In this conversation with John Hearne, we talk about what it takes to win a gunfight. Why do some people excel under extreme stress while others fail to perform? How can we train and practice to be better mentally prepared to face violence?

Details in the video below, or scroll down to read the full transcript.

Hey everybody, Chris Baker here from

Most defensive shooting instructors and content creators will at some point at least pay lip-service to concepts like awareness or mindset. But it’s very rare to find reliable, detailed, and actionable instruction on the mental side of preparing for a deadly force encounter. There are a handful of instructors doing some really good work in this area, and at the top of the list is John Hearne.

I first met John about seven years ago when I took his 8-hour seminar called “Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why.” I thought it was enough of a game-changer that I took it again the following year. John has since added a range class called Cognitive Pistol and Tactical Anatomy as a follow-up that builds on the principles he teaches in the lecture class. I had the opportunity to take that class a couple of weeks ago at Royal Range in Nashville. I highly recommend both classes. He teaches them a few times a year at different locations around the country.

While we were in Nashville, John was kind enough to let us ask him some questions on camera. We’ll start with a little of John’s background.

JOHN HEARNE: I have an interesting dual career track. I’ve been a currently-serving peace officer serving for about 30 years now, starting back in 1992.

On the other side of that, I have a strong academic background. I thought I was going to go on and get a PhD, ended up staying in law enforcement. So I’ve had this dual career of being able to work in law enforcement, see the good and bad side of humanity, and at the same time, use that to fuel my curiosity and research topics and use that to ground my research and presentations.

Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why?

Q: The big lecture you’ve been presenting for the last several years covers a ton of different topics, but they’re all inter-related. I think it’s all relevant for anyone who’s interested in human performance under stress. Can you talk about what all you cover in that presentation?

JH: The whole purpose of the lecture is to understand who wins, who loses and why in interpersonal conflict. And a big part of that is just being able to perform well under stress. So the talk isn’t necessarily applicable just to people in gunfights. It’s applicable to anybody in a high-stress environment, whether it’s a firefighter or a pilot dealing with an in-flight emergency.

We get into the weeds of human performance, human evolution, where people come from, how the mind functions under stress, how it transitions from an emotional state to a rational state. And ultimately, because the stakes are so high, how do we keep you in the rational state for as long as possible so you can perform all the skills, apply the knowledge you’ve been developing (hopefully) over the years, and actually be able to deliver that at a reasonable level when the need is present.

Thinking with a Gun in Your Hand

Q: Why is it important to be able to think with a gun in your hand?

JH: A lot of times when we go to shooting classes, I’m just performing a contrived drill. I know before whatever the start signal is — and it’s almost always an audible start signal when the real world only gives us visual start signals — I know before the drill even starts exactly what I can do. I can prepare in my head exactly what I need to deliver and it’s much easier to access that motor program and just deliver.

In the real world, I don’t know what motor program I’m going to need to deliver until the last possible moment. So, thinking with a gun in your hand is very useful from just the standpoint of, it’s just a useful skill to develop, but it’s also more reflective of the problems we’re going to solve in the real world.

One of my mentors called it ‘problem solving at the speed of fight’. I think that’s a good way to say that. What we’re trying to do is give you a chance to think with a gun in your hand, practice solving problems with the pistol as a tool. We need to think of the pistol as just another tool — a piece of emergency life-saving equipment. And we have to learn how to apply that as reality unfolds around us. We have to adapt to reality as it presents itself, not as some contrived drill tells us to do.

Q: Can you think of any specific examples where somebody had the technical skill to handle the problem in front of them, but wasn’t prepared for the mental load or the decision-making that was required?

JH: I’d say that we see that every day. If you watch badge cam, you’ll occasionally see some stellar rock stars on badge cams. But what we see most of the time is people that are barely surviving the confrontation primarily because they suck less than their opponents.

A really good example — a tragic example — is the murder of Deputy Kyle Dinkheller that took place down in Georgia. If you go back and look at the training on Dinkheller, his co-workers thought he was the best shot in the police department. If they had to pick one person to win a gunfight, they would have picked Kyle. but when you watch that video, you see that he did not handle that fight the way that he would have wanted to — or anybody would have wanted. We want the good guy to have won. So that would be a classic example that everybody is very familiar with of somebody not being able to perform well the moment the flag flies.

