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A TTAG Reader writes:

Innumerable articles have been written about the defensive use of firearms, especially handguns. Due to the high number of current and former combat veterans, much of the self-defense literary efforts seem to be influenced by small unit tactics. One of the significant theories of defensive tactics is the famous (infamous?) OODA loop.

Many gun owners who have had some personal defense training are familiar with the concept of the OODA loop. It seems to be almost as pervasive in application as the four rules of firearm safety. But is the underlying concept flawed when it comes to developing personal, practical abilities regarding the defensive use of guns?

The OODA concept apparently begins with the assumption that there are infinite threat scenarios which can confront an individual. But is that presumption proven or just assumed? If not, are we making a mistake relying on it?

It isn’t really practical for an individual — the average gun owner — to train for and respond to an infinite universe of self-defense scenarios. In fact most self defense situations are encountered by people with no training at all.  And there’s a fair amount of validity in the old 3-3-3 rule of thumb – most defensive gun uses take place within 3 feet, result in 3 shots fired, and last 3 seconds. In those situations, how much tactical training does the average person really need?

That raises another question: is the OODA loop even helpful? OODA (as promoted these days) appears to be based in the idea that preparation or pre-planning isn’t particularly useful, reasonable, or practical. That because of the almost infinite universe of possible threats, any armed response will, by definition, be ad hoc, requiring a hightened ability to observe, orient, decide and act. But what evidence — if any — do we have that pre-planning is pointless?

OK, that’s a lot of questions.

With the table set, we look further at some “conventional wisdom.” We question the assumptions that OODA is the most effective means of response, and that one should endeavor to be relatively skilled in the use of a firearm in “combat” situations.

A useful guide in the analysis is a long out-of-print pamphlet called Aerial Attack Study written in the 1960s. This guide is the seminal work of an Air Force officer and fighter pilot named John Boyd. Boyd, a Captain at the time, “wrote the book” on fighter tactics, unofficially and in his spare time. While it’s rooted in the capabilities of 1960 weapons and forces, the basics remain essentially unchanged. Oh, and by the way, Boyd also invented the concept of the OODA loop.

In Boyd’s Aerial Attack Study, he analyzes the air combat problems for fighters against bombers, and fighters against other fighters. While the bulk of the pamphlet is narrative, there are mathematical supports for Boyd’s principles. He demonstrates how understanding the environment, analyzing the threat types, and learning successful tactics ahead of time are precursors to a successful OODA loop outcome.

Rather than accept the “infinite scenarios” theory of defense, Boyd shows the OODA loop isn’t actually an ad hoc tool, but the facilitator for employing decisions (or variations of decisions) that have already been established or planned. Boyd’s underlying declaration is that the sphere of possible maneuvers or attacks can be defined, eliminating “infinite” possible scenarios.

For the People of the Gun who contemplate defensive uses of firearms, the sphere of threats can also be defined, eliminating “infinite” possibilities that aren’t likely to confront the average person.

Given an individual’s habits, routines, and environment, a finite number of likely defensive situations can be identified. What this means is that the defender can reduce the number of possible threats to some very predictable avenues, and train for them. Given those limits, general principles of response can be imagined, analyzed, evaluated and addressed.

One might call this pre-planning. With pre-planning established (and always adjusted to account for weapons and mechanisms), one has a array of responses from which to choose, which is where the OODA loop then comes in.

Does this mean we really do need formal training in military type tactics? Not at all. How many defensive gun uses require much if any pre-planning/OODA?” Research a decent number of self-defense shootings in the news and ask yourself what were the limits of the situation (for both attacker and defender). What were the possible responses? Infinite doesn’t apply.

Next, ask how much training the defender in these cases actually needed, how much and what type training did they have, if any, and did the training have any bearing on the outcome?

What we’re left with seems to be an uncomfortable lack of the definite. Pre-planning is very good for taking advantage of the principles of the OODA loop. Yet, if the vast majority of self-defense gun uses are near-instantaneous, happen at “contact range” and last only a few seconds, is there any support for the notion that planning, training, or OODA looping should take up much of our time and attention?

On the one hand, I propose that preparation — pre-planning, thinking through scenarios and strategies — gives the defender a significant advantage. And training is never wasted. On the other hand, I can’t decisively assert that planning or training are significant factors in successfully defending oneself with a firearm for most people.

Planning and training vs. ad hoc response. Is this just another version of caliber wars?

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  1. Good questions. How much training and of what type for people with limited time and limited budgets? The first elements is awareness of one’s surroundings, awareness of one’s surroundings and awareness of one’s surroundings. This would take care of in my opinion, 99% of most self-defense situations. My own personal experience way back when delivering pizza in the war zone, when I showed that I was aware of my surroundings and showed that I was not vulnerable to unexpected attack, in three or four different situations, the human predator checking me out before engaging me, had them changing their mind about picking me as a target.
    Then, training with the weapon, drawing it, dry firing it, , range time with live rounds, visualizing different scenarios, when approaching your car in a parking lot, going in and out of buildings, etc.

    But as you mentioned, history had shown from Real World experience that even with people who are not quote-unquote “highly-trained” do really well in self-defense situations. One reason is because in nine out of 10 scenarios, once a person pulls a firearm with intent to use it, the Predator runs away. Then, if the Predator doesn’t run away, and if the citizen had to fire their weapon, the citizen has shown that their shot discipline is much better than the police.

    I don’t find it surprising that not highly trained people do well in life threatening situations, because we are the end result of hundreds of millions of evolution of survival of the fittest. So of course, we as the end result of this evolutionary process will show those instinctive and reflexive refinements, and come out the other end alive.

  2. I have no data to back up my opinion, but I think that having training and thinking about “what would I do if that were me” probably gives you a better chance of reacting effectively.

  3. As I understand it, the OODA loop is why it’s suggested to “get off the X” as you draw (if necessary). It forces the attacker to adjust the attack and buys you, the defender, a bit of time.

    • Way back when I got into trouble by making the statement that in most DGUs “get off the X” is overrated. The reason I think this is true is that the most likely scenarios that a private citizen is like to face are within 10 yards and it is more important to put down fire before you move. At short ranges a competent shooter will put multiple rounds in you before you take the first step. Blind adherence to rules is the opposite of using an OODA loop process.

    • The British were always dumb with that, if you’ve planned, you by definition have “priored”. Planning can only be done prior, so 6P’s not 7.

  4. Situational awareness; practice draw and shoot within 2 seconds; “thinking through” scenarios which you are likely to encounter; better than basic marksmanship; will suffice to get you through 90% of all situations.

  5. We all OODA all day everyday. Your OODA is less important than the other guys OODA. Breaking your assailants OODA gives you control of the situation. Criminals are pretty simple and stupid and when their loop breaks they fall apart. Anything from shouting “back off!” to crossing the street to being armed will break their loop. Mike Tyson said everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.

    Thinking about and planning your actions is only half the game. Think about and plan as the assailant. Just don’t over think it. They are stupid after all.

  6. Well whatever it is, I’m sure a billion dollar government program will solve the equation for us.

  7. The ones selling the training are the ones who say you won’t make it without their training. Key word…..selling.

    Situational awareness and the rule of 3 most people to quite well.

  8. As another commenter noted, we’re in OODA all the time whether we realize it or not, driving is a good example of this.

    A lot of people suggest that criminals are stupid/cowardly. This is, IME, untrue. Criminals are like any other animals, opportunistic and weighing benefit vs risk. Getting fucked up isn’t their goal and when the risk of that outweighs the perceived reward they’ll back off the same way an animal will. Keep this in mind.

    If you go to a gas station and pay in cash inside but note a sketchy person in the parking lot and decide to keep an eye on them that’s your OODA loop for now. What you’ve also done is complete a big portion of OOD for later so that when you exit the store to head back to the pump you can run through your OOD super fast and get to the A. Most of this isn’t something we think about, we just do it. The key is noting the sketchy person which is where most people fall on their face. Even people with moderate SA skills often fail at this if there’s more than one sketchy person. (What’s that they say about “Where there’s one Indian”?) Either way, just showing that you know they’re there often works to keep them away from you. Once they know that you know they’re there they want nothing to do with you. They want an ambush rather than a fight. As Dilated Peoples pointed out in a song “Smart criminals hit you where you think you’re safe”.

    The tough part comes in with actual crimes of opportunity (or in some cases drugged up people who stumble upon you) which, thankfully, are pretty rare because they’re damn hard to defeat. A good example is a bunch of teenagers hanging out at a gas station aimlessly. (Yeah, some guy’s gonna say they’re obviously sketchy to which I’m going to say “Knowing everything must be nice”). You see them, you note their behavior and body language. They’re casual and not doing anything remotely threatening. Hell, they don’t even notice you (they have no SA, they’re ignorant teenagers chatting up the females in the group and they’re actually victims in waiting for real criminals). The problem with a group like this is that sometimes, it’s rare but it does happen, that they do notice you after you’ve noticed them and dismissed them. They make a snap decision to accost you as you head back to the pump or as you’re about to get back in your car. That’s a hard one because it can happen at any time and it is coming out of the blue with no warning(s). These aren’t hardened criminals and they don’t know what they’re doing. They didn’t appear to be a threat because they weren’t until they became one and that might not happen until you’re 98% of the way though getting the heck out of there with a full tank.

    The second group actually has a way better chance of getting inside your OODA loop just because of the random nature of the way they operate which is why they deserve more careful consideration in this regard. That’s a book by itself and someone else already wrote it. For personal defense, IMHO, you really don’t need to “train” for this other than to mentally “pre game” the situation a bit before you see them which primes you to keep a closer eye on them than you normally would because these kind of people probably won’t be deterred by being noticed. 99% chance they won’t do anything but that 1% where you get taken off guard is problematic.

    It’s also a good thing to think about details with stuff like this. Small shit is always the killer. For example, does you car automatically relock? Many new cars do. It would be shitty if you could just get in your car and drive off but can’t because the car relocked itself between the time you unlocked and the time you really needed to get in it. Shit like this can result in unnecessary confrontation.

    /end book

  9. As Shire noted above, the OODA cycle is something that you do for every decision that you make. It’s not just something that happens in a fight or flight situation, but how fast you process your decision making under duress is of significant importance.

    American Special Operations Forces have shown significant interest in this cycle, for two reasons. One, they’ve been trying to identify individuals who exhibit the ability to complete the decision loop and make sound decisions in stressful circumstances, and secondly, they’ve been trying to figure out how to increase the speed of the cycle through training.

    Does that mean a civilian needs to be operating operationally like an Operator? Probably not, but they should probably understand that their ability to make sound decisions under duress is going to be compromised, and seeking out training that stresses your system and helps you make sound decisions under pressure is never a bad thing.

  10. This is one of those things I wish we sat down and talked about instead of having to scream 10,000 times at boot camp. Useful stuff.

  11. The people selling be things took a 4 step process and “simplified” the OODA loop into 47 easy steps. The concept is valid in noting how people arrive at decisions and act. If you can complete the decision-making and implement correct action faster than the opponent, you’ll probably win. Successfull defenders do this at some level, by reacting faster or jumping to a higher level of escalation than the attacker expected.

    • “Milk is bad for the prostate.”

      Regular ‘milking’ of the prostrate is *good* for it’s long-term health.

      Make sure your ‘significant other’ is fully on-board with your good health… 😉

      • Geoff PR also says, ” I’m not a doctor, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express…”

        You’re the best GPR.

    • YEP…but I just drove 43 miles on I-80. Lots of lunatics driving at 80-100mph. No cop in sight. You do your best…

  12. Sports and music have this figured out. It’s all OODA. You can’t reliably execute an Action under stress that you haven’t practiced until you do it without “thinking.” So, practice scales. Practice drills. A lot. The same is true for defending yourself, with the stress factor amped to eleven. Your draw, sight acquisition and trigger control have to be unconsciously competent, or you can’t implement your A and your OOD is a waste of time. So you have to train basic skills. Also, you have to have practiced working through stressful defensive situations, preferably a lot, if you want to count on being able to make good observations, stay or get oriented, and make a good D. True for improvising in music, true for playing sports, true for self-defense situations. Can’t just buy a guitar, practice some scales, then expect to jam with the band. Can’t just buy a ball, study all the base-running situations, then expect to be able to actually throw the guy out at home. And you can’t just buy a gun and expect to successful defend yourself with it without training your basic shooting skills AND practicing observation and decision making in various self defense situations. Which is more important to train? Whichever you suck at more.
    My 2 cents

    • Actually, a lot of people who just buy a gun successfully defend themselves. Most self defense scenarios are simple point and shoot, and most of the time the shooting isn’t required.

      Lots of people who train fail to defend themselves because they train for complex scenarios that they will never encounter and forget about the simple scenario of point and shoot. Lucky for them that 90%+ of DGUs don’t require a trigger pull.

  13. and carry enough firepower to take on a whole gang by yourself mind set really POs me. what idiot deliberately puts themselves in that position? 3-3-3 practice enough to know the weapon and carry what is needful and not a pound or ounce more.

  14. Isn’t the point of the OODA loop to help you stay left of bang? You assess the situation and for the average civilian, if that assessment reads danger you get the hell out of there cause it is not your job to protect others from bad guys. How helpful is OODA once you are right of bang? At that point you aren’t assessing the situation but rather reacting to the situation.

    • Correct answer.

      There are a lot of wannabe operators out there and when you ask them what they carry it turns out to be a pocket pistol or single stack subcompact. By what economists call revealed preference they don’t believe what they are posting either.

  15. i have a different understanding of how OODA is applied.
    I was told its a process you go through mentally, almost subconsciously.
    You hear what you think is a gun shot, your try to OBSERVE the situation, after that you ORIENT yourself with your surroundings, you DECIDE what your are going to do, then you ACT. now that varies what those outcomes are with every scenario. Maybe your DECIDE phase says your best case is to run. Then you ACT and run, Etc. and this is a process that happens in nanoseconds in our brain.

    maybe i was told wrong.

    • That is how the process is supposed to work, quickly with little conscious thought. But it all starts with situational awareness which most people don’t have. It will also be dependent on having thought about the possibility of “something” going wrong and thinking about “what would I do?”

      Instead most people go about their day and are surprised when that guy walks up behind them at their car and robs or carjacks them…or the gangs start their shooting war across the street.

      Everyone must work on awareness. Surprise breaks the loop.

  16. I have some unique experience in this arena. I was a professional fighter for a decade, a World Champion (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu), have worked in numerous security details and jobs (to support my job of fighting, which is a bit ironic), have been in gun and knife fights, and work with firearms (certified police sniper). Now I coach people, and I’m very familiar with Boyd’s work, and have his books here in my bookcase in front of me. My experience has been training, especially realistic training… but even motor skill training in general, definitely has a benefit with regards to the OODA loop. Trained or skilled individuals, whichever word you prefer, observe… orient… decide… and take action much faster than untrained individuals. And we train to break our opponent’s OODA loop. Most coaches worth anything coach/teach this. Anytime I’ve been attacked (I don’t know why in the world anyone would attack a large muscular guy who tends to keep to himself, drives a Subaru, and has two toy poodles, but it happens) the people look like snails moving in slow motion compared to the professional fighters I’m used to dealing with. I generally have them flanked and many times have their back before their first action even arrives on scene. People always say, “a professional fighter is trained to a set of rules so he won’t be used to a kick to the groin, an eye gouge, or whatnot”. I can promise you the average professional fighter already knows which direction you’re going to make force before you even probably realize yourself which direction you’re going to go. And there’s also a phenomenon called grafting where one motor skill will carry over to similar motor skills. The best way to put this is you don’t want to get kicked by a professional soccer player. Someone mentioned “moving off the X”, and that’s probably the best advice for the average person if they’re not going to specifically train. Just hope your attacker isn’t a professional, as they’re used to engaging moving targets. My best advice is to do what the Army does and incorporate your combative training into your physical training. We all need exercise and why not kill two birds with one stone. Another thing I believe is everything boils down to the basic principles or warfare and at some level is a simulation of it. Why do you think we play football? So pick up an Army Combatives training manual or a Marine Corps Martial Arts Program manual, and if you want more preparation get an experienced coach. I’m also a big believer in the Offensive Mindset, which I learned in the military. You can probably find some papers on it online.


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