Random Thoughts: A Mindful Miscellany

from Marcus Wynne

The ABCs of Shoot-No Shoot, or How To Get Better By Doing It Wrong

with 2 comments

Remember learning your ABCs? Counting it off, maybe singing the letters? Can you do that right now? Yes. Do it as fast as you can. No problem, right?

Now do it backwards.

Not so easy, yeah?

Ever wonder why?

I remember my mother telling me something: “I want you to know this forwards and backwards.” Like most kids, I never realized how smart my parent was until much later in life.

Know something forwards and backwards.

So back to having difficulty in reciting the alphabet backwards, and how that exercise illustrates how the flow of learning and the sequence is so important, and how that applies to making life and death decisions under extraordinary stress….

I recently had a discussion with a very gifted friend of mine, who among other things is an extraordinarily gifted special operator. He’d been training on the range with his crew, and mentioned these type of targets http://www.atsusa.biz/product-videos/live-fire-product-videos.php I told him I’d trained on those EXACT targets back in the 80s and the 90s.

For those of you unfamiliar with these targets, you have the option to paste over certain portions of the image with add-ons like guns, knives, POLICE identification, and so on…it also allows you to paste those over on shoot targets effectively turning them into no-shoots.

The concept is that encountering a target that looks similar but lacks the specific criteria to enable a shoot decision “trains” the shooter to make accurate decisions while under stress. So there’s a significant amount of time spent in very high-speed units (and this friend’s affiliation certainly qualifies) running long hot days in the kill-house working different scenarios and iterations of a drill that in essence goes like this:

Enter, scan, identify threat/shoot/no-shoot targets, engage appropriately, carry on with whatever the specified tactical schema is.

And this specific type of training (altered targets, running constantly into a similar but different situation/scenario) goes back (as does so much in the way of brilliant training) to that maverick innovator MAJ Fairbairn while training the SOE/OSS.

Since science, specifically cognitive neuroscience and adult learning has progressed since WW2, at least in some circles, let’s examine this training technique/concept in light of that.


I learned this in the martial arts. There’s a huge difference between “doing the drill” and “applying the skill.” The presupposition in most training design (firearms especially) is that doing the drill translates into having the skill. It happens often enough that most trainers don’t question that.


The application is that the processing of the visual information becomes so efficient in providing the NECESSARY information to the decision-making part of the brain that the operator is able to decide and execute at the “limit of human function” speed while under extraordinary stress.

In accelerated learning, we call that the desired outcome.


It can, and does often enough so that it’s a useful tool. But like any other tool, it begs the question — can we make it better? Can we make it more efficient? Can we train that in faster?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

So let’s take a look at the process as I understand it and design around (for the cognitive neuroscientists in the crowd, please remember I’m not a scientist; I digest science and spit out useful training insights — the references are available to anyone with sufficient Google-Fu and/or access to the appropriate data bases or a university library, and I tweak it as I see fit — everything I reference here has been tested not only in training but in operations against real bad guys with real guns and bad intent) —

The organism (operator’s) data stream relevant to making the decision as to which human to kill in a room comes from these sources: visual, hearing, kinesthetic, olfactory, “other” —

The data stream, the massive number of bits of data coming into the neurology, is run through preconscious filters, which sort out the incoming data (think of a step down valve on a main water main, stepping down the pressure and directing the water). How does it sort it? The preconscious filters are embedded in the neurology by genetics, life experience, and training.

Those preconscious filters create a “snapshot” of what the incoming data is telling the neurology. That snapshot is an approximation of what’s actually there; the snapshot then runs through a library of previously recognized snapshots (pattern recognition) and sorts further what data/snapshots have “high signal value” — in this context, high signal value includes who’s got a gun, and then whether the person with that gun is a legitimate target.

A digression on this: if someone is “trained” to shoot anybody else with a gun, what if there’s a good guy in there with a gun? Or a team mate who is not where he’s expected to be? The additional processing of data to determine not only armed status but why he/she is armed and what is he/she intending is not only possible, but demanded, by warriors operating in an ethical and moral framework.

And it doesn’t take any more time to do it right — if it’s properly trained.

