I'm a gun guy. I've had guns for as long as I can remember. When Canada started getting too goofy with its gun laws, I left the country so that I could continue to be a gun guy. When I travel to places where I can t carry a gun, I get sketched out.
That said, I'm not a particularly great shot, so by conventional firearms training standards I'm one of those guys who could benefit (from a pure accuracy perspective) from spending more time at the range. The thing is, I hate going to the range. That's a bit of a contradiction, don't you think? I like having guns, but I hate going to the range.
I'm not all that different, however, from the thousands of men and women who carry a gun every day, except that many of them don't even like guns and would prefer not to carry a gun given the choice. This is a real mystery to me. People get into a profession that requires them to carry a gun (and by extension all that this would entail), yet they despise the device itself and will go to great lengths to avoid its deployment.
I tell you all of this for several reasons. First, here's a guy (me) who likes guns and hates to go to the range. Second, here's a class of people that has to carry guns and hates doing it, hating the range even more than I do. But in both instances, the reality is officers need some measure of proficiency with that firearm. For me, it's necessary in order to have the ability to deliver accurate fire should the day ever come that I have to shoot somebody. For the reluctant officer, it's the same thing, except they are also required by statute to qualify periodically.
I take the prospect of gunfighting very seriously. To my credit, despite not enjoying the whole going to the range thing, I've spent an inordinate amount of time practicing the skills associated with gunfighting. I have a laser simulator (BeamHit) in my home, and I use that to maintain some measure of accuracy periodically. I have a Bullite trainer I use on a fairly regular basis for dry practice. I have a number of AirSoft guns that are identical to the guns I carry, and I regularly (several times a month) practice some tactical skills in the house against simple cardboard boxes about the size of a human torso.
I think tactically. When I go about my day-to-day affairs, I maintain an awareness of my surroundings and play what if in several situations daily, such as filling up my car with gas or sitting in a restaurant or walking around a shopping mall. What if somebody tried to jack me? What are my angles of fire? What s behind them? Where are my positions of advantage? What s my avenue of escape?
Through the what-if game and through a number of close calls, I have made clear decisions in my mind in the vast majority of instances exactly when I would shoot somebody. It s impossible, of course, to prepare for every single situation, but I believe I have the majority of them covered. Whether or not I m prepared to shoot somebody is not the issue. Nor is the question of whether or not my rounds will hit their intended target. I just don t harbor any fantasies of being able to stack one bullet on top of the next, or create a little Mel Gibson smiley face on my target, and I think that trying to set that as the ultimate goal of firearms skills proficiency misses the mark.
This is my long-winded preamble to the main point of this article: I think conventional training and qualification need to be drastically changed or abolished in favor of teaching gunfighting skills. Here s why.
Incomplete Lines of Code
First, uneducated people have a number of preconceptions about guns. Hollywood has done an amazing job of conditioning all kinds of lies about what guns and bullets can do, so many people have an unrealistic expectation about firearms. These misconceptions can only be overcome by education, training and experience. The educational component needs to include hard data gleaned from forensic pathology. Dr. James Williams, author of the soon-to-be-released book Tactical Anatomy, provides some excellent data on what bullets do to bodies as well as where you need to shoot people in order to achieve a reliably devastating effect. Dr. Martin Fackler provided some pivotal work in the wake of the Platt and Matix shooting in Miami in the 1980s that stood the wound-ballistics community on its ear, virtually eviscerating the hallowed Relative Incapacitation Index that had been relied upon for years and years.
I raise the specter of the misconception of what bullets do to bodies because many of the conventional range drills also do not prepare people for the realities of combat. There is often a cadence or prescribed number of rounds fired at an exposed target. Why? There s no prescribed number of rounds necessary to stop an attacker. The correct number of rounds for each attacker is the number necessary to do the job. No more, no less. Range drills, however, often program people to fire a certain number of rounds and then stop, look around and reholster. I was stunned to learn of officers reholstering in the middle of actual gunfights, but then there was no reason to be stunned I d seen it happen countless times during simulations.
This phenomenon is, in fact, highly predictable based on the types of training performed over the years. Drills are experience fragments, small snippets of what we want people to accomplish within the context of larger responses. Those drills provide programming. They program the mind, and they program the body. This type of programming is essential as a building block of future behavior, but too often officers leave training at the building block stage. It doesn t go far enough for integrating those building blocks into the larger structure; i.e., the gunfight. Such building blocks are rogue lines of code, or unfinished sentences. The problem is, within a contextual setting such as an actual gunfight, these experience fragments might be the only response available to officers, which means that after a few shots are fired, while the bad guy remains a threat, the officers put their guns away because that s what the program says you have to do.
It sounds absurd, but this very thing happens during dangerous encounters. When there is sufficient stress on a human being, mental processing at the cognitive level is reduced or eliminated, and all you have left is training and experience, which lives in a different part of the brain. You will not rise to the occasion; you will sink to the level of your training and experience, and if your experience is incomplete, you will provide an incomplete response.
