The Confirmation Bias Of Search And Assess

The Confirmation Bias Of Search And Assess
Aaron Barruga
June 30, 2015

As tactical shooters we are quick to customize our gear, its layout, and the shooting methodology (or brand) that we subscribe to. Personalization of equipment and the style in which we shoot gives us a sense of pride because it portrays competence absent of words. However, our desire to be taken seriously can create dangerous confirmation biases, in which we do not truly challenge why we perform certain actions. Instead we only utilize skills because they are habit. Consequently, rather than being open to new (or better) techniques, we only take in information that confirms what we already identify with.

Search and assess is a principal example of how an unchallenged technique becomes habit, and only persists due to confirmation bias. Although the debate about the utility of search and assess is not new, it is still a concept that deserves plenty of objective criticism. Search and assess works at the conclusion of a drill on the flat range because you already know where everything is located. You’re “switched on” and know you are performing a drill. Therefore, a shooter is able to rapidly jerk his head left and right so that he can “regain” situational awareness.

*Spoiler Alert*
Search and assess is garbage. This shoot me first dance move completely negates the final fundamental of combat marksmanship-follow through. Although tactical shooters should absolutely regain situational awareness, they should first focus on the known threat. We need to check the work we did with our sights on known threats, before we search and assess new enemies.

Moreover, a gunfight is not over because the enemy falls to the ground or stops returning fire. Ignoring follow through and immediately searching and assessing places a shooter in a dangerous situation. By immediately jerking his head left and right, a shooter forfeits his ability to take immediate and possibly life saving follow-up shots. Although two shots will kill cardboard in a match, two-way ranges may require an entire magazine for a single threat.


Tactics 101
Shooting at known and suspected enemy locations is taught to even the most junior infantry private. If contact with the enemy is made to the front, it is reasonable to assume there is more enemy to the front. This is obviously not an empirical standard for enemy contact and security, but during the initial ambiguity of a firefight, shooters identify known and suspected enemy locations so that they can determine the layout of the battlefield.

Understandably, maintaining 360-degree security in an infantry platoon is different than performing security as an individual. If no one has your back, it makes absolute sense to check behind your person. However, follow through or immediate movement to cover should be considered beforehand.

Blurred Lines
We can only process information at the quality we receive it. The following example explains why search and assess fails in the real world, but works on the flat range. Without a gun, proceed to a bar, a coffee shop, or any area with some pedestrian traffic. As soon as you enter the establishment, jerk your head left and right at the same speed in which you normally do on the flat range.

I guarantee that you will not be able to identify (1) alternate exits (2) the individuals in the establishment that could kick your ass. Even if you were able to identify the aforementioned, how quickly could you process that information so that it was useful?

If you still feel the need to move your head around to regain situational awareness, you should first scan with your eyes before turning your head. Simply moving your eyes left to right in their sockets will allow you to assess your environment, while leaving your body in an aggressive position that allows you to take immediate follow up shots. Only after you have re-indexed your threats should you consider looking around by moving your head.

Preparing For The Real Fight
Search and assess has proliferated in tactical courses for two reasons. First, the rapid head jerking movements do look operator-ish. Concluding a course of fire with choreographed moves that look crisp and purposeful can appear meaningful and “right.” Second, the artificiality of flat ranges is often overlooked. Flat ranges are utilized best for reinforcing mechanics, not “what if” scenarios.

A former teammate and mentor of mine always spoke out against “what if” training scenarios on the flat range by stating, “The make believe world that you are seeing right now, is different then the make believe world I see.” This comment emphasizes the distractive nature of certain drills when training environments are not used properly.

The search and assess vignette presented in this article relates to the broader issue of judgment. Discussions about tactics can easily lose an objective format because questioning a shooter’s technique can be misinterpreted as challenging his competence. However, if we truly want the tactical shooting discipline to advance, we must divorce emotion from critique, and search and assess why we utilize certain methods.

If we can’t defend our methods beyond stating, “That’s just how I shoot,” then our opinions are unsubstantiated. We may have valid points, but if we can’t put them into proper context (how they apply to the real world) then our arguments should not be taken credibly. As tactical shooters, our training endstate should not be did my techniques work for those drills? Instead, we must ask did those drills prepare me for the real world?


