If you’ve ever taken a defensive shooting course, you’ve seen him—the student who, upon firing, immediately snaps his head sharply over one shoulder then the other, as if posing for the camera. Scanning one’s environment for additional threats after a shooting is important, but many people seem to be more concerned with how they look during the scan than what they are actually seeing. Let’s consider the why and how behind scanning.
It’s well established that during a deadly encounter our bodies will undergo numerous physiological changes as part of our hardwired fight-or-flight response. One of the most significant effects is the loss of peripheral vision, a phenomenon commonly referred to as tunnel vision. This occurs because we become hyperfocused on whatever we perceive to be a threat.
Tunnel vision can help us tell if the black object in a person’s hand is a cell phone or a pistol. It can help us block out all distractions and focus exclusively on eliminating the threat we’re facing. But there’s an obvious downside to having a tightly focused field of view. Since criminals often travel in groups, being too focused on one could leave you vulnerable to the others. Hence, the need to scan your environment.
A common error is for shooters to start scanning too soon. Before their front sight has even settled from recoil, they are taking their eyes and muzzle off the target they just shot to search for the next. This won’t cost you on the range when the targets are made of paper, but when the bad guys are flesh and blood and their guns are real, assuming the person you shot is out of the fight could be a fatal error. Only after confirming the known threat is stopped should you consider scanning for more threats.
There are two broad categories of scanning techniques. One method involves turning your head independent of your gun, which remains in a neutral position. The other entails moving your head and the muzzle of your handgun as a unit, with the goal being to always keep your gun between you and whatever threat you may face.
Scanning by turning your head without moving the gun prevents you from potentially pointing your gun at someone it shouldn’t be pointed at. This technique also enables you to keep your gun close to your body, where you are better able to control it than if your arms were extended.
Having your gun at the ready in front of your body allows you to drive the gun directly to a threat. By turning at the waist and looking over your shoulder, you can scan the area behind you.
It’s hard to dispute the validity of keeping your muzzle between you and whoever is threatening you. That’s why many advocate scanning with your gun instead of just with your head. However, when scanning, you obviously don’t know where a threat may be. For example, if you start scanning to the left only to realize there’s an assailant to the right, your gun is far from being between you and that threat.
In such case, you’d have been better off to have your gun in a neutral position, where it’s closer to the threat. Not only would this allow you to get on target faster, it would minimize the likelihood of swinging past the target.
Conversely, if the threat was located in the direction in which you started your scan, you’d be on target faster than if you had scanned with only your gun in a neutral position.
Scanning with your gun and head together may require you to lower your arms slightly to ensure you have a clear view of a potential assailant’s hands and his waist. A weapon in hand can kill, and a weapon concealed along the waist can be drawn in the blink of an eye. When scanning with a weapon-mounted light, bring the gun close to your body and keep it parallel to the ground so you’re illuminating the threat and not the ground.
Since we don’t have eyes in the back of our heads, we are most vulnerable to an attack from the rear. As such, it’s imperative to “check your six.” A good way to reinforce this habit—and make sure the shooter is seeing as opposed to merely turning his head and looking—is for someone standing behind the firing line to hold up a certain number of fingers. If you conducted a proper scan, you’ll be able to tell you how many fingers were displayed.
After identifying a potential threat from behind, you need to get in position to address it. Merely looking over your shoulder leaves you compromised. A better plan might be to step forward into the area you know is safe, then turn your entire body 180 degrees—as opposed to just turning your head.
The former puts you in a balanced position from which to fight. Turning in this manner also creates a buffer so you are moving away as opposed to directly into an attack.
In a real-life situation, you need to make sure the known threat is neutralized before scanning for unknown threats. Make sure you aren’t just posing but actually scanning to find a threat. Finally, make sure you’re in position to defend yourself should an additional threat be detected.