THE KEYS TO BEING MENTALLY PREPARED FOR A GUNFIGHT
The keys to being mentally prepared for a gunfight.
Gunfighting is 95 percent mental and 5 percent mechanical. That 95 percent is the very heart of gunfighting. Combat mindset is mental attitude and mental preparedness that is evident well before a confrontation. It is a thought process that has thoroughly envisioned the possibility of a deadly force encounter. It does not involve looking for a fight. In fact, it is a mindset that avoids the fight if at all reasonably possible. It incorporates, however, a determination to carry through a fight when all other reasonable options have been exhausted.
It would be virtually impossible to instantaneously develop a combat mindset while engaged in a lethal-force confrontation, especially if one had never contemplated such a thought processes prior to the event. The average gunfight lasts somewhere on the order of 2 to 3 seconds from the initial shot to the last. There is little or no time to instantaneously mentally resolve oneself within such time constraints if this has not been trained. Mental preparation must be in place well beforehand.
Mindset drives the fight, and the mechanics simply carry it out. One may be mechanically prepared and yet foul up the entire affair because the mindset just was not sufficient. The mechanics of gunfighting and combat mindset are always symbiotic in their relationship. There have been shooters in law enforcement that exhibited great skill in combat training courses of fire yet they have turned in sub-par performances in the field. By the same token, there are those shooters that were the average shooters on qualifying and training evolutions who have performed superbly in the field. The difference in performance was due to the combat mindset that these individuals exhibited when placed under critical stress. Naturally, the best combination is a skilled shooter who also possesses a “switched on” combat mindset, a very hard combination to beat indeed.
Flying a fighter plane well includes the ability to display a mechanical proficiency in concert with controlled aggression and clarity of thought under stress. This is not at all dissimilar to a gunfight. I have a very good friend, Rich Karwowski, who was a Marine Corps fighter pilot. He drove the FA-18 Hornet (they term it “driving” the Hornet). He was also an instructor in the FA-18 Hornet. It was not uncommon for him to engage in an ACM (air combat maneuvers) against a much younger and inexperienced fighter pilot student who may have possessed fine mechanical skills. The student may have performed very well during flight maneuvers, yet would fail during “nose-on” air combat engagements. The student pilot may have been too excited or overly
aggressive, and when he overextended himself, Karwowski would defeat him by simply driving his Hornet and capitalizing on any mistakes the student pilot made.
Others who he flew against might not commit to a course of action or vacillated on a decision, and Karwowski capitalized on their indecision to defeat them as well. There is a fine line that must be drawn in air combat. It is the ability to display a mechanical proficiency in concert with controlled aggression yet possess clarity of thought under extreme duress. This is not at all dissimilar to gunfighting.
Gunfights are very fast, and sometimes they can be extremely confusing. Things come at you from all directions and change rapidly. Decisions of how to move, where to move if in fact you even move at all, where to aim, how fast you trigger off shots, what portion of the target you are reliably able to strike, when you can justifiably shoot, what cover you use, when and how you communicate, the background relative to the target, how much you lead a moving target, adapting to lighting conditions, varied shooting positions, adaption to wounded appendages, etc., all will have to be processed instantaneously.
At the same time, you might be fearful, apprehensive, angry, trembling, perhaps short of breath and find the simplest of mental and physical skills difficult to carry out. All of this is perfectly natural.
The primary key in all of this is to first accept some or all of these processes as a natural, human condition. Unless you get into a gunfight each and every day, I would venture to say that each of us will experience some varying degrees of these physiological and psychological reactions when subjected to the stress of a life-ordeath situation. I know that I have.
The first step then is to accept the fact that you are, after all, human and that you are therefore subject to these human phenomena. We all possess fears of one sort or another. Fear is natural—panic isn’t. This is another fighter pilot axiom. Channeling fear, or turning it in the right direction so that it works for you as opposed to against you, is the key to controlling it.
For example, you might think, “OK, you started this. You just tried to kill me, so I’m going to stop it right now!” Or, it may simply be the stark realization that if you don’t overcome your fear you are going to be killed or seriously injured, enabling you to override any fear in the way a mother will instantly override any degree of fear to immediately protect her young.
