Pistol Practice with a Purpose

Pistol in two hands.

Mike Boyle

Without question, these are dangerous times for the law enforcement professional. Over the last several years, the rate of attack on officers has been creeping up along with a corresponding spike in serious injuries and fatalities.  

To meet this challenge and to stay safe, many officers recognize that they have to take the initiative. To cut right to the chase, spending a few hours on the range or in the gym only when the department pays you to be there isn’t going to make you safer. It may indeed satisfy the prevailing administrative standard, but it will hardly prepare you for the unforgiving realities of the street.

Some of us may be fortunate enough to have facilities available at our agency where we might be able to put in a little extra time and, if that’s the case, you can thank your lucky stars. Commercial and private ranges are yet another option; however, you may not be able to work on skills such as drawing from the holster, shooting at any sort of speed or working out in low light. We can, however, find ways to practice these skills outside of the range environment.

Most Bang for the Buck

Most of my self-practice takes place at relatively close range with targets set three to seven yards away. There are almost an infinite number of variations which can be performed including a partial target, movement, more than one threat, as well as firing strong and support hand only. Even at close range, I like to occasionally incorporate a quick step to cover and this can be done by stacking a couple of trash barrels. Unlike the sterile environment of the typical police range, real-life threats aren’t always neatly positioned downrange and may appear to our side or even behind us. To prepare for this, pivots and turns should be included in your training regimen.

My goal in all of this is to execute a reasonably fast draw and place a two to three round burst into the high value scoring area of the target. Training should be accomplished with the gear and type of clothing you actually wear. If you don’t practice this way, you are indeed squandering a training opportunity and cutting yourself short. Needless to say, it is best to find out our limitations on the range.

When practicing with a handgun, the goal should be to strike a balance between accuracy and speed. Putting a burst of shots into the chest of a target seven yards away isn’t an especially difficult task, but the idea should be to do it as efficiently as possible in the least amount of time. Draw as fast as you can, take an acceptable sight picture and have at it. Once you are consistently printing a tight knot of hits, gradually increase speed and push the gas pedal a little bit harder. At some point in time, your shots will begin to stray from that vital area and you will have reached your limit for that particular day. Contrary to popular opinion, it is okay to miss in training. By pushing to the limit of your capabilities, you will become familiar with your mental clock and know exactly how fast you can shoot and expect well-placed hits.

I make extensive use of a shot timer to get a handle on performance. This tool will yield all sorts of valuable feedback on draw times, splits between the shots, reload time, as well as total elapsed time on a particular drill. As much as I rely on the timer, you can indeed gain insight as to your own performance without one. The good news is that they are not all that expensive and there are even apps for a cell phone which can serve as a timer.

Make no mistake about it, training with firearms can be an expensive proposition, but, when your safety is at issue, it is still a bargain. Ammunition can be pricey, but the cost can be mitigated in a number of different ways. Many serious shooters reload their own ammunition, but there is a set-up cost and a time investment associated with this as well. Another alternative is to buy low-cost ball ammunition in bulk which is available from a number of sources. You can also consider a .22 rimfire pistol similar to the one you carry on duty. Both GLOCK® and Smith & Wesson®, the manufacturers of the two most popular pistols in police service, are now producing .22LR models. It may not be the perfect solution, but one can shoot at the fraction of the cost of the service calibers.

I’m sure most cops are not especially fussy about the targets they utilize and almost any sort of paper or cardboard silhouette can be used. A problem I have with a lot of popular targets is that they have an overly large high value scoring area or, like the FBI Q target, no high value area at all. In real life, it’s not important that we hit; it’s important that we hit something important. The organs which support life are located in the high chest and our best chance of shutting down a determined adversary is to place one or more hits in this area. To create a high value area on any sort of silhouette target, I simply affix an eight inch paper plate. Again, this may be less than a perfect solution, but it’s a step in the right direction. Shot placement matters!

Training Short to Go Long

Although our primary focus should be on the scenarios and distances which are most likely to occur, we should not neglect shooting at extended range. Something very much on our minds is dealing with an active shooter event. Exactly how long are the corridors in your local school or the aisles in the grocery store? If you have only prepared for threats inside of conversational distance and don’t have immediate access to a shoulder weapon, you will be ill-equipped to manage a long distance problem. Make it a point to occasionally work out at distances 25 yards and greater.  

One trick I utilize to improve shooting at longer distances is to work on precision skills at relatively short range. Some instructors feel that working on anything other than tactical skills is a waste of time, but I disagree. Anything which reacquaints us with the marksmanship fundamentals is certainly going to help our cause at longer range. If I can convince someone that they can reliably nail a dot, circle or other small geometric shape at five yards, tagging a silhouette at 25 yards becomes a piece of cake. By building confidence at close range, I have pretty much eliminated that mental hurdle of shooting at extended distance. Without too much trouble, there are all sorts of free targets to be found online.

Practice at Home

There are a number of productive things we can do at home in order to stay sharp. However, it is especially important to remember that, even though we aren’t participating in live fire, there is an even more important safety protocol we have to follow. There is no impact berm in your bedroom.

