© 2014 Grant Cunningham Click to email me!

Task fixation in critical incidents.

One of the concepts that we talk about in
Combat Focus Shooting classes is that of task fixation: the diversion of attention to a particular sub-activity during an attack. We discuss this specifically relating to looking at the gun while reloading.

The concept is clearly illustrated in this video of a very dynamic simulation during a Craig Douglas ECQC class (one of the few on my "short list" of classes to attend.) Note that the gun fails to fire and suddenly the defender's entire attention is diverted to getting it running again, rather than dealing with his attackers. Craig even mentions that to the student at the end of the exercise, and the student admits to a fatal task fixation.

Many trainers maintain that the best place for the gun is in front of the face so that you can see both it and the threat while you reload. I don't believe that's a rational expectation when the body's threat responses have been activated, and believe instead what will happen is the task of reloading will divert attention completely from the threat in the way that a malfunction did for this fellow.

In the couple of seconds that any normal person is going to take to reload their pistol the threat can shoot or stab quite a few times, or cover a lot of distance to bring himself into contact with the victim. During that time it's more important that you avoid being shot/stabbed/beaten than it is to get a small (and theoretical) advantage in reloading speed. The first order of business is not getting hurt or killed in the process of defending yourself! That sounds silly, but the popularity of techniques that increase your exposure to danger rather than decrease it make it necessary to point such things out.

Instead of looking at the gun, we teach making the reload process a strictly mechanical activity that can be done with the gun out of the direct line of sight to the threat. (The specific ways to accomplish that are beyond the scope of this post, but it's not difficult to do for either autoloading pistol or revolver.) While the gun is being reloaded in that repeatable, mechanical fashion the defender is able to keep an eye on the threat and move, seek cover, or do whatever else is necessary to avoid becoming a casualty.

This is also why we approach the act of malfunction clearing similarly to that of reloading the gun, teaching a non-diagnostic approach to the problem which doesn’t result in the kind of attention diversion that happened in the video.

With the gun in front of the face, as some recommend, I believe (and this video supports my contention) that what will happen is fixation on the reload rather than on the threat. There are other downsides as well, some relating to the perceptual distortions that accompany the threat reaction and how they affect the “look at me” type of reload, but that’s another topic for another time.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Attitude Change, 2010 Edition.

I've been actively interested in the topic of self defense training since the early 90s. Over the last decade, particularly in the last five years, a lot of my original opinions regarding self defense have changed. This isn't because I'm wishy-washy and unable to hold on to an opinion (just ask my wife!) Rather, such change is brought about by being exposed to new information, or because new research alters original assumptions.

As this year winds down, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at just a few of the things about which I've changed my mind in the last decade.

- The value of competitive shooting: back in the mid '90s I was part of a local group looking to advance our defensive skills through "tactical" competition. We tried rules, targets and procedures from USPSA, IDPA (as soon as it was formed), and even early versions of what would become The Polite Society rules. All of them had serious flaws, and we ultimately tried to develop our own rules and even specialized targets. By about 2000 we'd abandoned the effort altogether, and I shot my last "tactical" match of any sort in 2002. At the time I couldn't quite put my finger on why, but it just didn't seem that it was possible to get actual training value out of a game. Eight years later I'm better able to articulate the "why" than I was back then, as I learn more about both actual defensive encounters and how the mind reacts to them. Today I tell my students that competition may be a fun hobby, but there are serious scientific and practical reasons why it's neither training nor good preparation for self defense. Some gaming adherents react with predictable vitriol, but I've developed a sufficiently thick skin.

- The .357 Magnum as a defensive cartridge: at one time I was a huge proponent of the .357 as a "manstopper". I stopped carrying the load in 2004 or so because I came to the realization that all handgun cartridges are relatively weak, and expecting a single shot to reliably stop a determined attacker was sheer folly. From this came the realization of what ends fights: rapid, multiple, combat accurate hits on target. It was clear to me that I could not deliver that kind of performance given the recoil of a Magnum cartridge, and elected to give up sheer power in favor of controllability and recoil recovery.

- Night sights: all my friends had them, and I too was once convinced they were the be-all and end-all of defensive shooting. Oddly it took me some time to realize a simple fact: if there was enough light to positively identify my target, there was enough to get a visual alignment of the gun (using the sights or otherwise.) If there wasn't enough light to get a solid visual index, I probably couldn’t be sure of my target. Playing around with these ideas on darkened to downright dark ranges pretty much confirmed my suspicions. Looked at in this light (yes, I worked hard to make that pun) my conclusion is that night sights don't have a lot of value.

- The importance of changing your mind: in the last few years it’s sunk into my thick head that if you are putting yourself out there, stretching your intellectual muscles and exposing yourself to new ideas and concepts, you are going to end up changing your mind about something. You have to, if you're intellectually honest! If one is to assume to any degree the appellation of 'professional' in regards to training, one has to be able to grow and progress intellectually. To grow, one must change; it can happen in no other way. Doggedly sticking to an opinion for no other reason than inertia (or dislike of the person presenting new information) is inherently unprofessional; it stifles growth. I've met people, some students and some instructors, who simply could not accept that perhaps there was an objectively better way of doing something, or a factual reason why another approach might be more relevant than their own. I've resolved not to be so intransigent - how about you?

So much for 2010! On Friday I'll have the weekly surprise, and next Monday I'll kick off a new year of what I hope will be even more illuminating, annoying, challenging, informative, entertaining, infuriating, and progressive blog posts. I hope you'll continue to tag along!

-=[ Grant ]=-

School spirit.

