Whenever you bring a firearm into a citizen contact, there is the potential to find yourself in a life or death struggle for your weapon. Therefore, it is your responsibility to maintain constant situational awareness and employ sound tactics.
In discussing weapon retention, we should not limit our perspective to handguns or firearms. A suspect who takes away an officer's electronic control device or impact weapon clearly poses a potentially lethal threat. Fortunately, the concepts and principles are the same for impact weapon retention, shoulder weapon retention, and other force option weapons we have in our control.
The Traditional Approach
Traditionally, handgun retention techniques are taught as a series of prescribed, sequential movements designed to enable officers to maintain possession of their guns and overcome aggressors. But given the number of possible takeaways aggressors can attempt, developing prescribed retention techniques to counter each variation becomes overwhelming to both teach and learn.
Retention of the techniques themselves is another problem. Recently, deputies were evaluated on their performance of 12 defensive tactics tasks. Most were able to perform as they were trained, but when they got to holstered handgun retention, the results were not the same. Everyone tried to perform as he or she was taught, but the deputies struggled to remember the sequence of the prescribed movements to execute the technique from start to finish. This resulted in hesitation, loss of balance, and ineffective or incorrect application of techniques.
Teaching techniques from a static position ignores the dynamic, aggressive, and unstable reality of a determined aggressor. Environmental factors may also limit our ability to move in certain directions or execute certain aspects of prescribed techniques.
Lastly, virtually all gun retention techniques involve only one aggressor. But what happens when you encounter multiple aggressors? The two-on-one exercise in our academy-level sustained resistance test provides the answer: The aggressors usually take away the officer's gun and anything else they can strip from the officer's belt.
Will any one technique or combination thereof cover all possible variations of attack? No. Will all attacks be initiated while we are standing in a bladed stance with the aggressor making a singular movement that we can instantly counter? Extremely unlikely. Will there always be only one aggressor? No. Do officers spend enough time practicing their present handgun retention techniques to bring them to a level of reflexive response? Sadly, the answer to that question is also no.
A Modified Approach
Often, the techniques we teach fail to address fully the reality of a violent, unpredictable attack aimed at taking away an officer's gun. Attacks are varied and unpredictable; our responses must be the same. The key is to balance structured techniques with options and variation.
When we look at traditional handgun retention techniques, we can identify common elements that provide the framework for a different, more effective approach that I call the POINT method: Protect, Orient, Initiate, Neutralize, and Threat Assessment.
Each component of this method includes a variety of techniques that are used to accomplish the main objective. Most of the individual techniques are already contained within your existing training program and can be put into practice in the context of gun retention.
Let's look at each of the components.
This is perhaps the most essential component of the POINT method. Protect your gun, preferably while it is still in its holster. Some specific techniques you can use are:
Evasive footwork/body movement
Striking techniques using personal body weapons
Countergrab and control of the aggressor's gripping hand
Deploying other force options, including firearms
If a simple evasive maneuver doesn't suffice, you may immediately strike the aggressor, preventing the aggressor from establishing a grip on your gun. You could deploy another force option such as an impact weapon in conjunction with evasive footwork and body movement, before the aggressor gets a grip on your weapon. Should the aggressor establish a grip on your gun, you can use one or both hands to control or "lock down" the aggressor's hands, preventing him or her from removing the gun from its holster. There are a wide variety of techniques that you can use to accomplish this objective. The one you choose will be driven by each individual situation.
Once you have provided for the initial protection of your gun, you must orient yourself in relation to your aggressor(s) and your environment.
This means establishing a position from which to initiate a counterattack, disengage, or escape. In the case of a static reach and grab attempt, a simple step to a balanced stance may suffice. If the aggressor tackled you by surprise from behind and established a grip on your gun while pinning you to the ground, a simple "step to a forty-five degree angle" is out of the question. Some specific techniques for orienting yourself in relation to your aggressor(s) are:
- Footwork to establish your balance
- Body movement such as a sprawl or guard position
You should begin to orient yourself as soon as you have protected your weapon; the two may occur simultaneously.
