My personal library is largely uncounted, as I keep getting distracted by reading and losing count. In excess of 3,000 volumes (the number I reached last before getting distracted again), a sixth of so of it is professional references. To say that I think being well read makes someone better, in almost every way, would be an understatement. To that end, this reading list is offered. It is neither exhaustive, nor complete, and is wholly subject to addition and revision as time goes by.
These are books that have helped us, been fundamental to our growth and development, are frequently consulted references, and have held up over the years. There are other books on these subjects, and plenty of them should probably be here too. Omissions are as likely to be from forgetfulness as deliberate snubs. We care less what you read, so long as you read, but think these are all either where to start, or where to come back to to stay grounded, in their particular subject.
These recommendations are presented in no particular order.
Left of Bang , by Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley
Written by veterans of the USMC Combat Hunter program, Left of Bang is a treatise on what we commonly call “awareness”. If we look at events unfolding as a left-to-right moving timeline, being ahead of something means being left of it. The “bang” is some critical event, be it an IED, active attacker, or violent criminal act. Being “left of bang” is recognizing and acting to a critical event before it happens, rather than after it happens.
Left of Bang helps the reader develop sensitivity to indicators of threat, and simplify the decision tree for responding to a perceived threat. This is a kind of mesh between terrain analysis, body language, and situational awareness, to put you ahead of an event in a proactive position instead of reactive. Riley and Van Horn give us a toolkit to pay deeper attention to things we’re already noticing, a framework for responding, and a language to describe and articulate these things to others. Sometimes a dry read, with some bloat to the text, but a valuable book none-the-less.
Sentinel , by Patrick McNamara
Subtitled “Become the Agent in Charge of Your Own Protection Detail” this book is a primer on personal security and protection. An experienced Tier-1 operator and firearms trainer, McNamara does a really good job at re-contextualizing his military experience into value for the private citizen (something many trainers of his background fail at). Framed around the concept of building your skills to be a personal protective detail for your family, much of the content of Sentinel won’t be new to people with an existing depth of training. However, it’s one of the best introductory texts to the field, a book you can give to friends and family who are just starting to become about that life, or look to for taking your own skillset farther. It provides an excellent framework for building a multidisciplinary protection schema, that has more in it than simply shooting. Chapters cover subjects as diverse as strength training, driving and vehicle maintenance, urban survival, and disaster preparedness, just to name a few. Sadly, the medical chapter is antiquated, reading much like a rehash of older Red Cross first aid pamphlets, with no use of the MARCH algorithm, no concepts from TCCC/TECC, and no mention of tourniquets or real address of preventable death from penetrating trauma. That failing aside, this is an excellent book.
Wound Ballistics Terminal Performance Facts , by Dr. Gary K. Roberts
Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness , by SA Urey W. Patrick, FBI Firearms Training Unit
These are both PDF’s, and not very long. Click, download, learn. These are placed together for a reason. Very few subjects are as fraught with bad science, snake oil, and sacred cows as wound ballistics. Special Agent Urey W. Patrick’s Handgun Wounding Factors is an absolute must read for anyone who carries or owns a handgun for personal defense. It dispels the most common nonsense spouted about wound ballistics and handgun bullet performance, and provides a solid foundation from which to further understand the science of wound ballistics and the work of others. Dr. Roberts Wound Ballistics Terminal Performance Facts makes an excellent follow on, delving into things besides handguns and introducing the work of Dr. Roberts, who is perhaps the best authority on these matters working today. Dr. Roberts frequents several different forums, as DocGKR, and has a large body of work available online, beyond this document. Doc Roberts lists of preferred duty ammunition are the gospel for selecting ammunition for duty, personal protection, and home defense use.
The Dryfire Primer , by Annette Evans
Dry fire, practicing your shooting skills with unloaded or dummy-loaded firearms, is an extremely valuable tool. It is a common practice among high level competitors, special operations troops, and fight-winning citizens and LEOs, and should be a practice of yours as well. But, how do you get the best results from it, and how do you fit it in with all the other things you should be doing in your busy life? Annette Evans has answers, drawn from experience as a competitor and trainer, and from an excellent training resume. This is an easy read, that sets up safe practices and gives the reader who follows along a solid structure for maximizing their dry fire results. If you already dry fire regularly, if you want to do it more, or if you want to start, The Dryfire Primer is for you.
