Perceptual Distortions In Combat Shooting
Written by: Stephen Challis
There is of course a stark difference between self-defense shooting and target shooting. If asked the difference between the two the average citizen may well quip, the obvious answer ‘targets don’t shoot back’. While this is true, it is far from the whole picture. If you asked the same question to a combat veteran or law enforcement officer, you may be surprised at the answer.
To anyone who has been hunting, I want to ask you to think back to that first buck, the first time you successfully harvested a deer for trophy or meat. In my case, I was in Alaska walking up and old logging trail on Prince Edwards Island. I was in Bear country and a newcomer to America and this was my first deer hunt. I was packing a super Blackhawk .44 mag revolver in an open holster, much to the amusement of my hunting partner, a seasoned Alaskan hunter.
I was also carrying a 7mm mag rifle that belonged to my wife. I knew my hunting partner was close by on a parallel trail. At 65 yards ahead a sika buck stepped out from the brush and stopped, looking at me.
Now was my chance. I raised the rifle, slipped off the safety, and locked the scope cross hairs onto the kill zone just below the shoulder. Smoothly as I could I squeezed the shot. The buck buckled and dropped. My heart was still racing, I had shot my first deer, and the adrenalin rush was euphoric. But I hardly noticed something in those first few moments, something that defied logic. To prepare for this trip, I had practiced on the 100 yard rage at home with the same rifle. Even with ear protectors, sound was punishing. The recoil on my shoulder had knocked me back and after 3 or 4 more rounds I had a sizable bruise. This was expected, so why, here on that trail in Alaska had there been no such recoil, why did I not hear the shot. The deer was dead, shot clean through the heart. I had ejected the spent round and chambered another before approaching the fallen animal. In short, I had shot the deer with that rifle.
At the time I did not dwell too much on the incident. But after becoming involved in setting up a shooting school and studying the aspects of self defense shooting I came across a number of similar accounts. There was the County Sheriff who fired six rounds at a speeding car that was running a road block. The Officer angrily demanded to know why he had been issued with dud ammunition that barely popped. Examination of the unused rounds found they were fully serviceable, and later when the suspect’s car was recovered there were bullet holes from the officer’s gun. Yet the Sheriff and his Deputy were adamant that there was no loud bang and that the bullets had no impact on the speeding car.
During earlier years I ran across Lt Col Dave Grossman, a retired Army expert and professor who had pioneered the science of Killology. He ran a number of self-defense seminars under the title “The Bulletproof Mind.” It was while attending these seminars that I found the answer.
In times of stress your body reacts in ways that are bizarre, but are easily explainable. Firstly, you experience an adrenalin surge; the body produces this to heighten your senses.
You know that there is a real chance you will die in the next few seconds. This realization puts you on a virtual auto pilot. You do not consciously aim; your gun seems to move independently, you pull the trigger once, twice, maybe more. You do not see the immediate effect. When later during the aftermath and explaining to the Police and you are asked ‘how many shots did you fire’, did the other party shoot, and was anything said?
Quite simply, you are unlikely to be able to answer simply because you do not know.
Over three quarters of the law enforcement officers involved in a deadly force shooting suffer from tunnel vision and do not recall if the suspect shot first or of how many rounds they had fired. They also suffer apparent memory loss for some or all of the crucial moments. One officer described seeing the revolver pointed at his head, saw the suspects finger whiten as it tightened on the trigger and saw the cylinder start to rotate. To this day he does not know how he managed to fire first and put the suspect down.
Autopilot syndrome is also very common. The sense that although you can see your hand holding the gun hear the shouting and see the flashes from the muzzle, the whole scene seems unreal, like a movie in slow motion with someone operating your hand and gun by remote control. Another common distortion is less often spoken of; Intrusive or distracting thoughts. Quite simply this is the phenomenon that occurs at the height of combat. When you are firing at the suspect, he is firing back and your adrenalin is on overload. Suddenly your thoughts turn to what your wife is cooking tonight, you hope it’s not beans again, or that you are unsure what to make of your daughters latest boyfriend.
So you’re cracking up, right?
Wrong, your body is reducing your stress by automatically lowering the overload on the brain. The effect lasts only moments. But it is enough for you to concentrate on that final shot that will take your opponent out of the fight.
Hopefully, most of us who are concealed carry permit holders will go through our lives never having to use our gun on another human being. If we are unlucky enough to find ourselves in that position then you will experience some or all of the situations described above. In which case, you will realize that this is your body’s way of protecting you. It is normal and is experience to all souls involved in combat situations. Such knowledge may just give you the edge.
Professional Training for the Practical Gun Owner
Harmony Hollow Firearms Training
Jeffersonville, KY 40337