Pistol Reloads, Blue Guns, and Brain Function

beretta-m9

Beretta M9 and its blue pretender showed that even an obvious weight difference would not reliably prevent stress-induced confusion. Photo: author

Editor’s Note: Repeated student errors in defensive handgun classes sent the author on a mission to understand why these mistakes were happening, and what we can learn from them about reloading pistols.


Not long ago, I saw a post in an online firearms forum (Best advice, all too often: “Never read the comments!”) and followed along as the back-and-forth discussion unfolded. The topic was how to best reload a semi-automatic pistol, particularly if in the middle of a bad situation where we would want that gun loaded in a hurry. A lot of debate bloomed in the short lifespan of that thread, with participants seeming to belong to one of two camps: “Look at the gun” and “Don’t look at the gun.”

Both sides made numerous arguments. The “Don’t look” faction said, among other things, that loading a pistol is a very simple mechanical task, and after moderate repetition, it can be done without the need for any visual reference. After all, it was pointed out, none of us look down at our brake pedal to stop the car, do we? This allows our full attention on the threat and everything else that’s going on around us. For their part, the “Look” party quite reasonably opined that the gun is right there, in your immediate field of view, so why not pay attention to what you’re doing and reduce the risk of screwing it up?

The reason I bring this up is to share the results of an informal experiment I recently concluded, in the hope that it can be of some use to anyone who might be interested in figuring out which end of the “Look-Don’t look” conundrum they might be on.

Home Defense Handgun Drills

It all started about three years ago, when it dawned on me that I was seeing the same inexplicable behavior — under the same conditions — over and over again. The conditions were: during the live-fire exercise of a Home Defense Handgun class, the students are run, one at a time, through what we call our “final scenario” drill. This drill is designed to force the student to multi-task. Using the information given, the student goes through the steps of responding to a home intrusion, which includes retrieving their defensive handgun from a locked quick-access safe and loading it.

Home Defense Handgun course utilizes quick-access safes like this biometric unit from Liberty Safes, here with excellent SIRT training pistol. Photo: author

Home Defense Handgun course utilizes quick-access safes like this biometric unit from Liberty Safes, here with excellent SIRT training pistol. Photo: author

Before you holler “Gotcha!” and begin complaining that only an idiot would have an unloaded gun for defense, allow me to explain: in the Home Defense Handgun classes I teach, our recommendation is that a semi-automatic pistol be stored for home defense in one of the many quick-access mini-vaults on the market today. We recommend a full magazine inserted and an empty chamber. The trained response is to open the vault, remove the gun, and rack the slide. This ensures a loaded gun. If the gun were already loaded, the absolute certainty that it is ready to go only costs one ejected round. This method is especially useful for any household in which more than one person has access to the firearm. Despite our best intentions or strict instructions, someone else may move, overturn, upend, load, or unload the stored pistol without our knowledge. Jamming your hand into that little box is simply safer with an empty chamber.

In the Home Defense Handgun class, we have loaded magazines outside of empty guns. This both adds to the mental “to do” list during the exercise and provides an extra control measure on the range.

Also, it gives me an opportunity to make the exercise as challenging as possible for everyone. In this kind of open enrollment class, we typically have a variety of skill and experience levels training together. For those who are relatively new to defensive shooting, the final scenario drill itself is pretty taxing with nothing extra thrown in. But the more seasoned shooter often needs help to reach that same level of confusion and stress — and I am happy to oblige!

Glock 19 and blue gun clone. Photo: author

Glock 19 and blue gun clone. Photo: author

Blue Gun Surprise

For example, I might move their magazines to a different spot on a table full of items, which forces the student to pause their memorized routine and find them. Every so often, a student opens the quick-access vault and discovers that their pistol has been field stripped — surprise! – another unexpected disruption. And then there is my personal favorite and the source of our topic today: the student reaches into the vault for their pistol but their hand emerges holding a completely non-functional replica of their firearm, known in the business as a “blue gun.” And here the fun begins, because the inexplicable behavior I began to see happen over and over again is this: they try to load the blue gun. Because the blue gun is a solid lump of molded polymer, a magazine cannot be inserted, and it bounces off the bottom of the grip with a clunk. This failure seems to automatically trigger a second attempt and sometimes a third. But the astonishing thing is that during this process, these students are all staring straight down at the gun! Which caused me to ask, “Why is this happening?”

