Intuitive Decision Making

The importance of force-on-force training in law enforcement and military operations cannot be overstated. Human beings learn in three ways: seeing, hearing, and doing.

The importance of force-on-force training in law enforcement and military operations cannot be overstated. Human beings learn in three ways: seeing, hearing, and doing. Whenever all three can be combined, adult learning is certainly maximized. For many years, law enforcement firearms training has been a linear exercise in which marksmanship skills were tested and practiced, creating a reasonably skilled, but stress-free, shooter. Such training does not prepare an officer for reality. The introduction of paintball and Simunitions training has changed all of this.

For the first time in history, officers have to worry about getting “shot” in the training environment. Many do not like it and have filed “safety actions” through their unions, stating the training is unsafe and should be banned. After all, the training hurt and that was unacceptable, they reason. In some agencies, the practice has been banned, but in many more the importance of the pain was understood and the practice has flourished.

In several cases in which I was personally involved, complaints about simulated fire training resulted from an officer’s embarrassment over a lack of performance and not a concern over injury. The fact is, many of these experienced officers performed poorly in their training scenarios, making them look bad in front of their peers. To them, this is reason enough to stop the practice.

Recognizing Weaknesses

In reality, most of us look bad in these scenarios because they reveal our weaknesses in combat. That’s the point. The reason we conduct force-on-force training is to uncover areas in which our tactical skills are weak so we can address them. Failure equates to learning in the force-on-force training environment, and this learning may very well save our lives on the cold, mean streets in which we operate.

However, learning from our mistakes and improving our tactics and stress-shooting skills are not the only reasons to engage in this realistic training. The way I see it, the single most important aspect of this style of training is the ability to make decisions while facing a rapidly evolving crisis.

Taking cover and shooting accurately is only part of the equation. Being able to view the situation and decide on a course of action—shooting, taking cover, who to shoot and who not to shoot, disengaging—in a millisecond is essential. Being able to see a situation unfold and “know” what to do in an instant is critical.

Naturalistic Decision Making

The answer to the problem of needing to act without conscious thought may very well be developing “naturalistic decision making,” which is defined as people using their personal experience to make decisions in a field setting. Research into this phenomenon has been led by Gary Klein, the chief scientist at Klein and Associates (, a company dedicated to helping government agencies and private corporations enhance the performance of their personnel. Klein has been researching crisis decision making since 1985 and has documented his research in his best selling book, “Sources of Power,” available from MIT Press in Cambridge, Mass.

In his book, Klein explains that there was never a doubt as to how experience came into play in decision making. The challenge was identifying how that experience came into play.

“We have found that people draw on a large set of abilities that are sources of power,” writes Klein. “Yet the sources of power that are needed in natural settings are not analytical at all—the power of intuition, mental simulation, metaphor, and storytelling. The power of intuition enables us to size up a situation quickly. The power of mental simulation lets us imagine how a course of action might be carried out. The power of metaphor lets us draw on our experience by suggesting parallels between the current situation and something else we have come across. The storytelling helps us consolidate our experiences to make them available in the future.”

For Klein, the importance of training lies in the development of intuition based on learned skill sets. In a crisis situation, sometimes it’s the only thing you have to fall back on. He goes on to explain, “Features that help define a naturalistic decision-making setting are time pressure, high stakes, experienced decision making, inadequate information, ill-defined goals, poorly defined goals and procedures, and dynamic conditions.”

Sounds a bit like the environment for a gunfight, doesn’t it? In his book, Klein describes a number of situations in which naturalistic decision making is used in crisis situations. But the one that stands out in my mind is how firefighters decide how to fight a given fire.

“Knowing,” Not Deciding

After spending a great deal of time with a big city fire department, Klein and his staff began to realize that experienced firefighters arrive on the scene of a blaze, look at the fire, and just “know” how to fight it. “The fire commanders’ secret,” notes Klein, “was that their experience let them see a situation, even a non-routine one, as an example of a prototype, so they knew the course of action right away. Their experience let them identify a reasonable (doesn’t judicious use of force require reasonableness?) reaction as the first action considered, so they did not bother to think of others. They were being skillful. We now call this strategy recognition-primed decision making.”

In a nutshell, in a fast-evolving, crisis-filled event (like someone trying to kill you), you must recognize the pattern of the event without conscious thought and immediately take a course of action. If you take the time to conduct a normal decision-making cycle (trying to select from a list of actions), you will likely be too late to actively participate in your own rescue.

In my force-on-force training scenarios, I try to accomplish what I have begun to call the “pattern recognition paradigm.” If you take a bit of time to study the FBI’s officer killed summaries that are published every year, you will find that there are a number of situations that occur year after year. I am not saying that each incident is the same, as no two shooting situations are identical. What I am saying is that the situations are similar. Such situations as traffic stops, building searches, domestic disputes, and robberies in progress can be recreated in a general way so that any officer undergoing training can recognize a pattern of behavior on the part of the offender.

