurring dream for several years in which my good friend, and fellow officer, is in a fight for her life; I shoot the suspect multiple times and the suspect keeps going…..only to drop at the last possible moment. You would think that one would be a good dream, but it got me. I finally told her about the dream and she told me that she was certain that if the day ever came I would give a 110% to help her. The dream stopped after that. Now a detective I have dream in which I misplace evidence and erase video of a confession. Not as dramatic, but pretty damn traumatic for a detective.

      1. Jeff, I bet there’s not a cop alive who doesn’t have some version of this dream. If they say they don’t, they’re probably lying! It’s interesting how it changes over the years, as our circumstances and concerns change, isn’t it?

        1. very true. The wrong street dream was really common during my early years as an officer. As my level of experience went up the dream gradually receded.

  1. Yes, I gather it’s pretty normal. My version -14 year cop- isn’t gun trouble, but having to make a horrible decision with no good solution, sometimes having to shoot someone. I generally wake up disturbed and grumpy. I wouldn’t say nightmare, but generally not fun.

    1. Yep, I’ve had that one from time to time—placed in an ambiguous situation, where there’s no clear indication that force is lawful, but your gut says you HAVE TO shoot, if you want to live. Always unsettling!

      It’s a bad dream for most of us, but an unpleasant reality for our LEOs—one more reason they deserve our unwavering support. Be safe out there, Riley.

  2. Mine, is that my magazine keeps falling out or the gun just falls apart…..strange…
    The other oddity is that generally it’s a hunting dream, not a dream involving other people.
    Loosely tied to the gunfighter’s dream, a fighter pilot in my unit told me once that he had a recurring dream of following the bombs into the ground..it was called ground fixation. At one time it was a real problem.

    1. Thanks Critch. The hunting angle is interesting–I haven’t heard that one before, but it makes sense, given the anxiety that hunters can experience trying to make a good shot (or avoid getting stomped by a mad elk!).

      That ground fixation is no joke–it can happen when you’re hyper-focused and lose SA.

  3. Oddly, I’ve had dreams about being chased around Detroit by Godzilla.

    Just couldn’t shake him.

    I was carrying my Beretta 84. Not much effect.

    I’m dead serious.

  4. Retired as LEO last month after 42 years. My recurring nightmare was I kept missing or my rounds were having no effect. It would recur 4-5 times per year for several years. Haven’t had one in 10-12 years. Thanks for the article, Mike.

    1. Thanks Jack, that’s a favorite too–the bullets that have no effect. Always disturbing!

      Allow us to extend a HEARTY CONGRATULATIONS on your retirement. THANK YOU for your service to the community. I’m sure glad you made it to the finish line safely. Enjoy the well-deserved break.

  5. I’ve been a policeman for 31 years. The first time I told another officer about the dreams, he told me that “…we all have such dreams. Go to the range and they will stop.” After a few weeks of trips to the range they almost stopped. I’ve kind of “made friends” with the very few that still show up once in a while.

  6. Good, thought-provoking content as always, Mike. Revolver Guy continues to occupy a pretty unique niche that I just can’t find a ‘fix’ for elsewhere. I’ve noticed the postings have been slowing down lately – I hope this site continue to produce and thrive.

    be well,

    – Hammer

    1. Thanks Hammer! Yes, we’ve gone to biweekly for now, because we’re both pretty busy these days, but rest assured—we have no plans of going anywhere and have several months worth of material already scheduled, with more in the works. We’ve got a couple articles coming up in October that I’m really excited to share! Stay tuned.

  7. I have found that my nightmares have stopped making an appearance. Not sure if it is because I have been more active with training classes, RSOing at my range, shooting at the range, etc. Maybe it is because I now feel very comfortable with my revolver being my sidekick every day.

    Great article as always, Mike! I am looking forward to your next article.

    WGJ

  8. When I first started concealed carrying a gun years ago, I had these dreams frequently.

    My particular variation usually involved one theme: the gun was ineffective. I can’t tell you how many nocturnal baddies I have emptied entire magazines into, terrified, only to see them shrug off the bullets and keep coming. Despite the fact that I never carry two guns in the waking world, I sometimes have a second one in the dream, or manage to obtain one, but this one usually isn’t any more effective than the first.

    On the occasions where I successfully confronted a dream assailant, it never happened the way the statistics tell us real gunfights happen – that is, it never happened quickly. It always came down to the final bullets in the magazine, the foe defeated by the last few pulls of the trigger and going down reluctantly. When even the entire magazine wasn’t enough I frequently ran away to find a more primitive weapon to use, and I would estimate that 40% of the dreams end with the failure of the gun and the defeat of the enemy by beating them with a blunt object or stabbing them with something pointy. That is obviously a bit more traumatic than the dreams where the gun does the job at the bitter end.

    Given the fact that I can run away sufficient to find another weapon, one would wonder why I don’t just run away entirely in the dream. I blame my wife. Or, to be more precise, my wife’s presence in the dream (even if never seen, she’s there over my shoulder) as a vulnerable person to be defended means that retreat is ultimately never an option.

    There are a two things which I have deduced from my own gunfighter’s dreams:
    1) I am afraid of a confrontation where I have to use the gun. It is not something I ever seek out or feel excited about, the dreams always involve anxiety and dread.
    2) I am concerned that I might not be carrying “enough gun.” Social and business expectations dictate a wardrobe that limits me to small guns with small magazines (I carry a Sig P238 HD when it is legal to do so) and clearly there is a part of my mind that would rather carry something more substantial. Because I have had these dreams ever since the days I hung a mid-size H&K 9mm with 40 rounds of ammo on a shoulder holster, doubt carrying anything less than a full-power battle rifle would assuage these fears.

    I have gun dreams less frequently now than I have in the past, but every once in a blue moon they still crop up. They’re still disturbing, but I try to use them as free simulations from which to draw lessons – what did I do wrong, how could that have gone better, how could it have gone worse, and how could I mitigate the problems I encountered?

    1. Adam, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I think you did a great job of capturing the essence of these nuisance dreams. I’ve had the “last round” and “blunt trauma” versions myself, as well.

      Isn’t it funny how much we all have in common? Social taboos sometimes prevent us from talking about dreams like these, so people suffer in silence, thinking they’re the “only ones” to experience these things. Once we start sharing, we realize that we’re all going through the same thing, and that it’s normal. There might be a greater lesson in that.

  9. Useta have the ‘dribbling bullet’ dream a lot, plus one where I’d get hit in the throat/collar bone area—that one started after a particularly doofus lieutenant started insisting that we wear nice clean high-neck white tee shirts with the uniform. Also useta bother me some, but after a while I think my subconscious kicked in, so now on the rare occasions one comes up, I catch myself in the dream telling myself it’s just a dream so let’s let it take its course and see where it goes. Sometimes it turns out comical, sometimes I wake up feeling guilty for not keeping up with training and practice.
    It’s interesting how our brains work. For example, try telling yourself or someone else not to think about something, and guess what comes to mind.
    So tonight, don’t anybody think about penguins, and for sure don’t dream about them.

      1. I’m thinking tuxedos, so probably bow ties.
        I don’t have an excuse for missing this site for a while, unless it can be blamed on the ChiCom Cootie Columny; but I’m back, so….

        1. Ah, a Class-A penguin. Got it!

          The plandemic, the slow motion coup, whatever you want to call it, sure took us all out of our normal routines. Glad to see you back!

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