Tactical Shooting: How to find the right tactical shooting system for your agency
By Paul Howe
When looking for a tactical shooting system for your agency, several important factors should be considered. First, the system should go from dry-fire, to range-fire, to SIMS, to live-fire close quarter battle, (CQB) to combat (street or tactical encounter) with no changes and be accomplished in a safe manner. Too many systems have limitations and problems when making the transition across the spectrum of shootings we encounter. Most systems will fit only a few scenarios, creating glitches in a streamlined system. Your dry-fire and range-fire procedures should compliment your CQB tactics and work in a street or tactical encounter. If they do not, you’re making things too complicated. Remember, simple is best.
Selecting a System
If your shooting system will not consistently work in a low-stress, flat range environment, it will not work in a fast-moving street or tactical encounter. The system you select should work in duty gear, concealed carry (undercover) and in tactical gear. If it doesn’t, you’ll waste valuable time and energy changing components to fit your job description. Your ready position (with either pistol or rifle) should be safe and usable in any situation. A low-ready position with the shoulder weapon’s muzzle below your belt line will work and allow maximum visual angle for discrimination purposes.
Think about this, “do you see first or do you shoot first?” The answer is always the same, you must see before you shoot. This practice, (seeing before shooting) will set the stage for proper discrimination, which I’ll discuss in more detail later. For the handgun, I promote one ready shooting position–the high ready. The weapon is kept in tight for retention, enhancing your ability to scan. This position can be used in CQB and in tube targets, such as buses or aircraft. You may carry your weapon at the low ready while in the stack, but when you’re on point or ready to shoot, your pistol should be at high ready.
Adopting a Standard
How many people go into a gym and just throw steel around without a workout plan? Obviously, not many. The same rule applies to shooting. You should have a plan to ensure you’re getting the most from your range time. I generally start out with dry-fire. Yes, even on a flat range. It costs nothing and cultivates good habits. Next, I shoot my standards, 10 basic drills that cover the fundamentals of tactical shooting. My standards require 25 rounds of ammunition to complete. I use a shooting timer and a standard IPSC target to score hits. Anything out of the “A” box is considered a miss. I use a time standard, coupled with an accuracy standard to pass the drill.
After shooting the standards, I note which drills I failed–those are the first drills I work on during my subsequent practice. The use of time/accuracy standards will let you know your strong and weak points in short order. Besides pistol standards, I shoot 10 rifle standards, all starting from the low-ready position. Many of these drills came from John Shaw and Mid-South Institute. I analyzed and modified them to fit what I consider tactical or combat shooting. Originally, these standards were developed for the 1911-style pistol and reloads. You can modify them as you see fit to accommodate your equipment, such as magazine pouches and holsters. They begin with one shot from the ready in one second and move to one shot from the holster in 1.5 seconds. Two shots, six shots, multiple targets, reloads and several other core drills are covered.
Point Shooting or Sighted Fire? Which Works all the Time?
I usually get cornered a couple of times a year by someone asking me at what distance I use my sights? My reply: I use them from 0-300 meters or, as far away as the target is. Routinely, they relay a shooting situation that they were involved in and talk about how many rounds were “lost” during the incident. I won’t knock point shooting, but I will make a few points.
First, I don’t believe you can consistently replicate the stress you will be under in a gunfight on a flat range. Your muscles will be different from the first shot to the last, similar to the difference you feel before or after your weight training workout. All good shooting requires is being consistent and doing the same thing every time. Next, if you practice point shooting and also practice using your sights, you’re using two systems. Remember, we need to use one system that will handle all situations. I believe point shooting requires less mental discipline than using your sights. So when it comes to a high-stress situation, which system will your mind revert to–the easy way or the disciplined way? Unfortunately being human, you’ll probably revert to the easy method, which is point shooting. I don’t think your mind will say, “it’s under 10 yards, so it’s time to use my sights.” You’ll simply revert to one of two systems and generally that will be point shooting.
Many of the tactical team shootings I have read about in the last year show a 20% hit ratio for tactical team engagements. This is poor at best. This means that we are losing 80% of our rounds downrange into the community or into other officers. Furthermore, I don’t know how someone can go into court and say, “my position felt good. I don’t know why my rounds missed?”
During my time working as a special ops instructor, we had a shelf with old handouts and miscellaneous articles. While rummaging through piles of paper, I remember finding what I consider to be the best set of shooting rules that apply to tactical shooting.
System Safety Practices
I preach the use of the mechanical safety if your weapon has one. I received an informative after-action comment from an officer in a recent hostage rescue class. He told me that during one of the scenarios, he made the attempt to shoot a hostage, (unarmed of course) but because I had made him employ the mechanical safety, it didn’t allow the weapon to discharge. During training, I routinely put officers in high-stress scenarios and make them think and discriminate. Out of the eight scenarios they run, we routinely have two or three unarmed hostages take fire. Not a good ratio. While I always hear the complaint that “if I had the safety on, I would not be alive today,” it doesn’t wash with me. I can cite a great deal of accidental shootings where officers and special ops guys shot themselves, their partners and other innocent folks because they failed to use the mechanical safety. If you train with it on the range, it will work in a high-stress scenario. As teams evolve and begin doing advanced multiple breach point operations, it is crucial that the mechanical safety be used.
