Searching And Assessing
I didn’t think there was much controversy on this topic, but recent video and blog posts by well-known instructors, together with the opinions of various lesser-known people (like me!) on the forums, has indicated the opposite. Thus, I thought I would present my own view on this topic.
What Is It?
Searching and Assessing, sometimes going by other names, like Scanning and Assessing, is a technique that some instructors teach their students to employ post-shooting. After the threat has been neutralized, the shooter will scan to the left and right of the original target as well as over both shoulders. The primary rationale for doing so is to identify other threats that may have presented themselves while the shooter was focused on the original threat. A secondary benefit is that the shooter can identify possible “good guys” arriving on the scene, and then respond to their directions accordingly.
What’s The Controversy?
There are two bits of controversy on searching and assessing that I’ve run across in recent weeks. One of these surrounds how to actually perform this task. Some advocate doing it the way I described above. Others advocate a complete body turn/spin in order to fully scan all 360 degrees.
The second controversy involves doing it at all, at least when training. The argument is that people just do it by rote, and while they are looking, they are not really SEEING what’s behind or around them. In my own experiences in training classes, instructors might stand behind the line holding up fingers or other objects and then ask the students what they saw. More often than not, the students “saw” nothing.
I will explain how I do my search and assess and add in the “why” I do it. Please note that much of what I do is as I learned from Paul Howe (see my AARs of classes I took with him here and here), who is not a guy who teaches a lot of techniques “for show.” There are also some elements I’ve borrowed from other instructors as well. Since this blog is primarily focused on the civilian legally carrying a handgun, we will keep our focus there:
- I fire my pistol (once, twice, seven times, whatever it takes for bad guy to go down).
- Finger off trigger and pistol held slightly lower, so I’m just looking over the sights, I scan 10-20 degrees right and the same to the left. No more targets have appeared.
- Lowering pistol toward bad guy on ground and looking over my sights, I check him out. If he’s making moves toward a gun or other threatening gestures, I do what I must. If he appears out of the fight, I move to the next step.
- I bring the pistol into a compressed high ready position. Arms are relaxed (I can only hope, after what I just did!), elbows touching the sides of my rib cage, pistol held with both hands right in front of my sternum, muzzle slightly elevated. I do this to protect the pistol from any disarm attempt that may come from my sides or rear. Yet the pistol can be quickly and effectively employed to service the original bad guy again, should he get a little Lazarus thing going on.
- I turn my head and look over my left shoulder, and then over my right. I do this in a relatively deliberate manner, not the quick, partial head turns often seen in range videos. If you’re going to do it, you need to give more than just a token effort. This is not supposed to be lip-service; you need to not just look but actually SEE. If more bad guys appear from those directions, I will orient and shoot. If auditory exclusion has set in, there may be good guys approaching and giving me instructions. If I’d instead done the full body pirouette, I would now be pretty much pointing a gun at police. Not good. Better to see them coming, drop the gun if necessary, etc. Also, if I did the full body turn, I would have now turned my back on a known threat (the bad guy I put down) all for the sake of possible threats from my rear. No thanks.
- If all is clear, I look at the bad guy again and make sure he’s not doing anything threatening.
- If I feel it is necessary, I might now execute a tactical reload, swapping out the partially spent magazine for a fresh one.
- One final step is to do a self-check. Have I been wounded? Am I bleeding from anywhere? In an adrenalized moment, I may not realize I have been hit. The best way to check is probably to do a swipe with the weak-hand, wiping over one leg, checking the hand, wiping the other leg, checking the hand, wiping the torso, checking the hand, etc. Always check the hand for blood after each body region; if you wait until you’ve wiped over everything, you won’t know where the blood is coming from.
One mantra to help you through this, after the bad guy is down, is say to yourself (or even aloud): is he down? Does he have any friends? How’s my gun? How am I?
How Do I Train For This?
When I go to the range, I’m not always practicing searching and assessing. It all depends on what I’m doing. If I’m just practicing marksmanship fundamentals at 25 yards, then I’m not going to search and assess after each shot. On range trips, I would say the only time I practice my search and assess is when I’m practicing draw and fire drills. I will draw, fire whatever number of rounds the drill calls for, search and assess, perhaps perform a tactical reload, reholster, and do it all again. In short, I try to keep it contextual and relevant. And no, I don’t care if the guy in the next lane gives me funny looks.
Okay, so what about the naysayers who say that, if you practice doing it all the time, you will just be “going through the motions” and not really SEE? All those many years ago, when I was learning to drive, I was taught to ALWAYS look over my shoulder when changing lanes. NEVER rely only on your mirrors, because there are always blind spots. Today, decades after learning to drive, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I changed lanes without looking over my shoulder. Dead of night, empty road, I look. Why? I mean, 99% of the time I KNOW there is no one there. I drive defensively and have a good feel for where other cars are on the road around me. But there is that 1% of the time when I put on my turn signal and turn my head, look over my shoulder, and realize someone has sneaked into my blind spot. All those times that I looked and saw empty road did not prevent me from seeing that vehicle in my blind spot when I needed to. THAT is why I practice my search and assess.
Not practicing searching and assessing is like not practicing any of the other fundamentals of marksmanship. It seems silly to say, “Well, I already know how to grip a pistol correctly, so I’m not going to practice it. I’ll do it right when it’s needed.” To me, building in that “muscle memory” of searching and assessing post-shooting is critical if we are going to perform it when the chips are down. Having been in one life-or-death struggle in my life (it didn’t involve self-defense), I can attest to the existence of task-fixation, tunnel vision, and, to a lesser degree, auditory exclusion that can occur. Training your body to search and assess post-shooting is critical in order to avoid these issues in what may be the toughest few seconds of your life. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this and can’t really come up with any negative outcomes to training in this way, and yet the benefits, as I see it, are immense.