Shooting from a Boat

Unless you're able to have access to the open waters of the ocean, shooting from a boat is virtually impossible. So we have to do the next best thing. We need to duplicate the movement of a boat on a dry land-based range.

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The courts have ruled time and again that our firearms training must be "relevant and realistic." This is why we make our bike patrol officers bring their bicycles to the range. We do the same thing for our mounted units and our K-9 units, requiring them to shoot in the presence of their horses and their dogs. We want these specialized units to be prepared for the environments and conditions they'll find themselves working in on the street.

Yet we do absolutely nothing special for our boat patrol officers. We have them "qualify" on a dry, land-based range and then send them out to do their jobs on the water in a totally different environment than the one they trained or qualified in.

Shooting on dry land is all well and fine, but if you're going to serve on a boat, then you need to qualify on a boat. Many boat officers are going out on patrol unprepared for a deadly force encounter on a waterborne vessel.

This is totally unacceptable. Officers need to be prepared to shoot in the conditions and environments in which they work. And that includes shooting from a bobbing, pitching, and unstable shooting platform if they are going to serve on a boat.

Easier said than done for most of us. The majority of waterborne units in the United States patrol lakes, rivers, and waterways where shooting on the water is either not permitted or there just isn't enough room to provide for a safe backstop. Unless you're able to have access to the open waters of the ocean, shooting from a boat is virtually impossible.

So we have to do the next best thing. We need to duplicate the movement of a boat on a dry land-based range.

Pitching and Rolling

There are certain shooting drills that you can do to simulate the rocking, pitching motion of a boat. The first one, and probably the easiest one, is to simply tie a piece of cord around the neck of a plastic two-liter soda bottle and throw it over a cable, target stand, board, or whatever else you can find to use. Now pull on the cord and watch the bottle move up and down, as if it were a target bobbing on open water.

As the bottle is bobbing up and down and pitching back and forth, have the student shoot it. To add some weight to the bottle and to make it a little more interesting for the student, fill the bottle with water. Now you have a bobbing, reactive target. When the shooter hits the bottle with his or her rounds, the bottle will burst, and the water will go flying through the air, providing instant feedback to the student.

Shake and Bake

In the "shake and bake" drill you'll have shooters and/or students on the firing line and a shooting coach behind them. The shooter will draw his or her firearm, and point it down range at the target. The shooting coach will then grab the shooter's shirt collar, and belt, and simply move the shooter back and forth, and around in a circle, in essence, shaking and baking the shooter. You'll want to move the shooter around just enough so his or her feet don't move, just the upper body.

As the shooter is rocking and pitching back and forth, the instructor gives the command "Fire!" The shooter on the line is responsible for placing an effective shot into the target as he or she is being moved around by the shooting coach. Once you've got this drill down, combine it with the bobbing bottle from the first drill, and you now have a moving shooter, and a moving reactive target.

Inner Tubes

The next exercise for simulating what it's like to shoot from a boat is a little more complex. Go to your local tire repair shop and ask for a donation of about a dozen or so inner tubes. Most places are more than happy to donate a few old inner tubes to your training effort. Lay the inner tubes flat on the ground and lash them together with some cord so they don't come apart during the shooting drill.

Once you've got your inner tubes lashed together, take an old rowboat or small dinghy and set it on top of the tires. Be sure to duct tape off any sharp edges you have on the bottom of the boat first to make the inner tubes last a little longer. Exactly how many inner tubes you use will depend on the size of your boat, but it's always good to have a few spares as well.

You now have a tool for simulating the movement of a boat on the open water. Hop aboard and see for yourself. As you walk around, the boat will move as if you were on the water. Use this set up on your dry range to train your waterborne patrol officers.

Since safety is always our first priority on the range, let's go over some rules when using this boat and inner tube set up. You'll want to avoid shooting while standing upright in the boat; it's just too unstable because the gunwales (side walls) on a rowboat are not high enough to brace against.

For stability, you need to make yourself "part of the boat." Making yourself part of the boat means that when the boat bobs up and down, you'll bob up and down with the boat. Think of the mast on a sailboat. The mast doesn't move independently of the ship. It's attached to the deck, and moves with the ship as it bobs up and down or pitches back and forth. You need to do the same thing to stabilize your shooting platform.

You do this by bracing yourself into the boat. On a patrol boat the gunwales are usually high enough to lock your knees into them to brace yourself into the boat. On a small rowboat, the gunwales are just not high enough. You'll still want to make yourself "part of the boat" by shooting from a kneeling position, leaning into the gunwales of the rowboat. Or you can choose a seated position with your back against one gunwale as you brace your feet against the other gunwale. In some of the smaller boats, you can brace yourself between two of the seats.

As you can probably figure, this makes the small craft want to tip over. This is where your shooting coach comes in again. Have the shooting coach hold onto one side of the boat to stabilize it, but that's not his only job. His other job is to rock the boat to simulate the movements of a real boat on the open water once you've locked yourself into position.

This simulation is not perfect. It's not the same as shooting from a boat on the open water, but it's about as close as you're going to get on dry land, especially if you combine it with the bobbing bottle drill.

Force on Force

All of our live fire range training should be followed up with force-on-force scenarios using either marking rounds such as Simunition or Airsoft. That's pretty hard to do in waterborne training. But it can be done.

Go to your local marina and ask if they have some old "trade ins" that you can use for your force-on-force training. Explain to them exactly how you want to use the boat, and they will probably be more than happy to accommodate you.

If the marina has any old boats that are seaworthy, see if the staff will put them in the water and tie them to the docks so you can practice boarding. As you practice your boarding, have someone rock the boat in the water. If the situation is a shoot scenario, practice bracing your body into the sides of the boat to give yourself a solid shooting platform.

Open Water

If you're fortunate enough to have access to the open ocean, then head out to sea and practice your shooting from the back of the boat. But make sure that you aren't shooting in the direction of other boaters.

Most of you probably don't have access to open ocean. So here's something you can do on a much smaller body of water.

Set up some targets on a small dinghy or build a small target stand on top of one of your inner tubes. Instead of using live rounds, shoot the targets with Simunitions or Airsoft rounds. This way you won't have to worry about your backstop as much as you would with a live round.

One last thing before we close this discussion: As you do your live fire practice on the range and your force-on-force scenarios, you'll notice that you cannot use sighted fire. It's just not going to work, so you'll have to point shoot. If you think for one second that you'll be able to use your sights on a pitching back and forth and bobbing up and down shooting surface, you're only fooling yourself. You'll have to point shoot when firing from a boat.


Michael T. Rayburn is a 30-plus year veteran of law enforcement and is currently an adjunct instructor at the Smith & Wesson Academy. He is the author of four books: "Advanced Vehicle Stop Tactics," "Advanced Patrol Tactics," "Combat Gunfighting," "Combat Shotgun." His video, "Instinctive Point Shooting with Mike Rayburn," is a top seller in the law enforcement and combat shooting communities. Rayburn can be reached by e-mailing the editor at

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