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Not Your Average Dry Fire Training Session

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So there I was, 40 years young, though I won’t tell you how long ago that was (I still feel 28). My doctor said, “Dan, lay down. I’m going to place this sensor on your ear. I want you to lay down and fall asleep.” I laid down, felt relaxed, and after about 10 minutes he told me to sit up. “What do you think your heart rate was, Dan?” my doctor asked. I replied, “I don’t know, doc, maybe 60? I was really relaxed.” Hell no! He laughed and said it was 108 at rest.

Next, he gave me a series of cognitive tests, which really annoyed the sh*t out of me. The doctor asked, “Dan, how many times do you work out a week?” I thought to myself, Really? Are you saying I’m out of shape? I told him five to six times. Then he asked how many times I worked out my brain weekly. I didn’t have an answer for him. From that day forward diaphragmatic breathing and cognitive training has been a part of my training routine for various things, but mainly focused around my job of shooting and all the applications for a tactical/operational environment.

We regularly do physical fitness to improve our body’s ability to perform during tactical situations revolved around shooting, but do you conduct cognitive training to improve your brain to perform in these same situations that revolve? For years growing up in the SOF community, “dry-fire” to me meant magazine changes, draws, weapons transitions, and the list goes on. There’s nothing wrong with that, but are we really exercising our brain as much as our bodies doing these things?

We all strive to be stronger, faster, and smarter, but we should deliberately place some emphasis on smarter and conduct a good dry-fire session by using diaphragmatic breathing and cognitive techniques. I’m not preaching any snake oil, nor do I have a degree in anything related to this, but I’ve been privileged to work with professionals and trainers who do. I’ve adapted some modern technology and techniques, and the effort has been well worth it when it comes to tactical performance.

Controlling your breathing in stressful situations increases your body’s cognitive awareness. Essentially, our bodies have two modes that work in tandem to help us respond in challenging situations: fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest. When your fight-or-flight system is activated, our heart rates get amped up and we find ourselves breathing heavily, with a heart rate running around 150 beats per minute.


This reduces cognitive function, negatively impacts peripheral vision, and makes you vulnerable to the dreaded tunnel vision — not good for situations where you need to process a lot of information and be able to shoot surgically. This will always happen, but how do you train your breathing and heart rate to start off slower? That’s where training your body to breathe in the rest-and-digest mode comes into play with our cognitive skills.

Breathing Exercise: Heart Math is a free application for just about any device nowadays, and there are several others that’ll do the same job. The
Inner Balance Sensor that hooks to your ear is only $150, so it’s a relatively cheap piece of kit for your toolbox compared to the price of ammunition nowadays. Sit down, relax, pull out your device, and hook up your sensor to your ear. It’ll give you instructions on how to breathe, with a recommended 3- or 4-second inhale, followed by a 3- to 4-second exhale. You’ll execute this for 2 to 3 minutes.

A smartphone app and a clip-on sensor really help with breathing and relaxation exercises.

A smartphone app and a clip-on sensor really help with breathing and relaxation exercises.

Here’s the mistake we all make — we breathe with our shoulders and chest when we should be breathing with our diaphragm instead. Heart Math will relay you your results by displaying how consistently you used good mechanics for breathing, placing your moment-to-moment performance in a red, blue, or green zone. If you’re not breathing through your diaphragm you’ll know. To practice, lie down and place a shoe or book on your midsection. While breathing normally, this will let you know if you’re using your diaphragm. In the end, the goal is to get our rest-and-digest system more activated, which can bring our breathing and heart rate down as low as possible. This way, when the time comes to turn on the lead faucet and we’re in a fight-or-flight mode, we aren’t redlining and reducing our cognitive function. This can only be worked on through what I call dry-fire breathing techniques.

Cognitive Training
Cognitive training focusses on your brain and your ability to process information in a timely manner. This is just as important as training the physical application of combat shooting. We can dry-fire magazine changes all day, but need to work the whole process into the equation as well. There are three phases of skill we need to work on when we have a Dry-Fire Program of Instruction.

1. Perception: How we bring in information, such as using our peripheral vision and eyesight.

2. Cognition: How we make sense of the information we just brought in, such as determining what our engagement criteria are, or determining if we’re shooting the right target.

3. Execution: Putting that cognition into action, which can be a motor skill like pulling the trigger. So, after outlining our phases of cognitive skills, does your dry-fire training for shooting, CQB, or whatever the task you own fit into all these phases? Our goal when it comes to cognitive training is to exercise our brain, reduce our tunnel vision, and expand our focus to the outermost and all aspects of our jobs.

Card games for cognitive training: The following requires a laser training pistol or a carbine along with a deck of cards. Such a pistol made by SIRT is roughly $300 (see Issue 9 of CONCEALMENT for options), a deck of cards is roughly $4, and one to two buddies are free if you provide them a beer afterward. Start by placing a buddy at 3 to 5 meters away because your peripheral vision is harder to work up close.

Cards aren't just for tricks. Grab a buddy, a deck of cards, and a training pistol for some great cognitive training.