[Editor’s note: The Dinkheller murder is commonly presented as an example in officer survival training, but it’s not as well-known among the general public. Dashcam video of the incident is publicly available. The footage itself is not especially graphic visually, but the audio is disturbing. For defense-minded individuals, it is worth watching at least once.]

Technical Skill and Mental Capacity

Q: So having a high level of technical skill isn’t always enough by itself. But at the same time, I know you also advocate for pursuing a high level of skill because it can help with the mental side of things. Can you explain that?

JH: We have very finite mental resources. We’re not nearly as smart, don’t have nearly as much attention as we think we do. And when you get under stress, you’re gonig to have even less of those resources. So the better technical shooter you are, that’s going to free up mental resources to be able to solve the problem at hand.

If you have to think about how to run the gun, you can’t think about where your nearest point of cover is, whether I need to perform a failure drill. So by having very high levels of technical competency, it frees your mind up to solve that problem.

There’s a video that just came out — a body cam video — where an officer is getting in a gunfight and literally every time he tries to get a mag in the gun, it’s backwards and he’s struggling just to get the gun [into the fight]. If you’re struggling to get the gun reloaded, you can’t be thinking about where your next point of cover is, where other officers are moving to. So again, high levels of technical shooting are vital because it frees our mental resources to focus on other aspects of the fight that we need to be more worried about.

Q: Can you talk about the importance of gun-handling skills: the stuff we do with a gun other than actually shoot it?

JH: It comes back to core competence. If I want to know whether somebody is a competent shot, I want to see how they handle the gun. How they load, unload, press-check, perform reloads and stuff like that.

The way you handle the gun is indicative of the amount of training you’ve put in overall and how much the gun is an extension of your self. There’s a great quote from Bill Lewinsky that the expert has automatic use of the tool. How you handle the gun is directly reflective how expert you really really are.

So, maybe you can shoot 100 points on a bullseye at 25 yards. But if it looks like a train wreck getting the gun up, if it takes you forever to do that… Being able to press the trigger straight back is great, but how you handle the gun is more indicative than just about anything else I can look at if I want to size you up as a shooter real quick.

A Frank Denial of Reality

Q: Tom Givens has talked about the phenomenon where victims of violent crime often report afterward that the only thing going through their head at the time of the attack was “why is this happening to me?” What can we do to prepare mentally to avoid that kind of mental block and go right to problem solving mode?

JH: “Why is this happening to me,” is just a frank denial of reality. Criminal violence happens every day. I mean, just look at the murder rate that’s gone up in the last couple of years. Murders spiking off the screen.

It should not be a shock to your conscious that somebody’s trying to rape, cripple, rob you, murder you, something like that. That happens over three million times every year. Just as a matter of odds, it was probably going to be your chance sooner or later.

So, the biggest problem we have is to accept the unfolding reality in front of us. You have to be in the position where you can say, “I knew that some person might try to hurt me, harm me, or something like that. I didn’t know it was going to be today, but I recognized it as a possibility, so I’ve prepared for it. I’ve got a mental parking space in my head for what I have to do. And I have the technical skills to back that up.”

Q: Anybody can take steps to prepare themselves to handle highly stressful events, but is there an element of personality involved as well? Are some people just naturally better at remaining calm under pressure?

JH: There’s definitely some personality aspects to that. We have this thing called the Big Five personalities. We know people that tend to be higher on the neuroticism scale tend to be more likely to freeze under stress.

So there is, in fact, a personality attribute to that. But a lot of these have to do with subjective trainable impressions. A lot of how your situation is is just a result of how bad you think it is. So if we can change your situation — your assessment of how bad something is — we can make the problem easier for you to solve.

If you do have high levels of technical skill and you have a very easy shooting problem, there’s no stress associated with that. You can deliver that all day, every day, twice on Sunday, and it’s not a big deal.

Developing Emotional Control

Q: Are there any hobbies or careers or other pursuits outside of defense-specific training that can help us learn to better adapt to high-pressure situations?

JH: Something we have to understand is what we’re struggling to do first and foremost is develop emotional control. We’re trying to let the sub-conscious trust the rational mind and let it stay in control of the problem.

There’s research that comes to us out of the military, out of the selection for high-end military units. There are certain recreational activities like skydiving, rock climbing, and motorcycle racing. People that excel in those three arenas tend to do very, very well in high-end military units because all those skills basically require that you be able to maintain self-control, you be able to perform fine motor skills while under, literally, life and death stress.

