Marksmanship, Stress and Force on Force Training

KR Training graduate, researcher and psychology professor Dr. Glenn Meyer pointed me at this excellent paper in Nature magazine.
Perception during use of force and the likelihood of firing upon an unarmed person


Biggs AT, Hamilton JA, Jensen AE, Huffman GH, Suss J, Dunn TL, Sherwood S, Hirsch DA, Rhoton J, Kelly KR, Markwald RR. Sci. Rep. 2021; 11(1): 13313.

Here’s the abstract:

Stress can impact perception, especially during use-of-force. Research efforts can thus advance both theory and practice by examining how perception during use-of-force might drive behavior. The current study explored the relationship between perceptual judgments and performance during novel close-combat training. Analyses included perceptual judgments from close-combat assessments conducted pre-training and post-training that required realistic use-of-force decisions in addition to an artificially construed stress-inoculation event used as a training exercise. Participants demonstrated significant reductions in situational awareness while under direct fire, which correlated to increased physiological stress. The initial likelihood of firing upon an unarmed person predicted the perceptual shortcomings of later stress-inoculation training. Subsequently, likelihood of firing upon an unarmed person was reduced following the stress-inoculation training. These preliminary findings have several implications for low or zero-cost solutions that might help trainers identify individuals who are under-prepared for field responsibilities.

Thoughts on the paper

The paper is a short read (14 pages), describing a well designed study looking into what the firearms training community calls ‘stress inoculation’. The concept is simple: prior experience performing under stress helps to reduce stress in future situations. NYPD’s Jim Cirillo, in his book Guns, Bullets and Gunfights, identified characteristics that he and others on the Stakeout Squad believed were indicators that a person would perform well under fire:

  • Are you a competitive shooter?
  • Have you competed in major matches, placed and won awards?
  • Can you perform well under pressure or fear?
  • Are you a hunter? Have you shot big game?
  • Do you like outdoor physical sports?
  • Do you collect firearms? Do you reload ammo?
  • If you are over 28, are you married? Do you have children?
  • Do you like people? Do you attend civic affairs?

Four of the 8 ask related questions: does the person have a serious interest in firearms, have they sought out situations where their ability with a firearm is tested, and did they perform well?

The other 4 are more general measures of character. Does the person like being in situations where physical exertion and contact with others, with potential for injury, are likely to occur? Does the person have empathy for others? Close relationships with other people outside of work?

This study evaluated similar characteristics, by considering marksmanship skill and behavior when confronting 3 different individuals; one armed and hostile, one unarmed and moderately hostile, and one unarmed and compliant.

As video of police use of force incidents has become more common, more attention has been paid to questionable use of deadly force decisions, and interest in methods to improve that decision making has grown. As a result, this study’s specific focus was on the value of force on force training to decrease the likelihood of unjustified shootings. To accomplish that, they used three different roleplayers, presenting different levels of aggression toward the test subject. Physical and psychological stress were measured and correlated with performance. Marksmanship skill was also evaluated, with a live fire pre-test. They also collected data on how long the participant thought the event lasted, how many shots they fired, and how many times they were hit.

At this point you should click the link and go read the actual article.


Unsurprising Results

From the paper: Marksmanship abilities did significantly predict the stress level of the training event with marksmanship as the sole predictor. The force-on-force stress-inoculation training event was less stressful overall for more proficient marksmen.

Cirillo’s list included both competition shooting and hunting as predictors of gunfight performance. My own observations from 25+ years running force on force scenarios has been that those with well developed gun skills were often able to wait longer (to confirm an actual need to use deadly force) before acting, which made them less likely to make a bad decision. Having those skills learned to the automatic level freed up attention and brain cells to focus on the situation itself rather than the mechanics of getting the gun out from concealment and into the fight.

Also from the paper: those tested in use of force decision making after participation in the training were less likely to make a bad decision to fire. I’ve seen student performance improve after a 4 hour block of scenarios where they participated in some and observed others.

The paper’s authors make this recommendation: These results could suggest a low-cost solution to identifying
individuals who may not be ready for field operations by identifying people likely to fire on unarmed citizens
before those trainees are certified ready for duty. Specifically, trainers could track quantifiable elements of training scenarios and see how well the trainee can maintain situational awareness.

Scenario based training and testing has been part of most police academies for decades, going back to use of primer-driven wax bullets and blanks in the 1970’s (and earlier, and video based training systems before non-lethal training projectile systems came into common use. “Low cost” is a relative term, since a rough estimate of minimum gear necessary to equip a test subject and a single roleplayer with a training gun, marking rounds and appropriate safety gear (conversion kit, head gear, chest/neck/throat protector) could require $2K or more, not counting the cost of a facility where marking rounds can be used. However, compared to the costs associated with a bad use of force decision, the cost for the equipment required is small.

KR Training Force on Force class AARs and mentions

There aren’t a lot of traveling trainers offering force on force courses. A lot more equipment has to be shipped or hauled to class. Demand for this type of training is far less than for high round count square range training, and it’s far easier for traveling trainers to run the square range courses. They can also be conducted at almost any range, while FOF often requires temporary shoot houses to be built, either out of props used for matches at the host range, or built on site, as we had to do for the FOF class I ran at the FPF facility earlier this year.

Lee Weems of First Person Safety and the “That Weems Guy” podcast said some nice things about my FOF classes in this recent Evolution Security podcast episode.

Frequent KR Training student Uncle Zo wrote an after-action class report about our recent Advanced Training 2 scenario course held at the A-Zone Range

One of the students in the FPF full day scenarios course wrote up his experiences in that class

Back in September, the Civilian Gunfighter blog wrote about force on force training and mentioning my courses.

Why Don’t You Share Videos of Student Scenarios?

In the current era, everyone wants to share everything, particularly when marketing is involved. I don’t record videos of the scenarios that I run, and don’t allow students to record and share them either. The reason is this: should a student get involved in an defensive incident, those publicly shared (or privately saved) videos could be used as evidence. I do have this short clip from a 2005 episode of Shooting Gallery showing a scenario I ran at one of the early Polite Society (Rangemaster Tactical) Conferences.