Target Selection for Effective Firearms Training

Todd Fletcher

It’s time to go to the range.

You pack up your range bag; you make sure you have your eye and ear protection; you grab your favorite blaster and holster; and then, after checking to ensure you have the rounds to feed it, off to the range you go. After you arrive, you get everything set up and loaded, throw on your eye and ear protection and start hammering away at the same old boring targets you always use. Yawn…

Selecting targets for firearms training should involve careful consideration of the goals and objectives for each course of fire. Unfortunately, many departments select one or two targets to use for training, regardless of the drill. On the range, we should be utilizing a variety of live-fire drills. Since these drills have different goals and objectives, the targets we select should have the features or target zones specific for those drills.  This is why our ranges should be equipped with a variety of targets to choose from to meet specific training objectives.

Try to Avoid These

When you’re shopping for new targets, how can you determine which ones are a good fit for your training? First, look at the scoring zones or rings. Dave Spaulding, from Handgun Combatives, looks for a realistic shot placement zone because many targets have improperly placed scoring zones.This is true whether you’re looking at paper, cardboard or photorealistic targets. Oftentimes, these scoring zones are too low to be combat effective. They may make great bull’s-eye targets, but, if you’re training to make effective hits in the upper center mass area, these scoring zones aren’t going to help.


According to Spaulding, “The area of the body which is susceptible to any type of rapid incapacitation with handgun bullets is quite small, but, at the same time, it is important to chart hits which are less effective, like the outer torso, shoulders or arms.”  So, we need to make sure the scoring zones are about the right size and shape. If they’re too big, all of our rounds might fall into the scoring zone, but may not be combat effective.

If you’re searching for a superior photorealistic target, then try to avoid threat targets which are arguable. A threat pointing a gun at the shooter is a good threat target. Targets where the threat is pointing a gun away from the shooter can be arguable and may leave unnecessary “training scars.” These may be fine depending on the context in which you use them, but pick your threat targets wisely.

Another example of a target to avoid for specific training is doing patrol rifle drills from 50 yards, or further, with a target showing a threat armed with a knife. Unless you are training fairly close to the target stands or there are innocent bystanders nearby, this may not be a deadly threat…yet. The threat may be imminent from 50 yards, but it’s not immediate. Aside from an additional threat factor, we don’t want to be training ourselves to shoot in this situation.

Steel targets can be a great training tool because they are durable and provide instant audible feedback. Steel can save significant time on the range since they don’t need to be taped or changed.  An occasional blast with a can of spray paint is all it takes to freshen them up and preserve them for the future. However, we need to evaluate how we use steel targets. Some individuals train using steel targets which are too large, thereby negating their use for measuring combat effective hits. Hits on plates which are too large do provide a satisfying audible response, but those hits may not be in a small enough target zone to cause rapid incapacitation.

Likewise, steel targets which are too small are also problematic. Missed shots which go into the dirt are all too easily forgotten. On paper, these misses are proof that we made a mistake, but, on small steel targets, the negative feedback is eliminated.  Without seeing the results of our errors, it is difficult to fix our mistakes.

Target Features Which Work

Well positioned shot zones with faded lines are great because they force us to train and identify where we need to place accurate shots for the best threat stopping outcome. Instead of having an aiming point to reference (something which would present on a real person), the faded shot zone lines help us train to identify and hit the upper thoracic area.

Optional features on targets are also great to have available. These optional features can enhance the usefulness of targets by providing additional training possibilities. Examples are the “command” targets frequently found around the outside of the primary target area. These targets can be used for decision-making and target discrimination training. A variety of targets with different command shapes, angles, colors, and other options are obtainable. In addition to running drills on the main target area, training partners or instructors can call out any combination of shapes, numbers or colors for shooters to engage. Smaller command targets can be used for zeroing, as well as fine-tuning marksmanship skills or diagnosing shooter errors.

For those who live in cold, wet or windy climates, Omaha Targets has come up with a great solution. In addition to traditional paper targets, Omaha Targets offers an all-weather card stock target option. This option is twice as thick as regular paper targets and is coated with a plastic material making it resistant to rain, snow and wind.  This resistance to moisture and wind means that the all-weather card stock targets require fewer staples; they resist tearing due to wind and rain; and the staples are less likely to pull through the target. This extra durability also makes it more resistant to tearing from bullets holes. From a cost perspective, the increased durability means you can use these targets longer, saving you the time it takes to repeatedly change normal paper targets, as well as the expense of an additional target.

Current Favorites

One of my favorite general purpose targets is the NLEFIA-2S paper target from Action Target which is the official target of the National Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association (NLEFIA). It is a two-sided target, enabling it to meet the goals and objectives of most courses of fire. It has a silhouette target on one side with properly placed scoring zones. On the other side is a photorealistic target depicting an obvious threat with well placed scoring zones which are only visible up-close. There are also additional target zones on the outside of the target. For the same price as a plain one-sided paper target, the NLEFIA-2S offers both value and training flexibility.

According to Jason Wuestenberg, Executive Director of NLEFIA, “The NLEFIA target provides a means for instructors to offer different performance standards for shooters based on the weapon system, distance and shooter’s capabilities…and it offers shooters a means to demonstrate both precision marksmanship and practical marksmanship with any weapon system…all on one target.”

Another target favorite is the TAC-MAN three-dimensional torso shell target. The TAC-MAN is a life-size 3-D target capable of taking thousands of hits while maintaining its effectiveness. It is lightweight and can be used anywhere traditional paper or cardboard targets are used. This target is especially useful when the body of the target is covered with a dark T-shirt. When equipped with a dark T-shirt, shooters can’t see where their shots are hitting, thereby reducing their tendency to look for their shots (peeking). Adding a wig and a baseball cap makes it even more realistic.There are other 3-D targets with hairlines and other realistic features, but the low cost and durability of the TAC-MAN makes it tough to beat.

There are several accessories available for the TAC-MAN, including an anatomically correct paper insert which mounts to the inside of the target. This allows shooters to see where their hits would be in relation to a threat’s heart, lungs, spinal cord, and brain. Another optional accessory is a cardboard target insert which is placed inside of the target. This insert is designed to track and score shots on the 3-D target from both the front and sides. The TAC-MAN used in combination with these accessories does elevate the degree of realism in firearms training. Spaulding also likes using these types of targets. “I want to take into account the 360 degree aspects of the human torso. The traditional eight inch semicircle used on a frontal shot is diminished when engaging the side of a human or even at an oblique angle.”

 Variety Is the Spice of Life

Besides considering how target selection affects our courses of fire, a change in the targets we use on a regular basis can keep things interesting. Always using the same target can be boring! If you want to make your training more interesting, take a look at the other targets available and change things up a little. Allowing some variety will help make training more enjoyable.

Todd Fletcher is a sergeant in Central Oregon with over 22 years of law enforcement experience. He has presented firearms and instructor development training nationwide and at multiple regional, national and international conferences. He owns Combative Firearms Training, LLC which provides firearms training and instructor development classes to law enforcement, military, private security, and armed citizens. He can be contacted at