I started by asking those students why they kept trying to shove a magazine of live ammunition into what was quite obviously not their pistol. In so many words, they all responded that they recalled “fumbling” the load and not noticing the blue gun until they looked at it, with the entire elapsed time being the blink of an eye. Fair enough, I say, except that you were looking directly at it the entire time, and it went on for several seconds, not the fraction of a second that you remember. Obviously, there is something else at work.

How the Brain Works

To find that something else, I visited my local public library. (Yes, people still do that.) I was hunting for books on neuroscience, preferably in layman’s terms. After all, I want to understand and apply what I learn, not be reminded that I have no background in the finer details of neuroscience. Thankfully, among the stacks I located a copy of The Brain – The Story of You by Dr. David Eagleman. Suffice it to say that Dr. Eagleman’s credentials as both a neuroscientist and an author are rock-solid. I found the book a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the human brain and thoroughly enjoyed the read. More to the point, I believe I found what I was looking for.

handgun-defense-training

Understanding more about how the brain works can help inform all facets of our self-defense training. Photo: author

In simple terms, it is easy for us to imagine our eyes as windows, and that our brain is looking out through them, as though peering through a pair of binoculars. In reality, our brain is a reclusive prisoner, trapped in a windowless dungeon. The brain has no contact with the world around it whatsoever. It can only interpret electrochemical signals from the various sensory inputs, creating an image of what it believes is out there. It is kind of unsettling to ponder that such familiar things as color, odor, and taste don’t actually exist in the outside world. They are creations of the brain, which is constantly at work building a model of the outside world, and modifying it based on the relentless flood of sensory data coming in.

When it comes to vision, it gets complicated. The brain never actually “sees” anything. It can only compare the input from the senses and make an educated guess at what is in front of it. This sensory information becomes part of the brain’s internal model, while simultaneously playing on the big screen of the mind.

All of this works well enough until stress is added into the mix. The constant absorption and processing of sensory information require lots of energy. Strenuous physical effort, especially the unexpected surge of adrenaline in fight-or-flight survival mode, also demands tremendous energy. This reallocation of energy resources is part of why the brain and body act differently when kicked into survival mode. Under stressful conditions, the brain is likely to rely more on its internal model and less on real-time input. This is why we are less observant when we are in a hurry. We get the picture, so to speak, but don’t get a lot of the details.

A working theory is easy to establish: under the (admittedly minor) stress of the drill, some students reach into the safe and grasp what appears to be their pistol. Tactile sensory information from the surface of the hand reports a familiar shape and texture. The brain’s interior model pulls up a picture of the gun based on both the expectation that the gun is there and the confirmation coming from the hand. This done, the brain moves onto the next task. And even though the hand has now withdrawn from the safe and is holding the object within the field of view, the information coming in from the eyes has been briefly assigned a lower priority.

In this way, the brain does not notice the blue gun – it “sees” the actual gun it expects to be there. A mental alarm bell is triggered at some point only after the magazine fails to behave as expected. This new development shuffles the neural deck again, and the brain focuses on the problem. Visual input is now back in the driver’s seat, and the brain recognizes that the blue gun is not a real gun.

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Glock 17 alongside a host of imposters. Color seemed to make no difference in my experiments. Photo: author

Results of Experiments

With this in mind, I was able to run some quick experiments over time with students in the class and unsuspecting co-workers who were helping me “rehearse” the drill. Although I don’t in any way claim to have done the work of a real researcher, I did observe the following consistencies:

REALITY: If the blue gun were not an exact match for the exterior surface of the real gun, the brain was less likely to be fooled. I generally only used the blue-gun trick when I had the opportunity for a match, most often a third-generation Glock 17. They show up in class frequently and I have several blue guns. Attempting to use a similar but different gun, e.g. a Springfield Armory XD compact blue gun replacing a real service-size XD9, didn’t fool anybody.

