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6 challenges to strengthen your gunfight training and performance
“The street is the only authentic testing ground you have,” says trainer Chris Ghannam. And whether you pass the test out there in a deadly-force encounter will likely depend on whether you’ve used your training time to become a marksman or a gunfighter.
Ghannam, president of the law enforcement and military training organization SARK Securities, explored the difference between the two in a recent interview with PoliceOne, following an ILEETA training presentation.
“Marksmanship skills are critical to have,” he says, “but that’s only a small part of the survival equation. Marksmanship performance is not even remotely predictive of how you will do in a gunfight.”
Marksmanship, classically nurtured in the predictably regulated confines of the firing range, “measures pro-active shooting performance,” Ghannam argues. But in the raw reality of law enforcement, “there is only one pro-active shooter — the sniper.
“Everyone else — including SWAT — is by necessity a reactive shooter, because the suspect always determines the time, place, and method of threat. He puts you in the position of having to exercise your lawful duty.”
To shape an officer into an effective gunfighter, Ghannam says, requires ongoing training that “fuses the mind, the body, and the firearm into an undefeatable human weapon system, with the understanding that shooting is never going to happen in the real world like it does on the range.
“Gunfighters continuously and safely work to push themselves beyond the realm of comfort. It’s not about man-hours, qualifications, and pass-or-fail tests, because the concept of gunfighting has very little to do with high-speed, pre-coordinated training evolutions and everything to do with one’s ability to master the basics, develop the ability to seamlessly apply all mental and physical harnessed abilities under extreme stress in a continuously evolving environment.
“Stress is an uncontrollable and naturally-occurring reaction. The goal is not stress prevention, which is illogical and impossible. The goal is stress management, one’s ability to proactively manage fluctuating levels of arousal.”
Here are a few of his suggestions for strengthening training with gunfighter performance in mind.
1.) Add an Emotional Imprint
Your firearms skills will be most solidly embedded if you incorporate a strong emotional component when you practice. “Humans in general are an emotionally driven species,” Ghannam explains. “When a skill is emotionally associated, it gives you the highest meaning and supercharges your memory, so it’s more easily retrieved under high stress.”
One possibility: Ask a loved one to make a 20-second audio recording of what he or she would tell you if they knew this would be the last message you’d ever hear from them. “Listen to this before each training session,” Ghannam suggests. “It will have an emotional impact like you wouldn’t believe. It will make you an animal in training — and performance — because it grounds you in reality and mainlines right to your will to survive.”
He also advocates that trainers enhance sessions with real-world-like audio “raging in the background.” Not only does this add emotional impact but also helps train you to “be the calm in the midst of the storm,” he says, quoting the highly regarded Army firearms instructor, SGM Pete Gould. Especially effective, Ghannam says, are recordings that tend to “tear into police officers,” such as children screaming in pain and desperation, and people begging for help.
2.) Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude
“Our Achilles heel in training and performance is our mind,” Ghannam observes. “When officers think training is going to be stressful, they often come to it believing they are going to under-perform. The brain tends to self-tune, and that kind of thinking reduces your ability.
“Don’t train with a preconceived notion of what your maximum potential is, because that is not necessarily based in reality. In a gunfight, as well as in training, a grateful attitude can be a powerful asset. You should want to be in the encounter. Instead of thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening...,’ you should be thinking, ‘Thank God it’s me. I’m glad it’s me instead of some officer who’s not as tactically proficient or well-prepared.’ You want to be appreciative of inheriting and being able to handle that level of responsibility.”
3.) Manage Impaired Functionality
“When everything goes smoothly in training, that’s a luxury,” Ghannam says, “and in a gunfight being accustomed to luxury is a liability.” One antidote is training deliberately for diminished functionality.
For example, anticipate your small-motor movements being slowed down in a gunfight by cold weather, high stress, or fatigue. “You can train for this even in summer or indoors,” he says. “Fill a chest with ice and water and stick your hands in for about 45 seconds. Then, with your normal blood flow diminished, practice drawing your weapon, firing, racking the slide, reloading, and so on.
“In a gunfight, officers mentally want to squeeze the trigger and manipulate their firearm faster and when they can’t do what their mind wants they get frustrated, which only aggravates the problem. So you need to develop the ability to coach yourself to slow down and make the most of whatever ability you have in a given time frame. You need to figure out, ‘Ok, if I can’t perform at my optimum level, how can I do my best at this level?’
