How 'tac-talk' can prevent unintended discharges

Tac-talk at the “code word” level has been scientifically shown to build neural pathways in the brain that make actions automatic — a proven method for building muscle memory


When you draw your weapon, place your index finger along the frame of your firearm and keep it there — don’t let your finger enter the trigger guard or rest on the trigger until you decide to shoot. You were probably taught this rule in firearms training at the academy. If your finger is outside the trigger guard, you don’t need to worry about accidentally or involuntarily firing your weapon by pulling the trigger.

Every officer knows this rule and understands why it is important. Yet, unintended discharges continue to happen. Why is this? 

The simple answer is that officers sometimes unintentionally put their finger on the trigger before they have made the decision to shoot, even though they have been trained otherwise. In fact, extensive research into this problem shows that officers do this regularly without awareness. 

Brain Science and Human Performance
To see how well veteran officers follow this rule, I created a short interactive shooting video with a standard circle target. A chime signals when to draw; a buzzer signals when to shoot. I modified it slightly and created two videos — one instructional and one for practice — in case you are interested in trying it yourself (if you do try the videos, I advise replacing your service weapon with a laser gun — it’s more “environmentally friendly” on computer screens). 

I asked the captain of a public safety department to participate in the video training and told him that the purpose was to see if he could keep his finger off the trigger until the buzzer sounded. I pointed out that the time delay between the chime and the buzzer is fixed, so it should be easy to anticipate the buzzer and therefore keep his finger out of the trigger guard until the last moment, when a decision to shoot at the target had been made.

The outcome? He couldn’t keep his finger out of the trigger guard! Apparently, anticipating the buzzer is what made him “jump the gun” rather than reminding him to wait to place his finger on the trigger after he made the decision to shoot.

The captain then pulled in one of his officers. On the first ten trials, the officer’s finger entered the trigger guard every single time. The captain reminded the officer after each trail, “Keep your finger off the trigger until you decide to shoot.” The officer would nod each time and say “okay,” but each time the finger would go back on the trigger, anticipating the buzzer.

It should be noted that neither the captain nor the officer pulled the trigger early (i.e., an unintended discharge), but their finger was on the trigger early, so you can see the potential for a problem. They violated the rule that prevents unintended discharges. Can this be fixed?

Using Cognitive Command (C2)
Over the last six years, I and my colleages have developed a comprehensive mindset training program we call Cognitive Command — or C2. One technique used in C2 is “tac-talk” — a two-level systematic form of instructional self-talk. Tac-talk at the “code word” level has been scientifically shown to build neural pathways in the brain that make actions automatic — a proven method for building muscle memory. Tying a word (or phrase) to a motor behavior links the two together via conditioning. A neural pathway is then built that allows the code word to guide the behavior. With sufficient pairing of the two, the code word becomes an automatic thought that guides behavior subconsciously.

I had the captain say “finger” repeatedly out loud when he drew his weapon. He continued to say it until the buzzer sounded and he pulled the trigger. Not surprising to me, this task kept his finger out of the trigger guard until the buzzer sounded. 

Saying “finger” out loud was a reminder — a sort of “mind trigger” — to keep his finger along the frame of his weapon. The captain found the same results for the officer he tested: the officer kept his finger out of the trigger guard on every single trial using this technique.

To be clear, “finger” is not a magic word. The process of pairing the code word with the behavior is what makes it magical. Actually, pairing the code word and the action isn’t magical either; this method just takes advantage of how the brain operates, making it seem magical.

To look at this further, we conducted a short study in our lab with college students who had never used or held a firearm before. A police firearms instructor taught one group of students the standard five-point draw; he taught the other group a modified version using tac-talk. After 600 repetitions over a seven day period with a red gun, we tested both groups using an airsoft gun. We measured speed, accuracy, performance, and finger placement. 

We found that even with a short amount of training, students using tac-talk kept their finger out of the trigger guard more than those who were not trained in this technique.

Building neural pathways in a “fresh” brain is easier than filling in old pathways and rebuilding new ones in an experienced brain. Using code words to lay down the appropriate neural pathways to guide tactical behaviors will take fewer training repetitions for cadets in the academy than the corrective measures necessary for veteran officers. Re-wiring a new motor behavior in a salty dog is still possible... it just takes more time and effort.

While the technique is effective, I want to make it clear that interacting with the video and saying “finger” a few times, as the captain and officer did, was insufficient training to re-wire their motor cortex to always keep their finger out of the trigger guard. Saying “finger” a few times while watching a video will not build an efficient neural pathway; it takes a large amount of practice to create the automatic thinking that subconsciously guides behavior.

Allowing science — and what we know about brain functioning — to guide training in law enforcement is essential. Science enables us to work with the brain to make training more effective.

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