COLOR: Color appears to be irrelevant, which supports the idea that the student doesn’t see what they’re actually looking at. At various times, I used blue guns that were gray, sky blue, and even fluorescent orange, and all were mistaken for the real thing during the drills.

WEIGHT & HEFT / OVERALL FEEL: Inconclusive, but probably important. I had one opportunity to substitute a full-size 1911 blue gun for the real thing because they wore identical grips. The student paused with their hand in the safe and looked over at me, knowing that what they were touching was not their gun. Two attempts at fooling students using the Beretta 92 FS resulted in a draw: one was fooled and tried to load the blue gun, and the other was not. So, two out of three recognized the deception when their large, heavy, metal-framed guns were replaced with plastic models. It seems that polymer-framed guns are more likely to be confused.

SIRT training pistol magazine alongside actual Glock 17 magazine loaded with ball ammunition. Not similar enough to trigger a confusion response. Photo: author

SIRT training pistol magazine alongside actual Glock 17 magazine loaded with ball ammunition. Not similar enough to trigger a confusion response. Photo: author

OTHER SUBSTITUTIONS: Just for the heck of it, on several occasions I left the student’s Glock 17 alone and instead replaced their magazine with a magazine from a SIRT training pistol. Both the real and the fake magazine are polymer, and the SIRT mag weighs the same as a real mag loaded with ammunition. The SIRT even has a round-nosed “cartridge” sticking out of the top. And yet, nobody tested ever tried to insert the fake magazine. They picked it up and set it back down immediately, somehow knowing it was bogus. However, one student did pick up the SIRT magazine believing it was the cell phone used in the drill…

EXPERIENCE / EXPOSURE: During these drills, it seemed that those students who were very experienced at gun handling were the ones most likely to suffer from blue gun confusion. This again would lend support to the overall hypothesis that the brain was relying more on the combination of familiarity and tactile confirmation instead of vision. Find a gun-shaped lump of molded polymer where one expects to find a gun made of molded polymer, and the confusion is almost inevitable.

Conclusions

But as fascinating as all of this might be … is it of any use to us as people who are interested in becoming as efficient as we can be using our chosen tools of defense? After all, the magazine being separated from the pistol is a contrivance of the specific drill, not what I would expect or recommend for actual home defense. Nor is it reasonable to assume I will come creeping along some night and sneak a blue gun into your quick-access safe (You do use one, don’t you?). So, other than showing how much fun I have teaching Home Defense Handgun courses at Black Wing Shooting Center and how obnoxious it can be to attend that class, is there any take-home value to these observations?

In the end it's all about understanding ourselves and learning how to best prepare for the absolute worst-case scenario. Photo: author

In the end it’s all about understanding ourselves and learning how to best prepare for the absolute worst-case scenario. Photo: author

I say “Yes.” I launched into all of this by saying that it contributes to the “Look-Don’t look” debate. And it does — I am willing to assert that I have repeatedly observed a problem with operating a pistol that only seems to occur when the shooter is looking at the gun. Solution? Since most of us are perfectly capable of loading the gun with or without the visual reference, practice these functions while not looking at the gun.

But more importantly, I think it can help inform all facets of our self-defense training. The real lesson here is that we must at times look outside of our “gun world” and its traditional concepts. We’ve pretty much got the machinery nailed down: the most advanced semi-automatic pistols available today are largely based on principles that were proven a century ago, so with those firmly in place, we need to go a step further. Fields such as psychology, physiology, and of course, neuroscience can help us better understand the mysterious, flawed, amazing creature that is being asked to operate that weapon.

