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

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

One of the most common questions that we receive from people who have read Building Shooters is, “What is interleaved training?” We explain how and why it works in the book, but we don’t get into specific methods of training. This was both for space considerations and because that wasn’t the purpose of the book. 

We generally steer clear of providing specific and detailed information about training methods, techniques, skills, and tactics in our public “open source” discussions (and will continue to do so here). That said, interleaved learning (sometimes also called “chaotic” learning) is one of the most useful and powerful training tools available to our industry, and we feel that an article about what this is and how to apply it for maximum benefit would be of value in this forum.

The most common form of teaching and learning in the firearms industry is something that is commonly called “blocked” training in the scientific community. Some in the training community are also calling it “siloed” training (as in grain silo).  

Blocked training occurs when very specific, discreet skills and/or knowledge are taught, then exercised and tested in relatively sterile environments. In this context “sterile” means free from stimulus. Trainees know exactly what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.

For example, blocked training might involve teaching the drawstroke, then practicing it over and over again in response to a simple stimulus (such as a shot timer). Perhaps there are several distinct patterns of motor skills that are taught, such as a draw to fire a single round, a draw to fire a double tap or controlled pair (pick your terminology—yes there is a technical difference; it’s worth discussing, but not here), or a draw to fire a distinct number of rounds (such as the Bill Drill) for grip, recoil management, and shooting rhythm development.  

We could go on, but you get the picture. A stimulus is presented (usually audible), and then a pre-known, discreet skill or sequence of skills is performed.

What this means in terms of the brain is that the specific motor skill (or pattern of skills) is developed in a very isolated way.  

Let’s look at this another way—from more of an engineering perspective. We’re going to back out a few paces and seemingly wander a bit here; please bear with us.

Many readers of this page have probably worked in either the military or in law enforcement, if not both. Even if you haven’t, most people these days are familiar with the concept of encrypted communications. After all they are used all the time in things like online shopping and banking. Keeping this very, very general, encryption uses extremely complex mathematical equations to hopelessly scramble data into meaningless gibberish. There are a couple of different types and methods of encryption, but that’s the essence of it.  

These equations require the use of a special key code, kind of like a password, before they can be solved. Using the key, you run the data through the math problems to scramble it into useless gibberish. Then, if you want to use the data, you need to use the same key, with the same math problems, put the data and the key in, do the math, and now the data is unscrambled and ready to use. 

Theoretically, these mathematical equations are so complex that they cannot be solved without the key, even using super computers. Once you scramble something, you can rest assured that nobody else can ever read it or listen to it.

Unless they also have the key. Then they can get everything.

Consequently, one of the things that most large organizations do, just in case somebody steals a key, is frequently change the key that’s being used. Basically, they change their password on a regular basis (say once a month for an example). In this case, if somebody gets their hands on a key, they will be able to read and listen to everything, but only stuff from the month when that key was used. 

In the military, you need change the key quite a bit. Each time you do, everybody that you communicate with needs to also change their key at the same time, otherwise you can’t decrypt the other people’s messages. The ability to communicate is obviously very important for ongoing operations, so every time that the key changes, people check their communications to make sure that they can still talk to the folks that they need to.  

Using this information, here’s a hypothetical scenario. Imagine that it’s “key change” day, and you need to make sure that your encryption works. Let’s also imagine – just for the visual – that the encryption is on a flash drive that you plug into your radio.

So there you are. You walk into the office, you pick up the new flash drive of encryption, and you test it to make sure it works—by sticking it into somebody else’s radio. Sure enough, your encryption works. Everything is good now right? You’ll be able to communicate just fine. Or will you?

Hopefully you’ve noticed the problem in this little example. When you tested your encryption, you didn’t use the right machine. Sure, the encryption worked fine. But what about your radio’s battery? What about the antenna? What about the transceiver? The microphone? The speaker? The transmission button? Does any of that work?

You don’t know. You only tested the encryption. But, you can hope…Surely everything will work out in the end, right?

