Skills, Stress, and Practical Performance

Thoughts on and Review of assorted Lectures from Tac Con 2023

By Kjell Rosenberg

Copyright 3/30/3023

Those who seek training in the use of defensive firearms often wonder “How good do I need to be?”  There are a number of metrics people have developed either through research, experience, or speculation.  The very nature of violence makes it unpredictable and therefore difficult to assess.  How good will I need to be when a violent criminal actor forces my hand?  Who knows. 

An efficient draw may solve the problem without shots fired during an attempted assault.  It could be a home invasion in which the violent criminal retreats after taking a single wound.  Or, I may find myself in a mall with a 40 yard shot to stop an active killer; a madman intent on creating a new victim every 10 seconds, faster in the initial minutes, if I don’t render him unable to shoot.[i] 

Like most things in life, violence occurs on a bell curve.

A recent study by Adam Biggs et al found in Nature magazine and discussed by John Hearne at TacCon 2023 helps clarify some measurable skills to give us solid goals to shoot for.[ii],[iii]

In this research using military personnel, presumably SEALs, as subjects, Biggs determined that stress levels in force-on-force scenarios are directly related to the skill level of the operator.  He then showed a decrease in cognitive performance related to a measured increase in salivary cortisol (a stress hormone) levels.  Unfortunately for us, the exact scores required to gain competence are considered national security and not released to the general public, but they have been generalized below.

In the case of Biggs’ study, low pre-experiment marksmanship scores were directly correlated to questionable perception of events and led to shooting incorrect role players with statistical significance.  In our civilian context, this would correspond to shooting people without moral and/or legal cause.  You can see how this might cause a problem.

Drills performed by the subjects:

At 7 yards:

  1. With a pistol, draw and fire one shot into the carboard target.   With a rifle fire a shot into the target from a low ready starting position.
  2. Fire 1 shot, perform an empty gun reload, fire another shot.
  3. Bill Drill (Draw for pistol or raise muzzle from low ready with rifle) and fire 6 shots into a USPSA A-zone with emphasis on speed.

Lower marksmanship scores in these tests were deemed to be causal for higher levels of measured stress hormones.  Higher stress subsequently appeared to be causal in lower performance during the testing phase.  Poor performance was defined as shooting a no shoot target.  In the initial test, 7 of 24 participants did so.

After the initial experiment was performed, training was given.  Following the training, 0 participants shot the wrong targets. 

What does this mean for us?  It means that skill with firearms results in less stress when we encounter a condition red and need to respond.  It further means the lower our stress levels are, the better we will perform.  Not only regarding the quality of our shooting but also in our ability to make correct perceptual judgements, and therefore our chances of making good decisions.  Lastly, it implies with training, practice, and–I cannot emphasize enough—recency of practice, we will perform at a higher level than without.

As mentioned above, the research team was unable to give out the exact marksmanship scores of the military operators, but Hearne was able to get a rough estimate of the skill levels which determined the performance ability of the individual shooters.  Hearne then used this information to develop a minimum competency level (I’ll call Level 1) and a more advanced level (Level 2) at which no further benefit to stress levels was relevant to this specific task.

In the category I labelled “Level 1,” shooters have reached minimum competency levels of gun handling in regard to stress mitigation (as measured by hormone levels).  Above this skill level, there appears to be increased effort required to gain incremental improvements in stress mitigation. 


  • USPSA ranking of C class
  • Bill Drill with no misses in under 4 seconds
  • Casino drill with no misses in under 24 seconds
  • Failure Drill with no misses in under 3.5 seconds

In the category I labelled “Level 2,” shooters have reached the point of no additional stress mitigation benefit despite increasing gun handling competency.  Those who fall in this category and above are estimated to be the top 1% of shooters nationwide. 


  • USPSA ranking of B class
  • Bill Drill with no misses in under 3 seconds
  • Casino drill with no misses in under 21 seconds
  • Failure drill with no misses in under 2 seconds

(Levels in individual drills approximated with research done by Karl Rehn and John Daub)[iv]

* Detailed descriptions of drills available online

Biggs’ study consisted of a tremendous amount of work to study very specific endpoints.  Doing so, the variables were minimized and controlled as much as possible.  The question this leaves for us is this:  How closely does a study of stress and gun handling in a very specific military context resemble the highly variable self-defense scenarios affecting us?

In some ways, it may not.  However, the direct measurement of baseline skill to hormone levels under stress is probably transferable with a high positive predictive value or relevance.

It is, however, important we don’t confuse the difference between optimized stress mitigation with optimized skill.  Achieving Level 2 does not mean you cannot improve your ability to perform during an adverse event, it simply means that no additional stress mitigation benefit is likely.  I wish I could promise you a certain level of preparation that would guarantee your success in every situation, but it cannot be done.  If you have achieved these measures of ability, it is likely you will be able to handle the majority of common violent encounters that require firearms.  How many standard deviations from the mean does that include?  I cannot say for certain. 