Rivalries among neighboring schools are nothing new. They start in high school, and continue into college: here in my slice of heaven, it's the Oregon State University Beavers versus the University of Oregon Ducks. In Texas, it's the Aggies and the Longhorns. Alumni from the respective schools can get downright cantankerous when discussing the "other" team.

So too with shooting schools. Graduates of one school (or, more commonly, one instructor) hold their alma mater or guru to possess the "true way" and refuse to even acknowledge that others exist. In the worst cases, the arguments end up sounding an awful lot like "my Dad can beat up your Dad".

This came up the other day in a discussion I had with
AFGWWWTRA. The term that sparked the conversation was "disciples", and I think that conveys the thought quite nicely. Once one has invested time, effort, and money into an area of interest it's hard to accept that there are other, competing, interests in the world which might just have validity as well. The guru becomes infallible, because if he/she isn't the disciple has wasted time, effort, and money - and who is ever going to admit to that?

I'm not immune; I went through a mild episode of school spirit some years back, but since then I've progressed a bit. I'm open to new ways of thinking and new methods of doing, and my attitude has gone from "so and so says this and it is immutable" to "show me why." The litmus test of any technique or opinion is not the logical fallacy of argument from authority, but rather that it makes sense given an open and agreed-upon criteria.

In an odd coincidence, I just started reading a book that explains this behavior, and as it turns out the concepts involved may have profound implications for self defense. They go well beyond the guru, school, stance, grip, or anything else, and deal with our behavior at a surprisingly base level. In other words, discipleship in and of itself, irrespective of doctrine or dogma, may affect how one performs in a violent encounter.

I'll have more to say when I finish the book.

-=[ Grant ]=-

Monday meanderings.

GETTING THE MESSAGE: I've been harping on the failures of "Rule #1" for some time now, and it seems that the attitude is catching on. Slowly, but at least progress is being made.

IT ISN'T JUST ME: I've recently expounded on the issue of dogmatic teaching in the self defense world, and I'm not alone in my criticism. Check out this post from Roger Phillips over at, then read the entire discussion. (I've never met Roger, don't know him from Adam, but he makes sense. Can't say that about everyone.)

POCKET COMPANION: no, not a J-frame! From Dustin's Gun Blog I learned of a new iPhone/iPod Touch app called Legal Heat. It's an interactive version of their printed guide to concealed carry and gun laws in all 50 states, written by attorneys and instructors. It' a great idea, and something that's needed. Unfortunately, despite the viability of the concept I cannot in good conscience recommend this particular app.

There is a big issue with Legal Heat's usability. The pages are just images of the book, which means they're pictures and not text. This sounds inconsequential, but it's not. When you bring up the laws on a state, because it's showing the whole page the text is tiny; unreadably small. To read it, you need to magnify the image by pinching. (The usual double-tap doesn't work, because it doesn't work on full-frame images!) Once you magnify the image to read the text, you have to continually scroll back and forth because images don't wrap text. Finally, the app doesn't support screen rotation; it only displays in portrait orientation, which exacerbates the scrolling issue.

Frankly, iPhone users are accustomed to a higher level of application quality than Legal Heat delivers. If they would simply make their pages actual text and enable screen rotation I'd be comfortable recommending it. As it stands, even at $1.99 it's not worth the hassle.

DEAL ALERT: My background in commercial photography has left me more than a little anal retentive with regards to optics, particularly when it comes to binoculars. I'm a fan of porro-prism designs, as they a) have better three-dimensional perspective, b) are brighter, and c) cost less than roof-prism types for any given level of optical quality (resolution/contrast.)

Minox makes some of the best porro-prism binocs. The optical performance is exceptional, and the build quality matches the glass. They make an 8x and a 10x version, and at a street price of roughly $550 they are something of a bargain; you'll need to spend roughly twice as much to get a roof prism of comparable performance, and you still won't get the perspective advantage that the porro-prism design gives you.

Despite their advantages, porro-prism designs are distinctly unfashionable these days and don't sell well regardless of brand. Roof prisms are what people buy, and Minox has bowed to the market: they've discontinued the 10x model.
SWFA is closing them out at $299.95, which has to be classed as a screaming good deal. You won't find anything even approaching their optical performance for that kind of money. (Yes, I grabbed a pair - for that price, I wasn't about to pass them up!)

-=[ Grant ]=-

Wednesday wanderings.

Lots of linking to avoid thinking on my own!


Xavier recently posted a letter from - and his response to - one of his readers. The exchange (and the comments that follow) bring up important issues in the area of Second Amendment activism. It isn't always black-and-white.


When you've finished reading Xavier, pop over to Breda's place and read
this related article she posted about a month ago. (I realize it's a bit late, and I'd meant to bring it up earlier, but just kept forgetting.)


Rob Pincus is one of the more thoughtful trainers working today. He's got a great post up on the Breach-Bang-Clear blog about
putting techniques on pedestals. Highly recommended read.


Speaking of Rob, I discovered that he has a
blog of his own. Good stuff.


Not just techniques get put on pedestals; equipment does too. There are the 1911 people, the Glock folks, the "any caliber as long as it begins with '4' " crowd, and so on. I suppose one could accuse me of doing the same thing with wheelguns (retro pedestal?), but I'm on record as saying - more than once - that the revolver isn't the perfect tool for everyone and every purpose.

For example, a number of years ago I was engaged in an activity of some risk. For that, I forsook my beloved revolver for a Glock and all the high capacity magazines I could fit under a suit coat. I believe in picking the right tool for the job; it just so happens that, for some jobs, the revolver is at least one of the right tools.


Rejoice! Tam has finally posted a
new article over at The Arms Room. (I was beginning to think she'd given up writing about guns...)

-=[ Grant ]=-