Kinesthetic Shooting – Killing a False God

“I learned a ton…that will make me a better instructor.”

-SGM (Ret.) Kyle E. Lamb, Author of Green Eyes & Black Rifles

Since this is one of those topics that’s not emotionally based (sarcasm font), allow us to be crystal clear so that the internet driven confusion is, well, purely intentional. We are not making commentary on the efficacy or tactical value of kinesthetically-based engagements (point shooting). 

In other words, we are not saying that point shooting is bad or wrong.

There are two reasons for this. First, as a general rule we avoid commenting on and discussing specific details of shooting mechanics and tactics in this “open source” setting. Second, and more importantly, we genuinely believe that the technique has tremendous value for specific applications.

Let’s start by defining point shooting.  There are probably a variety of definitions, where everyone has their own nuanced flavor of the day.  There are also different variations of the basic technique, with differing accompanying levels of visuomotor skill application.

For this article, we are going to define point shooting as visually non-aimed fire. In other words, the sights and body of the weapon are not used to visually direct the impact of the rounds and the visual focus and visual attention of the shooter are directed at the target (or threat) throughout the engagement. In other words, threat focused shooting (visually).

To reiterate, we are not criticizing the basic concepts or techniques involved in point shooting. In our opinion they are valid. In fact, everyone currently involved with Building Shooters purposely uses point shooting for some applications in our own existing skillsets.

However, we are critiquing some of the assumptions and applications of training methodology with respect to these skills and techniques that have become extremely popular throughout some circles of the training industry over the past decade or so.

Before diving into the shooting part of the discussion though, let’s take a breather and lay some groundwork by talking a little about brain function.

Groundwork: The basic principles of neuroplasticity

There’s been some criticism recently of “science” applied in the firearms training industry. And, those making the critiques have some legitimate points.  There’s a lot of danger in taking one study, one piece of reference material, or a single data point and making an entire construct based around it.  This can often lead to misapplied, misunderstood research and flat-out wrong conclusions. 

There’s also a lot of danger in using science as a label because, well, science isn’t a label. Science is a method of asking questions and conducting study in order to find answers that can be consistently validated and supported.  And this is something we think everyone should probably be able to get on board with—regardless of whether they want to call it “science” or not.

Asking, “Does it work?” – then using a structured process to answer that question—this ought not to be controversial, especially in our industry where, when it doesn’t work, people die.

When we (instructors) teach people, what we’re doing is putting information into their brain. So, it’s certainly worth asking the question, “How does the brain work?”

That’s what we’re doing here.  If instructors understand the basic terrain of the brain, they can navigate it more effectively and do a more effective job preparing students for the real-world.

Now that’s out of the way…

Let’s hit some commonly accepted and consistently validated principles of brain function. 

The following concepts form the basis for the relatively new field of neuroplasticity—or study of how the brain changes (including learning). 

If you want to dive deeper into this material and validate it without getting into actual source material, we’ll recommend The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, MD and The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz, MD and Sharon Begley as “easy to read” and incredibly eye-opening books that touch upon how our brains work, how they change, and what impacts this can have on people in the real world.

First principle: neurons that fire together, wire together. This one is pretty intuitive. Especially as shooters we all generally accept that the more we do something, the better we will get at it.

Second principle: neurons that fire apart, wire apart.  This is actually a corollary from the first principle. If two things are constantly used—separately—they will be very difficult to connect together later. 

For example, watch somebody try to apply something different than a well-learned motor skill sequence—integrating a different skill or changing some part of it.  Case in point, ask somebody who only ever shoots IPSC to fire three rounds per target sometime…

Third principle: the brain is energy efficient and everything competes for energy and real estate availability.  Our brain is basically a bunch of biological electrical circuits, so the electricity always wants to go the path of least resistance and the brain is naturally looking to conserve its resources. It doesn’t want to use more energy than it needs to for task accomplishment. It will spend the least amount of energy it can in any given situation.

Defining visually aimed fire and target-focused aiming techniques

With those three principles in mind, let’s look at shooting, specially two commonly taught techniques for hitting the target.  Since the events leading up to the decision to apply force (shoot) are probably going to be similar regardless of which “how to hit the target” (tool interface) technique is applied, we’ll ignore all of that here.  It’s super important stuff, it’s just not relevant to the content of this specific article.

This isn’t a “how to” guide or article about how to perform shooting techniques, nor is it about tactics.

Instead we’re going to look at how differing methods of aiming interact with both training methods and human performance potential.

The first method we’ll look at is a type of visually aimed-fire commonly known as “flash” sight picture. 

There are actually several different visual techniques that this label can be applied to.  We won’t get into the weeds on it here because it’s not necessary for our objective in the article and because there are much better shooters than us out there to learn the minutia of shooting techniques from.  Our friend Mike Seeklander at Shooting Performance and The American Warrior Society is one of them and there are certainly many, many others.

For purposes of this article, let’s just define that when the shooter aligns the sights on the target, both the focus of the lens of the shooter’s dominant eye (like focusing a telescope or camera) and the shooter’s attentional focus (what the shooter is mentally concentrating on seeing) are rapidly shifted to the sighting system of the weapon. 

Most readers of this article have probably tried doing this before, so it doesn’t require much “sciencey” discussion on our part to make the case that it is somewhat difficult and takes a fair amount of effort—especially when first learning to do it. 

It also shouldn’t take an advanced degree in neurology for anybody to grasp the basis of our theory here which is that when you need to do things like 1) put a lot of mental effort into doing something and 2) make actual physical and neurological changes happen such as muscle movement in the eyes and a major shift in attentional focus that it uses a lot of energy—as in actual calories being burned and electrical energy being expended in the brain.

In fact, this is the physiological basis for one of the arguments consistently made by those who are advocates for point shooting as a primary technique. Visually aimed fire is hard. It’s not “natural,” especially under stress. The body, brain, and eyes don’t instinctively want to do the things necessary for visually-aimed-fire in a stressful situation.

