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Going to Guns: A Critical Introduction to the OODA Cycle

July 6, 2013

I would hazard the guess that most people involved in any level of “tactical” shooting today have at least heard of the term “OODA loop.” Whether they are liberty-minded, Constitutional Patriots, Jack-booted Stasi wannabes, or power-lifting, door-kicking, military special operations gunslingers, you can’t spend much time studying gunfighting and not come across the term. If you are completely unfamiliar with the term, I can confidently say, you are NOT ready to be in a fight.

Unfortunately, as I discuss the OODA Cycle with people, in classes or outside of them, I discover that, regardless of how much they talk about “interrupting his OODA loop,” or “getting inside the OODA loop,” and more, too many people legitimately do not understand what it actually means, nor how to train it to improve their response times to stimuli.

If you’ve learned and practiced your decision-making matrices, and know HOW to think critically under stress, you can accomplish this without having to shoot anyone, unless it’s on your own terms. If the other dude gets inside of your decision-making cycle though, and you’re stuck playing catch up, you’re going to find yourself crammed into a position you don’t want to be in, and fighting your way out, against undesirable odds….perhaps even unbeatable odds.

We’re not going to go into the history and development of the OODA Cycle, despite the interesting lessons that the history itself can teach us. For that, I suggest looking at any of the numerous reputable biographies of Colonel John Boyd, USAF, as well as his own writings on the subject. This article will be a grossly oversimplified, but a practically thorough discussion of the application of the cycle.

Observe

The first step of the decision-making cycle is observation. This does not just mean seeing. It may mean seeing, hearing, smelling, or even tasting. The first step in learning to observe is the ability to see details. A lot of people spout the platitude that “God is in the details!” or “You’ve got to pay attention to the details.” Too many people though, look at the forest and don’t see the trees. “Oh, that’s a pretty forested mountain!” Deciduous or coniferous forest? “Huh?” Broad leaves or pines? “Oh, broad leaves!” Cool. Oaks? Maples? Hickory? Elm? “How the fuck would I know?” Because you said you pay attention to the fucking details! “Oh, yeah….”

One game that I play with HH6 is to ask her questions about things we just passed, while we’re driving. “Hey babe, what state was that red Ford pick-up from?” “How the hell would I know?” “Because you should have been looking at it. Didn’t you see the Texas license plates?” I don’t necessarily suggest playing this game with your wife, unless she’s seriously on-board with your preparations, and wants to get better at learning to look for potential threats. It is however, a great game to play with your kids to build situational awareness and the ability to look around and see details in a hurry.

Another exercise for building the ability to observe quickly, is the traditional snipercraft training tool known as KIM games (trivial note: The name of Kim games is not an acronym of “Keep In Mind.” It is derived from the Rudyard Kipling novel “Kim,” about a young Irish-Indian half-caste who is trained as a spy for the Crown. This technique is one of the games used in his training. The game was given by Boy Scout founder Baden-Powell in his book “Scouting Games”. It’s now a pretty basic sniper training exercise.) Simply put, you have a table with various items of military significance on it. It’s uncovered for a specified period of time, and you can study the items on the table. After the duration, the table is covered, and you are alloted a certain amount of time to write down notes on the items on the table.

After that allotted time, you are asked questions about the items. Not simple questions, such as “What was on the table?” The questions are about specifics: “What type of rifle was on the table? Who was the manufacturer? What was the serial number? What type of muzzle brake did the sniper rifle have on it? What position was the safety selector switch in?” You will suck at it initially, if your interrogator is doing his job correctly, and asking specifics. With practice however, you’ll learn to look at details faster.

In application, observation may be as simple as seeing that dude acting suspiciously ahead of you up the sidewalk. Why do you think his behavior is suspicious? “Shit, I don’t know, he’s just suspicious,” doesn’t cut it. “Well, he’s standing on a poorly lite street corner, at 0300, with one hand in his pocket, speaking out loud, with no one around….”

It might mean having early warning devices (EWD) out, or watchful neighbors that give you a telephonic heads up, when they see someone creeping around your back forty. It may be a matter of hearing multiple people in boots, stomping around on your back porch at midnight, or hearing radio static crackling from some dude’s radio. It might be hearing a rifle being charged, or smelling out-of-place cologne or cigarette smoke. Observation is not just seeing! It’s any input through sensory detection that provides you with raw data about your environment. It’s information.

