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Modern Firearms Training

Action Target recently conducted its two-pronged Modern Firearms Training & Shooting Range Development course in Bloomington, Ind. The class began with a brief review of the San Diego Police Department—in two and a half years in the early 1980s, the department lost eight officers to shootings. This caused a reassessment and redesign of the department’s training program, which led to a 19-year lapse before another in-the-line-of-duty shooting death in San Diego.

The Action Target course covered statistics that reinforce training realities we are all aware of, but it never hurts to have them repeated. From 1995 to 2005, the FBI analysis of officers feloniously killed shows that 93 percent were with a firearm, and 67.6 percent of the time that firearm was a handgun. Of those encounters, 80 percent were from less than 7 yards. And 9 percent of the officers killed by firearms were killed with their own weapons. Additionally, there were multiple adversaries/participants in 46 percent of gunfights. Finally, 70 percent of gunfights occurred in low light, failing light or altered light conditions.

The course built on some general truths. You don’t know when or where the fight will be. You don’t know how long the fight will be or how many adversaries you will face. You don’t know if you will have backup. The only thing you will know and do is what you have been trained to do. A gunfight will most likely happen quickly and from a short distance.

The course also covered the vast array of possible physiological changes that could affect an officer: loss of complex motor skills; tunnel vision; and altered perception of time, distance and size. This led to a discussion of reality versus myth and practicality versus competition, all of which led back to “training” versus “qualifying.” Which does your department do? If you said, “They are the same,” then you need to pay very close attention. “Qualification” is the bureaucrat’s synonym for “good enough.” Qualification is the bare minimum.

If all you strive for on the range is to qualify, then you are doing yourself, fellow officers and the community at large a great disservice. Of course, no one can shoot a perfect target every time. However, any shooting is socially unacceptable. At that moment, everything you have learned and trained for will come under scrutiny, especially with our ever-growing arsenal of gadgets. Everyone will be Monday morning quarterbacking your decisions.

It is at that moment you are going to wish you had done more than just qualify. Your instructor is on the stand saying you shot a 192 out of 240, which is qualifying. Then he is forced to say the minimum qualifying score was also 192. Do you think that is going to fill people with confidence about your ability?

Training is improving the mechanics of shooting. This is not a course on tactics, but shooting mechanics. It doesn’t matter if you understand and can use all the tactics if you don’t have the basics. You must learn to walk before you run. When we qualify there is usually no stress. It is a rigid, set course with stationary targets—the same course you have been through a dozen times before. The key is to be able to function with your conscious mind under extreme stress.

Think of it this way: Training is learning. Qualifying is testing. You want to learn a lot more than you are tested on!

Color Codes of Alertness

Most people walk around in Condition White—no perception of danger. As police officers, most of us sleep in Condition Yellow, which is a relaxed level of awareness. Condition Orange is that feeling of unknown danger which is a very high level of awareness, where you are watching the reflection of patrons at the gas station or convenience store as you walk in or are at the counter paying.

Condition Red is an armed confrontation—the highest level of functioning stress. We know that we or someone else is in grave danger of serious bodily injury or death. This is the moment we train for—we are prepared for Condition Red. Condition Black is the last and worst level, because you have seized functioning and have placed your fate in someone else’s hands. It is the “freeze” part of Fight/Flee/Freeze. Ultimately, we need to train under enough stress so we never reach Condition Black.

Levels of Training

Level One is qualification or non-judgment training. Level Two is single-person training with decision-making stimulators, i.e., mock traffic stops, paintball, building clearing exercises, etc. Level Three is the same as Level Two, but you add a partner or a team into the training. Level Four is dynamic training with duty weapons and live ammunition—basically the same as Level Three except in full gear. Level Five is high-risk specialty training, which is usually reserved for SWAT.

At what level do you train? Of course, you don’t take an officer who is typically at Level One and throw him into Level Five training. That is a recipe for disaster. However, you can design your training to cover the mechanics of a firearm so that, as a shooter, he can quickly ramp up in training to higher levels. Not everyone is qualified to be on a tactical team, but as officers, we should all be able to train at Level Four.

