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I hate the term “muscle memory.” Your muscles have no more memory than your bones. Your mind controls your muscles, both on the conscious (rational, thinking) and subconscious (instinctive, reactive) level. It’s an odd and inherently dynamic partnership. Sometimes you consciously control your movements, sometimes you don’t. Even when you consciously decide to move your muscles you’re not normally conscious of doing so. In terms of armed self-defense, the dichotomy can easily become a die-chotomy. Will you respond to a lethal threat with “muscle memory” or will you able to think your way through a challenge to life and limb? The best possible answer is “yes” . . .

I’ve got nothing against repetitive training for armed self-defense. I do it all the time. I’m no Massad Ayoob, but I can now remove my gun from my holster and bring it to bear on a target PDQ, regardless of what I’m wearing or what position I’m in. Without thinking about it.

By “it” I mean the physical act of unholstering. Because I begin the process of unholstering by making a conscious decision to unholster my gun. In other words, I make a choice to get out my gun and then my subconscious controls my muscles to enable a suitable physical response.

I consciously decide to do it consciously. Because if and when I’m in a situation that requires armed self-defense, I don’t want to operate on pure instinct.

If you “let” your subconscious mind react to a lethal threat without conscious control or intervention you could suddenly find yourself taking the wrong course of action. Attacking when you should run. Running when you should attack. Or doing nothing when you should run or attack.

The wrong “answer” in a potentially deadly confrontation could be fatal. By the same token, failing to consciously alter your strategy in response to changing environmental stimuli (e.g., the bad guy suddenly sees you) could be equally catastrophic. To increase the odds of staying alive, you need to think. To run ye olde OODA loop (Observe Orient Decide Act).

Ah, but will you? I believe most people have a genetic predisposition to freeze in the face of life-threatening danger. I also believe OpFam (Operational Familiarity) training can combat combat paralysis and increase just about anyone’s OODA Loop’s efficiency and speed. But the bottom line remains the same: either you’ll think your way out of trouble or you won’t.

And here’s the really freaky thing: if you strategize on the conscious level during a DGU chances are you won’t remember doing it. Memory works differently under stress. Post incident, most people recall “flashes” of what happened rather than a linear progression of events. They don’t remember their thought process, or even that they had one.

That’s a hell of a reason to STFU after a DGU. It’s also a good indication that you shouldn’t put all your existential eggs in the basket marked “muscle memory.” If you believe that your training will kick-in during a DGU, that you will (and should) react instinctively and that’s about it, you run the risk of giving your subconscious free rein. Again, that may or may not be in your best interest.

And yet most firearms training tries to create “no brainer” or instinctive armed self-defense strategies. I reckon that once you get your armed self-defense-related movements down (drawing, clearing the gun, lining-up the sights, etc.), training should be about thinking. Every single shot should be the result of a conscious decision. Any exercise that encourages you to think is good. Any training that makes you into an automaton is bad.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the whole idea of muscle memory is a trap. If you rely on on muscle memory, if you train yourself to rely on it, you could end up being no more successful in a DGU than someone who’s never trained at all. Maybe less.

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29 Responses to Self-Defense Tip: Beware of “Muscle Memory”

  1. training should be about thinking.

    That might be the second smartest thing that has ever been written about training.

    Mechanics are just mechanics. You can groove your mechanics at home with very little training and a lot of practice. Good training should enhance and speed up the thinking process while improving the trainee’s ability to interpret the potentially conflicting data streams of sight and sound.

    Unfortunately, most people will learn more from a few rounds of paintball than from the average “trainer.”

  2. “I make a choice to get out my gun and then my subconscious controls my muscles to enable a suitable physical response.”

    That’s what muscle memory is. Teaching your subconscious mind and all the neurons and muscle interactions to gain a habitual pattern that works the way you want it to.

    If you just don’t like the term, then you’re just applying semantical pedantry.