Red Zone Prime , by Jerry Wetzel
Most books on physical self defense are utterly masturbatory. They are the authors platform for telling tough guy stories and bloviating about “moves” or “tricks”. Very rare is the book grounded in hard work, relentless pressure testing, and the egoless discipline of putting aside things that don’t work no matter how cute or precious they are to the author. Red Zone Prime is that book. Only things which have “consistent applicability against aggressive resistance” (to quote the introduction) are of value to self protection, and that’s the focus here. Coach Wetzel cuts through a lot of the common BS in self defense teaching and writing, and delivers grounded advice on awareness, avoidance, and violence (when necessary) that actually works. Skip the “dirty tricks” and macho posturing, and pick up Red Zone Prime for a guide to developing a solid base of a functional delivery system for violence and soft-skills for not needing it.
Bushcraft, by Mors Kochanski
Mors Kochanski was, in many ways, the father of the modern bushcraft movement. Bushcraft was his seminal work, but all of his material is worth having. Note that Northern Bushcraft is simply the first edition of Bushcraft, and not a separate title. Mors concern was survival, in the harsh northern boreal forests, and being able to live, work, and thrive in that environment. Although what has come since has seen bushcraft turned from a means of survival to a hobby pursued by weekend warriors and aesthetic lifestylers who yearn for a “past” they never lived, Mors work stand apart, the original cloth. Written with skin in the game, and lives at stake, Mors work is fundamental. You will have to invest some effort into finding copies, as they aren’t easily available.
Aids to Survival, by Western Australia Police
A fine survival manual with a geographically specific focus, with a depth of information not seen in many survival guides written elsewhere. Written by successive generations of survival instructor for the WA Police, and available online as a PDF (click, download, learn), this is another guide written by and for people with skin in the game, focused on survival rather than a weekend hobby.
Forging the Hero, by John Mosby
The Reluctant Partisan, series, by John Mosby
John Mosby is the nom de plume of a former Special Forces soldier and degreed historian, who writes the Mountain Guerrilla blog. If you want an idea of what these books are about, a read of the blog will give you both greater value and a better idea than this short blurb. On the surface, these are preparedness books for small unit tactics and tribal organization during societal collapse, but that pigeonholes them somewhat.
Forging the Hero is a history book, and a book about tribe. Mosby has consistently presented one of the most grounded approaches to “the end of civilization”, and his emphasis on the strength of community is a big part of that. This is a work about building your selected community up to be resilient. The kind of resilient that has kept people, and their cultures, alive for thousands of years across the globe despite war, famine, oppression, deprivation. Using lessons from history, Mosby paints a picture of the potential ugly future, but uses that to deliver a masterwork on resilience and survival that is overall optimistic. Forging is about creating the renaissance, not riding out a miserable existence by your fingernails. His proposed solutions are valuable even if “the end of the world” never comes, and will make your life better.
The Reluctant Partisan series is more a technical set of books, focused on the skills needed for unconventional warfare. There is value here for anyone interested in applied violence, despite the framing of social collapse. Volume I: The Guerrilla is a textbook of traditional guerrilla skills, in keeping with Special Forces Unconventional Warfare doctrine, distilled for prepared citizen’s needs. Covering mindset and individual skills like fitness, Tactical Combat Casualty Care, and riflery, Vol. I goes on to discuss small unit tactical skills, battle drills, planning, escape-and-evasion and more, including detailed training plans for rifle and TCCC. The training plans alone make the book worth it. Mosby is an excellent trainer, with a depth of experience teaching this very subject. Even if you aren’t a doomer, worried about impending collapse, there is solid gold in here for self protection and work or adventure in dangerous environments.