You can see some examples of this in K9 training — when a dog’s handler goes down, or when a dog is injured or excited…it will default to attacking anyone even sometimes it’s own handler.

Since we’re not dogs, we can demand a higher standard of ourselves.

So let’s cut to the chase, which is how do we TRAIN this in the field.

Back to the ABCs. You learned those in a sequence. You mastered that. In a specific sequence. You recognize all the elements of that construct called the ABCs and you utilize them. So recite them fast. Then do it backwards.

Why do you stumble doing it backwards if you “know” it?

Because you TRAINED it in only one fashion. So if you can only do it in one fashion and more to the point, in one sequence or linear progression, do you ACTUALLY OWN THE SKILL?

Back to the shooting drill:

You enter. As you are entering a number of things are happening simultaneously. Your brain is processing input which include visual snapshots of what’s in the room, how your weapon is mounted, your sight alignment (optical or iron or NV or whatever), where your team mates/partner is in relation to you, awareness of any obstacles in front or around you…

You get a snapshot of a target (gun/no gun? shoot/no-shoot) and then you engage, hopefully appropriately.

The critical point: when the assemblage of data = SHOOT THIS GUY AND NOT THAT ONE.

Then you execute appropriately.

How to improve it:

Run your scenarios/drills and shoot the people you’re supposed to.
After you’ve run an iteration or two with a reasonable degree of success, do this:
Enter and shoot the people YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO.

(I can hear training administrators screaming LIABILITY and training designers screaming BULLSHIT, WASTE OF TIME) — but just follow me here, for a minute…

Why deliberately shoot the people you’re not supposed to?

Because in order to determine who you’re NOT SUPPOSED TO SHOOT, you FIRST have to determine who YOU CAN SHOOT.

In order to do the ABCs backwards, since you learned it going forwards, you have to run through that sequence in order to recite it backwards.

So if you enter in to shoot the targets YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO SHOOT, you have to go through the whole cognitive process involved in deciding WHO TO SHOOT…but you have to do it faster.

So you (or your shooters), will stumble, swear, have a difficult time, justify not doing it…if it’s easy to do, you’re not learning. You’re just validating what you already know.

The sign of true and effective learning is confusion (because you don’t know what you don’t know, and if you’re not confused you’re not learning something new)
But if you run these iterations, going back and forth, till you can recite your tactical ABC backwards just as fast as forwards, your neurology will have trained to sort, identify, and act upon the essential data WAY faster than it was before.

Why? This variation forces the cognitive process all the way through the identification of no-shoot/shoot — then requires a conscious decision to engage differently. That additional step TRAINS THE BRAIN to make decisions faster with measurable incremental increases in speed.

By adding that step, the brain is forced to consciously decide to engage…the brain adds that step subconsciously so that there is an additional evaluation/decision point…then by going back it sinks that step into the sub-conscious so that it becomes automated and accelerates the decision-making/shooting process.

So, as always, don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. When you get to a level of fluency where you can be told at the door: Enter and shoot all the no-shoots, and execute with the same speed and accuracy as you do when you’re told to enter and shoot all the shoots, then you’ll have validation for the ACTUAL skill-set you want to train, which is processing the essential data at the fastest possible rate and APPLYING it appropriately…

…to save lives. Yours, your team mates, and those innocents for whom we go in harm’s way for.

Just food for thought. Get out to the range and try it. Just as simple as your ABCs…


Written by marcuswynne

June 4, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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2 Responses

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  1. Sounds pretty tactical for us gamer types. Except that it’s not that different from stages that try to screw us up by using Classic USPSA targets instead of Metric or by plastering up hard cover and no-shoots everywhere so that we have to train your brain to reliably work on the base skill of lining up sights to where we want our rounds to land. Just aiming to the habitual spot on a Metric doesn’t help in those situations – we have to take that extra step to make sure we’re aiming to the right spot on that particular target. Which makes wide-open targets elsewhere easier and faster.


    June 6, 2014 at 8:26 pm

    • Hey Annette! Thanks for sharing your experience. Good luck at the 3-gun this weekend!


      June 6, 2014 at 11:31 pm

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