Automatic Scanning | A Really Bad Idea

Quit scanning!

 Deputy H.J. Wahples shows how not to do it. He’s off the trigger and scanning with a casing still in the air.

Deputy H.J. Wahples shows how not to do it. He’s off the trigger and scanning with a casing still in the air.

OK, I’m not serious about quitting—I just wanted to get your attention, and to think about when and where looking for another threat is a good idea.

As best I can determine, scanning grew out of an FBI report that 67% of the time there was more than one opponent. The FBI is good at studies, but the last, maybe the only, FBI gunfighter was Walter Walsh—and he chased John Dillinger.

I’m as guilty as the next guy when it comes to emphasizing scanning. In a gun kata I developed, the shooter shoots, then scans left, right and rear in a choreographed series of movements.

It slapped me upside the head when I watched some young Colorado students go through the motions without ever realizing what they were doing and more importantly why they were doing it. They were all doing what Clint Smith calls the Range Macarena, and had no idea why.


I remember at Gunsite scanning left and right, 45 degrees, over the muzzle of the gun. The idea was to break tunnel vision depending largely on where we are at the time of the fight. The bad part is that we’re training our students to get off the trigger and start looking for something that may be there, while we know that there is something in front of us that needed to be shot—and may need shooting again.

What I’m seeing is the shooter presents from guard or holster, fires some shots, then jumps off the trigger and starts looking for another fight before the round has left the barrel. I think this is really a bad idea and that we should modify what we do. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of trainers who agree.


Why would you turn your back on someone you just shot?

Why would you turn your back on someone you just shot?

First, I borrowed a page from Ed Marsters. Ed and I worked together for years in Alaska, mostly after he retired from Anchorage PD. Ed’s mantra is to shoot the needed number of shots, get back on the front sight while resetting the sear, keep the finger on the trigger, then ask yourself, “Did I hit him? Did it work?” If the critter is still there, it didn’t work and he should be shot again. If it’s gone, find it and see if it needs to be shot some more.

The next part isn’t new, and some of the “instructors” in police academies are gonna get their knickers knotted over this, but the following does not make sense to me.

“Finger straight!” is always shouted at recruits, immediately followed by “Scan.”

The fallacy is that once the trigger finger is indexed, we can muzzle everything and everybody while we look for another target. The problem is that the first guy might need to be shot some more.

Deputy Wahples fires center mass …

Deputy Wahples fires center mass …

A better solution is to track the shot guy to the ground while the trigger finger is still on the trigger. If he needs to be and see if anybody else needed to be shot. This has evolved into doing a Linda Blair in The Exorcist impersonation where we twist our heads 360 degrees or turn our backs to someone we’ve just shot while we look for another goblin to poke holes in.


Breaking tunnel vision is a good idea—we’ve all experienced it. There may well be another threat out there, shot some more, shoot him some more.
Watch him for a few seconds, totally ready to shoot, and only then break missile lock and radar tone while you index and look for goblin number two.

… tracks the goblin to the ground …

… tracks the goblin to the ground …

You know that guy number one was ugly enough to shoot, you shot him, you make sure he doesn’t need to be shot some more, then you index and scan. Even though you hit him and he fell, the fight may not be over. If you have to shoot some more, having the trigger finger on the trigger helps. You’re not violating Rules Two or Three because you are on target and ready to shoot. As soon as you’re pretty sure you don’t need to shoot guy number one some more, the finger goes straight and you look around.



I’ve changed the way I’m training guys. Once I’ve taught them TTPs for scanning, I emphasize that it’s something they can and should do—it isn’t the thing that they have to do all the time. Tactics and techniques are determined by terrain and circumstance, and what might be a good idea one time might be a bad idea another time.

… and stays on target, on trigger until he’s sure the fight is over.

… and stays on target, on trigger until he’s sure the fight is over.

I have a dashcam video that shows one of my students killing a guy in Alaska. She hits him four times in the chest then tracks him to the ground, muzzle on him. I can’t see where her trigger finger is, and she doesn’t remember. She stays on target while another officer runs around behind her, flanks out to the left, then approaches the bad guy. The shooter never quits covering the guy and never looks around, until the film stops. I think she did a great job.

Another Alaskan, a trooper, stepped off a snowmachine (snowmobile to those in the lower 48) to take a crazy guy to the hospital. The guy stepped out the door with a Mini-14 in his hands and started to swing it toward Jon. Jon stepped right, drew his pistol, and fired one round at 11 yards. When he came out of recoil, the guy was gone. He stayed on trigger and lowered the muzzle to see the bad guy. The guy was dead, shot through the heart, so Jon indexed, scanned and approached.

The important thing is that he made sure the guy was down before he got off the trigger and started looking around. Incidentally, it was 50 below zero, so there weren’t a lot of folks around.


Another tactic that has some problems is going to Sul or the Safety Circle and turning your body 360 degrees so that your back is to the person you just shot. The idea is that you can safely turn 360 degrees with the gun in hand (true) and that you will face the second threat faceon (also true).

The principle is sound, but in application I see the shooter fire a shot or two and then spin around as though they are auditioning for Dancing With The Stars. Again, the problem is that the first guy you shot might not be impressed. I prefer to think of this as something your partner should do while you cover the first guy.

Another problem I see is that the shooter always performs a scan. Every copper out there has threatened to shoot a bad guy. I’ve had several instances where I threatened to shoot, and the guy said something about mothers and sex acts and told me to go ahead, shoot him. One guy took a step forward into what was then no longer a gunfight—it became a hands and feet fight.

