Teaching Tip- Gimme Three Steps

Written by Greg Ellifritz

Topics: Teaching Tips

  • SumoMe

Written by: Greg Ellifritz


“Simply put, the human brain can only consume about three ‘chunks’ of information in short term, or working, memory.  As more and more items are added to a list, the average person retains less and less.  Four items are a bit harder to remember than three.  Five items are even harder.  Once the number of items hits eight, most people have little chance of remembering the entire sequence.”

– Carmine Gallo in Talk Like Ted



“The human brain thinks in triads (from Olympic medals to fairy tales, it‘s three medals, three princes, three bears), and it cannot immediately comprehend numbers greater than four….

Above four, we must engage different, slower brain processes. It takes us more time to remember the items, and we do not remember them as accurately. Assessments of one to four items are rapid, accurate, and confident through a process called subitizing. As the number of items increases beyond this amount, judgments are made with decreasing accuracy and confidence. In addition, response times rise in a dramatic fashion.”

– Olivia Fox Cabane in The Charisma Myth



Two quotes.  Neither have anything to do with firearms.  How can we use the information they contain to become more efficient firearms instructors?


I work hard to make sure that every physical technique I teach has three or fewer steps.  I first learned of this technique about 15 years ago in a Krav Maga law enforcement instructor class.  The teacher of the class was adamant that we be able to reduce all of the techniques we taught to three steps or fewer.  After seeing great success with limiting the moves I teach to three or fewer steps, I’ve been doing it ever since.


Let’s take a look at how this works.  Imagine that you were teaching new students how to draw a pistol from a concealed holster.  A list of all of the steps involved might look like this:

  • Clear cover garment
  • Grip pistol in a firing grip
  • Remove all retention devices
  • Begin to pull pistol straight up and out of holster
  • Once the bottom of the barrel clears the top of the holster, drive your elbow down to get the muzzle on target
  • Slide gun across the pectoral muscles until it reaches your other hand at chest level
  • Acquire your two handed grip
  • Extend gun towards target in two handed stance to acquire sights


That’s eight steps.  We know from research that students will likely forget all eight of these steps as soon as they leave your range.  For better retention, cut the list down to three.


If I was teaching this particular eight-step draw sequence, I would reduce it to the following three learning points:


  • Grab weapon in firing grip and release retention devices
  • Pull weapon in straight line out of holster and get muzzle on target as soon as possible
  • Slide weapon along pectoral muscles and acquire two handed grip at chest level before extending to the target


Which sequence do you think the student is more likely to remember?


I removed one step here (clear cover garments) because you can’t get to the step of gripping the pistol without already doing that.  That step doesn’t have to be added to the list because a function of one of the later steps cannot be completed without it.  You don’t actually have to remove steps to make this system work.  You just have to condense what you have into three or fewer bullet points.  You can still mention all the other steps in the draw stroke when you present the technique, but reduce the “bullet points” to three or fewer.


Give it a try.  Your students will be happier and your levels of retention will skyrocket.




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1 Comment For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Back Spin says:

    Wow. This is a simple but huge tip. Very timely since we are teaching malfunction clearances during in-service training right now.

    It has been very frustrating especially when teaching clearing double feeds. I counted 5 steps when talking about the traditional way. Almost no one was able to do it on demand despite talking through it and working through it several times with dummy rounds.

    Clearances were much smoother when I broke it down in 3 steps:
    -Lock slide to the rear
    -Clear the gun
    -Emergency Reload