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Is Scanning Really an After Action Drill?

Chris Upchurch

Over on the Paragon Pride forums Roger Phillips posted a thread about After Action Drills that raised the utility of a quick check left and right before starting a more detailed scan. Something about this bothered me, but it took a while to put my finger on it. It wasn’t the quick check itself, there’s definitely a place for a quick glance prior to a more detailed scan.

Eventually I hit on what was bugging me: it wasn’t the quick check, it was the fact that it was presented as part of the after-action drill.

In firearms training we tend to draw a very sharp line between the shooting portion of the fight and the after action drills. They are generally presented separately, in different segments of the course, and trained sequentially. You shoot, then you do the after action. Two separate things. On the other end of the fight, we do much the same when we teach pre-fight maneuvering. This is what you do before the fight. This is what you do during the fight. This is what you do after the fight.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, the problem arises because drills practicing the shooting portion of the fight are, by necessity, very choreographed. Live fire drills are dangerous, especially with multiple shooters on the range, so for safety’s sake everybody has to be on the same page: you will start standing here, you will take three steps, you will shoot this target, you will stop here and go no further. Everybody knows exactly what they’re supposed to do going in. If the drill is a complicated one we may even rehearse it dry before shooting it live fire.

So, we end up teaching people to scan for additional threats during pre-fight maneuvering, teaching them to scan as part of the after action process, and teaching them to shoot on autopilot. This is not deliberate. I don’t know of any instructors who would say that this is their goal. It’s a side effect of how we teach this stuff.

The reality is that scanning for additional threats should be an ongoing process throughout the fight. The quick check that Roger mentioned needs to be integrated into the gunfight itself. We need to be looking for additional threats that we didn’t see before, or that have emerged since the last time we looked. We need to constantly be spinning our OODA loop, gathering new information and reacting appropriately while we are actively involved in the gunfight.

None of this is to say that scanning shouldn’t be a part of the after-action process. The end of the immediate fight is an opportunity to conduct a more detailed and deliberate scan than we have time for during the fight itself.

I should emphasize that while Roger inspired this line of thought, this is not directed specifically at him. It’s an inherent part of how we teach people to fight with firearms, and it’s something that affects every instructor in this business that I’ve seen, including me.

So what’s the solution? This is where the author traditionally decries the limitations of the square range and extolls the virtue of force-on-force as the solution. . . . Except, I’ve seen the exact same thing in force on force classes. Force on force drills are often almost as choreographed as live fire drills. While you do have a living, reacting opponent and more freedom than a live-fire drill, FoF drills are still structured. Your opponent is instructed to provide you with a certain stimulus, a certain pattern or series of actions for you to respond to and if they’re a good training partner, that’s what they’ll do. Without this structure, FoF drills tend to degenerate into a game of one-upsmanship by a bunch of type-A personalities, rather than providing the repeated stimulus and response necessary for the student to learn the skill being taught. The one place where in-fight scanning does tend to show up in force-on-force drills is in multiple adversary drills. This is of necessity because the multiple adversaries aren’t going to be perfectly coordinated and the good guy needs to react to whichever one of the adversaries initiates first.

The real distinction here is not live-fire versus force-on-force, it’s drills versus scenarios. Whether it’s live fire or FoF, scenario based training not only gives you the opportunity to scan during the fight, it forces you to do so. You have to scan, spin your OODA loop, and react appropriately.

I’ve been lucky enough to do quite a bit of scenario based firearms training. Much of my formative experience was with the Utah Polite Society, live fire scenarios were their stock-in-trade. I took several classes from John Farnam that involved FoF scenarios, and attended the National Tactical Invitational, which was entirely composed of scenario based events, both FoF and live fire.

While this training was incredibly valuable, it’s also very difficult to integrate scenario-based training into a traditional firearms class. In addition to inherently being a one shooter at a time type of deal, it requires time to set up and debrief afterwards for each scenario. Meaning you spend a lot more time standing around than you do participating. Scenarios also usually require a pretty broad spectrum of shooting skills, new students probably need at least a day of training before they’re ready for scenarios (and in the instructor a day of assessing the students’s skills before he’s comfortable turning them loose in a relatively free-form scenario, especially if it’s live fire).

So while scenario-based training is really the ultimate for teaching in-fight scanning, practical considerations prevent it from being the sole, or even primary, means of teaching it. I’m inclined to try to bring the scanning process into the drill-based structure used in most shooting classes. For example, present students with an array of several targets, each with their own characteristics (preferably photorealistic targets) and have the instructor call out specific characteristics indicating which target for students to shoot (for instance “the guy with the moustache has a gun”, “the guy with the Red Sox jersey”). Call out multiple targets in sequence to force the student to integrate their scan with their shooting.

On the force-on-force side of things, I’d build on the scanning aspects of multiple-adversary drills. Multiple adversaries are tough and often lead to students getting shot up pretty good (2 on 1 with live adversaries is bad, 3 on 1 is much worse) so rather than having 2-3 opponents open up on the student every time, have 2-3 possible opponents and force the student to recognize which one of them is the BG. Follow this up by having one adversary initiate the action and a second one jump in after the student engages the first BG. Again, this forces the student to make their scan part of the fight, not an afterthought.

At the most fundamental level, I think there needs to be a change in how the scan is presented. It should not just be introduced as part of the after-action drill. It needs to be presented separately, preferably before the after-action drill, and the instructor should emphasize that scanning for additional threats or new developments is something that should be done continuously, from before the fight starts through the fight itself and continuing until after it’s over. The after-action drill is just an opportunity for a more deliberate and detailed scan than we can manage in the middle of the fight.