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Every few months, we’ll see or hear stories about an officer or law abiding citizen shooting an attacker in
the back.

In some cases, there is even security camera or body camera footage showing what happened.  But do you know that what the camera recorded is different than what the shooter saw?  Not just the angle, but the timing?

Or do you know why it’s common for civilians or law enforcement to shoot their attackers 1, 2, or even 3 times in the back before realizing that their attacker has turned?  Do you know how to use this phenomenon to make yourself harder to hit if someone’s shooting at you?

In short, reality isn’t what you see, and you have walked around your entire life consciously SEEING a reality that happened a quarter, half, or even 3/4 of a second ago. You don’t realize it normally, but everyone has memories of times where this came into play.

  1. One trick/illusion is to have someone lay a $20 on a table and put their hand 4” above it. You put your hand 4” above theirs and tell them to slap the table and trap the $20 bill as soon as they see your hand move. You (or a 6 year old) can take money from people using this trick all day long.

  2. Some people get into car wrecks where they “never saw it coming.”

  3. If you’ve ever tried blocking punches/strikes from someone who was within arm’s length, you have felt the effects of this visual delay. (Eventually, with the right training, you get past this by using your subconscious to identify pre-strike indicators and unconsciously react to the strike before it actually happens…we’ll get to this in a minute.)

  4. If you’ve ever done quick draw contests where you react to the other person, you know how it’s almost impossible to “catch up” if you wait until you see them move.

  5. With driving, the visual perception delay/reactionary gap is generally accepted to be 2 seconds and drivers are continually told to stay at least 2 seconds behind the car in front of them to be able to consciously identify and react to threats/dangers.


When we look around, it looks like everything is moving fluidly, but we really see in frames…kind of like a movie.  And that “frame rate” varies TREMENDOUSLY.  Movies are shot at 24 frames per second, and they look smooth.  Fighter pilots who have done eye training can identify planes with only 1/200th of a second of exposure…but it might take them a quarter second, half a second or more to process that image.

The frame rate that you see at is dependent on light, the colors your observing at the time, cognitive load/stress, and your specific neurology.  The details are fascinating, but not necessarily helpful for this discussion.

The simple fact is, good people DO justifiably shoot attackers in the back after they’ve stopped attacking and started to run away.

How can this be?

Because of the fact that there’s a quarter to three-quarter second delay between what our eyes see and what the conscious mind is able to process.

During that 1/4 to 3/4 second delay, the attacker has plenty of time to drop their weapon, turn, and depending on the situation, start moving away…all the while, the shooter is seeing what happened earlier—which was the attacker facing them and posing a threat.

If you’re firing off shots with quarter second splits, that means that you could feasibly shoot your attacker once in the side and a time or two in the back without even realizing that they were no longer a threat (a good, qualified expert witness can explain this to a jury if it goes that far).

Visual perception delay is a criminal defense tool that can help in cases where 1-2 shots are fired into the back of someone who WAS a threat. 3 would be questionable, but 4 would be incredibly difficult because by that time, the fact that your attacker is no longer a threat should have made it to your conscious mind.

Other than important trivia, how can you use this information?  We’ll cover a practical application and a few tactical ones.

First off, and most practical, be conscious of the 2 second rule when you’re driving.

If you’re like me, you probably wondered, “If the visual perception delay is only .25 seconds, why do I need to stay 2 seconds back from the car in front of me?” and it’s a great question.

The answer is that if you’re on-alert and ready for something to happen, it only takes .25 seconds for your conscious mind to process simple pre-defined stimuli like “if his brake lights go on, I’ll hit my brakes.”

But the more complex the stimulus is, the longer the delay. If you have to judge approach speed, weather conditions, or other factors like how hard to hit the brakes, the processing/reaction time increases. If you’re distracted by talking, texting, or adjusting the radio in the micro-second where the stimulus happens, there will be a delay between when the stimulus happens and when you get fully engaged BEFORE the .25 second visual perception delay even starts.

As an example, the average person can handle 7 bits of information at a time and process those 7 bits 18 times per second for a total of 126 bits per second. Listening to a human voice, like a radio, phone, or another person in the car takes 40 bits. Processing what they’re saying and thinking of a response takes a few more bits. Paying attention to the car(s) in front of you takes a few more. Add in the cars around you, maintaining your speed, distance, place in the lane, and navigating and you see that you’re probably only devoting a bit or two per second to the brake lights on the car ahead of you. That means that it might take a half second or more before the half second visual perception delay clock even starts!

In short, respect the 2 second gap rule.

The other examples are going to be less likely and more “tactical.”

One of the things that I’ve observed and experienced is the difference between how vision works and how people perform in traditional range training and force-on-force training.

In low stress shooting, or even competition shooting, it’s EASY to shoot moving targets.

Take a friend and have him stand 10 feet away.  Hold your thumb so it’s between your eye and his chest and have him try to move fast enough that your thumb comes off of his chest.  It won’t happen.  Your thumb will track his chest like it’s attached.