  3. Last year an incident happened where my person was threatened,and once the event happened my mind went to a different phase of thinking.That’s the best way I can put it.I went to a single task mode of thought once the threat presented itself,in a way that isn’t how my mind works in day to day tasks.The bottle came up ,I looked back and took 3 steps for distance and had the covering garment moved with my right hand on the piece before the threat was defused another way.I was thinking…but I wasn’t at the same time,like a focused hybrid of logical thought and instinctual action.Once my ‘larger brain’ caught up the adrenaline rush faded and my nerves were very jittery. In that post action status I was very shook up,and rounds thankfully weren’t even fired.I would have been in NO shape to give a statement,heck I wouldn’t be in the frame of mind to answer what time it is.As to the perception of time “Tachyspardia” is very real.That moment was the longest and most focused 15 seconds in my life to that point.

    What counts is not the type of physical training a gun owner has,but the mental ability to fight back if the situation requires it.Mindset is the key,having the mental preparedness with the physical practice to do what needs to be done should the flag fly.That incident put me in a place that I never want to visit in my head again,that linear mode of target-draw-shoot .Hopefully this puts the issue of ‘muscle memory’ in perspective.

  4. Training is key. I’ve never had a DGU, but the first (and only) time my parachute malfunctioned, training saved my life. I assessed the situation — non-deployed pilot chute — looked for my cut-away and reserve handles, grabbed the handles, pulled one-two and checked my reserve once deployed. I distinctly remembering time slowing down and telling myself not to muck around and go for my reserve. Mind you, I also remember my handles pulsing like cartoon hearts. In the end, I only had to buy some beer and no one had to tell my mother that I’d burned in. Training saved my life that day.

  5. Concerning Ranger Barry in the article: He did everything wrong and the errors had nothing to do with training or muscle memory. He didn’t do anything in the way he was trained. Then he starting listing things he wouldn’t use as excuses for the negligence, thereby essentially using them as excuses …tiredness and training. He should have done some hard time, but was saved only by the known difficulty of recruiting efforts.

    I’ll set myself up for (hopefully moderate) flaming. I find the “thinking” in the heat of an attack a bit of a stretch. As a preliminary, let’s rule out all imbecile attackers: Let’s assume you ‘win’ against those, and have lots of time to think. That leaves the serious dangerous attackers to react to. Studies of LEO fatalities show this, that the winner in a skilled perp v. LEO shootout is most often the one who has his gun in hand first. (FBI journal. No, don’t have it in front of me.) The first rule of a gun fight is actually “have a gun in your hand.” Thus the advantage of a carry method (there are many) that lets you put your hand on your gun discretely when you sense a threat, for example as you move away from a drunk with a pipe in his hand or a mugger moving towards you even though there is empty sidewalk in both directions. Pocket carry and a shoulder holster come to mind. I view training as very carefully clarifying what you will react to, what facts will put your hand on your gun, what facts will make you draw, and what final fact will make you pull the trigger. The list of “hand on gun” items will be much larger than the draw list. The draw list should lead to a shoot list if the aggressor does not immediately withdraw. When an assault happens you’ll be moving much to fast too take in “mitigating factors” or clever tactics. The world will turn gray and you’ll act. The occasions to draw should be extremely rare if you live right, but when you do it will be because your brain is shouting “he’s trying to break your head,” or shoot you, stab you, pummel you. I believe getting your hand on your gun is decision one, drawing is decision two, and pulling the trigger had better happen “in time,” while you still can. I don’t think the ‘scenarios’ should be extremely elaborate. I find ‘quick draw’ vastly over-rated and cop (open carry) oriented, encouraging (for CCW) delay on one hand and too-frequent presentation on the other. The law does not require the former, and discourages the latter.