Aaron is a Special Forces veteran and competitive shooter. He hosts classes in Southern California for law enforcement and civilians, and teaches material that focuses maintaining the fundamentals of marksmanship without sacrificing speed. Check out his company’s website and Instagram for more information. (www.guerrillaapproach.com, instagram.com/guerrilla_approach).

This article was first posted at the RE Factor blog and is reposted here at the request of the author and full cognizance of RE Factor in the interest of increased dissemination. I want to thank Aaron and the team at RE Factor for thinking of us.


41 Responses to “The Confirmation Bias Of Search And Assess”

  1. Jon C. says:

    Hands down, this is the best article I have seen on SSD, both in terms of the issue under discussion, and the discussion itself.

    • Chris K. says:

      Fucking Amen. Slaughter them sacred cows. Well done.

    • Jon, OPT says:


      Some of us were getting the job done long before this sacred cow was born, or even a golden calf that should have been eaten as veal before it grew to Internet gargantuan proportions.

      Jon, OPT

  2. Awesome! Wonderful piece and hopefully the beginning of the end for the S&A. I never understood why so many people were encouraged to get off their sights just to shake.

    Situational awareness can’t be introduced/taught/maintained by the circlejerkery of the S&A dance. Take a ShivWorks class and watch those mechanics wind up with you getting your ass beat.

    Again, stellar piece. Now to go make some popcorn.

    • Jon C. says:

      It now makes me curious about the originator of S&A, and how far back that goes.

      Sacred cow indeed.

  3. jellydonut says:

    I’ve always thought it would be common sense for anyone, no matter how untrained, that the first thing you should do after firing is to try to move to cover rather than standing there like a marionette shaking your head around.

    I remember first seeing the marionette head-shake promoted by Costa in the first Magpul video and it never really clicked with me why one would do that.

  4. I. G. says:

    Excellent article for a lot of reasons. Having recently retired from a SMU after 30 years of service and now working in the training field, I am shocked to see so many poor habits and funky techniques that are being pushed in the world of tactical shooting. In most cases they were developed by instructors that are trying to make a name for themselves in a world packed with experts with a lot of combat experience. This is one of those techniques that is not sound and can be dangerous for those who may apply it when in a real world gunfight. Aaron did a great job making the case and in the process hopefully righted a wrong that can save a life. This article is long overdue. Well done.

  5. Chris K. says:

    Well said. Covering your target/follow through is such an important thing yet overlooked. It also improves your shooting performance. Thanks for writing this.

  6. Ben says:

    Best article to be found on SSD-keep em coming!

  7. GW says:

    I have never been in a shooting alone, I will tell you that once you see that the bad guy is down and not going to hurt anyone, the siren needs to go off in your head that he has a buddy. I had a instance where my number one caught 3 dudes coming around a corner, he took care of them and my RTO and I did the assessment and number one watched the alley for more bad dudes. Follow through is key, S&A is a block checkers method but better than nothing I suppose.
    My own experience that when working alongside excitable indigenous soldiers it was wise to make sure that I and my RTO were clear of muzzles. High adventure I assure you. So its not just bad guys we are looking for. It is truly reducing tunnel vision from servicing a target and getting the brain and body back into Charlie Mike mode.
    Wherever you train, you will get valuable takeaways, mostly on what right looks like, but at times you get what wrong looks like as well.

    • Shooter says:

      let me first say that this is a great article but I have to agree with GW on not so much
      as checking for bad guys but breaking the tunnel vision that WILL occur the first time
      you pull the trigger on a human being.

      • GW says:

        thanks, funny thing that happens, huh.

        • Stickman says:

          F-ing right on spot GW. The sound of gun shots brings bad guys, if you don’t look around for additional threats, you are of no use to yourself, family, or team. If you are on a team, you are scanning you sector/ zone.

          I am NOT an advocate of the jumping around head switching game that many people play. Nor am I saying you should ignore the dude you just put rounds into, or the window/ doorway someone shot at you from.

          How many trainers really train people to do this? I know I don’t train people that way, but I do know that I’ve seen students not grasp the concept of what they were doing and perform those head twitches. Isn’t our responsibility as instructors to fix and explain?

          This is a lengthy subject, but I don’t see how anyone here could say this is anything new, at least I would hope not. I don’t look at this as a Sacred Cow, I don’t think it is anything close. There is a common sense aspect to this that I would hope people are aware of. That Aaron even had to write this article makes me wonder what is going on out there in training land.