So, we shouldn’t do them, right? Train like you will fight—by only doing what the un-trained body naturally wants to do?

Try that in boxing.  Though, only once please and make sure you wear headgear and fight a novice. You don’t want brain damage.

The basic concept behind point shooting is that your body can “naturally” point at an object in the distance and get pretty darn close.  You can validate this right now by picking an object in the distance, looking at it, and then pointing your finger at it.  Your finger will most likely be naturally aligned with the object.

If we can do this with a finger, surely we can do it with a firearm.

So, since we can already point, as the theory goes, let’s just do that and more or less eliminate the need for performing relatively difficult and potentially time consuming (depending on the technique used and quality of visual alignment needed) visuomotor skills during periods of high stress.

This is especially important because a person’s natural inclination will certainly be to look at the person/thing that’s trying to kill them, not some little piece of metal atop a pistol slide.

In fact, if you have decided to shoot somebody, you are presumably already looking at that person.  Otherwise, how would you know that you need to shoot them in order to survive?

If you must change what you’re looking (ie. look at the sights), it requires a change in performance within the visual system. This requires the use of energy. Calories are burned and electrical signals travel between neurons.

There are even some stress-related chemical responses in the body that some research indicates may make these specific visual tasks more difficult than they normally would be. For example the lens in the eye can be flattened, reducing clarity in close-range vision, among other things.

So, the theory goes, if we instead rely on the natural alignment abilities of our vestibular system, we make the task we are trying to perform much easier and more aligned (pardon the pun) with how our bodies naturally work under stress.

It makes some sense. And it works too—at least right up until it doesn’t.

Then there’s a real, serious problem.

Why point shooting fails catastrophically as the dominant engagement technique

Let’s be clear (again).

It’s not some sort of failure of point shooting as a shooting technique that’s the issue here. As stated at the beginning of this article, we think it’s an important skill with some critical real-world applications.

The problem instead lies in a combination of point shooting’s limited capabilities and real-world applicability along with the relative energy requirement for performance—that is—relative to other methods of shooting that involve visually directed aiming.

Let’s break it down. Fair warning…this is a very long article.

The first statement is that the technique has limited applicability. Put simply, if you don’t aim, with a visual sighting system, you’re not going to hit what you’re shooting at very consistently.  This is something even the most ardent supporters and proponents of kinesthetic shooting must admit—consistent accuracy and precision simply requires use of a visual sighting system.  There is no way around it.

I recently attended Bill Rogers Shooting School, which has been operating since the late 1970’s.  Rogers says matter-of-factly that he’s never had anybody even qualify on his target system using point shooting techniques.  This apparently includes a number of prominent and vocal (though unnamed) point shooting advocates. We cannot independently confirm this but have no reason to doubt it.

Since a number of the points fired during Roger’s program are actually at static, torso-sized steel plates, a shooter can miss a full 50% of the pop-up 8” plates (many of which occur predictably at 8ish yards) and still qualify.  An intermediate rating can be achieved on his system without even shooting at anything past 10-12 yards (the wall), and the most difficult shot is an 8” plate at under 25 yards so it’s important to understand that we aren’t talking about long-distance, precision shooting requirements that are causing the performance issue here.

I had a conversation some time ago with another well-known instructor about this same subject (who happens to be a strong proponent of point shooting by the way). His rule-of-thumb is that as soon as the rear of the slide starts to obscure the target area, it’s time to shift gears and get on the sights. (Please note that the following observation is based on the author’s own personal interpretation and assessment of this rule, not the instructor’s.)

Following that conversation, I took a SWAG and measured the optimal target area in my own upper thorax (the area where bullets would be most likely to achieve the desire effect) and found it to be roughly the same size as our book Building Shooters (7”x10”) or maybe even a little smaller. (Roughly reminiscent of an 8” plate, isn’t it?)

Just for kicks, I checked (using full dryfire environment safety protocols of course) to see where the slide on my carry gun obscured the book, placed on a shelf, as I backed up.  The distance was about seven to eight feet. 

Real-world, using that thought process and rule-of-thumb, I was still in too close of a proximity to a threat (based on weapons retention and defensive tactics considerations) to even go to full extension with my pistol before I’d need to start using the sights for an effective center-of-mass chest shot, at least in most circumstances. 

Cerebral-spinal shot (head shot) requirement?  It gets a lot worse. 

In other words, applying this point shooting advocate’s rule-of-thumb (or at least my understanding of it), there is virtually no foreseeable circumstance where point shooting with the weapon fully extended is an appropriate technique for combative applications.

Let’s put this in more practical terms.

We won’t get into a lot of detail or into an internet “tactical” mudslinging contest here, but let’s define that the problem (or problems) that we want to solve as individuals, either carrying concealed, or as armed professionals, should drive our equipment selection and training.

We need the ability to solve the problem(s) with a combination of our equipment and skill.

Let’s further assume that one of the “problems” that everyone who carries a firearm in 2019 wants the ability to solve is an “active shooter” threat (we hate the term, but it’s in common usage so we’ll stick with it here).

While it’s by no means the only “civilian” tactical problem which demands the capability for relative accuracy to solve, in the interests of time and space we’ll ignore others here.

We’ll just be blunt. If you don’t have the capability of delivering visually-aimed-fire in combative conditions, then you probably can’t functionally address this problem outside of maybe a close quarters ambush during a blind transition.

Why? Because you can’t consistently hit the vital areas of a person at any distance exceeding an arm’s length or two under stress in a dynamic setting.  

Let’s also not forget that a requirement for an “active shooter” is a target rich environment where missing, even in an ultimately successful engagement, can very possibly result in a murder conviction (for the good guy).

The bottom line is that if your shooting skills (or your students’ shooting skills) in the real world are based on point shooting, you (and they) likely do not possess the capability of addressing an active shooter threat. 

