Gun Killer Instinct. Gun Survival Instinct

(This is a chapter from Hock’s upcoming book External Focus Gun Fighting, due out in 2020)

There are plenty of people who have shot plenty of other people without any training at all. Consider the history of self defense, crime and war.  The motivation? Fear? Anger? Justice? Revenge?  Did the shooters have or did they not have, an inbred, strong  killer instinct? A powerful, innate drive for survival? Is this there or not there in people?  How much so? Is such trainable or untrainable?

This essay is not an in-depth, psychological study on the amygdala, killer or other instincts, but really just about shooting people that need to be shot, at the instant they need to be shot. I have already collected many psychological sources in my Fightin’ Words book for your added study. I, and marksmanship instructors, or martial “guys,” artsy or otherwise, are not a great source for such PHD-plus, endeavors. In short, I am not a doctor and I don’t play one on television. We shoot the brains, not dissect them. So, I refer you to qualified, mental experts. (Also, I do not teach marksmanship, leaving that to those experts. You should become the best marksman you can be.)

I look at this subject here, only in regards to motivate people to defend themselves and offer a related, over-view of what parts the killer instinct and survival instincts are at play, via training.  

Colonel Jeff Cooper once said that if you don’t think you can shoot someone, don’t put on the gun. That’s just a starting point for some self realization. There are numerous people who know they cannot shoot anyone and couldn’t do it. There are numerous people who know they cannot shoot anyone, but they were wrong because later they have. There are people who think they can, but couldn’t. Those that think they can and have. And those that don’t ever think about it all and just go shooting at ranges. For them its an abstract question. They can’t personally relate to actual experience and aftermath and just don’t think much about it. 

Killer Instinct and Survival Instinct
“A ruthless determination to succeed or win.” “The Killer Instinct is defined as a cold, primal mentality that surges to your consciousness and turns you into a vicious fighter. … This mentality results from mastery of the killer instinct.” To many people, it’s related to the business world or to sports. We hear it for example, in the stock market and tennis. Or, any endeavor when the opponent could be “finished” and the person does or doesn’t “finish” them. If they didn’t, some critics would say they “lacked the killer instinct.” There were several KiIler Instinct, and Overkill books written in 1980s and 1990s advocating the universal use of this mindset and approach when fighting anyone, anytime, with or without weapons. And off to jail they will probably go. 

What of the Survival Instinct? Described as – “An ability to know what to do to stay alive.” This is not such a serious term as killer instinct. Survival is socially acceptable. It is almost biological, common sense. Killer is a bad word, subliminally connected to bad acts and actors, a negative even when necessary.

Now let’s add the word “gun” in front of it. GUN Killer Instinct. GUN survival instinct. These are pretty serious terms to be throwing around. Emotional. Ethical. Legal. The terms have to be considered by the major “food” groups. It is part of the “who” as in “who are you?” of the Who, What, Where, When, How and Why questions I like to use.
Group 1: Citizens.
Group 2: Police.
Group 3: Military
Group 4: Security

So, it seems more palatable, more legal even to use the term survival instinct than killer instinct. Perhaps for some students/practitioners that’s a smarter term to use. When you fight someone, both without weapons, death should be on the far end of the hurt em’ list, but when holding a knife or a gun, killing is not so far down the spectrum. It all better be smart and legal.

The Hesitation. The Concern.
Periodically through time, a martial instructor, certainly a self defense, and/or combatives shooting instructor will be asked,
”Who am I to shoot someone?”
“What will I do? Will I freeze?”
“I just don’t know that I can kill someone.”
“Will I have that killer instinct?” 
“How will I know I can pull the trigger and shoot and kill someone?”

If you have never been asked about these questions, or received such observations, I don’t know why. Perhaps you only see a group of men in their 20s, 30s, even 40s at the shooting range and they might not reveal such inner thoughts? I am not sure group of trainees in the military, once at the shooting range are given a lecture on the “will the kill?” I have no such memory? Do you?  They just shoot-away? “Yer’ in the Army now, and we kill people,” is a given. But I have heard these questions from time to time and not just from men, but from women too.

Can people “switch to kill” when needed? Killology poster boy Dave Grossman has sort of made a living, a cottage industry discussing this, and to much controversy and debate. A debate I do not want to get into here. In terms of guns, there are some speculations that only a few members of a theoretic, trained military unit actually do the killing.
But, a whole lot of somebodies have been shooting people. Suffice to say that through time, a whole lot of people have been clubbed, speared, arrowed, stabbed, shot and killed at rather close range in self defense, in crime and war, despite an alleged inbred against violence. Grossman admits that the Army improved its shooting rates from some 20% in WW II to 90% by the Vietnam War with simple, training changes. (These numbers are usually not very accurate, by the way).