  8. mike says:

    I love everything about this article and the comments.

    When I’m forced to “scan and assess” I always look up, too. If I’m going to have someone belittle me for not looking for threats I remind them that the drones are out there 😉

    • Aaron Barruga says:

      Mike, I’m stealing that bit about the drones for all future material haha


  9. John says:

    Mr. Barruga,
    It always concerns me when a “trainer” has to refer to a technique he disagrees with as “garbage”. I have seen the head jerk assess and search done and you are correct that that method is very ineffective. A proper assess and search is done methodically and the first part is assessing your primary threat to determine if he is still a threat. You then proceed to asses the area around your threat, always rechecking the threat. Then search 360 degrees to find any other potential threats or friendlies, for that matter. It goes without saying, you should move to a position of cover, if that is an option.

    Your are correct that on a flat range you know where your threats are, but in the “real world” your threats can come from anywhere. You are doing a disservice to people if you are suggesting they stop looking around after a shooting incident. An assess and search, done correctly and at the proper time is a potential life saving technique that should not be discarded.


    John B

    • The author never suggested that people stop looking around after a use of force, so I don’t know where you got that.

      And the S&A “twisted sister headshake” is garbage.

    • Aaron Barruga says:

      Thanks John, the broader theme of the article is about judgment as opposed to step-by-step instruction for engaging with a threat. You’re right, a shooter should maintain 360 awareness, and the content following the subheading “Tactics 101” reinforces that point.

      Thanks for the feedback.

      • Ab5olut3zero says:

        I would liken this to slewing the main gun to a TRP as opposed to scanning the vicinity looking to identify threats. Slewing severely linits what can be seen, identified, and engaged while scanning allows all of that. Am I in the ballpark here?

      • Stickman says:


        Not sure if you will see this or not, but I’ll ask it anyway. Do you think the issue is with the students doing things improperly, or from poor/ faulty instruction?

  10. joe_momma says:


  11. OpsBulldog says:

    I cannot speak for other schools, but Front Sight jams this down the throats of their students.

    And Front Sight used the shooting where in a Supermarket a CCW tapped a bad guy, then the bad guy’s girlfriend who was standing behind the CCW tapped out the CCW, as “proof” that S&A must always be done.

  12. Erik says:

    Maintaining situational awareness and avoiding tunnel vision are one thing, looking like a damned bobble head with Down’s syndrome is something else.

  13. martin nielsen says:

    Excellent article!
    I have always been taught to “follow through” shoot your target into the ground and follow through. I tell myself every-time “is he down, is he down” then I come back and tell myself “are there any more?” in my scan and assess which is done a normal pace where I can apprehend what is going on and process the information. At no time am I in a hurry to put my gun away.

    A pet pee of mine. People are super quick to reholster or come off their rifle, like they think the fight is over after 2 rds in the cardboard and a headshake!

  14. Mohican says:

    I love reading things that make sense even for me, a true asshole.

    I hope writing a lot more from Aaron here. I have never heard about or read from him but I definitely want.

  15. Joe says:

    1. Shoot the threat(s) to the ground – Check them if applicable.
    2. Get to cover – If any.
    3. Check the threat(s).
    4. Check your buddies – If any, If not Check your 6.
    5. Check your gear – Gun(s), ammo, comms etc.
    6. Check yourself – New holes, red sticky stuff, hydrate or die etc.

  16. Marc says:

    French standard bootcamp stuff :
    – ID the target
    – Shoot
    – Analyse the target and look for others, if necessary shoot again
    – Check your ejection port
    – Check your buddies and surroundings
    As usual, can be well or poorly executed, but the final part is usually more of a headshake than a real situational assessment in young recruits.
    Also of note, each step in this sequence has gun safety and triggerfinger position associated to maximize reactivity to a new threat and minimize possibilities of friendly fire.

  17. steve fisher says:

    awesome article,

    • Stickman says:

      No different than what you are teaching. I think if you saw someone doing the head twitch and jump game you would be quick, brutal, and blunt with them.