BUT, what I’ve seen (and experienced) is that in force-on-force scenarios, a simple, properly timed, 2-3 foot sudden lateral movement will cause more than 1/2 of shooters to shoot to where you were and not where you are.

Less than half of the time, the shooter’s visual frame rate is fast enough that they are able to track the movement and put rounds on target.

The other half of the time, they will swear that the target was there when they pressed the trigger and that the person “just moved really fast.”  Observation and video proves otherwise.  Regardless of what they THOUGHT they saw, they were shooting at empty air.

Two lessons to be learned from this:

  1. 1.Make DARN sure of what’s beyond your target.

  2. 2.Build up to stress training at a level where you experience choppy vision so you can identify it for what it is and compensate for it when you realize you’ve got it.


Next, we’ve talked about the reactionary gap before. In short, it’s the amount of time/distance that you want between you and a threat/attacker so that you can effectively respond to whatever they do. For an attacker with a knife with no obstacles between you and them, it’s generally thought of as 21 feet (but is really much more).

If you’re within that reactionary gap…say a mugger or a heated argument within a couple of feet…you MUST switch to pre-defined triggers, pre-defined responses, stay focused, avoid talking, and keep them talking.

Why?

Because even though the conscious mind is .25-.75 seconds behind reality, the unconscious mind is about .1 seconds behind reality.  This is part of the reason why a shooter who’s calling their shots can shoot followup shots in less than .2 seconds without having to see or hear whether or not the first shot was a hit.

In addition, the conscious mind processes things sequentially, or one at a time, one after another. The unconscious mind uses parallel processing and processes several things at once…as many as 10,000 to 1 million times more bits of information per second than the conscious mind.

But you can do a few things to switch your mind from that .25 second delay that your conscious mind has to the .1 second delay that the unconscious mind has.

First off, stay calm. The calmer you can stay, the more likely you can tap into the speed of the unconscious mind.

Second, define 1, 2, or 3 triggers that will cause you to take action…the fewer the better, but better doesn’t always mesh with reality. The triggers should be, “If he does X.”

Keep in mind that in an altercation, your attacker is either attacking, complying, trying to limit loss, or delaying (sometimes with sweet words) to create an advantage to destroy you more effectively. This concept of 4 options is a tiny part of an incredible book from Ken Murray called, “Training At The Speed Of Life.” As far as you’re concerned, if they’re not complying 100%, they’re still a threat. Words mean nothing and action means everything.

It’s better to game these triggers out in your mind ahead of time so that you aren’t trying to figure stuff out in the heat of the moment.

Third, pre-define your response. “If he does X, I’ll do Y”. And the more specific “Y” is, the better. As an example, “If he goes for a weapon, I’ll shoot” may not be specific enough.

If you’ve got your gun drawn, pre-define your action with detail, as in, “If he goes for a weapon, I’ll step to the side, fire 2 shots midway between his armpits, step to the side, and re-asses.” It could be 1 shot, 2 shots, or 3 shots…depending on your department, prosecutor, political climate, and/or your ability to put fast, accurate rounds on target.

If someone had been trained or trained themselves to think along the lines of, “if he moves, kill him” then it might explain why they would shoot someone 8 times in the back when the person was fleeing–this shows how important it is to have your triggers and actions pre-defined correctly.

Specifically, make sure that you’re verbally and mentally training, practicing, and rehearsing shooting to stop a threat…not shooting to kill or shooting to prevent someone from stealing your stuff, but shooting to stop a threat.  If you train your mind to only shoot at a threat, you could save yourself a lot of grief.

Next, get them talking and avoid talking.

Unless you’ve practiced talking while your unconscious mind is driving the ship…normally indicated by a monotone voice and an “odd” cadence, or you’re using words as a distraction to open distance, don’t talk.  If you need to talk, stick to simple, pre-rehearsed commands. As soon as you “think” about what you’re going to say, you virtually guarantee a quarter to half second delay in reaction time.

Similarly, keep your attacker talking. If you’re going to try to surprise him, ask him something along the lines of, “What do you want to get out of this?” or some other open ended question that forces them to come up with a multi-word answer that will increase their visual perception delay and reactionary gap.

Finally, train, practice, and practice some more. If you’ve practiced your skills to the point where they’re almost boring and you don’t have to consciously think about them, you’re much more likely to actually be able to perform at a high level under stress.

For most people, this means spending a TON of money on ammo and range fees, but the fact that you’re here means you’ve got a HUGE leg up. You’ve got resources at your fingertips that are used by US Tier I units and our allies. High speed, low cost, at-home laser and tactical simulation training resources.

Could you feasibly fire 8 rounds into someone’s back without realizing it?  Yes…it’s possible.  Anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, extreme exhaustion, pain, painkillers, sheer panic, bad triggers, and bad pre-defined reactions all COULD do that.  In fact, the simple fact of using the verbal or mental phrase “kill the threat” instead of “stop the threat” rolling round in your head and occasionally coming out of your mouth could predispose you to shooting someone more times than needed to stop the threat.