The Stress Videos: The Premature First Shot
You’re in a life-or-death situation and you fire your gun—right into the ground. Don’t think it could happen to you? Here’s why it can and does happen, and how to prevent it.

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.

I found four common skill areas that broke down during stress-induced training. This first one plainly exhibits that shooters who have to make shoot/don’t shoot decisions in a stressful situation will fire prematurely.

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.

Stress Reaction: The Premature First Shot

This video was taken when officers were being exposed to a variety of discretionary shoot/no shoot targets. The officers were either hooded or told to keep their eyes closed before the drill began in order to induce stress. When given the command to engage (“Threat”), many officers prematurely fired their first round before being on target. This is obvious here by the shots fired into the ground and the shooter’s body language. In addition, the barrel of the firearm jolts upward and the officer hesitates to take a second shot.

This occurs because the shooter has a strong grip on the firearm and is applying too much pressure on the trigger. For those without good trigger discipline, this could lead to an unintentional shooting.

The Fix: In order to develop a gun handling skills to a level of unconscious competence in this area, the shooter should practice the draw and first shot for consistency. This drill will ensure the shot breaks at full extension:

  1. Grip the gun. Dominant hand firmly secures gun high on the back strap and any retention devices are simultaneously disengaged.

  2. Draw from the holster. Trigger finger is indexed alongside of the gun frame, gun is pulled straight up to clear the holster.

  3. Rotate gun toward target and push it out and up toward target. The support hand should meet with the dominant hand at mid- chest level as trigger finger begins to descend to the trigger.

  4. Arms continue to extend the firearm toward the target in a modified isosceles position while the eyes focus on the front sight. The trigger finger is now on trigger.

  5. As firearm is extending toward target, the operator begins to take the slack out of the trigger.

  6. At the moment the firearm has reached full extension, the shot should break.

This drill focuses on the mechanics, not sight picture and sight alignment. The goal is to get your timing down so that the shot breaks at full extension. It must be done repeatedly to achieve unconscious competence.

Tomorrow we’ll show how stress can cause you to shoot rapidly and move almost robotically, which serves no purpose and can put your life in danger.

Are you ready to pull a trigger on someone? Can you? A former police officer and firearms instructor explains the long-term physiological and mental impacts that can come with shooting someone in self-defense.

Shooting in Self-Defense: Pulling The Trigger