I also think it goes to — that’s your idea of fun. We’re always assessing the problem in terms of “how bad is this?” Well, people that go out and engage in those kind of activities, their “how bad” meter is kind of broken, for lack of a better word. They’re certainly not like normal folks. So when they get into difficult situations, their idea of how bad it is — it doesn’t even blip the radar, so they’re able to perform much better.

Reality-Based Training

Q: Where should a shooter be in terms of skill level before they co consider incorporating things like force-on-force training or increasing their cognitive load – training that goes beyond just putting holes in paper?

JH: I think that, obviously, you have to be able to hit. Because ultimately — this is what’s different from real world problems and a lot of other stuff. The gun is just a tool. And it’s no different than any other tool that I might use in work.

So, let’s just use a tool that we’re all familiar with: the car. At what point do you have to be good enough with a car to be able to take a racing course? Well, you have to be able to get the car into gear, make it go forward and backward and understand steering inputs and stuff like that.

But a lot of times, if you’ll get into something at the advanced level, you’ll learn the skills quicker because you’re being pushed. Obviously, you have to be able to be safe with the gun, be aware of your trigger finger, muzzle discipline.

I would say there’s three gradations of skill when we talk about this stuff. The first skill is you have to have enough trigger control to be able to press the trigger without disturbing the sights. The next level of trigger control for me is being able to change the amount of trigger control you need to solve a problem based on available targets. And finally, you need to be able to track your sights. That would be the ultimate goal.

Realistically, if you can just press the trigger straight back without disturbing the sights, if you can do that consistently, you have enough basic level of skill to start to learn how to do this stuff. I would say that learning to do it in the more proper context where you’re actually going to be doing it is probably more important than being really really great.

You don’t have to be able to shoot a two-second Bill Drill to take advantage of a force-on-force class. The great advantage of force on force class is letting you build the mental maps you need to solve the problems. If you have to have a one-second draw to solve your shooting problem, you’ve probably screwed up a lot of stuff to get in that much of a hole where a one second draw is going to make the difference. If you’re surviving by a tenth or a quarter of a second, you’ve screwed up a lot of stuff way in advance before you get there. The importance of a good force-on-force class is to teach you all that other stuff that you have to have in order to do well.

Variation in Training

JH: A lot people out there in the community are like, “well I’m not going to do this or that because…” their reasons — “it’s not tactical, I’ll get training scars, that’s not realistic,” and stuff like that. The problem is there is no single training thing that we can do that teaches us everything we need to know. So what we need to do is go out and work all these different training modes and take something from each one of them.

A lot of people say “just plinking with a gun doesn’t help.” No, I think it does. First off, shooting well is not a natural act. So even if you’re just popping tin cans with your .22, you’re exposing yourself to gunfire, you’re showing your mind that if I follow the shot process, I get the hits I want. And we can make it match up with their reality. So if I’m a red dot guy with my pistol, my 10/22, my 15-22 probably needs to have a red dot on it so I get that training crossover. If I’m still shooting an iron sighted pistol, maybe I plink with iron sights. But even something as simple as plinking tin cans has training value.

And we can go up from there, whether I’m doing structured practice, structured dry practice, I’m shooting matches, I’m doing man-on-man events, I’m attending professional training, I’m taking cognitive classes, I’m doing video simulators. All that stuff has value and if we put all of those different experiences in different kind of modalities of training together, then we have a very competent shooter. Because none of those things is going to be the solution by itself, but if we put them all together we can build a very strong foundation to let us be able to perform well when the flag flies.

Huge thanks to John for sharing (free of charge!) a couple of the valuable insights he’s learned over his long years of study. If you want to take a class with John, head over to his website to see his training schedule.

Next time, we’re going to look at a couple of drills John showed us that you can try at the range to add some mental complexity to your practice sessions.

Until then, I’ll leave you with one more tip to make your life better. If you’ve just completed a magic trick and you want everyone to applaud, the word you’re looking for is “voila.” Not walla. It’s V-O-I-L-A – with a V as in “Victor.” It’s a French word that basically means “look at this.” It’s not “walla” like the city in Washington.

But you can pronounce it however you want. I won’t judge as long as you get your ammo from us with lightning fast shipping at

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