    • Given what follows in comments below I should add: The three ‘lists’, actions and what should provoke them (and make them both sensible and legal) rest on top of the mechanics of drawing, pointing, and firing, which naturally should be slowly trained and then increased in speed subject to a minimal accuracy limiter, say a 4″ circle. Keep speeding up until we can’t keep four of six in that circle, automatically at 7 meters. A concert pianist has to practice certain passages until the motor sequence performance is virtually automatic. Why? The passages are so mechanically difficult that they CANNOT be played at concert speed when ‘thinking’ about them or reading them. The hand on gun (or not), the draw (or not), and the trigger pull (or not) should be intuitive, based on training ‘the lists’ and looking for the visible indicia of immediate intention and ability to harm which should check off against those lists previously trained at very high speed, but with awareness of the go/no go type. No time for Aristotelian inference here. Not in my bits of experience.

  6. Physical competence can be divided into four categories:

    1. Unconscious incompetence – you don’t know that you don’t know how to do something.
    2. Conscious incompetence – you realized that you don’t know how to do something
    3. Conscious competence – you can do something if you think about it
    4. Unconscious competence – you are able to accomplish a task without thinking about it.

    In order to concentrate on dealing with a threat, our gun handling and shooting skills need to be at level 4, unconscious competence, also known as muscle memory. RF is correct that there is no such thing as muscle memory as muscles do not have memory, but it merely a reference to the ability to act without thinking about it.

    The more you train and the more you practice, the more the physical movements become engrained into your subconscious—which is a good thing. We can get our gun out of the holster and aimed at the bad guy without thinking about it, allowing our cognitive abilities to concentrate on the threat.

    The is another cliché: familiarity breeds contempt. This is relevant to gun skills as the more familiar we are with an action, the less we pay attention to it. For instance, a good shooter can reload the gun within a drill without needing to think about every step of the reloading process.

    However, the unconscious ability to handle a gun can also become a problem. Just like drivers who drive the same route everyday and end up at a highway exit without remember getting there, experienced gun handlers often act the same way when doing something with their gun. This can lead to a ND if something in the process goes amiss.

    More than once I have unloaded a firearm and put it away without ever remember doing the steps. When I realize that has happened, I make a mental note that when not acting under life threatening condition, to sloooooow down and think about what I am doing.
    While we train in the hopes that our gun skill become unconscious, the unconsciousness can be dangerous.

    One unfortunate event that we see to often, is someone having an ND after dryfire practice. The scenario seems to pattern like this: after an extended dry fire practice, the shooter loads up and holsters or puts the gun away. For whatever reason, the shooter decides to start dryfire practice again rather soon and forget the gun has been reloaded. As silly as this seems, it has unfortunately happened to some very squared away shooters.

    The best solution to that is after loading the gun after dryfire practice, say out loud: “The gun is now loaded”, “The gun is now loaded”, “The gun is now loaded”. This can be used the break the unconscious pattern and redirect the thought process back to having a loaded gun.

    Muscle memory – unconscious competence—can be as much as a bad thing as good. It is up to us to recognize this fact and take appropriate stops to insure our subconscious doe not take over.

    David Kenik
    ArmedResponseTraining.com

    • Great response David. My contact at Gunsite has had exactly one ND in 40+ years of shooting, and it was just as you described: Dry fire interrupted by phone call followed by ND during intended resumption of dry fire. He had no memory of loading the gun.

    • Allow me to add two things. During dry-fire practice all ammo should be stored in a locked container not in the room you are practicing in. Second and more importantly your dry-fire target should only be displayed while you are practicing. Once practice is done the target is removed prior to making the weapon hot thereby removing the temptation to do just one more presentation and ending up with a ND.

  7. I teach people (and the instructors) to perform a fine and gross motor skill job. I too hate the term “muscle memory” but have almost given up the hope that I can ever eradicate it and replace it with “subconscious motor skill” which is much more accurate a description. Some of the instructors I teach have moved the motor skill so far into their subconscious that they cannot begin to verbally describe the step by step actions required to successfully perform the skill. (Think of tying your shoes. You likely for years have done it so often that you can’t describe how you do it without doing it a couple of times while you analyze it).