We aren’t trying to draw any kind of direct comparison between communications security and shooting here. What we are trying to do is highlight a point. That is: if you only ever use a small part of a complex machine, how do you know if the whole machine actually works?

It’s the same in tactical shooting.  

We are not against blocked skill training, or against refining specific skills in this manner to reach high level performance. However, it’s a fact that training and testing shooting skills in this way only uses a very small part of the actual “machine” required during a deadly force encounter. 

We are very much in favor of developing high level technical skills. However, these skills are only part of the equation. They are an important part to be sure, but they are not the only part, nor, we would argue, are they even the most important part. That classification, in our opinion, belongs to decision-making.

What’s involved in a lethal force encounter? What does that machine look like? There’s a lot of disagreement in the industry about training methods, tactics, and skills performance. However, we can all generally agree that the real thing is a great deal more complex than hearing a pre-known sound, then performing a pre-known motor skill (or sequence of motor skills) on a stationary, pre-known target or series of targets.  

Let’s look at this in some more depth.

In our recent decision-making article  we use a simple model borrowed from the Navy called Detect to Engage. We’ll use it again here. Basically, detect to engage means that a lethal force situation occurs as part of a larger process. On the street, you’re never going to stand ready, waiting for a pre-known and discreet stimulus to draw and fire a pre-known number of rounds. There’s a lot more to it than that, starting with the detection of the existence of a threat or potential threat, and culminating with an engagement.

In Building Shooters , we define a tool for conducting practical neurological modeling of training systems. One of the components of this tool is defining the brain activities, or neural network types, involved in tactical training and operations. In our model, they are motor skill performance, knowledge, stimulus identification, contextual identification, decision-making, learning transfer/creation, and association and analysis.  

These are all different neurological functions involved in the application of deadly force, often more than once before the actual engagement. Specifically, stimulus identification, contextual identification, association and analysis, decision-making, and motor skill performance are often required to be performed in a continuous feedback loop during the lead up to the engagement, during the engagement itself, and, also, following the outcome of the engagement. 

This is the machine, the real machine, that is required to operate when lethal force is on the table—all during the physiological effects of the stress response.

Yet, we don’t use it in training.  

As an industry, the only “machine parts” we use with enough repetition to really make a difference are stimulus recognition (although since we already know what it is going to be, it almost doesn’t count), and discreet motor skill performance (which we also already know ahead of time). The rest of the “machine?” Well, we can hope…

Sound like a plan for success?

When I was still in an operational role, I would sometimes remark (occasionally to the displeasure of my superiors) that when your operations order looks like the first five paragraphs of a mishap report—perhaps it’s time to re-think your plan.

The same principle, I believe, applies here. We need to develop, enhance, and ultimately test the actual machine before we take it into an operational environment, not just hope for the best.

This is where interleaved, or chaotic, learning methods can help us. What we’re really talking about here isn’t some mystical voodoo or complex scientific mumbo jumbo. We’re simply talking about training the whole machine, from contextual association, to motor skill performance feedback loops.

It’s easy to quickly jump right into scenario-based, force-on-force stuff here and say “that exercises the machine.” This is true. However, high stress, experiential learning is a very powerful training tool—one that should not be used lightly.  

In our opinion, we (systemically) don’t apply this tool very well in the industry currently. We also believe that there’s probably a linkage between our suboptimal application of this training methodology and at least some of the stress-related neurological injuries that are occurring in the field, though that is a subject for another day.

So, no, we aren’t talking about force-on-force scenarios here. That’s a test. That requires the whole machine to be in place and working right. You don’t start there, you need to build the machine first, using training. 

We want to develop, strengthen, connect, and enhance these brain functions with repetition—over time. We also want to connect them with the stimuli, contexts, and motor skills that will be encountered and/or required out in the real world.

How do we do this?

Specific training techniques are outside the scope of this article, but here are some concepts to keep in mind.

