How much do finger placement and ready position matter?
Results of a two-part study by the Force Science Institute reported in the current issue of the peer-reviewed journal Law Enforcement Executive Forum provide some answers that may surprise you if you’re a strong advocate for particular positioning
In terms of reacting fast to a sudden deadly threat, does it matter how you carry an unholstered or unslung weapon or where you rest your trigger finger before making the decision to shoot?
In other words, does any one of the various ready positions commonly taught in police firearms training really give you a significant edge in response time?
Results of a two-part study by the Force Science Institute reported in the current issue of the peer-reviewed journal Law Enforcement Executive Forum provide some answers that may surprise you if you’re a strong advocate for particular positioning.
“The findings have implications for training and can also be of critical use to investigators in certain officer-involved shootings,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, FSI’s executive director and lead researcher in the study, believed to be the first of its kind in police circles.
The full study, including photographs of positions analyzed and detailed statistical tables, is scheduled to be published soon in the Law Enforcement Executive Forum. Here are the highlights:
Handgun Finger Placement
“The first, and seemingly most basic, position officers learn during their firearms training,” the researchers write, “is where to index, or place, their finger outside of the trigger well when handling their gun to minimize the risk” of accidental or premature discharge while still allowing the fastest possible response to a deadly threat.
With 52 federal officer volunteers from the Dept. of Homeland Security, Lewinski’s team tested four handgun finger-indexing positions “predominately taught and practiced” by LEOs and military personnel:
• the index finger points straight ahead, resting across the trigger guard
• essentially the same position, but with the finger bent slightly so the tip rests against the vertical side of the trigger guard
• the pad of the straight index finger rests slightly above the trigger guard, on the pistol’s frame
• the straight finger is angled more sharply upward, with the pad resting on the gun’s slide
On a hot range, each participant fired from each finger position three times with his or her duty handgun. Once a member of the research team gave a signal, the officers could shoot whenever they wanted. They were instructed to move their finger to the trigger as fast as they could and, after firing, to wait for at least five seconds between rounds to assure that the finger was repositioned properly before the next shot.
The shooting was captured by high-speed digital cameras that allowed for precise, frame-by-frame computer analysis later to measure the time in hundredths of a second from the initial movement of the finger to its contact with the trigger.
“Until this analysis was completed, it was unknown what time differences might exist between these various positions and whether any position had a significant benefit of speed,” Lewinski told Force Science News.
What is now known?
“[C]ontrary to what many officers are commonly taught,” the researchers report, “there is no significant difference in contact time” between the various finger-indexing positions — with one exception: Positioning the finger to rest on the pistol slide is statistically significantly slower than the other options.
Starting from that position, the officers on average “were roughly 0.08 second slower in making contact with the trigger and over 0.10 second [slower] to fire than all other positions.... While many law enforcement officers argue that indexing the finger on the trigger guard, curved or straight, is faster than on the frame, the difference in mean time to trigger contact [among positions other than the slide position] is less than 0.04 second.”
That difference, Lewinski says, “would likely be inconsequential in a gunfight.”
Tactical Ready Positions
Another area that “little to no research has examined” prior to the new study is the amount of time it takes officers to react to a threat and move their weapon from an unholstered ready position to a firing position. “Therefore,” the researchers state, “it is unknown what positions may most benefit officers with the quickest responses during deadly use-of-force situations.”
To fill that informational void, Lewinski’s team tested 68 volunteers from the Los Angeles PD at the department’s training facility. All were measured for how fast they could fire their duty handgun from various starting positions — nine were also checked for speed with a Remington 870 shotgun.
The drawn-handgun ready positions, commonly trained for use “when entering a threatening situation,” included:
• the Bootleg, where the pistol is held one-handed, pointing down and slightly concealed behind the officer’s leg
• the Belt Tuck, where the gun is held with two hands, pulled in close to the body at navel level
• the Close-Ready, with the gun pulled in somewhat higher than the beltline with the muzzle pointed slightly down
• the High-Ready, with the gun thrust forward in an isosceles grip at shoulder height, muzzle slightly depressed
• the Low-Ready, same grip but with the arms and gun pointing down at about a 45-degree angle
• the High-Guard, gun pointing up and held single-handed beside an officer’s head, a position widely trained in England but not generally favored in the US (except in Hollywood entertainment productions!)
