Progressive firearms training

Firearms training is an ongoing, ever-changing aspect of a police officer’s duties. Case law, current events and new developments in weaponry and training aids will always have an impact on how we train. Regardless of these factors, a simple progression in how we train these skills must be applied.

Consider the goal of our firearms training. We are training them to win a “fight.” Knowing that, we can start training them like a fighter trains. This is the basis of progressive firearms training. You would never see a boxer take a single boxing class and then jump in the ring against Mike Tyson. No, that fighter learns the techniques first, then he shadow boxes, strikes a heavy bag and moves on to sparring. All of this is done in preparation for a fight. Fighting with a gun is no different and should follow a similar progression.

In the basic academy, officers learn firearms safety, gun handling and marksmanship fundamentals. As most academies only allow 40 hours for firearms training, there is little time to cover more than that. They come to the department with a good basic start, but are not really trained for a gunfight.

Once they graduate the academy and start working the street, we must have a system in place that will prepare them to win a deadly encounter. That progressive program should include the following:

Basic gun handling and marksmanship fundamentals

Mindset and tactics training

Force options simulators

Force-on-force training

Marksmanship fundamentals

This is the training received in the basic academy. Of course, all academies are not created equal, so you should assess new officers’ level of skill in these areas — not only to determine the level of competency, but to ensure their techniques are in concurrence with your department policy.

Normally, this phase of training would start in a classroom with training on the four firearms safety rules, assembly, disassembly, as well as nomenclature and functioning of the weapon. It is important officers understand how the weapon operates in order to diagnose malfunctions and have knowledge of the weapon’s capabilities. Additionally, officers would learn proper loading, unloading, reloading and clearing malfunctions.

From here they learn marksmanship fundamentals such as sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control, grip and stance. Additionally, they would learn the proper way to “draw” the weapon from the holster. (Also referred to as “presentation.”)

At this point, I find it useful to have them practice using dummy rounds. Each skill is explained and demonstrated for the officers. Then they practice the skill as an instructor watches. The student’s actions are reviewed and repeated until the skill is executed correctly. Remember the acronym “EDPRR”: Explain, Demonstrate, Practice, Review, Repeat. The dry practice would be like mirror work or shadow boxing to a fighter.

Then it’s time to move to the range. Officers should fire at small targets from close range to start to asses their ability to apply marksmanship fundamentals. For this, I like to use a sheet of paper printed with numerous 1 1/2-inch bull’s-eye targets. Shooting from 3 to 5 yards is a good range, as you can watch and coach the shooter and you’re close enough to the targets to confirm shot placement with a glance, rather than having to cease fire and walk down range. It will also allow even shooters having major problems to get rounds on paper, thus giving you feedback you can use to correct problems.

Shooting a string of five rounds with no time limit will give you a group that can be assessed for proper application of fundamentals. Once you have confirmed the officer can present the weapon, fire a group and reload, you can begin adding in mindset and tactical training. To continue the fighter analogy, this would equate to bag work and using focus mitts.

Mindset and tactics

Proper mindset and tactics are extremely important. Mindset to win a deadly encounter is arguably the most important component. In light sparring, this is where the fighter develops ring strategy, offensive and defensive drills. Regardless of the weapons involved, an officer must go into the fight with the mindset that he or she will win. When training academy recruits, I always incorporate mindset training as soon as possible. This gets them thinking about the speed and fluidity of a gunfight, and why tactics and techniques are so important. Mindset training is also included in all of the courses we teach for in-service personnel.

While some personnel may already have that thought process, such as ex-military, most will have to be trained to think that way. They have to understand they can win the fight. That they will never quit, even if wounded and so on. The complexities of this type of training are the topic for a whole other article, so I won’t get into details here.

A good starting place is explaining Col. John Boyd’s “OODA Loop” (Observe, Orient Decide and Act) and Col. Jeff Cooper’s Color Code of Mental Awareness. Of course, there are a great many other things related to this that will come along, but these two concepts are a great beginning.

Tactics go along with mindset training. In some instances, they overlap. Aggressive movement off the line of attack while presenting the weapon gives the officer an advantage. The officer is taking the initiative away from the attacker and getting inside the OODA loop. Continuing to move throughout the fight helps them to maintain that advantage. While this is also a tactical advantage, it stems from having a proper combat mindset.

Other tactics like use of cover, movement and techniques used for tactical reloads are as varied as the day is long. Whatever technique you teach, ensure the officers understand why they are doing it that way. What tactical advantage does it have? Will it increase confidence in a deadly encounter?

At this point, switch to more suitable targets that will encourage proper shot placement. I do not like the standard B-27 targets as they are little more than a bull’s-eye target shaped like a silhouette. The “X-ring” is located in the abdomen area so shooters are not placing shots where they would best stop a deadly threat.

