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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

Teach the Basics

Reactionary steel targets, like this plate rack, can be both street relevant and fun. Since the 8-inch plates are the same basic size as the vital organ area of the high chest, various drills can be fired on a target that will “react.”

Once an instructor is established, a training program must be designed. It is at this point that many firearms instructors run into trouble, as they try to incorporate too much into their program when their student base is just not ready for it.

While it is "high speed" to teach shooting on the move or while exiting a vehicle, don't jump the gun, so to speak. If your agency's officers are not versed at shooting while standing still, the instructor will have frustrated him or herself, frustrated the "students," and wasted valuable training time by advancing too quickly.

It should be further noted that firearms instructors will be met by students who have less enthusiasm for firearms than they do. I have no suggestion here other than to work through it and be enthusiastic.

I have found over the last 20 years that many officers do not like going to the range because they are not good shooters. Do not underestimate the embarrassment factor involved here. Cops are "take charge" kind of people, and they do not like to look bad. Many would rather hope they can hit what they are shooting at during the moment of truth (a possibility) rather than risk looking inferior in front of their peers (a probability). Still, it's not a good trade off.

Giving individual instruction and/or attention is a way to combat this phenomenon. Whether your agency can do this certainly depends on the number of instructors and officers it has, but doing so will reap big rewards. I have found that most instructors who are still enthusiastic about their position will try to make time for the problem shooter.

One of the biggest "kicks" that I get as a firearms instructor is seeing the face of an officer who finally "realizes" or "gets" what he has been doing wrong and makes the correction that allows him to suddenly become a terrific shooter. If this happens to you, a smile will break out on your face (yes, even on the saltiest of veterans) and you will want to continue shooting just to show yourself that you can, indeed, shoot well. You'll want to share such a breakthrough with fellow officers. When the instructor's reputation becomes enhanced as the good news spreads, don't be surprised if he or she becomes very busy helping other officers correct their shooting.

I have come to believe that reviewing the basics is important in every firearms program. If you have not mastered the basics such as stance, grip, sight alignment, and trigger control, you will never be a good shooter.

The single biggest error suffered by those who cannot shoot well is the inability to press the trigger straight to the rear without interrupting the alignment of the muzzle. This problem is actually pretty understandable when you look at human physiology.

Think for a moment about how the human hand works. It is intended for the four fingers and thumb to close and open, opposing one another. They work in concert with one another literally hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day. Then you come to the range three or four times a year and are expected to perform an act that is totally opposed to what your hand does on a regular basis: separate your trigger finger from the rest of your hand in an effort to hold the gun's muzzle on target. Is it any wonder why most shooters squeeze their whole hand on the grip when they fire a handgun, taking the muzzle in God only knows what direction?

It may very well be a good idea to begin each firearms training session with a few exercises that emphasize trigger finger separation.

I begin most of my training courses with a few range drills that emphasize basic shooting skills. Such drills include one shot on target from ready, one shot from the holster, one shot on two targets from ready, drawing from the holster while side stepping, and so on. Simple drills such as these are the perfect opportunity for the instructor to diagnose problems and get them corrected before the program proceeds. Do not be afraid to work the basics. Advanced skills are nothing more than the basics mastered.

Smith & Wesson Academy instructor Bill Porter recently told me that a significant number of special operations personnel go through the academy. Wondering why this was, Bill stopped one of these operators and asked why, with all of the "high-speed" SWAT style training companies out there, they continued to send their people to the S&W Academy.

"Basics," Bill was told. "Basics. We can get all of that high-speed, low-drag stuff a lot of places, but what my people need reminding of is the basics. And you guys do that very well here." Wise words to heed.

If our nation's finest soldiers, sailors, and Marines are constantly emphasizing the basics, then so should we. Firearms training should be viewed as a pyramid. Skills must be stacked one on top of another with the basics being the solid foundation, and that foundation must be constantly maintained and strengthened.

Make It Fun

Pressing the trigger straight to the rear is one of the most basic of firearms skills. It separates the good shooter from the poor shooter. Pay special attention to this during training.

Get your agency to invest in some simple steel targets. I have found that students really enjoy targets that make noise and fall down. It gives immediate feedback and can emphasize the need to keep shooting until the threat is gone (the target was hit and fell over). If the target is missed, the shooter needs to continue to shoot until the target is no longer a "threat."

Steel targets can be taken apart and moved, making them convenient for those who must use someone else's facility. There are a number of companies that make steel targets and if you search the Internet you'll find a wide range of styles in varied price ranges.

There is nothing wrong with making training fun as long as the training goal is attained. As a matter of fact, if the training is fun officers are more likely to attend and participate willingly, which also translates to a greater training experience all around.

The most obvious way to enhance department-wide firearms skills is to add training time, but even the best funded agency will not be able to get their people to the range with the frequency needed to keep skills razor sharp. There will always be some degradation of skills.

If you attended one of the finest firearms schools in the country for three-to-five days you would be able to shoot at a very high level. But according to sports physiologists, your level of skill could deteriorate as much as 20 percent in just several days if you don't practice. This is why interscholastic, collegiate, and professional athletes (as well as professional shooters and big city SWAT cops) practice almost every day to keep these perishable skills sharp.

The New York City Police Department is the nation's largest local law enforcement agency, and it has a huge task just getting all of its officers to the range once a year. Even if the NYPD wanted to do more, there are only so many hours in a day. NYPD has done a terrific job of combining basic firearms skills and life-saving tactics through scenario-based training.

Realizing that they will never be able to give their officers the repetition they need to be really skilled shooters, NYPD instructors have emphasized awareness and street prevailing (survival is not enough) tactics through force-on-force training and it has worked very well for them.

I had the opportunity several years ago to tour their range facility and view their program. The NYPD firearms training program is certainly the nation's standard for the combination of firearms skill, street prevailing tactics, and efficient use of time. The result is that NYPD officers are engaged in numerous armed confrontations every year and they continue to prevail over and over again.

Any agency that has not become involved in force-on-force training is really missing the boat. You don't have to invest in expensive paint ball guns or Simunitions, though these are good products.

Air-or gas-powered plastic pellet guns can be quite effective. Having become generically known as "Airsoft" or "Green Gas" guns, these plastic/metal weapons look, feel, and operate just like real firearms. You can also use them without having to "pad up" as you do with paint-marking projectiles. Merely covering the face and neck will usually suffice. These guns cost around $100 apiece, so for a one-time investment of around one thousand dollars, years of quality training can take place almost anywhere. The plastic pellets are not destructive, so most any location can become a job-relevant training facility.

The bottom line is that there is no way that any agency can get its people to the range every week or every month, let alone every few days. Practice at this level is up to the individual officer. However, the agency can play a role. It can make ammunition and range time available to officers who want to practice on their own. Ammo and range time may cost some money, but they're certainly cheaper than lawsuits, hospital stays, or officer funerals.

Dave Spaulding is a lieutenant and 27-year veteran with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office in Dayton, Ohio. He is a member of the POLICE Advisory Board and the author of "Defensive Living" and "Handgun Combatives," both available from Looseleaf Law Publications (

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