What Are the Four Key Elements of Successful Firearms Training?

Men at target practice

Mike Boyle

Whether we like it or not, sometimes the only way to maintain officer and public safety is through the application of force.

 In recent times, police use of force has come under the spotlight. Policies, training and even the equipment utilized by law enforcement officers has been challenged, sometimes resulting in negative outcomes. Certain elements have questioned the need for police officers to participate in “tactical” training as they feel it programs officers to overreact in confrontational situations and resort to higher levels of force when situations may be resolved merely with words. I think we would all agree, particularly the involved officers, that a peaceful resolution of conflict would always be best, but, unfortunately, that’s not always in the cards.

Considering how law enforcement use of force is now in the forefront, you would think that there would be some hue and cry for better training, but, for the most part, that has failed to materialize. In certain quarters, we have even witnessed serious budget cutbacks as funding for police training has been diverted to other areas. Considering the greater challenges and danger faced by contemporary law enforcement personnel, this is downright tragic. Clearly, officers are held to a higher level of accountability, but are not given the tools to properly do their jobs.

So, are we meeting our obligation to afford officers the best possible training? My hat is off to those agencies and trainers who do indeed go the extra yard and, if you work for such an outfit, count your lucky stars. Unfortunately, there are many departments which cut a corner or two and some which are at the extremely deficient end of the scale. Not too long ago, it came to light that, in one big city department, roughly one third of the officers were not able to meet the state’s minimum marksmanship requirement and they were still out there working!

Firearms training is only one-dimensional in the use-of-force training picture, but it seems to get the most attention because of the dire consequences associated with misuse. Some states and just about every agency have requirements which outline a minimum level of proficiency. While some are more challenging than others, most are relatively simple and, with rare exception, test only basic marksmanship skills. But, for an officer to be truly proficient, there are other areas which need to be refined.

Running the Gun

In my training with any of the firearms commonly used by police, I make it a point to address the priorities. Simply, they consist of four areas which are critical to success on which the user has to be absolutely squared away. They include loading; getting into action; executing the fundamentals of practical marksmanship on demand; and getting back in the fight should your gun cease to function.

Three of the above listed priorities have to do with operational skills rather than marksmanship. Yet, in some departments, once an officer graduates from the police academy, there is no effort put forward to refine those very basic, yet critical, skills. As long as they can scratch out a passing score on the mandatory qualification course, they are deemed good to go and prepared for any eventuality they encounter on the street. That might be easier to accept if these other critical areas were somehow evaluated, but that isn’t the case. Even officers with poor gun handling technique can get through the course of fire, but that can quickly become unraveled once they are placed in a low light situation or subjected to life-threatening stress.

Load Up!

Getting a solid handle on basic operational skills is as equally important as marksmanship. If you can’t draw or reload your pistol under pressure, you will find yourself at a serious disadvantage – no matter how well you can shoot.

With training new officers, their initial hands-on training begins with loading. Loading the pistol falls into one of two categories – the first being administrative loading where time is not an element and second is combat loading where there is a sense of urgency into getting more rounds into the gun quickly. Considering that a great many negligent discharges occur when either loading or unloading, this is a topic which needs be revisited from time to time.

The best example I can give of administrative loading is topping off an empty pistol before going on duty. To do so safely and efficiently, remove the pistol from the holster, point it in a safe direction and verify it is empty. Return it to the holster and seat a fully loaded magazine. So, why return it to the holster? By returning to the holster, you eliminate the possibility of a negligent discharge. Once the magazine has been properly seated, draw the gun from the holster, point it a safe direction and rack the slide to chamber a round. At this point, one may opt to do a press check to ensure a round has been chambered. Once you are satisfied the pistol is hot, place it back in the holster and remove the magazine. To complete the process, add one round and reinsert the magazine. Once you make sure the magazine is fully seated, you are good to go.

To safely unload, simply reverse the process. First, remove the magazine from the holstered pistol, eliminating the possibility of multiple negligent discharges. Next, draw the pistol with the muzzle in a safe direction and rack the slide to clear the chamber, letting the round fall to the ground. Visually and physically inspect and, once you are satisfied that it’s clear, return it to the holster.

In my experience, this is the most foolproof way of safely administratively loading and unloading a pistol and it minimizes the chance of a negligent discharge. If at any time during the process you are interrupted, assume there is a round in the chamber before you continue.

Keep It Hot

A pistol can be reloaded in battery with the slide forward (speed reload) or with the slide locked to the rear (emergency reload). The biggest mistakes I see cops make in attempting a quick reload is poor positioning of spare magazines and improper drawing of the fresh magazine by grasping it by the floorplate.

Once a decision has been made to reload, both hands and arms are in motion. The strong side arm is retracted slightly to bring the pistol closer to the chest while the support hand goes to the belt to retrieve a fresh magazine. When removing the magazine from the case, run the index finger down the front of the magazine tube with the floorplate near the base of the thumb. The thumb of the strong hand depresses the magazine release allowing the partially depleted magazine to fall to the ground. Index the side of the magazine closest to you with the magazine well and seat in one positive, fluid motion. Your focus should remain on what is happening in front of you rather than the gun. A properly positioned index finger will greatly help guiding the magazine into the magazine well, whether it’s day or night.

