The Buddy System is No Buddy of Mine

By Jack W. Klein May 11, 2020

The crack of a rifle during morning routine is unfortunately an all too common sound on training weekends. No, it’s not an unexpected probe from the enemy party, but rather a negligent discharge by a now-panicked trainee. This typically results in a charge for the perpetrator, their weapon being taken for testing, and training being at least momentarily derailed. In a live fire exercise, a negligent discharge could result in injury or death. The buddy system was introduced to deal with this very serious issue, but anyone involved in recruit and officer cadet training would know that it certainly hasn’t eliminated it.

Anyone who has ever completed a weapons handling test has heard of the buddy system; doctrinally, an additional layer of safety precautions. It involves a nominated person (a “buddy”) who must monitor the weapon operator when unloading, conducting a final function test, and during individual safety precautions. Part of the buddy’s responsibility is to double check the operator’s actions, hopefully picking up on whatever they may have missed. But a supposed secondary function of the buddy system is to increase operator accountability, relying on the assumption that a person is more likely to pay attention to a task if they know that someone is watching them do it. However, it is worth asking whether the buddy system is indeed doing what it what it claims to. Could the buddy system have made negligent discharges more likely to occur?

Diffusion of Responsibility

Recently, I overheard a sergeant complain to two corporals dealing with a recent negligent discharge charge. He said that it was as if the buddy system had made people less careful! In his experience, weapon operators were paying less attention during weapons checks since the introduction of buddies and were less likely to notice a round in the chamber. This got me thinking: is there a concept in social psychology that could explain how a person could become less attentive with the introduction of another person? The answer is yes, and it’s known as the diffusion of responsibility.

The diffusion of responsibility refers to the peculiar phenomena whereby people are less likely to take responsibility for something if other people are present. This was most famously exemplified in the case of Kitty Genovese, in which a whole neighbourhood ignored the screams of a woman being murdered because each bystander believed that someone else would surely act. Diffusion of responsibility occurs all the time in modern workplaces; just consider the mass email sent around the office that remains ignored, with everyone having assumed that someone else will reply. It is an established psychological fact that the introduction of additional people to a situation leads to a reduction in perceptions of responsibility.

In the same way, the introduction of a buddy can reduce perceived responsibility for the clearing of a weapon. Rather than feel an extra level of accountability, the weapon operator may pay off their own drills with the belief that their buddy will make up for their lack of attentiveness. This problem is compounded by the fact that the buddy is probably thinking the exact same thing. This combination leads to a dangerous situation in which both parties believe the other is diligently clearing the weapon, when in fact neither are. When a negligent discharge does occur, both parties are typically bewildered, unsure why the other didn’t do their job for them. 

Low Target Prevalence

When conducting a buddy check, the buddy is supposed to double-check that there is not still a round in the chamber. In most cases, the chamber is clear. In fact, in the few hundred buddy checks I’ve performed, I’ve never had to stop an operator from firing a negligent discharge. Crucially, the low frequency of buddy interventions makes people less likely to notice when there actually is something amiss. In psychology this is known as the low-prevalence effect, and is likely another reason for negligent discharges.

The low-prevalence effect has been most studied among screening officers at airports. These workers spend all day searching for contraband that might only appear once in hundreds or thousands of bags. Research has found that rare objects are more often missed than common objects; this means that screening officers are less likely to detect uncommon objects (e.g. bombs, drugs) than common objects (e.g. the nail clippers you’ve attempted to smuggle aboard).The same principle applies to the buddy check too. Buddies are more likely to notice common mistakes (e.g. forgetting to perform a final function test) than uncommon events (e.g. a round in the chamber), even if that is ostensibly the whole point of the exercise.

The exact reasons for this are likely two-fold. Firstly, recruits may not be exactly sure what they’re looking for, or what a round in the chamber even looks like. When they eventually do see one, they may not know what they’re looking at. Secondly, once a soldier has performed hundreds of buddy checks without ever detecting a round in the chamber, they may mentally discount the possibility of it ever occurring. Repeated chamber-free checks lead to a feeling of “it won’t ever happen to me”, and a decrease in attentiveness. When one considers these factors, in conjunction with the diffusion of responsibility, it is little wonder that negligent discharges occur with the regularity they do.