Volume II: The Underground focuses on the urban side of unconventional warfare, and skills for those who live or work in urban environments. Mosby presents a fundamental approach to handgun use, that will be valuable to anyone, as well as battlefield recovery of long-guns which merits study not just for collapse, but conflict work as well. Chapters on vehicle immediate action drills and route planning are excellent, and while more advanced approaches they integrate well with concepts discussed in McNamara’s Sentinel mentioned above. Vol. II also deals with intelligence collection and assessment (pretty out there, right? Not really, I’ve used the skills regularly in the here-and-now) and fighting in and around structures. Vol. II is more conceptual than the first book, but no less detailed and technical, with the same inclusion of complete training programs. This is the more individually useful of the two volumes, in my opinion, but they really go together for best value.
These books are expensive, by the standards of the industry, but they aren’t like anything else out there. More complete, with more depth and driven by more experience, Mosby’s books are essentially textbooks, and viewed through that lens they’re a bargain.
Combat Tracking Guide, by John Hurth
Tracking is a fundamental wilderness skill. If you cannot track, you are losing vital information about your environment that can help you navigate complexity and survive adversity. There are many books about tracking game or other animals, identifying tracks, etc. Many of them are filled with pseudoscientific woo derived from the myth of the Native American tracker, and are less than practical. Combat Tracking is not those books. Written for the tracking of armed and dangerous men, and tailored for the military and tactical environment, Hurth’s book is straightforward without pretense. Like most things, a book isn’t enough and you need hands on training in a real world environment, but this is a solid starting place.
NOLS Wilderness Medicine , by Tod Schimelpfenig
Perhaps the most read and reference wilderness medicine book, this is the companion text for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) wilderness medicine coursework. A simpler, more layperson focused, text than Medicine for Mountaineering. Like most wilderness medicine texts, it is woefully behind the curve on hemorrhage control, with bad information on tourniquet use and no mention of MARCH algorithm or anything that looks like it. Ignore those parts.
Medicine for Mountaineering , by Drs James A Wilkerson, Ernest E. Moore, and Ken Zafren
The original wilderness medicine text, now in its 6th edition, Medicine for Mountaineering remains one of the most complete and valuable guides to medical care in extreme environments. Although it is not up to date on some hemorrhage control advances, this is a fine book, useful for laypeople and practitioners alike, that has a place on any bookshelf. As with the NOLS text, this too is behind the curve on tourniquet use and hemorrhage control with nothing that looks like contemporary point-of-injury bleeding control mentioned. This is a huge failing in current wilderness medicine, the field has been behind that curve and rejected the lessons learned from Tactical Combat Casualty Care use. Hopefully the field will catch up soon to at least the standards of the Hartford Consensus and Stop The Bleed programs.
Survival and Austere Medicine: An Introduction 3rd Edition , by the Remote, Austere, and Third World Medicine Discussion Board Moderators – A free download (click, download, learn), you can also purchase print copies here . Now in its third edition (please get the third, it’s a great improvement over the second), this book is a joint work between several healthcare professionals with deep experience in austere and disaster environments. It is, as the title says, an introduction and not a complete course in medicine, but it is appropriately broad and deep. Survival and Austere Medicine is accessible to the layman, but valuable for the professional as well.
Special Operations Forces Medical Handbook
Because of the scope of practice for Special Forces medics, this is perhaps one of the gold standard austere medicine texts. A professional text, not as easily accessible to the layperson, but peerless in value all the same. The latest edition is an essential for the austere medicine library, which is incomplete without it. Be sure to get the current edition from the Government Printing Office, as those printed by other publishers are outdated.
The Foxfire Series , by the students and faculty of Rabun County HighSchool
An ongoing anthology of material from the Foxfire program and magazine, detailing craft traditions of rural Appalachia. These books contain a world-class, and fundamental, education on the practices of rural, off-the-grid, and austere living. From blacksmithing and bear skinning, to windmills and zymurgy, this series has a little bit for everyone. Take any of the old-time remedies with a grain of salt, but the craft tutorials are valid and valuable in any era. Fundamental books for a library of human capability.
