Tactical World - - Contents - By Scott Reitz with Brett Mcqueen

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,


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


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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