Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"High Utility" Firearm & Combatives Skill Development

“High Utility” Firearm & Combatives Skill Development

(Qualification Processes versus Holistic Skill Development Systems)

This article is the result of many conversations that I have had with people following a recent 2012 court decision by the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals. The court returned a finding that Illinois’ statewide ban on concealed carry (of a firearm) was unconstitutional. The court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution, with regard to this case, is that American citizens have the right to keep and bear a firearm inside as well as outside the home for purpose of self-defense. Judge Richard Posner is quoted as stating, “A Chicagoan is a good deal more likely to be attacked on a sidewalk in a rough neighborhood than in his apartment on the 35th floor of the Park Tower”. Illinois was given roughly 180 days to develop some provision for their citizens to now legally exercise this Constitutional right.

Numerous individuals and organizations contacted me following the court’s decision to discuss various topics related to CCW (the concealed carry of a firearm); conversations varied from simple inquiries as to licensing availability through the Midwest Academy, to more complex concerns such as the depth and quality of any yet-to-be-developed state curriculum. Most of these individuals and organizations that contacted the Academy/me did so due to the experience base here: few organizations are able to speak professionally from the perspective of military and law enforcement special operations veterans that have been an operators, leaders, and trainers in those venues. Of the few individuals that fall into this category, few also have nearly two decades of daily conceal carry, plain clothes interventions, and critical incident resolution experience. The preceding is not an attempt to impress the reader, but to impress upon the reader that the following is an experienced-based synopsis that has also been vetted in the “real-world”; it is not simply theory, conjecture, or opinion. What follows is a discussion addressing the five core components of “high utility” skill development as related to combatives: Skill Performance, Scanning & Decision Making, Tactical Integration, Medical Skills, and Combat Mindset.

Skill Performance (Conscious vs. Unconscious Skill Competencies)

Training that licenses one to do something usually involves some process of qualification; however, in order to avoid the “minimum standards trap”, one must first examine if a “qualification” ensures that someone is “qualified” to perform the action in the venue of its likely application and under realistic conditions associated with the action’s utility. In other words, can a “qualification” incorporate the critical elements of the real world? The “minimum standards trap” is a recognition that many qualifications are designed, instead, to absolve an instructor/organization from potential liability. That is quite opposite to it functioning as a measurement of the degree of utility that an individual can apply a particular skill set with. In the field of combatives, regardless of the platform (rifle, pistol, impact tool, edged tool, or empty handed), the dynamics and variables involved defy the development of “unconscious competence” (for information on learning theory as applied to physical skill sets, see our previous 2010 article on Integrated Training ) in an 8, 16, 32, or even 40 hour format. There is simply not enough time in those formats to perform enough correct repetitions, at an appropriate level of intensity, in order to build “unconscious competence”. Most “qualifications”, however, are structured around fixed time constraints such as those described.

In fact, it has been my experience in nearly 3 decades of combatives training, few people develop “unconscious competence” in physical skill sets due to the sheer time commitment required to perform the volume of repetitions needed. In addition, the magnitude of mental exertion required to perform each repetition correctly is beyond most exponent’s level of personal discipline; that is particularly true if they are “self-coached”. “Unconscious competence”, additionally, is not and end point; it is a continual process requiring regularly applied “maintenance repetitions” in order to keep the skill set from degrading or perishing altogether.

Does that mean that a skill that is not internalized at the level of “unconscious competence” cannot be used? Absolutely not. In fact most physical skill sets, in my experience, are employed at varying degrees of “conscious competence”. That means that some level of “thinking” through the “how” of some or all parts of “the action” occurs while executing the skill. What am I making that assertion on? Simply this: vivid analytical recollection of the specific mechanical aspects of a physical skill following its application indicate a conscious thought processes driving the skill set; hence the ability to recall it vividly. Conversely skills performed at a level of “unconscious competence” tend to leave only an intuitive sense that some parts of the skill set were applied. When combined with a practitioner’s knowledge of what mechanics “should have occurred”, that intuition is confirmed by the practitioner’s “general feeling/state of awareness” that the sequential mechanics did occur, but without specific recollection to “doing them” during the incident. Task specific action without cognition indicates that an “unconscious mind” is driving the skill set. As an analogy for the latter scenario, one can think of locking a door that one locks every day. Since the daily locking of the door is routine, it often occurs while thinking about something else. As a result, after a few minutes, one begins wondering if one locked the door or if the “memory” of locking the door was from a previous ‘repetition’ of locking that door. Since the locking of that door is habitual, most of the action is driven unconsciously thereby making conscious recollection of a particular ‘locking repetition’ difficult.

