During live-fire training, officers pull the trigger and experience the round leaving the barrel, recoil and malfunctions the same way they do on the street.
"It's always best to train as close to reality as possible, using your own weapon and the same ammunition that your department uses," says John Wills, a retired, 21-year FBI veteran.
But in these tough economic times, law enforcement knows that training, "the lifeblood of an agency," is often the first to take a hit.
"When you discontinue training, officers are forced to stop and think about what they're doing it's not instinctive or intuitive anymore," says Wills, who has taught street survival to both police and military officers all over the world. "In law enforcement, that hesitation is dangerous."
In addition to tough economic times, Wills says ammunition costs and availability have been adversely influenced by the war in Iraq. These factors have added to the challenges of conducting live-fire training.
Although nothing beats the real thing, firearms training simulators using weapons (including shotguns and automatic rifles) from firearms manufacturers come close. Some agencies have started using firearms training simulators in qualification courses. Wills says that practice is becoming more common. It's easy to do because an agency can create its own qualification course right in the simulator.
Although all qualification courses shouldn't be conducted using a simulator, Wills suggests at least one could be done using a simulator, which may save agencies money. Ammunition used with simulators costs more (about $300 for 50 rounds), but the simulator rounds can be used again more than 300 times, he estimates. "You can train using firearms simulators 365 days a year without having to continually buy ammunition," says Wills.
Simulators Save Time Too
"With a simulator, you can take a cop off the street during their lunch period for 30 minutes, give 'em a five-minute marksmanship warm-up session, three scenarios and they've essentially had the same training that a metropolitan police agency has had, all this utilizing a single instructor," Wills says.
Wills lists other benefits:
New recruits can also benefit from simulator training. Wills advises going over marksmanship basics and testing the ability of new recruits to shoot accurately in the safe environment of a training simulator first.
"A department can safely conduct an introductory firearms session for new recruits without spending a penny on ammo," he says. "Once they're given the orientation and are deemed safe, they can proceed to live-fire training."
One disadvantage of simulators is that the degree to which officers benefit from using them depends on how they feel about the simulator. If an instructor can't convince an officer to accept the training as reality, the maximum benefit won't be attained.
Simulator technology continues to advance, and as the technology advances, the training becomes even more realistic. For example, holograms make figures seem more life-like, while live-fire configurations allow shooting through permeable screens.
Wills says agencies should strongly consider making simulators an adjunct to live-fire training. "The initial expenditure for purchasing a system will more than pay for itself through the years, not only in terms of dollars spent, but in lives saved."