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Think you're good? You can be even better!
One trainer’s motivating commitment to lifelong skills-building sets a good example for police officers to strive toward
Think you’ve reached the peak of your performance capability? “Redouble your efforts, work harder than ever. You’ve just hit a plateau of efficiency. Set your sights on the next plateau. You’re not at the top of the mountain yet.”
That’s the voice of firearms expert John Farnam, on the subject of building lifelong skills. He’s a firm believer in the old adage, “When a master is no longer a student, he is no longer a master.”
A Vietnam Vet (with three Purple Hearts), Farnam has been a sworn officer for nearly four decades. He estimates that as an independent trainer operating throughout the U.S., Canada, and overseas, he’s schooled more than 10,000 LEOs on how to win gunfights. He’s written four books on the mental and physical practicalities of weapons craft and has been declared a “living legend” by Black Belt magazine.
And yet, he says, the high points of his year come when he seizes opportunities to test his abilities, expose his weaknesses, and set new goals for professional development.
Training, he says, needs to be “committed, competent, and constant” — the perennial Three Cs for building excellence. And even the most accomplished should be walking that walk as long as they’re breathing and able.
We caught up with Farnam recently after he’d completed — for the 20th year in a row — the National Tactical Invitational, hosted annually by the American Tactical Shooting Association, a volunteer group of law officers and civilians devoted to realistic self defense.
As the name implies, you have to be invited (after a screening of applications) to the Invitational — its gauntlet of ten heart-pumping, live-fire, and Simunitions scenarios is not intended for amateurs.
“There’s no scoring, no trophies. It’s not competition shooting,” Farnam explains. “As a trainer, what I like is that I didn’t create the scenarios, like I do for my courses. There are no walk-throughs, no hints. So I don’t know until I’m in each situation what challenges I’m going to face and what skills I’m going to need to get out. I get to honestly evaluate my whole tactical ensemble.”
The problems he faced in the realistically-designed “shoot village” during this year’s event ranged from the simple to the complex. All emphasized decision making under pressure, not just firearms proficiency. Most dealt with situations an officer might encounter off-duty, a subject too rarely addressed in traditional police training.
“These are all high-speed drills, where you have to tactically withdraw or press forward, move, communicate, use cover, observe, evaluate, shoot, keep your guns running despite stoppages — all while maintaining objectivity and keeping in mind your overall goal of surviving and winning,” he says.
His reflections on the lessons learned are grist for any officer’s training mill. Samples:
• Late for an appointment off-duty, you cut through an alley to save time and encounter two “trashy” individuals apparently involved in a drug deal. Talking in hushed voices too low for you to understand, they attempt to engage you in conversation. Withdrawal is complicated by other role-players of unknown identity who’ve entered the alley behind you, a possible trap.
“There’s no risk-free solution here,” Farnam says. He opted to move past the questionable pair rapidly, politely ignoring their entreaties, saying ‘I’m sorry, sir, I can’t help you’ and making himself “long-gone” before they could directly confront him. Participants who hesitated or allowed themselves to get hooked into conversation ended up being mugged.
“Those who dither in these circumstances will quickly find themselves cornered,” Farnam says. “Accept what your eyes plainly see. We sometimes see things that are obviously dangerous but dismiss them because it’s not convenient to deal with them.
“Never stop. Stay in motion. It’s hard to victimize someone who’s moving. Have verbal tape loops in mind for deflecting conversational overtures, and don’t mumble in delivering them. Mumbling conveys weakness, and predators are looking for weakness.”
• You’re shopping in civilian clothes in a busy strip mall store when an armed robbery goes down in front of you. Two suspects wielding pistols demand money, watches, and cell phones from customers. Gun in hand, one starts going through your pockets.
“I knew he would soon discover my badge and holstered sidearm,” Farnam says. “When he got too close, I disarmed him and then, using his pistol and simultaneously using him as something of a shield, I shot his partner. I thought about drawing my own gun, but there’s an old poker expression, ‘When you have a pair of jacks, bet ’em.’ When your life is at stake, you can’t wait, hoping for something better, because you don’t know how much worse things might get. I had his pistol in hand, so I went with it.
“His partner was able to shoot me once, so my plan wasn’t perfect. But you have to be flexible enough to make difficult decisions without dithering…observant enough to detect opportunities the moment they appear…decisive enough to make your move at the critical moment…and determined enough to see it through.
“Suspects tend to be their weakest at the beginning of an encounter. The longer it goes on, the more control they tend to gain and the fewer options you tend to have. You can’t just decide not to decide. A good response doesn’t mean not taking risk. You calculate what you think is the best risk, you go for it with everything you’ve got, and you don’t look back.
“When it comes to defending my life, I’m pretty enthusiastic, without apology. I’ve been shot for real before.”
Participants who delayed too long to act in this scenario, incidentally, were eventually forced to their knees, disarmed, and “executed” with shots to the back of the head.
