When you get a group of shooters together, the discussion inevitably turns to their individual likes and dislikes. They discuss training philosophy, equipment preferences and why “their” way is better than the “other” ways.
These conversations usually include point shooting versus sighted fire; how to perform malfunction drills; how to perform slide lock reloads and tactical reloads; 9mm versus .45 ACP; and many others. When it’s a group of law enforcement firearms instructors, it can get even worse. It’s been said that the only thing a group of firearms instructors can agree on is the fact that we need more ammo.
Many law enforcement officers and firearms instructors have become too dependent on how they were initially trained and have failed to seek training outside of department or state training doctrine. In other words, the state POST way is “the” way and it’s the only way they know. If POST says to perform a reload a certain way, then a reload is done the POST way. If POST says to use a certain stance, all officers must use the POST stance. This does provide a simple, assembly line approach for instructors, but it isn’t providing solutions for our officers.
I have had the good fortune to train and instruct all over the country and have seen some impressive firearms training programs. Unfortunately, much of the firearms training I see presented at the academy level and during agency in-service training is inadequate. Beyond providing rudimentary skills and abilities to our officers, academy and agency in-service training provides little for real-world law enforcement gunfights. Training officers to pass a minimum standard qualification test doesn’t properly prepare them for fighting and saving lives on the street. Many of these training programs continue to use dated techniques simply because that’s the way it has always been done. All too often, law enforcement firearms training becomes “tactical theater” instead of reflecting the reality of our gunfights.
When I talk about “tactical theater,” I’m talking about the things we do on the range which have a tendency to work against our officers instead of helping them. Tactical theater techniques and movements present themselves under stress because these are conditioned responses and motor programs developed during training.
The most common error we see during law enforcement gunfights is officers who fail to fight first. All too often, when faced with a deadly threat, we see police officers try to communicate on the radio and call for help, or they attempt to move to cover instead of doing the most important thing: finishing the fight. Don’t get me wrong. Officers need to communicate effectively with suspects, dispatchers and other officers. They also need to move and use cover effectively. However, finishing the fight needs to be addressed immediately or officers increase the risk to themselves and the community. The longer a fight is allowed to continue, the greater the chance people will be seriously injured.
As an instructor, I first learned about this critical fault in our training programs from Jeff Hall, the owner and lead instructor of Force Options. Jeff Hall is a retired lieutenant from the Alaska State Troopers with over 35 years of experience. Jeff presented a class titled, “Finish the Fight!” During this class, he presented numerous officer-involved shooting videos and explained how to take a critical look at what officers were actually doing; what they were intending to do; and the difference in outcomes between their actions and intentions. For example, many gunfight videos show officers rapidly backing away from a threat, resulting in officers landing on their backsides. In contrast, the videos showing officers who focus on fighting first are generally shorter and much less dramatic. Instead of the officer falling backwards, they quickly resume control of the situation and their environment.
And, yet, many law enforcement qualification courses of fire continue to incorporate backing away from the threat while drawing from the holster, then trying to fight. The old adage of trying to create distance had good intentions, but the result has been officers who are more inclined to move away from the threat instead of closing the distance and finishing the fight. Richard Nance, the cofounder of WARTAC CQC LLC, is a police officer with over 21 years of experience and he believes fighting with your gun involves much more than simply knowing how to shoot. In his book, Gunfight! – An Integrated Approach to Shooting and Fighting in Close Quarters, Nance discusses and illustrates how, at arm’s length, a whole new set of dynamics are present. Instead of simply backing up and placing shots on a static paper target, training for these types of fights requires contact distance weapons. Fists and feet can be game changers in these hyperviolent fights where communicating and seeking cover must take a backseat to focusing on the fight first.
Dynamic and Deliberate Movement
Movement during a law enforcement gunfight is often dynamic and constantly evolving. In fact, there is a really good chance both the officer and the threat will be moving. Unfortunately, the reality of the street is not addressed in many firearms training programs. Training officers to accurately engage moving threat targets is a critically important skill when training our officers to prevail in a gunfight. Officers who can place accurate shots on moving targets also keep our communities safer by reducing the risk of rounds missing the intended threat and striking innocent bystanders.
Targets which move smoothly from side to side using a cable or a track really don’t match the reality of movement during a gunfight on the street. However, when combined with other moving targets which bob, swing and weave, training becomes much more realistic. Firearms training becomes even more realistic when “no shoot” targets are added to the mix, forcing our officers to identify their targets and backstops.
Another problem I’ve seen on the range is some instructors tell their students they should always move when they draw, after firing or while reloading. When range size constrictions dictate, such as on a small indoor range, this movement is sometimes accomplished by telling officers to take a single lateral step. Over time, this becomes an officer’s conditioned response and can manifest itself when officers reflexively move away from cover during the draw. I’ve seen this happen on the range and I’ve watched it in officer-involved shooting videos.
Instead of being a conditioned response, movement should be deliberate and dynamic. Depending on the situation, movement might include moving to cover; moving to get a better angle on a suspect; or not moving at all while focusing on fighting first. Single steps in one direction or another, even lateral steps, are not difficult to follow and track. However, dynamic and explosive movement done with intent and purpose can be very difficult to follow. This type of movement can give officers a distinct advantage by making it much more difficult for a bad guy to hurt them by shooting, punching, kicking, or stabbing them.
Seek a Better Position
The point of utilizing cover is to provide a measure of protection against an incoming threat. As a result, firearms training should train you to fight from cover effectively. There are several ways to utilize cover effectively based on the context of the fight. Most of the time, cover is more effective when you back off from it a short distance. By doing this, officers can move more effectively from position to position. Getting away from cover also helps minimize the risk of spatter or fragments coming off the cover from hitting officers.
Similarly, just because an officer isn’t near cover doesn’t mean he (or she) isn’t using cover effectively. If your threat has cover, so do you. Officers can utilize distant cover effectively through superior speed and range of movement. By not being tethered behind cover, officers can use quick, flanking movements to defeat the cover used by bad guys.
This brings up the tactic of training officers on methods to defeat cover. Once again, dynamic and deliberate movement combined with accurate gunfire is the order of the day. Remember, if your threat has cover, so do you. However, there are tactics you can use to maximize the value of cover for officers while minimizing the cover for the threat. You can utilize the cover by advancing towards it while deploying accurate gunfire into the cover. Then, using dynamic and deliberate movement, you can move laterally, flanking the cover and exposing the threat.
However, there are circumstances when getting closer to cover is advantageous and most training fails to cover these situations. For example, when the assailant is engaging from an elevated position, being closer to cover allows officers to utilize the top of cover as protection. And, remember, if an officer is close to the ground, a threat doesn’t have to be elevated far to have the high ground.
Another time it can be beneficial for officers to get closer to cover is when fighting with a patrol rifle. Particularly with the mechanical offset of an AR-15, an officer utilizing a braced shooting position against a stable piece of cover can deliver accurate rounds downrange while minimizing his (or her) exposure. While leaning out away from cover, the braced shooting position can help prevent the sight system from appearing clear of cover while the muzzle of the rifle is still behind cover. This type of tactical error by officers could be devastating in the middle of a gunfight!
Law enforcement officers should demand more from academy and agency in-service training. When it comes to movement, using cover and finishing the fight, training to minimum standards is not good enough. We need to take training to the next level to make sure we’re thinking critically about how we prepare our officers. Law enforcement firearms training must reflect the reality of the street.
Todd Fletcher is a sergeant in Central Oregon with over 23 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 Todd@CombativeFirearms.com.