Prior to finally starting to write down this article I did my morning routine, which not only included 50 push-ups and coffee but also scrolling through Instagram. Experiences may vary, but what we see more and more are videos of various „range bros“ repeating easy weapon handling tasks in a weird robotic fashion while adding even weirder factors to this task.
We are talking of easy tasks here. Tasks like changing a rifle magazine, which is basically putting a box into a box or doing a transitions, basically dropping your rifle and bringig up your pistol. Those tasks are important to basic weapon handling but dont offer much accountable tactical value, but you see certain people dry drilling or live firing those tasks almost every day and letting them become the foundation and majority of their training routine. But why so? The most common answer you get is: „To improve my muscle memory“. If you look at such peoples training routine it would translate that their whole training is based around muscle memory, which only makes a small part of the human brain and we all should know that surviving violence will always involve all parts of your brain. So we have a serious problem here.
Introducing the “FUNFAIR BOXER”
Not so long ago it was common that the annual town fare had at least one boxing attraction. Which included an „undefeated champion“ which had to be beaten by casual visitors. Now it sometimes happened that some of the „casual“ visitors where skilled boxers but didnt manage to defeat the „funfair boxer“. Was this because he was a better athlete? And if so, why didnt he earn his money as a professional boxer? Again the answer is muscle memory. A typical funfair champ trained for the sake of dodging literally almost every strike and jab just to survive the time he had to spend in the ring. In a normal boxing match this wouldnt bring him even close to victory, as he would have to take calculated risks to win. Calculated risks arent muscle memory.
So the typical „Range Bro“ is very smiliar to the champ from the local fairs boxing booth. He succeeds in a clinical environment, but his reliance on muscle memory almost forbids him making conscious decisions. But the very essence of tactics and violence is making conscious decisions that trigger a series of subconscious processes. So basing your training almost solely on building muscle memory makes little sense.
CAPABILITIES OF MUSCLE MEMORY
Of course muscle memory is important, but many people tend to interchange muscle memory with decision making and therefore foregoe decision making in their training routine. Normally muscle memory involves a chain of tasks and movements that is executed in a fluid fashion without distractions and conscious actions put inbetween. So a good example is a simple reload. Your weapon runs dry, you rip out your empty mag, reach out for your „happy mag“ and put it into your magwell and rack your slide. This is what we see on Instagram, drilled to perfection, as it appears. But what we really see here are dead people. Because the majority of those guys isnt looking for cover where they could perform their reload in while being protected from incoming fire. Looking for cover and moving there is a conscious decision that is often overlooked in favor for fancy looking speed reloads. Muscle memory is capable of speeding up chains of certain actions after being triggered but it wont replace quick and conscious decision making during or before a firefight.
PLACING SMART TRIGGERS
As we have seen before, muscle memory needs a trigger event. Your gun running dry isnt the ideal trigger event for a quick mag change in every circumstance. So you got to train with changing situations and premises. Training the mag change as an isolated event will certainly improve your motoric skills on this and is important. But after a certain point you should include decision based training. When my enemy is in close proximity a transition or speed reload could be the right thing to do. But when we are talking about military engagement distances a transition would only slow you down and eventually will turn into a deadly decision.
Therefore we see that the essence of tactical training should be reducing isolated drills over time and instead opting for a smart placement of triggers for the muscle memory you have obtained before. The worst case of trigger placement gone wrong can be observed when training gun disarming techniques. Often students train to grab the attackers gun and pass the gun back to the attacker to speed up the process. What happens in scenario training is often exactly the same, as the defender will give back the gun to the attacker because he trained a chain of unconscious movements without any relevant trigger point besides a gun being pointed at him. Now translate this to a firefight in combination with endless loops of speed reload drills you did before. You now have become the funfair boxer we talked about earlier, with the difference that you are in an actual combat situation and not in a funfair anymore.