Stick to the Script

Since I have begun to emphasize pattern recognition in my force-on-force scenarios, I am quite careful to tightly script what transpires. I want my bad guy roleplayers to perform certain acts in certain ways so that the officer in the scenarios will recognize the way the offender is moving and behaving. This way, if the officer sees a telling sign again in the field, he or she will respond to it without conscious thought.

For example, one officer I trained in the basic police academy was able to recognize a pattern that may have saved his life during a traffic stop. While the officer was speaking with the driver of a car he stopped on a dark road, he noticed that the man was continually opening and closing the center console of his Chevy S-10 pickup truck. This might not have struck a bell with him, except that the officer had been “killed” in a force-on-force training scenario during the academy in which the role player flipped the lid of a console up and down several times as if he were nervous about being stopped by the police.

In the scenario, the officer ignored this nervous behavior until an Airsoft Glock was drawn from the console and he was “shot” three times in the chest. Later, the officer told me that when he saw the driver on the real traffic stop flipping his console lid up and down he “just knew that he had a gun. There was no thought, I just knew. I drew my gun and ordered him to show me his hands. After I took him into custody, I found a Smith & Wesson .357 inside the console.”

While the situation my trainee encountered on the job was almost eerily similar to his training scenario, an officer who has been properly trained will be able to recognize patterns of movement and behavior in situations far different from the scenarios enacted in training.

For example, regardless of the specific situation, the movements that tell of a concealed gun under a jacket or shirt, the torso twisting preparing the throw of a punch, or the shifting of the feet in preparation to flee are all patterns that can be incorporated into training and later recognized on the street. The number of patterns that can be used is endless and they can be based on past experience or regional behaviors or conditions.

The secret is to use a well-scripted scenario combined with roleplayers who will not lose control and allow the scenario(s) to degrade into silly behavior. Brief your roleplayers on the movements you wish them to make and the words you want them to speak so they will be significant to the event. If they are not significant, the pattern recognition will be lost. Be advised that “significant” does not necessarily equate to “obvious.”

The Airsoft Alternative

Don’t have the funding for Simunitions? This is no longer an excuse. The availability of quality Airsoft guns has made training with simulated ammunition possible for nearly every police department. Gas-operated Airsoft pistols work and feel just like real firearms and can be purchased for around $100. Four pistols with masks, propellant gas, and pellets can be purchased for under $1,000…easily within the budget of most agencies.

Airsoft guns shoot a small plastic pellet at a velocity around 400 feet per second and are accurate beyond 50 feet. These guns shoot as quickly as the operator can press the trigger and hit hard enough to give proper feedback (pain) if you are shot with one.

Because the pellet is so light, heavy clothing or padding is not necessary. Just cover the face and neck—and guys might want to wear a cup, though I never have—and most any location can become a training venue. However, it would be wise to remove or cover easily broken objects.

Airsoft guns are available via the Internet from a number of dealers. I have had good luck buying KWA Glock 19 and Heckler & Koch USP gas-powered Airsoft models this way.

Do Your Homework

Want more information on how to get started with Airsoft training so you can incorporate pattern recognition into your training program? One of the best and most cost-effective ways that I have found is to view the DVD training programs that Rich Daniel has produced. Daniel served in the Army Airborne and was an Oregon police defensive-skills instructor.

With an impressive resumé of training courses under his belt, Daniel has a training philosophy that emphasizes experience-based training and force-on-force scenarios. Through his company Fist, Feet, Knife, Gun Training, he offers a three-DVD set that demonstrates how to combine live-fire training drills with Airsoft training guns. He reveals the proper way to incorporate Airsoft training into drills involving shooting from cover, cover-to-cover movement, open-handed attacks, knife attacks, obstacles, low light, and breaking contact.

Daniel’s DVDs are well produced and offer solid tactical information. Thought provoking, concise, and even amusing in some areas, they’re well worth having. They are available at or Paladin Press at

Does Airsoft replace Simunitions? Absolutely not. Simunitions are fired from real firearms modified to handle the Simunitions training round. Sims guns withstand the same abuse that real guns can handle, including hard insertion of magazines, rugged slide cycling, and dropping the gun. Airsoft pistols will not stand up to the same level of abuse. However, they do work quite well at a very reasonable cost, so there is no longer a good excuse for not conducting quality force-on-force training to develop naturalistic decision making.

Dave Spaulding recently retired as a lieutenant from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Dayton, Ohio. He is a member of the Police Advisory Board and the author of “Defensive Living” and “Handgun Combatives,” both available from Looseleaf Law Publications (

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