The Cornered Cat
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Mirror, mirror, on the range…

Did you know there are special cells inside your brain that are actually designed to mimic the people around you? Yup. It’s true. They are called mirror neurons, like holding a mirror up in front of your face. Imitating others is actually hardwired into human beings. If you make a face at a newborn baby, pretty soon that baby will make the same face back at you. Stick out your tongue, the baby sticks out her tongue. Growl and make a monster face, and the baby makes a monster face back at you. Pretty cool!

Make a face at a baby. What does the baby do -- and why?

Make a face at a baby. What does the baby do next — and why?

Those same mirror neurons that help a baby learn to use his face also work throughout our lives to help us build connections with other people. You might think of them as the wiring for empathy, because they are the neurons that fire when you see someone else do something. For example, if you see someone hit her thumb with a hammer, you might cringe. Watch a TV show where someone gets kicked in the crotch, and watch every guy in the room cross his legs in sympathy. That’s mirror neurons at work.

But mirror neurons don’t just fire when bad things happen. They fire when good things happen too. When you see someone demonstrate a skill – whether that skill is using a sewing machine or a pottery wheel, driving a stick shift or shooting a gun – the mirror neurons in your head start firing. They actually fire in the exact same area of your brain that would be active if you were doing the skill yourself. Demonstrating skills for others actually pre-primes their brains to learn the skill much more easily. Giving people a good model to work from is one of the hallmarks of an effective teacher, because humans are hardwired to imitate others.

This has a whole bunch of implications for how we learn to shoot and how we learn to teach. First and most obvious: smart instructors demonstrate skills for their students. Instructors who make excuses not to demonstrate are often allowing their own egos (often, fear of failure or looking bad) get in the way of their students’ best opportunities to learn.

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Rehabilitating Predators

Over on the Chiron blog, Rory Miller mused:

Nothing about survival or self-protection or self-defense or whatever you want to call it is difficult or unnatural. This is exactly the problem we were evolved to solve. Not being a victim is part of our deepest wiring. Mind, body and spirit have all the tools. This is not about forging warriors, this is about rehabilitating predators.

I can corroborate that eight ways from Sunday, as my dad used to say. Talk to any cop or bouncer who has ever had to fight an untrained woman for real and ask if they want to repeat the experience. Read Strong on Defense and look at what the survivors did and the mindset they tapped into.

That’s for me. But the students have to hear it too, and further, they have to be told a really ugly truth: Almost all of society is set up to perpetually brainwash them so that they never remember their own power.

At the risk of repeating a well known cliche, “Go read the whole thing.” There’s a lot of very good and thought-provoking material that follows those brief paragraphs.

In the comments on that post, someone asked, “Are women, like men, natural predators?” He seemed to doubt it.

In response to that question, I’d like to show you a picture that I took at the Oregon Zoo some time back.

Are you designed to be a predator, or prey?

Are you designed to be a predator, or prey? (Click to embiggen and read the writing.)

Perhaps, like That Guy, you half suspect that women just aren’t wired for this stuff. Maybe you privately fear that you yourself would never be able to access the fierceness of a Cornered Cat to save yourself from danger, because it just could not be part of who you are.

If you’re in that boat, I’d like you to ask yourself one simple question: where are my eyes located, and why are they there?

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Living in fear

Too many people live in fear.

I’m not talking about the fear of crime. I’m talking about the fear of understanding crime: understanding that it happens, understanding how it happens, understanding where and when it happens, and especially fear of understanding that violent crime can happen to an ordinary person living an ordinary life on an ordinary day.

Fear, terror, paranoia...

Fear, terror, paranoia…

Most of all, many people live in fear of making the decision to do something about it should they be attacked.

That’s why when we make the decision to carry a gun for ourselves, we so often face pushback and disapproval from people around us. The psychological name for that reaction is simply “projection.”

Because these folks live with a constant, steady, unacknowledged fear — one that they refuse to do anything about — they believe your decision to defend yourself must mean that you live with at least that same level of fear or even more.

