Developing Every-day Self-defense Skills

By Kjell Rosenberg

Copyright 4/20/23

One of the major factors causing failure in any endeavor is overconfidence.  Self-defense is no different.  In many cases, the estimation of one’s ability to defend themselves with a gun or otherwise is exaggerated compared to other skills sets.  While the Kruger Dunning Effect applies to all skill sets, one’s ego is inextricably tied to feelings of martial adequacy.

In other words, we like to think we are tougher, better at fighting, and sharper shooters than we really are.  We measure our abilities by our best day and allow our confirmation biases to blow off any mediocre performance as an “off-day.”  We choose to practice the drills which highlight our talents and hide our inadequacies.  It’s human nature, we all do it unless forced out of our comfort zones.

Sometimes, we recognize the inadequacies of our practice, but we are roped in by logistical concerns.  The only nearby gun ranges don’t allow us to work from a holster or mandate split times no faster than one second.  We may be limited in our choice of equipment by financial or departmental concerns.  We may not have access to good force on force training which allows us to practice skills in a dynamic and realistic scenario.  Alternatively, the technology required to do realistic training may not be available.

Indeed, there may be many reasons why our training and practice don’t perfectly mimic the risks we face in life.  However, with improving technology and an increasing number of qualified experts, the opportunity to improve our training regimens is increasing at a rapid rate.

One of the differences Condition Red Response has made in our training courses over the last few years is the more prevalent use of visual start cues.  Traditionally, the “go” signal to start a live fire drill or stage has been a series of range commands barked out by an instructor or the anxiety provoking buzz of a timer.  However, outside of a military situation in which warriors are sometimes told when to shoot, visual cues are overwhelmingly what police and non-sworn civilians use to make decisions about engaging a threat with deadly force.

There are a number of factors which make visual cues a difficult “go” signal, especially if one is practicing alone.  Automated targets that can be shot with live ammunition are extremely expensive.  Targets that exhibit aggressive behavior warranting deadly force are non-existent outside of video simulations and force on force training.  You can’t walk into a gun store and buy a paper or cardboard target that gives you a changing set of visual cues.  There just aren’t any.

A drill that I learned at John Murphy’s course, Street Encounter Skills and Tactics, requires a training partner, but can be performed without any special equipment.  All you need is a partner and two targets.  I recommend performing the drill at 3-10yards depending on your skill level and desired benefits.  Stand a yard apart with your partner facing the targets.  The drill is performed from concealment.  One partner is designated as the instigator and will draw and fire at their target.  The second partner uses their peripheral vision to observe the instigator.  When the Instigator begins to draw, the second partner follows suit and tries to beat them to shots on target.  Switch back and forth between roles to give both training partners the benefit of responding to a visual stimulus.  My team and I frequently practice this drill together and I highly recommend it.

While hardly perfect, many trainers have started using light as a visual cue.  At Condition Red Response, we use handheld lasers to indicate aggression, cessation of aggression, and the current state of incapacitation in our targets.  These are abundantly available and can be purchased for relatively low cost. 

An obvious downside to using handheld lasers is the inability to measure small increments of time precisely because no matter how good human reflexes are, the timer will not be precisely associated with the laser.  More on this later.

Some instructors such as John Holschen, John Hearne, and Mike “Ox” Ochsner have taken visual cues to a new level.  One thing all these instructors have in common, besides using visual cues, is the use of  increased cognitive loading as the drills progress.

John Hearne uses a series of remote-controlled LED lights to indicate the status of the target.  Different colors mean different things and all the lights have to be checked before the drill is over.  Not only does the drill provide a visual stimulus but it requires the participant to orient to the nature of the threat before responding.[i]

Mike Ochsner uses a combination of lights and laser as visual cues.  Part of his training involves measuring response times as students are faced with novel stimuli and pre-attack indicators.  He notes that while fighter pilots are trained to recognize threats in microseconds, defenders can often take 10-15 seconds in good lighting to recognize a threat if enough novel stimuli are in play.  A lot can happen in a few seconds so a 10 second orientation time can put a defender far behind in terms of creating an active response.[ii]

But how do visual “go” signals relate to accurately perceiving our own skills?

John Holschen has been taking part in a novel automated laser-based targeting system which is programmable and precisely measurable.  He has been trialing a developmental product called NURO and collecting data from a range of shooters varying from competent shooters to Grand Master class competition shooters.  His observations are eye opening.

When drawing on a single known target with an auditory “go” signal the shooters have shorter times of draw to first shot (DTFS) varying from about 0.5 seconds to about 1.5 seconds when compared to a visual “go” signal. 

What does that mean to us? 

The data suggests it takes us between 0.5 seconds and 1.5 seconds longer to respond to a visual (ie more realistic) cue than the go signal we (especially competition shooters) have been acclimatized to: the ubiquitous buzzer.