Why point shooting as a dominant technique negatively impacts the student

The second point in that paragraph is about the relative energy requirement for the performance of the aiming skill (in our example, kinesthetic fire vs. ocular-focus-flash-sight-based fire).

We all know, (because every reader of this article who has gotten this far has probably tried both at some point), that point shooting requires less effort, focus, and attention than visually aiming.  In other words, point shooting is an “easier” technique to perform.

Neurologically, this most likely means that it requires less neural energy expenditure than flash-aimed fire does.  And this intuitively makes sense. You’re completely skipping performance of an entire set of visual skills when you point shoot. It should take less energy.

You can see more details and the science behind how the mind works related to training outcomes in our book Building Shooters.  You can also find a detailed “how to” guide for applying this research to teach entry-level shooting skills in Mentoring Shooters.

While we won’t repeat the information in the books here, basically, during the development of a polished skillset (drawing, shooting, reloading, shooting on the move, target identification, punching, kicking, use-of-force decision-making etc.) what you’re doing is creating linked neural networks, sometimes also referred to as brain maps. 

You’re making neurons link together in new ways through physical and chemical changes that occur inside the brain. The result of this process is what we commonly refer to as learning.

When you train someone effectively, what you’re doing is literally building a new “map” in the brain that equates to the operational performance that you want to develop. This map can be pretty much whatever you want it to be if you know how to train effectively. In fact, you need to be careful that you don’t train “wrong” because people tend to do what they are trained to do under stress…no matter how stupid it is. (Everybody has heard of training scars, right?)

Here’s a question.

In your own personal training, or when training your students, why would you want to build a brain map for shooting that excludes one of the most important shooting fundamentals?  You can build whatever map you want to build. So why choose to build something with very limited applicability and capability?

And here’s the thing….it really is very limited once you get off the range—or once you need to start performing to some sort of standard on the range that involves a requirement for any level of accuracy and precision. 

Don’t believe that? Go find a successful competitor who point shoots as his or her primary method…bring back the left-handed smoke shifter when you’re done.  (No. Competition is not the same as the real world. Yes. Competition requires speed, accuracy, and precision—and so does real life, though often in different quantities. No, force-on-force and range shooting aren’t the real world either. More on this later.)

Here’s the real meat of the problem.

Remember how neurons that fire apart wire apart? 

What do you think happens if you build a well-rehearsed brain map for combative shooting WITHOUT visual aiming skills in it? 

That’s right. The “shooting” map gets separated from the rest of the brain’s functions—including from the visual skills required to use the sights.

If you often practice this way, the brain map without visual skills in it will get very strong—and become increasingly isolated from the rest of the brain’s related activity.

If you practice this way almost exclusively, it will become, more or less, exclusively linked to the brain functions that trigger access to shooting skills when they are needed under stress. 

In other words, point shooting will become the dominant, procedurally consolidated (unconsciously accessed), response.

Unfortunately, in the real world, this means that shifting gears and applying visually aimed fire will be VERY difficult, if not outright impossible.

The reason for this is that when unconscious processes take over under stress, the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology will choose the path of least resistance and apply what the brain evaluates to be the most appropriate, dominant, rehearsed brain map–probably the one with the lowest electrical resistance value. 

Literally the brain will want to use the relevant brain pathway that requires the least amount of energy expenditure. If that brain map doesn’t include visual aiming skills—then they are probably out.  

This is not because you don’t “know” or can’t “do” aimed fire. 

It’s because the neural networks that comprise visual aiming will not be what are stored in the procedural (unconscious access) memory system and/or will have too high of a resistive electrical value for the brain to get signals through them during sympathetic response—when the brain’s ability to cognitively direct what Schwartz calls “mental force” to neural circuitry is severely limited.  

In other words, if you train to point shoot as the dominant (primary) method of shooting, you can probably kiss the ability to visually aim at all goodbye once you (or your students) get into the real world.

The problem isn’t that point shooting, or kinesthetic shooting, doesn’t work in the real world. It does.

The problem is that point shooting stops working effectively about at the point where hitting the target requires some minimal level of skill. Then it starts to fail—and things go rapidly downhill from there.

Why the problem isn’t shooting technique. It’s training structure.

This brings us right back to our bread and butter at Building Shooters, which is one of the two big failures in today’s training industry.

This failure is not based primarily in teaching flawed technique, nor, necessarily, in flawed tactical application of various techniques. Instead it is based in flawed training design and method.

In short, our method of training delivery is what’s broken.

When new shooters are introduced to shooting, and repetitively practice shooting, without learning (or often frankly even learning about) the necessary visuomotor skills and attentional focus for visually aimed fire in combative settings, both their immediate personal skillset and their long-term performance potential are severely compromised.

Let us be clear here.

The negative long-term performance impacts of teaching entry-level students point shooting, and having them practice point shooting almost exclusively, are severe enough that it would probably not be wrong to describe this training methodology as psychological abuse of the student.

This is especially true if the negative potential impacts to the students’ skillset and performance potential aren’t clearly defined and disclosed to them ahead of time.

This training delivery failure doesn’t just build shooters who can’t aim in gunfights. It builds shooters who can’t learn to aim in gunfights.

We acknowledge some hyperbole here. Is it possible to overcome the negative effects of this training structure and attain an effective combative skillset after the fact?  Yes, it is. But it will be very difficult and will require a far more significant investment of both time and resources than simply developing an adequate skillset to begin with would have.

It is simply a cold, hard fact that a person who trains to point shoot as his or her primary mechanism for hitting the target has embraced (whether knowingly or not) a significant distance and accuracy limitation that severely limits his or her capacity to successfully employ a firearm.

It is equally true that the majority of students will NEVER recover from being initially trained with this type of methodology—even if they spend a lot of time training.  They can—with (literally) therapy level interventions. But most of them will not.

