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4 steps toward more realistic firearms training

Assuming a police officer is ready for a gunfight because they passed an agency’s firearms qualification test is unreasonable in most cases


The only thing a passing test score guarantees is that the student is able to pass the test.


Article updated on September 19, 2017.

Visualize a scored target from a police qualification test shot by one of your fellow officers. The target has tight clusters of shots in the upper center mass and head with no strays. The shooter has obviously done a good job of delivering precise and repeatable shots under the time constraints imposed by the agency’s qualification course. The instructor who scored the target must have been pleased, because he has written “OUTSTANDING” in capital letters underneath the official score.

Can we draw any conclusions about the shooter based on the target? Could we assume that the shooter was a good officer? A good marksman? That he or she would perform well in a gunfight?

I presented a target fitting this description to a firearms class I recently instructed, and asked the assembled officers those questions. They were hesitant to answer right away, but the response I was looking for finally came from the back of the crowd.

“No,” said one of the officers, “we couldn’t tell that just from the target.”


The reason so many hesitated to answer is because there’s an implicit understanding – part of every training program and qualification course – that if a student can pass the test by successfully demonstrating the required skills, then he/she will be ready for the job at hand.

What Does a Test Do?

When we pass a driver’s test, we’re given a license and permission to go out and drive. Presumably the test is there to guarantee that we’re capable of doing the job properly before we’re trusted to do it alone. That’s why there’s a minimum standard, and why people who don’t meet it don’t get to drive, right? Even if it’s never explicitly stated, the whole arrangement encourages students and instructors to equate a passing score with task competency and readiness.

But it’s all a lie.

The only thing a passing test score guarantees is that the student is able to pass the test – assuming anything else (particularly when we’re talking about defensive skills) is a dangerous thing.

Why is that? One of the primary reasons is that the test rarely reflects reality. Think about the firearms qualification test at your agency – does it look anything like the conditions you might encounter in a gunfight on the street? Unless you’re in the lucky minority (or you’re just fooling yourself), the answer is probably “no.”

Police training lacks critical thinking

The vast majority of police firearms qualifications are administered in highly regulated conditions that detract from reality. Lighting, visibility and weather are perfect. There are no distractions. The targets are easy to see. In fact, the targets don’t move, don’t shoot back and have convenient scoring rings on them. There are no ‘no-shoot’ targets. We get generous time and distance allowances. There are guaranteed “stops” if you hit the right place.

Consequently, assuming that an officer is ready for a gunfight because they passed (or even excelled at) the agency’s firearms qualification test is unreasonable in most cases.

This lie is not made out of malice. It’s based on a lack of critical thinking, a bit of institutional inertia and some valid concerns about safety. A lot of our firearms training programs have never advanced beyond their early roots, because each succeeding generation of instructors does business the way it’s always been done – the way they were taught when they were students themselves.

Some of the technology has changed, but at the core, many of our training and qualification programs aren’t that much different from how our grandfathers and great grandfathers were trained years ago. A critical eye will detect the extensive influence of legacy programs in our stances, courses of fire and target systems, among other things.

This is also perpetuated due to safety concerns. For example, it would be more realistic to train in a 360-degree environment, but it wouldn’t be safe to do this on the vast majority of ranges. Instructors and students grow to accept the limitations of the “square range” and soon forget that the world outside the berms doesn’t work that way.

practical ways to improve the reality of your police firearms training

So, what do we do? Here are four thoughts on how we can deal with this problem in a productive way:

  1. Take an honest and critical look at your training and qualification programs. Do they reflect the reality of what your officers will encounter on the street? If not, do what you can to fix that.
  2. Recognize that some of the best firearms training does not involve gunpowder. Blue Guns, Simunitions, Airsoft, computer simulators, Red Man suits and force-on-force have revolutionized firearms training and allow you (with proper planning and supervision) to safely replicate the dynamics of real world use of force encounters in a way you never could with a live firearm.
  3. Use your imagination. Good training doesn’t have to involve a lot of expensive gear. A good instructor can take a few folding chairs, some scrap cardboard and a water pistol, and come up with a training scenario that will have the most grizzled SWAT cop sweating bullets.
  4. Teach your students to recognize that passing the test is not the end of the road – it’s the beginning. As a young aviator, the first thing I did when I passed my checkride for my private pilot’s license was to return to my flight instructor and show him my newly signed ticket. “Congratulations,” he said, “you now have a license to learn.”

That’s exactly what your passing firearms test score is. So, go out there and learn.

Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis,” the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California. Mike is an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a graduate of the US Army Airborne School, and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 26 years of service. He’s a National Rifle Association (NRA) Law Enforcement Division-certified firearms instructor, senior editor at, and has been a featured guest on the Excellence In Training Academy and American Warrior Society podcasts, as well as several radio and television programs. He’s grateful for the opportunity to serve and learn from the men and women of law enforcement.