Book Excerpt: Building a Better Gunfighter

Part Two: Climbing the Circular Staircase


Editor’s Note:

Editor’s Note: If in this last week before Christmas you are looking for something to get for that LEO brother or sister, you may want to consider picking up the new book, Building a Better Gunfighter — Improving Marksmanship, Mechanics, and Mindset, by PoliceOne Firearms Columnist Dick Fairburn. It is now in print and shipping from Paladin Press, with a cover price of $19.95. Below is the second of three excerpts to be published — with permission from our friends at Paladin Press — here on PoliceOne. If you missed our presentation of the first installment, click the related title below.

According to recent FBI statistics, about 80 percent of the officers who are murdered in the line of duty each year die at less than seven yards, a figure that has changed very little in the last 30 years. That is precisely why police ranges have a 7 yard firing line. Police officers routinely score 100 percent inside of the 7 yard line on the firing range. But, in actual gunfights more than 50 percent of the bullets fired by the officers completely miss the target. This suggests that the low hit rate scored by police officers on the street is not a marksmanship problem.

“It is wonderful, in the event of a street fight, how few bullets seem to hit the men they are aimed at."
— Theodore Roosevelt

Several years ago I gained access to the officer-involved shooting records of a large police agency. Over one 10 year period, that agency’s officers scored a gunfight hit rate of just 11 percent. Considered by itself, that is a staggering statistic, but another number was even more shocking. Though the sample was admittedly small and not statistically valid, the bad guys in the same incidents also scored an 11 percent hit rate when shooting at those officers. We knew precisely how that agency’s officers trained and qualified and were probably safe in assuming the offenders had little or no formal handgun training.

After letting those numbers sink in for a few seconds, the Commander of that agency’s training academy summed it up perfectly. “You’re telling me that my officers, who get over 100 hours of firearms training in the Academy and quarterly qualifications thereafter, are hitting at the same rate as street felons with no formal training? Maybe we should save all the time and ammunition, because our training program seems to be worthless!”

The agency in that research project was progressive in many ways, but their firearms training program, like so many others, was a traditional marksmanship-based program. They fired at turning targets on a known distance range. Officers were still allowed an “alibi” shot if they experienced a malfunction during qualification. In both the academy training program and for in-service remedial work, one-hand slow-fire bullseye target shooting at the 25 yard line was encouraged. After all, if an officer can shoot a tight group with one hand at 25 yards, they can easily handle a gunfight at 10 feet ... right? Wrong - 89 percent of the time.

I’ve had the chance to learn from and work with some of the finest firearms trainers in the country. But surprisingly, only a few of them had a great deal of experience working with raw shooters that often had never touched a gun before they arrived at the training range. Many of the top techniques I learned from those outstanding instructors didn’t seem to work all that well with totally raw shooters. The recruits simply had no frame of reference to build on. So, in collaboration with some academic-types, schooled in adult learning principles, we set out to standardize and simplify a system to take virgin shooters to the highest level of gunfight preparation possible in the time frame allotted. The big ... no ... the HUGE difference we wanted in our program was to prepare these new shooters for the next gunfight, not the next competitive shooting match. We learned in creating this program that while raw shooters don’t generally do well trying to learn the high-speed, low-drag techniques of top shooters, even experienced shooters improved their skills dramatically using our simplified methods.

Most firearms training programs then (and very many of them still) focused almost exclusively on marksmanship - getting the best possible shooting score. Yet, in my research it was clear that marksmanship had almost nothing to do with winning a gun fight. We could have a raw shooter scoring 100 percent at 7 yards by the end of the first day of training. But, at least with that one police agency, upping the training time to nearly three weeks only produced 11 percent hits on the street. Recently released data on the gunfight hit rate of officers in the New York City and Los Angeles Police Departments mirror what I found in the mid-west. During a gunfight, less than 25 percent of the shots fired by these officers are likely to hit their intended target. When the statistics are further refined they follow logic, with much better hit rates in daylight than those fired in conditions of limited light, but cops clearly miss a lot more than they hit.

Marksmanship is an important, downright essential part of an effective training program. But, we wanted to increase the hit rate on the street and by doing that, increase the victory rate for officers on the street. Taking the “top shooter” award in your training class is cool, but winning your first gunfight is WAY cooler.

Eventually, we identified several equally important phases to preparing a police officer, soldier or armed citizen to gunfight, and marksmanship skills were only one of the components. In fact, if you master the other skills, marksmanship may prove to be a minor part of the overall equation. Originally our training cycle was made up of four “M’s:” Marksmanship, Movement, Mechanics and Mindset. As we tested this theory with police officer trainees, it became obvious that this cycle must be repeated several times, with each rotation building up ever increasing pressures for speed and accuracy. My friend Bob James, who has trained at a couple of top academies, as well as with military special operations units, recognized the cyclic nature of effective training and compared the process to a circular staircase. As the students traveled through the cyclic training process, they traveled round-and-round the circuit. But, as the students made each rotation, much like climbing a circular staircase, they rose ever higher in their ability to dominate a fight. As we structured the curriculum for each cycle, we eventually decided the Movement “M” had to be an integral part of all advanced levels of the Marksmanship “M.” Indeed, once a student has achieved a basic level of marksmanship skill, movement of both the shooter and their target(s) is essential to practicality. So, we ended up with three “M’s:” Marksmanship, Mechanics and Mindset.

This three-part training model is not unique. Other trainers have outlined similar programs using like terms, but still structure their training in a linear, A to Z method. The difference in our philosophy is the cyclic system of training through all three M’s at a low level of competence before starting all over again with shorter time frames, tougher targets and more difficult force-on-force scenarios. Each rotation through the training cycle must be more difficult than the previous cycle for a shooter to truly improve their performance.

In the next three sections, I will discuss each of the M’s in detail and show how they integrate and overlap. The details of stance, grip, weapon system and courses of fire are up to you to develop for your needs. The M3 system is a philosophical framework that is built around adult learning principles to repeat and reinforce each lesson and each cycle on the student’s climb up the circular staircase.

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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