Few people who own guns for self-defense reasons really know what it is like to experience the stress of being involved in a shooting, or even just the stress associated with pointing a firearm at another individual. There are a variety of breakdowns – both physical and mental – that can occur when we experience such extreme and acute stress, and those often evolve into a breakdown of our gun handling skills.
Those breakdowns can make you incapable of using your gun effectively to defend yourself—rendering moot the reason you own a gun.
That’s why you have to develop your gun-handling skills to a level of “unconscious competency,” which is the final stage of a person’s development of a skill.
What’s Your Skill Level?
There are four stages, or degrees, of skill development:
1. Unconscious incompetence. You do not understand or know how to do something and you don’t really recognize this skill deficit. To move to the next level, you must recognize your incompetence and the value of the new skill. The amount of time spent in this stage depends on the motivation to learn.
2. Conscious incompetence. Though you do not understand or know how to do something, you recognize the deficit, as well as the value of the new skill in addressing the deficit. Making mistakes can be integral to the learning process here.
3. Conscious competence. You understand or know how to perform the skill, but demonstrating that skill requires concentration. You may have to break that skill down into steps or concentrate heavily in order to execute the new skill.
4. Unconscious competence. You have had so much practice executing the skill that it has become second nature, and you can perform it easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. You may be able to teach the skill to others.
Most shooters achieve the third level, conscious competence, which is sufficient for performance on the range. But for situations when your life depends on your ability to handle your gun, you should resolve to achieve the final skill level: unconscious competence.
The good news is that you can learn a shooter’s competence level when stress is introduced into training sessions. While the fear of pain achieves a level of stress not easily mimicked, a staged stressful shooting situation will still quickly expose any lack of skill, and it will isolate specific areas that need improvement.
The Stress Videos
While conducting a training seminar for patrol officers several years ago, I recorded shooting sessions that were designed to induce stress and to overwhelm a shooter. These sessions showed that most officers operated at a conscious competence level in a variety of gun handling skills.
Here we’ll show how stress can make you fumble your gun and bring about an inability to address and clear a malfunction.
CAUTION: If you attempt to replicate this or any of the other drills shown in this series, be sure to walk through each one first using an air soft gun so you can get an idea of the amount of stress the drill will cause before using live fire.
Gun Fumbling and Malfunctions
The inability to fix malfunctions, change magazines, and recognize that a gun is empty is the biggest issue I have seen during training. Even after a full day of practicing drills under pressure, these are the first things the brain seems to dump. If the tasks haven’t been committed to muscle memory, they cannot be accomplished quickly and/or well. You’ll see a variety of those in this video.
Typically I see the order of operations get screwed up on malfunctions, such as when the magazine fails to seat all the way and it falls out. An empty gun is a matter of conditioning yourself so that if the gun doesn’t go bang, you know you may need to glimpse at your firearm to assess.
Out of all the problems that can occur during an actual shooting, these areas are the most preventable, but also can be the most dangerous. Muscle memory of drawing the firearm, changing a magazine, and clearing malfunctions can be developed to the point of unconscious competence. Reaching this level is absolutely critical because under stress, all of the blood in our bodies goes to our core and to protect our organs, draining it from out extremities. This means we lose fine motor skills, and only have gross motor skills…meaning your hands will feel like flippers. The skills have to be solid. Equally important is the ability to recognize when a firearm has run dry. Every gun owner should strive to develop this skill for obvious reasons.
The Fix: The ability to differentiate between a malfunction versus an empty gun comes with experiencing enough of them. That’s why dummy rounds are the best training purchase a gun owner can make. Mixing these in with regular ammunition will force malfunctions, and with repetition comes unconscious competence.
One drill that can be used for recognizing an empty gun—but which must be done under extreme caution and safety—is to blindfold the shooter. It is best to have them shoot from a bench rest position. Load each magazine with varying numbers of rounds. Have the shooter fire one round at a time, taking the finger off the trigger after every shot. Tell the shooter to verbalize when he or she believes the gun is empty. This helps them identify the mechanical feel of the final round being fired (causing the slide to lock back) or even the weight of an empty gun. Once the shooter declares the firearm is empty, have the shooter press the trigger in order to find out if it is indeed out of ammo.
Tomorrow we’ll look at how stress can induce the worst possible outcome—a complete shutdown of mental processes.