Gunfights happen quickly and often unexpectedly. When an officer has to assess a threat, make a use-of-force decision, then apply that level of force to defend their life or the lives of others, we want their training to be as good as possible. The difficulty is in training fundamental skills for new officers while continuously improving the skills of veteran officers. Once these skills are developed, officers must be challenged to identify their individual skill levels to improve their combative speed and accuracy.
One of the biggest obstacles to improving the speed and accuracy of our officers has been the firearms instructors who run the range. If you’re an instructor, don’t get all puffed up and offended. I’m an instructor, and I take ownership of this problem. If instructors want to be more than a red shirt and a Sharpie, then we need to take ownership of our performance so we can work to improve officers’ skills.
Historically, law enforcement firearms training has been focused on basic marksmanship, precision shooting skills and weapon handling. While these skills are critically important, we have failed to provide more skilled officers with the opportunity to push themselves to “fail safely” and discover their capabilities. Traditionally, law enforcement firearms training has been like someone who does the same workout day after day without pushing themselves. The training works to a point, but it will plateau. Eventually, improvement will slow or cease altogether. Without pushing their limits and testing their performance, they have no idea if the training is effective.
Firearms instructors should allow officers to safely push the boundaries of their “speed limit” to discover their performance boundaries. Instead of ridiculing and embarrassing officers for failing to shoot tight groups, we should be praising those officers, as long as they are pushing the limits of their skill level to improve performance. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: Marksmanship accountability on the street and in training is important, but it shouldn’t limit a shooter’s ability to push their skills and abilities in training to get to the next level of performance.
Developing combative speed requires practice, training and the opportunity to discover your personal performance capabilities. Quick, accurate, fight-stopping hits placed into body parts that stop aggression should be the goal.
A valuable tool for developing combative speed is the addition of a shot timer. Without a shot timer, a draw that feels quick may be slow due to wasted motion. Conversely, a draw that feels slow, but is smooth with no wasted movement, may be quicker. A shot timer does not lie about shooter performance. I’ve heard some instructors argue that there’s no shot timer in a gunfight. I will respectfully disagree. There is a shot timer in almost every gunfight, and it’s being run by the threat. The threat drives the use-of-force decision-making and the timing of the encounter. This means the threat is running the hypothetical shot timer.
I frequently refer to the shot timer as “the delete box.” You can have a game plan going into a course of fire, but as soon as the timer goes off, it’s like someone hit the delete button on the shooter’s brain. The only duress the shot timer provides is a time duress, but the timer puts more stress on shooters than most people will admit. This type of stress in training can be good for our officers. When they learn to perform under stress in training, they know they can perform under stress on the streets. I know the stress from the delete box isn’t the same as life-threatening combat stress, but each step we add in a safe training environment is good for our officers on the street.
Combative accuracy means making hits on your intended target or target zone. Accuracy does not necessarily mean putting one round on top of another. Combative accuracy is hitting a general target zone such as the upper thoracic area. It may also mean using an acceptable, as opposed to a perfect, sight picture, or a flash sight picture.
On the other hand, precision shooting means placing rounds on a very particular spot on the target or putting one round on top of another repeatedly. This means pressing the trigger straight to the rear while attempting to obtain and maintain the “perfect” sight picture. Speed is secondary when precision shooting is required.
Sight picture and alignment are another part of the speed and accuracy equation. Shooters need to be aware of what an acceptable sight picture is based on the context of their gunfight. This can vary depending on the need for accuracy or precision as well as the distance involved. Shooters should be allowed the opportunity to experiment under different distance and lighting conditions to determine an ideal sight picture for the problem they face. The ideal place for doing this is in a training environment where instructors can evaluate the type of sight picture that is necessary to deliver shots that meet the expected accuracy standard. This can reduce the problem of shooters attempting to maintain a “perfect” sight picture while working at combat speed. When it comes to combative speed and accuracy, perfection is the enemy of good enough.
Steel targets are one of the best ways to train and practice shooting well quickly. Steel targets help shooters balance speed and accuracy. In terms of adult learning, steel targets allow the development of shooting skills at the subconscious level of awareness. The subconscious mind can learn to reflexively control the shooting process using positive, instantaneous feedback. The sound and movement generated by the bullet hitting the target provides assurance of combative accuracy.
Too much of law enforcement firearms training focuses on “teaching to the test”: passing qualification. This results in training officers to meet minimum standards instead of preparing them to prevail in a gunfight. Instead, training needs to focus on balancing combative speed and accuracy. In other words, I don’t need you to shoot fast. I need you to shoot well … quickly.