Orientation

Orient, the second stage of the OODA Cycle, is only relevant if you have an estimate of the METT-TC situation. Orientation is a determination of what that observation means to you, in relation to the situation you find yourself in. Without any concept of what the overall situation is, you cannot make any more accurate an orientation to what an observation means than if you observe incorrectly. If you don’t know what is going on, you’re not going to be able to determine what any specific stimulus means to you.

If I smell cigarette smoke on my property, knowing that neither myself nor HH6 smoke (and ATL certainly doesn’t!), I can orient to the fact that someone is on my property. If I know that LEO are looking for me (they’re not, to the best of my knowledge), that knowledge of my situation will allow me to orient to the fact that the person on my property might be a threat to my liberty or life. If I’m not aware that I’m specifically being targeted for investigation, I don’t have the correct frame of reference to interpret that aspect. On the same hand, if I incorrectly believe I am being targeted, and automatically assume that it is a Blue Helmet hiding out on my property, I may end up starting a fight with a neighbor who happens to be crossing my property while poaching an elk…

If I know, or suspect that I’m being pursued, and I see patrol vehicles coming up my private, remote, dead-end road, or see an MRAP driving up the road, I may be able to determine that I probably don’t want to be in the house when they knock on the front door….

Thus, we’re back to a previous article on the importance of accurate information collection and interpretation. An accurate understanding of what is going on, at an operational and strategic level, within your immediate operational area, will allow you to decipher what tactical applications might be appropriate. Not understanding, accurately, what your situation is, will cause you to decipher what your observations mean inaccurately.

Decide

If we over-simplify things to the point of a fairy-tale analysis of real life, the decide phase of the OODA cycle can actually be the fastest step of the process. Too often, even in “high-end performance” gunfight training, this oversimplification occurs, and people end up with the simple “shoot/no-shoot” decision to make. On one level, that’s awesome, because it makes the decision-making as streamlined and rapid as possible. It’s a simple shoot/no-shoot, binary decision-making matrix.

An understanding of the Hick/Hyman Law tells us this is a good thing. Basically (and I recognize this is a gross simplification. It’s a simple layman’s description for the understanding of other laymen. For the theoreticians out there, you’ll recognize that it still applies), this law states that, if it takes you 2 seconds to choose between two options, then adding a third option will increase the decision-making time exponentially. Adding a fourth option will again increase the time required exponentially. Thus, the fewer options you allow yourself to choose between, the less time it will take you to decide. This allows you to act more quickly. This law explains why the 98th degree black belt in who-flung-poo kung-fu gets his ass beat by the unschooled, but experienced back alley brawler. The brawler closes in on Crouching Tiger boy, banging hard with continuous lefts and rights, hitting with hate. Hidden Dragon dude sees the first punch coming and orients to the fact that it means he’s about to get smoked in the grape. That part goes just fine. It’s when he starts deciding between courses-of-action that he gets left behind.

“Well, gee, that’s a punch. Is it a straight punch or a hook punch? Should I use an outside forearm block, a rising block, an inside forearm block, or should I just duck?”

In the meantime, he’s caught one punch to the throat, and is trying to orient to THAT observation, while brawler boy is already landing punch number two and three and four.

“If I see someone with a gun, acting aggressively or suspiciously, they’re a threat, so shoot them!”

Well, that’s great…except what if it’s a member of your group? What if it’s a neighbor? What if it’s a scout for a potential ally? It’s just not that simple, and, like orientation, it needs to be relevant to your METT-TC analysis.

However, a thorough understanding of the cyclic nature of the decision-making process allows us to see that the decide phase actually does, always strip down to a simple binary choice. If I am deciding what to do, but I cannot decide if I should shoot, or if it’s the neighbor’s kid, I need to recycle and observe again. If I see that it is the neighbor’s kid, I’ve started the cycle over at “observe.” It really is a never-ending cycle, and it can constantly interrupt itself, and in some cases, should. The “trick” to accelerating the decide phase of the cycle is to accelerate the observation and orientation phases, and reduce your ultimate decision-making matrix down to the fewest possible number of selections.

The other “trick” to accelerating the decide phase is having confidence in yourself and your abilities. If you’re not 100 percent confident in your ability to execute whatever course-of-action you decide on, you’re going to hesitate to decide on that course-of-action. Complete, legitimate confidence, achieved through realistic, effective training, combined with achieving a measured, objective standard of performance will allow you to decide on a course-of-action without fear or doubt interfering with your speed of decision.

