Firearms Training: How to “Sharpen the Sword”

A man wearing a red tshirt that says Firearms Instructor

Mike Boyle

Falling short of your expectations in academics or athletics may be a source of embarrassment, but it will not get you killed. With that said, I am often astonished by the attitudes of some trainers and administrators when it comes to firearms proficiency.

By giving firearms training just enough attention to “get by,” they either feel that they, or the people they are responsible for, are prepared to deal with adversity. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Mayberry “it won’t happen here” attitude, indifference to training or just plain laziness, law enforcement officers who are ill-prepared to deal with violence are at a serious deficit which could result in their being seriously injured or worse.

While it is impossible for any law enforcement officer to have the necessary skills to prevail in every conceivable situation, we can certainly go the extra yard in getting a handle on the most common types of assaults and develop countertactics. As far as incidents when deadly force is required, we have roughly 170 years of collective experience to draw on and can identify the most likely patterns of assault. These events typically unfold at very close range, the action is very fast and light conditions are often poor which handicaps the officer’s decision-making process. High-risk events include motor vehicle stops, intervention in domestic incidents, attempting arrests, and investigating suspicious persons and places. Clearly, officers today are working in a more volatile operational environment than ever before and most of us recognize that merely achieving minimum standards doesn’t make the cut. If your agency does not go that extra yard, you need to take the bull by the horns and get squared away on your own. Sure, it takes time and money, but how much is your life worth? Those of us involved in training our fellow officers need to bring our best efforts forward. As instructors, you are in the best position to see that the time afforded is sufficient to see the troops get what they need. This often involves shaking the tree and butting heads with the command staff.

Don’t Get Sucked Into the Qualification Trap

A hurdle which all law enforcement officers face is periodic qualification with their firearms. In the law enforcement world, qualification is used as a measure of marksmanship and proficiency in handling and operating firearms. I would submit it has little to do with fighting with a gun.

Quite simply, qualification is a test. Imagine if one of your grade school teachers gave you the same spelling quiz week after week, but nothing ever changed. No doubt you would have a strong command of those multisyllable words, but deviating from them would move you into unknown territory. But, that is exactly what happens in firearms qualification. In many outfits, officers fire the same rote exercise year after year throughout their entire career. Used as a periodic test to assess marksmanship, qualification is not necessarily a bad thing. However, if it is all that you are doing, you are being severely shortchanged. Unfortunately, many outfits have confused qualification with training and that is all they do.

A great many qualification courses test marksmanship skills from roughly arm’s length back to 25 yards. Time frames to accomplish a particular firing sequence are liberal and targets are unobstructed and are positioned directly in front of the shooter. Light conditions are optimum and the course of fire is predictable once you have run it a few times. Real life is not nearly as accommodating. Light tends to be poor and both you and your assailant are moving. You may have only a partial target to shoot at and your background may consist of innocent bystanders rather than a berm.

I am not suggesting we eliminate firearms qualification from the mix, but we need to recognize that it is not a valid training tool or a barometer of performance in the unforgiving real world. The ability to shoot a high score is great; however, it is important that we take it to the next level and include both dynamic and interactive training into the regimen.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive

I spent my career working for an agency which was not exactly awash in cash, but we were able to do some very innovative training with our modest resources. Our quarterly range sessions included the requisite qualification course for handgun, rifle and shotgun, but I always managed to sneak in some additional dynamic exercises. Round counts for these exercises were very low and could be accomplished with just a handful of ammunition. We got creative making range props and built our own target stands, as well as a moving target system from scrap parts. Over time, we were able to upgrade and we got some commercial gear and a bunch of reactive steel targets. Best of all, officers had a very positive reaction to the ever changing scenarios we created and it often got competitive.

Well over 30 years ago, we modified a number of old revolvers so that they would no longer accept live ammunition and, instead, fired cotton balls fired by a primed, plastic cartridge case. This was our introduction to scenario-based, interactive training. Today, there are a few firms turning out marking cartridges, modified pistols which mimic police duty sidearms, as well as protective gear. Instructor level training is also available from these very same outfits. Scenario-based training can also be performed with Airsoft technology at considerable savings. One of the advantages of Airsoft is that these scenarios can be performed indoors in places such as schools or a place of business without making the mess associated with marking cartridges.

In the not so distant past, I felt that the various electronic simulators were nothing more than an expensive video game. My attitude has now changed 180 degrees and there are now some great systems out there which offer realistic scenarios and induce stress. Interactive training provides you with some great feedback on your skills and shows you where you can improve.

Marksmanship Matters

Precision is the quality of being minutely exact or accurate. Law enforcement officers need to have the ability to place their hits on the target where they will do the most good and shut down a determined adversary in the shortest amount of time. As we make the transition from the range environment to real life, most of us would agree that targeting the high chest gives the greatest likelihood of a quick stop. A hit anywhere on the body may cause an adversary to stop what he is doing, but the result of an off center hit is unpredictable. Damaging vital organs which support life tends to have a much more dynamic effect.