Let me offer a comparative analogy to help explain the above and demonstrate the “higher utility” that “unconscious competence” is capable of producing: think back for a moment to the earliest recollections that you have of driving an automobile. At that time, driving required all of your conscious energy. Even then the mechanics of the skill were not always smooth or correct as evidenced by the white knuckles and held breath on the part of your driving instructor (maybe on your own part as well). As you gained time (and repetitions) behind the wheel, complex aspects of driving become more familiar. For example, as a light turned from green to yellow to red, you applied the correct amount of pressure to the brake to gradually slow the vehicle in the appropriate amount of distance. By contrast, if some emergency that required stopping quickly presented itself, you applied the same braking action, but used different dynamics in order to effect deceleration in the distance dictated by the emergency. If you have been driving for any significant length of time, you may have had this experience at least once (or, maybe, more regularly): you drive a familiar route (such as between home and work, for example) and find yourself arriving at your destination without any significant recollection of the specifics of that particular trip. You may actually recall something else you were thinking about consciously, other than driving, during the trip: a phone conversation, planning for something you need to do, or evaluating something that happened, as examples. You may have no specific recollection applying the brake to stop at a given stop sign along the route, but if you press yourself to “remember”, having ‘practitioner’s knowledge’ that a given stop sign exists at a specific point in your route, you likely have in “intuitive recollection that is confirmed by general feeling/state of awareness” that you stopped for it. You would not, however, be able to mark on the pavement the specific spot where you began to apply brake pressure to decelerate the vehicle. That type of detail was outside your sphere of conscious awareness. One would say that a person driving at this level has “internalized” the mechanics of driving at a level of “unconscious competence”.

So what that all that mean? Driving at a level of “unconscious competence” does not mean that you are a “bad” or “distracted” driver. It means that, as a result of internalizing the mechanics of driving at a level of “unconscious competence”, the driving skill set has “high utility”. It has “high utility” in the sense that the foundational mechanics can spontaneously produce correct action without conscious thought. Take for example driving through an unfamiliar area while your conscious mind is focused on locating a specific address or street - suddenly a small child darts out between the front and rear bumpers of two cars parked on the side of the street that you are driving on. Without specific conscious thought directing the response, you adjust the speed and direction of your vehicle to either drive around the child, if he is close to the cars, or stop your vehicle, if he is more towards the street. This is not a “trained response” since you have never been down this street, under these lighting conditions, with these road conditions, etc., and practiced this evasive maneuver for these specific variables before. All those variables, as well as the totality of distance, speed, and directions were intuitively (without the conscious thought process) accounted for. The driving mechanics that exist at an “unconscious level” produced exactly the appropriate set of actions needed for this specific and dynamically occurring situation; the action co-developed with the situation as opposed to an “action-reaction” response. Therefore, since the action was co-developed, it developed spontaneously; the child did not reach an end point of movement that your mind then developed a response action to. As the child was moving, the driving inputs were being adjusted.

By comparison, newer drivers tend not to have their driving mechanics completely internalized. Thus, their driving skill set exists at some degree of “conscious competence”. Their skill set produces desired outcomes (safe driving) as long as the variables of a given condition do not change so dynamically that their conscious mind is not able to analyze the changes, identify the appropriate response, and translate the intellectualized response into the correct physical actions. When variables change too rapidly for the conscious mind adapt through analysis, we can correctly say that their OODA loop (the ‘Observe, Orient, Decide, Act’ model of perception, decision, and action) was compromised/overwhelmed. The data that was “Observed” and being “Oriented” to changed prior to a “Decision” being made (in a timely manner) and “Acted” on. To illustrate this, think of the ‘at fault’ driver following a car accident. This driver usually knows what could have been done to avoid the accident (such as slow down, speed up, turn, or some combination of those inputs) in retrospect, but in the moment, the driver was not able to create the process that would lead to the desired outcome (not having the accident). Does this mean that only inexperienced drivers have accidents? Again, not at all. However, insurance companies that profit through accurate risk analysis view less experienced drivers as being at greater risk of having an accident as compared to more experienced drivers. As a result, they charge greater premiums to offset the increased risk.

