Understanding and Applying Automaticity

In the defensive scenario

By Kjell Rosenberg, MD, Rangemaster and NRA instructor

Here is a concept which needs to be understood and discussed: Automaticity. One expert, John Hearne, considers it one of the most important features of a fighter. It weighs in strongly in his model of what tips the scales in the equation of combat outcomes. 

Another shooting legend, Gabe White, created a model that showed how performance in certain categories indicates lack of, some, nearly complete, or positive indication of automaticity. Some of the variables include competitive classes which I no longer do. But! One of the scales is the casino drill (Created by Tom Givens) –which is a new favorite of mine. 

The standards when shooting a clean casino drill are as follows:
Over 27 seconds: pretty much no automaticity present. 
21-27: partial automaticity is present
15-21: you’ve probably got it. 
Under 15: impossible to perform this well without it. 

Look at the skill levels now in lay mans terms:

Over 27 unskilled 
21-27: some skill
15-21: adequate skill 
Under 15: highly skilled 

Now consider this concept of automaticity and what it means in the context of decision making, target differentiation, trying to stop a trigger press that’s already been initiated -even if the length of trigger pull is somewhat longer. 

In my opinion automaticity is great. It’s what allows humans to shoot sub 1 second shots from the holster with sub 0.25 splits. The average person cannot shoot a controlled pair in 0.2 seconds because your mind can’t Observe, Orient, Decide, and ACT (OODA) on a second sight picture that fast. By definition pretty much any split under .25sec is a double tap. I know several shooters who can make accurate 0.2 sec splits, because they are great at managing recoil and they know that their muzzle will align with the (stationary) target again in very close to the same spot.  As Chris Cerino says, “It’s a piece of paper, glued to cardboard, stapled to a stick.”

But, I wonder if achieving that degree of habitualspeed is necessary and if it might be potentiallydetrimental in real life. 

This is why:  
-Am I sure my target is still where I left it? Because I cannot physiologically OODA on the next site picture, I am essentially removing the OO&D from the loop and just acting.

The caveat to that is:  Can a bad guy actually move in less than 0.3 seconds? Possibly.  I’ll touch on this with practical data later in the article.

I propose that for civilians (sworn officers included) where a miss is an inappropriate hit:  
Getting a true sight picture and responding with a follow up shot in 0.3 to 0.35 seconds may be a better skill on the streetthan the ability to control recoil enough to double tap a stationary target. 

While the primary researcher did not return my attempts to contact, Greg Ellifritz indicated that LAPD METRO have a very high rate (compared to other departments) of hits at 85% in actual shootings.  This is a similar generalized qualification rate in LE agencies across the country.  However, I am told by Tom Givens that the real life hit rate averaged across the country is closer to 20%.  That statistic correlates with this study by the NYPD that shows an 18% hit rate when subjects are not shooting back. The rate increases slightly as distance decreases but stays inadequately low. (study found in link below)


So why is LAPD Metro having so much success? I was told that they rarely practicewith splits less than 0.5%.  To me this means a couple things.  First, they are going slowly enough to develop good mechanics and learn to have trigger control.  Second, they are deliberate in their shots.  And theoretically, when that adrenaline kicks in you’re going to shoot faster rather than slower so that makes deliberate training and good mechanics all that much more important.  I doubt they shoot 0.5 splits in a combative event, but they are probably still getting deliberate shots in controlled pairs rather than just slapping the trigger as fast as they can.

Now, consider the way I train if I’m practicing to achieve a sub 15 second casino drill. I memorize the targets and the control the trigger and recoil. What am I not doing? Reacting or responding to stimulus. Is that ok? Yeah. Probably some of the time.  At a match?  Yeah, for sure.  It’s pretty much mandatory for high level competitors and it’s a great indicator of your skill level with a firearm.  But what am I doing?  I’m gaming it.

Now, let’s go back to range.  I’m going to add in a step to the left every time I draw or reload. I’m going to do it without knowing what or who is behind me.  I may not also be aware of what or who is in front of, or to the side of, the concealment or cover I’m standing behind when I automatically step out from behind it.