The Beginners Guide to Deer Hunting for Food, by Jackson Landers
Many of us grew up in the woods and hunting with our fathers and uncles, but many more did not. Often, those who did not would like to begin but have no idea where or how to start. Landers’ book lays out a fundamental course in the hows and whys of hunting deer for food. His methods and advice are sound, based on actual experience and confirmed by the experience of many other hunters. Being able to “make meat” is a fundamental human skill, and this book serves as an excellent introduction to the practice. Experienced hunters may also find it valuable, for reminders or different perspective, and as a teaching tool.
Deep Survival , by Lawrence Gonzales
The subtitle of this book is “Who lives, who dies, and why”, and as an examination of exactly that it is peerless. Not a manual, or a how to book, Deep Survival is an examination of various cases of survival and death in the wilderness and emergencies, and the factors leading to either outcome. Gonzales writes beautifully, and there are passages that can bring tears to the eye, but more importantly, he examines well. A journalist, in the sense of that word that means something, Gonzales examines survival events to distill a list of qualities and values that every successful survivor has. Deep Survival not only identifies these qualities and values, but talks about how they are developed, and how they save lives. The single most important book on survival in our library.
Extreme Alpinism , by Mark Twight
Kiss or Kill, by Mark Twight
Whether or not you climb, there are extremely valuable things in Twight’s writing. Extreme Alpinism is an expression of Twight’s climbing philosophy and practices taken from experience, but it is also more than that. In Alpinism Twight shares beneficial wisdom about doing extremely hard things, in harsh environments, and performance under great risk. His comments on learning and experience are quite valuable as well. Even if you don’t climb, the book is filled with value.
Kiss or Kill is a collection of essays, fronted by a great introduction from Brian Enos (yes, that Brian Enos), covering Twight’s experiences and ethos as an alpinist and beyond. It is a less technical book (though Extreme Alpinism is not dryly technical), but possibly the more personally valuable. It is a book about striving, failing, ego and egoless action, and it is unflinchingly, often aggressively, honest. “Quit posturing at the weekly parties. Your high pulse rate, your 5.12s and quick time on the Slickrock Trail don’t mean shit to anybody else. These numbers are the measuring sticks of your own progress; show, don’t tell. Don’t react to the itch with a scratch. Instead, learn it. Honor the necessity of both the itch and the scratch.” from Twitching with Twight, the 18th entry in Kiss or Kill.
On Rope , by Bruce Smith and Allen Padgett
Published by the National Speleological Society, On Rope is the fundamental guide to single rope techniques for multiple disciplines. Described as being for “Caving, Search and Rescue, Firefighters, River Rescue, Aerial Tram, Rock Climbing, Mountaineering, Rope Courses, Industrial Users: Arborists, Window Cleaners, Circus Riggers, Theater, Hollywood, Steeplejacks, Military Applications”, On Rope provides perhaps the best coverage of single rope techniques, across the board, of any single volume. Beginning with Rope, the chapters continue with Ties, Rigging, Rappelling, Ascending, Long Drops and Deep Expeditions, Domes and Walls, Belaying, Vertical Potpourri, Other Rope Users and Vertical Skills and Rescue Training. No single book will ever provide the full extent of knowledge you need to safely work on rope, however inside that constraint, in our experience no other single book is as valuable as On Rope.
98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive, by Cody Lundin
There’s a lot of wilderness survival books, and this is one of them. One of the good ones, even. There’s a few books that could be listed here, along with or instead of this one, but Lundin’s title makes the list for several reasons. It’s a good book, first of all, that’s written well and readable. Between the writing and the layout, it’s not just informative but entertaining. It covers fundamental skills well, from a position of actual experience, and does so without veering into woo or bullshit as some survival titles do. This is a good starting point. Read this, get out and get experience practicing the methods, and then read more, seek training, and refine from there. This is the way.