Act

This is the phase of the cycle that we all like to train to improve. This is the square range drill phase. How fast can I draw and put three rounds into the A-Zone? How fast can I transition between targets? Unfortunately, the brutal reality is, it’s also really the least important phase to execute quickly.

Think about it for a moment. If I can draw my weapon and get rounds downrange 1/8th of a second faster than you, but you get through the process and start drawing your gun 1/2 second before me….I still lose….I’m not going to decry the practice of shooting fast accurately. I’m simply pointing out that you need to get there before the other dude does. Any decent firearms trainer can teach you to be faster with your gun. Any combatives instructor can teach you to punch faster, or hit takedowns faster. A practical fighting instructor however, needs to be able to teach you, or help teach you, to work through the cycle faster.

He/she should also be able to help you learn how to interrupt and interfere with the other dude’s OODA cycle, to slow down his ability to respond and react to whatever is happening.

Interrupting the Other Guy

There are two basic ways to interrupt the other dude’s OODA cycle. The first, and simplest, is to simply follow the advice of Nathan Bedford Forrest, and get there the “firstest with the mostest.” If you KNOW you’re about to get in a fight, smoke the dude in the grape with a lead pipe before he even realizes that you know you’re about to get in a fight. If you know that DHS is about to roll MRAPs up your driveway, don’t be at home when they arrive. Keep them guessing and trying to figure out what you are doing, after you’ve already started doing it.

The other method, congruent to the first, is to interrupt his observation and orientation phase, so he’s either unable to make a decision, or so he makes incorrect decisions. Camouflage and concealment, whether it involves wearing earth toned clothing and painting your face with grease paint to hide in the woods, or concealing your gun and looking like all the other white-bread suburban soccer moms in the suburbs will result in the enemy’s inability to observe you as a threat. If they don’t know you’re there, they can’t really orient to the fact that you’re even a threat. You’ve interrupted their OODA Cycle, by preventing them from even getting it started correctly.

Deception operations, such as the mock guns and tanks deceiving the Nazis about where the Normandy invasions would happen, are an example of interrupting his orientation phase. If the dude who’s about to invade my home thinks I’m in my bedroom, reading myself to sleep, because he observed my living room light turn off and my bedroom light turn on at 2300, when I’m actually looking at him through a 10X Leupold MK4, mounted on a .338LM, 1200 meters away, I’m already inside his OODA loop. If a predator believes I’m a broke, homeless, street bum, or even a working class construction laborer, based on my attire and mannerisms, he’s not going to waste time mugging me, when there’s lots of white collar dudes with money and Rolexes walking the street with their heads up their asses. He’s making false observations, leading him to incorrect orientations. This in turn, leads to incorrect, or inapplicable decisions and actions.

In either case, I’m ahead of the other dude in the OODA cycle, so when I decide to go to guns, he’s already behind me. It doesn’t really matter if he can draw and shoot faster than I can, because by the time he decides to do so, I’ve already gotten rounds into him.

An Example

In classes, I like to use a completely non-firearms related example of the OODA Cycle in action. The reason I do this is two-fold. On the first, it allows people to not be looking for the gun-related lessons, and focus on the actual lesson. Second, it’s something we’ve all experienced, at some level, unlike actual gunfights, and it helps us learn to apply the OODA Cycle to more than just the “shoot/no-shoot” aspect of tactical scenarios.

With that, let me preface this allegory with an apology to any female readers. I assume that the MAJORITY of my readership happens to be male, based on the basic demographics of the gun and Patriot cultures. This example is predicated on a male readership. Nevertheless, I believe the lessons will be readily apparent to the arguably more intelligent and observant female of our species.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are back in high school, sitting in your home room class. If you were anything like me, you are probably more interested in staring around, daydreaming than actually doing the homework you’re supposed to be doing in that class.

As you glance around, you notice the cute new blond girl in school smiling at you. Like any testosterone-addled teenage boy, you instantly hone in on that. You’ve OBSERVED that a cute female is smiling at you. Now, you have to ORIENT to what that means to you, in the context of being in home room class.