What can be done?

Without looking at the number of negligent discharges before and after the introduction of the buddy system, it is impossible to state categorically if it has proven ineffectual or made things worse. What can be agreed upon is that the current rate of negligent discharges is far too high and that further efforts must be made to reduce them. The most radical solution would be to discontinue the buddy system entirely, thereby eliminating any diffusion of responsibility. However, it is genuinely possible that a tired soldier clearing their weapon will miss something that a buddy will not; this is the buddy system operating as it should, and it may be best to simply improve upon it. I will offer a few suggestions of how to do so, but there is no silver bullet solution.

One way in which the buddy system can increase accountability is when the buddy is someone in a position of authority, such as a higher ranked soldier. The weapon operator is now motivated to diligently clear their weapon, more eager to demonstrate correct drills (or at least wary of paying them off) in front of a superior. This suggests that more senior soldiers should act as buddies whenever possible, although the reality of a fast-paced training environment is that this cannot always occur. Another way to overcome the bystander effect is competence; as soldiers become more comfortable with the weapon, they will be less likely to fob off the task of clearing to their buddy. This only reinforces the idea that new soldiers should be given every opportunity to improve their weapons handling drills.

The low-prevalence effect may be a simpler psychological obstacle to overcome. When learning how to operate a weapon, recruits should be very clearly shown what a round in the chamber looks like. Ideally, this could occur before every blank and live firing exercise too. They should also have practice identifying problems during unloading, final function tests, and individual safety precautions. This could be incorporated into a weapons handling test in which the soldier must act as a buddy and identify any mistakes an operator has made when handling the weapon, such as failing to successfully clear a round from the chamber. In short, soldiers must be made aware of what they are looking for and given an opportunity to practice being a buddy. Using these basic psychological principles the buddy system can be revitalized and potentially deadly negligent discharges avoided.



Jack W. Klein

Jack W. Klein is a currently serving Officer Cadet with Melbourne University Regiment and Psychology Doctoral Candidate at the University of Melbourne.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


The article brings up some valid insights on the incidences of NDs, and illustrates the psychological mechanisms at work in the circumstances. Whilst we are unlikely to ever see the day when there are no NDs - no one is perfect, it may have been easier to achieve when the drill was to remove the barrel from the weapon and visually inspect the barrel. There may be an opportunity to provide training to assist in lowering the incidence of NDs. The article briefly touched on it. Soldiers may need to be trained to recognise what a chambered round looks like in a weapon that has failed to extract a cartridge case or indeed has a live round chambered. They may also need to be trained how to safely effect the removal of either. It may be as simple as "Operate the cocking handle three times to ensure that any potentially chambered cartridge is withdrawn from the chamber and visually inspect the chamber". But if that doesn't work, what then? These instances may appear to be obvious, but soldiers are not are routinely and intentionally taught how to identify these at the buddy check stage of weapon clearance. Weapons safety is paramount in any professional defence force in terms of preventing unintended fatalities. It should be, and this writer is glad to see that in the ADF, is, a matter of ongoing refinement, in the wake of new information, insights and developments.

Great insight Jack! Very interesting.

Thankyou for the post. The statistics for ND's as a result of buddy system being implemented is not provided. To say that two sets of eyes are observing the weapon handling at the times a buddy is being utilised and an ND occurrs is due to lack of attention / focus on the task at hand. How come so many other instances/occassions of weapon handling occur every day without a problem when the buddy system is employed. NDs occur predominantly when someone, namely the operator in control of the weapon presses the trigger, mistakingly, daydreaming, not paying attention, playing with the trigger (say after a contact, during stand to, in a harbour). What does the text book say about mistakes, a missed step, a violation. Please don't assert the buddy system is deficient without citing supporting evidence. All the best and good soldiering.

Any trainee who is aware of negligent discharges occurring on every exercise has enough data to themselves conclude that something is working with the buddy system. There's no excusing the outcome, and there's no grounds to assert that it doesn't help, but there are certainly grounds to believe that it is not working as well as is needed in certain contexts. Maybe those contexts only relate to incompetent trainees.