1. First make the dots, THEN connect them.

Step back for a moment and think about what interleaved training does and how it works from the 30,000ft level. You’ve got a bunch of different brain functions, from stimulus recognition to motor skill performance, that need to be used for somebody to perform effectively during an operational environment. In the context of this discussion, each of these different brain functions can be thought of as a separate neurological “dot,” in the brain. For example, the skillset to draw and fire a weapon, that’s a dot.

We spend a lot of “tactical” training time, especially during in-service and experiential learning activities trying to connect the dots. The problem? A lot of times there actually aren’t any dots, or at least not all of them. Before we can connect the dots, we have to put the dots into the students’ brains.

2. Don’t swing for the fence.

We just finished a series of articles about the civilian industry where we talk about the motivating forces behind civilian students. One of them (perhaps the most important) is having a “cool” experience. Is there anything wrong with this? No. However, just because something is cool or fun doesn’t necessarily mean that it contributes effectively to learning.

A lot of times it’s easy to get sucked into the game of providing entertainment, or doing cool stuff. This is especially easy to do when you compare what you’re offering in a training program to somebody else’s, especially when the other program is run by somebody with a lot of resources (like shoot houses, simulators, professional role players etc.) available to them—resources you might not have access to.

Here’s a secret, you don’t really need all of that, at least not all the time. You certainly don’t need it early on. Fun fact: the single most effective method of producing long-term learning is repetition.

What’s going to be more effective at producing learning? Something really cool and intricate that eats up all your training resources and instructor attention with each repetition (for a single student)—where everybody goes once? Or, something much less cool that each student can do 30 times in a training session? As long as it’s developing the right stuff, we suggest strongly leaning towards option B here. 

You don’t need to go all out with a training session, at least not every time. What you do need to do, is methodically and intentionally use the right techniques to produce effective learning and enhancement in the students’ brains.

This brings us to the last point we’ll mention here.

3. Don’t be limited by gadgets or facilities.

A lot of the training world these days is focused on technology. “Buy our stuff!” Vendors will tell you. Since we are now venturing into the “vendor” space ourselves, and are actually working on developing a new piece of training tech that we think will revolutionize the industry, we don’t want to be too pointed here. (Buy our stuff!) Seriously though, vendors are great. Technology is great. However, if you think that you can’t train without it or become over dependent on it to deliver training—it limits you. 

You can train without it.

If you have access to weapons, you can run very effective tactical training—even without ammunition. (Please note that we are not advocating for the abolishment of live-fire training here). In fact, even if you don’t have access to weapons (or are prohibited by policy from using them for dry practice), there’s still a lot you can do. How many of the “dots” in a lethal force encounter involve the actual application of deadly force or handling of a firearm?

Too many times trainers, especially in organizations, think they can’t do anything because they can’t get to the range, or they don’t have enough ammunition, or the simulator is down (or booked), or some other reason related to external resource availability. This isn’t true. There’s a lot that you can do. You just need the right objective and method.

In fact, if you are able to dive into applied interleaved training methods in a dry environment, you’re probably going to find that most of the people in your organization actually aren’t even ready to truly benefit from the use of advanced training technology or high-resource range training. Why? They don’t even have the dots, much less have them connected in long-term procedural memory. This brings us back to point one. Make the dots first, then worry about connecting them.

In conclusion, interleaved, or chaotic, training methodology is a highly effective, yet under-used tool for professional trainers. By itself, it won’t produce optimal results. You still need to develop fundamental competence, especially in things like grip, drawstroke, trigger management, and other technical skills— especially those that involve tool interface.

However, once the fundamental “dots,” not only of the clinical skills, but also of the other knowledge and brain functions required for performance, exist in long-term procedural memory, chaotic learning should then account for the bulk of the available training time.

Don’t be satisfied with or accept checking your crypto on somebody else’s radio, then hoping for the best. Instead, get in there and build, then use, the entire scope of the actual machine that’s required operationally.

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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