In police academies and basic training courses around the world, cops and soldiers learn to “cover” people by pointing their muzzles at them, center mass. Whether this is directly taught or is an uncorrected natural tendency makes little difference. Almost every story you have ever heard about a bad shooting has its genesis in this habit. No matter if you are a cop, soldier, or a civilian protecting his home, you want to shoot the right target and beat the other guy. Wanna shoot like a pro? Don’t point. Here comes the neuroscience.

As we are currently seeing in Ferguson, Missouri, pointing guns can enrage people and it looks bad on video. Can we can keep our guns pointed in a safe direction and maintain an advantage over our opponents? In the words of our President, “Yes, we can.”

Don’t believe me? None other than legendary shooting philosopher and rock star Colonel Jeff Cooper said it clearly decades ago: “Don’t point your gun at a person unless you are in the act of shooting them.” What do you think he meant by that? To break it down Barney style, there is no advantage to pointing a gun at someone and not shooting them. There is a long list of disadvantages. This applies to long guns and handguns equally.

Let’s start with the obvious. If my muzzle is center of mass on a standing suspect, my gun and arms block the view of everything below. Hands kill. I can’t see the hands or the waist band where most weapons are hidden if I have my arm and firearm blocking my view. The eyes can only focus at one particular distance at a time. If my gun is in front of my face, it draws the focus of my eyes. Getting a sight picture cements this.

If my eyes are focused at the end of my gun, the rest of the world, filled with potential threats, is blurry and out of focus. If I am clearing a room, everything below my hands is obscured, and I may miss a threat or a stairwell. If I am moving, I may trip over an unseen object or step in a hole.

Most techniques for weapon take-aways require that the gun be at chest level and within arm’s reach. Keeping a little distance (more than 21 feet is recommended) and safe weapons-handling can keep the gun in your hands.

Before moving on, we need to talk about human reaction time. Human reaction time is the amount of time it takes you to recognize and respond to a stimulus. You can test your time here or do it the old-fashioned way. Take a shot timer and go to the range. (You can do this dry firing using par time beeps and approximation, but why skip a trip to the range?) Start with a man-sized target at five yards. Aim center mass and put your finger on the trigger. Take up the slack and get your buddy to hit the timer. You will find it takes about .2 seconds (give or take a few 100ths) to pull the trigger.

Now, aim at the dirt in front of the target, finger off the trigger. When the buzzer sounds, raise the gun, see your sights, and pull the trigger. You can do all that in about .5 seconds.

Two-tenths of a seconds is faster than .5 seconds, but it is not better. At .2 seconds, you are making a decision to shoot using a startle reflex. That is faster than the speed of thought. The part of your brain called the amygdala receives signals directly from your eyes and sends an impulse to your trigger finger. No higher brain functions are involved.

The Human Brain
The Human Brain (Photo courtesy of

The amygdala is a tiny remnant of reptile brain which learns from experience. When it receives input linked to prior painful stimuli, it triggers a startle reflex in one of two ways. The first, the so called “low route,” follows a direct sensory pathway from the eyes to the amygdala. This enables a response in about .2 seconds. The “high route” passes through the cerebral cortex and enables a rational and thoughtful response in about .3 seconds.

Fast is good right? Unless there is a sudden bump, or a loud noise, an unexpected movement, or a threat from another person. Chances are your amygdala will shoot what you are pointed at first and then your upper brain will catch up and see the cell phone.

The game of baseball is illuminating because the pros play right at the edge of human reaction time. In 2008, the average major-league fastball registered 90.9 mph. When the baseball gets to 95 mph like the superstars throw, something special happens. At 95mph, it takes .4 seconds for the ball to cover the 60.5 feet from the pitcher’s mound to the home plate. Once the batter sees the ball and decides to swing, he has lost .2 seconds of reaction time. The swing must be timed to within a few thousandths of a second or the batter misses or hits a foul ball. The remaining .2 seconds of travel don’t give the batter time to recognize a deviation in the ball’s predicted path and change his swing. There is no time to think. Hitting three times out of ten at bat is considered outstanding. We have to do better than that; most people won’t survive enough gun fights to learn from mistakes at that percentage of failure.

Let’s try a different experiment. Set up two targets side by side, two feet apart. Point your muzzle at the dirt in front of target one and look at it. Finger off the trigger. When you hear the timer beep, raise the gun, see your sights, and shoot target two center of mass. You should be able to do this at about .5 seconds. The trick here is to use one movement time to move and shoot simultaneously. This is much better because it slows that 95 mph fastball down to two human reaction times so we have time to think.

Set up three targets side by side, two feet apart and number them. Point your muzzle at the dirt in front of target two and look at it. When you hear the timer beep, have your buddy call out the number of one of the targets. Raise the gun, see your sights and shoot the named target center of mass. You should be able to do this at about .75 seconds. The .25 difference in the times is your decision time.

The fastest way to react is to maintain what the martial arts guys call the empty mind. Rangers should excel at this. The empty mind does not expect or predict, it quietly observes and reacts correctly when necessary. Times will vary a little when you do these tests. Behavioral scientists suggest that you do a number of iterations and take the mode time, the one that occurs most often—don’t average. The times are usually very consistent unless you are distracted by a stray thought.

So, you are covering a suspect and highly aware of the situation. You are pointing your gun in a safe direction. You now see an emerging threat and need to engage. How do you beat an opponent when we have used the first .2 seconds of the fight just perceiving the threat before you can even initiate movement?

Glad you asked. Set up three targets side by side, two feet apart. Point your muzzle at the feet of target two and look at it. When you hear the timer beep, have your buddy call out the number of one of the targets. Move off-line to one side or the other. As you move, simultaneously raise the gun, see your sights, and shoot the named target center of mass. You should be able to do this in about .75 seconds.

How can this time be the same as the drill with no movement? With training, all this movement and action occurs simultaneously and can be accomplished in one movement time. You can continue movement and add additional shots as necessary. The bad guy will have to recognize your movement, decide to track you, follow your movement and engage in less than .75 seconds. If he spends .1 seconds of that time thinking WTF, he will be bleeding before he ever pulls the trigger, and you are still moving and shooting.

“If…then” thinking is a simple formula for anticipating enemy actions and countering them. Example: If he reaches into his pocket, I am going to step off-line and draw my handgun. Thinking ahead and anticipating courses of action will cut your decision time and provide well-considered alternatives. It is another trick to stay ahead of the other guy. When action beats reaction, you must act.

Morality, ethics, laws, and lawsuits are all good reasons to respond appropriately to a threat, or the lack of one. A little dry-fire training and some range time can keep you safe and out of prison.

I owe a great debt to the master of reactive shooting, Bill Rogers, for starting me on this journey. If you want to learn to shoot fast from the pros, go to the famous Rogers Shooting School.

(Featured Image Courtesy: Leaksource)