In fact, if you teach this way and your students actually go practice what you teach them, it becomes MORE difficult for them to acquire a functional and robust combative/defensive skillset every time they train.

If this is how you teach, please stop doing it now. You’re damaging your students’ performance potential (and very possibly negatively impacting their survivability)—most of them for life.

We aren’t saying don’t teach point shooting. We are saying that it should NOT be developed as the dominant technique.

At the very least, you should start disclosing to your students what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what the negative impacts to them are likely to be. Then get their informed consent, in writing, BEFORE you teach them using methods that will hurt both their performance potential as shooters and limit their ability to defend themselves and their families.

The hysterics and screams coming from the corners of the internet are already audible, even working in Microsoft Word and typing a draft of this article on a computer not currently connected to the internet, so let’s address a couple of relevant discussion points while we’re at it. (Again—very long article.)

Discussion Point 1: Is pointing really instinctive?

To us, one of the most intriguing components of the ongoing debate in the shooting community about visually aimed fire vs. point shooting is the assertion that humans naturally and instinctively can aim at a point. 

Usually this is “proved” to students by asking them to pick an item or spot in the distance and then point their index finger at it.  When their finger quickly arrives on the point they chose, the declaration is that this has demonstrated the instinctive nature of pointing.

But has it?

In this exercise, isn’t the student achieving a visual alignment with the desired target—verified with visual attention, visual focus (or both) on the finger itself?  If not, how can they verify that the pointing worked and that the finger is aligned with the spot they chose?

Put another way, when using this common demonstration of the basis of point shooting, isn’t the student actually visually aiming—visually aligning their finger with the desired target?

Food for thought.

There’s also another point to think about here. 

We do not in any way dispute that the human body has a functional vestibular system, nor that normally functioning human beings have a capacity for awareness of their body’s relative alignment and positioning (proprioception), awareness of their environment (exteroception), and awareness of the relationships between the two (often referred to as kinesthetics).

It is, however, worth thinking about whether this relational awareness is, in fact, instinctive, or whether they it is actually trained—consistently and constantly—based on the continuous sensory input and feedback we receive in the forms of vision, touch, hearing etc. as we navigate through the world on a daily basis.

From the perspective of human development, there appears to be little doubt that these relational functions and awareness levels are, in fact, learned experientially.  Furthermore, the dynamic nature of sensory and motor map locations in the brain (exactly what part of the brain is used for specific things is not consistent from day to day, even for the same person) seems to indicate that these types of relational awareness functions are, rather than being innately “hardwired,” constantly being “trained” as a person interacts naturally with their environment.

Can we actually point because we “train” ourselves to point every day?  We don’t know the answer definitively, but it’s an intriguing question. 

Certainly there is no doubt that the functions of the vestibular system are both capable of being compromised and capable of being re-trained in an adult brain. In other words, you can both “forget” and “re-learn” how to point.

Perhaps pointing isn’t “instinctive” after all?

Maybe it’s just something our daily interactions with the world around us require us to “practice” in various forms multiple times per day, every day—giving us the mistaken impression that we are hardwired to do what is actually a well-trained skill. 

Maybe our ability to point is only as good as our ability to train ourselves to point.  Maybe it’s only “easier” (at least initially) because we practice doing it.

More food for thought.

In any case, there are still occasionally people who make the statement that it’s not possible to learn to use, or possible to see, a gun’s sights under stress.  There’s generally plenty of room for discussion and differing opinions on all kinds of topics. However, this statement is grade A baloney. It absolutely can be done—and, in fact, frequently is done, in combative settings, by those who train to do it.

Discussion Point 2: Gunfight Performance Data

Another common discussion point we want to hit centers around the dismal records of police hit rates—when they are trained to use aimed fire techniques.  We want to address this one head-on because it’s a red herring. This is a strawman argument. 

It is absolutely true that police (and much of the military) are traditionally trained to pass qualification standards structured around some combination of traditional marksmanship skills, or “bullseye” shooting, and (often) a somewhat misinterpreted analysis of data relating to standard job or mission performance requirements (ie. historical data indicates that X percentage of rounds are fired from 1-3 yards during on-the-job performance in real-world shootings, therefore X percentage of rounds fired during training and qualification must be fired from 1-3 yards). 

It is also absolutely true that these approaches (especially the traditional marksmanship qualification approach) usually produce extraordinarily poor performance results during real gunfights. There’s even an argument to be made that aggregate gunfight performance, at least in some jurisdictions, might actually improve if the police had no training at all (note that we are not making this argument nor are we arguing for no training, just to be clear).

It’s critical to understand two things here.

First, the aiming and marksmanship skills taught and applied in support of passing more traditional qualification courses are, quite literally, different skills than those related to combative shooting.

Depending on the shooter, determining this may require a more finely-tuned eye than the average person possesses. It may even require some in-depth, probing questions to see and understand the differences. However, most shooters trained specifically for shooting these qualifications use different grip, different recoil management, different trigger management and manipulation, different attentional focus, and different visuomotor skills than can be applied in a combative setting when the sympathetic nervous system is in play.

Literally the physical skills, related neurological pathways, and attentional focus used are different.

Second, the instructional systems and teaching methods that are predominantly used to “train” people in these types of settings are fundamentally misaligned with human cognitive architecture. 

Said another way, the training methods themselves don’t work very well.  Even if the techniques and methods being taught were appropriate for the intended application (which they are not), the way they are being taught isn’t capable of producing effective learning.

Let’s put this in perspective.

Arguing against aimed-fire based on this data is kind of like arguing against issuing any body armor to deploying troops based analyzing results from a returning unit that was only issued IIA soft armor (no plates) and rarely wore it on patrol.  “Body armor didn’t prevent a single casualty on that deployment. Let’s stop issuing it.” 

If you wouldn’t make that argument, don’t make the argument against aimed-fire shooting techniques, at least not based on historical police gunfight data. The data isn’t relevant to your argument.

