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March 30, 2012
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Mike Rayburn Combat Gunfighting
with Mike Rayburn

Point shooting: Instinctive response to deadly threats

Shooting is not instinctive, but the natural reactions your body has to the stress of a life-or-death encounter are, for the most part, instinctive

“If shooting was instinctive we’d all be born with guns in our hands.” No dumber statement has ever been uttered by a firearms instructor than that one, and yet whenever you bring up point shooting that ridiculous argument gets thrown out there. Shooting is not — and never will be — instinctive. However, the natural reactions your body has to the stress of a life-or-death encounter are, for the most part, instinctive. When your primordial ‘fight or flight’ syndrome kicks in your natural, dare I say instinctive reactions take over.

The one we most often hear about is tunnel vision. Years of evolution have taught us to focus on the source of the threat. Back when we were hunters and gathers if a bear suddenly attacked us we weren’t concerned with the scenery around us. We focused on that snarling bear’s teeth and made a decision to either fight it or flee from it. We naturally and instinctively focus on the threat at hand.

Have you ever interviewed the victim of an armed robbery and when asked to describe the gun they state that “it was like a cannon” but when you locate the perp all he has on him is a little .32 auto or something smaller? It’s because when that gun is stuck in your face from a few inches away and you think you’re about to get shot, it looks like a cannon in your face. The armed robbery victim did what came naturally and focused on the threat.

Human Factors
Firearms instructors recognized this issue many years ago. Isn’t ‘tunnel vision’ the reason why we train officers to scan their surroundings before they holster their firearms? We recognize that tunnel vision is an instinctive response on one hand, but dismiss it on the other? This is where the term ‘instinctive’ comes into play. Not that shooting is instinctive, but the reactions your body has to a sudden, traumatic, life or death encounter is. Your fight or flight syndrome is a natural, instinctive response to that threat. 

But ‘tunnel vision’ isn’t the only visual anomaly that occurs when your flight or flight syndrome kicks in. Officers have reported that it was difficult for them to focus on their adversary, especially in low light and when the target was moving. Coincidentally, according to the FBI’s annual reports most shootings occur in low light. Add in the fact that the majority of officer involved shootings involve some type of movement, either by the bad guy, the officer, or both.  

Another one is the loss of near vision, making it difficult to focus on objects at less than four feet. That rules out the use of your sights on your handgun and most rifles. It’s said that “under stress you’ll fall back onto your training.” If you’ve had no formal firearms training with unsighted fire, what exactly are you going to fall back onto?

Some will argue that “your subconscious will take over and you’ll use your sights without even knowing it.”

Yeah right, that’s a good one. Knowing what we know about what happens to your vision under stress, do you really believe that? If you do then you’ve never done any force-on-force training with SIMS or some other type of marking cartridge. If you have, and still believe that you’ll use your sights, then your scenarios haven’t been real. Your force on force scenarios need to be based on actual officer involved shootings, not some fantasyland you’ve pulled out of your head.

Speaking of SIMS, for those of us who have played the role of the bad guy, have you ever noticed that you always get shot in the hand? For those die-hard sighted fire instructors, that must mean that our people are amazing shots. They shot to stop the threat by shooting the gun out of the bad guy’s hand. What do you know? All those Hollywood movies had it right all along!

Actually, they didn’t, it goes right back to the very beginning of this article in that the students focused on the source of the threat and ended up shooting the role player’s hand.

Not only does this happen in training, but it also happens in real life. A number of bad guys, and officers, are shot in their gun hand, gun arm, and gun side of their body. It turns out that the bad guys are suffering from the same fight or flight survival stress that the rest of us are suffering from. They also focused on the source of their threat, which is our gun. Could that mean that it’s a natural, instinctive response that all of us have?

Slowly squeeze the... What?!
Since we’re ‘debunking stupid comments,’ let me throw out another one for you to ponder. “Slowly squeeze the trigger until the round goes off and it’s a surprise to you.”

Believe it or not, some actually think this happens in a real gunfight. We know from firsthand accounts that most times the bad guy gets the jump on us. He’s already made his decision that he’s not going back to prison, and the fight is on. At the very best, we’re playing catch-up.

To think that you’ll slowly squeeze your trigger at some bad guy who may already be shooting at you from a few feet away, is ridiculous. Some try to use that same subconscious argument that your training will take over and you’ll slowly squeeze the trigger at some bad guy who is trying to kill you, without even knowing it. No amount of training, no matter how many repetitions you do, will override your instinct to survive. 

When your fight or flight syndrome kicks in you’ll have a huge dump of adrenaline into your system. Your heart rate will increase causing the loss of fine and complex motor skills. Your hands will start to shake because your brain has recognized a threat and will instinctively pump the blood from your extremities, like your hands and your feet where it’s not needed, to your fight or flight muscles. Which are the large muscle groups in your arms and chest for fighting and the large muscle groups in your legs for fleeing.

To think that you’re going to “slowly squeeze the trigger” while all of this is going on is crazy.

Furthermore, under stress we have a tendency to clench our fist, which makes slowly squeezing the trigger all but impossible. Besides, what does the trigger have to do with shot placement in the first place? If I were to take your handgun and line it up on the target as I locked it into a heavy metal vise that was attached to a heavy metal and wooden table that was bolted to the range floor, and then tied a string to the trigger, what would happen when I pulled that string? Your round would go directly into the target. It wouldn’t matter how fast or how slow I pulled that piece of string, as long as the gun didn’t move your rounds would stay true on target. Wouldn’t common sense then dictate that having a tight, convulsive grip on the gun would be more important than anything you did with the trigger? 

Eye-Hand Coordination
Some will speculate that their sighted fire training will overcome their fight or flight syndrome, that they can overcome their ‘instinct’ to survive. When someone is trying to kill you from just a few feet away, and your flight or flight syndrome kicks in, like it does on all of us, the last thing you’re going to worry about is trying to find a sight picture. If anything, attempting to obtain some type of sight picture while your life hangs in the balance in mere fractions of a second would be a hindrance.

If you’re trying to claim that “muscle memory” will take over based on your repetitive sighted fire training, why not just skip to muscle memory training instead? Why waste all that time trying to perfect your sighted fire skills if you’re not going to use it, but will instead go to “muscle memory.” Stop throwing theories out there. Law enforcement training needs to be based on facts, because the lives of our brothers and sisters are at stake here.

It’s not muscle memory — it is eye-hand coordination. It’s like hitting a round ball with a cylindrical stick. Do you line up the sights on your cruiser before you drive it down the street? Someone show me the sights on their flashlight, but yet all of us can turn it on and point it at something. Not muscle memory — it’s all eye-hand coordination

The problem is that some of us want to protect our little fiefdom, so we try to mystify firearms training. Shooting is as simple as pointing your gun and pulling the trigger. It’s only difficult because some people try to make it difficult.


About the author

Michael T. Rayburn has more than 30 years of experience in the law enforcement field, and is an internationally recognized expert in the areas of Vehicle Stops, Officer Safety, and Firearms Tactics and Training. Rayburn is an adjunct instructor at the Smith & Wesson Academy, has written numerous articles for various police magazines and Law Enforcement related web sites, and is the author of four books, "Advanced Vehicle Stop Tactics," "Advanced Patrol Tactics," “Combat Gunfighting,” and “Combat Shotgun.”

Mike Rayburn can be reached at www.combatgunfighting.com.





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