Shot timers may be irrelevant to defensive training

For at least a decade I’ve subscribed to the idea that a teacher needs to be open to change, and that in fact one of the best ways to gauge the quality of a teacher is to ask what he (or she) has changed their mind about. If they’re learning, if they’re growing, they’ll experience evolution in their viewpoint. If they’re evolving, they should be able to point to something they teach now that they didn’t used to, or something that they stopped teaching because they learned something different/better.

Over the years I’ve changed my mind about many things, and students in last week’s Threat-Centered Revolver course in Phoenix were treated to another such evolution in what I teach. This particular change, I suspect, will be among the most controversial of my career because it calls into question one of the shooting world’s most cherished skills.

The evolution they experienced concerns how fast they should be shooting.

“Shoot faster!”

In the past, I’ve taught students to shoot as fast as they can physically control their gun; that is, as fast as they can make accurate hits on target. Even students with very little experience are able to run the trigger quite fast after two days of training and still make accurate hits; the physical skill isn’t hard to acquire.

In fact, this is pretty much how the whole defensive shooting community approaches the topic. Things like “riding the link” or “riding the reset”, which help students reduce their split times (the time between successive shots), are widely taught. The shorter and more positive the gun’s reset, the shorter the achievable split times.

Because the reset has an effect on how fast people can ultimately shoot it has become inordinately important to a lot of folks and, consequently, a topic of much conversation. The concept is so ingrained in the tactical hobbyist community that you almost can’t read anything about a new gun without seeing questions or comments about the trigger reset.

In shooting classes, we (meaning the bulk of the shooting community) reinforce this artificial importance by using shot timers which gauge, to the nearest hundredth of a second, how fast students can shoot. That’s not all; just about every well-known instructor you can name can be found on YouTube* showing off how fast they can run their guns. Their very reputations are at stake, as there is great marketing value in the implication that they can teach you how to do the same impressive thing.

Is this the best way to teach defensive shooting, though?

Bullets, liability, and you

Let’s say you have a Glock 17 with a full load of 18 rounds and are attacked. Let’s further say that your second shot causes your attacker to collapse, incapacitated. Would you continue firing the rest of your magazine — another 16 rounds — at the space he formerly occupied? I don’t know anyone who would say “yes”, because that’s clearly reckless.

How about shooting one more round? We know that it’s physiologically impossible to stop immediately once the trigger finger is moving, and so most of us would probably say another round or two was an acceptable over-run. So, at somewhere between two and 16 additional rounds we cross the line of acceptability. Is that line at three rounds? Five? Nine? I don’t know, and you don’t, but what we do know is that someone else will be making the judgement for us — and well after the fact.

In any defensive shooting, ethics (and increasingly our legal system) require you to justify every shot you make. In more and more cases, courts — whether actual or that of public opinion — are looking at the number of shots fired. When certain things happen in the chaos of a defensive shooting, such as unexplained shots in the suspect’s back or head, the focus often shifts from what the attacker did to what the defender over-did. Should one of those “extra” rounds injure or kill a bystander, the scrutiny will probably increase exponentially.

This is likely to only get worse as time goes on.

Decision making while shooting

In a self defense shooting, there are several questions which the defender (you) needs to process in rapid  succession:

  •  Do I need to shoot this guy?
  •  Do I need to shoot this guy again?
  •  Do I need to keep shooting this guy?
  •  Do I need to stop shooting this guy?

All of them require some specific information to answer, the most important being whether the opponent still poses a threat to your life. If he does, and the other elements of justifiable defense are in place, then you can decide whether to press the trigger.

This decision making takes a bit of time, and the decision to shoot (or shoot again) has been shown to happen significantly faster than the decision to stop shooting. What’s more, the difference between the two has shown to increase dramatically as the cadence of shooting increases.

In other words, the faster you pull the trigger the longer it will take you to stop shooting. Those rounds you fire between the time you need to stop shooting and the time that you actually do are the ones which dramatically increase your liability.

If you’re yanking the trigger as fast as you’re physically capable, it’s quite likely that your bullets will be leaving the muzzle at a greater rate than you can make the “stop” decision. I’ve come to believe that’s a very bad thing.

The importance of assessing as you shoot

As it happens, the more information you get about your attacker, the sooner you can perceive a change in his/her actions and the faster you can make the decision to stop shooting. In other words, you need to process information as part of your defensive response. If that response is shooting, you need to continuously process information before, during, and after pressing the trigger. The result of your processing may be to shoot again, or it may be to stop shooting.

As Lou Chiodo, formerly head of training at the California Highway Patrol, has told us for years: the only way you get the information you need for good decision-making is to be focused on your attacker, not your gun. This is why, many years ago, I adopted a target-focused (or as I like to call it, a threat-centered) approach to defensive shooting.

A target focus is great at helping you gather the information you need, but if you’re pulling the trigger as fast as you can get your hits it may be for naught; you’ll still outrun your ability to process the information you went to all that trouble to acquire.

This is where the evolution comes in.

The solution: manage your cadence

After due consideration, I’ve decided to change how I teach my students to shoot. Instead of shooting as fast as they can get accurate hits on target, I now tell my students that the first shot — which is their best opportunity to have an effect on their attacker — needs to come as quickly as they can physically control their gun. The decision to shoot has been made, and the time lag from decision to implementation is where they need to focus. The goal is the get the gun sufficiently indexed on target and the trigger pressed as efficiently as they can; should the situation change, that same physical time lag leaves them plenty of time to decide not to shoot.

Subsequent shots, however, should come only as quickly as they can assess and make the decision to shoot again. For most, this means shooting more slowly than they’re physically capable. This slowdown in cadence, I believe, will give them the crucial time they need to process the “stop signal” and cease firing when appropriate.

As it happens, even a cadence in congruence with their assess/decide capability is still pretty darned fast! The best research I’ve been able to come up with suggests that people can observe and react to a stimulus in about one-quarter to a one-third of a second. That translates to three or perhaps four rounds per second, give or take a little individual variation in capability.

After watching hundreds of videos of defensive encounters, I contend such a rate is more than fast enough to maintain defender safety a defensive shooting. It just isn’t necessary, from a safety standpoint, to shoot .12 second splits to survive an armed encounter. From my observations, .25 to .30 seconds per shot is sufficiently rapid.

Teaching cadence and assessment

I’ll admit this is a very difficult topic to teach with paper targets. Reactive targets (such as the Jedburgh system) make it a little easier, as the student can observe the target fall and make the decision to stop shooting.

In fact, using a reactive target system and instructing students to make decisions as they shoot seems to result in a kind of self-regulation; most students, even those who can shoot a lot faster, naturally slow down to about three or four rounds per second as they train themselves to assess and decide. This shows me that the published observe/react cycle times are probably fairly accurate.

Physical control is still important

This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in high speed shooting exercises, because there is. Nothing concentrates a student’s attention on the fundamentals of control like operating the trigger as fast as they physically can. I’ll still do those exercises to help them learn a higher level of control, but the bulk of what they do will be at a speed they can assess and make decisions.

I can’t, in good conscience, suggest that they (or you) train any other way.

— Grant

* — For the time being, anyhow.

For more information on the research underlying this change:

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