Trending Topics

21st century deadly force training for police

Conventional marksmanship training has little to do with winning a gunfight

We are a full decade into a new century, but the way we train police officers to employ deadly force is no different than we did a decade before the 21st century began. According to FBI statistics, 80 percent of officers killed each year in gunfights die at seven yards or less, a figure little changed in the past 30 years. Officers routinely score 100 percent at the seven yard line on the training range, but in gunfights far more than 50 percent of the bullets they fire miss the target. The low hit rate scored by police officers on the street is not a marksmanship problem.

One large agency’s officers scored a gunfight hit rate of just 11 percent during a 10-year period I analyzed. That’s a staggering statistic, but another number was even more shocking. Though the sample was admittedly small, the bad guys in those incidents also scored an 11 percent hit rate.

Their Academy Commander summed it up perfectly: “My officers get a hundred hours of firearms training in the academy and quarterly qualifications thereafter, but are hitting at the same rate as felons with no formal training? We should save all the ammunition, because our training program seems to be worthless!”

In the late 1990s that agency’s training program still encouraged one-hand, slow-fire, bull’s-eye target shooting at the 25-yard line. After all, if an officer can shoot tight groups at 25 yards, they can easily handle a gunfight at 10 feet, right? Wrong! (89 percent of the time.)

A raw shooter can be scoring 100 percent at seven yards by the end of the first day of training. But, at least with that one police agency, upping the training time to nearly three weeks only produced 11 percent hits on the street. Recently released data on the gunfight hit rate of officers in the New York City and Los Angeles Police Departments mirror what I found in the mid-west. During a gunfight, about 25 percent of the shots fired by their officers hit their intended target.

Most programs “train to the test,” meaning they practice the skills necessary to fire a passing score on the qualification course. Many qualification tests are an adaptation of the old Practical Pistol Course. Many agencies are training to a “test” that has no similarity whatsoever to a police gunfight.

We need to prepare officers for the next gunfight, not the next competitive shooting match. We must train deadly force in a manner that will ensure officers pass the real test — winning a gunfight at 20 feet, not punching tight groups at 15-25 yards. Taking the “top shooter” award in your training class is cool, but winning your first gunfight is way cooler.

A training program which emphasizes the management of combat stress, without any marksmanship training, would create a better gunfighter than any program based solely on conventional marksmanship training. If they can master stress, even a below average marksman will score hits and win most pistol confrontations. If they master combat stress, marksmanship may prove to be a minor part of the gunfight equation. If they can’t master stress, even the very best marksman may miss — and die.

The only pre-gunfight way to gain combat “experience” is through Reality-Based Training (RBT). I’m not suggesting we ignore the development of marksmanship skills. Instead, we need to develop and test an officer’s marksmanship skills against interactive threats, not paper images on a shooting range. Once trainees can reliably hit paper targets out to seven yards and load/function/clear their sidearm, we should pit them against stressful computer simulators and human adversaries in RBT scenarios using paint munitions. Only when a trainee can deliver 80 percent hits — under stress, against live hostile targets, while on the move at between five and 25 feet — should we return to the live-ammunition range to develop more refined marksmanship skills.

Talk all you like about one of the rare 25-yard shots that have been made by pistol-armed officers, but, we still shoot poorly on the street and merely training more of the same won’t change that fact. If we never get back to the range to develop pistol shooting skills at 15-25 yards, so be it! That’s why all cops should have patrol rifles. With rifles, we can develop higher marksmanship skills, building upon the true gunfighting skills they learn with their pistols in the RBT scenarios.

Dick Fairburn has had more than 26 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming. He has worked patrol, investigations and administration assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst, and as the Section Chief of a major academy’s Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident Training program.