Instead, I prefer targets that have a thoracic cavity and cranio ocular cavity on them. This teaches shooters to aim for the vital organs that will incapacitate an adversary and end the fight faster. Once they have shown they know where to aim, move on to the use of photographic targets.

Photographic targets allow officers to visualize where the best point of aim is to hit the thoracic and cranio ocular cavities. It also desensitizes them to shooting at a human target. Military studies have shown this increases the officer’s willingness to shoot a person. In the past, military personnel trained on bull’s-eye targets. Soldiers in combat were then hesitant to shoot another person, because they were not mentally prepared to do so.

As a result, the military switched to human-type targets, thus helping mentally prepare soldiers for combat. The training for officers should be no different. You should do everything you can to replicate actual street conditions in training.

Photographic targets force officers to look at the hands of suspects and determine whether or not they are a deadly threat. They must then decide to shoot or not, and have proper shot placement.

Force options simulator

Once the officer has learned proper gun handling, can apply marksmanship fundamentals, and has mindset and tactics figured out, it’s time to apply those skills in scenarios. That’s where force options simulators come in.

The force options simulator, commonly referred to as a FATS machine, is an interactive video where the officer is faced with various shoot and no shoot scenarios. Weapons used are provided for that purpose, and fire a laser that registers the point of impact of each round fired. Many force options simulators can record video of the officer’s actions for training purposes. They can also have small canons that fire a plastic projectile at the officer during the scenario.

These machines are a great tool to test the officer’s ability to make decisions quickly. Additionally, you can evaluate and critique gun handling, tactics and application of marksmanship fundamentals. To continue the fighter comparison, this would be like light hitting the heavy bag and focus mitts.

Scenarios can also be changed on the fly to shoot or no shoot situations by the instructor operating the equipment. With this ability, the operator can cause the suspect to surrender if the officers demonstrate sound tactics and good command presence, or have them shoot if they do not.

This would be like more aggressive sparring — truly testing the application of skills used in a more stressful yet controlled environment. There are some limitations to this equipment, mainly that the officers will know that all threats will be coming from the movie screen in front of them, and they do not have to watch their flanks.

Force-on-force training

Now it’s time to get in the ring and do some hard sparring! Force-on-force training is about as close as you can get to a gunfight without actually getting shot. There are some equipment and safety concerns, but with proper preparation, the benefits are huge.

Typically airsoft, simulated munitions or paintball guns are used for this training. The type of guns you use will dictate how extravagant your safety gear will need to be. Paintball guns have been around for some time and were once popular for this type of training. However, the weapons themselves do not replicate those used by officers; they are cumbersome and reloading requires an additional skill that must be trained. For these reasons paintball guns have fallen out of favor in most agencies.

Airsoft guns are a great training aid. They can be found in exact copy form of almost any currently used law enforcement pistol, shotgun or rifle. Additionally, they are not too expensive and fire a reusable plastic projectile. The lower velocity also makes them safe to use anywhere, and requires only basic safety gear.

Simulated ammunition is also a good tool, and hits at higher velocity than airsoft, so it provides more of a “pain-induced” teaching ability. It also involves using actual modified firearms to fire the special rounds. It’s expensive to acquire the weapons, and the ammo can also be cost prohibitive. Because of the high velocity and because it shoots a marking cartridge, simulated munitions can cause a mess and property damage. Therefore its use is limited, and it is typically best suited for use in a designated training area.

In practice

Regardless of the training aids you use, you’ll need to have safety personnel and role players who are well versed in the equipment and the objective of the training. Role players should understand each scenario and how to get the officers to respond as desired. They should also understand that they are training aids. The purpose they serve is to train the officers, not show off what a great shot they are and kill everyone. That will usually result in the officers completing the training with a sense of failure. When this occurs, you’ve had a negative effect on their combat mindset, as they will be less confident in their skills.

To conduct force-on-force training, scenarios should start fairly simple and escalate throughout the training day. You can even add in defensive tactics training and have officers practice weapon retention and weapon takeaways. You can use single or multiple assailants as well. The types of situations you can set up are limited only by your imagination.

At this point it is a good idea to integrate defensive tactics training into the scenarios. Officers can use weapon retention or takeaway techniques, as well as control holds, etc. This will provide them with the most reality-based training they can get.

After each scenario, the officers’ conduct must be critiqued showing what was done correctly and incorrectly to ensure they get the best training value and leave having learned some lessons. Most importantly, officers should leave with a sense of accomplishment. They should feel as though they are capable of winning even the most difficult fight, and have confidence in their skills.

Keep in mind the goal of your training and build the training to accomplish that goal.

Taking a progressive approach to firearms training will give your officers the best possible chance to develop skills to not only survive, but to decisively win a deadly encounter. We owe it to the officers we train and the public we serve that we do everything we can to ensure they are ready for “the big one.”

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