Three shotgun ready positions were tested:
• the traditional Port carry
• the High-Ready, with the butt against the dominant-side hip and the barrel pointing up at about a 45-degree angle
• the Low-Ready, with the weapon shouldered and the barrel pointing down at 45 degrees
Participating officers were told to bring their weapon to a shooting position and fire as fast as they could, once they heard a signal from a shot-timer. Their responses, including auditory reaction time as well as movement time, were measured to within 0.01 second accuracy.
When officers took time to aim, they were fastest in firing a handgun when starting their movement from the High-Ready position, at an average of 0.83 second. This contrasted sharply, for example, with the Bootleg and High-Guard positions, where the respective averages were 1.32 and 1.13 seconds. “A suspect can fire several rounds into you in that amount of time, while you’re just getting into position to defend yourself,” Lewinski says.
“Without aiming,” the researchers report, “officers moving from the Low-Ready position were fastest overall, firing in an average time of 0.64 second.”
“Overall,” Lewinski says, “the handgun timings indicate that the closer the ready position is to a final firing position, the faster the officer is likely to be in getting off his first round.”
While constituting no more than a pilot sampling, the handful of shotgun timings showed that officers were fastest when starting from the High-Ready position, 0.84 second on average. The Low-Ready average was 0.99, Port 1.28 seconds.
The fastest firing from the High-Ready position was about 0.60 second, but “unfortunately,” the researchers write, “some officers took well over 1.0 second to fire from each of the shotgun positions, leaving far too much opportunity for an assailant to attack.” Lack of practice was blamed for this deficiency.
“As with any skill, regular, high amounts of repetition in practice at high speeds will greatly benefit officers in reacting and moving as quickly as possible,” the researchers write. Indeed, Lewinski estimates that with diligent practice, you can cut your times for getting your finger on the trigger and your weapon on target by at least 50 percent.
So far as finger placement is concerned, given the study finding of negligible differences, he suggests that you pick whatever indexing position is most comfortable for you and practice improving your movement speed from there. With a rifle or shotgun, he recommends that you practice moving from each of the ready positions because each may be tactically desirable, depending on the circumstances you face.
Lewinski believes, however, that more important than improving the mechanics of weaponcraft is teaching officers to read potentially hazard scenarios early on, so they can detect threat cues quicker and better anticipate an adversary’s actions, thereby getting ahead of the reactionary curve before the crisis point. “Without that skill,” he says, “they’re likely to end up so far behind the action that things like the most desirable finger indexing and ready positioning won’t really matter.”
For investigators, he says that consulting some of the time measurements revealed in this study can help determine the dynamics of certain officer-involved shootings.
For example, “we now know the average times it takes for an officer to move from a finger position or from a ready posture once he or she has made a decision to shoot. In that time before the officer can actually fire, a suspect’s position can change substantially, causing the officer’s rounds to impact in unanticipated places, like the suspect’s back, for instance.
“The more investigators understand about the fractional time frames within a shooting event, the better they can accurately explain what really happened,” Lewinski says.
Within the full study, some other time measurements are also revealed and discussed, including the speeds of drawing from snapped vs. unsnapped holsters and point shooting vs. sighted fire.
In the future, Lewinski and his researchers intend to explore a variety of related issues, including:
• the effect of finger placement on the risk of unintentional discharge
• the speed and retention benefits of different types of holsters
• methods for improving training and officer performance with long-barreled weapons
• the expansion of this initial study to multiple departments to verify the results
The current study will be posted free of charge on the Force Science website at a future date yet to be determined.
Besides Lewinski, the research team included: Jennifer Dysterheft, a doctoral student in kinesiology at the University of Illinois and a research assistant at FSI — Jacob Bushey, a master’s student in exercise physiology at Minnesota State University-Mankato — and Nathan Dicks, an assistant professor in the Dept. of Human Performance at Minnesota State.