Do We Really Lose Fine Motor Skills under Shooting Stress? - ITS Tactical

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Do We Really Lose Fine Motor Skills under Shooting Stress?


There is a growing minority of firearms industry professionals that are tired of the status quo. Some professionals refuse to question things that are considered “commandments” in regards to firearms training. We are questioning these things, learning, and changing the industry; challenging ingrained habits bit by bit.

For example: the “Weaver” stance versus “Modern Isosceles” stance.

The “weaver” stance came about in 1959 and gained popularity in the ’60s. While it’s been an accepted standard since then, about 10 years ago a growing group came onto the scene using the “modern isosceles,” which is now slowly taking over as the standard.

We are now seeing more and more industry professionals thinking outside the box. Thanks to Internet-based communications and the sharing of ideas, we are seeing rapid changes in the industry. This is a good thing.

This article centers on a statement made in most firearms training classes of all types including mine (in the past, but not lately):

“Under stress we lose the ability to use fine motor skills. Therefore, keep things as simple as possible: don’t use the slide release, palm slap the “paddle” (on an AR), etc.”

Motor Skills

First, let’s define gross and fine motor skills.

Gross Motor Skills
Gross motor skills involve the large muscles of the body that enable such functions as walking, kicking, sitting upright, lifting, and throwing a ball. Gross motor skills are important for major body movement such as walking, maintaining balance, coordination, jumping, and reaching.
Fine Motor Skills
Fine motor skills are the coordination of small muscle movements which occur e.g., in the fingers, usually in coordination with the eyes. In application to motor skills of hands (and fingers) the term dexterity is commonly used. The abilities which involve the use of hands develop over time, starting with primitive gestures such as grabbing at objects to more precise activities that involve precise eye—hand coordination. Fine motor skills are skills that involve a refined use of the small muscles controlling the hand, fingers, and thumb.

If we lose the ability to use fine motor skills under stress, we should be reduced to babbling, kicking, screaming idiots. That is what those who teach the firearms industry status quo are suggesting.

My experience teaching martial arts for many years has shown me that fine motor skills can be used under stress. Watch any Mixed Martial Arts fight where a guy is getting choked out and he manages to do some Jiu-Jitsu move to get out of it. Was he just using gross motor skills? Doubt it.

Procedural Memory

If you train properly — and I don’t mean hitting the range once a year, or an in-service class twice a year, or a professional firearms class every two to three years — you will develop something called procedural memory.

You thought I was going to say muscle memory, didn’t you? When needed, procedural memories are automatically retrieved and utilized for the execution of the step-by-step procedures involved in both cognitive and motor skills; from tying shoes to flying an airplane. This process occurs without the need for conscious control or attention. Procedural memory is a type of long-term memory. More specifically, it’s a type of implicit memory.

Here is an example: I use the slide release/stop. It works for me with the weapon system I use. According to a lot of firearms instructors out there, I will not be able to get my weapon to function in a stressful situation — despite that being what it is designed for! On a well-designed weapon the controls are ergonomically designed to fit the hand (With some manufacturers… cough, cough, Hi-Point… you wonder at the size or shape of the hand they designed it for or why some choose to trust their lives to $200 guns!)

If I can’t hit the button to release the slide under stress, then why have a gun to begin with? For the weapon to be of any use I have to squeeze the trigger (and as a full time instructor I spend a majority of my time fixing trigger manipulation problems). Trigger manipulation, like hitting the side release button, is definitely a fine motor skill.

The next time someone tells you that using the slide stop will get you killed when your fine motor skills go away under stress, ask them “If I lose the ability to use fine motor skills, how will I squeeze the trigger?”

“Doc” up!

Motor Skill and procedural memory definitions via and Wikipedia, image via Royal Marines Museum

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  • Daniel Garcia

    I don’t believe a trained soldier will lose fine motor skills under fire… “Flatulence, bowel movement or urine control maybe but not his fine motor skills.

