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Although most agencies supply their officers with basic firearms training, there are reasons that law enforcement officers are some of the most active attendees of specialized gun training academies.

Although most agencies supply their officers with basic firearms training, there are reasons that law enforcement officers are some of the most active attendees of specialized gun training academies. Law enforcement training budgets rise and fall with the political climate. A controversial officer-involved shooting, a police officer killed in the line of duty, or a simple budget shortfall can make the administrators and the politicians increase, alter, or cut back on your range time and your survival training.

Training cutbacks often come at the least opportune times. Consider that in the wake of the recession, the 9-11 tragedies, and the subsequent drop in business travel and tourism, many city budgets are constricting. The resultant trickle down effect from these events has stung police budgets significantly, and as is their usual MO, administrators set their sights on training funds first. This comes at a time when the public demands the most professional police response and when officers feel the most threatened by a rogue's gallery of terrorists (both domestic and foreign), narcotics traffickers, and active shooters in schools and businesses.

Even in the best of economic times, a strong, tactically based firearms program is difficult for the majority of police departments to sustain. Some departments have a vigorous firearms training program. But many do not.

Such disparity in firearms training makes it hard for many of us in law enforcement to maintain our professional edge. We refer to ourselves as professionals and rightfully so. But it is our responsibility as professionals to maintain the skills necessary to do our jobs; to protect and serve the people we raised our right hands and swore that we would, and to return to our homes and families after each shift in relatively the same condition as when we left them.

If you want to hone your survival skills, there are a lot of great firearms training opportunities available. But be warned these programs will cost you a buck or two. Quality firearms training doesn't come cheap; so break out that crow bar, Halligan tool, or in some cases the Jaws-of-Life and pry open your wallet.

Some of the best training programs specialize in a crossover mix of law enforcement, military, government paramilitary professional, and civilian training. But it's hard to generalize about these programs because there are hundreds of them out there. It seems like half the retired range masters in the United States have opened up their own schools and developed Websites promoting their shooting philosophies.

For the purposes of this article, we're going to concentrate on the "biggies." The following is a roundup of firearms training centers that have been in the business for a while and have reputation for excellence within the "training community" throughout the United States and the world. Note: Each of these providers not only has its own facilities, but will also take its programs on the road and conduct training sessions with its instructors at your facility.

Blackwater Training Center
Camden, N.C.

Gary Jackson, Chief Operating Officer of Blackwater Training Center, says its core philosophy is to provide a variety of modern, safe ranges; supply instruction that is realistic and practical; and staff its instructor core with professional and knowledgeable teachers.

Blackwater's ranges are spectacular, including a 1,200-yard known distance rifle range with 20 firing line positions. The range is set up with firing lines every 100 yards and a military-style cantilever Butts Target System. Additionally, Blackwater provides students with seven interactive ranges, including a Hogan's Alley; a Simunition City with 14,746 square feet of buildings; and R.U. Ready High School, a mockup for simulation and force-on-force training.

Jim Sierawski, Blackwater's director of training, brings 20 years of Navy experience as a SEAL and four years of patrol experience with the Virginia Beach, (VA.) Police Department to the job. Drawing on his own training, Sierawski has designed courses to meet the particular needs of
police officers that feature special tactics and strategies to resolve incidents.

In addition to its regular set courses, Blackwater is famous for its custom courses. You tell the staff what you want and the days you want to do it, and they will put together a training course designed specifically for you and your group.

Front Sight Firearms Training Institute
Las Vegas, Nev.

The 550-acre Front Sight complex lies just outside Las Vegas and offers some of the finest training facilities and target systems available. The site includes 6,000 square feet of classrooms, a pro shop, 12 shooting ranges (from 25 to 150 yards), a 400-yard rifle range, nine 360-degree live-fire simulators, an underground training simulator with over 400 yards of tunnels, and a rapelling facility.

The owner and founder of Front Sight, Ignatius Piazza, was not a competitive shooter, law enforcement officer, military man, or range master. Prior to 1988, he was just your average civilian gun enthusiast. Then something pushed him to the limit.

One evening, a group of thugs drove through Piazza's neighborhood and blasted away at everything they could in what appeared to be an attempt to destroy a quiet family neighborhood full of the fruits of a decent work ethic. He was struck, not with a bullet, but with the realization that although he owned firearms and shot them regularly at the range, he was never taught the skills required to use a gun when it is needed most; to defend his life and the life of his family. This epiphany started Piazza on a quest for training.

Piazza studied under the "Father of Modern Pistolcraft," Col. Jeff Cooper. And after many courses and thousands of hours of practice over a three year period, he held Cooper's not easily acquired signature on expert certificates in special pistol, shotgun, carbine, and rifle courses. Col. Cooper's teachings inspired Piazza to reach out to others and the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute was born.

Gunsite Academy
Paulden, Ariz.

Located on 1,000 acres of Arizona desert some 25 miles north of Prescott, Gunsite Academy has been dedicated to providing the highest quality adult education in the practical use of small arms and tactical training for the civilian, law enforcement, and military special operations communities for more than 24 years.

Gunsite was founded by the Guru of "The Modern Technique of the Pistol," Colonel John Dean "Jeff" Cooper, and it adheres strictly to his philosophy of the "Combat Triad," defined as "marksmanship," "gun-handling," and "mindset."

Marksmanship in the Gunsite Combat Triad means simply hitting what you aim at. Of the three points of the triangle, it's the simplest to teach and achieve.[PAGEBREAK]

Gun-handling by Gunsite's definition is the ability to administer to a weapon, i.e. knowing how to load it, unload it, and clear malfunctions. One of the goals of the Gunsite program is for the shooter to know his or her specific weapon and how to do these operations without thinking about them, so that the motions become automatic. In a crisis situation, it is far better to be able to focus your mind on the immediate problem, letting administrative functions take care of themselves.

