Essential Reading: In The Gravest Extreme

I decided to start this review of “In The Gravest Extreme” with a quick overview about its author, Massad Ayoob. I quickly realized, though, that it is very hard to do a “quick overview” on who he is and his accomplishments. It is not overstating things to say that without Massad Ayoob, we would not have the Second Amendment rights we currently enjoy. 

“In The Gravest Extreme” was published in 1980. In the “About the Author” section, it describes Massad Ayoob as a former law enforcement officer and police trainer in New Hampshire. At the time, he was also the handgun editor of Guns magazine, the field editor of American Handgunner, along with many other accomplishments in practical shooting matches. 

Since 1980, however, Massad Ayoob has gone on to form two top-flight firearms training companies, Lethal Force Institute and the Massad Ayoob Group. His MAG40 class is still recognized as one of the best places for armed civilians to learn how to interact with the legal system, and he remains one of the top competitive shooters in the world. 

Concealed Carry Starts Here

Kevin Creighton and Massad Ayoob

If you have a chance to take Massad Ayoob’s MAG40 class, do so. It’s well worth your time.

All of this began in earnest with the publication of “In The Gravest Extreme,” one of the foundational documents of the concealed carry movement. It’s a short book, just 130 pages long, but what’s inside of it changed American gun culture forever. 

“In The Gravest Extreme” lays out the reality of defensive firearm use in the United States. It contains both practical advice, such as choosing a firearm for self defense and tips on how to survive a gunfight, as well as legal advice on what to do after a deadly encounter. Many things have changed since it was first published in 1980, and many things have not. 

Some things have changed

The sections inside of “In The Gravest Extreme” that talk about what guns work best for personal defense are a bit of a walk down memory lane. Today, when we think of a defensive pistol, chances are we think of a polymer-framed, double-stack 9mm like a Glock or similar gun. This was not true in 1980. Ayoob talks about snub-nosed revolvers and .38 versus .357 Magnum, some mention of using a 1911, and a few words about Smith & Wesson’s Model 39 single stack 9mm double-action pistol. The gun world had no idea that in a few short years, guns like the Glock 17 and others would turn the defensive pistol market upside down. 

What has also changed is the environment for concealed carry in the U.S. Prior to 1987, most states either did not permit concealed carry, or they allowed it only at the discretion of the local government, even for qualified applicants (“May Issue” carry). In 1987, Florida changed their gun laws to allow for “Shall Issue” carry, where anyone who met the qualifications would receive their permit. Other states soon followed, and “Shall Issue” is now the standard for concealed carry permits in the United States. 

This sea change had not yet happened when “In The Gravest Extreme” was written in 1980. Concealed carry was rare, as were tests to obtain a concealed carry permit. Ayoob briefly mentions what he would consider to be a good test of shooting ability for an armed citizen. I thought it was an interesting glimpse into a world before concealed carry became commonplace for armed citizens, and so I gave it a try. 

A Different Take On The Concealed Carry Test

The test is not easy. The distances are longer than the concealed carry tests we see today. The majority of shots are taken one-handed, including the support hand. There are shots out to 25 yards. The good news is the time allotments are quite generous, with up to thirty seconds for a string of fire. 

There is no mention of a specific target in the book, but there is a minimum passing score, 120 out of 150. This, along with the distances involved, make me think that an NRA B-21 target would be best for this test. There is also no starting position mentioned, but I assume it was meant for the low ready position. The course of fire is as follows:   

  • Three sequences of 5 shots each at 7 yards (10 shots with the strong hand, 5 with the left), 15 second par time.
  • Three sequences of 5 shots each again at 7 yards (10 shots with the strong hand, 5 with the left), 8 seconds par time.
  • Two sequences of 5 shots each, shot with two hands at 12 yards, 12 second par time. 
  • 5 shots at 25 yards, shot with two hands.  

If you add up the shots fired, you’ll see it’s 45 rounds as written, so I added in another 5 shot sequence at 12 yards. This will make it an even 50 rounds fired, and make it a lot easier to score. 

So how easy is it to shoot this test? Not easy at all. 

Some things haven’t changed 

While guns and gun culture may have changed in 40 years, some things remain the same. That is the real reason to read this book. As I said before, Ayoob is a recognized leader in teaching the legal aspects of concealed carry to armed citizens. That began with this book ( affiliate link). There are clear guidelines about use of force, which are as true today as they were in 1980. Ayoob lays out clear guidelines about how to interact with the police after a defensive shooting that still apply to the armed citizenry of today. He recommends keeping your gun on you at all times. He is not a fan of the car gun (neither am I). 

When it comes to specific techniques, Ayoob is a fan of purposeful, two-handed sighted fire over “shooting from the hip.” This technique still works today, as does his advice on using avoidance and de-escalation as a means to avoid a gunfight. This passage, in particular, really struck home. While it was written over forty years ago, it could still be used to describe a vast swath of American gun owners:

“What frightens me most about most civilians with guns is that so many of them are rotten pistol shots. The average man has learned to think of firearms as something magical: the gun is pointed in the general direction of the he is to be shot, there is a frightful flash and a jarring blast, and the victim falls.” 

Judging by the marksmanship (or lack thereof) I see every time I visit a public range, that is a lesson we have yet to learn. 


As you read “In The Gravest Extreme,” you’ll soon realize that a lot of things you were taught in your concealed carry class started with this book. So many of the underlying principles of safe and legal defensive firearms ownership began with this book that it’s hard to list them all. Yes, there is some advice that is a bit outdated. The rest of the book, however, will serve as a foundation for understanding what the defensive carry lifestyle is all about. Buy it, read it, and take it’s lessons to heart. You never know if one day you will have to apply those lessons in the real world.