  • Russell

    Teaching in a dummy proof way is a great tool to cover the masses but, enforcing half truths is never a good ideal. I was always initially taught the dummy proof way and as my training progress was taught to more finite issues of operating my weapons platform. Guess I have been lucky my instructors have taught me how, more importantly WHY and alternative ways. That way I can decide what works best for me. Saying that I have seen certified instructors passing along information that just drives me nuts. All that said the key is to always TRAIN TRAIN TRAIN. Pray you never need it, smile like you don’t want to do it but, always have three ways to take care of

  • Luke

    I’ve never heard the argument that using a slide stop/release will keep you from being able to get your weapon to function in a stressful situation. Not sure what the reasoning would be behind that.

  • I find it amusing that people even attempt to predict what will happen to individuals “under stress.” Some people will lose all motor skills and freeze. Some won’t even blink. Rather than make mass predictions, we need to emphasize the importance and benefits of training and mindset(most stress is mental). Great article Doc!

  • Drive on, Doc. I have always secretly held onto the belief that potentially there is an in-between motor skill that is not fine, nor is it gross, nor is it lost under stress. I think of threading a needle, not pressing a trigger or manipulating a slide stop/release when I am on the subject of fine motor skills. Sometimes, I think of getting the funny bone out in the game of Operation, but that is because I am a child of the ’60’s. We as instructors and shooters need to evaluate what and how we are doing business and adjust as needed. Good words from a neanderthal, Doc.

  • Homer J. Simpson

    Most of this “new wave” talk about “thinking outside the box” is just semantics. The author is right about the textbook definitions of fine & gross motor skills. True, there is no physiological basis for the term “muscle memory”. But the root intent behind these ill-conceived terms is still correct:

    1) It is harder to do somewhat intricate hand skills when you’re jacked on adrenaline and your hands are shaking like a leaf. Not impossible, just harder. So keep things simple as long as combat effectiveness is not degraded. Choices must be made, then trained extensively.

    2) Do something 23 bazillion times (correctly or incorrectly) and you’ll get to where you can do it (correctly or incorrectly) without concious thought.

    Getting the terms right doesn’t mean a stunning new dawn of tactical awesomeness has been discovered.

    In other news, experience has shown that those who have been through high stress situations perform better (amazing!) than those who have not.

    And for the record I shoot mod iso, use the slide release, and have always known that both pressing the trigger and picking your nose are fine motor skills. 🙂

  • We train in stressful environments all the time. We shoot under stress as well and although maybe not as accurate as sitting at a bench there is still plenty of fine motor skill to shoot with precision, change a magazine, etc.

  • Sheep.Dog

    I can’t count the number of times I have been out on the job and shit hit the fan. Seems like my weapon just appeared in my hands from holster. I also remember loading, racking out a jam, mentally remembering to squeeze not jerk, knowing how many rounds I had in the mag, etc. As a firearms instructor, I have always challenged the older guys to prove the stress related fails. I always chalked it up to poor training. They scream I would do it too. Nope never did. Pulled some stupid stunts here and there, but always had control on running my weapons.

  • Jackel

    Excellent points. I really think that the key to performance under stress is consisent training and practice. I really believe that the key is to do things the same way every time so that you don’t need to think when you have to act.

  • steve o.

    I teach both methods of releasing the slide to my students. I prefer to show my people several different ways to accomplish the mission. If your support hand is out of commission it would be great to use the slide catch.I did prefer the slide catch method until I was a BG in a “force on force” training. I shot up the officers and went to slide lock. As soon as I began my reload the pissed off officers charged me guns blazing. I was sweating like a %^*& in church and missed the slide catch several times. I reached over and charged the weapon with my support hand. To late, they closed the gap and lit me up. I still use the slide catch when shooting matches because it is faster. I don’t use it when I am working. I think the shooter should decide what works for them , or situation dictates. We get to caught up in dogma and “hicks law”. Students should use the method that works best for them. One has to look at the shooters body type, skill level, experience and preferences. It has taken me along time develop this type of outlook. Once you remove your ego and need to be right you can open new doors for your troops.

