How to Improve Marksmanship

History has shown over and over again that merely shooting a set course of fire, or qualification course, will not truly prepare you for an armed confrontation. Yet, agencies continue to schedule officers for firearms qualification only three to four times a year. Is it any wonder why our hit ratio in gunfights hovers at 20 percent?

Think of yourself as an NFL quarterback. You have spent a great deal of time honing your natural ability, having played football in high school, college, and now the pros. Natural ability is what it takes to make it this far, as only so much skill can be developed through practice. But at the same time, practice is a necessity as skills can decline over time and the only way to keep them sharp is to use and practice them.

One day, the team's owner walks in and says, "Revenue is down and the only way that I can see us making ends meet is to cut back on practice time. Effective immediately, you will only be able to practice throwing the football three to four times a year."

With all of this natural ability, how well do you think you, although a talented athlete, will be able to hit your receiver if you only practice throwing the ball three to four times a year?

As ridiculous as this sounds, it is exactly how we in American law enforcement conduct firearms training. Oh, sure, agencies are quite successful in getting officers "qualified," but just how successful are they at getting them trained to really engage in close-quarter combat with a handgun?

History has shown over and over again that merely shooting a set course of fire, or qualification course, will not truly prepare you for an armed confrontation. Yet, agencies continue to schedule officers for firearms qualification only three to four times a year. Is it any wonder why our hit ratio in gunfights hovers at 20 percent?

In the interest of being fair, there are many agencies that just cannot afford to train their officers more than a few times a year. Large agencies may want to give more firearms training to their people, but there are just not enough hours in the day or days in the year to get everyone to the range. At this point, it will be up to each agency to decide what should be addressed in this limited program and how the content will best serve the agency and its officers.

Department Responsibility

Liability is certainly a concern to police administrators-and it should be. Agency budgets are stretched to the max and the loss of a major lawsuit can be devastating to small and large agencies alike. But we must ask ourselves, "What is our liability when we send officers to the street who really can't shoot?" Certainly these officers are not only a danger to themselves and their fellow officers, but may even be a bigger danger to the public they serve.

Take a moment to visualize a scenario in which an officer must draw his gun in defense of his life or the life of another. Shots are exchanged and not only can't the officer hit his opponent well enough to stop the threat, but he misses the suspect and kills an innocent citizen who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Will your agency's qualification program stand up to the legal scrutiny that such a circumstance will generate?

If enhancing departmental marksmanship, or what would be better termed as combat weaponcraft skills, is not of a concern to you or your agency, it should be. In today's litigious society, if someone in your agency is involved in a shooting the officer and the agency will be sued. Count on it. Be prepared for it.

Several decades ago, a federal court decision titled Popow v. Margate established the criteria that agencies must adhere to when training their officers with firearms. The decision was quite clear in that firearms training must go beyond mere qualification. The program must include such things as shooting at moving targets, in reduced light, in crowded areas, i.e. situations that mimic actual working conditions for the officer. Meeting this daunting task falls to the skill and ingenuity of the firearms instructor(s) employed by each agency.

The Right Instructor

I feel that there is a serious difference between a "firearms instructor" and a "range officer." This is not necessarily reflected in your agency's titles. These are the definitions I believe should be used for terms we tend to use interchangeably, and not always accurately. According to my definition, a firearms instructor is someone who can watch a shooter and diagnose-yes, diagnose-what the shooter is doing wrong and correct it. A range officer is nothing more than a qualification officer who stands on the line and scores targets. Range officers have no idea how to improve a shooter and, all too often, don't even care. This is not the type of person you want taking the stand in defense of your agency and training program in the event of a lawsuit.

A firearms instructor is someone who has the skill and ability to take his or her students to a facility that is less than desirable and still get results with a meaningful program. This same person can also take the stand in defense of both an agency and its program and articulate its validity.

I have seen some terrific, actually ingenious, ideas come from small agency firearms instructors who train in gravel pits or creek beds. I've also seen a few large agency instructors become totally lost if they don't have their pneumatic turning or pop-up targets, simulation systems, laser guns, or some other high-tech piece of equipment they have come to rely on.

This being said, the first step to enhancing combat weaponcraft agencywide is to get one or more good firearms instructors. Don't pick the best hunter or the most senior officer on the department; pick an officer who really wants the job. Such enthusiasm will translate into a person who will go the extra mile by reading about and seeking training on his or her own time, as well as networking with other instructors and surfing the Internet for more information.

At the same time, don't let this officer go stale. Send him or her to training beyond what is required by your state to be certified as a firearms instructor. Conferences such as those held annually by the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers (ASLET) and the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) are an excellent way for an instructor to network, receive new information, and to generally "recharge the batteries." IALEFI holds smaller regional training conferences across the country for the express purpose of reaching a greater number of instructors and keeping them up to date with new ideas.

Private shooting schools such as Thunder Ranch, Gunsite, and the Tactical Defense Institute, among others, are an excellent way for your agency's firearms instructor to receive up-to-date training in shooting techniques and tactics. (See "Centers of Higher Learning," Police April 2002, page 42.) Remember, trainers must be trained, too.

There are a number of traveling instructors that will come to your location, provided you can supply enough students to make the trip worthwhile to them. John Farnum of Defense Training International, Massad Ayoob of the Lethal Force Institute, and the Heckler & Koch International Training Division are probably the best known.[PAGEBREAK]

Teach the Basics

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

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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