There’s a second point to be made here.

The systemic problem is not that police officers don’t fire their weapons. The problem is that they miss most of the rounds that they fire—because they shoot without being able to apply the traditional “bullseye” marksmanship skills they have learned to support qualification.

In other words, the many decades of consistently poor performance in police gunfights is—wait for it—the real-world results of point shooting.

Let’s be clear (again), we aren’t arguing against point shooting as a valuable technique. We think it’s an important skill with critical real-world applications.

Nor are we arguing against the ability to improve point shooting skills in students with focused training on the subject matter. This can be done, and the training to accomplish those improvements should be done when appropriate as a shooter develops.

We’re simply pointing out the irony that much of the data that is often used to argue against teaching visually-aimed-fire techniques actually shows the results of applied point shooting in the real world—not the other way around.

When applied either exclusively, or as the primary engagement technique, the data (and the science that underpins modern training theory) seems to actually indicate that point shooting is an abysmal failure in most gunfights—even at very close ranges.

The screams may have just gotten even louder, so let’s move on to a third common discussion point: force-on-force training.

Discussion Point 3: Reality Based Training

Once again, let us be crystal clear so as to avoid confusion. Force-on-force and other experiential training is a critical component of a functional training system for real-world tactical applications.

At least for engagements within the effective range of the simulated munitions (airsoft, UTM, Simunition etc.), if your shooting methods and techniques do not work in force-on-force training then they won’t work for real. If your skillset doesn’t work successfully in well-designed, scenario-based training, then you need to go back to the drawing board, regardless of how successful you may be on the range.

**Please note that poorly designed, scenario-based training can actually be harmful to student development. If you design, deliver, or participate in this type of training, please see our previous article about one of the ways this can happen. We also encourage you to check out the two excellent books on the subject (written by our friend Ken Murray, and Jeff Quail / Dr. Terry Wollert respectively) that we carry in our online store.**

However, the opposite of this statement is NOT true.

Just because something works well in scenario-based training does not mean that it will work in the real world. Like anything else, scenario-based training has limitations and it’s important for trainers to understand what those are, lest we unknowingly lead our students down the well-intentioned path to operational failure.

Since this article is about training methodology centered around a specific component of tactical shooting (aiming), we’ll stick just to the related subject matter in this overview.  Again, the following is JUST about the impacts and relationships of force-on-force to firearms aiming techniques.

First, force-on-force training, at least with today’s technology and tools, contains multiple “false” visual aiming systems.

In other words, it’s got lots of fake news potential with respect to shooting skill performance.

We say fake here because although these aiming systems exist when using simulated munitions, they do NOT exist when firing live rounds. In the interests of time, space, and readability we won’t dive into great detail on the mechanics here, but it’s important to understand that our visuomotor, visual processing, spatial awareness, self-awareness, and visually directed skill performance abilities are all significantly impacted by two general principles.

First, they are goal-oriented. In other words, the mind and body are pre-disposed to function in accordance with a defined and recognized objective—and are driven by intent to accomplish it at both cognitive and pre-cognitive levels.

Second, the mind and body are largely error-based in terms of performance and performance development.

In other words, success in task accomplishment is achieved through correcting identified errors during performance attempts.  This means that a significant amount of the brain signals involved in both orienting information and in making physical changes or movements (both conscious and unconscious) are the result of continuous feedback that is received at multiple locations throughout the data stream from multiple sensory systems, including the visual system, and various other levels of signal processing within the brain.

Using simpler terminology, this means you detect errors and then compensate for them to achieve your goal.

It’s not something that’s learned or trained (like pointing?); it’s how your body and mind work at a fundamental level. It’s how we learn what success looks and feels like.

Think of a guy peeing in a toilet while standing up. He might hit the rim initially, depending on what angle it’s coming out at, but he’s going to get the rest of it in the bowl once he can see where it’s impacting and adjust.

There’s no training required for this (though female readers who have ever shared a bathroom with a male are probably engaging in some sort of internal monologue at the moment)—just the knowledge of where the stuff is supposed to end up and the ability to receive the visual feedback from where the stream is impacting.

Unfortunately, when utilizing target-focused shooting techniques, limitations in most force-on-force training tools are exploited by these fundamental neurological functions to provide two redundant, “fake” aiming systems.

Specifically these are the flight path of the projectile and the impact of the projectile (especially when using marking cartridges).

When you shoot simunition, UTM, airsoft, paintball etc. and you are looking at the simulated threat (threat-focused shooting) while you fire, you can see not only the impacts of the rounds on and/or around your intended target, you can also see the flight path of those rounds in your peripheral and then foveal (central) vision as they travel towards the target. 

This is especially useful if you are firing rapidly (like most people do in force-on-force) and multiple projectiles are in the air at the same time because this creates something of a “stream” of visible rounds in the air. 

Note that these are not things you need to be trained to look for or to compensate for. They are things that your eye will naturally see (because they are both in your field of vision and are visual representations of change/motion—which both your eye structures and neural structures as well as the related processing systems detect very well) and that your mind and body will use and adjust for to accomplish the objective. It’s also important to recognize that this goal-focused adjustment starts at a pre-cognitive level in your brain’s processing systems.

Want to test this out? Use one of the mentioned simulator training tools if you have access.  Or, go pick up a cheap airsoft gun.  You could even use a squirt gun (or a garden hose) and get the idea. Stand at 7-10 yards and shoot as rapidly as you can from the hip to get as tight a group as you can with 15-20 rounds or so.  You can try this with a SIRT pistol too, but you won’t get the “stream.”

Then, if you can do so safely on a live fire range, try the same thing live fire and compare your groups. 

If you have low-light training ability, backlight the target and use a cardboard, plastic, or thick cloth flap with some stand-off to keep light from coming out of the impact holes so you can’t see the impacts on the target and then try it. You can also throw a dark colored shirt on the target to help obscure bullet impacts (full light or low light).

