After two weeks of NRA firearms training with members of the Honolulu PD, I never managed to add anything to my list of negatives besides "frequent need for sunscreen." Hey, spending 14 days training in Hawaii is a tough job.
Each five-day instructor course, developed by the NRA's Law Enforcement Activities Division (LEAD) includes night firing, one-hand firing, extensive drills in shooting while under stress, a multitude of classroom exercises, and a host of other workouts. They also follow a similar lesson plan, so it's easy for students to move from basic schools into advanced NRA training without skipping a beat.
"Training is cheap insurance," says Robert Jaeger, a firearms instructor who heads up the Honolulu PD's outdoor shooting range facility, which, as you might imagine, sits amid an extinct and picturesque volcano crater, complete with an ocean view.
"I wanted to get the NRA in here because I've been through their courses in the past, and I think that they have a lot to offer," Jaeger says. "You can't beat the cost of the training. It's about half of what other folks charge," adds the perpetually smiling Jaeger, who took part in both the handgun/shotgun and patrol rifle instructor courses.
All kidding about mai tais and hula dancers aside, training is just as important for the Honolulu PD as it is for the cops of any other major American city. Hawaii isn't a hotbed of criminal activity, but the state's cops have their fair share of enforcement woes. Vehicle theft, property crime, and drug-related offenses are common, just like they are in many cities on the mainland.
Weighing in with nearly 2,000 officers, the Honolulu PD is responsible for law enforcement on Oahu-the state's most populated island. That's a jurisdiction that includes 900,000 permanent inhabitants-not counting the nearly yearlong influx of tourists-and encompasses Hawaii's capital city of Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, the military command center of the Pacific and one of the world's largest military bases.
Advanced firearms training is something that the Honolulu PD is taking more and more seriously. "After our recruits get out of the academy, they're placed with a field training officer for another four to five months," says Jaeger. Additionally, all Honolulu patrol officers annually attend a three-day training refresher course, which covers subjects like firearms, CPR, pathogen protection, and hazmat incidents.
"I booked both of these NRA courses because they take the best teaching methods and lessons in the law enforcement community and present them in one complete package," Jaeger explains. "Another plus to the NRA system is that they are really unbiased. They want to give you the best instruction out there, period. Most private programs push their products and techniques on you regardless of their overall efficiency or ease of use," he adds.
So what's so special about what the NRA offers law enforcement agencies? "The one-on-one training is a real bonus; you get instant feedback," says Sgt. Thomas Carreiro, an HPD SWAT team member and firearms instructor. "This course really forces you to keep your fundamentals sharp, it hones your muscle memory, and, most importantly, it prepares you for what you and your students might find out on the street."
"The real job of the instructor is to help the shooter become more proficient," says Bill Campbell, an NRA LEAD instructor, who adds that the only way to become a better instructor is to get out there and do it. "We're not here to teach you how to shoot-you better be able to do that before you get here. We're here to help you learn how to better teach your fellow officers how to shoot, how to survive on the street, and how to walk away from a gunfight," Campbell adds.
Scott Yang, a plainclothes officer who works in the department's Waikiki District Crime Reduction Unit, signed up immediately when he heard that the NRA program was coming to Oahu. "I jumped on this opportunity as soon as I heard that the HPD had hired the NRA to come and teach these courses," he says. "They're the oldest firearm training organization out there, and I figured that this was the time to get my instructor certification."
The NRA Handgun/Shotgun instructor course is a base-level instructor course that takes students through an increasingly fast-paced combination of classroom instruction, shooting drills, one-on-one interaction, and frequent role-playing exercises. Students put in a few hours with the books in the morning and then head out to the range to practice what they read about earlier that day.[PAGEBREAK]
Barry Tong, who's served with the HPD for 18 years, says it was the program's use of dummy round training that he found the most useful. "Everyone in law enforcement has used dummy rounds at some point," he says, "but during this course we had to use them all week long, all the time. Every magazine had to have at least one dummy round in it. I am now totally confident in my ability to clear a jam, a dud round, or be able to perform a magazine reload almost without thinking about it," says Tong, who adds that such skills are of paramount importance to all officers.
And while accuracy assessments and the tap-rack-ready exercise (the three basic steps required to clear a semiautomatic pistol which does not fire) are a staple of law enforcement handgun training for good reason, some of the best instruction comes not from the shooting, but from the drills that call for students to decide when and when not to fire.
"Our job is to make our students think about each and every time they pull the trigger," says instructor Campbell, a SWAT operator with the Gilbert (Ariz.) Police Department. "You need to be able to tell me why you fired each shot," he says.
"As a police officer you need to be able to make decisions instantly at times," adds NRA instructor Dan "Fritz" Schlernitzauer, who retired from the Lexington (Ken.) Police Department after 18 years on the job, and now travels around the U.S. to teach NRA's law enforcement schools.
"We're here to make you think about what you're doing," says Schlernitzauer, who adds that certain drills are designed to test students' awareness of their surroundings as well as their decision to fire their weapon. "Ask for clarification, ask for help, and learn by teaching others, those are probably the three main things we're looking for from these folks," says Schlernitzauer, as he walks behind shooters on the firing line and notes which students are taking the time to scan their surroundings properly after holstering.