    Contrary to one of your major points I would modify the statement to the following: Initial training is all about moving many repetitive actions into subconscious memory so that — advanced training can be about decision making. No driver can make safe decisions if they have to consciously have to think about where the brake and accelerator pedals and all of the other controls are.

  8. An Air Force general told a group of us young officer candidates a story of when he was a lieutenant flying in Vietnam. His commander had ordered him to put up a placard that said, “Always follow emergency procedures.” The general, whose rank showed he knew which fights to pick, instead put up a placard that said, “There is no substitute for good judgment.” Training, muscle memory, rote, are all good and necessary, but they’re not a substitute for thought.

  9. I like the four-fold parsing, Rabbi. Together with Eric’s comment and today’s Negligent GO feature, it reinforces the value of making every interruption and every administrative handling merit a gun check. I think gun handling ought to be like flying: Never short-change pre-flights. Always use checklists in the cockpit. Get frequent check-rides. Complacency kills. God save me from complacency.

  10. If you dislike the term “muscle memory” you might consider trying on “spinal cord mediated reflex arc”. Either way, the fact that complex motor tasks, once practiced and engrained, are capable of being performed with minimal or no conscious thought. So when it comes to the actual act of drawing and pointing…”if you train you won’t need your brain” (hat tip to the late Johnny Cochran). It is a physiologic, neurological, and kinesiologic fact.

    Keep the great articles coming. Love me some TTAG!

  11. “Muscle Memory” is a fine line in training that needs to be followed. Too far to one side and you are doomed to react 100% automatically with potentially disastrous results. Too far the other way and you will be fumbling trying to figure out how to operate your weapon under stress.

    The best way to hug the line that I’ve found is to train the skills until they are automatic, but use scenario training, unscripted roleplay and or force on force training to keep the higher brain in the loop.

      • I would like to know this as well. I know of one local outfit that claims to be the best, but marketing claims aside, how is an individual to really know?

    • True. I actually recommend that defensive shooters NOT practice a lot on pop up targets and repetitive targets alike because they trains the shooter to react in every instance by shooting and don’t allow for any other reaction, certainly no judgment.

      On the range, it is imperative to practice NOT shooting as well as shooting. Mix it up by adding a challenge: challenge the attacker to drop his weapon before shooting. Also, practice challenge with compliance, draw – compliance-holster with no shooting.

  12. In my line of work, we call it “brain stem power” and you want to be able to execute ALL of your fundamentals from that portion of your brain. An instructor of mine said it perfectly a few days ago. In a high-stress, time-compressed environment, your brain breaks into three parts. The first third gets to think about what is going on around you. The second third is struggling to accomplish all of your most basic tasks. And the third part? It’s not doing anything. You want to put all of those simple tasks on brain stem and free up as much of the second third for thinking as possible. Because there really is no substitute for sound judgement.

    After all, YOU decide whether or not to stay and fight. YOU decide whether or not to pull your weapon. And YOU are responsible for your actions. Might as well have as much of “you” there to think about what you’re doing.

    Good article guys.

  13. This post reminds me of the book “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman. We react, think it out, or do nothing, usually based on some factor we never never connciously know or understand.

  14. [QUOTE]Ropingdown says: …… Studies of LEO fatalities show this, that the winner in a skilled perp v. LEO shootout is most often the one who has his gun in hand first.[/QUOTE]

    This remark is extraordinarily true; however, it rarely, ‘plays well’ on Internet firearms-related websites. 😉

    [QUOTE]Ropingdown says: The first rule of a gun fight is actually “have a gun in your hand.”[/QUOTE]

    Yes, and you can often see televised police dash cam videos to demonstrate the facts that: (1) The police, themselves, often behave this way, and draw as early-on as possible; and (2) if a citizen-gunman does exactly the same thing he can reasonably expect to be charged with brandishing. The, ‘gun-in-hand’ rule is valid and, even, necessary to use going into any CQB pistol engagement; sadly, however, the modern American judicial system does not allow this lifesaving rule to be universally applied to both law enforcement personnel, and citizen/civilians alike.