As firearms instructors, you teach your students skills you hope they will never have to use. Teach them to fight smarter and not harder. Getting shot is not a passage into manhood. Avoid the bullet in the first place. Remember, we all deal with people at their worst. These situations degrade quickly, so be in Condition Orange and always be ready for Condition Red.

You must have two things functioning properly to survive a firefight—your brain and your weapon. Yes, tactics are important, but if an officer can’t get his gun out of its holster and shoot reliably from 3 feet away, how can he do anything more complicated?

As instructors, you must stay at a higher level of skill than your students to raise them up. A busy schedule and a lot of obligations leave little time for your own individual training. But it is critical to stay as sharp as you were before becoming bogged down in responsibility. Use fellow instructors and students to gather knowledge. Remember there is always more than one way to do something.

Basics Under Stress

In law enforcement gunfights, our rounds fired versus targets hit ratio is about 17 percent. Where did the other 83 percent of bullets fired go? And why do we miss so much?

As instructors, we need to teach two very basic aspects about firearms mechanics. To shoot a handgun effectively, the first thing is to use something (like sights or stance) to align the gun with the target. Second, don’t do anything to screw up that alignment before the firearm discharges. The challenge is to do that under very stressful conditions. That is, do the basics under stress. An expert is someone who does the basics right all the time.

You are developing the trained behavior of the students’ brains so that, without having to tell themselves what to do, they will draw their weapon effectively, sight the target, stay on target, then destroy the target. Nothing else matters if they can’t do this.

Most of us are familiar with the different groups of individuals that make up a department’s firearms training class. First, there is the top 10 percent who require very little from you. Then, there is the 80 percent who are there and need minimal guidance and are genuinely trying to better themselves. Then, there is that last 10 percent, the folks who just want to “qualify” and go home.

Even in the bottom 10 percent, you will generally have two groups—one that wants your help and one that does not. Regardless, as instructors, we must give them all the same time and attention. You may win over some of the non-conformers. More importantly, if you offer every reasonable attempt to help them and they still fail, you can go to their supervisor and confidentially state the problem.

That bottom 10 percent must be identified and frequently given a little remedial training. Even 15 minutes a month of drawing and coming on target will greatly improve their skill, their confidence and your rapport. The best instructor is someone who is willing to do everything he can to bring that bottom 10 percent out of the “barely qualifying” category.

Slow, Then Ramp Up

Range training needs to be a positive place with constructive criticism, but it also needs to be a stressful place. Start out slow, then ramp it up. Be progressive, but be clear on your instructions. You must be willing to demonstrate what you are asking them to do. Positive stress can be accomplished in ways other than by yelling at students, which is not usually productive. Criticize on an appropriate level for the individual shooter. Make them accountable for every round. “Where did it go?” Make them explain. Use tough love with officers to help them improve.

“Stress inoculation” means we desensitize to stress by training under stress. We don’t want officers going to Condition Black. So, train them to build a resistance to that level of stress that is incapacitating. Get students out of their comfort zone. Always change the scenarios when possible, and have the work done before training starts. It must be applicable to real-life situations and scenarios. Training needs to have a goal.

Realistically, only 3 percent of people who are shot fall down and die on the first round fired. Handguns can be incredibly ineffective, so we need to be incredibly effective with them. Explain that even on the standard silhouette target, realistically there are three smaller effective target areas.

The first one is the head, specifically the brain and spinal cord. The second is the center mass. Third is the pelvic girdle. After officers shoot a target, go circle those areas and ask how many effective shots they had. You can even do this at “qualification,” because every day on the range is a day to teach them why it is important not to be in that bottom 10 percent. Being paranoid is healthy—it can keep us alive.

Day one was the classroom part of the two-day training. Day two was held on the range with a focus on the mechanics of shooting effectively while showing how to positively induce stress. Multiple drills were used that were tailored to the range’s abilities that stressed accuracy, speed and decision making. This course is a great way to jump-start your current firearms training program if it is out-of-date or has become stale.

Don Munson is a deputy with the Benton County, Ind., Sheriff’s Department and point man with his multi-agency response team. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Mar 2011

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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