Training to win a gunfight (versus training for acceptable levels of failure)

Law enforcement range masters must stretch their budgets until they scream, and make a meaningful training event out of every round fired by cops on the line


“What’s your ‘Qual’?” is a question you hear often when hanging out with other agency Range Masters — kind of like “What’s your major?” when you’re in college. Range Masters are always looking for new ideas and comparing their program to others. Qualification courses vary as much as uniform patches. Each agency works within their individual budgets and what that administration believes is important. The last part is usually where things break down. For example, I was amazed when I learned about an agency that had just purchased two helicopters but told the Range Master not to order more targets. The agency even asked if the officers could just share a target during qualification.

I’ve talked with officers who work for agencies that only train and qualify with their handguns once a year — they are only required to fire 15 rounds total for the year and the individual officer has to supply the training ammo out of their own pocket. Other agencies train and qualify every month, fire 100 rounds or more each time, and only fire duty ammo issued by the agency. The disparity between what we as an industry believes is an acceptable level of competency testing in the use of firearms is striking. Many states have established minimum standards to address this issue but others are generally silent. Absent a government-mandated course of fire, Range Masters must stretch their budgets until they scream, and make a meaningful training event out of every round fired.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention
Several years ago at my former agency, my fellow Range Masters and I decided that the qualification course of fire at the time was outdated and did not reflect what we felt were minimum skills needed for competency with a handgun. Like everyone at that time, we were facing ammo shortages. Our old course consisted of 50 rounds fired from seven yards out to 25 yards. The way the scoring worked, Deputies could literally miss all 10 rounds fired at 25 yards and still qualify. Our ranges consisted of three to four separate courses of fire, including the basic qualification, every three months. Weaker shooters were going through 100 to 150 rounds just to complete the basic qualification, driving our ammo consumption up and at the same time not yielding meaningful training.

We broke down what we wanted in a new basic qualification course of fire. The list consisted of movement both left and right, reloading, distances consistent with actual law enforcement lethal-force encounters, and time limits to add stress. As the discussion continued to evolve, the conversation turned to what we felt was an acceptable qualification score. As you can imagine, this sparked a long and in-depth discussion. Most of our courses required either 70 percent or 80 percent to qualify. Ultimately it was agreed that in a perfect world, 100 percent of rounds fired should be on target. By accepting a 70-80 percent accuracy rate, you’re also willing to accept 20-30 percent of rounds fired to miss the target completely. That just did not sit well with us.

I dug around the law enforcement firearms instructor world and the idea of a 100 percent qualification came up. I learned that a few other agencies across the U.S. were either at that standard or had considered it. When we sat down again to finish our work on this course of fire, I made my pitch and it was agreed that for this course of fire, a 100 percent score was to be required.

More Effective, More Economical
The course consisted of only 30 rounds. This reduced ammo needed by approximately 33 percent. So, even if a deputy failed to qualify on the first attempt and needed to re-qualify two additional times we would still expend fewer rounds than if a deputy had to re-qualify only once with the old course. It was my idea so I had to prove that it was viable and accomplished what we desired. It was decided that I would test out this new basic qualification course of fire and see how it panned out.

For a few months, I tested the new course of fire on our “guinea pigs” — also know as reserve deputies. They rose to the occasion and in a very short time were completing the course with 100 percent scores with very few remediations. At first they were hesitant and intimidated, but once they shot the course and were able to pass, it grew on them. They noted that they were concentrating much harder on their shooting and every shot was far more deliberate compared to courses they had shot previously. After this positive response, we figured that if the part-time cops can do it our regulars would just have to meet the challenge or risk constant ridicule. The Range Masters and reserves had set the bar high. Even though our regulars were nervous and griped a bit, they meet the challenge. As time went on their confidence level and shooting abilities began to rise as well.

When the officers at my new agency were introduced to this course of fire, I could feel their apprehension — it was palatable from day one. As they adjusted to it, the number of remediations decreased, their confidence level increased, and they walked with a well-earned swagger. Most commented that at their former agencies they were never pushed to reach this level of competency. They liked the fact that they were being pushed so hard and that each of their fellow officers were held to this high standard. It was a driver for personal and agency pride. A 100 percent qualification completed quarterly is no small task, but if you do not set the bar high and continue to push your shooters you are cheating them out of realizing their potential. Success breads confidence and confidence breads success. It’s cyclical.

Accuracy Looks Good on Paper
After five years with this as our basic qualification it has become rare that an officer fails to qualify on the first attempt and requires remediation. As such, I have had to find ways to challenge my shooters even further. One thing that I have done is to staple an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper in the center of the silhouette target and tell the officers that only shots on this paper count. This simple visual and mental change results in noticeably smaller groups and several officers have been able to accomplish 100 percent scores on this smaller target. We use the same course of fire for our rifles, but at longer distances and the target is only an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. We adjust the time limits for night ranges to compensate for the addition of a handheld flashlight.

I have intentionally not detailed the exact course of fire we shoot. The reason is that I am not trying to sell you on my agency’s basic qualification. I am only asking that you look at your courses with a critical eye in light of what I have shared with you. Does your course of fire breed confidence? Does it teach and reinforce skill sets needed to win? Do your officers have buy-in that their qualification is relevant and a valid mesure of skill? Is every round fired a training opportunity or are they just being blasted away at the target? Are you squeezing every penny out of your budget to get the best training you can out of what you have to work with?

Officers involved in lethal-force encounters have historically missed their target at some point during the encounter, and will most likely do so in the future. There are many factors behind this. Even so, we must consider whether it is appropriate for us to train our officers that it is acceptable to miss 20-30 percent of the time. Are we doing our cops a disservice by programming them with this mindset? Do we train our officers to win or to have acceptable levels of failure? Can you defend your basic qualification as an acceptable measure of competency in front of a jury? And, when an officer from another agency asks one of your officers, “So, what’s you qual?” does your officer answer with pride or with something else?

About the author

Dennis Haworth is a police officer with a California state law enforcement agency. He has been a law enforcement range master and armorer for more than a decade. Haworth has served as a police academy instructor and has taught specialized courses on several subject matters. He has been involved in product testing for professional associations, manufacturers and law enforcement agencies. He has a BS in Criminology and an MPA with a specialization in human resources management. Much of his free time is spent as an advisor to the Shooting Sports Club at his local University of California campus.

Contact Dennis Haworth

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