    [QUOTE]Ropingdown says: The world will turn gray and you’ll act.[/QUOTE]

    Yes, that is what happens. There is no conscious thought; and, muscle memory or no muscle memory, you simply do what you need to do in order to survive. It has also been my experience that operating from within your subconscious mind is infinitely more skillful, more powerful, than trying to make conscious decisions as you go.

    [QUOTE]Ropingdown says: The occasions to draw should be extremely rare if you live right, but when you do it will be because your brain is shouting “he’s trying to break your head,” or shoot you, stab you, pummel you. [/QUOTE]

    Obviously I don’t, ‘live right’; it’s just that until I began hanging around Internet gun forums I had no idea that I wasn’t living right. Nowadays I’ve started to think of myself as a, ‘dirt magnet’ – Which is what my wife has called me for years, anyway. I didn’t understand any of this until someone else sagely pointed out to me that there’s no way for a, ‘good man’ to go through this world without being repeatedly challenged by evil. That’s just the way things are! 😀

    [QUOTE]Ropingdown says: I believe getting your hand on your gun is decision one, drawing is decision two, and pulling the trigger had better happen “in time,” while you still can. I don’t think the ‘scenarios’ should be extremely elaborate. I find ‘quick draw’ vastly over-rated and cop (open carry) oriented, encouraging (for CCW) delay on one hand and too-frequent presentation on the other. The law does not require the former, and discourages the latter.[/QUOTE]

    So do I. If, however, you’re a citizen/civilian then you’d better be very careful about employing this technique. As I said: Strictly speaking, American jurisprudence does NOT allow civilians to behave this way. Whether this legal prohibition is right, or wrong is difficult to say? On the one hand I’m certain I wouldn’t be comfortable with, ‘Nervous Nellies’ being allowed to reach for their guns all the time; and, on the other hand, he who draws second is the most likely to lose.

    All of which brings up the fascinating topic of whether or not firearm education and demonstrable safe gun-handling skills should be mandatory before anyone is allowed to carry any firearm around in public, and inside an already severely overcrowded social environment of over 300 million people AND still growing?

  15. This is a very good article. I am very new, and read as much as I can to be well informed. However, I noticed that these articles are written as if everyone knows what you are refering to with all the abrevations. I dont have a clue. Could someone please put a reference page to all these abrevations. So newbes like myself can get the full idea of what you are saying. Thank you.

  16. This is an old one but I’m still surprised that I haven’t seen it.

    There is so much advice out there from so many sources, much of it contradictory and some of it garbage.
    Most of the schools of thought on the subject read very differently when compared to themselves from a few years ago. Evolution of concept is a good thing, but it does demonstrate that that the person touting the technique couldn’t have had it right at the time.

    What stuck out to me about the OP here was the conscious decision for each shot concept. If by that the author means that you only fire when you consciously see a keep to fire then it’s a good thing, merely stated in an unclear manner. If by that the author means that every single actuation of the trigger should be a separate conscious thought then it’s an absurdity when applied to a gunfight.

    Fire tends to get turned on and off rather than dispensed in individual shots. There are physiological and practical reasons for this and it’s a good thing, because it works. Once the threat is seen and the decision to engage made, firing for as long as the threat is visible and remains a threat should be automatic. Any pause between shots to make a new decision or asses the effects of the previous shot represents a deadly delay in a two way gunfight. It’s not only fairly difficult to do (cease or pause firing while the threat remains) it’s also a really bad idea. While imparting virtually no upsides, these pauses give more time for the threat to neutralize you.