If both experienced and inexperienced drivers have passed the same “qualification” standards to drive, why would a statistical risk analysis differentiate the two groups? The less experienced driver with a new driver’s license has the same “qualifications” to drive a vehicle as the more experienced driver, however, the insurance company’s risk analysis shows that the less experienced driver is less “qualified” to drive safely than the more experienced driver. Even if the outcome of “safe driving” is produced by the less experienced driver, the insurance company still believes this driver to be higher risk because the “process” of driving is not internalized at a level of “unconscious competence”; the newer driver’s skill set has less “utility” than a more experienced driver in terms of producing the desired outcome (safe driving) in a dynamic environment. In our driving oriented culture, insurance companies typically lower risk premiums around 25 years of age – if the typical driver passes a “qualification” at age 16, the risk analysis shows that he/she is more “qualified” after almost a decade of regular repetitions.

Returning to the general topic of combatives, and specifically firearms, what mechanics does one seek to have “internalized” in order to create “high utility”? The short answer is all the mechanics related to the act/action of shooting. There are three general components to the action of shooting that all quality training programs identify and focus training on: the grip, the sight alignment, and the trigger press. Other factors such as posture, breath, etc are also trainable components of those three fundamentals – all of these should be internalized at a level of “unconscious competence”. The point of this article, however, is not to discuss “how” to shoot, but what core component skills must be developed to have a “high utility” shooting skill set. At a minimum, the mechanics of the Skill Performance (the grip, sight alignment, and trigger press) must be developed to a level of “unconscious competence” in order to create “high utility”.

I have spent a significant amount to time to demonstrate why “qualification” should not be equated with “high utility” skill development. My intent is not to discourage individuals from training programs that are “qualification” oriented, but to have them understand that a “qualification” is the beginning of a mastery process and not the end. Quality training provides avenues for further skill development beyond the “qualification”.

Scanning & Decision Making (“Thinkers before Shooters”)

Once the conscious mind has been freed of the need to “create” the mechanics of action (since “action” is now performed correctly and without conscious thought), the energy of the conscious mind can be directed into a skill set necessitating analysis: scanning and decision making. Efficient scanning and decision making are required to create “high utility” combative skills and, in my opinion, are one of the most underdeveloped areas related to most firearms training programs. Scanning and decision making are essentially two different, but interdependent, skill sets; as mentioned before, however, this is not an article on “how to”, but rather a synopsis of “what are” the skill sets make up the whole of “high utility”. Therefore, I will refer to the scanning and decision making skill sets by their interdependent outcome which we will call “discrimination”. “Discrimination” in this context refers to being able to fluidly and accurately decide if something/someone is either a “threat” or “no-threat”. It also includes a method of using one’s body movement and eyes so that no areas of “the battle-space” that are omitted from one’s awareness.

Good discrimination relies on the ability to gather and process data in a dynamic environment. At the Academy, we use the CSAT (Combat Shooting and Tactics) method of Tactical Scanning in order to gather this data. It is important that the mechanical aspects related to the “Skill Performance” of shooting be supportive of the mechanical aspects used in the tactical scanning process; when the mechanics in multiple skill components support one another, synergy between skill sets is produced. The mechanics Tactical Scanning facilitate gathering multiple layers of data regarding a potential threat/unknown individual in the “battle-space” so as to make accurate decisions. The “discrimination” process results from the interplay of scanning and decision making on the following levels:

• Whole Body – the initial scan of an individual should take in the whole body view. Depending on the distance of the individual being scanned and battle-space lighting conditions, the operator may need to use the “rod cells” (peripheral vision) or “cone cells” (“focused” vision) of his/her eyes to capture the whole body view in an instant. In addition, the operator’s weapon ready posture must be internalized in a way that it does not obstruct the whole person view, but can be readily presented if a threat is identified. That means a compressed high ready or “sul position” are the two preferred methods for a pistol and a low ready (muzzle below the belt line)preferred for a shoulder mounted weapon;

• Hand-Hand – distinctly seeing both hands is critical to identifying “threat” or “no-threat”; a gun may be in one hand, but the other may contain a badge, for example. If one or both hands is being concealed from view, that also provides threat indication data to the operator (as concealment is not a natural part of day-to-day action);

• Waistband – this is the area that a weapon can most readily be deployed from;

• Wingspan – the ‘lunge area’ of an individual may contain “threat” or “no-threat” data such as a pistol or machete, for example;

• Demeanor – does the person’s overall conduct seem to indicate “threat” or “no-threat”.