Now back to Instagram and YouTube, in our fast paced world people want to see speed to the max. Fire for effect and actual performance arent the priority of most folks anymore. But your first exercise on conscious decisions should be watching some of those fancy videos and asking questions. Questions like: Is this sub second reload more valuable for the shooter than transitioning to cover? Is this lightning fast transition to the shooters secondary the right decision regarding the circumstances? This guy is working in a fire team right now. Why should he transition instead of letting a buddy lay down suppresive fire while he is seriously handling the malfunction he has right now? Why is this guy screaming „contact front“ before he even fires the first shot? You will see many examples of trigger placement gone horribly wrong.
For me, speed is a good thing, but nothing that impresses me when applied alone. A reload that impresses me is a guy running dry, getting his head back into a cover (outside a 9-hole drill exercise) ripping out his mag, calmly and fluidly opening his magpouch while also fluidly inserting his new mag while also checking for potential malfunctions on the firearm and returning into the fight confidently while being aware of what happens around him and not doing a semi-habitual half-assed “360 check”.
ROBOCOP ON THE RANGE
If you have read any definition of muscle memory you will see that a well learned technique that is really put into ones muscles memory first and foremost is a fluid motion. Now after you have seen some „RangeBro“ vids you will indeed see that their movements are often anything but fluid and smooth, but instead look more robotic and stiff. So something must have gone wrong. In fact people tend to train so much different, exotic and varying exercises for their muscle memory that they dont even finish learning one and therefore work with a kind of undefined muscle memory and motorics.
A good muscle memory training should be, as said before, focused on one task and its propper execution. Adding simulated stress to an exercise will not speed up your learning and will also not increase the quality of an indivduals performance. It is a staple of modern adult teaching techniques that psychomotoric skills should be teached isolated and not be interchanged with cognitive and affective skillsets. So when you are drilling, do simple drills. When you are doing tactics dont do drills. Interchanging learning phases will lead to unfinished results.
BUT WHY SO?
Everything I have written should make sense. But why are we seeing all this fancy, purely psychomotoric stuff appearing out of context in scenario trainings you may ask. Well it is easy to learn and easy to present. You can even practice it in your basement with a blue gun. I have seen softair guys that perform lightning fast reloads. Such skills are easy to obtain. Contextual thinking on the other hand is a hard one. The blind speed reload is basically the Tourniquet training of the shooting world. All you need for a TQ drill is a TQ, YouTube and repetitions. If you invest an hour daily you will become the fastest TQ guy in the west, by utilizing skills that are easy to obtain and easy to show off. Does it make you a medical expert or do you need to know when a TQ should be applied fo this? No way. But you are able to produce a flashy video on how fast you can apply a CAT Tourniquet. The use of this video for the community is … well… limited at best.
A based approach
To make you really efficient in defending yourself, be it armed or unarmed a good teacher should know the difference between psychomotoric and cognitive skills and should also be able to push the student more and more into the area of affective skills. Modern firearms are ergononomical well built systems and easy to operate when compared to other technologies. If you want to get a bachelors degree in something IT related, you want to be able to type blindly, for sure. But the ability to type blindly will not get you the bachelors degree. So the ability to reload lightning fast and blindly is a great asset, but has to be used after the right trigger point for this skill has been set. I suppose that all people who have read this article are aware of the fact that their decisions can have deadly consequences. So please place your emphasis on learning and teaching techniques on a realistic and contextual environent and not on speed and muscle memory alone. Many people are claiming that combat is a thinking mans game, but most dont understand it at all. If you are a student and visit the 4th pistol or rifle class of an Instructor who promises realistic training and find yourself doing psychomotoric tasks 60% of the class, do yourself a favor and leave. If he doesnt knows what a psychomotoric skill is, you should consider leaving the class too. A based training should push you towards options and decision making, not towards becoming a zombie.
There is nothing wrong with training muscle memory on a regular basis, but tactical training starts to get tactical when you enter decision making. Dont chase speed and blind-folded Katas unless you want to get caught in the McDojo circle of the 80s. Also dont forget that making decisions under pressure is a skill that is even more important than mere muscle memory. Once you have learned to use your tools its time for you to learn the correct fields of application of them at some point.