Is she smiling at you because she thinks you’re cute? Or is she smiling at you because you have drool running down your face (in my case, this was usually the case…)? Is she even actually smiling at you, or is she actually smiling at the quarterback sitting behind you (Or, in today’s world, is she perhaps smiling at the cheerleader sitting in front of you?)?

Once you’ve wiped your face to make sure there’s no drool; looked around and realized there’s no one else sitting close enough for her to be smiling at anyone but you, and that she is, in fact, smiling at you because she thinks you’re cute, you have to DECIDE on a course-of-action.

Do you get up, in the middle of class, walk over, and slip her some tongue? Do you wait until class is over, and try to talk to her on the way out? Do you wait and try to catch her in the hall between classes and offer to carry her books (how quaint….)? Do you write a note (“Do you like me? Check yes or no!”) and have your buddy slip it to her? Or do you bask in self-loathing and a lack of confidence and ignore the potential for a really hot date next weekend?

So, in the interest of not getting in trouble, or kicked in the nuts, you decide to forego the make-out session in class. You DECIDE to catch her on the way out of class, after the bell rings.

Then, the bell rings, and you start moving towards the door to talk to her. As you’re moving though, you see the first string basketball center walk up and start talking to her.

He just interrupted your OODA Cycle. You OBSERVE that she’s now in a conversation. You ORIENT to the reality that it might mean he’ll ask her out before you can. You DECIDE on a course-of-action.

Do you wait for him to get done talking, and hope he doesn’t ask her out, or that she says no? Do you walk up and bean him in the back of the head with your Algebra book (don’t ask…), then ask her out before the school security guard shows up? Etc…..

The ability to understand the entire OODA Cycle, and not only accelerate the process by seeing faster, with more clarity, interpreting that data more accurately, faster, and then deciding on a suitable course-of-action, then acting decisively, will go a long way to increasing your survivability and success, whether your perceived threat is cannibalistic San Franciscans roaming the countryside and burning women, raping homes, and pillaging the fields (or something like that….), or jack-booted stormtroopers kicking in your door and flash-banging your family before shooting your dogs.

If you don’t understand the process your mind and body work through, all the training in the world in how to “ACT” faster will never get you where you need to be. Train to see the details, orient to which ones are important and what they mean. War game possible courses-of-action in your training, and develop confidence in your abilities, so you don’t hesitate when you should be saying, “Fix bayonets, and forward at the double time!” What are your catalysts? How will you recognize them? What will your actions be in response to that stimuli?

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28 Comments
  1. For some reason, WordPress is fucking with my normal editing functions, so please ignore the changes from my normal editorial format, wherein I boldface headlines, and italicize parenthetical statements.
    DOL,
    John

  2. Yankee Terrier permalink

    Hello John, you are a superb communicator- teacher…when convienient if you can e-mail me…I really like the above by the way…

  3. sv906905@netscape.net permalink

    Nope, never heard of OODA till your article – Thanks. I looked it up on Wikipedia before I read your article. Your definition and examples were better than Wiki though.

    With that said, in hindsight I use OODA a hundred times a day dealing with everyday life. Thanks for bringing it to my attention so I can hone the skill. JohnyMac

  4. Yankee Terrier permalink

    Hey John , when it is convienient try to “sanitize” my e-mail vs call sign I use Yankee terrier,,,my e-mail is ninjaiguana ya da ya da I know you are busy so if it dosn’t happen the world won’t end,,, Jay

  5. HABCAN permalink

    Great article!! Loved the ‘Highschool’ analogy! Forwarded.

  6. millwright permalink

    My father never called it OODA but he instructed all his children in this. He just simply called it “Keep your head out of your ass and be ready to deal with some shit.” He was a grumpy ass ex Marine and Peace Officer.
    Thanks John

  7. Disciple of Night permalink

    I eventually learned that the girl was, nine times out of ten, smiling at someone behind me.

  8. Reblogged this on Cold Dead Hands Days and commented:
    SUPERB Schooling on the OODA loop by Mosby!! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED reading.

  9. ummmmmm, cheerleaders.

  10. This is great, and very timely, there is an old SOCOM guy in karate class who calls me “OODA” because of a comment I made about sen-no-sen in sparring, calling it a mini OODA loop interruption. So “OODA” is actually one of my nicknames now because this guy is teasing me hehe. Also every once in a while he’ll sidle up to me and throw out another military term for me to chew on. Thank you for the article.

