Preaching the Fundamentals

At a time when firearms training is becoming more and more dynamic, I still find myself being committed to preaching the fundamentals about effective shooting. Why? Because, that seems to be what is needed. When I talk to police officers and police administrators alike, they usually say that they feel they need more work on the basics. When I see officers on the range, it is obvious that they need it. When I read reports from the streets, I know that they need it. Okay, it's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. As in any physical skill, a solid foundation in the fundamentals is necessary to move on to the more advanced applications of the discipline. As much as I like the high-speed, low-drag, run-and-gun training opportunities, they will not make you a better shooter if you don't have the basics under control. You'll just be a poor shooter in a more dynamic fashion. Unfortunately, in the real world you don't get points for style. Stopping the threat is what counts. Once you have the basics down, then you can pick up the pace.

What am I calling the fundamentals? Stance, grip, sight alignment and trigger control are the basics of being able to hit what you intend to. Smooth drawing, reloading and efficient manipulation of the firearm are essential to having the gun ready to shoot when it is needed. I've talked in more detail about some of these in previous columns. I'll continue to do so, but for the moment, I want to mention one other important fundamental: safety. Although proper safety manifests itself in physical movements, it comes from the brain. And safety must constantly be on your mind. As I write this, the news is breaking about the five-year-old boy in Oklahoma who may have been accidentally killed by a bullet from a police firearm. It was meant to kill a snake. This is just the latest in an all-too-long list of firearms accidents involving the law enforcement community. We should not need to be reminded of the fundamental rules of firearms safety, such as: "Always be sure of your target, and what is beyond." But, here we are again. Safety awareness training for the police is more than a poster on the wall. It needs to be emphasized and reviewed regularly. It can be done at roll call training or in training bulletins. You don't need a gun in your hand or to be at the range to be thinking about safety. If you do have one in your hand, safety awareness must surround you like a protective shield. In this case, the shield should be keeping bullets in, rather than keeping them out. Firearms safety awareness must accompany the gun and the bullets, wherever they may be. And, it doesn't cost a thing to do it!

One of the problems of practicing the actual gun handling and shooting fundamentals is that it does cost something--both time and money. Most police budgets are already tight and getting tighter. The cost of maintaining and using a range facility and the cost of the officer's time, equipment maintenance and the necessary supplies all add up. Many departments simply don't have much to work with. The major ammunition manufacturers just announced double digit price increases, beginning as soon as next month. That won't help. But there is no substitute for "trigger time" in making sure that the basics are hardwired in for the shooters. So departments are challenged about how best to use their resources. Some have only enough to accomplish the once or twice a year mandatory qualifications. If that's all you've got, then make sure there is a competent firearms instructor "coaching" the officers. It will be the only opportunity to make sure they aren't simply reinforcing bad habits. And it will identify the people who need some extra work. This will help focus any available resources where they are needed most. Most officers I train with truly appreciate any positive help that is provided. It is always a lift for me when I see the "light bulb come on" and another barrier is crossed. The consensus seems to be that most officers don't get enough "trigger time" at the various academies, so individual departments need to plan on doing more than just periodic qualifications. This is something the administration has to fight for in the budget. Find the money and the time. It will be cheaper than the lawsuits, or the loss of someone's life. Regardless, if your officers don't get to train often, you have to make the most of what time you have.

I've mentioned some drills in previous columns, but here are a couple more things that I would like to suggest. If you want to hardwire the basics, begin by emphasizing smoothness over speed and making each shot "perfect." Then begin to speed up. Whether it is drawing from the holster or getting hits on the target, smooth repetition of the basics will soon bring increased speed. Going for speed first will only cause faster misses. As you come up to speed and get consistently good results, push the speed a little harder. Just don't let the fundamentals break down. For example, whatever the times are for your basic qualification, cut them, say, in half. When that becomes comfortable, cut them in half again. The increased speed will require good fundamentals. If the results start to fall apart, back down a notch and work some more. A colleague of mine, a deputy sheriff in Wisconsin, also has a firearms training company. He conducts a two-day class that begins with a standard speed qualification. He then takes the students through practice of the fundamentals at double speed. After a double speed qualification, he moves them on to triple and finally quadruple speed. At the end of the second day, and about 1,500 rounds later, the students go back to the single speed qualification. The increase in accuracy is dramatic. Equally dramatic, is that the students are far better gun handlers as well. Drawing, holstering, reloading and general safety awareness are all burned into their subconscious. The officers are then at a whole new level of competence and confidence.

Okay, I realize that one weekend class like that would burn up the yearly ammunition supply of some departments. An alternative is to practice on smaller targets. Striving for accuracy will also force you to refine the fundamentals. Sight alignment and trigger control are at the heart of accuracy. If someone is used to shooting at, say, a B-27 style target, start using any of the various smaller designs for practice. There's nothing like a small target to make you focus on the task at hand. Once you can shoot well on a smaller target, the larger qualification target should be much easier. And, again, you'll have the fundamentals hardwired. One word of caution, though. Although people seem to be able to slow down without any problems, sometimes when they go back to a larger target they think they can't miss! They can, if they don't remember to "aim small."

Once the basics are there, then folks can move on to the more dynamic training. Shoot houses and tactical scenarios are fun, and a challenge. But running and gunning without the proper foundation just exaggerates any deficiencies. All of the reputable private firearms training schools with I am familiar with have prerequisites for such training. They have to be confident that their students have the proper foundation. Law enforcement agencies must do the same. I've seen some officers who are on various special teams who are certainly enthusiastic about their assignment. But they needed more work before they could reach their potential in the dynamic part of their training. Sometimes the "warrior mindset" gets ahead of a person's skill. It is the responsibility of the department instructors to manage their training so that their officers will be able to get the job done. We need to remember that, as much fun as some of the advanced training can be, it is still done for the day when a deadly serious situation must be resolved successfully. And we also need to remember that most officers will never find themselves in such situations. Their gunfights, when they come, will be sudden, intense and in their face. They will perform well under that kind of stress only if they have the basics ingrained at the "unconscious competence" level.