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Gunfighting skills: Sights, shooting, and survival

The diversity of your program and the frequency in which officers have the ability to be challenged is what will make the difference, not some dated dogma created to test proficiency in a static controlled aptitude test

Think back to the days of the “Wild West.” Remember stories of the showdowns out in the middle of the town? Two gunslingers, facing off, guns strapped to their hips, each waiting to make their move.

With a lightning-fast draw, shots rang out and one was left standing while the other lies dead or dying in the dirt. Do you ever recall any of those gunslingers taking the time to line up their sights?

Now, Hollywood may have spiced it up a bit to make it seem more impressive then it may have actually been, but I suspect there was some truth to that fiction.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a time and place for using sights in law enforcement — there certainly is — but I am suggesting that there is and has been too much time and emphasis during training placed on this aspect of shooting.

Officer-involved shootings are generally dynamic and short lived. They occur at close distances and often take place in diminished-lighting conditions. The officers involved are acting under high stress — and all the physiological effects that go along with it — which means the diminished ability to see or focus at close range.

When considering the distances, lighting conditions, physiological effects and the added time to acquire your sights — even if you could while engaging another human being who may already be putting rounds in your direction — you may want to reconsider the time and money invested in sighted shooting for your firearms program.

Sighted shooting should be taught as a separate component from the assault component. It is included in the basic marksmanship phase and time spent using sights should be conducted in the appropriate setting, beyond ten yards and preferably from a position of cover/concealment.

The driving force behind sighted shooting in law enforcement comes from manufacturers of guns and sights looking to make a sale to a large market and every time the latest and greatest comes out we are drawn to it like a moth to the light. Our big brothers, the military, also influence our equipment and our tactics. Although the military has been more aligned with police actions than ever before, they still engage at distances, on average, much greater than any seen in law enforcement.

Qualifications should be a separate entity conducted quarterly or semi-annually. Qualifications should not be the beginning and end of your entire firearms program. The emphasis of your program should be geared towards what you are trying to accomplish with your program and that should be saving officers lives.

Study officer-involved shootings, note the circumstances: time of day/night, type of call, distances, duration, availability of cover/concealment, stationary/moving, sighted/instinctive, reloads, malfunctions and incorporate these tangibles into your firing exercises.

The diversity of your program and the frequency in which officers have the ability to be challenged is what will make the difference, not some dated dogma created to test proficiency in a static controlled aptitude test geared towards putting holes through a designated scoring area on a paper target.

Diversity in teaching officers how to shoot in a dynamic life-threatening environment also means to add depth to your program. Get them off of the shooting lanes on the range and place them in realistic settings that they will encounter out on the streets.

Whether you include F.A.T.S. simulation training, or notch it up to Airsoft or Simunitions to incorporate force-on-force scenarios, this is where the rubber meets the road. This is where you see the dynamics between target shooting on a range and combat shooting on the streets, or at least as close as you can come in training.

Someone once said, “Training isn’t an expense, it’s an investment.”

Budgets are tight for everyone and we cannot afford to put officers out on the streets who have not been afforded the very best preparation we can provide. We have to get creative with how we train and how we finance that training. Pool your RESOURCES!

Whether its facilities, equipment or personnel, everyone can contribute to ease the burden for all. Reach out to neighboring jurisdictions and collaborate on training evolutions that may have been too costly to conduct within your own agency, but is sustainable when obtaining the additional resources. This type of an arrangement would truly be a win-win for all.

Lastly — and probably most importantly — we as officers and instructors need to realize the importance of mental preparation during training if we expect to survive out on the streets, often the will supersedes the skill. Simply teaching the skill sets; stance, grip, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control, breathing, etc., falls short of preparing officers to kill, or be killed in an ever increasingly violent society.

Before the first rounds ever go down range, we must focus on why we are there, what are the consequences if we fail to prepare and squander our opportunities for improvement? We must emphasize that we are not shooting at paper targets, but actual deadly threats intent on killing us. That survival is the objective and not what you score. That every time we square off against a target, a simulation, or a role-player, we will engage as if our life depended on it, because ultimately it does.

Survival is — or should be — the objective of all firearm programs and every aspect of that program should be directed to achieve that end. The last couple of years have been exceptionally deadly for law enforcement officers throughout the United States and perhaps today more than ever we are dealing a citizenry that is more likely armed then in recent history. As we go forward, officers need to prepare mentally, emotionally and physically in order to survive the increasing dangers that await us.

Evaluate your firearms program and be honest with yourselves. Are you doing everything you can to prepare your officers to survive a lethal confrontation? Are you caught up just providing industry standards, or are you seeking new and innovative ways to prepare and challenge your officers? Be critical in your thinking and challenge the experts and the decision makers, does there approach feed more to philosophies of marksmanship, or to the realities of officer involved shootings? Make all of your efforts geared to making your officers better prepared in every aspect; equipment, tactics, mentally/emotionally.

Remember, all hurdles can be overcome once the will is realized.

Dan Danaher is a retired sergeant with 28 years of law enforcement experience. He has been retained by his former agency as the range master to oversee the firearms and TASER programs. Dan is also the co-founder of Tactical Encounters Inc., a law enforcement training company based out of Michigan.