Lundin’s urban/disaster survival book, When All Hell Breaks Loose , is also a fundamental read on that topic. Entertaining, and informative without going off into whacko doomsday nonsense, it gives a well grounded guide to lifestyle preparation for surviving disasters, and how to prepare in ways that integrate well with, and improve, normal life. Ignore the chapters on personal defense and combatives; It’s not Lundin’s lane, and it shows.
Desert Survival: Tips, Tricks, and Skills , by Tony Nestor
A small, but excellent, primer on survival in the desert. A valuable stand-alone book, made truly excellent when added to a broader survival text or collection. Nestor was the “Survival Guru” for Outside magazine for many years, and is a long-time desert dweller, living and teaching in Arizona. This book is one of our favorites as desert residents ourselves.
The Dark Side of Man, by Michael Ghiglieri
The author of this little mentioned book, a PhD ecologist, primate behaviorist, and experienced canyon guide, began the project of researching this book from an anti-gun, anti-violence, perspective. He finished the process a believer in personal defense and personal arms. Dark Side examines the underpinning of violence, makes a strongly founded argument that it is endemic in our species and that the counter to violence is a societal shift in how we deal with it, encompassing improved education and a societal and individual readiness to met out lex talionis violence (violent response to violent intent or acts). This book makes short work of the flawed idea that there is a human aversion to violence or killing, and an incredibly strong argument for individual skill-at-violence. This is the book that other titles supposedly on killing would be if they were scientifically sound and not written by frauds.
The Five Foot Shelf
Also known as the Harvard Classics, this collection was conceived in 1909 by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot. The idea being that a classic Liberal Education could be attained from 15 minutes daily reading of the collection of a single five-foot bookshelf. Though the collections contents, as well as the collection itself, all remain in print, Project Gutenberg has collected the Harvard Classics for easy online access.
“The nod toward a bookshelf filled with classics of western literature is something you should heed. The integration [of values] requires a bedrock of principles, which is something that philosophers have been chewing over for a bajillion years. Questions like ‘What is the proper way to live?’ and ‘What is the right thing to do?’ have been in circulation for quite some time. Addressing the rules that govern your decisions permit you to own the choices you make, instead of falling back on conformity or, god forbid, blind obedience to authority. Milgram’s infamous study on such things showed that precious few people refer to their own moral code. The decision to set your will against another should be for reasons you can articulate and believe in firmly enough to risk everything.” Pete M., from Total Protection Interactive.
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There are things we know.
We know that at 2:00 AM on June 12th 2016, an ISIL inspired killer walked into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and started shooting. Before he was stopped, 49 people were fatally shot, and 53 wounded. The law enforcement response began just two minutes later, but no officers entered the club until ten minutes had passed. In the minutes following, officers carried 14 wounded out of the club before asking Orlando Fire paramedics to go inside with them. Orlando Fire commanders refused to make entry, and continued to refuse for nearly an hour despite the offer of ballistic vests from another agency. 88 people were left alone, injured and dying. A study published in the journal PreHospital Emergency Care, by E. Reed Smith et al, found that 16 victims would have survived if they had received care within ten minutes.
We know that after calling 911, the next thing we do is wait. “Emergency medical service units average 7 minutes from the time of a 911 call to arrival on scene. That median time increases to more than 14 minutes in rural settings, with nearly 1 of 10 encounters waiting almost a half hour for the arrival of EMS personnel. Longer EMS response times have been associated with worse outcomes in trauma patients.3 In some, albeit rare, emergent conditions (eg, cardiopulmonary arrest, severe bleeding, and airway occlusion), even modest delays can be life threatening” writes Howard K. Mell MD, MPH,CPE in a 2017 paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Surgery. We know that even once official “help” arrives, they have no duty to actually do anything. We have known this for a long time.
We know that since the 1960’s CPR has been taught to everyone from school kids to lifeguards to dental hygienists. We know that when someone has a heart attack, immediate resuscitation performed by bystanders improves outcomes significantly, vice waiting for trained responders to arrive. This logic is increasingly being applied to managing severe bleeding too, with the Hartford Consensus and rise of Stop the Bleed programs.