Many of us are familiar with situations when an officer was “dry firing” their handgun, but somehow a live round found its way into it with catastrophic results. My classroom has a gouge in the carpet where an officer from a visiting agency let a round go and, fortunately, no one got hurt. Some years ago, a student at a big name shooting school was dry firing a .308 rifle in a motel room when he managed to put a round through several walls. I also know of a few incidents when people were killed because a round penetrated a wall and hit someone on the other side.

If you opt to dry fire or practice other gun handling skills, it’s extremely important that there are no live rounds on your person or in the immediate area. Ideally, dry practice should be done in an area where other people will not be in close proximity or be walking through. If, at any time, you are interrupted, double-check your pistol and ammunition before resuming practice. In two of the instances I outlined, the shooter had stopped practice, loaded his handgun and was distracted. At some point in time, he decided to resume the practice session, but instead launched a live round. We can never assume and should always make it a point to check the condition of our handgun.

Dry practice will enable you to do a very critical analysis at basics such as the grip and trigger press so when you do get the opportunity to get out to the range, you will be well rehearsed and that much further along. It also provides you a great training opportunity whenever you have a few minutes to spare, and the fact you don’t have to leave home allows you to do it at frequent intervals.

One of my dry practice routines is something called the “Wall Drill” which was designed by George Harris, former director of the SIG SAUER Academy. I draw my empty pistol (check it twice!) and raise it to eye level with the muzzle just an inch or two off the wall. The goal is to hold the pistol as still as possible and make a perfect trigger press. At this time, no attempt is made to take a sight picture. After a dozen or so reps, I repeat it with my strong hand only and, then, with my support hand only. With a traditional double-action pistol, I would run the gun with the hammer down to simulate that first long, heavy pull and repeat it again with the hammer back in single-action mode.

At some point in time, working the sights into the mix is also a plus. One can use a miniature silhouette of some type or even a sticky note. To accomplish this, I like to back off to room distance if possible. With any luck, our previous investment in practicing the Wall Drill is now paying off and the movement of the sights against the target is minimal. As an extra margin of safety, dry firing can always be done with your soft body armor as a backstop.

It has been my observation for many years that the loading technique used by far too many officers is less than stellar. This, too, can be practiced outside of the range environment with dummy rounds. The inert training rounds I recommend are made by S.T. Action Pro, Inc. (stactionpro.com) and feature a high visibility plastic bullet, loaded into a brass case, which makes it easy to distinguish from a live round. Unlike the all plastic trainers, the dummies from S.T. Action Pro can be used time after time without failing and the bright colored bullet makes them easy to find once they hit the deck.

Practice should include speed reloads with the gun in battery and also emergency reloads with the slide locked to rear. Again, it’s extremely important you work with the gear you actually utilize. When drawing the fresh magazine, be sure the index finger runs across the front of the magazine tube to guide it into the gun. In addition to reloading, one can also practice clearing stoppages using dummy rounds. Again, make sure there is no live ammunition anywhere in the area.

In the age of triple retention duty holsters, practicing the draw stroke is also more important than ever. Quite simply, the more obstacles you have to clear in order to get the gun into play, the greater the chance something could go wrong. The draw stroke needs to be practiced to the extent where it is second nature – with no fumbling whatsoever. If you carry your primary gun or off duty gun concealed from view, draw practice from under a layer of clothing is also recommended.

Draw practice should begin slowly with conscious, deliberate actions which ensure your technique is absolutely perfect. Once you’re satisfied that you are hitting on all cylinders, gradually increase the tempo and add the trigger press (check it twice!). Emphasis should be on a clean, efficient draw stroke with no nonessential movement.  In fairly short order, that gun will be out of the holster and up on target in the blink of an eye. It is also very important that we practice a one hand return. In the operational environment, we may have to quickly reholster and transition to a lower force option or draw our handcuffs.

Another element we can incorporate into dry practice is movement. Movement is situationally dependent on what is unfolding before us and, at times, a simple lateral step to get off the line of attack can afford an advantage. Working a step into our dry draw practice will also better prepare us for a violent encounter.

As with all dry practice, be sure there is no live ammunition on your person or in the immediate area when practicing the draw stroke. Unfortunately, a great many of negligent discharges occur with people who are comfortable with firearms because they get complacent.

It’s All Up to You

All law enforcement officers receive a pretty big dose of firearms training at the onset of their careers and are required to periodically requalify with their firearms at regular intervals. In my part of the world, this breaks down to just one or two trips to the range per year. No matter how good that training is, this isn’t enough time to get truly proficient with your firearm.

To put this in a different light, think about this analogy. Many of us have wagered a buck or two about the outcome of a sporting contest such as the World Series or the Super Bowl. How comfortable would you feel laying down a C-note on a quarterback who only practiced twice per year? I would submit that, in our game, the stakes are a whole lot higher.

The training techniques discussed herein do not require any specialized equipment or large expenditures. As indicated earlier, ammunition isn’t cheap, but springing for a box or two every now and again probably won’t break the bank. I consider the off range practice such as dry firing, drawing from the holster and working on efficient reloads to be every bit as important as live fire. A few minutes spent on some dry work at frequent intervals will pay off when it’s time to go to the range.

Captain Mike Boyle served with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement, and has been an active firearms instructor for more than 30 years. He has been an assistant police academy director and remains active as an academy rangemaster and instructor. Mike has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) since 1996. He is the architect and coordinator of IALEFI’s Master Instructor Development Program.