**Live Fire Safety Note: Don’t try this if you’re not a highly-skilled and experienced shooter with access to professional-level facilities. Don’t do this if you’re not 110% confident you can do it safely. Make absolutely sure every round you shoot is hitting the berm/bullet trap, or impacting in the surveyed SDZ (Surface Danger Zone).  Take an unloaded weapon and take a knee to see what the angles towards the impact area look like from hip level and consider that you will have poor elevation control of the muzzle from the hip—especially when firing live rounds. If you needed us to tell you any of this, we recommend that you do not try this live-fire without in-person guidance and oversight from a professional instructor on a professional-quality range. If you’re not absolutely certain you can do this with 100% safety and 100% bullet containment then don’t do it at all.**

But that’s not all.

Not only do today’s most common force-on-force technologies provide not one, but two, “fake” aiming systems—systems that are naturally utilized starting at a pre-cognitive level—they also fail to provide an adequate representation of two of the most significant impediments to effective firearms use. These are recoil and the concussive effect created by centerfire cartridges when fired without a suppressor.

Both are relevant, but we’ll focus on recoil here. The simple fact is that, even ignoring visuomotor skills and aiming methods, fundamental shooting mechanics (grip, body position, trigger management etc.) which perform adequately (or even well) with simulated munitions, may fail catastrophically when used with live rounds, especially when using a major caliber or virtually any centerfire caliber with a very small, light handgun (often common for concealed carry). 

Even with everything else being equal, split times will increase significantly, accuracy will degrade significantly and the weapon itself may not even function if it is “limpwristed”—though the same (wholly inadequate) shooting mechanics may work just fine when firing simulated munitions (or laser pistols with no recoil).

If you want to see a visual representation, go on down to the local arcade, maybe at a movie theater or at the mall, and see if you can find a “first person shooter” game where somebody who is really good at the game is playing. Chances are really good they are absolutely crushing the game…using body mechanics and shooting techniques that obviously would catastrophically fail if they were firing live rounds.

The bottom line is that it’s a lot easier to hold the weapon relatively steady and fire relatively quickly with some measure of accuracy using simulated weapons than it is with real weapons. There’s quite simply less physical force involved.

This means that during a reflexive, rapid-fire event, it’s relatively easy to create a visual “stream” of rounds in the air that the visual system, mind, and body are predisposed to automatically deliver to the intended target by making corresponding performance corrections based on both the stream’s trajectory and visual confirmation of the impacts.

In the real world, when shooting real bullets, not only will the mechanical and physiological requirements to make the weapon operate effectively be far more stringent, (ie. your grip and body position have to be done well) but NONE of these “fake” visual aiming systems are likely to exist.  In other words, despite the irreplaceable value of force-on-force training, its predictive ability with respect to actual shooting skill performance is extremely limited, especially when the student is using point shooting techniques rather than visually aimed fire.

In fact, when using munitions that are visible during flight and on impact, the reality is that the shooting is not actually kinesthetic in nature.

Rapid-fire engagement of a threat with the eyes and attention focused on the target while using these training tools is (after the first round is fired) actually is visually aimed fire—using two sighting systems that only exist in the training environment and don’t translate at all into the real world.

Staying purely in the realm of shooting mechanics and aiming systems, there are also at least two additional significant differences between the real world and force-on-force training. 

First, it is very rare, especially in civilian training, for force-on-force to involve significant physical violence being done to the trainee, especially impact trauma to the head. In other words, when engaging in force-on-force training it is highly unusual for the trainee to perform shooting skills with a severely impaired vestibular system (the physiological system that makes kinesthetic alignment possible). 

The real world is not so comprised—most especially during incidents requiring the application of deadly force (which typically requires the presence of imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm).

Said more simply, while point shooting doesn’t normally work all that well (from the perspective of hitting the desired target reliably and consistently), it will probably work a lot less well after you get punched in the head, shot, stabbed, kicked down a flight of stairs, hit with car, etc.

Finally, in force-on-force, neither shot placement nor terminal ballistics usually matter very much, if at all.

It’s not impossible to implement shot placement as a factor to some degree (though it’s uncommon in our experience and difficult to do in practice), and it’s certainly not unusual, especially with marking cartridges, to evaluate hits and shot placement during a debrief. Usually, however, a role player will start cycling down when they are engaged successfully regardless of the exact round placement.

The real world doesn’t work this way. Hollywood notwithstanding, real bullets, especially from handguns, don’t always work that well. 

Actually, often they don’t. Shooting (or sometimes even just shooting at) a role player—resulting in their pre-programmed downcycle in response to an engagement is simply not the same thing as shooting a person until they no longer pose a threat.  Force-on-force is one of the best training tools we have for preparing.  That doesn’t make it a literal equivalent. 

A standard of accuracy that works every time in force-on-force training may not work on the street. The real target area that’s required to functionally stop a real threat may be (actually probably is) a LOT smaller than what is required for success in most simulated engagements.

We just covered a lot, but the summary is simple.

In force-on-force training environments there is a significantly reduced standard of accuracy required for success, a significantly reduced skill requirement for successful application of shooting mechanics, at least two “fake” visual aiming systems that begin working at a pre-cognitive level when eye focus and attentional focus are on the target, and virtually zero chance of a compromised vestibular system that could severely impact the body’s ability to conduct kinesthetic alignment.

In the real world, reverse all of that.

Force-on-force training is a fantastic, indispensable tool. If you’re not using it (appropriately and when appropriate), you’re behind the curve and setting yourself and your students up for failure. However, if you’re judging the effectiveness of your shooting skills based primarily on performance in simulated tactical environments (especially if you’re using point shooting techniques)—you’re not doing yourself or your students any favors. In fact, you’re doing nothing short of setting them up for failure.

Discussion Point 4: End of Training Period Performance’

The next discussion point we’d like to address here with respect to kinesthetic shooting is its production of relative end-of-training-period performance.

