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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.