    The decision to ‘open fire’ for lack of a better term should be the only decision and after that continual firing while there remains a threat to be engaged should be (and will be for the vast majority of people in such a situation) the norm. The next ‘decision’ should be to stop firing either because there is no threat remaining (threat is incapacitated) or the threat cannot be acquired to fire on (ie threat is now behind hard cover or has run away). The time in between will be for most people a combination of instinct and training and since reflex is ever faster and more efficient than conscious action, all else being equal the shooter who’s training is sufficient and which works well with what happens to the body and mind inside the dynamics of a gunfight (ie, the shooter who’s reflex is to fire continuously at a visible threat at the fastest rate that will allow crude accuracy) is the one most likely to prevail.

    Just think it through and this becomes obvious: Both shooters are experiencing loss of fine motor control, some degree of literal or figurative tunnel vision (intense concentration on the threat), they may be experiencing temporal distortions so that they or their opponent seem to be moving faster or slower than reality, the extremities become nearly numb.

    Shooter A has trained that once the decision to engage is made, he will continue firing as fast as accuracy allows until the threat is incapacitated (this extends to reloads and failure drills). His sole focus is on the threat and running his gun efficiently and he does so using reflexive techniques he has drilled in training.

    Shooter B has trained to make every round count and once the threat is recognized fires once then reassesses the threat, his sight picture and perhaps other relevant factors then consciously sends another round out.

    Shooter A, with appropriate training should hit about 85% of the time and should within 21 feet be firing about 5-6 shots per second.

    Shooter B cannot hope to match shooter A’s round count so lets estimate 1/2 the rate. about 3 rounds per second but with 100% accuracy.

    After one half second (all else being equal) shooter A has hit 2.55 (lets say 2) times and shooter B has hit once. At the one second mark shooter B has hit perhaps three but maybe as little as 2 times while Shooter A has now hit 5. One of these men is losing a gun fight, maybe both, but shooter A’s odds of winning are already double shooter B’s after one second and will continue to increase the longer the fight continues. Couple with this that A’s technique will break down less and more slowly as he accumulates hits (he’s fully focused on his opponent and on keeping his gun running) while B would arguably begin to slow as he accumulates wounds (pain + shock + blood loss would more significantly affect B’s technique since it’s more conscious though driven and requires greater conscious control and fine motor skills). Never mind that B is being shot to ribbons by A’s higher round count.

    This is how a gunfight is won, rapid accumulation of hits on your opponent, preferably before he scores on you. The more you add to the OODA loop the worse off you are. Contrast ‘there is a threat, shoot it till it’s down’ versus ‘there is a threat, align sights, check back ground, fire, assess threat, assess back ground, align sights, fire, . . .

    At the ranges most DGUs occur and with the low average shots fired who ever is first and most with hits once the fight begins, wins. Movement and use of cover are seldom a factor and exacting shot placement is difficult to produce under such high stress and in any case too slow. If the opponent hits only 1/3 of the time but fires three shots before you fire one you’re in serious trouble.

    If you train nothing else due to time or expense or disinclination and you want the most ‘bang for your buck’. Train to come from the holster and unload your pistol as fast as you accurately can at ranges from 5-25 feet. If you’re placing 100% of your shots on the center of mass every time you’re going too slow. Speed up until about 85% of your shots are COM and the rest start to spread out to the belly/shoulder and outer torso areas of the target. Rinse and repeat. The more you do it the faster and more accurate you’ll become until 10 hits from the holster in under 1.5 or 1.75 seconds are the norm under 21 feet. It’s not the only way to train but if you’re only going to learn one trick, this is the one most likely to be useful in the ‘average’ DGU (according to the FBI, the average gun fight occurs at 7 yards, 3 rounds are fired and it lasts less than three seconds). It should be noted that in order to produce these speeds the sights can’t be utilized, it’s far too slow. The eyes are on the target, not the gun and as recoil control bring the pistol back to the target another round is fired. At first you’ll get distinctive bangs, next you’ll get rhythmic shots like a drummer or a few in rhythm and a couple of staccato shots. When you have really mastered the technique the whole mag will be one long smooth rhythmic set of shots in perfect time.

    On second though, unless you’re already an accomplished shooter, find someone who practices and teaches instinctive or reflex pistol technique and have them get you started.

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