There’s no such thing as muscle memory. Literally speaking, your muscles don’t have memory. Nor do they operate independently. Your brain sends your muscles a signal to move. They move. Gun gurus and their acolytes use the term “muscle memory” to refer to unconscious or subconscious muscle movement. The term reflects their firm conviction that gunfighters should train their subconscious mind to the point where they can respond to a crisis without conscious command or control. Stimulus -> response. You don’t think about drawing your gun and aiming. You just do it. Shooting the bad guy? That too. See any problems with that?

The rabbi tells of a cop who was shot to death. Investigators found empty casings in his pocket. In the middle of a gunfight, the police officer had stopped to pick up the empty casings. Why? For decades, every time he trained on the range, he’d stop after every string and pick up the casings. Just as his trainer had instructed.

Not to put too fine a point on it, “muscle memory” can get you killed. But don’t get to thinking that the story above illustrates the need for “proper” training. The vast majority of “bad shoots” involve well-trained cops acting on pre-programmed instinct. They react without thinking and the wrong people die.

For example: Mark Saunders’ recent assassination. When the UK barrister went a little loopy with a shotgun, the Old Bill isolated Saunders. No bystanders. Just cops (LOTS of cops). All of whom were smart enough to stay out of range. When Saunders pointed his shotgun in the general direction of distant snipers one too many times, several officers opened fire. Muscle memory. Stimulus -> response.

The same “muscle memory” problem applies to civilian shooters. Every time I go to the range, I see dozens of supposed self-defense shooters standing stock still, blasting away at stationary targets. They’re training themselves to be targets. When I took my FFL guy down to Tiverton, the crack shot literally couldn’t shoot and move at the same time.

I shudder when I see people at the range raise their guns with their finger on the trigger, immediately fire until they’re dry, lower the weapon and THEN take their finger off the trigger. They’re training their “muscle memory” to draw and shoot. Drawing and NOT shooting is not an option.

Again, it’s not simply a matter of getting better training. Sure, you can train self-defense shooters to keep their god damn finger off the trigger, fire a few shots and stop, and shoot and move instinctively (i.e. subconsciously). But you cannot train anyone’s “muscle memory” to respond to every threat situation appropriately. There are too many scenarios, too many potential variables.

Nor should you try. In fact, you should avoid training yourself to respond to threats with “muscle memory.” By doing so, you run the very real risk of activating the wrong “memory” or, if you will, subconscious stimulus -> response program. Get it wrong and, again, the wrong person may die. And that includes you.

The trick to not “over-training” your muscle memory: restrict your subconscious programming to the fundamentals. Of course you need to be able to unconsciously draw your weapon. Same goes for aiming and firing (hence my newfound fascination with point shooting). But what you do with these skills—gunfighting—should not be an unconscious process. You need to think.

Plenty of trainers discount the importance of thinking under pressure because so many people are so bad at it. When the fight or flight mode kicks in, when adrenalin and resulting over-oxygenation reduces or eliminates higher brain function, gunfighters tend to do stupid things. Fair enough BUT—

The key to survival is to maintain higher brain function, not kick it to the curb in favor of pre-programmed responses. Which are really fast and look really cool and make the trainer seem like a god but can easily fail to achieve the desired result. To keep your head in the game, you need to slow down your breathing (taming the adrenalin dump’s worst effects) and process information.

In fact, thinking—not reacting—is a gunfighter’s most important skill. Where do I go for cover? Is there another threat? How much time do I have? Shoot or don’t shoot? The faster and clearer a shooter’s thought process, the better their odds of survival and/or combat effectiveness. If a shooter can think strategically before a fight, they increase the chances of winning dramatically AND avoiding the gunfight altogether.

Yes, you can train yourself to think in battle. Some people are more genetically gifted in that area than others, but it’s entirely possible to enhance stress-challenged cognition. Strangely enough, the key to the process lies in the subconscious mind. More on that in the next post.

7 Responses to The Myth of Muscle Memory

  1. […] Thanks Pete. You have a better command of words than I do. There is nothing wrong with training. Training is a good thing. Getting out to the range as often as you can is a good thing. But the key thing for surviving a real world gunfight is to NOT settle into a set procedure or method. You have to be flexible with every encounter and be able to adapt to it. Muscle memory as far as opening the cylinder on a revolver or ejecting a magazine and reloading a semi-auto is fine. You shouldn't have to think those things out. But even that kind of training can lead to problems. Especially if you get in the habit of putting empty mags in your pocket or "policing up" spent brass. It's amazing how those innocent habits become ingrained and you do them when you shouldn't. Here's an interesting article about "muscle memory": The Myth of Muscle Memory | The Truth About Guns […]

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