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Human Reaction Times in Life or Death Emergency Situations

Muscle memory is a term that is brought up many times in discussions of repetitions in certain skills, whether it be learning how to play a sport or an instrument, typing on a keyboard, riding a bike, etc. In this case, we’re going to discuss muscle memory in regards to human reaction times, specifically reaction times in response to emergency life or death situations.

Many people mistakenly believe that muscle memory is a set of learned motions that have been stored in your muscles and are used on instinct when conducting a skill. The truth is that muscle memory is not stored in your muscles but rather in your brain, specifically your cerebellum, which is responsible for coordinating muscle activity.

Whenever a certain movement has been practiced enough times, the cerebellum modifies pathways that link these movements from your brain to your muscles. The pathways become stronger the more times the movement is repeated.

Be honest as you ask yourself this: should you ever be going about your daily life in public and without warning a threat suddenly presents itself and comes at you with a gun or a knife, are you able to draw your concealed weapon in time to stop the threat?

If you want to prepare yourself for drawing and firing your gun in self-defense, then it’s very important that you not only practice drawing and firing on a shooting range so that those pathways your cerebellum makes become stronger, but that you understand what capabilities and limitations your overall reaction time has as well.

Your overall reaction time comprises your processing time and your motor reaction time. Let’s see what these two things are:


Processing time refers to the time that is required for a person to recognize and process sensory signals such as sight and sound, and then formulate a response. For example, in a situation where you are driving a car and a person steps onto the road in front of you, the processing time would be you visually seeing the person step out and then deciding to apply the brakes quickly.


Motor reaction time is the time that is needed for a person’s muscles to respond in order to perform the movement of their response that was formulated at the end of the processing time. So in our car example, this would be where you actually apply the brakes to avoid hitting the person.

These same principles can then be applied to a life or death situation where a gun is drawn in self-defense, as we shall soon see.


In order to speed up your overall reaction time so that you are better prepared for an emergency situation, you have to learn to both be more alert and to practice and drill many times, in order to get your processing and motor reaction times shorter and more effective respectively.

To boost your processing time, you have to become more aware of your environment. Our brain is constantly picking up on a lot of information but filtering out the things that are seemingly irrelevant. Train yourself to always be looking and hearing around you and take mental notes on what is happening. We’re not saying that you constantly have to be on high alert, but we are saying that you should be readily observing your environment as an active participant in it.

Then once an emergency situation has presented itself, you’ll be less surprised by it (if not outright expecting it) and your processing time will be cut shorter, enabling you to move on to motor reaction where your actual muscle memory kicks in.

When it comes to improving your motor reaction skills, you’ll have to get some drills down until drawing and firing becomes muscle memory. Practice first with no ammunition in your gun, before transitioning to practicing with live rounds on a shooting range.

The drill you should follow is to reach underneath your outer clothing to get a firm grip around the handgun, but do not draw yet. Move your gun side away from the location of your threat, so that a little extra distance between your gun and the threat has been made. The amount of time from this position to fully drawing and firing the gun should be around one fifth of a second.

There are also two different kinds of firing positions that you will need to practice. If the threat is up close and you need to shoot now, draw your gun, twist your wrist, and fire from the hip. If you have time to take aim or if the threat is a distance from you, you should assume a full firing grip.

To get the specifics of these movements down, you should practice many times in slow motion. This way you can more easily recognize any unnecessary movements that you are potentially making. Once you start to get the moves down right and do this enough times, muscle memory will begin to form. Once muscle memory kicks in, you’ll be better prepared to perform these motions when under stress and your overall reaction time will become improved.

Reaction time in a situation where you need to use your concealed weapon comprises both your processing time and your motor reaction time. You can improve your processing time by becoming more aware of the environment around you, and your motor reaction time by repeatedly practicing drawing and shooting drills until it becomes muscle memory. If you can master both of these things, your overall reaction time will improve dramatically.

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