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Do You See Yourself As a Gunfighter?

As a northern Illinois farm girl I grew up around long guns, but never gave handguns more than a passing thought. Then I decided to become a cop. I couldn’t wait to carry a pistol. I planned to work hard, practice harder, and become the most skilled marksman on my department.

Before I entered the police academy in January of 1981 my police department issued me a Smith and Wesson Model 59 semi auto pistol in 9mm. It was over 7 inches long with a 4-inch barrel and weighed nearly two pounds. Each double-stack magazine held 14 rounds (we were issued three of them); the metal back strap was straight and the grips were hard plastic. I found out later that the United States Navy had commissioned the first prototype of what would become the Model 59 for use by Navy SEAL commandos in the field. Apparently not even Navy SEALs liked the model 59…they never adopted it for widespread use, but I thought it was the most beautiful pistol I’d ever seen.

My field training officer and one of our range masters taught me how to clean, manipulate and fire my new pistol. I was really good at taking it apart and cleaning it, but we were all frustrated that my tiny hands (my right hand measures 6.5 inches from the base of my palm to the tip of my trigger finger) didn’t allow for very skilled gun handling. I couldn’t eject the magazine or disengage the manual safety one-handed like I was taught, and I couldn’t properly access or press the trigger unless I rotated my hand about three inches to the right, which made for a pretty weak grip. My unstable grip also caused me to either jerk the trigger or limp-wrist the gun, so the shots that didn’t stovepipe tended to land low and to the right of center mass. I wasn’t exactly the Annie Oakley I’d hoped to become.

In the county police academy, one of my range instructors suggested a smaller handgun, but when I inquired I was informed that all of the officers on my department carried the same handgun (so that “we could all exchange magazines in a fire fight” I was told) and if I wanted to be one of them, I would carry the Model 59 I’d been issued and qualify with it like everyone else. I shut up after that, afraid of getting fired. I learned to aim high and to the left so that my shots hit somewhat in the center of the target, and I “qualified” to carry my gun. Not once was I ever trained to win a gunfight in the early years of my career.

Most of you reading this are probably thinking “that was over three decades ago…thank heavens our profession has evolved.” But has it? Have we? I meet women and men every week who are carrying an ill-fitting handgun (often in a poorly designed holster) who dread their quarterly firearms training because it’s not so much “training,” as it is a test to see if they can muddle through and “qualify” one more time to keep the Training Sergeant off their butts. I hear from many more cops who are still being taught to “shoot two and assess” at 7, 15 and 25 yards, who never practice behind cover, while moving, under duress, or from any other position other than standing out in the open facing their paper target. A surprising number of police departments have not progressed past these training “artifacts,” so it may be up to the individual officers to do it on their own.

The right pistol, the right gear, and above all, the right mentality are going to help you win gunfights. Here are three things to add to your “winning mindset” tool box:

Stopping the threat. Get past the “I need to hit the paper target” mentality and start thinking “I need to win this gunfight!” In a gunfight, are you shooting to try and kill someone? You’re shooting to stop potential great bodily harm or death to you, other officers, or innocent citizens. If the assailant dies as a result, consider that was their decision. Deadly force must be met with deadly force. A significant part of your training should be visualizing yourself in various, realistic deadly force situations, and make sure you truly believe that sometimes good people have to kill bad people.

The science of wound creation.Have you ever thought about what you’re trying to accomplish when you put rounds into a human? Every cop needs to understand the basics of wound creation during a gunfight. Bullets needs to go in deep enough to create a cavity. In fact, two are created: the “permanent” one is the size of the hole made though bone and tissue; the “temporary” one is caused by the round’s ripple and shock effect that forces surrounding tissue to stretch and then contract. The round will then fragment, as will bone if it’s struck, causing additional damage. There’s lots of debate about what is more important—the type of round or the placement of said round, but the bottom line is that to win a gunfight you need to create significant physical damage, and you need to do it fast.

Follow-through considerations. When you’re shooting to simply hit a paper target, you don’t get much practice at handcuffing, securing or even rendering aid to said target. Remember, the gunfight doesn’t end when you’ve shot the suspect. In fact, sometimes that may be just the beginning. Train yourself to follow through. If you’ve shot one assailant, is there another? Do you have cover, concealment? Once the assailant(s) are down, are they still moving? Can they access their weapons? When you’re able to safely approach, visualize and practice handcuffing them, searching them, and yes, rendering aid if appropriate. The gunfight doesn’t end until the threat is stopped, officers and innocents are attended to, and the scene is secure.

A couple of years after the academy I attended a training class on my own that caused me to change my entire mindset. I started carrying a backup pistol that did fit my hand, I made friends with my patrol shotgun, and I started attending firearms training on my own. I learned what motivated me, and I took responsibility for my own mindset and my own abilities as a shooter. I’m still a work in progress, but aren’t we all?


Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith retired in 2009 as a 29-year veteran of the Naperville, Illinois Police Department. She began her career as a police dispatcher at age 17, and became an officer four years later. She has held positions in patrol, investigations, narcotics, juvenile, hostage negotiation, crime prevention and field training.