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February 14, 2011
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Richard Fairburn Law Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn

Book Excerpt: Building a Better Gunfighter

Part three: Skill Maintenance

Why am I covering skill maintenance out of order, starting with the M3 factor? If any of the 3 “M’s” are more important than the others, Mindset will be the most likely to carry you through to success in a fight. Range time is fun, and there are many sources of practical Marksmanship training, but keeping your mind sharp is something you must generally do alone. Staying alert to your surroundings - situational awareness - requires effort. If you live in a relatively safe neighborhood and work at a profession that does not place you in dangerous settings, it is easy to become lax. Just because violent crime is not common in your area does not mean it can never happen. Females can be suddenly robbed or raped anywhere; the crime locale is generally the attacker’s choice not the victim’s. Indeed, low-crime areas are sometimes more likely to experience a shocking crime. How many times have you seen witnesses on TV say “that sort of thing never happens here.” We expect dangerous situations in inner-city environments, but you must always expect the unexpected if you are to be truly prepared.

M3 - Mindset
Train yourself to “what if” every situation you encounter. Exercise your mind while jogging, walking the dog or driving to the convenience store for a gallon of milk. Remember that avoiding a problem is always better than confronting it. Always look for escape routes. If you are unable to escape, look for cover positions where you can hunker to use your cell phone to call for help. And, if all else fails and help will not arrive in time, plan for the best way to repel boarders in the particular setting you currently occupy.

If you are an employee of an armed organization, take advantage of every opportunity you have to engage in computer-based combat simulator training and force-on-force scenario training. Don’t ever opt out of a chance to hone your mental fighting skills because you don’t want to get dirty or bruised. Adjust your own personal schedule, if need be, to take advantage of every training opportunity. Keeping your mindset sharp will be the most important aspect of preserving your gunfight survival skills, and at the same time, can be the most difficult skill to maintain. Even experienced police officers can easily fall victim to complacency when they encounter a long spell of “routine” calls.

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M1 - Marksmanship and M2 - Mechanics
For avid shooters, maintaining your marksmanship and mechanical skills will come naturally, assuming you keep your shooting practical in nature. It’s OK to branch outside your practical handgun shooting, so long as you periodically come back to defensive pistol shooting drills. Competing at trap, high-power rifle or handgun metallic silhouette disciplines may keep your hand/eye coordination in top form, but they can’t replace the time and rounds necessary to keep up your defensive pistol skills. Similarly, shooting a bull-barrel PPC revolver or a USPSA “Race Gun” is handgun shooting, but it still can’t replace periodic work with your defensive sidearm, carried in a practical holster.

I have found that with a modicum of well-structured marksmanship practice, most shooters will easily maintain about 60 to 80 percent of their potential. Even when I haven’t been to the range for far too long, my performance is still in this 60 to 80 percent range and will quickly climb back up. Staying above 90 percent of your potential will require almost constant practice, something few of us can maintain. So, while marksmanship skills are certainly perishable, a few productive trips to the range each year should keep your performance at an acceptable level for gunfighting.

Practice smooth draws and single, then double center mass shots. Strive for a relaxed, smooth draw and presentation at the beginning of each training session, speeding up as you go. Then engage multiple targets and partially concealed targets who only offer a head shot. Fire a few runs from the kneeling position and extended distances (out to 25 yards for most of us).

Mechanical skills are perhaps the easiest to maintain, if you programmed them at a deep, sub-conscious level initially. Whenever you are working with defensive weapons, practice malfunction clearing. This applies to whatever firearm you are handling. Creating and clearing malfunctions in your AR15 rifle is just as important as clearing them in your concealed carry pistol.

Use inert dummy rounds to practice those malfunction drills which are too dangerous to routinely perform with live-ammunition on a firing range. The dummy rounds will allow you to refresh one-hand loading, reloading and clearing drills using your holster, a belt, boot heel or by pressing hard into your thigh, especially with pistols whose sights are not amenable to “hooking” onto something to assist in racking a slide.

Police officers should practice with both their on-duty and off-duty gear. If your off-duty (or on-duty backup) is a small weapon in an ankle holster, practice with it. No draw from an ankle rig will truly be a “quick” draw, so practice for smoothness and consistency. Do you need to kneel and/or advance the left foot for a smooth draw from the ankle? What about from a sitting position, or flat on your back if you’ve been knocked there? Officers who choose a Level II or Level III security holster for their on-duty wear must practice regularly to ensure they hit the latches and draw with the correct wrist angle necessary. In one famous gunfight caught on police dash-camera footage, an Ohio officer nearly lifted himself off the ground trying to draw from a security holster he hadn’t fully mastered.

Off-duty police officers, plain-clothes officers and civilian concealed carry shooters should practice with their concealment holster. If you carry under a jacket or vest, wear that garment on the range and practice sweeping the garment back with your shooting hand as you draw from the strong side or reaching under the garment for a crossdraw. Carrying your keys or other small weight in the strong side pocket will serve to swing the garment further back away from your holster and keep it from swinging back forward for a fraction of a second, giving you just a bit more time for a smooth draw. Carry your spare ammunition in the same location concealed as you do on your duty rig to allow your muscle memory to work on “automatic” and find it with ease.

If you depend on your agency to cover your skill maintenance needs, your skills are likely to degrade to a minimum acceptable level. Few government agencies provide aggressive, comprehensive in-service programs. Indeed, many agencies do nothing more than an annual qualification shoot.