"How many fingers was I holding up?" queries Schlernitzauer after the group completed the drill. A half-dozen voices reply: "Two fingers." Dan smiles, "We just talked about scanning your surroundings when you're done firing," he explains. "If you don't practice it at the range and make it second nature what makes you think you'll remember it during the heat of the moment and when it might save your life?" Lesson learned. The next time Schlernitzauer asked the group, everyone had the right answer.
And while the HPD students were trained extensively in dim light shooting, forced to learn how to shoot an "incapacitation drill" in which they could only use one arm, versed in various close-quarters firing techniques, and shown several methods of firing with a flashlight throughout the week, the basic lesson stayed the same throughout the NRA course. The message of the NRA course is, until you can explain what you're doing to someone else and watch as they successfully do it, you haven't really mastered that skill.
"I think that the role-playing exercises are really what helps us become better instructors," says HPD's Carreiro. "They ask the same questions that your actual students will; if you can explain what to do here and now, you won't have any problems down the road."
Campbell explains that teaching students to teach others is one of the goals of the program. "We use a lot of role playing, which forces each of our students into the role of instructor several times a day," he says.
Instructor training includes "blind exercises," where one group of students teaches the other a completely new skill. These are especially effective because they force students to use all of their skills, interact with others, and at the same time watch their students' shooting form in a safe environment.[PAGEBREAK]
Patrol Rifle Instruction
One of the NRA's more advanced courses is the patrol rifle program, which students say starts off in high gear and never really downshifts. "This is my favorite school," says Campbell, sporting a grin that already tells his students what he thinks of teaching them ways to improve their shooting and handling of a patrol rifle. Students worked through the basics of field stripping their rifles, loading and unloading with dominant and non-dominant hands, and safely handling their rifles.
"I like to keep this class really fast paced," says Campbell. "We're always concerned about safety, of course, but I want everyone out here giving me 100 percent, all the time. From when the range goes hot until each drill is over, I need to have each officer thinking only of the game at hand."
Campbell takes great amusement from watching the students perform drills that require them to fire their rifles at targets ranging from 3 yards to 50 yards. "I can't say that they'll ever be in a situation where they will have to fire a rifle at three yards," explains Campbell, "but this way, it's not something that is completely foreign to them, and they'll have at least a basic point of reference to fall back on."
The patrol rifle training also requires students to transition between rifle and handgun, a skill that, depending on whether or not you have your rifle slung and your firing position, requires a surprising amount of practice to fully master. "This is a great skill to practice; it's not something that we do all of the time, but I can see where this would be really useful," says student David "Bo" Boesing.
Another drill that Boesing found particularly useful was the shooting from cover exercises. "The instructors put a piece of cover in front of everyone on the firing line, and didn't tell us what to do with it," explains Boesing. "Then our two instructors just stood back and watched to see which students would take the initiative and use the cover to their advantage while firing. It teaches you that you have to think about your surroundings all of the time. Even when you're out on the range, you should look around and figure out where the best cover is."
"We're not here to make it easy on these folks," says Schlernitzauer. "We're not doing our job if we let them get away with not paying attention to each little detail that they need to learn and master."
Campbell concurs, "If we can do something, safely, to add stress to the class, to make them work that much harder, to stay focused on the task at hand, then you better believe we're going to try it. Whether it's the blast of a horn, me shouting something other than the command to fire, or whatnot, it's our job to make these guys think before they act, and make them understand why that process is so important," he says.
One of the most interesting aspects of the patrol rifle class is the low-light firing program. Both instructors agree that students new to this type of training always share the same concern: accuracy.
"But what you find is actually quite the opposite," says Campbell. "In dim light shooting, most of the time, you'll actually see the students' groups getting tighter." Campbell attributes this phenomenon to the fact that low-light conditions force the shooter to concentrate on his or her sights. "In the low-light conditions that we have on this range, all you can see is your front sight and your target. There's really nothing else to focus on and possibly distract you."
Another advanced technique taught during the tail end of the NRA patrol rifle instructor school was the concept of the safety circle. This technique allows an officer armed with a patrol rifle to safely carry it even in a relatively crowded environment by positively ensuring that the muzzle is close to the chest and perpendicular to the ground. While that may sound like a common sense kind of movement, it requires a slightly unusual grasp of the rifle, and new muscle memory.
Some extremely creative student-designed training drills rounded out the week. From incorporating push-ups as a stressor, to making students run up a hill and shoot balloons at up to 50 yards away, to reassembling an already field-stripped patrol rifle, and everything in between, each team managed to devise something that called upon skills learned during the past week.
NRA law enforcement instructor training classes are scheduled across the country, and all-new lesson plans, manuals on CD, and CD training aids are available for sale to law enforcement officers and agencies to help ensure that it's easy to stay current and pass on knowledge to fellow officers back home.
"We provide our students with the manuals, handouts, and targets that they need to complete our courses," says Glen Hoyer, manager of NRA's law enforcement training department. "For $450, or about half the cost of most law enforcement instructor schools in the country, you'll get first-rate instruction, all the information needed to plan your own class, and plenty of new training methods and ideas to stew over."
Closed schools, according to Hoyer, are an even better deal, and may save your department $1,000 or more by training your department or a group that you select all at once. "Closed schools are by far the most economical way to go-if you've got 20 interested students, this is what you want to plan for," he says.