Cards aren't just for tricks. Grab a buddy, a deck of cards, and a training pistol for some great cognitive training.

Have him split a deck of cards and hold them in each hand. To start off, play face cards only. When he displays the cards, draw and shoot and hit the appropriate face card with your laser. Make sure you call out the non-shoot card as well, or if he draws two non-shoots, call them both out. Try to keep your eyes focused at the center of his body to work your peripheral vision. You may need to have your buddy hold the cards close in to start, but after more practice have him extend his arms. Make sure you vary your distance as well.

With this exercise, we have hit all three phases:

1. Perception: Working the muscles of the eye to focus on two things at once.

2. Cognition: Only engaging red face cards.

3. Execution: Pulling the trigger and hitting the correct target. The following is a list of dry-fire techniques with cards that increase in challenge from easiest to difficult:

–    Face cards only
–    Face cards of one color
–    Face cards of two different colors
–    Engage cards in ascending or descending order
–    Add another buddy to the mix; now you have four targets instead of two.

Grid games for cognitive training: This dry-fire drill is pretty damn simple, but one of my favorites. It’s man on man, because competition breeds success. All you need is a whiteboard, marker, and two training guns. You can also build a grid system of numbers and hang them on any wall. This takes three people to perform. Have a buddy call out a number while two shooters are facing the grid. The first one to draw and hit the number is the winner. This is a very simple drill, but in the end it’ll ensure you’ve executed a dry-fire drill that addresses all three phases of cognitive training.


Head-to-head drills with a friend will test perception, cognition, and execution, with the added bonus of the stress of competition.

Head-to-head drills with a friend will test perception, cognition, and execution, with the added bonus of the stress of competition.

Dynavision for training: Make no mistake about this — it’s an expensive piece of kit, around $15K, but well worth the money if your unit can afford it. There are three ways we use this device, though it can be programmed in a number of ways.


1. Basically, the shooter stands where he can touch every button. The program will give him 60 seconds to hit as many red lights as he sees.

2. The shooter again positions his or herself in front of the device and hits as many red lights as he or she can see in 60 seconds. In addition, directional arrows will flash in the center and the shooter must take a step in the direction, left, right, or squat while hitting red lights.

3. The shooter repeats the above procedures for round 3. In addition, a gun will flash in the center and the shooter must draw and engage a target to his left or right. This works his ability to adjust his attention from narrow to broad and helps with overall peripheral vision as well, which we know is key when it comes to any type of room clearing technique.


Fitlights for training: The Fitlights are about $2K, but have great application for running dry inside the shoot house. A wide variety of sports and athletes using lights for fitness training; now we use them for cognitive training in the firearms community! When starting off with CQB training, I start with one man then work my way to two and up to a cell of four or five. Besides initial entry techniques, learning your sector of fire and where you belong in that room are the two most important aspects of the task.

As shooters gain proficiency, introduce threat and non-threat targets. Still without shooting, have them come out and recall where those targets were located. Now add a set of lights that are triggered and can be adjusted for a variety of delayed settings in a room. When the shooter enters the room, he collapses his primary and alternate sector and calls out threats or non-threats. Have him tell you again where each was located, as well as how many lights turned on, the color of the ones that did flash, and where they were located.

Dynavision makes specialized equipment that's fully programmable to train your reaction to visual stimuli.

Dynavision makes specialized equipment that's fully programmable to train your reaction to visual stimuli.

It’s not a very easy task, even for experienced assaulters. But the addition of these lights helps the shooter expand from a narrow focus of just thinking about his job to a broad focus of seeing more than just painting the walls. It’ll help not only with peripheral vision but focusing on all phases of cognitive awareness.

Cognitive training and breathing routines will enhance your ability to perform not only when sh*t hits the fan, but during daily performance as well. We’ve addressed a few dry-fire training techniques here; there are many out there, but most of them don’t focus on the cognitive aspect.


I spent countless hours as an Assault Team Sergeant with the fellas conducting magazine changes in the dark, switching a radio to MEDEVAC frequency without looking at it, and transitioning from my primary to secondary blaster. That’s all good stuff, but I didn’t spend a lot of time on the cognitive side for training. Technology is advancing and so should our techniques for being better combat shooters.

Programmable lights can add additional cognitive elements to tactical training.

Programmable lights can add additional cognitive elements to tactical training.

There’s a lot of great equipment out there, and all you need is a room or office at work or home to train aspects of your job without firing a single live round. Let’s face it: There are plenty of times when we just don’t have time or the ability to go to the range. That being said, you should have a good dry-fire routine in place if your job relies on your ability to be mentally and physically prepared. As I always say, everything is a rehearsal for something.

Special thanks to the men and women of the Special Operations Cognitive Enhancement for Performance program (SOCEP). You’ve all made me a better person as well as a better shooter. Thank you again!

About the Author
Dan Brokos is a retired sergeant major and former Special Forces Green Beret with 26 years of service. He’s currently the CEO of Lead Faucet Tactical. Questions about training? Contact him at [email protected].

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