  • Dan

    I am a Law Enforcement DT instructor, Taser instructor and Martial Arts instructor . I have had officers try to print their name after a high stress situation and you cant read what they’re writing. Stress based training has really helped, but you really have to get into a knock down drag out fight to really appreciate an adrenaline dump. After a few good adrenaline dumps most LE officers learn to control adrenaline. Just my 2 cents.

  • fastmover

    Humans under stress lose the skills they have not practiced 10,000 times.

  • 5thprofession47

    One of the things I try and impart to my students is the difference between an accelerated heart rate due to exertion and an accelerated heart rate from adrenaline, cortisol and the ‘fight or flight syndrome’. The two are not the same.

    Real fear causes all kinds of things to occur chemically in the human body. The “adrenaline dump” we so often hear about is one such example as the fight or flight response of our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks in. Using a sporting event such as MMA to illustrate the difference between gross motor skills and fine motor skills doesn’t work for me. The MMA fighter, while a superb athlete is still in a controlled environment where safeguards are in place and rules are being followed. There is no fear of great bodily harm or death to speak of. Yes, these athletes do get hurt but they also willingly enter these situations having taken the time to prepare themselves both mentally and physically for the event.

    The average person doesn’t have this advantage when they are assaulted on the street. It is quite the opposite. Fear, real fear that they might be severely injured, crippled or killed causes a different kind of base level response. This is where the sympathetic nervous system goes into action releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream thereby increasing heart rate and redirecting blood flow from the extremities to the large muscle groups in preparation for fighting or running away (fight or flight). Other affects include auditory exclusion, the appearance of time slowing down, and vaso-constriction.

    Fine motor skills remain accessible under the increased heart rate caused from exertion due to exercise. Unfortunately, fear and the chemical cocktail response to that fear the SNS dumps into our bloodstream, cause the fine motor skills to rapidly deteriorate. This is why gross motor skills are emphasized in many training programs. They take into consideration the effects of imminent danger and the physiological effects that result in our bodies.

  • Thats the importance of practicing and actually doing it.
    Pursuit driving is a great example because you use gross and fine motor skills like a fighter pilot does.
    The first one (by yourself in the car) is all about staying on the road and just keeping up. I don’t think I could even change to the right radio channel on my first one.
    After you do a bunch you are relaxed, don’t have the audio exclusion, can direct units in, process the needed info etc etc. All that while switching small radio buttons and lights/siren buttons.
    Then you bail out and have to get someone in cuffs. The more you do it the better you get.
    Great article!


    You may or may not loose your fine motor skills under stress, however keeping it simple will always work in any situation. E. G. Racking the weapon instead of hitting the slide release to put the weapon into battery. I say this is the “KISS” method due to the fact it is quite possible to miss the slide release lever in any situation. But by racking the weapon into battery is a for sure act and can not be done wrong causing the weapon to miss fire The most important part of training is know why we do things and do them correct every time. Always make time to train properly and you will properly react in any situation. SWAT Firearms Instructor for 12 years for a 60 man full time team in Honolulu. Just my 2 cents.

  • Lesane

    5thprofession47 wrote an EXCELLENT comment that I believe needs to be thoroughly reviewed by all who read the above article. It seems there is definitely a misunderstanding of the “stress” and associated effects it has on the body. There is a vast difference between an increased heart rate to to exertion, and an increased heart rate along with a myriad of chemicals in the “combat cocktail” and other physiological effects on the body due to a near death experience. Loss of fine motor skills is definitely a possibility when your body makes attempts at self preservation by limiting blood flow to extremities (amongst other reaction processes).

    • 5thprofession47

      Thank you for the kind words. I appreciate the comment.