We know the pithy sayings like “when seconds count, 911 response is only minutes away” are rooted in a cold reality. That, in this greatest of all possible worlds, when emergencies happen we are on our own. Maybe help comes, or we find our way to help, but in the critical seconds and minutes, outcomes depend entirely on the people who are there. There is no one coming to save you or anyone else. If you want to have survivors, you have to make survivors.
What not everyone knows, is how to do that. What is required, in those lifetime-long minutes or hours until help arrives or is reached? We propose that it is nothing superhuman. To be a survivor, to make survivors, you do not need to be a superman assuming some heroic stance in the face of great evil. You simply must, as Uncle Scar taught us, be prepared.
The level of preparedness and skill required depends on your purposes, your environment, and the threats you face. Solo hiking deep backcountry trails requires more preparedness, and a deeper skill, than walking to the corner and back. Field research in the Mongolian wastes requires more than research at your local library. Conducting special operations in hostile lands, more than shopping at “that” Wal-Mart or Murder Kroger. And so on… But, is there something more exceptional about those skills in harsher environments, than in your own? No. You can acquire, train, and perform the skills to survive austerity and hostility, whoever you are.
One doesn’t need to be an ascetic disciple of survival skills to use them. No one coming to save us for a life of disciplined doldrums would probably be a blessing. We survive to return to a life that we’ve built for our fulfillment. A life spent in monastic devotion to mastering some art of living when others die isn’t a life worth living at all. The best skills and tools at survival, and self protection, are those that work smoothly into the life you already lead, the one you are building, not as the purpose of that life. You can spend a weekend learning wilderness survival, practice the fundamentals in your backyard and every camping trip, and survive a disaster. You can give a few weekends a year to classes, and a handful of hours a week to dry fire, and shoot better than most other gun owners. You can take a Stop the Bleed class in a day, and practice applying a tourniquet now and then, and successfully save a life.
Conversely, this is not to say that weak effort will be rewarded, or that suffering a bit to get better at these skills isn’t required. You get out of a thing what you’ve put into it, and if what you’ve put in to your skillset is laziness, apathy, and too much time on the couch, when you are selected, your performance will suffer. If you want to be hard to kill, you have to make yourself hard to kill. It does not happen by osmosis, or through minimal effort. There is no one coming to save you, you have to do it, and to do it, you must put in the work.
“One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” – Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger on landing Flight 1549 and all 155 souls aboard safely in the Hudson River.
That effort is doable. The results attainable. You can do it. As in an emergency, start where you are and do one thing that makes a difference, and then do another. Change the batteries in your smoke detector, learn to use a tourniquet, shoot a new drill at the range this weekend, dry fire, learn CPR, eat better, lift a weight now and then. One thing, then the next, this is doing the work. Nature produces many things which are hard to kill, but their very lives require the use and refinement of that ability day in and day out. You aren’t a great jungle cat or a hippopotamus: If you want to be dangerous, you have to earn it.
Dangerous? Aren’t we talking about survival skills, not just violence? Yes, dangerous. Do you want to face death and not be? The word dangerous descends from Middle English, where its meaning included difficult, arrogant, and fraught with danger. Being hard to kill means being capable where others aren’t, being difficult to subdue be it by attack or the depredations of environmental extremes, in short, being dangerous. The world is full of wonders, and if you cannot stand in the face of death and say “not today” you will miss out on many of them. To live the life you want, you must be dangerous when confronted with risk. This you must do for yourself. There is no one coming. Everything is up to you. If you can’t be safe, be dangerous.
Each and every one of you, if you venture into the wilds, drive the roads, pursue adventure or live a quiet life, volunteer in conflict zones or at the safest church in the best neighborhood. Each and every one of you who want to live a good, and long, life. Each and every one of you who are sincere about affecting your passions despite any threat, need to be dangerous. You need more skills, more depth, than a single article, class, or book can give you. It is a lifelong pursuit.
This is something you know, and knowing this, having taken that first step, having that sincerity about your passions, this is your mandate to become fucking dangerous.