• You’re with family members in a wedding chapel. In the middle of the ceremony, the bride’s ex-boyfriend shows up and “things begin to deteriorate.” Verbal threats are made.
“I ducked out with my people upon hearing the threats,” Farnam said, “and thus avoided being caught up in a gunfight that erupted soon after that.
“When you’re in a social or public setting off-duty and you sense danger, you have to have the courage to say, ‘We’re going,’ even when others may not agree with you. Have an understanding with your family: ‘When one of us says we’re leaving, we go — no discussion, no argument.’ One of you may be seeing or hearing something the others don’t or maybe you’re just reacting to a cop’s good intuition. You can discuss it when you’re clear of danger.
“Also when you’re part of a group at any event, keep close together and sit together. That way, when you need to exit quickly you won’t squander critical moments trying to round up your people.”
• You arrive out of uniform at an urgent-care clinic to pick up a family member. As you enter the front door, you hear shots fired and screaming. Your loved one is somewhere inside, fate unknown. “So, in you go!” Farnam says.
Live-fire exercises at the Invitational are conducted in settings with 360-degree threat potential. Targets are fully dressed, hydraulically activated mannequins that fall only when hit in an internal, four-inch central core (which is not visible from the outside). Some must be shot there several times before toppling.
“In this exercise, there were many threats — sometimes several at the same time — and often intermixed with targets that appeared suddenly but were non-threatening,” Farnam says. Where appropriate, he took care of business with at least one four-round burst. He carried a primary weapon (SIG P250) and two backups (Kahr PM45 and S&W 340PD) and by the time he successfully defeated all the bad guys he’d used all his guns.
“I had to remind myself to keep moving constantly and to quickly move laterally as I brought my pistol up to eye level,” he recalls. “This strategy kept me from getting shot several times.”
Another lesson — an arguable one, he admits — “is the importance of defaulting to a military reload any time it is possible, so that magazines and live rounds that may still be in them are retained on your person and not jettisoned, where they will likely be unrecoverable.”
At one point when he’d exhausted ammunition in his backups, he was able to reinsert a partially filled magazine he’d ejected earlier and finish the fight. “It takes slightly longer than a speed reload where you just drop the magazine, but in an extended firefight where you have a tactical pause and can spare the time, you may come to appreciate the rounds you’re saving.”
Other scenarios presented a steady stream of other “vexatious” challenges: having to draw, shoot, and reload using only the support hand…having to continue an engagement when the lights suddenly go out (Farnam always carries a 120-lumen pocket flashlight)…having to figure out how to use an unfamiliar, long-obsolete-model shotgun with a confounding automatic safety as the only weapon available in a crisis…having to shoot a hostage-taker while narrowly missing a hostage…having to take out a terrorist threat at a distance of 50 meters with only a handgun.
Of the latter, Farnam remarks: “You wish you had a rifle, but I wish rainwater was beer, too! This is an important drill for all of us. Long-range pistol shooting is a lost art in many quarters, but if we are to successfully engage rifle-wielding terrorists in shopping malls when we are off-duty or even as first-responding patrol officers in many jurisdictions, it is an art we have to reclaim.”
Like the other participants, Farnam was given a videotape of his performance throughout. He has scrutinized it, seeking shortcomings he can work to improve.
“Subjecting yourself as a trainer to someone else’s training periodically refreshes your humility,” he says. “It tunes you up, reminds you that you have limitations, and shows you where your boundaries are currently. When you feel satisfied after training like this, you’re just not pushing yourself hard enough.” Among the personal dissatisfactions he hadn’t expected:
1. “I took too long to make a decision in some scenarios. I need to learn to size up situations quicker. You rarely have more than three seconds to react once you recognize a threat, and you may need to choose from shooting, moving to cover, verbally challenging, disarming, going hands-on, using OC or a baton, as well as disengaging and separating. There’s not time to meditate.
2. “On the other hand, I need to better recognize when I’m going too fast. If you go too fast, you expose yourself to suicidal risk and simultaneously deny yourself adequate time to evaluate potential threats. I was one of several participants in one scenario who mistakenly shot mannequins in National Guard uniforms with badges ‘obviously’ displayed because I was moving so fast my reflexes outdistanced my ability to evaluate. Badges, incidentally, are especially hard to see against camouflage clothing.
3. “I need to expand my repertoire of verbal tape loops to fit more situations. These are stock phrases you can use to deflect, confuse, or distract potentially threatening suspects, but you need to have them firmly committed to memory so you can access them automatically. If you try to think up something on the spot, it’s likely to come out garbled.”
Meanwhile, he urges other officers and trainers to embrace candid self-criticism and a never-slackening drive to get better. “If you’re good with a pistol, get good with a rifle and good with a blade and then good with multiple weapons together. Practice how to treat gunshot wounds in the field, on yourself and on your buddy. There are an endless number of things to learn out there. You just have to go get ’em.”