When you tell them about your decision to protect yourself, they feel offended because you’ve just dragged their fear out into the open and made it impossible for them to ignore.

That’s why they’ll accuse you of being “paranoid” when you make your choice. If you’re not actually paranoid, they have to accept that they could do something about their fear and not have to feel that way anymore. From their perspective, that’s just not possible. So you must be lying.

Hold the criminal at gunpoint?

On the video embedded below, you’ll hear a statement from a law enforcement agency about an officer-involved shooting that happened during a traffic stop and you will see the dashcam recording of the events that led up to the shooting. As ordinary citizens, it would be tempting to think that such things could not possibly apply to us, or that there’s no information we could gather here that would be useful for us to know.

That would be incorrect.

First, the video. If you’re in a hurry, you may want to start it playing at around the 2-minute mark.



Now, the food for thought:

  • Have you ever pictured yourself holding someone at gunpoint? (See here for one recent example of how that could happen; see here for another.)
    • If you have never considered this issue before, what is your plan for dealing with a would-be attacker who throws down his weapon, throws his hands up into the air, and starts apologizing?
    • What is your plan for keeping yourself safe during an ambiguous but potentially life-threatening situation, such as protecting your family from a potentially violent home intruder who is mentally disabled or plainly too drunk to realize where he is?
    • It’s tempting to believe that we would never be put in such a situation, or allow ourselves to be there. But that’s not realistic. Nearly all defensive gun uses do not require the defender to fire the weapon in order to defend herself effectively. This means we can and should know what to do about it if the criminal surrenders before we have pulled the trigger. “I’ll just shoot him!” only works if the elements of Ability, Opportunity, and Jeopardy are all present at the exact moment we pull the trigger.
  • Do you know how to produce — and have you practiced producing — a strong and easily understood command voice? Many of us think of it as “Mom voice,” because it’s the same voice we use to stop a 5-year-old in his tracks when he’s about to run into the street. It’s not hard to do, but it is something that must be practiced.
  • Do you know — and have you practiced using — a series of commands that would lessen the danger of an uninjured criminal being able to attack you?
  • How many pre-attack indicators can you spot on the video?
    • Can you see the physical behaviors that led the shooter to believe his life was in immediate danger?
    • Can you explain the physical behaviors you see, and why they are dangerous?

The officer very likely had, in his mind, a very clear decision tree that included a specific distance that would trigger his decision to fire. There’s a clue there, for us.

There’s no doubt that the officer was able to explain his decision in a way that helped the people involved in the legal system understand why he made the choice he did. More than that, when he made his decision to shoot, he almost certainly leaned heavily on the things he learned in his formal training. He may have even been able to bring in testimony from the expert instructors who taught him how to deal with noncompliant people being held at gunpoint, and what specific behaviors to look for that would indicate life-threatening danger.

Probably a lot more potential lessons for all of us on this video. What do you see?

Build the building

A real-life attack is not the same thing as training for such an event. Training prepares you for something and by definition cannot be the identical to the real thing. I though that was obvious, but apparently, it isn’t. Especially in the fighting arts, people seem to miss this point. Not so in other sports though.

When was the last time you heard somebody claim line drills in football are useless because nobody plays football in a line like that? – Wim Demeere 1

Whenever I hear people complain about the futility of building basic defensive skills on a “static range,” I think of Wim’s comment.



Everything starts somewhere. The foundation might not look much like the rest of the building, but it’s what holds the whole thing up. You might never even see the framework, but it’s what holds the whole thing together. Those who only look at the outer walls have missed seeing almost everything that makes the building remain solid in the midst of an earthquake.

In the same way, some folks only see the chaotic reality of violent encounters — and miss seeing the foundation that makes a meaningful defense possible, or the framework that holds the shooter together long enough to get the task done.

All practice and all training — every last bit of it — involves some level of unreality. Unless and until we’re actually shooting people who violently resist our attempts to get away and survive, we’re practicing an unreal activity on some level.