      Stay safe,


  • mddevildog

    As an old warrior and trainer, I’ll have to agree with 5thprofession47, and add, there is always the exception to the rule. “Most” who engage in a lethal force encounter will do things they would argue later they did not do. Training, in and of itself, regardless of repititions, will not for the average person, allow for the intuitive responses or reactions one might hope for. Some individuals will perform better under stressors associated with a lethal attack better than others. That’s not to say the largest majority could not develop their intuitive responses, but they more than likely will not. To even come close, participation in FOF drills on a regular basis is needed, or participation in the real world event over a period of time would be required. Unfortunately, most will not be afforded the opportunity to train in FOF for a long enough time, and some would not even if given the chance. Fortunately developing these skills in a real world event is not readily available. I say fortunately because the price would be too costly. You also need to understand some would never be able to reach the skill level they might like regardless of their submersion. Just my $.02 RB

  • Dusty

    Sorry to have come late to this party, I found this post on Google.

    “My experience teaching martial arts for many years has shown me that fine motor skills can be used under stress. Watch any Mixed Martial Arts fight where a guy is getting choked out and he manages to do some Jiu-Jitsu move to get out of it. Was he just using gross motor skills? Doubt it.”

    One MAJOR difference: the fighters were in a controlled environment and knew that they weren’t fighting for their lives. Martial arts competitions aren’t any more realistic than IPSC or IDPA matches when compared to real life-or-death situations.

    A family friend who was a very skilled competition shooter spent years perfecting a perfect tw0-target double tap. He could line up ten cardboard silhouettes and while running sideways consistently put the first round in perfect center of mass and the second round right between the eyes. He even got to the point where he could close his eyes right before the first shot and rely on muscle memory to place the second shot perfectly.

    He must’ve done this tens of thousands of times, all perfect.

    A few years later, he decided he’d join the Sheriff’s Department. After a few weeks, a man came out of a garage and tried to cut him in half with a chain saw. As he had trained thousands of times, he pulled the gun out and executed his perfect double tap. The first round was left of center instead of right in center of mass. The second round….well, nobody knows where it went, but it didn’t connect with anybody’s head.

    Training can make it so you can perform better under real, fear-of-life stress, but it can’t compensate for the diminished fine motor skills and other effects of adrenaline.

    If this guy, who spent countless hours and many thousands of dollars perfecting a skill couldn’t use it under stress, we really can’t expect people on more limited money and time budgets (and less interest in shooting) to do any better.

  • I’m coming in way on the tail end. I have heard mention in the above posts there has to be something in between fine and gross motor skills. You guys are correct, there is. It’s called complex motor skills. Your fine skills start to deteriorate somewhere around a heart rate increase to about 120. That is a hormonal heart rate increase due to fear. From about 120 bpm to about 150 to 160 bpm is the complex motor skill range. The low end of the complex range is probably optimal for fighting. Above 160 to over 200 bpm is the gross motoer movements like running away or charging without thinking because your brain has also shut down. Pre incident combat breathing can help lower your heart rate if the situation presents, (not always possible). This may get you down into the complex fighting range. The best training as stated above is as close to reality FOF as you can get. Col. Dave Grossman has some great information on the subject of the mind in combat in many of his books. Stay safe.

  • Mark

    Just wanted to say thank you for this article. Your last thought summed it up perfectly: Essentially, if we become helpless flipper-handed gimps under stress, how do we perform the hallowed smooth press of the trigger?

    I for one get very tired of the dogma coming from some instructors or schools of thought. I’ve heard one of the premier instructors tout certain techniques based on the idea that we can’t always be sure we’ll have both hands/arms available in a gunfight. At the same time he advocates using the support hand to rack the slide. Wouldn’t it be smarter to use my firing hand thumb for that move, since it will “always” work and I don’t have to think about whether I’m currently firing two-handed or strong-hand only?

    I believe we should train intelligently. Sure, find techniques that work, but I strongly oppose the teachings that you should NEVER use the slide stop/release. To me that’s dumb. It’s a part of the pistol and we should know how to use it.

    If I were firing one handed and needed to release the slide, should I use my thumb (because I’ve actually practiced using this technique instead of pretending that my gun doesn’t have a slide release), or do I waste the extra time to pull the gun back toward me safely, snag the rear sight on my belt, and extend the gun out again, taking an extra second or two to perform this move? It sure looks tactical and cool but I’d rather not waste the time in a life-or-death situation.