I can quickly sum up the principle of that change in two sentences for the curious. When my father was in basic training for WW II, he shot at paper, bulls eye targets and they dropped him on the D-Day beaches. When I went through Vietnam era training in Ft Polk, LA, we shot at bulls eyes too, but also shot on an amazing Tiger Ridge, “jungle” range trail, with pop-up, human-shaped targets dressed in VC clothes and NVA uniforms, among streams, rocks, trees and bushes. The trail went up a hill and there were close and long-range shooting.  When you shot the target, it fell.

This was a step toward reality and a classic desensitization process. This beat all kinds of paper target shooting to me, and left me with a life-long, lasting memory/inspiration. More on that subject here in a minute. (We see a lot of military training cities for Middle East/Southwest Asia scenarios these days and many think the idea is new. Not so. For example, the Ft Polk, Tiger Ridge, Vietnam village I mentioned was built in 1965, offering scenarios with blank ammo.) 

“Motivate training through anger, not madness. Motivate training from fear not paranoia.”

Motivate training through anger, not madness. Motivate training from fear not paranoia. How do you instill confidence, proper restraint along with “killer” instinct/survival instincts, and layer in skill? For yourself? Or for your people? I would like to offer some suggestions and ideas I have learned and taught. You could start by explaining the process with nature and nurture, then explain repetition training, pinpointing and desensitization. Lets start with…

Hard-Wired and Hard Forged
Hard wired? Nature magazine published a popular article based on some extensive research into violence. “Humans have evolved with a propensity to kill one another that is six times higher than the average mammal,” so say the scientists of 2016’s The Phylogenetic Roots of Human Lethal Violence. “The researchers compiled information about more than four million deaths among more than 1,000 mammals from 80 per cent of the mammalian families, including some 600 human populations from the Palaeolithic era to the present day. They then used this information to create an evolutionary tree of different mammals’ propensity towards violence.” They go on to say, “However, aggression in mammals, including humans, also has a genetic component with high heritability. Consequently, it is widely acknowledged that evolution has also shaped human violence.”

As far as survival instincts, Dr Jim Taylor, Ph.D. in psychology and sports psychology, reports that, “Our emotions have also evolved to our greatest survival benefit. So-called “hot” emotions, such as surprise and disgust, are experienced instantaneously and powerfully. These emotions signal an imminent threat to our survival which then initiates urgent action in response to its cause that increases our chances of survival.”

Hard Forged. So when people ask these “what if,” questions of themselves, and ask these questions to you, I like to suggest some things I have used successfully. There is this “DNA” hard-wiring to fall back on, whether we call it killer instinct or survival instinct, so I remind them of the aforementioned “DNA,” as a natural head-start, reaction that may help them.

Then I remind them the power of repetition training. Pile on the reps! I tell them that the more they burn responses into their “muscle memory,” the better chance they will mindlessly snap to them, without thinking (or freezing). The tip takes away the mindfulnesss of the act and frees them up a bit. I order them to get back to work! This usually builds confidence and it is true advantage. Fortune favors the prepared. (Freezing – ambush…another topic, is a big subject covered in the Fightin’ Words book.)

“Pinpointing.” I recall once a woman in a class confessing her lack of confidence. She told me that she was scared she would not properly defend herself, that she might not be able to hurt someone, least of all shoot them. I was looking at her face as she spoke. Then, there was a change in her complexion, a grit to her teeth. Her eyes widened. She growled, “But if they were hurting my kids!” And there it was, the connection. I told her, “remember that feeling.” Remember that “space.” Why would you take solid action just to save your kids when you are their one-and-only mother. They need you. Protecting you is protecting them too. Remember this feeling. This rage. It is in you!” It was indeed in there. In her brain. It just needed a little re-wiring to reach that “survival spot” in her brain. A little quiz, a question and answer session with a person about, “Okay, WHEN would you think you COULD shoot someone? What  is that situation? What would they have to be doing?” Pinpoint that situation and place in their mind’s eye, and tell them to remember that feeling. That thought. Work out from there.

Desensitization and Repetitions of What?
If you are just sport, target shooting for the sake of sport, target shooting, then you can ignore all of this. On the important subject of desensitization and use of weapons, you have to prepare for firearm combatives by learning how a firearm operates on up to shooting people in situations. You can do so by progression.

  • 1: Learn to operate the gun.
  • 2: Shoot bulls eye type paper targets. Very abstract. Very essential, but very abstract.
  • 3: Shoot paper targets with aggressive one-dimensional pictures. A bit less abstract.
  • 4: Shoot 3-D human-form, clothed targets. Less abstract.
  • 5: Shoot targets and incorporate imagery. In other words, imagine your paper target is a bad guy doing stuff. I am not fond of this as I don’t think most people have the ability to full-fledge, flesh-out a Cinerama vision  of an attack, without a whole other meditation class.  Even then, they are limited to their imagination skills. Still very abstract. (And a note, there is a difference between “crisis rehearsal” – as in making a plan, as opposed  to transcending into some meditation style, hypnotic trance version of…”imagery. )
  • 6: Shoot life-sized, flat screen, TV films of moving people. Less abstract, but no actual contact with real people interacting with you, what you say, what you do.
  • 7: Shoot moving thinking people that are shooting back at you with simulated ammo.  In situations. In shoot/don’t shoot development. Way, way less abstract. As close as you can get.
  • 8: The real deal, which we cannot completely replicate in training.