I recreated this scenario during a class, and almost every shooter scanned before holstering, after being told the bad guy was moving toward him. As a result, I brief all students that when I yell “Holster,” it’s a speed holster—no scan. Secure the gun and get the hands up in a fighting stance.

Most police departments in the U.S. have fewer than 20 officers. Most of the time there is one officer on duty or two officers at different ends of the county. The trooper on a lonely road at night might have to shoot one of the occupants of a car he’s stopped. Does he need to look behind to see if someone has magically appeared, or should he concentrate on the car that he can see, at least peripherally?

I never worked where there was consistent backup. Alaska is six times the size of California and has 250 troopers. One road troop might handle 50,000 square miles on a shift. In most cases, I could focus on the guys in front of me, certain that there wasn’t another soul within miles.

Most officers don’t have that “luxury,” so situational awareness is important. Urban/suburban officers need to know who and what is around them, before and after the fight, but need to understand and train for the primary threat that they face.

Consider this in training: first, shoot the middle of what you can see until you can’t see it anymore. Follow it to the ground with your finger on the trigger, ready to shoot it some more. Breathe. Confirm as best you can that the threat is gone. Index and scan.

Scanning and situational awareness are good things. However, when the time comes that someone has to be shot, make sure the fight is over before you start hunting for another fight.

As Clint Smith says: “Just because you shot doesn’t mean the fight is over. It just means you had your turn.”

About Author

Jeff Hall

Jeff Hall is an Army veteran, retired Alaska State Trooper lieutenant, and is an NRA staff instructor. He also teaches for several state POST agencies. He is a martial arts grandmaster and founder of Hojutsu-Ryu, the martial art of shooting. He can be reached at

1 Comment

  1.' Orrin M. Knutson Reply


    I know I’m an old fogy and out of step with all the PC crap being taught these days. So, all you modern day instructors feel free to tell me I’m full of it, if you like.

    However, do so only if you have engaged in more than half a dozen CQB lethal force incident as I have and walked away the winner. Otherwise, you are just preaching wannabe theory!

    Like many other old has been’s I graduated the school of “Hard Knocks” with a PhD in gunfighting like my mentors; Lt. Cmdr. Mike Knutson (my father), Gen. Gregory “Pappy Right” Boyington, Bill Jordan, Massad Ayoob, Col. Jeff Cooper and Ric Snyder (twice Silver Star winner in Vietnam) and several others you’ve never heard of. We are all gunfighters who lived to tell the tail, more than once.

    To top it off, I very proudly state that I have not only trained literally hundreds of law enforcement, private security and special op’s students over the decades, but many of them survived firefight confrontations, too.

    Now to my points of contention with the “new style” of politically correct gunfighter training.

    1. During home defense or protecting any zone, never “go on the hunt” for the bad guys if it is not imperative. Remember the truism, “Patient is the hunter!” Whenever possible and however long it takes Defend In Place (DIP) and let the threat come into your secured field of fire!

    2. The business of doing building searches (if you must) with your arms flexed out in front of you with a fancy two handed grip, your elbow sticking out like bat wings and your eyes “tunnel vision focused” over the top of your weapon, sweeping for a target is NUTS! You’ve got to remain flexible of body and mind and keep your head on a swivel and your vision constantly moving. This relieves much of the psychological terror and stress of conducting a search, while allowing you to identify multiple threats and/or friendlies that may pop up at the very edges of your peripheral vision.

    3. There is no need to keep that fancy two handed “strangle hold” of your weapons, pressing it out in front of your with every “movie perfect” step you take. Carry your ready weapon with a relaxed arm at your side, trigger finger along the outside of the trigger guard. Your arms won’t tire and your hands won’t tremor. Believe us here, you can deploy it up to sight picture and target acquisition in approximately 20/100ths of a seconds. (We have testing this to be true with every student we’ve trained!) Plus, with your weapon and gun arm at your side, you not only don’t get fatigues searching a huge building with 1,000 rooms, your piece is not the first thing to cross a threshold or round a corner. You never hear about it, but many a good guy has had their arm cracked and their weapon lost entering a room with a terrified outlaw waiting in ambush.

    4. Go back to the basics of mastering target acquisition and shot placement!!! The average gunfight used to involve no more than 2 1/2 rounds fired by a good guy. Now days it is as if we took lessons from the perp’s and we “Spray ‘n’ Pray” just hoping for a hit an few hits are lethal anymore. Master the old CIA technique called the “El Presidente” … two rapid shots to body mass and one well placed between the eyes. Of course it is lethal! That is the point. If you were not justified to shoot once, you’re in deep legal trouble from the start. Once you do shoot, don’t stop place shots in the aggressor until the threat is neutralized. I know instructors can no longer say “shoot to kill” … but, why else are you justified to shoot?

    5. Finally, get a masterful grip on the FOUR elements of a lethal and/or non-lethal confrontation; Ability, Opportunity, Imminent Threat … and the element that bites most people in the butt … Preclusion!!! You can measure all these within a millisecond and if you skip even one, you go to prison or get sewed destroying your own life and family.

    If you haven’t a clue what these four elements mean, either put away your gun away … or … talk to my son, who is an instructor for this group and who has also faced hostile fire at close range! Like me, he teaches from experience, not theory.

    Orrin M. Knutson
    Peace Officer, Firearms, Sniper and Officer Survival Instructor, Retired
    Author of; Survival 101 – How to Bug Out and Survive the First 72 Hours

Leave a Reply