Five ways to blend marksmanship and reality-based training

These tips will balance the need for conventional qualification and the need to prepare your officers to win an actual gunfight

For the past 20 years or so, something has been bothering me: We are teaching more, people are practicing and qualifying more, but in real life, it appears that our students aren’t necessarily “hitting” more.

This is something Richard Fairburn touched on in his recent column, 21st century deadly force training for police. It’s something Gregory Morrison, who wrote the book on the Modern Techniques and now teaches at Ball State, lectures about. Morrison, you may recall, had taught at the Gunsite Academy in Arizona, thus his authoring the book on the Modern Technique for Jeff Cooper. It’s something that John Meyer (formerly Vice President of Sales and International Training at HK and currently the President of Team One Network) and I have discussed privately for some time.

Some years ago, Dave Spaulding, Mike Boyle, and one of John’s guys dragged me to an early evening lecture where Morrison explained that in the process of getting his Doctorate, he saw what he believed to be pretty hard evidence that even with all the new techniques and increased live fire range time, when it came to officer performance on the street — under stressful and life-threatening situations — things hadn’t gotten much better as we would have wanted or expected.

He presented quite a bit of data to support his thoughts and he explained his surprise. Suddenly I was grateful to Spaulding for dragging me out into the cold of upstate New York to learn that I wasn’t the only one who had wondered about why good students and good shooters weren’t always that “good” when they actually fought with the gun.

I remember telling Morrison and Spaulding that night (and Meyer years later) that when I was teaching full time at the Smith & Wesson Academy in the late 80’s, we would see students come through who were great shots. They would master the drills. Shoot flawlessly against the clock. Win every man-against-man drill they were in. And shoot well against us if given the chance.

But even with the very rudimentary scenarios we ran at the time, too many of these amazing “performers” would completely fall apart when forced to actually do battle with and against the same guns with which they had so convincingly acquitted themselves “in class.” Even then, this made me think that the “classroom” (range) environment should perhaps be expanded to more regularly include the application of the gun in ways beyond the stressors we were including in 1990.

Thankfully, the tools to do this have been developed and refined during the past 20 years but unfortunately, it appears that we are still not utilizing them as fully as we could. Instead, we are still focusing on traditional marksmanship drills, exercises and examinations to prepare our officers for what they will face on the street. Perhaps better stated, I believe that we are still focusing on the idea of marksmanship in general in order to fight with these guns instead of focusing on the fight itself.

That can even be seen in reading some of the comments posted in response to Dick Fairburn’s article—clearly some of the more progressive-thinking people were concerned enough about this subject to speak out.

Before everybody explodes at about what I’m about to say, I offer the caveat that I come from a traditional Bullseye and PPC background where marksmanship was king. Later, living in the Midwest, Ray Chapman and his associates became a huge influence on me. I’m proud to say that for about the last 10 years of his life Col. Rex Applegate and I were friends and were constantly swapping ideas, concepts, and beliefs.

As a result, today I believe that we can’t get bogged into arguments over Point Shooting vs. Sighted Fire. For as much value as there is to be derived from certain IPSC- and IDPA-type drills, they can be problematic too. As much as we want to inspire our students to do more, we have to realize that many people are never going to be interested enough to practice or train on their own. We also know that when it comes to physical fitness and personal pride, some people will never care as much about themselves as we would hope they would.

So, what would I recommend? Meyer and I used to talk about the possibly misplaced emphasis on marksmanship and technique. We would look at some of the “skills” that were being taught and (like Morrison) we saw that they worked fine on the range and in qualifications, but such proficiencies often seemed to not be of help to the average user on the street. John, in his typical direct fashion, used to tell me that he felt we were training figure skaters when we should have been developing hockey players. He was right.

My belief then (and now) when it comes to reality-based training is to look to the kind of training that has become so important and so successful in other areas of police instruction: real life, force-on-force, scenario-based, and reality-based training. We know it’s important to employ real people and real devices to simulate the handling of domestic disturbances, the stopping of vehicles, and the restraining of prisoners. Why, then, are we so reluctant to make that the focus of our efforts in firearms training?

I would suggest something like this as the starting point. Try to balance the need for conventional “qualification” (something many of you will never be able to change due to board- or state-level requirements beyond your control) and the need to actually prepare your people to fight with the gun.

1) Teach the mechanical operation of the weapon

a. Loading, unloading, simple/unified stoppage drill(s)
b. Operation of safeties and decocking levers if applicable

2) If necessary, teach to the qualification course

3) If not required, then I would recommend something along the following lines:

a. Single shot drills on a single target to learn sighting basics and trigger control
    i. Student is responsible for keeping the gun loaded and ready to employ
    ii. Sometimes require a reload to make a point and/or gauge proficiency
b. Multiple shot drills (not just double taps) on a single target to advance the employment of basic techniques
c. Successful single target engagement drills (standing, turning, maybe moving, with and without the use of cover) from three to perhaps 10 yards
d. Successful multiple target engagement drills (standing, turning, maybe moving, with and without the use of cover) from three to perhaps 10 yards
e. Note that the drills in b., c., and d., (above) should be run both “from” and “from outside” of the holster

4) Then, except for the occasional “tune up” or refresher, put the real guns away and turn to some sort of realistic Simunition / airsoft / paint-marking “guns” and related safety equipment and apply the skills they’ve learned in realistic people-populated scenarios, not all of which require either the use of or the firing of the weapon

5) I have nothing against electronic simulators (and I very much appreciate their many benefits) but even when it comes to using them to teach driving, flying, or operating equipment, sooner or later people have to practice with the real thing

a. Generally, you don’t have that much time (or money) so I think a move directly toward people-to-people scenarios makes the most amount of sense
b. Besides, some machines can’t shoot at you and no machine can put its hands on you like a living, breathing (albeit role-playing) adversary can

That’s what I think is most important: having your students (once capable of fighting with the gun out to 10 yards, keeping it running, and handling it safely) using the gun in situations they might actually find themselves in. I firmly believe that those technically outstanding students of mine from twenty years ago who folded under the pressure of the simple scenarios we employed did so because they had never experienced such things previously.

They had experienced numerous static drills and tests. They had experienced timed drills and qualifications. They had routinely competed against others. But (thankfully) they had never had someone “shoot” at them. And even within a simulated environment, many of these people were shocked or disoriented by the experience to the point where their mechanical proficiency was never put into use or if it was, it never reached its usual high level of performance and failed to keep them from harm.

Think about it, in the “old days” boxing was used not just as a “fighting technique” but to teach people to take a hit and press on; to persevere instead of withdrawing or curling up into a ball and giving up. Today, formal offensive and defensive tactics are taught through the use of various protective “suits”. People (albeit, generally well insulated from the actual blow) are taught to protect themselves and fight on while under attack. The suits allow people to apply the physical skills they have been taught in life-simulating events.

Then why not do the same with firearms and use realistic Simunition / airsoft / paint-marking “guns” and related safety equipment to allow your students to prepare themselves for those types of battles as well?

It’s all back to Meyer’s analogy and Morrison’s observations. We are teaching all these isolated skills that seem great on the range and then we rate our students like they’re in the Olympics. We need to teach the basics and then focus on how to apply those skills outside of the range. We need to work as much as possible within an environment that will allow officers to get a feel for how these skills must be applied in the myriad situations they might face on the street.

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