Once you have protected and oriented yourself, you must initiate control or disengage and/or escape from your attacker. Counterattacks are varied. Use takedown and throwing techniques, striking techniques, or any combination of the two.
Attack the most readily available targets on the aggressor or those that will facilitate a desired reaction. What's important is to allow yourself to reflexively respond, rather than try to force a series of scripted movements that are not practical. Techniques you can use to initiate control or escape include:
Neutralizing an aggressor in a gun retention situation means gaining control over the aggressor and rendering him incapable of further attack. Common sense and statistics tell us we can assume lethal consequences for the officer who loses his firearm to an aggressor. Therefore, when an aggressor tries to take your gun, you must neutralize him.
Conceivably, verbal commands followed by a handcuffing technique might accomplish this objective. Realistically, debilitating strikes or joint manipulation techniques, followed by handcuffing would be more appropriate. The aggressor may create a situation where the best option for survival is to maintain control over the weapon and use it to neutralize the aggressor. Neutralizing techniques include:
Joint manipulation techniques
Impact weapon techniques
Less-lethal force option techniques
Just as you train to scan and assess threats after firing your weapon, you must do the same once you have neutralized your aggressor. Reassess the aggressor, the environment, and other potential aggressors. Threat assessment ideally precedes action, but we do not always have that luxury. Additionally, threat assessment may occur at any time during a weapon retention encounter, but should always occur after neutralizing. If you identify additional threats, from your initial aggressor or others, you must take the appropriate action.
Training in the POINT method of weapon retention involves a two-step process.
The first step is a presentation and discussion of the nature of weapon retention encounters. A thorough, focused discussion of the unpredictable, dynamic, aggressive, and critical nature of weapon retention incidents, bolstered by analysis of specific incidents, will lay an appropriate foundation for the training method.
The second step involves instruction in the specific techniques you can utilize to accomplish each component of POINT. The trainers must identify, demonstrate, and instruct their students in each applicable technique for each component.
The instruction should include learner repetition and as close to full-speed application as is safe. Safety equipment for both the trainer and the learner should include adequate floor mats, protective head gear and mouthpieces, protective impact suits such as RedMan or FIST suits, and training weapons such as hard rubber handguns, training batons, and impact weapons.
As you progress through the components, you comprehensively cover virtually all aspects of your defensive tactics program: stance and footwork, striking techniques, takedowns, ground control, control holds, joint manipulations, other force option weapons, and handcuffing. This provides an excellent opportunity for you to review and enhance these skill sets.
Developing proficiency in manipulative skills such as defensive tactics and firearms requires proper instruction and sufficient repetition. The true test of those skills comes when you are under stress, both physical and mental. In the POINT training method, the utilization of safety equipment for unrehearsed attacks and applications of defensive techniques provides the requisite physical and mental stress. Training at this level instills confidence and cultivates the warrior mindset and spirit so critical to officer survival.
Nothing in the POINT method of training implies lack of training and development of specific techniques. Rather it is the prescription of those techniques we want to free ourselves from.
We need to teach specific techniques such as footwork, stances, striking techniques, control holds, joint manipulations, escape techniques, and takedowns. Most every academy's or agency's defensive tactics training program covers these sufficiently. However, when it comes to weapon retention, we need a training method that recognizes and addresses the dynamic, uncertain, and changing nature of combat; a method that allows us to utilize the skills we've trained in but gives us the tactical mindset to most effectively use those skills.
Weapon retention training should be viewed comprehensively. Whether an aggressor is trying to take your handgun from your holster, hand, or shoulder holster, or your impact weapon or electronic control device, your reaction should be the same: Protect, Orient, Initiate, Neutralize, and Threat Assess. Since the POINT method of training doesn't mandate specific techniques to accomplish each component, it is flexible and adaptable to retention training of other weapons and is a valuable addition to any defensive tactics training program.
Sgt. Jim Harbison is the Basic Academy Coordinator at the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Office of the Sheriff Law Enforcement Training Center, where he teaches defensive tactics and physical fitness.