My first departmental training position was for a Sheriff’s department with 13 sworn officers. The sheriff fancied himself a pretty fair shooter, so he supported a good program. We tried to shoot once per month, though scheduling issues restricted us to about 10 shoots per year, far more than any other agency in our region. I ran two qualification shoots per year, over a standardized course. At the beginning of my tenure, we all carried a .357 Magnum revolver, by policy. Later, we were able to drag the sheriff reluctantly into the 20th Century, adding 9mm sidearms as a personal choice option. One qualification shoot each year, and all of our training sessions were fired with full- power reloaded ammunition, to keep down costs. The remaining qualification shoot was fired with our hollow-point “carry” ammunition. This ensured one shoot per year was done with the same ammunition an officer would use in a gunfight. Using duty ammo for one shoot per year also rotated the officer’s carry loads, ensuring they had fresh ammunition every year. Modern ammunition has an amazingly long shelf life, if stored under reasonable conditions. High temperature is the greatest threat to ammunition’s shelf life, so issuing fresh ammunition two times per year in extremely hot locales is a good idea.

Most governmental gunfighters now have access to long guns, either shotguns or rifles. A wise gunfighter takes a long gun whenever they anticipate trouble, so you must maintain your long gun skills at least as frequently as for your sidearm. Shotguns are gradually falling from favor as police long guns, but they will always have a place in police missions. Our military warriors have also rediscovered the close range effectiveness of shotguns, so they are seen on occasion in the urban areas of our fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since one of the shotgun’s primary attributes is the ability to use several types of ammunition, you should periodically refresh yourself with the proper uses of each type. Slugs kick like hell, but allow some degree of precision out to the limits of your weapon – about 50 yards for a bead sighted barrel and perhaps 100 yards for one with rifle sights. Buckshot is often the best choice for close-range problems, such as clearing buildings.

My personal standard for the maximum effective range of buckshot is that range where the weapon will keep all of the pellets on a man-sized silhouette target. Most “riot” shotguns feature short barrels with no choke, so their maximum effective range is generally well short of 25 yards. A specialized buckshot barrel, with a screw-in choke tube, may extend buckshot’s range beyond 40 yards, but such guns are rare in military and police inventories. The “low recoil” or “tactical” slug and buckshot loads available from most manufacturers are the preferable choice. Though these loads still generate substantial recoil for small-statured gunfighters, they make the shotgun easier to handle and often deliver better groups/patterns than their full-power cousins.

Rifles, often referred to as Carbines, since most of them used today have short barrels, are best utilized with a standardized load to prevent point-of-impact changes. Most weapons can interchange full-metal-jacket (FMJ) ammo with a load using a hollow-point or soft-point projectile of identical bullet weight. This allows the use of less expensive FMJ ammunition for the bulk of your training, using the duty load for at least one annual qualification shoot (and rotation to fresh carry ammo).

Structure your long-gun skill maintenance sessions so as to refresh yourself on the limits and capabilities of the weapon. Shoot at maximum range for both slug and buckshot loads to reinforce their practical limits. Similarly, use the rifle at 100 yards, or better still at 200 yards if your range allows it. Working shooters and weapons at their maximum effective range is a confidence builder, if done sensibly. One police sniper trainer told me he always starts new police snipers at the 1000 yard range to show them the weapon’s capabilities and instill confidence. The problem I see with his philosophy is that some police sniper may attempt to fire at a ridiculous range in a real world event, far beyond their actual skill level, because that instructor made a 1000 yard shot seem reasonable.

The simple, overarching issue with skill maintenance is to make sure you don’t waste all the time and effort spent in developing your original gunfighting skills. Unless you will be hanging up your guns, perhaps during your sunset years in the assisted living facility, stay mentally and physically sharp. As I advance through the various stages of life, I have come to understand the many hurdles life places in your way. I now understand why those “old” shooters used to tilt their heads so far back on the pistol range (to get the sights in focus with their bifocal glasses). I also understand why they grumbled at my “assault” course training sessions that often included the need to crawl to a cover position or vault a short wall.

Physically aggressive courses are great for active police officers and military personnel, who should retire when they can no longer hack it. But, a “retiree shoot” to meet the annual qualification requirement of the H.R. 218 concealed carry statute need not be physically demanding. One state agency used their current in-service qualification course for their first H.R. 218 shoot, and experienced several problems. The agency’s in-service course included both speed and tactical reloads, shooting on the move and the use of low cover – it was very practical. However, the first relay of new retiree concealed carry shooters included one with a walker and another in a wheelchair. An artistically inclined range officer penned a cartoon of one old guy, on crutches with a leg cast, pushing another shooter in a wheelchair, both with guns blazing and brass flying. The cartoon was a hoot, even the old guy in the wheelchair asked for a copy, but the point had been made. The law allows an 80 year old retired cop to carry a concealed weapon, but do they really need to qualify over a physically exerting course? One misguided range officer told me “if the guy in a wheelchair can’t meet our current qualification standard, he has no business carrying a weapon.” Since these retired shooters, like many of their civilian concealed carry compatriots, only carry for last-ditch, self-defense situations, the feisty gent in the wheelchair needed a weapon even more than a younger, more physically capable retiree. Wolves prefer to prey on the weaker, more vulnerable members of our society.

I’d love to see the look on any armed robber’s face who tries to rip off the tough old Trooper in the wheelchair … he impressed me as a guy who still has his M3 shit together!

About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

Contact Richard Fairburn



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