What am I doing? I’m moving because it’s a habit. Its automatic. I sure hope there’s not someone to the left and behind me shooting at the same threat or his predetermined action just put a double tap into the back of my head. 

I think we need to carefully reevaluate the skill sets we practice. Create a more dynamic practice session with real decision making, and make sure we practice it differently every time. Develop the ability to OODA. Not just A.

Have I sold you on avoiding “tactical habits” but to rather train to respond to stimuli?  Excellent.  Now let’s talk about developing our mechanical skill sets to the point of John Hearne’s automaticity concept.

Hearn relates the three standards of learning: untrained, learned, and overlearned to the development of firearm skills. Most gun owners fall into the category of untrained or learned. So, what’s so great about overlearning? 

It’s at the of overlearning point that you have developed “automaticity.” Which is -in a completely oversimplified definition- the ability to perform skills at a higher level than we would otherwise be able to do so under stress, because we have developed significant neural pathways. 

Part of that process, John says, requires that we prioritize 4 things in our training. 
1. Remove novelty: expose your brain to the things it may encounter.  
2. Build valid mental maps: don’t let expectations affect your judgement of a situation 
3. Develop robust motor programs for relevant skills: effective and meaningful training.
4. Keep mental maps and motor programs refreshed and recent.

(Above process quoted and paraphrased from Straight Talk on Armed Defense chapter 1 by John Hearne. This is a great book and I highly recommend you read the whole thing.)

Hearne also writes about one of my other soap boxes which is… training until the stress response is attenuated. He uses the word ‘automaticity’ in nearly the opposite way I previously defined the word. He defines it as having achieved the state of mastery “overlearned” which involves muscle memory, mind-set, etc and results in improved skill performance under stress due to both performing over learned physical skills and mental conditioning which allows, wait for it, the rational mind to keep control rather than surrendering to fear and emotion. Essentially: an attenuated adrenal response. 

Thus, automaticity -as he defines it- does not equal “knee jerk multiple tapping” but rather ability that is so completely ingrained that it can function under stress conditions where the novice might freeze up. 

Going back to the standards in Karl Rehn’s book indicating automaticity; he lists the highest performance scale as indicative of automaticity.  I *think* what he means by this is that if you can perform at that level, you have developed skills consistent with “overlearning.” Which, if we look at our goal of being more effective under stress as an indicator of desired competence, we have probably developed at least the physical skill set required for automaticity —if not the mental preparation. 

According to a Hearne, and I tend to agree, the mind-set is just as important as the skill set for optimal performance under stress. (I’m not going to rewrite his discourse so you should buy the book)

I’m not contradicting either Hearne or Rehn when I add that I do not think you have to meet the very fast times listed to have developed automaticity. Some humans simply are not that fast.  That does not mean that you shouldn’t aim for the standards and do your best to meet them.  To quote Tom Givens again, “no one gun fight survivor ever complains about having too much training or too much ammunition.”  I think the test has very good positive predictive value, but except within a standard deviation– the negative predictive value may not be there in all people ie the aging or arthritic gunfighter who once had far greater speed. 

Furthermore, unless you train Force on Force it will probably be difficult for you to test mind set in any meaningful way. In which case, I suggest we simply do not become complacent, and we continue to improve what our mind accepts as something we both expect and will handle. Many master instructors and theorists have indicated that “recency” of skill utilization is one of the most important factors for maintenance.  Our goal as an effective self-defender needs to be 1. Develop automaticity and 2. Retain automaticity; so that if the two dudes call our number, we know in our hearts, “we got this.”


Hearne, J. (2017). Chapter 1 Inside the Defenders Head. Straight Talk on Self Defense (pp.20-36). Iola, WI: Krause Publications.

Rehn, K. and Daub, J.(2019). Strategies and Standards for Defensive Handgun Training(First ed., pp. 13-19). KR Training LLC.

Link references:


Kjell Rosenberg Copyright 2019 

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