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Training: Body Alarm Reaction

If you are ever in the unfortunate situation of being in a lethal force encounter, your body will be in a heightened state of alarm and will react with chemical and physiological changes. When sensing danger, Body Alarm Reaction (BAR) subconsciously takes over. Under perceived threat, the body, using its natural instinct to survive, produces an adrenal dump that causes increases in pulse rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It also amplifies strength and situational concentration. While those reactions are good for the physical body, they create various physical consequences, which can be distracting and harmful if you don’t know that they are imminent. The good news is that by understanding them, you can counteract them and fight through them.

Man pointing a 1911 pistol at the camera

Facing a gun causes tunnel vision and other body alarm actions.

Physical BAR responses can include tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, decreased dexterity in extremities (especially fingers), impaired thinking, and a distorted sense of time and distance.

Everyone has already experienced BAR in some form or another. That sick feeling in your stomach and chest that instantly occurs when you are involved in a near-miss automobile accident is BAR. Not everyone will experience all BAR reactions, and the intensity will vary for each individual. While these responses sound debilitating, as I said, understanding them will lessen their effects and will enable you to fight through them.

Tunnel vision will restrict your vision to the threat at hand and auditory exclusion will reduce your hearing. You may hear nothing, or you might hear your adversary and nothing else. Many people report not even hearing the sound of their own gun. The danger in this is obvious.

Man pointing a 1911 pistol at the camera

Lower the gun just enough to see over it and threat scan in both directions.

Being oblivious to your surroundings may allow a second criminal to flank you, or you may not hear the commands of a police officer attempting to intervene. To mitigate these responses, after you are involved in a shooting and the bad guy is neutralized, keep your gun on the threat and do a visual scan. If you have a safety or a decocker, engage it. Lower your gun slightly, so you can see over it. Look to the right, and then back to the threat. Look to the left, then back to the threat.

Once the initial scan is done, do it again—looking farther around and farther away. Make threat-scanning part of your practice routine. Every time you finish shooting a string in practice, threat scan before holstering in order to make scanning second nature.

Decreased dexterity in your extremities will reduce your ability to perform fine motor skills. That means that you probably won’t even be able to feel whether your finger is on the trigger, and manipulating a small mechanism such as a slide stop may be impossible. While we can’t change those effects, training can help overcome them.

Actuating the slide stop on a 1911 pistol

Actuating the slide stop is a fine motor skill that will be diminished with the effects of BAR.

Train with gross movements. Instead of using that tiny slide stop, use a gross movement to grip the slide from the rear to rack it for loading. It may take two hands to manipulate devices such as safeties and magazine catch releases. Well-honed motor skills and high competence through training will enable you to overcome the effect of reduced dexterity.

Increased pulse rate, blood pressure, and breathing will most likely make your body shake. The good news is that at combat distances, the shaking will not affect your ability to hit the target. I did not believe it myself until I tried it. Stand 10 feet or so from a target and shake your hands while shooting to simulate your body’s reaction. While the group size certainly opens up, even with shaking, accuracy at combat distances is good enough. It is a good idea to practice this regularly to build confidence for when it happens for real.

A distorted sense of time and distance will do crazy things to your recollection of events. Time may seem to slow dramatically or speed up excessively. You may think you are 30 feet apart, when in reality you may only be standing 8 feet away. While these effects cannot be mitigated, it is imperative to understand them when making statements to the responding police.

racking the slide on a 1911 pistol

The gross movement of racking the slide will be easier to perform under the influence of BAR.

It is imperative not to give the police any statements at the time of the shooting for this exact reason. You don’t want to tell them that you heard one gunshot when five were fired, and you don’t want to tell them you were 30 feet away from your adversary when in reality you were much closer. Your distorted memory can get you in trouble. That’s why it is imperative to inform the responding officers only that the perpetrator attacked you, tried to kill you, and you had to defend yourself. Advise them that you wish to seek counsel with an attorney before making a statement.

A Providence Rhode Island tragedy was possibly the result of the effects of Body Alarm Reaction. Officer Cornel Young, an off-duty, rookie police officer, intervened in an altercation involving firearms outside of a restaurant that he was in at about 2 am. Responding officers found a man with his gun aimed at two people involved in a fight, and did not recognize him, as it was dark and Officer Young was dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, backlit by a streetlight.

Man with a handgun scanning for threats

Make threat-scanning part of your practice routine. Every time you finish shooting a string in practice, threat scan before holstering in order to make scanning second nature.

Not recognizing that Young was a fellow police officer, the two responding officers ordered Young three times to drop his weapon. Young then turned toward the officers, pointing his gun at them, and was fatally shot by the police. The shooting was ruled as justified, because the victim did not identify himself as a police officer, refused three orders to drop his gun, and then pointed the gun at the officers when turning toward them.

While we will never know, I believe that the effects of Body Alarm Reaction caused this terrible chain of events. It is my theory that tunnel vision kept Officer Young from knowing that police officers had arrived on the scene, and that auditory exclusion kept him from hearing the police officers’ orders to drop his gun. When Young turned his head toward the police officers to see what was happening, his body naturally turned with him, aiming his gun toward the police and triggering his fatal shooting. If Officer Young had realized that he may not be seeing and hearing everything, and had he threat scanned with his gun pointing toward the real threat instead of letting it follow his head movements toward the police, events may have had a very different ending.

It is important to realize the effects that Body Alarm Reaction will produce. The way to overcome BAR is through understanding and training. Develop confidence and competence through training, practice visualization of what to do in a lethal situation, and trust your trained instincts.

have you ever experienced Body Alarm Reaction? Do you train for it? How? Share your answers in the comment section.


David Kenik is the owner of Armed Response, author of the book, Armed Response, and co-author of the Armed Response Video Training Series. www.armedresponsetraining.com

The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!’s blog, “The Shooter’s Log,” is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

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