Any type of drilling must be done on purpose. That is, we must teach the dance steps and teach our students how to be fluid when they dance. The steps are the means to the end, not the end in and of itself. Well-intentioned trainers believe that if officers learn the steps, they will be able to put the steps together in a meaningful way during a life-threatening encounter. This is absurd. It s like learning a few phrases of Italian and expecting to be able to carry on a conversation when you get to Italy. At best, in an unstressful situation, you might be able to say something that would translate into I please water drink. But if the waiter is screaming at you in a foreign tongue trying to find out what you want, you d be lucky to even put that simple phrase together.
There was an interesting observation in the field of pilot training. Pilots who trained for critical failures in the simulator learned how to respond well to those situations. When they solved the problem itself, the simulation ended. In the real world, however, it was discovered that during actual emergencies, while the pilot was capable of handling the emergency itself, at the conclusion of the situation they had a difficult time landing the airplane. Now, landing is one of those bread-and-butter things a pilot does all the time, but the handle-the-crisis-land-the-airplane experiential bridge was missing. It was an unfinished line of code; two experiential fragments that did not have a bridge from one to the other during a stressful situation.
Many law enforcement agencies don t have the time, money or organizational will to ensure its officers are fluent in shooting proficiency, let alone gunfighting. So, they set a minimum standard proficiency or qualification to give the agency some documented level of proficiency on the books should it ever be called into question. But qualified for what? It certainly isn t qualified for gunfighting, which is the point of carrying a gun in the first place.
Much range training prepares officers simply for shooting on the range. It s a linear environment. There s little opportunity to think, only do. And what do we do? Shoot from a static position in a single direction with little real regard for cover, with our body in a position you would not want to adopt to protect you from incoming fire. It s an ancient standard based on flawed information the training community had more than 50 years ago.
The high priests of firearms proficiency would have you believe that if you don t have a perfect sight picture and apply the correct amount of pressure to the grip and the trigger while in a special stance, the bullets will not hit the target. Probably true for precision marksmanship, but that isn t the type of shooting you will do in a gunfight. Now, before you lose your mind and start droning on about precision skills forming the foundation of any effective shooter, I ll give you the point that if you don t have some measure of precision-shooting training, you re less likely to be successful in a gunfight, especially at a distance. But let s not spend every available minute trying to beat that horse to death. And as for distance, most gunfights take place at very close range, so doing the drills necessary to deliver accurate fire at those ranges is baby stuff.
What s missing is time on trigger and time on target. I contend that we can teach the marksmanship basics in a relatively short amount of time. Once these basics are understood and practiced a bit, let s spend the rest of the time running gunfighting drills. This cannot, of course, be done with conventional weapons and ammunition. That would get somebody killed. Lasers, AirSoft guns, NLTA weapons and other types of simulation systems are perfect for this sort of thing, especially when teaching new shooters. Any non-cartridge based, realistic weapon replicator is excellent for drilling, but stick with cartridge-based technologies for the higher-level scenarios please.
I had a firearms instructor approach me recently and tell me he has people who become physically ill when they come to the range and hear the steel plates clang into position. Well, where does he think that came from? Coming to the range for many officers is a terrifying proposition. In some agencies, if you don t qualify, you forfeit the ability to be a police officer until you can. That s a cheery notion that will have all of the weak shooters skipping happily to the range. The fear they feel is a conditioned response to an emotionally significant event. It s easy to understand how this happened.
Let s travel back in time to the first time you ever held a gun. For some, it was an exhilarating experience. For others, a frightfully dreadful one. You take a mysterious and dangerous piece of metal and put it in the hand of a new recruit. Then, when they fire it for the first time, it makes a big noise, jumps in their hand and sends hot brass back at their face as the slide moves quickly toward their eyes. We have three innate fears as humans: loud noises, sudden approach and falling. Two of the three occur during a person s first terrifying experience with a handgun. Then they miss the target. Fear, failure, emotions, peer pressure a toxic brew that can have lasting effects.
I believe we need to take a building-block, success-based approach to teaching shooting skills. Make it fun. Demystify it. Turn it into entertrainment. Start them close to the target with bigger targets. Eventually, after early successes, you can make it harder farther away, smaller targets. Now it s challenging and fun, and they build on their successes. Next, begin running drills against other people. None of the win/lose stuff, just lots and lots of experience pulling out a pistol, lining it up with another human being and pulling the trigger. Give them an AirSoft gun and a bunch of cardboard boxes to take home. Turn their house into a shooting gallery. When nobody is watching, people try out that dance step or try to hit the high note in that Rolling Stones song. Guided practice sessions away from the watchful eye of the firearms instructor can be amazing. You end up challenging yourself to get better and faster.
Will this work for everybody? Nope. But for the majority of those it does work for, the results will be spectacular.
I think the time is coming when conventional forms of range training and qualification itself will be a thing of the past, and it should be. We need gunfighters out there, not Olympic marksmen, and many of the very things you do during precision shooting are likely to get you killed in a gunfight.
Over the next couple of years, I hope to work with the luminaries of the firearms world to change the way training is done in an effort to better prepare officers to think their way through a gunfight and have the skills necessary to win them. As with so many other aspects of reality based training, this is a simple proposition, but simple isn t always easy, and it s going to take a lot of personal introspection on the part of current firearms instructors in order to change that outdated qualification paradigm.
Until next time, train hard and train safe.