Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Spencer Blue, a writer with an extensive background in law enforcement, military, and training armed civilians in firearms and the use of deadly force. He currently works as a detective with a major metropolitan police department the Midwest. You can read his full bio here. This post is the first in a series on decision making and the mental side of preparing for a violent encounter. Spencer brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table on this topic and we’re excited to share his thoughts with you guys here. -CB
We often go to the range, dry fire, take various shooting classes, and agonize over the right handgun/holster/ammunition set up in order to improve our technical skills and give ourselves the best chance of prevailing in a defensive shooting. However, the actual shooting is only a small part of the equation for success. While technical skill is certainly desirable, it’s often the simplest part of the task at hand once a modicum of gun handling and shooting skill is learned and practiced. Beyond pulling the trigger, the ability to observe relevant information, use that information to make plans, and then decide which of those plans to put into action are instrumental in a successful outcome. These abilities may help you avoid the shooting entirely, and failing that, to act in a manner that gives you the best odds of both surviving the fight and of doing so in a legally and ethically justifiable manner. This cycle is often referred to as the “OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop”, and I’d like to show you why it’s important to those who carry a weapon defensively to train for more than just the Act.
The concept originated within the US Air Force but is readily adaptable to the civilian carrying a firearm for personal protection. Any self-defense situation, including a gun fight, is likely to be a tense, uncertain, and a rapidly evolving situation that will require many travels through the “loop”. Do not think of this as a step by step process with a definite beginning and end. It is more of a tank tread, constantly rotating to pull you through your fight. Our goal is to get through our loop as quickly as possible while disrupting our opponent’s progress.
Scenario: Armed Robbery
Let’s take a look at a fairly common random crime scenario and then see how the OODA loop is adapted to our hypothetical armed citizen:
Consider a man closing his store for the day. He sets the alarm and locks his door. His conscious mind is occupied with thoughts of where he should stop to buy dinner on his way home as he walks to his car in the parking lot. It’s dark, but security lights illuminate the parking lot enough to see anyone approaching, at least as a silhouette. As he approaches his vehicle, he hears a man ask if he’s got a cigarette lighter.
At this point, we can say Observe is synonymous with “Situational Awareness”. You must be aware of the problem before you can take any further steps. Due to the store owner’s inattention, he is stuck in the first step of “Observe” until the man announces his presence by asking for a lighter.
The store owner turns toward the voice and sees a man standing within a few feet of him. He’s casually holding a knife at his side. Surprised at the sight of the knife, the store owner does not respond to the request for a lighter. The man then holds up the knife and demands the store owner’s wallet.
The store keeper is briefly stuck in the loop. He has Observed the man and is attempting to Orient in light of this new information. Orienting can be thought of as changing our world view to encompass the new information. We must accept the new reality as reality (instead of confronting the new information with denial), realize what the new information means so we can move on to Decide. We’ve all been stunned by new and surprising information, and, at that time, we were stuck in Orient.
The store owner realizes the man is a mugger and that he’s armed. The store owner briefly considers his options. He realizes he can comply and give up his wallet. He sees alternatives of attempting to flee or of drawing a concealed handgun in his waistband and resisting the robbery.
The store owner is now in Decide. He is rapidly creating plans, mentally simulating their outcomes, and then either accepting or rejecting the plan. In stressful and time-sensitive decision making such as this, he will rely heavily on his subconscious and will be looking for the first acceptable plan, not the absolute best plan.
The store owner decides his best course of action is to resist. He decides to initially feign compliance, then create a distraction, then access and draw his concealed handgun. He tells the man, “Ok, ok, I don’t want any trouble” and begins to reach for his wallet.
The store owner is now in Act. He has successfully completed Decide with a plan that has an acceptable level of risk and likelihood of success for his own tolerances. However, this is not the end. Now he must go through the OODA loop again to evaluate his plan as it unfolds so that he can adapt to new information, altering the plan if required.
This store owner’s arm moves behind his body as though reaching for a wallet.
The store owner will now Observe the reaction of the mugger. What are his facial expressions and body language? Does he respond verbally to the movement? Does he advance or become more threatening with the knife?
The mugger stands his ground and waits, shifting his weight slightly from foot to foot.
The store owner Observes this and Orients to this information. He believes this indicates the mugger is not suspicious of his movement and believes he is complying. The mugger is planning to run, as he subconsciously moves his feet. He Decides to continue with his plan without alteration and begins to Act.
The shopkeeper establishes a grip on his pistol, looks over the mugger’s shoulder and shouts “Help! He’s trying to rob me!” as though a passerby was now in the parking lot. The mugger jerks, and looks over his own shoulder.
The store owner can now Observe that the mugger is distracted, Orient to the fact he is no longer under direct observation, Decide to move away from the mugger and draw his handgun as he moves, and then Act by putting that plan to work.
The store owner moves backward at a diagonal as he draws his firearm, points it at the mugger, and orders him to drop the knife. The mugger looks at the store owner, jerks back as he realizes his “victim” is now armed, turns and flees.
The store owner must once again Observe the mugger’s reaction. The mugger is fleeing. He Orients himself and realizes this means the mugger has abandoned the fight. He Decides to not fire at the fleeing mugger and to continue to Observe. He Acts by lowering his pistol and watching the mugger flee. The store owner will continue to do so until he is satisfied he is no longer under threat.
We’ve looked at this through the eyes of the store owner, but, of course, the mugger is doing the same thing. He must also constantly go through the OODA loop, select a victim with an acceptable risk to potential reward, evaluate how the robbery is going (is the victim compliant? Should I flee? Should I fight?), etc. If we can interrupt our opponent’s OODA loop so that he never gets to Act, we can maintain initiative and dictate the course of the fight. By distracting the mugger with an unexpected shout and the potential for a witness, our hypothetical shopkeeper was able to do just that.
Failure to Adapt
In real investigations, I often speak with victims who simply could not get through the OODA loop quickly enough to mount an effective defense. They generally suffered from one or all of the following:
- They did not see trouble coming quickly enough to avoid it or to begin to formulate a plan to deal with it (Observe).
- When confronted, they entered denial (this isn’t happening to me, he’s just joking, or freezing) and did not adapt their thought processes to the reality now confronting them (Orient).
- They had never considered what they would do if confronted with a violent criminal, had minimal or no training, and could not make an acceptable plan as quickly as events unfolded (Decide).
- They defaulted to compliance and were victimized, or they formulated a plan too late, or they put the plan into action too late to effect their victimization. (Act)
We must be able to transition from step to step and from loop to loop quickly and smoothly if we wish to prevail in self-defense. In future articles, we will go into each step in more detail looking at things like how to prepare and hone our skills related to that step, how to disrupt our opponent’s transition from that step, and the unique dangers faced while stuck in a particular step.