    As for the “consistency” and train ‘one way”, the fact is we need alternatives. We can dress it up or deny it any way we want, but the experts teach one way of operating with both hands, another for one handed reloads and clearances, and sometimes a slightly different method is required for support-hand only loading and manipulations. So we are always going to be identifying/diagnosing/decision-making and sometimes not doing it the same way every time.

    Example, my AR has the Magpul BAD lever. It’s really cool for locking the bolt, but sometimes I think that it might be smart to use the left hand to insert the mag, and then hit the bolt release when loading. Otherwise it’s possible to get excited with the left/right hand operations, and try to drop the bolt before the magazine is fully-seated, causing extra problems. Also, I feel like I should know how my rifle works if the BAD lever fell off, or if I picked up someone else’s AR some time.

    In short, I think we need to train well and smartly, and not dogmatically and have some believe that our brain will work at least a LITTLE under stress.

    Didn’t mean to be so long winded, but again, great article!

    • Ray

      Sorry, just saw this post and responses. Like everyone else, I have my opinions. As operators, instructors or just someone who has some experience, when reading what someone else has written about a subject we know about, or think we know about, I think we have an ingrained propensity to look for the things we disagree with rather than reading, digesting and trying what has been proposed. Not saying anything written here, either in the article or through replies is wrong. I can see both sides. I think more often than not we tend to be negative about something we don’t personally use. That said, we all have our preferences (usually what we are taught by others till shown an equally workable style or technique by someone else), because the person teaching them provided insight as to why they were more reasonable to use. Empirical evidence does in fact indicate “some” fine motor skills suffer as a result of stress, and so does our ability to focus clearly on near objects, which is why some say front sight focus will not work in a close spontaneous lethal confrontation. I choose to believe there are levels to which these things occur based on a variety of reasons. I also believe we can train to minimize these effects through “emersion” in the proper environmental setting, to include real world for those who “have been there”. Part of the problem with training “people” to fight is motivational. Most don’t train much beyond the fundamentals of fighting, so therefore, they don’t have the presence of mind to think their way (albeit in a nano second) through a problem, some just stop and others either over or under react. I like training in percentages for the largest majority, what works easiest, most often without worry of it not working, is what I try to convey. If you use something that works for you, stay with it, if not, change it. Nothing is 100%, but anytime the finer motor skills are needed, there is a greater chance for a mishap. Finger missing the slide stop, sweat, oil, blood, whatever, causes thumb to slip off the release. Finger missing the release on the SERPA. It only has to happen once to be devastating. Some say advanced training is nothing more than the fundamentals mastered, SORRY. I disagree, unless your basic training course for the skill being taught does not end till all achieve an acceptable level in all evolutions, and there needs to be evolutions or blocks to achieve your goal.
      Again, sorry, did not mean to drag this out, but there is way to much to say here. There will be some who will find negatives in this as well, bear in mind this would just be the prologue to a relatively long story. Suffice it to say, Hearts and Minds are like parachutes, if not open, they don’t work. Keep an open mind and understand not all have the skills you do and need something that has the best chance for getting them through on the training they do have. Stay Safe

    • Great response Ray, thanks for sharing your perspective!

  • Reno555

    I’d like to add as a firearms instructor, and martial artist, keep it simple. Truly the problem is in fact that when I teach police officers to shoot, i am forever faced with budgetary constraints as well as time ones.
    Hitting the range 6 to 12 times a year is not probable in my department. For this I need to teach the fundimental over the top slide release in order to make certain that the gun comes up hot every time on a reload.
    My ultimate goal is not to shave a quarter second off a reload time but to keep the gun up and running in a firefight that may have variables like sweat, blood, gloves, and or stress.
    For the record after thousands and thousands and thousands of rounds down range, fired over countless hours, I do hit the slide stop on a reload. But I mastered my fundamentals first.

  • Dahk

    Stress does not limit motor functioning.  In fact, stress puts our senses on high alert and actually improves motor functioning briefly.  Traumatic stress can interfere with brain functioning (generally higher level thinking and executive functions); however, that just means we become more animal than strategist.  Our motor skills will still allow us to kill.

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