With each step, we get closer to reality. A desensitizing progression. Plenty of people have shot plenty of other people with no training, or with just paper target training. I am talking here about maximizing potential and creating those “external focus therapies.” (You are shooting into the complex, external world.) In this maximization, a person should/must pull a trigger at another person with some regularity. See the “round” land. Experience the event, the situation. Reduce the abstract. Doing repetitions in prepared scenarios also builds the shoot/don’t shoot savvy, a very skill niche, difficult training category people and agencies are hungry to include. (I only teach interactive, moves, pieces-parts of, exercises and scenarios with safe ammo, and have done so now since the mid 1990s. External focus.)

Shooting People
This body-shape target approach is recognized by many in and out of the industry. You might recall the outsider movement years ago to remove human-shaped, target pictures from police qualification training. Shall I call them anti-police, pacifists, protested to agencies that such target practice enhanced the dreaded “killer instinct ” and produced “killer cops.” Limp administrators here and there acquiesced, taking all human-shaped pictures and shapes from paper targets, leaving the round, bulls eye and/or a bunch of other numbers and non-human shapes on targets. This increased the abstract, not reduced the abstract.

As an aside, another strategy in opponent desensitization is the name-game. Everyone recognizes that in the military, in times of specific enemies, there is a overt and a covert mission to desensitize troops against the people they have to make war with. In the old police world, crooks were “scumbags.” They are given nicknames, profiles and generalizations to limit any trigger-pull, hesitations. Real or imagined, this is just history and psychology. How a troop survives this, is a testimony to their own personal history and psychology. For some it’s easy. Some, not so much. That’s another subject.

Shoot to Significantly Stop, or Kill?
So in many modern shooting classes as well as police schools, it is difficult to introduce the term killer instinct in a positive way. It is always wise to tell people to use the term “shoot to stop,” not “shoot to kill.” Drop the word “kill.” This advice is even entering into various military rules of engagement these days.

If you shoot someone, enforcement investigators (and I was one for decades) will do a profile on your past and you’ve better not have macho-babbled about killing people. They will use it against you in prosecution or at very least profile you in their back office strategies as a problem-priority person. Real-deal “macho-people” don’t “shoot” their mouths off on these subjects.

Your official intent, unless you are some kind of sniper, or in a total war zone, is not to kill. It is to stop. When the ignorant media asks, when the stupid citizen asks, when the sleepy jury wonders, why you didn’t shoot the lapel button off the suspect first, the common lesson plan, accepted message is to try and shoot the chest because it is big and you can’t risk missing and sending bullets everywhere. This is true. It’s the main reason we cannot take “Lone Ranger” shots at people’s trigger fingers or shoe laces in the fog of war, the mess of chaos. (We do have a variety of very close, head shot scenarios to work on though, too.) Shooting the chest is not an immediate, automatic “TKO.” Can be sometimes, but you can’t count on that.

Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, explained in a position paper about “shooting to wound.” “Hands and arms can be the fastest-moving body parts. “For example, an average suspect can move his hand and forearm across his body to a 90-degree angle in 12/100 of a second. He can move his hand from his hip to shoulder height in 18/100 of a second. “There is no way an officer (person, soldier) can react, track, shoot and reliably hit a threatening suspect’s forearm or a weapon in a suspect’s hand in the time spans involved.”

In Summary
Gun fighting. Four training ways to increase confidence. Four ways to help quell those “what if -can I”’ questions.

  • 1: Hard Wired. One way is to explain that humans are hard-wired to respond to threats, as a mindless kick start to action. This helps take the pressure off of some people.
  • 2: Repetition training. With this you can guide the “mindless” responses. This also helps take the pressure off of some people.
  • 3: External focus! Desensitization. Use simulated ammo in scenario training. Having practitioners shoot with simulated ammo in situations versus moving, thinking, people shooting back or stabbing at them, others, etc., will help them better prepare them for real world, shoot-out violence. Reduce the abstract. Military and police do it. Civilians should do it and/or do more of it. If you don’t think you need to do this? Why do the military and police do it every time they have the chance, the time, the location, and the money?
  • 4: Pinpointing. Help that person identify a personal situation where they would justify shooting someone and use that pinpoint as a memory and/or discussion point to examine other situations.

And watch out for the who, what, where, when, how and why of the term “kill,” and “Killer Instinct.” Instead think about utilizing “Survivor Instinct.”


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