The difference between survival and death, in a deadly force encounter, is pattern recognition.  I doubt that you have heard this before, but it is a fact, and yet we as self defense minded enthusiasts spend all of our time on the mechanics side of self defense.  We practice our draw, our reloads, shooting and moving, and still we’ve left the hardest and most crucial part out of our training plan, practicing when to shoot, not how.   This article will discuss how to enhance your ability at pattern recognition, which will drastically increase your abilities when it comes to using deadly force.

A Deadly Force Scenario

Before we get into the details of pattern recognition, we need to have an understanding of what most deadly force scenarios look like, and the timeframe an average person will be able to negotiate the scenario.

For our purposes we will use an ATM scenario.  You have decided, unwisely I might add, to use an ATM at night in a high crime area of town.  You park and walk up to the machine on the outside of the bank building, and begin to make your transaction.  As you get your receipt, and turn to head back to your car, you see and individual walking towards you wearing dark clothing, pulling a pistol from his waistband.

Seems legit?

At this point you realize that this has become a deadly force scenario.  From the time you have this epiphany, to the time you start to move towards your gun, it will take you .46-.70sec according to this study.

Now that you’ve decided to get your gun out, you initiate the movement towards the gun, and begin your draw.  From the time you initiate movement till the time you can make a sighted shot, it will take you 1.78 sec (source).   From decision to execution, on average, it will take you between 2.24 – 2.48sec.

For your would be assailant, they will have the same decision making time as we do, but they have a significant advantage in that they have their weapon ready.  From a pointed gun to a trigger pull, it only takes .35sec to fire the first shot.  For those keeping score back home, they can fire as quickly as .81 sec, while we are looking at 2.24sec.  Not a good scenario to say the least.  How can we improve our odds?  Easy, improve your pattern recognition.

Pattern Recognition in Masters and Novices

Pattern recognition is a very heavily studied phenomena in the psychology world, as well as the computer science world.  I mean how else will they get Skynet online?

Psychologists have been able to determine some constants when they study human pattern recognition.  One, humans are very good at pattern recognition, but their expertise is directly correlated to their experience with those specific patterns.

This article delves into the difference in pattern recognition between chess grand masters and less skilled chess players.  They note, that as your expertise lessens, you spend more and more time considering all the variations of a pattern.  Grand masters never consider anything other than the top 5 best moves, where as lesser chess players might consider down to the 22nd best move, an obvious waste of time.  You might ask why does this matter?

This matters because it saves time.  A grand master can make complex decisions very quickly and efficiently because of their vast experience playing the game.  In effect, they are thinking more efficiently because they don’t have to think about less efficient patterns.  This happens because whatever they see on the chessboard, it is not the first time they have seen it.  As the article states, “The expert’s first impression is not a first impression at all. It is the latest in a series of millions.”  This is the type of expertise we are aiming for in our deadly force scenario.

Better Biomechanics

We know that there is vast room for improvement in our pattern recognition, but we must not forget our biomechanics as well.  Those numbers that I quoted above for the scenario are for an average police officer moving through the decision making cycle and the mechanical cycle, drawing and using their weapon.

If we are honest with ourselves these are probably fairly generous in terms of the average person who carries a weapon.  Sure some will be better, but a vast majority will never practice a realistic scenario with their weapons.  Fortunately, I’m not writing this article for those lazy assholes.

If we look at drawing and shooting it takes on average. 1.78sec.  This is very slow from a level one holster, which is what most folks will use for concealed carry.  From my own practice, using a level three duty holster, I can reliably draw and fire within 1.25sec without too much effort.  My best is 1.18 sec.  Now I’m not saying this to brag, only to show that with some practice you can easily drop .5 sec from your draw, which in a life and death scenario is an eternity.  Read this article to get some ideas on how to actually practice these skills.

Training Recommendations

Now that we have taken care of improving our biomechanics, how can we improve our pattern recognition?  Easy, practice seeing more patterns.  The best way to do this is force on force training.  The ideal training would be you versus a live opponent, both with airsoft guns.  It’s important to practice scenarios against a live opponent where there is some small price to pay for loosing, i.e getting shot (source).

This is not the only way to practice pattern recognition.  Simply watching youtube video’s of deadly force encounters can work as well.  This will allow you to see a wider variety of patterns and notice the commonalities among them.  Very quickly, you will see that most criminals carry pistols, and they carry them on their waist line.  Take a look at this picture to see the most common types of pistols seized from criminals.

You’ll notice that most of these guns are too big to be carried in a pocket, and will commonly be stored in a waist band if they are carried on their person; however, often times they are stashed nearby for quick use.  Check this compilation video out to begin building your pattern library.


Some shooting ranges also have use of force simulators, which are another great resource.  In some instances these are better than actual force on force training, because of the huge variety of scenarios that can be run.  In one hour of simulation, you might be able to run through 20-30 scenarios, conducting realistic movement and shooting patterns.

Ideally you would participate in all three forms of training to start building your pattern recognition repertoire.  In fact, this type of consistent training can have physiological impacts on your brain.  This study found that Navy Seals had an enhanced ability to quickly process angry faces and react accordingly.  Another study found that experienced riot control police officers where better able to pick angry faces out of a crowd, and ignore distractors, than officer’s without their level of experience. This demonstrates that we can improve our pattern recognition skills.

The Way Ahead

We know that we must be able to utilize our weapons, and we must know when to use them.  We must also practice both, if we expect to improve our abilities.  See the chart below for our timeline goals.


Realistically, we should be able to reduce our decision making time from .4 sec to roughly .2 sec with pattern recognition practice.  Our weapons manipulation time should also come down to about 1.3 sec. Overall with practice, we should be able to recognize a deadly threat, and put first rounds on target within 1.5 sec; where as the best in the world would be able to do this around .8 sec.  It might not be easy to achieve this level of expertise, but nothing worthwhile ever is.