Everyone has varying degrees of fear and trepidation. It’s a rather hard thing to quantify just how fearful one might be in any given situation. For instance, I am not at all fond of heights. But I have fast-roped and rappelled from helicopters. I’ve rappelled from tall buildings and climbed some fairly high rocks and even scaled oil rig platforms in the Pacific in the dead of night. What I’ve done in each of these instances is to place 100 percent of my confidence and trust and focus into the equipment and mechanics of the climbing,
“GUNFIGHTS ARE VERY FAST AND SOMETIMES THEY CAN BE EXTREMELY CONFUSING. THINGS COME AT YOU FROM ALL DIRECTIONS AND CHANGE RAPIDLY.”
fast-roping or rappelling. For me, this concentration on the mechanics seemed to allay any fear of rapidly accelerating down to an abrupt stop on terra firma.
For the shooter, focusing on the mechanics of the shooting, such as the sights, trigger press and followthrough—and being acutely focused on the mechanics—may very well allay any fears of the moment. Many of my students who have experienced gunfights have stated that they were so focused on solving the problem that they weren’t fearful at the time, even though they were shaking afterward. Such a focus will always make for an efficient and professional gunfighter.
The following sections deal with various aspects of combat mindset.
I am not speaking of an uncontrolled aggression, but rather a focused commitment to carry through what needs to be done. Aggression and decisiveness are interdependent. One cannot use half-measures and expect full results. Once you have made a decision to act, it must be straight to the point with everything you’ve got.
Another way of viewing this would be that of a determined aggression. When I was a very young officer in the streets of Los Angeles, I worked Wilshire, one of the “hot” divisions, as a probationer. I was involved in a number of altercations in my first few months on the job. I rapidly found that trying to subdue a suspect with only 80 percent effort did nothing but prolong the struggle. When I went at it “full bore,” the suspect stopped his resistance much sooner and with less injury to both parties. Oftentimes, opponents will cease their actions altogether when they realize that the commitment and aggression that they have incited in others is more than what they bargained for.
In such situations, you must remember that it is the opponent who has chosen to bring the fight to you, or has targeted you as a victim, and therefore you can expect little mercy from him. Also remember that your aggression should be directed as a forceful and mechanically sound process as opposed to an out-of-control and emotionally infused process.
You cannot waver on a course of action at mid-point in a gunfight. There simply isn’t the time. For example, let’s say you find yourself in a situation in which you are carrying a pistol in a concealed manner and your opponent, who poses a possible deadly threat toward you, is unaware of this fact. If you begin to draw the pistol and then hesitate, you have just given your opponent time to realize that you are armed and what your intent may be. Any initial advantage you had has now reverted back to your opponent. You have lost the advantage over him.
It is far better to act on a decision and then follow straight through with it. Of course, this does not mean that if you realize you have made a poor tactical or procedural decision that you should blindly adhere to it rather than change course if the opportunity is afforded. In the example above, it might be better for you to complete the handgun draw to a low ready position rather than abort the draw halfway through. And in some instances, a course of action may not be the best course of action, but it is still preferable to no action at all.
And finally, being decisive also means to fully commit to your selected course of action no matter how frightening the situation might be.
This refers to concentrating on the mechanics of shooting once you have decided to employ deadly force. You allow the mechanics of shooting to carry you through the action. Align the pistol, press the trigger and incorporate follow-through and let the pistol “shoot itself.” This may very well be one of the hardest concepts for a shooter to grasp.
Stressful situations involving a threat to life and limb tend to pull your focus toward the threat. This is a natural tendency and condition. While you do have to identify the threat, there must be an emotional disconnect that allows you to revert to pure mechanics once you have decided to act.
Emotional disconnect is a clear concept. A trauma surgeon must be
“APPLYING ONE SET OF TECHNIQUES WHEN AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT SET IS CALLED FOR WILL NOT ENSURE SUCCESS.”
extremely emotionally disconnected when making split-second, life-ordeath decisions and then carrying out those decisions. They have an amazing ability to compartmentalize mechanical functions despite the severity and chaos they may be dealing with at the moment. Videos of people who have performed well in actual gunfights clearly demonstrate that a cool, calm and collected demeanor will usually prevail. Placing emotion, fear and rage, etc. into the shots does little toward accomplishing this end. Gunfighting is every bit a forced mechanical focus as well as emotional composure.