Before we look into the reasons for this discrepancy, we should first have a look at Holschen’s third set of data when three potential targets were available, and the student had to watch all three to observe the “go” stimulus.  In this situation, very little if any additional time was needed to address the threat than addressing the single target.  While still slower than the auditory signal, some subjects actually engaged the target faster in the third trial than the second.  I believe this phenomenon was due to practice or “warm-up” artifact.

It should also be noted that every subject in the experiment continued to fire after the stimulus was removed.  Why?  Because it takes time to process the “stop” stimulus as well.  Many self-defense advocates recommend a slightly slower split time (ie time between shots) to allow better decision making and decrease the risk of shooting when it is no longer appropriate.[iii]

Why are DTFS times slower with a visual cue than with an auditory cue?

First of all, its science.  Studies in human physiology show faster reaction times with auditory stimuli than with visual stimuli.  In one study by Jain et al comparing 18-20 year old sedentary and active males to sedentary and active females, the researchers found an overall 0.22801 sec auditory reaction time with a standard deviation of 0.1649 sec but a 0.2476 sec visual response time with a standard deviation of 0.1854 sec.  The data was further broken down to show males had faster mean reaction times than females and physically active subjects had faster mean reaction times than sedentary subjects. 

Interestingly, active subjects had faster visual response times than sedentary subjects had for auditory response times.  This data suggests a definite benefit to response times in physically active individuals.[iv]

Another deviation in the measured response times is the comparison between the Jain’s study and the range measurements.  In the basic science study the differences were being measured in the hundredths of seconds, whereas the difference in DTFS was being measured in the tenths of seconds or longer.  I suspect this difference is due to the complexity of the task being performed when the stimulus is provided.

A second explanation for the results in Holschen’s study could be a result of the subjects having consistent and regular training with a buzzer, but not a visual stimulus.  As such, the visual stimulus used in his second experiment (laser “go” signal on with a single target) would be considered novel.  However, in the third experiment, the signal would no longer be novel which would help to explain why the more difficult third task did not result in slower response times.

Ochsner’s data supports this theory.  He notes that a novel stimulus will result in a lag time of 0.4-1 second but subsequent repetitions range in the 0.2-0.4 second range, sometimes as early as the second iteration. 

Recency of practice and previous experience with an event significantly improve your ability to respond.  These two concepts may be the most important training principles to surviving a deadly force event.  At Condition Red Response, we put great weight on creating constructive mental maps based on removing novelty and regular practice.

How does removing novelty decrease response times?

Colonel Boyd’s OODA loop helps us to understand.  Some steps in Boyd’s loop are fixed for the individual and some can be maximized.[v]

  1. Observe is a fixed time although it can be optimized through paying better attention to one’s surroundings.  It takes a certain amount of time for our body to tell our brain what it has sensed.
  2. Orientation can be improved through the removal of novelty.  What is this stimulus and what does it mean to me?  Experience can decrease the amount of time we spend on this step.
  3. Deciding can be improved through predetermined responses to specific stimuli.  If the decision is already made, the brain doesn’t have to consider it very long.
  4. Acting can be improved by the development of physical skill.  The more proficient you are at an action, the faster you can perform it.

Overall, the laboratory physiology studies and range studies suggest that being physically active and removing novelty can improve response times, but for an individual they will always have a faster response to an auditory signal.  Thus, the DTFS time you may think you have because of the time you measured with a buzzer may actually be at least 0.2 seconds slower with an experienced stimulus or at least 0.5 seconds slower with a novel stimulus.

How does that affect your self-defense planning?

John Correia from Active Self-Defense has measured the minimum amount of time required to draw if the violent criminal actor (VCA) performs certain actions.[vi]

               If you have a 1 sec DTFS you can beat the reaction time of the VCA if he turns his nose and looks away.

               If you have a 1.5 sec DTFS you can beat their reaction time if their head is turned to the side so that their ear is facing you.

               If you have a 2 sec DTFS you need them to show you the back of their head or side of their shoulder.

What happens to your plan if you add another half a second to your DTFS time to account for the slower reaction time of a visual stimulus?  Will your sub second draw become a 1.5 second draw?  Do you need to reevaluate what you can realistically draw down on?

In order to establish a realistic constructive mental map, it is vital we understand our own limitations and skill sets.  Using visual “go” cues creates a more realistic training environment and helps us to better recognize those limitations.  As technology improves, opportunities to do more realistic training will become more prevalent.  Until then, we highly recommend you participate in training that utilizes visual stimuli as well as force on force training with qualified instructors.

[i] Conversations with John Hearne

[ii] Conversations with Mike Ochsner

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

[iv] Jain, A., Bansal, R., Kumar, A., & Singh, K. P. (2015). A comparative study of visual and auditory reaction times on the basis of gender and physical activity levels of medical first year students. International Journal of Applied & Basic Medical Research, 5(2), 124.

[v] Rosie. (2021, March 19). The Ooda Loop: How fighter pilots make fast and accurate decisions. Farnam Street. Retrieved April 20, 2023, from

[vi] Conversations with John Correia, see also Active Self Protection videos