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Tactics & Training

I Spy

by Dave Spaulding   |  September 24th, 2010 0

Learning to look, and really see, can save your life.


It’s important to scan for additional threats during any confrontation. Here, Spaulding’s students practice this skill during firing-line exercises.

There are no blind gunfighters. When it comes to personal security, defined as those things we need do to protect ourselves, 90 percent of needed feedback comes from our ability to see in a 360-degree circle (and up and down, depending on the environment).

In the case of law enforcement, officers intentionally place themselves in harm’s way because our basic function is to seek out and interdict those who would do harm to the citizens we protect. And when we have to go down that alley or search that house, we need to be able to see what is going on because sight– combined with our other senses–is essential when engaging in combat.

We are visual creatures, with eyes in the front of our head and ears to the side. The ears help up discover threats from the rear, but if we sense something we will turn our head and look because we need to visually assess a situation to determine a proper response.

There is a process for this. We must find what we heard or sensed, identify it, decide what it is and then act appropriately–and we must do all of this in just a few milliseconds. In a situation that may last only seconds, time is critical, so we must assess quickly and correctly.

The person who sees the threat coming well in advance has a huge advantage while the person who is ambushed (surprised) will probably never catch up, regardless of training and skill level. This is why situational awareness is the key to personal security, regardless of the occupation you are in.

One of the primary problems with observation is our desire to intensely focus on the problem or potential problem. If a person sees something he thinks is a threat, he will focus on it to the exclusion of all other things and can miss additional threats. The field of focus narrows as we concentrate on potential danger.

To fight effectively, we must train ourselves to overcome this natural response to perceived danger. What is referred to as “tunnel vision” can be broken by training shooters to both “scan and breathe” immediately after confrontation.

While many instructors shout this to a line of students after a volley of fire, few students do it regularly. In my classes, I will walk up and down the line displaying a number of fingers, which means that an additional threat has presented itself and the student needs to fire that many additional shots. When doing this, I will move constantly and hold my hands in varied positions to make them scan 360 degrees.

It’s true that the hands are what can kill you, but it is also important to see what the hands are connected to. What if you saw a gun in someone’s hand, fired a few rounds and only then took note that the hand was connected to a uniformed police officer? Not good.

It is important to scan the area, identify the potential threat and then look at the hands.

The hierarchy of threat management is avoid, evade and counter, which means that you counter a threat–with great enthusiasm–only if you cannot avoid or evade the situation. Your ability to follow this hierarchy is a product of situational awareness, and whether or not you avoid or evade is dependent on how soon you see possible danger. The farther off the better.

Studies of armed confrontations involving police have shown that at least half the time there is more than one suspect involved. I believe that it may be higher as we have no idea how many suspects flee once the confrontation begins.

Think about your own youth and when you were most likely to do something stupid. Yep, when you were with somebody. Criminals are the same; they draw courage from one another, so expect them to act in a “wolf pack” mentality.

If you see one potential threat, immediately look for additional threats and begin to avoid/evade immediately while keeping them in view.

Part of scanning for threats involves looking for an avenue of escape. If these attackers are experienced, they will try to block any escape, so look to the rear as you back off. The earlier you see the threat, the better.

Learning to See
Interestingly, few people truly understand how to properly scan an area. Just turning the head is not enough; you must systematically scan from near to far.

Why near to far? What is the biggest threat to you–the one on the other side of the door or the one across the room?

Sure, we could play the silly game of “this guy has a knife, this one a shotgun and this one a sniper rifle,” but what good is that? If you walk unaware into an area covered by a scoped rifle, it is quite likely that you are toast unless you can exit the kill zone quickly–if you saw the sniper in the first place, that is.

Some advocate that you always start on the right (or left) and then scan in increasingly wider sweeps, but I don’t worry about that. The reason is because the terrain may often determine whether you begin looking right or left.

For example, say I walk into a room where the door is located in a corner with a wall immediately visible on my right. Naturally I would begin my near scan to my left as that is where the danger would be.

How you start your threat scan is up to you. What is important is that you look near to far and that you do it all the time. In the end, it’s about being alert to what is going on around you at all times.

Practice using the eyes. Just because you turn your head does not mean that you truly see.

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