“You can still deliver accurate shots and prevail with a diminished skill-set. You just have to stay focused and work past your physiological limitation. It’s important to experience positive outcomes from doing that in training so you know you can do it — and you know how to do it — when your life in on the line.”
In DT and handcuffing training, Ghannam likes to have officers practice their maneuvers blindfolded. “Authentic muscle memory doesn’t evaporate when you remove your primary sensory resource, the sense of sight,” he explains. “Authentic muscle memory is not a scientific term, rather a term I use to describe a skill that is not overly reliant on the presence of your dominant senses.
“You don’t have to look at the person you’re trying to control. It may be more important to look at what’s happening around you. So you should learn to physically manipulate your suspect by feel alone.”
4.) Overcome Interruption
“Practice responding to attacks that suddenly explode without warning while you’re doing something else,” Ghannam recommends. “Oftentimes, your mind and body will be occupied with another task — writing a ticket, jotting notes in your patrol car, running a computer check — when a threat materializes.”
He’s found in surprise-attack exercises that officers often fail to immediately empty their hands as they reach to draw. “Even when they’re defending their weapon against a gun-grab they tend to hang on to the ticket book or whatever they were occupied with,” he says. “It’s an unconscious retention that you need to train yourself out of.
“In training, you should never have a preconceived starting posture, even though many trainers push for always training from a field-interview stance. Chances are your initial reaction and your first rounds in a real gunfight will have to come from a position other than a conventional shooting platform or pre-deployment posture.
“The FI stance is great for when you are prepared, but does very little for the reactive officer. If motor programming begins from a position of luxury, what expectation can we have of officers who are attacked when they are preoccupied with any number of field responsibilities?
“Likewise, you should continuously change your training terrain, the surface you’re positioned on. Get comfortable with reacting from as many positions on as many platforms as possible. Unpredictability is the only predictable in a gunfight. In the real world you never step in the same river twice nor shoot in combat on identical footing.”
5.) Fight Through “Externalities”
“Externalities” is what Ghannam calls distractions that sabotage your focus and can pull you away from a concentrated defense of your life in a gunfight.
Try this as one exercise to condition yourself to keep fighting despite them: While you’re trying (with proper eye protection) to deliver accurate fire at a target or at a role-played suspect, have someone pelt you with racquet or tennis balls.
“Initially, a lot of officers will stop shooting or duck or turn away, even though there is nothing deadly about a tennis ball. At the very least, their shooting deteriorates radically,” Ghannam notes. “The role player wielding the gun is the primary indicator of violence; the tennis ball is just an annoying and sometimes painful distraction. With practice you can learn to maintain your shooting stance and intent focus so you’re able to keep on delivering accurate rounds.”
He also recommends training drills in which you are in physical contact with other officers while shooting, as you might be when seeking cover together behind a patrol car or other barricade during a firefight.
“Many officers have never had to shoot while touching another officer and they get very uneasy and distracted when they’re bumped or leaned against or they feel a shift in body weight. Yet SWAT is not the only team in law enforcement. It’s common for solo officers to come together at a shooting scene, and if they haven’t had practice working together they’re more prone not only to distractions but to dangerous lapses like cross-fires as well.”
6.) Train to Transition Through the “Negative 5”
There are certain variables at the onset of any armed confrontation that potentially impede your chances of winning. SARK’s senior active-shooter specialist SGM Nir Maman calls these the Negative 5:
• Time — How fast can you identify the situation you’re in and focus on the threat?
• Availability — Do you have the right weapon for the job, even if you’re off-duty?
• Mental State — Are you psychologically in the right frame of mind?
• Environment — Are you flexible enough to adapt seamlessly to unknowns in your surroundings?
• Enemy — Are you skillful enough to prevail, whatever your assailant’s unknown capabilities?
In the absence of pure luck blessing you, these are “pre-deployment” factors you must “rapidly and aggressively transition through” in order to then deliver an effective response to threats, Ghannam teaches. And in training, he says, these elements need to be the predominate undergirdings in preparing officers to be successful gunfighters.
“These factors are harder to quantify than marksmanship skills,” he says. “But just because they’re not easy to measure doesn’t mean they’re of less benefit. In fact, they’re at the very core of getting prepared to effectively engage the unpredictable challenges of the street.”