Muscle memory is that thing you do when your brain isn’t telling your body what to do. The instant reaction is initiated by your body’s reflexes, but it’s the muscle memory that dictates how you do something. I was in law enforcement for nearly five years before I was shot at for the first time. I remember the sound of the bullet and the strange cracking noise it made as it hit a tree over my head. The only thing going through my head was, “I’m being shot at.”
What I don’t remember is dropping my binoculars to the ground, bringing my rifle up from my sling, and flipping off the safety. That part just happened on its own. I was thinking about where to take cover, but my body was ready to shoot something. This was likely due to my training on the range. Building muscle memory is a necessity for self-defense situations because your brain is overwhelmed and has no time to process.
Here’s an example. If someone were to spontaneously throw something toward your face, your hands would go up to catch or block it. After analyzing what you did, I’m sure you could explain why you caught it or blocked it with your hands. But when it happened, there was no conversation in your head about what to do. You didn’t have to decide which hand would be better to use based on the angle and speed of the object coming toward your face. You just reacted without thinking. This is a reflex. But when more than just a quick reaction is needed, your muscle memory kicks in, if it’s there. Here are some tips to build good muscle memory.
Repetition Builds Muscle Memory
The trick to building muscle memory is to do something over and over again. Repetition teaches your muscles to act without your brain. Everyone has muscle memory and uses it daily. Most of the time, we don’t realize we are using it until something changes that makes it obvious.
When I drive my truck after being in a patrol car all week, I frequently reach up for the gear shifter. My truck has an electronic shifter on the dash so there is no gear shifter sticking out from the side of the steering wheel. I grasp at the air before realizing I’m in a different car and there is no gear-shifter by the steering wheel. Anything we learn and do repeatedly becomes muscle memory. Driving a car, using the kitchen sink, turning on a light switch.
Our body does a lot of stuff without the brain needing to process each action. This is why it is so important that we pay attention when training with firearms. Even if you’re just out having some fun, you’re building muscle memory. This can be good or bad muscle memory, and it’s harder to undo the bad.
The best way to develop good muscle memory with firearms is to start at the beginning. Gun safety, holstering, re-holstering, shooting, etc. are all areas to monitor. We can do something deliberately on a repeated basis to develop our muscle memory so this is where we can get it right. Move slowly and deliberately each time. Let your body learn.
Start slow. Speed is not everything.
You may have heard the saying, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. This could not be more true than when dealing with firearms. After a training event a while back, some of the guys wanted to see who could shoot the two-gun obstacle the fastest. We pulled out the stopwatch and started taking turns. Most of them tried to run through the course and stop briefly to shoot.
Some even tried shooting while they were still moving. This did not work well for them, and their extra shots resulted in time being added to their score. The guy who beat everyone did not move nearly as fast. He almost slowed to a stop at most of the targets and had very few misses. It was not as fun watching him go because he didn’t do anything cool or exciting. But when we added up the times, guess who won…
If you want to be fast at something, you need to be good and smooth at it first. Quick, jerky motions are not going to make you fast with drawing a weapon, firing the weapon, or loading the weapon. Slow down and remember smooth is what you are after, not fast. The guys who look lightning fast have done it for a long time and they have worked hard to become that fast and smooth.
Training for Success
When I say start out with the basics, I mean learn how to pick up the gun and hold it. If you consciously think to hold the gun close to your body with the barrel pointed down, you develop muscle memory, and the body will repeat it. Evaluate how you do each step because one small oversight will create a bad muscle memory. You don’t want to be that guy that can’t keep his finger off the trigger when he’s not shooting or doesn’t clear the gun after the last shot.
For guns that have safeties like the AR-15 or 1911, run drills and work the safety repeatedly. When the gun goes up to a target, the safety comes off. When you are done firing and you bring the barrel back down toward the ground, turn the safety on. I perform “dry run” drills meaning no ammo, just up and down with safety going on and off. Now if I pick up an AR-15, my thumb instinctively tries to flip the safety on.
If I raise the rifle up to eye level, I can hear a “click” as the safety goes off even though I never thought about the safety. Most muscle memory can be built without even going to the range. Just make sure you have a safe place to practice, and the firearm is unloaded. Want to get better at re-loading? Load your belt or vest up with empty mags or use dummy rounds and start dropping mags and loading new ones. Remember, the point isn’t to go fast, it’s to do it enough that your body learns and starts to do it on its own. The speed will come naturally as you get smoother performing each task.
Building muscle memory isn’t hard, but if you don’t pay attention, you can develop some bad habits that are hard to break. It’s like any other training, so start slow, and pay attention to every detail of how you perform the task. Once you are happy with how you perform a task, repeat it until you build muscle memory.
If you carry a gun daily, run some drills while drawing your weapon with the same holster and clothes you wear daily (make sure the gun is unloaded first). Visualize how a task should be done, mimic that visualization, and create muscle memory. If the unthinkable happens and you must defend yourself, you won’t have time to think. The body will respond with whatever it already knows. You will have muscle memory either way, but whether that’s good or bad is up to you.