Discussion
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10 Responses to “Pistol Reloads, Blue Guns, and Brain Function”
  1. artsbrew

    great article, that adrenaline dump is very powerful. loss of fine motor skills and after fights that i have had it does not go away very quickly. i certainly need more practice. practice practice practice as they say. i have not been out shooting in over a year, my days off have been spent working on a house. i have not been working out either and both bum me out. i hope in the next few months to have a little more time, but we will see.

    Reply
  2. Todd

    Excellent observations and great openings for discussion. Thanks for your sightful analysis.

    Reply
  3. DOUG

    Very good article and very much appreciated. I saw a very good TEDx talk on you tube about how the brain learns. The two presentations fall right into line with one another.

    Reply
  4. Gary Boham

    I was taught to bring the gun up into my “cone of vision” — A roughly 18-20″ circle. Keeping my eyes on the threat, bringing the gun into the lower 1/3 of this “cone” allows me to detect a double-feed, or see that the magazine is falling out when I hit the release, or that my fresh magazine is correctly oriented for insertion.
    Think of it as a compromise — You are not looking DIRECTLY at the gun, but neither are you doing in blindfolded.

    Reply
  5. tsknight

    Good article and definitely food for thought.

    An instructor did something similar to me last summer.
    All of the students pistols were staged on a table with magazines next to them. While the primary instructor was explaining the drill another instructor rearranged the pistols and magazines.
    As I came around the barricade something seemed off, but I didn’t realize what until I inserted a 1911 magazine in a Ruger P95 and watched it fall on the ground while I racked the slide.

    Overall it was a very good reminder to pay attention to details. In discussion after the exercise I was asked why I didn’t take a second to identify what was off when I first noticed. My response was that I was focused on the time. We had 30 seconds to run from start to load, engage 2-3 targets with 2 hits each and return the pistol to safe.
    I can’t run, so I used up almost 20 seconds before I even got to the table.
    There were ample clues if I had taken the time to notice. The two biggest being my P95 was not where I had left it and a single stack 45 magazine feels nothing like a double stack 9mm.

    Reply
  6. Papa D

    I don’t use handgun safes and never will. After carrying and using them for over 40 years, I feel extremely confident in keeping my fully loaded handgun on my night stand, ready to go as I always have. For those that have small children in their home, I do see them as a possible safety factor. Also , I have trained myself so that I do not need to look at my weapon when loading. I think this all comes down to proper training.

    Reply
  7. James

    I have had a CCW for more than 30 years, have competed in IPSC for many of those years, train when I can afford it, and practice several times per week. I always have my pistol on my person. When I’m away from home and when I am home. The only time it is not is when I am sleeping or taking a shower. At those times it is within easy reach and is in a known position and condition. It is never left unattended. During high-stress scenarios I hardly even notice reloading. I guess all of this will get me killed if some gremlin slips in and tampers with my pistol.

    Reply
  8. RayM

    I throughly loved this article.

    However I am surprised there was no consideration given to the fact that perhaps the students were attempting to load the guns because that was their assigned task. Or, as far as I can tell, they were not given instruction on how to respond to the ‘it’s blue gun’ malfunction.

    Also, I find it hard to come to a meaningful conclusion with a mass of data collected with no control sample and some many variables involved.

    Reply
  9. TomC

    If the purpose of this “final exercise” is primarily to play silly tricks on the people who were foolish enough to invest their time and money in being trained by such an instructor, why not provide the correct gun with a completely mismatched magazine — at least that malfunction might somehow fall within the realm of the possible in a household where more than one person has access to the firearms and at least one of the people with access is a complete idiot.

    Here’s a hint: In the real world, your stored home defense firearm does not magically convert itself into a lump of plastic.

    Reply
  10. Ross

    Why would I pay to go to a class where I am going to be put through drills that I will never encounter in real life? I don’t keep my gun locked in a safe, nor with a round unchambered, so why would I waste my time training for that scenario?

    Reply