One of the often-used justifications for teaching point shooting to entry-level shooters is that it produces much better performance in practical-type shooting than aimed fire does at the end of the training period. And, this isn’t necessarily untrue, so let’s talk about it.

When you teach point shooting as the primary skill, you’re skipping one of the most important aspects of firearms use—one that also happens to be the least instinctive (or, perhaps more accurately, the least practiced on a daily basis during normal human activity).  In other words, you’re altogether skipping the fundamental component of shooting that requires the most dedicated training to develop effectively.

The going theory is that, if you teach visually aimed fire (even with combatively applicable techniques), students will not leave their first training period with even a minimally functional skillset. And, this may often be true—it is certainly true when teaching traditional marksmanship skills first.

It is simply not possible to really learn the visuomotor skills and attentional focus required for flash-sight fire (or anything else that requires development of a new brain map from scratch) in a single training session.  That’s not how the brain works.

On the other hand, the body doesn’t need to learn (or perhaps re-learn) kinesthetic alignment. As long as the vestibular system is intact and functional, that happens automatically. Therefore, students can stand at close range to a human-sized target (statistically within the average range of most gunfights on record) and consistently hit the target with “combat effective” accuracy if they are taught to apply even a semi-functional grip while aligning their body position and shooting posture with the target.

In turn, because students are consistently applying assumed “combat accuracy” at “combative ranges” and can do so in relatively compressed timeframes, the thought is that they have now developed a minimally functional defensive skillset with firearms and are “better off” than they were prior to the training.

Some instructors who have taught and/or seen multiple techniques and methods used in instruction will also note that students trained in this manner are applying “combat accuracy” at “combative ranges” more effectively than a student who would have spent the same time period and resources learning aimed-fire techniques would have been. 

This can be a compelling set of arguments for both instructors and students, so let’s discuss them in light of what we have previously covered in this article.

First, while we won’t re-hash the discussion, it’s important to point out that there are, even when shooting live rounds, still a number of significant discrepancies in square range training (even when it includes mobility) that impact its usefulness for evaluation of shooting method effectiveness.

Specifically, a “fake” visual aiming system (round impacts on the target) exists, there is an artificial level of scene layout awareness (targets rarely move—or when they do move it’s in restricted and highly predictable patterns) which contributes to an unrealistic level of kinesthetic alignment ability and there is no possibility of the vestibular system being severely compromised as a prelude to the requirement for shooting skill application (nobody is going to crack a shooter in the head on a range).

While the differences are not as numerous or as severe here as they are with simulated munitions, they are still significant enough that performance in this setting is still not predictive of real-world shooting performance capability.  

The reality is that when “practicing” kinesthetic shooting at close range to paper targets, the shooter is still not actually using truly kinesthetic shooting for anything other than the first round.  Rather, the shooter is using flash aimed fire with a sighting system (target impacts) that does not exist in the real world.

Second, it’s also important to point out that, much like the failures associated with much of police training, this assessment of training and technique effectiveness is based on an evaluation of the results stemming from the use of a fundamentally flawed training methodology that cannot, biologically, work effectively.

If we look at it purely from a training method and technique application standpoint (ignore the shooting subject matter for a moment), the pitch for this training is essentially as follows:

“We exclusively use a training structure that doesn’t work well because it doesn’t match how the human brain learns. Because of our flawed training structure, we can’t teach you to do things that your body won’t already do instinctively (or already hasn’t learned to do before our class). We assume you’re probably never going to practice anyway so, instead of teaching you things that work well all of the time, we’re going to show you a few things that have a very limited application some of the time, that won’t solve some of the problems you are here to solve, and that will prevent you from learning the other techniques that do work well and will help you solve the problems that our techniques won’t. You probably won’t be able to learn them even if you do practice on your own either. In fact, the more you practice what we teach you, the harder it will be for you to learn the other skills that work much better and solve more problems. By the way, we have a ton of fun in our class. Sign up today!”

Any volunteers?

Yet, that is EXACTLY what teaching point shooting techniques to new shooters and having them repeatedly hose down targets at close range does.  If you do this with your students, that paragraph, quite literally, describes your training program.

We submit that, at the very least, you should be disclosing to your students the impediments to future skill development and the operational limitations inflicted by the techniques you teach and the methods of teaching that you’re using.  Some students might even be OK with it. 

However, they should absolutely be given the choice.

Don’t allow yourself to become a prophet for a false god.

You should acknowledge the limitations of what and how you teach (and everything has limitations). Your students should also be provided with an alternative—as should you.

If you MUST introduce shooting this way for legitimate tactical reasons, consider clearly defining the limitations of the shooting method as well as the reasons for it being taught.  The brain, when self-aware, can be quite powerful in its ability to regulate its own development.  Then, at the earliest opportunity re-teach the shooting skills in such a way so as to make combatively valid techniques for visually-aimed-fire the dominant skill response.

Discussion Point 5: Student Expectations

Sometime ago we published an article here outlining what we believe are the systemic student motivations for seeking out and attending training in the civilian market (certainly individual situations vary greatly). The Twitter summary is that most people only go to training because they are required to by law for a carry permit. The most prevalent personal motivations are entertainment and getting a cool “bragging rights” experience. The least common motivation is education and skillset development.

Looking beyond even the training industry, ask yourself what most people value the most.  Without getting too philosophical, in our observations and experience, the most important human motivator (or at least one of the most important) is a person’s desire to feel good about themselves. 

People like to succeed. They don’t like to fail—especially when they are spending their money and, even more importantly, their leisure time on the effort.

Basically, while this is greatly oversimplified, people like receiving hits of dopamine and oxytocin (brain hormones produced by pleasurable, rewarding experiences).  We seek out opportunities to release these chemical compounds into our brain tissue.

