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.

In Part 1, we showed how shooters who have to make shoot/don’t shoot decisions in a stressful situation will fire prematurely.

Here, we’ll show how a stressful shooting situation can induce both a tendency to fire rapidly, as well as rhythmic, almost robotic movement that serves no purpose.

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: Rapid or Radical Firing and Robotic Movement

The shooter in this video is firing too fast for the distance and size of some of the targets. Also, his shooting cadence is almost in alignment with his rhythmic movement. We train that movement has a purpose, which is to find cover or concealment, or to step offline from return fire. When we move, we do it for a reason. This shooter almost seems to be in a trance, as if he knows what he should be doing, but doesn’t quite understand why.

The fact that the officer is moving robotically, and not really hitting the appropriate targets, indicates that he is having to split his attention between shooting, moving and target interpretation. When overwhelmed, it becomes difficult to be effective in any skill.

The Fix: The best way to fix rapid and radical firing and awkward movements is through stress-induced training. Shooting under stress over and over again will help you reach that level of unconscious competence with your firearm. Try incorporating a shot timer into a drill, which will allow you to measure your time against your accuracy and give you a baseline for improvement. Here’s a simple drill in which you can use a timer.

And don’t forget a camera. Videotaping the training session will give you a chance to view and correct any awkward or unnecessary movements.

Tomorrow we’ll show how stress can make you fumble your gun and bring about an inability to address and clear a malfunction, and how to prevent it from happening.

Got a minute? These fun, easy-to-follow videos will help you become a better handgun shooter in 60 seconds…no matter your skill level.

Handgun Videos: Shoot Better in a Minute