No matter what the setting, the deliberately-induced flaws that we endure for practice almost always include (but are certainly not limited to!) the following:

  • Shooting cardboard, paper, or steel instead of human bodies;
  • No social interaction with potential targets;
  • Shooting immobile targets, or targets that move only in very predictable and rhythmic ways;
  • The 180 rule, or similar constraints dictated by the surroundings;
  • No expectation of interference from bystanders;
  • Being able to check that the gun is loaded and our mag pouches positioned just so before we start the string;
  • Every drill is a shooting situation;
  • Clearly-measured results that will be known within seconds after the dust settles.

Instead of practicing pure shooting skills (which obviously involve most if not all of the above possible unrealities), we might choose to be “more realistic” by scripting slightly more interactive drills in shooting bays that allow us to move around a bit. But no matter how much physical movement we do as shooters, we’re still dealing with fake targets, meaningless shoot/no shoot signals, and no life-threatening stress.

We might choose to eliminate the fake targets entirely, and decide that we need to practice working with other humans at the other end of the gun. That means that unless we’re utter fools, we’re going to use fake guns. In force on force and scenario based training, the unrealities include — but are not limited to! — the following:

  • Actors with varying levels of skill;
  • Scripts that limit potential outcomes;
  • Scripts that may or may not be well-considered;
  • Narrow contexts;
  • Mindsets that can in no way approach the out-of-the-blue, wasn’t-expecting-this!! reactions that would be normal in everyday life;
  • Fake weapons that produce unrealistic levels of accuracy, recoil, noise, etc;
  • Most scenarios will be shooting scenarios;
  • Levels of fear that in no way approach life threatening.

The challenge for us is to be aware of each one of those potential factors. No matter which type of practice or training we’re involved with, the temptation is to gloss over and dismiss the fakeness that we’re necessarily working with.

Instead of handwaving dismissals, we should be able to clearly identify which type(s) of unrealism we’re working with in a given drill. The real trick is to never become so in love with our own preferred type of training that we stop being aware of the unrealism it always contains.


  1. Wim runs an awesome blog at The exact quote can be found here.
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Moving targets at 25 yards — FAS Level 4 Handgun (part 2)

Here’s a video that we recorded during the Level 4 Handgun class at the Firearms Academy of Seattle last weekend. It’s a montage of several different strings of fire, a sequence that led students through the following activities:

  • Draw and get good, A-zone hits on stationary targets (in compressed time frames) at 7 yards
  • Draw and get good, A-zone hits on moving targets while standing in the open at 7 yards
  • Draw and get good hits on moving targets at 25 yards
  • Get behind cover, draw, and get good hits on moving targets at 25 yards
  • Run 25 yards (to get everyone’s heart rates up) and deal with lots of screaming and shouting while getting behind cover, drawing and getting good hits on moving targets at 25 yards.

All too many shooters feel very accomplished when they can manage just the first or second set of skills. But real life may demand more than that — and indeed, it’s a little silly to lay down a good foundation if we’re never going to build the building.




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Think while you shoot – FAS Level 4 Handgun (part 1)

Spent the weekend playing in the new iteration of the Level 4 Handgun class at the Firearms Academy of Seattle. Orignally signed up to shoot in the class as a student, but had an issue that kept me from shooting (rats!) so instead I enjoyed watching and participating from behind the line. As I watched, I found many learning points to think about.

First things first: Level 4 Handgun is an advanced class that combines elements of pure shooting, gunhandling, and practical skills alongside decision-making and role playing exercises. It’s a hybrid class that takes students through three solid days of hard work, and it’s also a boatload of fun.

Days 1 and 2 of the class comprise the bulk of the shooting instruction and skills refinement, while students enjoy role plays and scenario exercises on Day 3. The third day of the class also offers students an opportunity to pass the very tough Handgun Master Test, a skills assessment that has been part of FAS in various forms since the early 1990s. FAS director Marty Hayes considers that this test provides a brief but reasonably complete overview of a student’s skill with the pistol, and says it is analogous to passing a black belt test in other martial arts. He’s quick to point out that the test is “somewhat arbitrary” in its details, and that there are many other valid ways to test one’s skill with the defensive handgun. The test checks students’ draw speed, accuracy, one-handed skills, reloads, multiple target transitions, low light skills, and ability to hit moving targets. Distances range from 4 yards (for one-hand skills) out to 15 yards (for accuracy), with a majority of the work taking place at car length distances.

The class isn’t about the test, though. The test is simply one component of a well-rounded package of shooting and gunhandling skills. These skills, when mastered, form the backbone of being prepared to think about other things while using the gun quickly and effectively.

It’s the “thinking about other things” that matters, you see. For people interested in self-defense, that’s where all shooting instruction and practice in smooth gunhandling is supposed to lead: being able to solve the problem without worrying about whether you’d be able to physically do the skill that solving the problem might require. Being able to solve it without consciously thinking about the tool itself or how to use it, because your mind needs to focus on other things.

Instead of using up all our brain cells in remembering how to draw the gun efficiently, hold it safely, see the sights appropriately and manipulate the trigger effectively, we could be using those same brain cells to think about the appropriateness of using the gun to solve the problem:

  • Is there another way to solve this problem that does not involve gunfire? If so, what is it and how can I implement it?
  • Do I have to shoot? Do I have to shoot right now?

We could be thinking about the people around us:

  • Where are my loved ones? Are they out of the line of fire?
  • Can I or should I move in order to change the angles and reduce the risk to other innocents? If so, which direction should I move?
  • Does the attacker have an accomplice? If so, where?

We could be thinking about the surroundings:

  • Where is a position of advantage that I could move to? Do I have time to create distance or get behind cover? Can I do so without increasing my exposure and risk?
  • Is there somewhere a second attacker could be hiding? What can I do to reduce my risk from that direction?

New and untrained shooters often must use every bit of spare brain power just to remember how to hold the gun without getting a thumb awkwardly behind the slide, or how to get the gun out of the holster without fumbling and dropping it, or how to be sure that the gun is ready to fire with external safeties in the appropriate position. Even those who are well-practiced in calm conditions on the range may find themselves suddenly needing to think their way through these actions when they’re in a hurry and under stress.

Fortunately, students who have invested in themselves and in their families’ safety by attending professional training classes such as the FAS program will have much more leeway in tough situations. They’re better prepared to make good decisions and shoot effectively, because they’ve engrained both their shooting and their gunhandling skills to the point of automaticity.

Just as a beginning driver might find herself thinking about nothing else other than the mechanics of driving the car, a beginning shooter often has little attention to spare for tasks other than simply running the gun. This can be a problem for both when a crisis looms.

Lots more to say about this excellent class, but this post is already too long. More tomorrow!

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Gotta fight for your right to potty…

Today’s Fb post apparently struck a nerve. Over 100 Likes and more than 30 comments in less than one hour. The post?

“When I talk to women about their shooting experiences on outdoor ranges, the subject of disgusting, horrible, cramped, crowded, smelly, and did I mention disgusting porta potties almost always gets a mention. If you are a member of a range that wants more female shooters, or a member of a club that is trying to increase its female membership, the single best thing that your club or range can do to increase female participation is to improve the potty situation.”

Several people commented that putting in flush toilets may not be environmentally or financially feasible for some ranges. That’s true — but improving the potty situation does not have to involve running water. It can be as simple as:

  • Cleaning the facilities more often.
  • Keeping the facilities in good repair: no cracked seats, no broken toilet paper holders, no broken latches.
  • Cleaning the facilities on Fridays (immediately before the weekend rush) as well as on Mondays (immediately after the weekend rush).
  • Providing handicap-sized stalls instead of standard ones, so that users have enough elbow room to deal with multiple layers of clothing and gear without bumping into wet urinals.
  • Providing a nearby safe area, with a good backstop, for those who need to remove some of their gear before they use the facilities.
  • Putting a trash can inside the same building as the toilet (see “handicap-sized stalls,” above). There are few things more annoying than trying to deal with a used sanitary pad when there’s no place to throw it away discreetly, and no place to even set it down for a moment when you need to pull up your pants with both hands so that your holsters and mag pouches and other gear doesn’t slide into the slime on the floor.

Other suggestions?