Unfortunately, the process of developing robust and functional combative skillsets doesn’t typically start out with massive release of these pleasure chemicals.  Many well-intentioned but poorly designed programs start out inducing significant amounts of stress chemicals instead—turning many students off and making their ability to learn far less effective.

Even well-designed programs, especially at the beginning, won’t necessarily be a barrel of high-octane fun.  Effectively learning nuanced motor skills with complex brain maps (like shooting and fighting) requires repetition over time.  There’s just no way around it.  It’s how the brain works. 

This is the best way to learn. It’s also the fastest way to functional skills—which can then become a lot of fun to practice and apply in training.

This works. However, it’s not (at the beginning) the most sexy, high-speed, fun, or “cool experience.”

So, who has the most competitive market advantage?

Is it an instructor who provides students “success” without effort? Congratulations! You just emptied a magazine in 3 seconds at 10 feet into a static piece of paper (while using a typically undisclosed “fake” visual aiming system)!  We (who are obviously the experts) hereby define your performance as success. You’re a winner! Go home feel good about yourself! (Oh…by the way…you really should train more too).

Or, is it an instructor who provides students with a structured training approach to skill development that matches how their brains learn and develops robust and functional skillsets?

How do you help keep your students alive when they really just want to have some fun and blow off some ammo?

It’s an interesting question…one we’re working hard on a better answer for than we have today.


Criticism is great; however, it’s not without a ton of value without some accompanying, constructive, action items.  So, based on what we think we know right now, here are ours.

First, if you’re building a generalized skillset, or any skillset intended for combative applications, it is imperative that you develop a student’s integrated visual skills—specifically at least one form of flash-visually-aimed-fire as an structural component of their primary shooting skill.  If you don’t do this, you set them up for severe limitations in their skillset that could impact their ability to defend themselves and their family.

Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s impossible for a person to use the sights in a gunfight or under stress.  This is simply flat-out untrue. It requires training, but it’s more than possible. In fact, it may well even require less training and practice to learn than pointing does—we just happen spend a lot of time training to point as we move through and interact with the world on a day-to-day basis.

Second, DO NOT introduce kinesthetic shooting techniques until after the flash-visually-aimed skill (or skills) is wired into the student’s brain (learned, procedurally consolidated, and integrated with  the “machine”).  If you do—you’re introducing a “substandard” competing skill with what we believe is almost certainly a lower energy performance requirement.

Third, consider the reality of “fake” aiming systems being integrated into most of our common training methods, both range training and force-on-force.  With the increasing popularity of laser-based dryfire tools, this issue now even extends into the dryfire realm. 

There’s nothing wrong with any of these tools. They are great tools. We use them all ourselves. They just have the potential to develop dependency for performance on something that won’t exist when the rubber meets the road (and that requires less energy expenditure to perform in training). Guard against the temptation to slide into applying “easier” techniques that depend on stimuli that don’t exist for real. 

One way to do this is to demand standards of accuracy that preclude application of the “fake” visual aiming systems.  Your favorite shooting drills?  Instead of performing them at 3-7yds, do them at 15 yds using an 8” pie plate or sheet of notebook paper as the target.  Another way to do this of course is application of extreme mental discipline. 

Consider that preparing for the fight is not about replicating the distance and round count of the “standard” engagement.  Who cares about that?  Is anyone likely to ever be in imminent danger of death or harm from a static piece of close-range cardboard?  Is that really a replication of the fight conditions?

Preparing for the fight is about preparing the same neurological and physiological machine that is required for success in the real world.

Applying “fake” visual aiming systems at ranges matching the aggregate gunfight distance doesn’t fit this bill. At all. Developing the use of a REAL visual aiming system as the dominant, proceduralized response does.

Fourth, develop kinesthetic shooting skills as responses in association with specific relevant stimuli.  We won’t get into specific techniques or tactical applications here. If you’re an instructor who can and should be teaching to this level right now, you should already know what we’re talking about.

Fifth, consider developing kinesthetic shooting skills so they are only associated with motor skill performance that differs from that of the dominant shooting response.  In other words, applying the “bread and butter” shooting motor skills, shooting positions, etc., *never* (an overly strong word) involves point shooting. 

At least in theory then, kinesthetic shooting becomes a completely different brain map associated with its own unique set of stimuli. This will greatly reduce the chances that point shooting is performed as a dominant response to a real-world stimulus that can better be addressed with the appropriate application of visually-aimed-fire. Again, if you’re an instructor who should be teaching this, you know what this means.

Sixth, and finally, work to educate your students and others in this industry about the issues with training and technique limitations. The human brain is incredibly powerful with the ability to change itself when required. This is especially true once it becomes “self-aware.” 

If you’re “buying what we’re selling” here (not books or products–the training concepts), don’t keep it to yourself.  Join us in our efforts to re-make this industry, especially the combative and tactical side, into one marked by efficiency, effectiveness, and continuous improvement—not entertainment and instant gratification. 

Help people to understand their own motivations and the consequences of the choices they make about how they choose to spend their training time and training money. 

At least give them the opportunity to make an informed decision about their own skillset and survivability.


This article is really long. We’re known for long articles, and this one takes the cake. 

There was an argument to be made for breaking it up. However, we wanted to address not only the base subject matter, but also address many of the common discussion points all in one place given the long-standing controversy about much of this material. 

We will be breaking this up and redistributing it in smaller segments in one form or another in the future, but wanted to have this full-length piece to link back to. 

We hope this article has provided, if nothing else, an opportunity for seasoned instructors in the industry to thoroughly evaluate and think through their own programs, methods of instruction, and content. 

Thanks for reading and stay safe…

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"The clearest, simplest, most well-founded psychomotor training program I have seen for developing shooting skills."
-Dr. Bill Lewinski
Executive Director, Force Science Institute
"Easily one of the more important books of our time when it comes to preparing police, military and armed civilians for armed lethal combat."
-Kenneth Murray
Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition