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Firearms training for real-world assaults

When officers repeatedly practice drawing their gun without moving their head or feet, what are they likely to do when an offender suddenly produces a weapon at close range?


If offenders intuitively target the head, does your training prioritize quickly moving your head at the first sign of an assault?

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Originally published on the Force Science Institute website. Republished here with permission.

By Chris Butler, Force Science Senior Instructor

The annual Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) studies, in conjunction with research on the speed and biomechanics of assault, continue to provide critical information that must inform training practices.

First, armed attacks can occur without warning and can be extremely fast. In the vast majority of officer fatalities involving firearms, officers could not draw their handguns, let alone return fire. These confrontations occurred at extremely close range and often included accurate head and neck shot placement.

The speed of assault by offenders can be blisteringly fast. The average suspect can remove a handgun from a concealed position, point it at an officer and pull the trigger in approximately 250 milliseconds. That can be faster than a blink!

The news gets worse. According to 10 years of LEOKA studies, over 60% of shots known to be fatal, struck officers in the head or neck. While some of these officers may have been shot while falling through the plane of gunfire, others were hit by offenders instinctively shooting where they were looking – at the officer’s face.

If an offender is moving quickly and instinctively aiming at an officer’s face, remaining stationary and trying to outdraw the suspect may result in the officer being struck in the head, neck, or face long before they even unholster their gun. That, of course, presumes the officer was able to perceive and survive the initial assault.

Training to Get Hit

Basic firearm training puts a lot of emphasis on “static line” shooting. This motor skill training is conducted in a “closed motor action” environment. Closed motor skills are performed in a stationary environment, where the environment is fixed and predictable. Suppose firearms training never advances beyond closed motor skills training. In those cases, agencies may be conditioning officers to perform the opposite response to what is needed for optimal performance in real-world force encounters.

Neurons that Fire Together, Wire Together

Hebb’s Law” (Spike Timing Dependent Plasticity) is one of the most well-researched and accepted concepts in psychology and human performance. Hebb’s Law informs us that motor pathways are not formed in isolation, which means the context and conditions in which the pathways are created (i.e., the training) matter.

Take, for example, the standard draw stroke of the handgun. This serial motor program consists of multiple, individual, discrete motor movements. Officers must grip the gun, release the retention mechanisms, lift the gun from the holster, align the muzzle, drive (present) the gun toward the threat and move the trigger finger to the trigger.

Every time an officer conducts the draw stroke, the brain’s motor cortex builds stronger motor neural pathways. During this repetitive process, a type of insulation known as myelin forms around the involved neurons. This “myelination” can result in a connection that is 10x faster than unmyelinated nerves. For shooters, this high-speed connection can result in an efficient draw stroke that requires no attentional resources (“motor automaticity”).


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Context Matters: The Other Side of Hebb’s Law

Hebb’s Law tells us that we can train to develop efficient and fast motor pathways. But trainers must be cautioned, as the draw stroke is being developed, so are other motor responses and non-responses.

If officers spend hours on a static firearms range, stand in line and draw their handgun only after a signal or cue is given (e.g., an audible signal or turning of a target), they are activating and developing the motor response to draw their gun. The motor program to draw the gun is reinforced. Unfortunately, the response is dangerously paired to an artificial starting cue and an upright and static physical posture that can significantly disadvantage officers in real-world force encounters.

In other words, if an officer spends hundreds or thousands of repetitions on the firing range, drawing their gun without moving their head or feet, they are likely to do the same thing when an offender suddenly produces a weapon or attacks at close range. This performance error can be severe, and the unintended pairing of artificial stimuli with ineffective responses should have experts rebuking these firearms training programs.

Hebb’s Law in Practice: The Traffic Stop Study

Applying Hebb’s Law, if a suspect rapidly produces a close-range firearm threat (the stimulus), the officer’s brain will recognize the threat as a cue to execute the automatic or procedural motor response. If training involves repeated static range procedures, the officer may predictably remain stationary while attempting to draw their handgun.

We saw this predictable response from officers involved in the Force Science “Traffic Stop Study.” In our study, 93 officers conducted multiple “unknown risk” traffic stops (ostensibly for a moving violation). During one of the interactions, the driver (role player) would quickly produce a realistic training handgun, point it out the window, and repeatedly fire at the officer.

The results? Three officers successfully redirected the suspect’s firearm with empty hand techniques to avoid being shot. The remaining 90 officers automatically tried to draw their firearm in response to the threat – some backpedaled, some turned and ran, and some stood flat-footed.

Trying to Outdraw a Trigger Pull

It might take between 1.5-1.7 seconds for an average officer to draw a holstered pistol and fire one round in response to a stimulus. If the trigger cycle rate averages .25 seconds from the suspect, officers who attempt to draw their weapon while exposed to the suspect’s fire could be shot six or more times before they could return fire. It’s worth noting that our role player was instructed not to aim at the officers’ faces. Offenders may not be as forgiving.

Evidence-Based Firearms Training

Hebb’s Law may explain how static firearms training may be creating paired responses that leave officers doing precisely the wrong thing when confronted with real-world, rapidly unfolding firearm threats. We understand that we do not ordinarily rise to the occasion during a crisis, and instead, we default to our training. If that is true, then it is up to us to use Hebb’s Law to ensure our training results in optimal performance.

If offenders intuitively target the head, does your training prioritize quickly moving your head at the first sign of an assault? Are you training your officers to “get off the X” and move their torso and feet? Are you prioritizing and practicing physical control at close range? In response to sudden threats, will your officers default to “shoot, move, communicate,” or have they practiced to move first?

Advanced Training for Instructors

Understanding concepts like Hebb’s Law and automaticity is vital for modern police trainers – not just firearms instructors. To improve training practices and enhance public safety, we have developed the Methods of Instruction – Training Practical Professional Policing Skills. This program will be extremely challenging as it introduces trainers to the human factors and training strategies necessary to develop and deliver validated and effective skills across the training spectrum.

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The FSRC was launched in 2004 by Executive Director Bill Lewinski, PhD. -- a specialist in police psychology -- to conduct unique lethal-force experiments. The non-profit FSRC, based at Minnesota State University-Mankato, uses sophisticated time-and-motion measurements to document-for the first time-critical hidden truths about the physical and mental dynamics of life-threatening events, particularly officer-involved shootings. Its startling findings profoundly impact on officer training and safety and on the public’s naive perceptions.