Muscle Memory

We hear this phrase regularly.  But what is muscle memory?  Muscle memory is the act of committing a specific motor task into memory through repetition.

We all do it.  When Tiger Woods was in his prime, and did not have a match, he would practice hitting thousands of golf balls a day, allowing him to be the best golfer in the world.  He committed the motor task of his golf swing to memory.  And everyday people commit everyday motor tasks to memory too.  Every time we want to start our car engines, we instinctively put our foot on the brake pedal before pressing the “start” button or turning the ignition.  We have committed the task of stepping on the brake pedal to memory BEFORE we attempt to start the car.

In the gun world, muscle memory is THE most important thing a gun owner can learn and use, both on a physical level and on a mental level.  More important than aiming.  More important than breathing, or trigger pull.  This is what’s known as a “conditioned response”. Remember this phrase: “Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong“.

Let’s start with the physical level.  Before we even consider shooting rounds downrange, gun owners need to know and be able to operate every control on their gun(s)…racking the slide, releasing the slide lock, dropping the magazine, opening the cylinder, inspecting an empty chamber, etc. All these actions must be committed to memory under a variety of circumstances.  One circumstance is pitch darkness. If your gun is for home defense and stored in a nightstand, and a home invasion occurs at 3:00 am, as you reach for your gun out of your nightstand, you need to know if a round is chambered, if the magazine is inserted and if the safety is on or off before engaging the threat.  You cannot ask the intruder “hold on, I need to load my gun”.  Another circumstance is being able to quickly draw your gun from your holster in an attempt to stop a violent attack.  You cannot ask the assailant “hold on, I can’t get my gun out of its holster”.  A third circumstance is weather.  If you need to draw your gun for self defense outside when the temperature is below freezing, you may have gloves on during the draw.  You should practice drawing with gloves on.  You cannot ask the attacker “hold on, I need to remove my gloves.”  Conversely, if the temperature is 94 degrees and the humidity is 90%, drawing with sweaty hands could be a problem.  Therefore, you need to practice that extreme as well.  Again, you cannot say “hold on, I need to dry my hands.”

And practice you must. There are law enforcement agencies out there, some even at the federal level, which do not budget dollars or time for their officers / agents to practice at the range. And it shows! There are measurable statistics available which demonstrate that the hit rate (the percentage of the number of shots fired vs the number of shots hitting their target), in this case the bad guy hit rate of officer-involved shootings is only about 14%. That means that only 14% of the time did the officers hit the bad guys. That is embarrassing, simply because these officers don’t practice enough for their highly stressful jobs.

I teach these muscle memory actions in my class, but the classroom hands-on practicing only goes so far.  With everything I cover in class, there is simply not enough time in a class to teach you and work with you to draw your gun from its holster as many times as it takes for you to feel comfortable and commit the motor task to memory.  You have to take what is taught in my class and practice it at home, repeatedly until you can perform the motor task instinctively.  Practice racking the slide 100 times, 200 times, however many times it takes.

Now, let’s move on to the mental level.  After the class introductions, the first thing I teach in my classes are the Rules of Safe Gun Handling.  Since I am NRA certified, I use the NRA rules, three of them.  In my class, the three rules are read aloud in unison by all attendees.  Then, at various points throughout the class, the rules are repeated…and repeated.  But again, but with the volume of topics I cover, there is not enough time to repeat those three rules as often as necessary for students to commit them to memory while in class.  They need to do that at home, by repeating those three rules in their home. So, to that end, I provide NRA postcards for students to take with them, so they can stick the postcard on the refrigerator door, bathroom mirror, or anywhere desired in order to learn the rules and commit them to memory.  If, in the future, if I meet a student on the street, they should be able to recite the three rules to me instinctively.

Now, there is another mental level concept that requires muscle memory…your state’s gun laws.  But the topic is so vast, it is the subject of another post.