Through intense training, we’ve been taught to shoot faster than we can think–this is dangerous! We must bring our discrimination skills up to the same level as our shooting skills. When looking at shooting systems, be sure to notice what drills are employed to help officers develop their discrimination process. If nothing is available in this area, be cautious of the information. Discrimination is a critical safety value for speed shooting.
In several instances, officers relayed how it happened: They looked for the weapon, spotted it, went to center mass and pulled the trigger, all while their mind was searching “what’s wrong with this picture?” They generally get off one round, their brain catches up and they realize they are engaging a friendly officer. Some commanders will label this as an inherent danger of multi-breach point or window “break and rake” operations. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a weak or nonexistent discrimination process.
Regardless of the manner in which you were taught to discriminate, you must be able to change. During my service in special operations, we were taught to look at the hands first (as were many law enforcement officers). In combat, this practice caused problems when operators were shooting faster than they could think. They would look at the gun, go to center mass and launch rounds, only to find the target was a good guy. Their mind was not moving fast enough to process the information–the weapon their target was carrying was the same as theirs. They simply responded to the way they were taught. Now, my first step is to look at the whole person, and then I collapse to the hands.
How do we fix these issues? We fix them by continued exposure to advanced scenarios and the use of video. Video does not lie. It is probably the most significant teaching tool I’ve encountered, besides combat. During high-stress scenarios, many officers get the typical adrenaline dump and their mind can only absorb so much information. In effect, they can’t remember the finer details of what happened. Video will help them do this in a non-confrontational manner. It’s all there to be viewed over and over again, to be learned from, to be corrected with.
The Silver Bullet of Reality
I normally prefer to run a shooting course no longer than three days in length. Besides the students’ diminishing attention span and standing on a flat range for 40 plus hours, the officer can only retain so much information at one sitting. The reality of the situation is that the individual officer must dry fire/practice these drills on a daily basis. I’ve heard the 2,000-3,000 mark kicked around as to the repetitions it takes to develop muscle memory. You can jam them up day after day with forced repetitions, but when it’s all said and done, if the officer wants to improve, he must do it on his own.
Dry fire practice should be a 70% to 30% ratio. This means we need to dry fire 70% of the time to 30% live fire. This can be accomplished in our homes with the use of a shooting timer two-three times a week. It may take several months or even years to develop the finer points, but after these skills are acquired, it takes very little maintenance time to keep them honed.
Follow-through and cover is a core training point that should be emphasized. After firing a shot, the weapon’s sights should be realigned on the target and the trigger contacted and slightly pressed. This is follow-through and it will build a good habit for combat shooting. When an officer gets used to doing this, he will instinctively do it during a real shooting situation. This will ensure that the weapon is up, ready to fire after every shot with no loss of momentum, should the threat still be present.
The next step is to cover left and right after the suspect has fallen from your sights. This can also be done on the flat range after each shot with a straight trigger finger. This practice gets the officer out of the hard focus he has on the target he neutralized and reminds him to scan for other potential threats. During range fire practice, students continually hear me say “follow-through and cover.” It should become automatic.
Finally, keep your positions and techniques simple. For example, as an instructor, I teach three different kneeling positions, Hollywood, supported and unsupported. Only one, (unsupported) works for me stripped, in duty gear, concealed carry and tactical gear. In keeping my personal system simple, this is the only technique I practice. Instead of wasting my time on three different positions, I practice one that will work in all uniform/situations.
What Equipment Should the Instructor Demonstrate With?
The instructor’s standards should be shot with a common weapon and he should be wearing tactical gear. Why? Most officers use standard issue weapons with above-average trigger pull–that’s what they have to work with. If an instructor is demonstrating his shooting and drills with a $2,000 plus gun and skeleton shooting gear that wouldn’t last 10 seconds in a physical altercation, he looses credibility and fails to validate his system. Put your instructor in full tactical gear, including gloves, helmet and goggles and have him demonstrate what he’s preaching.
Next, officers should be encouraged to find a weapon that best fits their hand, in a caliber supported by the department. Too many times officers are required to shoot ill-fitting weapons that tear down their confidence with each shot. There are too many models of weapons to choose from to accept a firearm that does not fit the officer’s hands. A good fit helps build confidence with every shot.
Equally important is to pick a handgun with one trigger pull. Our long guns have one trigger pull, why shouldn’t our pistols? Administrators are doing officers a disservice when they issue a weapon with two distinct trigger pulls. Find a weapon (Glock and the Springfield XD series are examples) that has one trigger pull to learn. You’ll make life a whole lot easier on the officer and the range personnel.
Compensators work, but do a sanity check first. Get some duty ammo and shoot it in low light conditions to find out how much longer it takes to find your sights. Generally, your duty ammo is a bit hotter than your practice loads, and when the compensated guns vent, they do it in your visual plane, causing momentary blindness. Weigh the advantages of rapid follow-on shots, and also consider being unable to see your sights. I keep reading that most shootings happen in low light. You be the judge.
I was fortunate to be able to train with many great shooters over the years. Coupled with a few tactical experiences, I was able to sort out what worked and did not and develop a solid tactical shooting program. Hopefully this article will prompt you to ask the right questions the next time your department looks to invest their money in an instructor or shooting program.
About the Author
Paul Howe is a 20-year veteran and former Special Operations soldier and instructor. Paul currently owns Combat Shooting and Tactics (CSAT) where he consults with, trains and evaluates law enforcement and government agencies in technical and tactical techniques throughout the special operations spectrum. www.combatshootingandtactics.com.