    • PS I used to be a cheerleader. I think I was never in so great shape as right after cheerleading camp for 2 weeks. They worked us like rented mules.

  11. PARACLETE permalink

    I too learned OODA as a young man.
    Of course, it was a different scenario.
    But still as effective…..I would like to think.
    You’re playing second base, runner on first and third.
    Will the batter bunt or swing ?
    The ball is hit to you, what do you do ? And what do you do first ?
    Upon incorporating that with chess strategy and applying it to
    everyday life, of thinking multiple moves, and options ahead.
    One can, in most cases, be aware of their surroundings and know
    their courses of action. I like to refer to it as, ” What If ”
    It’s served me well, all these years.
    Thank you for all your hard work, and your willingness,
    at helping those of us who need it.

  12. Don Summers permalink

    It would be great to have a book written on this subject that actually had real life or even simulated problems that the reader could practice with.

  13. taodnt permalink

    Like sv906905@netscape.net I had never heard of OODA either. I found this article that was very enlightening, and encourage others to read it. It gives some interesting examples each step of the process loop.

    http://www.realfighting.com/content.php?id=138#

    I am 61 and am just trying to figure the best way to protect my family if I am required.

    This article was found from a google search, and I am in no way connected (except by reading) this website or MG’s…..

    thanks for listening

    Old Dog

    “Teaching an Old Dog new tricks”

  14. RobRoySimmons permalink

    For some reason or another I always seem to flip Orientation and Observation around in order, probably out of arrogance. They seem to me like a finely balanced scale that can go either way in order depending on a small change in weight distribution, in this case information and understanding of mission/situation.

    • I get where you’re going, but in that case, your knowledge of pertinent information is, in itself, an observation. That allows you to orient to what different stimuli mean in that context, and you can pre-game the decision phase……you’ve still got to observe what is happening in the moment, orient to what it is you’re observing, and then decide that yes, your programmed response, is in fact, the right choice…..

  15. spartanmonkey permalink

    Excellent article. Not taking anything away from Mosby, but look at a class called Managing Unknown Contacts by SouthNarc (JM, maybe you teach this as part of your classes?). I took it as part of a larger class called ECQC. He teaches lots of examples of how nefarious folks can try to get in your OODA loop and how you can deal with it. One of my favorites is simple: They say something completely out of context like “Hi, do you know where I can find a payphone twenty seven?”. Try that on your friends – they’ll just stare at you, stuck somewhere in the Observe/Orient phases, trying to figure out if you really said “twenty seven” AND why you said it. Say something like that to me, and I’m immediately going guns-up because I know what’s coming next.

    In my experience, repetition and role playing help to shorten the OODA loop. Even wargaming scenarios in your head helps, but the more stimuli you use (sight/sound/smell/touch), the more strongly impregnated the scenario’s resolution becomes in your mind. This works to speed up your OODA loop because your brain has already ‘seen’ and stored the resolution pathway through an event and doesn’t need to do the full OODA loop (recognizing what’s going on and assessing too many options as JM mentions). It sort-of becomes like a reflex. Battle drils seem to be a good example of an OODA loop shortening training regimen (many repetions of a very small set of options for a specific stimuli).

    • I think Craig’s probably leading the pack when it comes to the MUC phase of the criminal assault paradigm. The real problem with role-playing, as Craig will tell you as well, is that it only works if the role-players do their job and the scenario architect is knowledgeable in the subject to make the scenarios realistic. Basing scenarios on Bruce Willis movies probably isn’t going to offer much benefit.

      I don’t teach the MUC thing much, one because I genuinely don’t believe I could teach it as well as Craig does, and two, it’s only a tangential part of the issues we’re dealing with in the context of this blog. In fact, the scenarios that most of the readership here is concerned with, I would guess are diametrically opposed to Craig’s concerns, in a lot of ways.

      I do believe scenario training is useful, and if you can develop effective, multi-directional scenarios, everyone should do it.

      And yes, Battle Drills are exactly what we’re doing. We’re developing a fluid, flexible response to certain stimuli that require little thought to execute effectively.

  16. Jeff permalink

    Awesome article.

    now about that public telephone number 23?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mosby: Going To Guns – A Critical Introduction To The OODA Cycle | Western Rifle Shooters Association
  2. Going to Guns: A Critical Introduction to the OODA Cycle |
  3. The OODA Loop | kR-15: info and resources for firearms enthusiasts

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