Because we can’t know exactly what our fight will be or require of us, if resources allow, we should continue to improve our skills after meeting the goals above.  Any one of us could be the outlier with an event taking place on the far edge of the bell curve. 

What next?  Assuming you have achieved the Level 2 criteria above, what should you focus on next?

Hearne suggests we practice drills which involve sequencing multiple connected skills in a single activity.  At Condition Red Response, we call these “stacking drills,” and include them in all our upper-level courses.  Examples of well known, researchable, stacking drills include:

  • Action pistol competition stages such as USPSA or IDPA
  • Casino Drill invented by Tom Givens
  • FAST Drill invented by Gabe White
  • Hateful 8 Drill invented by Bill Blowers

We at CRR also recommend you do your best to remove novelty thus decreasing the likelihood of unconsidered situations taking you by surprise.  Then, develop what I termed a “constructive mental map” for how you will handle the situation.  Even if the scenario you become involved in is not exactly the same, your brain will be able to draw from a similar scenario for actionable ideas.

In his Lecture on recent relevant research, Lee Weems, another notable trainer, discussed the need to practice gun handling skills sets in combination with other relevant skill sets such as deadly force decision making.  This practice will improve the brain’s ability to call upon the forest rather than the trees should the worst occur.[v] 

We do our best to provide this type of training in our level 2 and 3 courses, but these concepts can be practiced on your own as well.  Examples include any drills which force you to make an observation and a decision prior to –or during the process of–using your gun handling skills.  This point was also made by John Holschen in his lecture entitled “Lethal Encounters vs Range Success.”[vi]

Holschen specifically discussed the use of visual cues as drill initiators as well as decision making points during the drill.  This type of activity can be done with laser pointers, but with current technology, typically requires a friend to assist.  Fortunately, standalone devices are in development and will soon become commercially available.

Although we always recommend you continually try to improve your gun handling skills, we recognize that people have limited time and resources.  As per articles by and personal discussions with Greg Ellifritz and John Hearne, Condition Red Response recommends the most effective use of training time.  Once Level 2 is achieved, a self-defender should look to improve other areas of skill before focusing additional attention on basic gun handling, especially if they are limited in time.[vii]

These additional skill sets may include these topics:

  • Open hand fighting such as BJJ or Muay Thai
  • Legal implications and obligations of self-defense
  • Issues related to the aftermath of a deadly force event.
  • Verbal engagement skills such as the ones Craig Douglas calls “Managing Unknown Contacts.”
  • Emergency first aid such as BLS and Stop the Bleed.
  • Spiritual and emotional fitness
  • Establishing a support network
  • Retention skills
  • Force on Force activities

The field of relevant study is wide, but luckily, we live in a golden age of training.  Most of these subjects are readily available and reasonably priced.  While Condition Red Response, LLC offers course work in many of these topics, we do not cover all of them.  I am always happy to recommend other experts upon request whether we teach the subject or not.

In his lecture “The Aftermath” at TacCon 2023, John Daub stated an important truth:  The number of scenarios we haven’t imaged greatly exceeds the number of things we have considered.[viii]  It is therefore imperative we prepare our minds for the eventuality we may face violence, prepare our bodies so that the skill sets are ingrained when we need them, and prepare our brains with constructive interconnected, multi-disciplinary  and predetermined maps of condition red responses.

Vigilant by nature, prepared by choice is our motto and our way of life.  I hope you will join us so that Good may prevail.


[i] Monk, E. (2023, March). Active Killer Response. TacCon 2023. Dallas, Texas; Dallas Pistol Club.

[ii] Biggs, A. T., Hamilton, J. A., Jensen, A. E., Huffman, G. H., Suss, J., Dunn, T. L., Sherwood, S., Hirsch, D. A., Rhoton, J., Kelly, K. R., & Markwald, R. R. (2021). Perception during use of force and the likelihood of firing upon an unarmed person. Scientific Reports, 11(1).

[iii] Hearne, J., Weems, L., & Gelhaus, E. (2023, March). Our Favorite Research Studies. TacCon 2023. Dallas, Texas; Dallas Pistol Club.

[iv] Rehn, K., & Daub, J. (2019). Strategies and standards for Defensive Handgun Training. KR Training, LLC. Page 128

[v] Hearne, J., Weems, L., & Gelhaus, E. (2023, March). Our Favorite Research Studies. TacCon 2023. Dallas, Texas; Dallas Pistol Club

[vi] Holschen, J. (2023, March). Lethal Encounters vs Range Success. TacCon 2023. Dallas, Texas; Dallas Pistol Club.

[vii] Ellifritz, G. (2023, January 4). Skill development- when are you good enough? Active Response Training. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from

[viii] Daub, J., Gelhaus, E., & Weems, L. (2023, March). The Aftermath. TacCon 2023. Dallas, Texas; Dallas Pistol Club.