Triggering muscle memory
Late last month, a short high-speed pursuit ended when the suspect's vehicle collided with a fence (Read the full story). By now, most if not all of us have seen portions of a video tape depicting a Sheriff's Deputy shooting the passenger. The case is still being investigated, but even without full information we can use the incident to open discussions on our policies, tactics and training.
What is muscle memory?
Essentially, muscle memory is training yourself do to something without consciously thinking about it. Think about dialing an often used telephone number. Or, for those of us who learned to type, we tap at the keyboard, not consciously thinking about the keys. Trigger press is another learned muscle memory. How many countless times have you pressed the trigger, with live ammunition and dry-firing, just to get the perfect press? It is likely you have taught you index finger exactly what to do without thinking about it.
Early research into muscle memory presumed that what you were doing was creating permanent pathways between your brain and the muscles you would use for the repetitive activity. You were creating express lanes between the muscles and your brain. However, there is some research to suggest that muscle memory is much more complex. It may be that the memory for certain repetitive activities actually resides within the muscles you are using.
One suggested explanation is that when you decide to key in that often used telephone number your mind decides it is time to initiate the number sequence, sends the first digits and your fingers take over. How many times have you dialed a number that you knew had been changed? Have you every dialed the wrong number even though you reminded yourself that there was a new number? All sorts of trainers recognize the value of muscle memory. But are there hidden dangers?
Many people who have accidental discharges will tell you that the firearm "just went off." It must have malfunctioned. Unfortunately, when the firearm is inspected by the department armor they tell you that the only way the firearm discharged was the shooter pressed the trigger. And, the shooter will insist they did not press the trigger. Is it possible to press the trigger without consciously thinking about it? Clearly, muscle memory makes that possible. Moreover, if the deeper research about muscle memory is true it may be possible for your index finger to press the trigger without a message from your brain. Perhaps the act of placing your finger on the trigger initiates a sequence within the cells of the muscles controlling your index finger and the finger follows through.
Even if your index finger doesn't develop a memory of its own, once you place your finger on the trigger you have clearly initiated the first part of a repetitive sequence that ends with trigger press. Furthermore, it is plausible that since you have initiated this sequence if you don't shoot, you must be consciously sending a "no shoot" message to your index finger. In a high-stress situation you are going to default to the level your training.
Tactical handling of firearms
Most, if not all, official ranges and good tactical shooters teach to you to place your finger along the frame. The only time your index finger moves to the trigger is when you are going to follow through and shoot. In the field, any time you draw your weapon you should only place your finger along the frame. Not until you decide to shoot should your finger move to the trigger.
While it is too early to know if muscle memory was in anyway contributory to the San Bernardino incident, it is a good time to revisit our basic firearm and tactical skills. We can use the incident to open a dialogue amongst ourselves about our policies, tactics and training without being early, ill-informed critics.