Since discrimination is a conscious and continual process in the battle-space, it becomes a factor in limiting the speed of movement – one cannot shoot faster than one can move and correctly discriminate (think). Developing a “high utility” shooting skill set is contingent upon having proficiency in scanning and decision making. Synergy results when the Tactical Scanning and Decision Making mechanics are smoothly and precisely dovetailed with mechanics of Skill Performance at a level of “unconscious competence”.

Tactical Integration (From the Range to Reality)

The next core component in developing a “high utility” shooting skill set is the tactical component. This component has had a significant volume written about it in the tactical community, however, this discussion can be facilitated by dividing tactics into “tool oriented tactics” and “movement oriented tactics”. “Tool oriented tactics” are the immediate action drills which have the purpose of keeping the tool useful during an engagement. Since these are actions intended to be performed during an engagement (when the weapon does not function correctly), these actions need to be internalized at a level of “unconscious competence” (along with the Skill Performance component) in order to create “high utility”. Some examples of these drills are ‘emergency/speed reloads’, ‘tactical reloads’, ‘multiple target transitions’, and ‘weapon transitions’. These drills are common to most firearm training programs.

As one begins to incorporate the core component of tactics into the whole of the shooting skill set, the quality of tactical training becomes imperative to consider; tactical training quality is often difficult to assess since most students of combatives are relatively inexperienced. It is often easy for an inexperienced student to mistake high speed “game training” for quality “tactical training”. Repetitions will result in internalized actions, however, if the internalized actions are simply “gaming” and not “tactical”, they could ultimately be detrimental in the application environment (during an actual critical incident). “Gaming” in this sense, is what results in many training venues when a desired outcome (such as lowering times, for example) supersedes a vetted process. Take for instance a drill that many shooting classes teach called “el presidente”: in this drill the shooter engages three targets in lateral succession traversing horizontally from one target to the next. The shooter then performs a reload, and then re-engages those same three targets in the same manner described. The drill is usually scored on some combination of accuracy and time; students can improve their scores by lowering their times. While this can be quality training, “gaming” of the drill can start to occur when a student stops using the weapon’s sights to dictate their cadence of fire (rounds fired without the reference of a sight picture cannot be accounted for in the real world), starts keeping their finger on the trigger while traversing from target to target (in the real world there may be innocents between threats and one does not want to sweep them with their muzzle while their finger is on the trigger), and by eliminating the practice of “follow through and cover” on threats that have been engaged (appropriate combat mindset cannot be developed when ‘hits’ on targets equate to an assumption that a threat has been neutralized). “Gaming” is not necessarily bad; games can teach us something as long as we keep them in their place in the application spectrum – many of us played Monopoly as children and learned something about money from the game, however, few of us would attempt to pay our bills with Monopoly money as adults. The tactical process that one seeks to have internalized at a level of “unconscious competence” should never be compromised in order to improve any measurements. As illustrated, one could develop bad habits such as not referencing one’s sights, sweeping the weapon across innocents with the finger on the trigger, and not following through on threats that have been engaged; these habits can be unknowingly introduced into a tactical skill set without the practitioner being aware of the negative potentials as a result of “game” training. Since these actions are unconsciously driven, it is not likely that one will be able to execute a different process during a critical incident. How you train will be how you fight.

“Movement oriented tactics” relate to understanding the geometry of the ‘battle-space’. Since most people live, work, attend school, shop, etc., in some sort of manmade structure, the most relevant battle-space geometry to study is that of the urban environment. Learning to make use of cover and concealment appropriately, assessing thresholds, entering and exiting rooms in the safest manner are some examples of skill sets related to “movement oriented tactics”. Quite simply these skills cannot be developed on a flat range and require a significant investment of time and diligence to develop “high utility”. Furthermore, experience based instructors tend to have the greatest knowledge with regard to “movement oriented tactics”.

Medical Skills (Prepared to Survive)

Like the tactical component, the medical component is likewise multifaceted and has had volumes written on it. Again for this discussion on developing a “high utility” shooting skill set, this topic will be simplified into two basic components: “Pre-Combat” medical and “Combat Casualty Care”.

