Cognitive Conclave After Action Report [2023]

cognitive conclave

There is a line I attribute to Claude Werner that goes something to the effect of “most shooting classes are firing squad simulators.” The inaugural Cognitive Conclave class held on April 29-30, 2023 was not that. Erick Gelhaus, John Hearne, and Lee Weems are each career law enforcement officers who are also active in teaching decent human beings how to successfully defend themselves. Each of them places emphasis on what I would call force application as opposed to pure technical skill. The three combined forces to deliver what I felt was a fantastic class which offered a unique curriculum.

What is the Cognitive Conclave?

I would characterize the class as instructing in two distinct areas. First, performance under cognitive load. Second, a strong internalization of the second and fourth rules of gun safety in practical application. Students had to make decisions on whether and how to use force on a continuing basis. They had to do so while shooting anatomically significant targets in a manner which was safe to themselves and innocent third parties. This must be done while also remaining within the bounds of the law.

Cognitive ConclaveErick Gelhaus lecturing on avoiding negative outcomes.

The format of the class was lecture in the morning with shooting in the afternoon. Shooting blocks built upon the principles from the lectures. I took several pages of notes during those lectures, but I do not want to give away the material. In broad strokes, the lectures covered the practical takeaways from human performance studies on a variety of shooting-related areas. Strategies to reduce mistake-of-fact shootings and other negative outcomes were discussed at length. Students learned about the effects of technical skill on a shooter’s ability to make decisions during a complex situation. Drawing from that, also learned about effective training strategies for skill maintenance and what “good enough” actually looks like.

What did we do?

Because I'm not going to recount the details of the lectures, much of this AAR will focus on what we covered in live fire. As far as equipment goes, I shot my normal CCW for the first day -- a P365XL upper with a Macro lower carried appendix. The second day I shot my Staccato P from an ALS rig due to inclement weather. I had no malfunctions or stoppages throughout the weekend. There was  one occasion where I struck the extended magazine release on the Staccato during my draw and ejected the magazine. This is not something I've ever experienced before, but I'll be keeping an eye out for it in the future.

Lee Weems

Cognitive ConclaveWeems discussing malfunction clearance.

Lee Weems taught a block on pistol manipulations. Specifically, he taught the inboard method espoused by Dave Spaulding. Students performed many repetitions of malfunction clearances and reloads. Importantly, the vast majority of these were true surprises (students randomly loaded magazines for other students). When they are actual surprises, these reloads and stoppages force the student to process what is happening, and fix the problem. Weems finished up with a decision-making drill which I found interesting to shoot. Paraphrasing from a point made during that morning’s lecture, if you want to know how well a student has mastered a skill, you should interrupt them during the performance of that skill. The drill did that well.

Erick Gelhaus

Erick Gelhaus taught two blocks of instruction which, in my opinion, built upon each other. I felt his instruction was more tailored towards hardwiring Rule 2 and Rule 4. His first block used turning targets to require the students to make shoot/no shoot decisions. Students were observed and data was collected on whether the no shoot target was shot or muzzled. However, before doing this, he used a method to get students shooting quickly. This forced us to use throttle control for the judgment portion. After that, his instruction increased complexity regarding the presence of bystanders while requiring students to be conscious of their muzzle and trigger finger. A particularly difficult drill involved a target moving among about a half dozen bystanders. These bystanders required students to move around to get a safe angle to fire at the target.

Erick Gelhaus downrange with a student setting up another run of the Judgmental Pres

One Gelhaus drill I particularly enjoyed was what he called the “Judgmental Pres.” The drill originated with Scott Reitz of the Los Angeles Police Department, and the target array follows the setup of the famous “El Presidente” drill. Shooters would face uprange while their partner went to the targets and marked one for a particular response. The shooter would then turn and look at the scene and process which target was the threat and what response they required. As time went on, complexity was added in the form of no-shoot targets – both in the foreground and background of the threat target. I think the drill is valuable because it’s something that can be done at home with a friend and a minimum of resources.

John Hearne

John Hearne’s first block was all about forcing students to make decisions under an increasing cognitive load. We started out focusing purely on reacting to a visual stimulus and delivering a pre-planned response to that stimulus. Once we were comfortable there, Hearne then made us decide – again based on a visual stimulus – what response to deliver. Building on that layer, he next gave a stimulus determining whether a response was warranted while also continuing to decide what response to deliver. He then increased complexity further. Additional stimuli in different locations caused us to assess multiple areas to determine whether to act and what action to take. If that wasn’t enough, he finally managed to make us assess several stimuli across an entire 360 degree environment.

Cognitive ConclaveJohn Hearne telling us what our stimulus would be for the next string of fire.

Without giving away his specific techniques, I believe Hearne’s block successfully simulated making decisions on whether force is legally justified and whether one had the ability to deliver force.  Students did this while also processing information from an assailant to determine what response the situation warranted. I found it was particularly important that not every response involved shooting somebody, and I think that is a lesson more defensive firearms trainers should adopt.

John's Second Block

John Hearne’s second block was a brief tactical anatomy class. This corresponded with one of his earlier lectures, which focused on recalibrating expectations of what gunshots do to human beings. John combines with instructing students on what is required for a stop to occur. I found his discussion of psychological stops versus physical stops to be enlightening. Fortuitously, a forensic pathologist who was present confirmed Hearne’s instruction. Certain discussions on how bullets caused injury and death also mirrored things I have seen in my professional career.

Cognitive Conclave

Analyzing a student's hits.

During the range portion, students shot 3D torsos with no artificial target indicators. Behind them was a cardboard backer with a printout showing organs, the spine, and the critical area of the head, along with an actual simulated spine. Doing what Hearne directed for the body shots (biasing my shots to the centerline and between the nipples) yielded spine hits more often than not. In my experience, the spine is often left out of discussions of CNS hits, with most of those discussions focusing on shots to the head. This was an interesting visual reminder of the value of several shots to the high center chest.

Conclusions on the Cognitive Conclave 2023

We were fortunate to have a group of students with a diverse range of training and life backgrounds. There were regular folks and military special operators, people who’d taken a two-day pistol class, and Gunsite instructors. Along with the professionalism of our instructors, the students’ attentiveness helped keep the class functioning smoothly.  The class went far beyond merely standing in front of a target and shooting a drill. Students were exposed to novel, complex situations and asked to make force decisions. Honestly, that's just not something you see every day in the training world. I would strongly recommend a course from any of the three instructors. If the Cognitive Conclave is offered again, I encourage you to attend.

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