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How to Improve Marksmanship

Maximize your agency’s firearms training using whatever resources you have.

June 01, 2003  |  by Dave Spaulding


Think of yourself as an NFL quarterback. You have spent a great deal of time honing your natural ability, having played football in high school, college, and now the pros. Natural ability is what it takes to make it this far, as only so much skill can be developed through practice. But at the same time, practice is a necessity as skills can decline over time and the only way to keep them sharp is to use and practice them.

One day, the team's owner walks in and says, "Revenue is down and the only way that I can see us making ends meet is to cut back on practice time. Effective immediately, you will only be able to practice throwing the football three to four times a year."

With all of this natural ability, how well do you think you, although a talented athlete, will be able to hit your receiver if you only practice throwing the ball three to four times a year?

As ridiculous as this sounds, it is exactly how we in American law enforcement conduct firearms training. Oh, sure, agencies are quite successful in getting officers "qualified," but just how successful are they at getting them trained to really engage in close-quarter combat with a handgun?

History has shown over and over again that merely shooting a set course of fire, or qualification course, will not truly prepare you for an armed confrontation. Yet, agencies continue to schedule officers for firearms qualification only three to four times a year. Is it any wonder why our hit ratio in gunfights hovers at 20 percent?

In the interest of being fair, there are many agencies that just cannot afford to train their officers more than a few times a year. Large agencies may want to give more firearms training to their people, but there are just not enough hours in the day or days in the year to get everyone to the range. At this point, it will be up to each agency to decide what should be addressed in this limited program and how the content will best serve the agency and its officers.

Department Responsibility

Liability is certainly a concern to police administrators-and it should be. Agency budgets are stretched to the max and the loss of a major lawsuit can be devastating to small and large agencies alike. But we must ask ourselves, "What is our liability when we send officers to the street who really can't shoot?" Certainly these officers are not only a danger to themselves and their fellow officers, but may even be a bigger danger to the public they serve.

Take a moment to visualize a scenario in which an officer must draw his gun in defense of his life or the life of another. Shots are exchanged and not only can't the officer hit his opponent well enough to stop the threat, but he misses the suspect and kills an innocent citizen who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Will your agency's qualification program stand up to the legal scrutiny that such a circumstance will generate?

If enhancing departmental marksmanship, or what would be better termed as combat weaponcraft skills, is not of a concern to you or your agency, it should be. In today's litigious society, if someone in your agency is involved in a shooting the officer and the agency will be sued. Count on it. Be prepared for it.

Several decades ago, a federal court decision titled Popow v. Margate established the criteria that agencies must adhere to when training their officers with firearms. The decision was quite clear in that firearms training must go beyond mere qualification. The program must include such things as shooting at moving targets, in reduced light, in crowded areas, i.e. situations that mimic actual working conditions for the officer. Meeting this daunting task falls to the skill and ingenuity of the firearms instructor(s) employed by each agency.

The Right Instructor

I feel that there is a serious difference between a "firearms instructor" and a "range officer." This is not necessarily reflected in your agency's titles. These are the definitions I believe should be used for terms we tend to use interchangeably, and not always accurately. According to my definition, a firearms instructor is someone who can watch a shooter and diagnose-yes, diagnose-what the shooter is doing wrong and correct it. A range officer is nothing more than a qualification officer who stands on the line and scores targets. Range officers have no idea how to improve a shooter and, all too often, don't even care. This is not the type of person you want taking the stand in defense of your agency and training program in the event of a lawsuit.

A firearms instructor is someone who has the skill and ability to take his or her students to a facility that is less than desirable and still get results with a meaningful program. This same person can also take the stand in defense of both an agency and its program and articulate its validity.

I have seen some terrific, actually ingenious, ideas come from small agency firearms instructors who train in gravel pits or creek beds. I've also seen a few large agency instructors become totally lost if they don't have their pneumatic turning or pop-up targets, simulation systems, laser guns, or some other high-tech piece of equipment they have come to rely on.

This being said, the first step to enhancing combat weaponcraft agencywide is to get one or more good firearms instructors. Don't pick the best hunter or the most senior officer on the department; pick an officer who really wants the job. Such enthusiasm will translate into a person who will go the extra mile by reading about and seeking training on his or her own time, as well as networking with other instructors and surfing the Internet for more information.


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At the same time, don't let this officer go stale. Send him or her to training beyond what is required by your state to be certified as a firearms instructor. Conferences such as those held annually by the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers (ASLET) and the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) are an excellent way for an instructor to network, receive new information, and to generally "recharge the batteries." IALEFI holds smaller regional training conferences across the country for the express purpose of reaching a greater number of instructors and keeping them up to date with new ideas.

Private shooting schools such as Thunder Ranch, Gunsite, and the Tactical Defense Institute, among others, are an excellent way for your agency's firearms instructor to receive up-to-date training in shooting techniques and tactics. (See "Centers of Higher Learning," Police April 2002, page 42.) Remember, trainers must be trained, too.

There are a number of traveling instructors that will come to your location, provided you can supply enough students to make the trip worthwhile to them. John Farnum of Defense Training International, Massad Ayoob of the Lethal Force Institute, and the Heckler & Koch International Training Division are probably the best known.

Tags: Firearms Training


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