  18. Cele says:

    The article was very well written, but seems a tad bit short sighted and judgmental against reasoned fundamental. I can only comment on my perspective as he is doing so from his own which is a vast amount of experience (no exaggeration). As opsbulldog stated I immediately thought of the couple that went on a shooting rampage and the CCW getting smoked from behind. This is a rear occurrence, but….. so is my life. lesson learn is expeditiously not quickly S&A for additional shooters & or LE or other CCW (to prevent friendly fire) if you are alone. Never forgetting your main target. The youtube range ninjas have taking a good concept and turning it into a shit show, but my lesson learnt is to S&A as fast as you can process. Additionally ie. for FAMs in a tubes CQB environment S&A appropriately is vital.

  19. miclo18d says:

    FINALLY!!!!!! Someone says what I’ve been thinking ever since I saw this technique!

    Where your eyes go your gun goes! If you want to see if a threat is behind you turn your body. Then you can also engage it!

    That head spasm does nothing but identifies who’s about to enter you from the rear!

    • Aaron says:

      “That head spasm does nothing but identify who’ about to enter you from the rear!”


  20. John says:

    I agree, it is a procedure that is taught incorrectly at times, however it is important to teach and train breaking target fixation IOT maintain SA. Anyone who has been in a gunfight at close proximity can understand this, especially on your first game day no matter how well you are trained. Joe in the comments section above sums up the procedure best.

    I agree that a lot of novices just go through the rhythm without truly breaking concentration, which I think is great that you have raised the issue, however be careful in appropriating a procedure that may well save a shooters life one day if he trains correctly and understands its purpose.

  21. Pete says:

    For years I’ve been teaching Search and Assess because that’s how I was learned and how I learned in school to teach. The few civilian venues I’ve gone to taught the same thing. This method is in the Marine Corps Table 2 class I think but I looked and couldn’t find it.

    I guess everyone took Costa’s word. I know the method is mentioned in “On Combat” as superb for breaking tunnel vision. I think there is merit to the concept but looking for cover pretty much does the same thing. And breaking off the target after just two rounds is just silly.

    • Jon C. says:

      That was one of the concerns I had with the CMC/CMT training process. Too much technique taught as dogma to students who often learned things by rote and mimicry, without understanding any of the “why” behind it.

      They repeat it on the line with their students, and when lance corporal Binotz raises a hand to ask a question and gain some sense of context and perspective, it becomes a case of “Because Cpl/Sgt said so.” The cycle is perpetuated over and over in our industrial training process.

      I’ve seen the same with the mantra to manipulate your gear and weapon on the line without coming OFF THE TARGET and looking down. A deliberate peek is going to be okay.

    • JB says:

      Dave Grossman writing about combat is like a virgin writing about sex.

  22. Dan says:

    Whilst I may be unfamiliar with the US concept of Search and Assess, I am imagining from my just completed youtube research that this is a form of head check completed post engagement, or for lack of a better term, a drill completed at the end of a threat engagement. I think to dismiss the drill as garbage may be a bit strong in the use of language as when it is completed as a situational awareness check post engagement, as in post threat reassessment and re-engagement if necessary, then it is a fundamental component of team combat shooting and movement.

    I do agree that the way in which it can be ‘drilled’ in a range environment on the line, it can be trained poorly and open to this idea of ‘garbage’ but as we all should know, range line shooting is not combat shooting, it is as close to real world shooting as we can safely and efficiently work on specific components of the combat shooter, but it will have always have inherent weaknesses in its application. As the author aludes too with his own comments.

    In terms of a combat shooter, as in not a ‘range’ shooter, the aforementioned search and assess, head check, left and right scan or whatever you want to call it, is designed not only for other threats, but as I would primarily suggest to identify the location of your teammates, post or mid engagement if necessary so you can move and do so safely if required. To dismiss the drill as garbage is an oversight, to pan the poor application of the drill in a ‘range’ scenario, well that it down to the specific trainer and/or training. Used appropriately and correctly, the head check forms the basis of safe dynamic team movement in a CQB environment.

    Additionally it is a drill, as in an activity conducted in order to conduct muscle memory as the default practice when the stress is high. This means it needs to apply to both day and night serials and I would suggest moving the head to achieve the awareness of what is next to you and especially behind you is absolutely a necessary drill, specially with NVG on.

    In closing, does the search and assess have a place on a range in the hands of a static solo range shooter? No. Does it have a place on a range in the hands of a combat shooter preparing for actual combat as opposed to the next 3 gun shoot, then the answer is absolutely yes. When it is trained properly, and for its intended purpose.

    As a drill that is conducted post engagement, as in the last thing you do before you move, you better fucking ‘search and assess’, it will save your life.