> The statistics for ND's as a result of buddy system being implemented is not provided....Please don't assert the buddy system is deficient without citing supporting evidence.< The specific data you are seeking does not exist. While potentially the author could have extrapolated the information from decades of discipline proceedings the task is long and laborious and doesn't capture the number of times the Buddy System has *worked.* No one records when the buddy has had to intervene, the more important statistic as it shows the policy is or is not working. Meanwhile the author has done an excellent job linking known psychological phenomenons to how we train, and creating a thought provoking hypothesis. The low prevalence effect is real and the buddy system is a perfect situation for it to occur. We expect the weapon's user to be fully proficient in the weapon system and bring it to the unloaded state without buddy intervention - so for the vast majority of times the buddy is checking a weapon that is safe without their intervention. Further to this we train soldiers to do the buddy system irrespective of whether ammunition has been issued, further building the unconscious expectation the weapon is clear. There's merit in what Jack has written, and he's put forward an interesting hypothesis backed up with proven psychological theory. He hasn't "solved Negligent Discharges" as there's still occasions, without a buddy, they might occur. But when we're talking about a policy designed to protect soldiers lives, which the Buddy System was explicitly implemented to do, we're obligated to make the policy as good as it possibly can be.

Well done for highlighting this matter. I tried to do the same with an article submitted to the Army Newspaper, but it was rejected. What I had sought to do was to point out the failings that sometimes occur within the Army ‘culture’ and the associated training ‘environment’. During my time at 1st Armd Regt in the 70s, the nightly Guard was always inspected. This included their 9mm pistols. The weapons drill orders for inspection were : ‘Draw pistols!’, ‘Inspect pistols!’. On the latter, the working parts were drawn to the rear and a thumb inserted into the chamber to reflect light up the barrel for the inspecting officer. The final order was: ‘Return pistols!”; at which the working parts were let forward and the pistol returned to the holster. So what? At no time was the magazine removed!! Remember that this a ‘drill’, something inculcated during training so that it would be followed automatically! Fast forward a few months and the same soldiers are in Vietnam. They are issued with 9mm pistols and ammunition. You don’t have to be Einstein to anticipate what happened! The result of which was what? Soldiers were charged. Were exceptional circumstances accepted? No, they were found guilty and punished accordingly. Was a change made to 9mm barrack guard drills? No. Were provisions inserted into the Introduction into Service Instructions for new small arms, to ensure that ceremonial drills did not compromise safety? No. This is a matter which is directly (and solely) related to training. The Army (and all who sail in her) must be held accountable for training standards.

Insightful article and well worth the read. On a related topic, I was posted to an IET school during the transition to the combat shooting package for recruits at ARTC and we recorded a very strong increase (~300-400%) in the incidence of ND by trainees that correlated to intakes who had conducted the new package. We had a number of ideas about what the cause might have been, from altered course content to cultural ones to trainer familiarity with the new material, but never really found a conclusive answer. We did report it higher, but for all we know we were the only people that observed the trend and it was just luck. The fact that NDs are suddenly a topic in vogue makes me think that maybe the issue never really subsided once the training was properly bedded like I thought it would. It's my understanding that the buddy system was added as a reaction to a huge elevation in ND that was experienced during the initial deployment to East Timor, along with some questions that were later resolved about the reliability of the F88 extractor. It's also my understanding that the buddy system was effective at resolving the incidence of ND in East Timor, but that understanding is fourth or fifth hand and it wouldn't preclude the effects you describe emerging over time. In my brief period of service I was never really sold on the core concept of the buddy system for basically the reasons you raise here; it seemed to me that distributed responsibility promoted a culture of vetoism and irresponsibility. It's certainly an issue that is worth revisiting.

Overall a good article but the assumption is made that recruits are not shown what a round in the chamber looks like. As a former recruit instructor, I ensured that my recruits and staff used drill rounds to demonstrate what the recruits should be looking for in the chamber. Some more in depth research into this area would have enhanced the article.

I went through recruit training in 2016 and was never shown a round in the chamber. This was the period when they had updated the drills for the EF88, but we were still using the F88. I believe the old F88 drills involved removing the barrel, making a round in the chamber much easier to identify… I’m glad to hear they have updated the training.

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