Bruce Lee said it well. “Water in the cup becomes the cup…water in the teapot becomes the teapot. Become water.”
Some gunfights are fairly static and some are not. Tactical situations surrounding the gunfight itself may be static or not. A gunfight might begin in a static setting and then rapidly evolve into a dynamic one and vice versa. The shooter must adapt to whatever occurs. This is one of the more critical yet least understood mental and physical aspects of gunfighting.
Applying one set of techniques when an entirely different set is called for will not ensure success. If you drive on a road with intermittent hairpin turns and straight sections, you will brake and speed up accordingly, and so it must be in gunfighting. Knowing when to move quickly and when to slow down is paramount to successfully resolving conflicts.
Mental preparation helps you better prepare for the future and learn from past mistakes. It is similar to the motorist who carries a variety of emergency equipment in his vehicle at all times, recognizing that you can’t tell when or where things may go wrong or exactly what you will need. It is absolutely imperative that the professional has a mindset that allows a rational and controlled response to critical incidents as opposed to the unprepared and irrational response, which will serve no useful purpose. Thinking through potential problems beforehand goes very well toward making rational decisions if and when a situation should confront you.
We debrief many, many shootings in our classes. These are shootings that we have worked on or ones that we have personal and intimate knowledge of. Many lessons are derived from each and every one of them. As with anything else in life, we learn what to embrace as tactically and mechanically sound and what to avoid if this is not the case.
In retrospect, I can honestly say that I have derived more beneficial lessons from cases on which I have worked than from my own personal experiences. These critical lessons are then imparted first hand to our classes. These lessons are absolutely critical to mentally preparing the shooter for what might confront them in the future.
When watching or reading about shootings, ask yourself what you would do differently or avoid altogether in that particular situation. You need to be brutally honest with your response, as well as your personal capabilities. Too often shooters equate speed and excessive “whazoo” techniques as being indicative of a proficient gunfighter. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is problem solving and a smoothness of action coupled with technical proficiency that often carries the day.
The military uses a DEFCON (Defensive Condition) strategy to codify different levels of awareness. The late Col. Jeff Cooper also associated a color code with relationship to threat awareness. It was broken down into the following:
white, yellow, orange, red and black. It is an excellent method of approaching the subject of awareness. See the accompanying sidebar.
The simple awareness of a developing situation is worth more than all the techniques in the world. It has been stated that sheep have two settings: graze and stampede. Getting caught behind the power curve is not the way to go through a gunfight. Those who have been in gunfights and “never saw it coming” have had a much harder time prevailing than those who were aware of what was taking place around them and responded accordingly. I would venture to say that most of the good guys who die in gunfights were unaware of what was truly occurring until it was far too late. They did not “ping” on telltale indicators that a deadly threat was approaching.
For some individuals, it might take some time to become more acutely aware of your surroundings as you go about your day, as you have not yet practiced this. This is perfectly normal. Yet, with relatively nominal effort, you will find that this is a readily acquired skill set.
We have evolved as a species into what some would consider an enlightened life form. Modern man is not always at war, and in many parts of the world he will never experience violence firsthand. In a perfect world, this would be just fine, but as we all know ours is not a perfect world. Many victims of violent crimes have stated that they knew there was a developing problem, stating that they could “feel” it coming, yet ignored their “emotional instincts” and subsequently became victims. Other victims never saw anything coming even though afterward an in-depth debriefing showed that danger signs were evident and should have been recognized well ahead of time.
A classic example of the latter occurred in Southern California in the early 1980s. Customers inside a Mcdonald’s restaurant observed a man in the parking lot standing beside a pickup truck loading ammunition into weapons and placing them in his waistband and then obtaining more firearms from the pickup truck and walking toward them. Yet, the customers continued to sit and simply stare at him, as if they were watching a bad movie but could not walk out of the theater. The gunman entered the restaurant, where he killed and wounded many patrons.
Simply walking out the opposite door would have saved them, yet they chose to ignore clear evidence of a developing dangerous situation.
Pay attention to your “emotional instincts,” which are generally reliable. If you feel something is wrong, it probably is. TW
Mechanical focus also includes kitting up appropriately, organizing your equipment and knowing where everything is without thinking about it.
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