Real World Gunfight Training

By Mike Ochsner
Publisher: (November 23, 2021)
ISBN-13: 979-8985238921
144 pages, 8.5 x 11 inches
Softcover $27 or eBook $3.99

Reviewed by Gila Hayes

I suspect I am not alone in the difficulty I experience adapting lecture into physical skills or in retaining skills beyond class time, whether it’s shooting instruction, dog handler training, or if the challenge arises in the context of sports and recreation. Technical neuroscience articles about how to learn and retain instruction weighed against the oft criticized “dumbed down” explanations provided to laypersons also make it hard to tackle the challenge of becoming a better learner. Real World Gunfight Training self-identifies as “a non-scientific dive into learning the most effective firearms training which happens to involve neuroscience,” so naturally, I was intrigued.

RealWorldAfter spending most of my available reading time in February digging into this book, I’d suggest it to anyone interested in clearer understanding of and strategies for, in Ochsner’s words, “training in context, training the way the brain learns skills, and optimizing sensory processing.”

Once I got over the author’s hard sell, I learned some very interesting details on different kinds of memory, where information is stored in the brain, how it gets there and why it is accessible or inaccessible, depending on circumstances. It turns out that there are a number of reasons for skill perishability and solutions to retaining what we are taught. Ochsner observes that some of the disconnect occurs when “skills are taught in isolation and the student is left to figure out how to bolt those skills together under stress.” After all, beginning gun safety and basic shooting instruction are necessary in order to advance into simulated self-defense scenario training. Basic marksmanship, he explains, is like training wheels–it’s a good first step beyond which the shooter should advance. 

Training and practice needs to include shooting fundamentals, combined with moving, working at off angles, with balance disruption and under high stress, he continues. When square range drills separate the basics from their application, students have trouble performing fundamentals like sight use and trigger control while also engaged in movement or against moving targets, while off balance or from awkward positions, and while experiencing other stressors. Stress inoculation can include something as accessible as doing a drill while counting down from 100 by sevens. It’s not all bad news! Ochsner theorizes, “You can learn the fundamentals QUICKER if your training involves complexity than if it’s sterile…as long as it’s not TOO complex,” he writes.

Solutions to learn faster and retain more include priming the mind before class starts by studying the vocabulary and underlying principles whenever possible. Techniques to hone the speed and accuracy of vision–since what we see directs what we do–reduces the energy required to learn and store process steps in long term memory, too. Activating the storage of what we learn during instruction to long-term memory is not as arcane as it sounds and Ochsner describes several tips to encourage skill retention beyond the short term.

He compares much of our firearms training to freezing water into ice cubes that melt away over time instead of boiling an egg to permanently change it from liquid to solid. In the same way, “Head knowledge...degrades quickly, fades away so does not result in long-lasting skill,” he explains, adding that, “What we want to do is train in a way that creates changes in long-term procedural memory that are permanent…like boiling an egg. We want to hardwire the process so it’s automatic rather than something we have to think through each time.”

Under stress and under tight time constraints, memory retrieval is inhibited so we have to depend on over-learning physical skills until we don’t have to remember or think through each step. “Fundamental shooting skills must be over-trained, learned to a subconscious level, or learned to automaticity,” Ochsner writes. Like a macro, instead of thinking through a dozen steps from disengagement, movement, acquiring a grip, drawing and presenting, all the way through follow-through and preparing to take the next shot, the macro directs, “Identify deadly threat, hit it.” The energy required is radically lower when automaticity drives completion of multiple steps without thinking through how to do each one.

Ochsner writes that skills honed to automaticity are “stored in procedural memory” where they are available under stress. The trainee’s challenge is “consolidation”–moving what is learned from the one part of the brain responsible for “head learning” to long-term procedural memory in the motor cortex and the cerebellum. Small blocks of information taught in brief sessions, compared to a cramming session, are consolidated better, he asserts.

Ochsner identifies keys to accelerated learning, and many can be applied by the savvy student to traditional firearms training classes. First, prime the pump. Just like a damp sponge picks up water faster, a primed brain, exposed to the vocabulary and concepts before going to class, can absorb more. “Ideally, the majority of the head knowledge should be dripped out over the days and weeks before, so the classroom session is primarily to review and refine that material,” he writes. Assigning importance to the material by prior study not only makes the mind more receptive, but the energy required during the class is lower because of the partial familiarity. Reading or watching videos of the physical skills can establish value and familiarity that pays dividends in retention of what is taught.

If unable to prime for a physical skills class, treat the in-class training as priming, not as skill building, Ochsner writes. Practice then serves to consolidate what was learned into long term memory. Given what we know about the need for sustainment training, a class actually serves very well as priming. With the mindset that the class is not intended to create a permanent state of advanced ability, the student more readily acknowledges his or her responsibility to continue practicing regularly after class.

Of course, all too often good intentions to practice never materialize. Unrealistic commitments like planning a full hour of drills derail a lot of after-class practice! Devise a quick and easy 5-to-10-minute dryfire session, Ochsner advises, because “5-10 minutes of training that you actually do will always put you further ahead than the hour of training you almost did.”

Entirely new skills and action sequences face the biggest impediment to consolidation to long-term procedural memory Ochsner continues. Learn the steps and then, “When you’ve already mastered a fundamental skill and you’re refining it, working on making that skill more resilient, combining it with endurance, or working on inoculating the skill to stress.”

Ochsner explains the value of the distributed training model which “spreads out training over frequent, short sessions.” Another factor he identifies is the difference between learning and retaining facts and learning and retaining skills. The former relies on “declarative memory” the latter on “procedural memory.” While fundamental skills may show rapid improvement through the course of training, those skills gained may disappear within a matter of days or weeks. Add speed, technical challenges, demands for immediate, rapid decisions, and too often, mastery of a procedural skill has melted away unless it has been practiced regularly.

In addition to brief but frequent bouts of “distributed” training or practice, be sure to sandwich skills at which you can succeed around challenging drills. “When we optimize our training to maximize the release of neurotransmitters (like dopamine), we can dramatically increase the rate that our brain makes neural connections, and we avoid plateaus and burnout,” Ochsner writes. To avoid memorizing imperfect skill execution, he prefers sessions that start with “perfect practice,” then tackle the challenging drills, and switch back to perfect repetitions to close the practice session. Ideally, do a single drill 3-5 times then switch to a different one unless you’re learning a completely new skill or working for “mental and physical endurance combined with the skill,” he recommends.

While a brief review only allows mention of a few of the ideas Ochsner presents in Real World Gunfight Training, it is worth noting that the physical components of hydration, nutrition, and getting enough sleep all are critically important to retaining what we learn in training. He discusses more esoteric physiological ways to upgrade retention that are fascinating, including tricks to improve vision, balance and body awareness for better physical performance, fusing the development of several skills together, recognizing the role of fun or enjoyment in learning, metering how much more difficult a practice challenge needs to be for maximum growth and retention, maintaining focus on practice and a lot more.

Drill and exercise suggestions are spelled out throughout the book, making it a valuable reference work. Many are linked to Ochsner’s online training sales offers, and while I didn’t order the advanced programs (I was discomfited by the feeling of being up-sold), I certainly took more value than the purchase price of the book away from studying Real World Gunfight Training.

To read more of this month's journal, please click here.