Gunsite also stresses that the proper mindset is absolutely critical, and more important than marksmanship or gun handling. Being aware of your surroundings and being mentally ready to defend yourself, if necessary, will save crucial seconds should an emergency ever present itself. Mindset in terms of the Gunsite philosophy is deciding that you will fight to protect yourself if necessary, and then promising yourself that you will keep a certain level of awareness "on" at all moments.

The Combat Triad is Gunsite's fountainhead philosophy. Every course draws inspiration from and emphasizes the elements of the philosophy.

Heckler & Koch International Training
Sterling, Va.

Heckler & Koch's International Training Division is dedicated to one single overriding objective: officer survival.

The HK regimen is firmly rooted in the cutting-edge, real-world capabilities of its instructors. The lessons taught at HK are not based on theoretical assumption, but on the instructors' extensive street experience and well-honed survival skills. At HK, they train you to handle the situation, not just the weapon. That critical difference can mean life or death for the military or law enforcement professional.

HK has one of the most impressive cadres of instructors in the world, including:

  • Fred Yates, a retired U.S. Army and law enforcement veteran who has extensive special operations experience in the Army Rangers and Special Forces, as a patrol officer, and as an S.R.T. team leader. Yates has trained SWAT teams worldwide.
  • Bob Schneider, a 21-year veteran of the Denver Police Department, who was assigned to the Department's full-time SWAT team for 18 years and logged over 1000 activations. Schneider has trained hundreds of military special operations units, federal, state, and local law enforcement officers as well as personnel from the U.S. Department of Energy.
  • Andrew "Skip" Pavlischak, a retired Spokane Police officer with 27 years of service. A Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, Pavlischak has 26 years of experience as a SWAT team member, team leader, and commander in a full-time SWAT position. He assisted in the formation of the Washington State Tactical Officers Association and is a past president. He also worked as a Gang Unit Leader and in the Special Investigations Narcotics Unit.
  • Mark Kunnath, a veteran with 20 years of service with the Detroit Police Department, including duties with the Department's Executive Protection Unit. Kunnath was an entry team leader and has extensive experience in high-risk warrant service and narcotics operations.
  • John T. Meyer, Jr., HK's vice president of sales and international training and an authority on tactical training for police and special operations units. Meyer has created a variety of leading-edge SWAT training courses, and he was a Lieutenant with the DOD police, where he served as a special reaction team leader.

Thunder Ranch
Mountain Home, Texas

Owned and operated by Clint Smith, Thunder Ranch is a 3,200-acre world-class firearms training academy in the Texas hill country east of Kerrville. The Ranch offers state-of-the-art training facilities, including classroom instruction, single- and multiple-story concrete shooting simulators, and several precision and urban rifle ranges with simulators, as well as pistol and shotgun ranges.

Thunder Ranch provides its clients with opportunities to explore, expand, and apply personal knowledge gained in the use of small arms and tactics in environments often limited to governmental agencies and in most cases never before available to the private sector or conventional law enforcement personnel. The Ranch's style of low-key but focused instruction makes it unusual in the genre. Most schools lean toward a competitive "hard" angle, forcing competition between students. Smith's concept is that students should be concentrating on honing their techniques and learning new ideas, not competing with fellow students.

A week spent at the school makes the difference obvious. A relaxed air is in place, yet the expectation to excel on a personal and team level is simply the norm. It's rare that you can see a successful mix of law enforcement, military, and civilians (often husbands and wives) on the same line, but it happens at Thunder Ranch.

The driving force behind the Ranch and its doctrines is Clint Smith's real-world experience as a combat infantryman in Vietnam, as a police officer, and his decades of work as one of the world's foremost firearms trainers. Smith's experience has been the touchstone for building innovative training ideas.

A recent class at Thunder Ranch included 20 students who had previously been to the Ranch more than 100 times. There must be a reason for that. It could be that Smith is the type of person you can count on to tell you exactly what you need to know. For example, he basically invented the concept of "Urban Rifle" training as it is done today. And with the need for police officers to increasingly play the role of light infantry in many situations, courses like Thunder Ranch's Urban Rifle are more important then ever.

It is critical in law enforcement to keep an edge. Advanced firearms programs offer an opportunity to accomplish just that. Do yourself, your partner, your spouse, your kids, even your mom and dad a favor and attend one of the classes available to you. It could save your life or the life of another. You might even be able to pass your newly acquired knowledge on to that new kid in your squad and impact further generations of cops down the road. Now that's a legacy.[PAGEBREAK]Tactical Firearms Training Programs

There are many providers of tactical firearms training. The following is just a short list of some of the better known programs in the United States and Canada.

American Small Arms Academy

The Armory

Blackwater Training Center

Chapman Academy of Practical Shooting

Crucible Security Specialists

Firearms Training Academy of Seattle

Glock International


Front Sight

Heckler & Koch International Training

InSights Training Center

International Academy of Tactical Training Systems

International Tactical Training Seminars

Lethal Force Institute

Options for Personal Security

Protac Global

Rural Urban Tactical Training

Semper Fi International

SiG Arms Academy

The Site

Smith & Wesson Training Academy

Specialized Tactical Training Unit

Suarez International

Surgical Shooting Institute

Tactical Shooting Academy

Thunder Ranch

Dave Douglas is a sergeant on the San Diego Police Department with 25 years of service. He works with firearms training in the in-services training division.

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