“Pre-Combat” medical is closely related to the mindset component of a “high utility” shooting skill set. Sometimes referred to as fitness or conditioning, pre-combat medical skills seek to provide health related synergies to the other core component skill sets. For example, the greater one’s level of cardiovascular health, musculoskeletal health, flexibility, etc, the better supported core components of a “high utility” shooting skill set will be that require those physical aspects. This has led to many trainers “gaming” aspects of “pre-combat” medical by adding physical stressors, such as exercise, into shooting drills; they are missing the point in my opinion. The idea should not be to train in a “degraded” “pre-combat” medical state by elevating heart rate, blood pressure, and exhausting musculoskeletal components. While conditioning is important, proper form should be the emphasis of “skill performance”; the emphasis placed in the “pre-combat” medical section should include techniques that slow heart rates, lower blood pressures, and conserve musculoskeletal components. The rationale for this is that we have already identified discrimination as the limiting factor in combatives training; physical exhaustion affects the reliability of the discrimination process. In order to increase its reliability, techniques for decreasing physical exhaustion should be dovetailed with the combatives techniques in a “high utility” skill set. Breathing techniques as well as “meditative” skills have been components of combative skills for thousands of years of human history; they are no less applicable in today’s battle-space and with modern tools than they were during their origins. A clear state of consciousness and relaxed-but-ready physiology should be part of “pre-combat” medical skills.

In today’s battle-space a significant number of casualties occur as a result of blood loss as opposed to instant incapacitation. Skill sets related to minimizing blood loss, such as tourniquet application, need honed. Combat casualty care may save the oneself, the life of another, or both; this skill set is the result of a “consciously competent” ‘blood saving’ skill set combined with an “unconsciously competent” combat mindset; it requires the proactive discipline of keeping the appropriate tools (such as a tourniquet) available and/or having the knowledge and means to improvise them.

Combat Mindset (the Weapon is only a Tool)

To paraphrase MSG Paul Howe, retired Army Delta Force Team Leader & Trainer, combat mindset is a person’s ability to focus on a task, solving one problem at a time, while in harm’s way and facing overwhelming odds; it includes keeping one’s emotions under control and having a businesslike attention to detail such that one is deliberate, methodical, and prepared to survive in the accomplishment of that task.

The development of combat mindset requires a great deal of personal discipline as well as an investment into a paradigm that includes relinquishing of the luxury of being “situationally unaware” and “unprepared” for critical incidents. Combat mindset as related to a “high utility” shooting skill set, which is how this discussion began, requires consistent carry and placement of a firearm, magazines, and identification at a minimum. Since critical incidents, by their nature, do not provide forewarning, combat mindset requires maintaining a state of committed readiness as well as a residual awareness that is alert to early threat indicators. The earlier a threat is identified, the greater the options to avoid, minimize, or mitigate it before it becomes a critical incident. The greater one’s knowledge of the law is, the better one will be able to cultivate combat mindset; even amongst armed professional, ambiguity regarding laws governing force and self-defense is a dominant cause of hesitation in the decision making process that can result in creating an asymmetric environment in an aggressor’s favor.

Combat mindset is the single skill component that will not create utility at any level other than “unconscious competence”; it is also the component that is built through all the other skill sets by training them at a level of appropriate intensity and commitment. As “unconscious competence” develops in combat mindset, shooting skills will be but a single layer in a set of skills; one will realize that mindset is the weapon and everything else is simply a type of tool. As discussed with many of the previous components, much can be discussed regarding combat mindset as its own topic.


This article was written to provide a “map” of sorts for anyone interested general combatives, shooting skill sets, or seeking a CCW. What has been outlined is a process of continual improvement in several skill areas (Skill Performance, Scanning & Decision Making, Tactical Integration, Medical Skills, and Combat Mindset) that require the use of both the conscious and unconscious mind in an integrated manner such that synergy is produced. Without skill set integration, complex problems will likely produce chaos in the same way as the inexperienced driver is less able to avoid the accident.

By being personally invested and committed to a holistic system, a “high utility” skill set, one through which the foundational mechanics can spontaneously produce correct action without conscious thought will be developed. Conversely, if one’s level of commitment is simply that of “qualification” – simply to purchase a firearm and take a “test” after 8, 16, 32, or 40 hours of training; to only carry the tool when one is “going to the city”; to sometimes carry it in a briefcase and other times leave it in the car, it is highly probable that any complexities during an actual critical incident will degrade the even minimal utility of any skill developed. In the latter case, much of the outcome of a critical incident will be determined by “luck” as it fills the void of skill. Therefore I would encourage anyone interested in combatives, shooting skills sets, or seeking a CCW to commit to building a “high utility” skill by understanding the depth of the process from the beginning and seeking quality training by high quality, experienced instructors. And then, of course, committing to do the homework.

David B. Hakim