Not only do we have to shoot with a degree of precision, but it has to be done relatively quickly. Needless to say, this is not an easy task when being subjected to life- threatening stress. Most officers of average skill can consistently hit the high chest of a paper target when firing from typical combat distance. Doing it on demand is another matter altogether.

To achieve success, one needs to balance speed and accuracy. Both my personal practice and the training I provide include shooting at very small targets in an open-ended time frame. I tell my students to focus on the fundamentals and take all the time they need to make a hit. Once we have established that we can hit, it’s time to step on the gas pedal and shoot faster. At this point, I begin using a larger, yet realistic-sized, target; however, the emphasis is still in making quality hits.

One of my pet peeves with the targets used for police training and qualification is that many are too big with very optimistic high value scoring areas. In many cases, beach ball-sized shot groups would be sufficient to post a good score. There are, however, some very good targets out there for the taking and, lacking that, you can make your own. Common remedies include folding targets in half or affixing an eight inch paper plate to designate that high value area.

It is very important that we set some realistic goals in our practice. Exactly how fast do we need to shoot and hit? Every situation is going to be different and there is a very strong likelihood that the bad guy has already initiated the action. In short, you will be playing catch-up. Can you fire three rounds in three seconds? How about three rounds in two seconds? With a little bit of practice, this is not an unrealistic standard. Sure, the gamesmen can run their pistols much faster, but law enforcement officers have a much steeper hill to climb. We have to absolutely identify not only the threat, but the background, before we press the trigger.

Most Likely, Less Likely, Unlikely

All of us have limited resources which we can devote to training both in money and time. We would like to cover as many of the real-world contingencies as possible; however, our focus should be on the scenarios which are more likely to occur as opposed to less likely. As indicated earlier, we have a pretty good idea as to the dynamics of armed encounters. With that in mind, training should primarily focus on quickly dealing with threats at close range. We shouldn’t neglect the possibility of dealing with problems at a greater distance, but the bulk of our practice with handguns should take place at seven yards or closer. Most police training takes place under optimum light conditions, but the reality is that the inverse is true out in the real world. Frequent low light training should also be included in the mix.

Our dynamic training drills include other elements including movement, more than one threat, cover concepts, and the presence of innocent bystanders. Considering that a great number of real-world events unfold from, or around, vehicles, getting a car or two out on the range from time to time is also a plus. Another real-world possibility which we train for is the likelihood that an officer may be injured or has fallen to the ground and has to fight one-handed.

Don’t Forget Shoulder Weapons

Because the vast majority of police action shootings involve little or no forewarning, handguns are utilized in the overwhelming majority of incidents. This is especially true of patrol officers and investigators. But, should time allow, accessing a shoulder weapon is almost always the better choice. With both shotguns and rifles, hit potential is greater and better stopping potential is realized.

I recognize that the greater training effort should be devoted to the system which is most likely to be utilized; however, shoulder weapons should not be ignored. Today, many agencies have pushed the shotgun to the back burner and now use a patrol rifle to fill that same niche. That concept may be valid; however, I see many outfits following the same path they did with the shotguns of old. Training is cursory at best and, as a result, officers never develop anything close to a degree of proficiency.

Making decisive hits with either a shotgun or a rifle is not especially difficult with just a little bit of training. Without a proper indoctrination and regular training maintenance intervals, the command of basic operational skills in shoulder weapons suffers. Both shotguns and rifles are very different critters than a pistol and tasks such as getting into action, reloading, and clearing stoppages is very different.

I recognize that issues such as available time and access to a range compound the problem. However, this can be offset with off-range practice using dummy rounds to practice basic operational skills such as reloading. When the opportunity comes up for live fire, officers are now up to the challenge.

Final Thoughts

Again, the focus of our practice should be on the things which are most likely to happen. I would caution that human nature is such that we continue to practice the things we are really good at. In reality, we should devote some attention to the things we are not so good at. Perhaps, our draw times from that Level III duty holster are a bit slow or our reloads are awkward. Significant progress can be made by practicing off the range and using inert dummy rounds.

Luck can be described as success or failure brought about by chance rather than one’s own actions. True, there are some things we can’t control in the unforgiving real world, but chance continues to favor the well rehearsed individual. To be best prepared, our training standard should be excellence rather than mediocrity.

Captain Mike Boyle served with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement, and has been involved in firearms and use-of-force training for over 40 years. He has been a police academy director and rangemaster and remains active as an instructor providing basic, in-service and instructor level training. He is a member of ILEETA and NALEFIA. His book, Everything You Need to Know About Police Firearms Training, was recently published by Blue360 Media.