If possible, the pistol should be topped off before running it completely empty. Many years ago while attending training conducted by the HK International Training Division, we were told to “load when you can, not when you have to” and that certainly struck a chord with me. But, the reality of gunfighting is that, in the heat of battle, we may run our pistols dry and experience a lock back. If that’s the case, there is an extra step as you also have to send the slide forward to chamber a round.

With the emergency reload, the initial steps are exactly the same. There are two ways to send the slide to battery including tripping the slide release or taking a grip on the slide, pulling it all the way to the rear and letting go. Some trainers are very dogmatic as to what technique is best, but I no longer become overly upset about it. Using the slide release to send the gun to battery is faster and, if you prefer to do that, I have no heartburn at all.

No doubt, some will take exception to this, but I am not a fan of the classic tactical reload where you draw a fresh magazine and maintain control of the partially depleted magazine with one hand. Sorry, team, but in the stress of a gunfight, that simply isn’t going to happen with cops who only go to the range once or twice a year. If you are a true believer, by all means have at it, but I would rather devote training time to things which my students are more likely to utilize when their fingers have turned to flippers.

Drawing the Pistol

Holster skills are yet another area where we should invest some time. Far too often, I have seen law enforcement officers receive some rudimentary instruction in their basic training, but are never afforded any additional training. As a result, officers are slow into action and, in some instances, are even dangerous. Considering that officers sometimes have to quickly react to a threat and have to play catch-up, having the ability to efficiently draw the pistol is absolutely critical.

With new officers, drawing and a safe return to the holster is a skill we practice for quite some time before going any further. When getting a new duty or concealment holster, practice is very important before trusting your life with new equipment.

The formula I have been using for drawing the pistol is as follows:

  • Grip – Both hands are in motion. The support hand goes to body midline as the strong hand gets a firm and final shooting grip on the gun. All security measures on the holster are released.
  • Lift – The strong hand lifts the gun just above the holster. As soon as it clears, make sure the wrist is straight.
  • Smack – The hands are brought together at chest level. The support hand completes the shooting grip.
  • Drive – The gun is brought to eye level as you look for the sights and extend the arms. The index finger of the strong hand is now in contact with the trigger to achieve shot break.

I have my students practice slowly for form at first and then gradually increase speed. When all the bugs have been worked out, go to full speed and add the trigger press. The gun should be returned to the holster using one hand only after scanning for additional threats. Should you be drawing from a plainclothes or off-duty rig, be sure to work your covering garment into the mix.

When practicing the draw stroke or training others in it, it is absolutely critical that the guns be checked to verify they are indeed safe and clear and that there is no live ammunition in the immediate area.

Stoppage Reduction

A properly maintained autopistol used with service quality ammunition is extremely reliable, but any number of things cause them to stop working. I would submit that the vast majority of pistol stoppages have to do with shooter error. In the heat of battle, there is simply no time to take a diagnostic approach and all officers should be familiar with immediate action drills.

The second your pistol quits working, smartly smack the magazine floorplate, pull the slide to the rear and let it go. This will fix the vast majority of stoppages and have you back in the game in a blink of an eye. I find it advantageous to cant the pistol slightly to the side so that anything tying up the gun is expelled from the ejection port and falls out rather than back inside, creating an even bigger problem. I can’t emphasize enough that the slide should be operated like a slingshot as riding it forward can create a feedway stoppage.

Feedway stoppages or double feeds take far more time to clear and are often caused by a failed attempt in clearing a simple stoppage. An old-school technique involved stripping the magazine out of the pistol, racking the slide to clear any obstruction and reloading. This burns up more than a few critical seconds. A faster way of getting it done is partially stripping the magazine and trapping it with the pinky. Invert the pistol, rack the slide a few times, reseat the magazine, and rack the slide one more time to chamber a round. While not ideal, one can clear a double feed in half the time. Truth be told, nightmares like this is why I carried a backup gun.

Making It All Work

One thing which always comes up as an obstacle to training is available time and money. If officers only fire some antiquated qualification course time after time, they are being shortchanged. Fortunately, force-on-force role playing exercises and video-based simulators can fill the gap, particularly when it comes to decision-making, but many other important skills can only be refined in a live fire exercise.

For years, my outfit has been utilizing dynamic training exercises to better assess shooter proficiency. Contrary to popular opinion, they are very cost-effective to run and easy to create. Officers perform one at a time under the watchful eye of the instructor staff and multiple skills such as reloading, use of cover, presence of innocent bystanders, safe movement, and verbalization can be evaluated. Time frames are short, yet realistic, and very few rounds are actually fired. Ultimately, this gives the shooter a better idea as to his/her capabilities.

I recognize that, for whatever reason, some agencies will not go the extra mile and give their officers what they need. The sad reality is that, if you find yourself in this predicament, you’re on your own! Get yourself some inert dummy rounds and practice. Sure, it might require the investment of a few bucks and a little of your personal time, but how much is your life worth?

Clearly, working in the law enforcement profession is more dangerous than ever. Use of firearms to protect your life or that of others remains a last resort, but we have to be prepared for that eventuality. When things get ugly, a winner’s mindset and being proficient in practical marksmanship and operational skills will keep you safe.

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.