Instructor-to-student ratios for firearms training

Many variables have to be considered when you’re trying to determine the staffing requirements for firearms training


Police firearms instructors teach one of the most critical skills a police officer needs. While the typical officer may not use a firearm frequently in the course of their duties, the risks associated with using a firearm are tremendous, and it requires comprehensive training to mitigate these risks.

Police1 recently forwarded me a reader question about police firearms training, and in the course of answering the inquiry, I realized this topic might be relevant to other readers.

How many?

There’s a natural tendency and drive for organizations to attempt to “do more with less,” and firearms training is no exception to these budgetary pressures. (Photo/Mike Wood)
There’s a natural tendency and drive for organizations to attempt to “do more with less,” and firearms training is no exception to these budgetary pressures. (Photo/Mike Wood)

The reader who submitted a question is the officer in charge of firearms training at his agency and was researching the appropriate level of instructor supervision for training. He wanted to know what recommendations there are regarding the ideal instructor-to-student ratio for firearms training, and if there were any commonly accepted industry standards that applied.

A previous Police1 article had suggested, “a good rule of thumb on numbers is one instructor for every five or six students,” and also discussed the distinct roles played by instructors and range safety officers (RSOs). The reader pointed to the article and wanted to know if this rule of thumb was valid for his department.

Variables

This is one of those questions that generate more questions than answers. The only appropriate answer to the question, "How many instructors?” is, “It depends.”

There are many variables when determining staffing requirements for firearms training, and a change in any of those variables could have a dramatic impact on the final answer. Rules of thumb are a useful place to start, but they're not a complete solution because they don't account for the unique nature of your circumstances – your firearms training program may require more or less supervision than the rule of thumb, or a comparable agency’s program, might suggest.

National standards?

The reader also asked if there was a commonly accepted, national standard in the industry that he could reference, and there’s not an easy answer to that question, either.

The short answer is "No, there is no mutually agreed-upon national standard.” There are several places that someone could look for a “national standard,” such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI), or other organizations, yet none have emerged as the sole voice of the industry. However, some voices speak louder than others, and of them all, the most important is probably the National Rifle Association’s Law Enforcement Division (NRA LED).

The NRA has been training law enforcement officers since the very beginnings of law enforcement firearms training. The NRA hosted the first national police revolver match in 1910 and, by the 1920s, had established a police training program as part of the Small Arms Firing School, and a Police Division within the organization to help professionalize police firearms training throughout the United States.

The NRA developed the first national standards for police firearms instruction and evaluation, hosted pistol matches from coast-to-coast (including the national matches each year) to promote police marksmanship, and worked with agencies nationwide to establish formal training programs where none had existed before.

That work has continued unabated for over a century, and today’s NRA LED continues to train more law enforcement firearms instructors than any other organization in the country. So, while there is no national standard on instructor-student ratios, the NRA LED's recommendations carry a lot of weight and are the closest thing you’ll get to a national standard.

Back to those variables, again

The NRA LED suggests asking the following questions when determining the optimum instructor-to-student ratio for a firearms class:

  • Who are the instructors and students, and what is their level of experience and knowledge? If the students are inexperienced and lack knowledge (such as an academy recruit), a larger number of instructors will be required to maintain safety in the training environment. Similarly, if the instructor doesn’t have a lot of experience or training in the instructor role, then it would be appropriate to add additional instructors, for safety.
  • What is the course or program being considered? Is this an initial training class for new cadets, or an in-service class for seasoned officers? Handgun or long gun training? Will the program consist of shooting from static positions at known distances, or will there be dynamic simulation, movement, and tactical exercises as part of the instruction? The more complex the task, the more instructors will be necessary to safely accomplish the training.
  • Where is the training being held? What is the layout of the range or training facility? Are there restrictions or limitations with the range, or with the equipment being used that create unique challenges for the training staff and students? Some training locations, by their very nature, will require additional instructor staff to maintain a safe training environment.
  • How will the training be conducted? Which method of presenting the information will be used? Is this academic instruction in a classroom environment, live fire training on a range, or a mix of both? How many students will be present for training? Will the training be conducted in relays, or will students be split into coach/shooter teams to help monitor each other? As an instructor, your vision of how the training will take place will help to guide the proper staffing levels.
  • When is the training being held? Will this be daylight training, low light training, or night training? Will the training be conducted during seasonal weather or extremely high or low temperatures? All of these external factors have a great impact on the number of instructors required to safely supervise the students and monitor their welfare during training.

The whole picture

Based on an evaluation of these factors, the lead instructor then makes an appropriate call on the instructor-to-student ratio. In general, the NRA LED recommends a minimum of one instructor for every five students (1:5) for static range training, but this ratio will certainly change based on the answers to the questions above. For example, if the students are new to firearms, or the training will be conducted in low light conditions, then more staff will be needed to safely execute the training.

The NRA LED also recommends that any training that combines live fire with movement (beyond a step or two on the firing line) or live fire with increased problem solving or decision making, should be manned at a ratio of one instructor for every student (1:1). So, if your training involves a student firing on the move, running through scenarios, or working his way through a “shoot house,” then that student should be directly supervised at all times by a qualified staff member for safety.

Cautions

There’s a natural tendency and drive for organizations to attempt to “do more with less,” and firearms training is no exception to these budgetary pressures.

In some agencies, the instructor responsible for issuing range commands and “calling” the course of fire is included in the ratio of instructors to students, but that can be a false economy. Remember, the goal is to provide an instructor who is close enough to the student to be able to physically intervene, and prevent an unsafe situation from developing (to have the student within his ”span of control”). It may not be possible for someone who is calling the course of fire to provide this level of supervision for students, because he may be engrossed in his administrative responsibilities, or physically removed from the line of fire (such as, in a control booth or other centralized location) where he can’t get his hands on a student. For these reasons, it’s generally recommended that the person who performs these duties is not included in the instructor-to-student ratio.

Additionally, instructors should avoid assuming too much about their students. It might seem reasonable, at first, to assume that in-service training for a group of officers would require less supervision by virtue of their previous experience, but many “qualified” officers are not especially competent or comfortable with their firearms, and there may have been a substantial delay since they last attended firearms training, depending on agency policies. Even highly competent officers could represent a unique safety threat, because “familiarity breeds contempt” sometimes, and an officer who has spent a lot of time around firearms might be less sensitive to the dangers of mishandling them, and therefore a greater safety risk.

Never assume that a student is so experienced or professional that they can’t have a moment of inattention or make a simple – but deadly – error. Staff your operation so that your instructors can maintain their span of control over the students they are responsible for, regardless of the student’s skill level and experience.

Don’t cut corners

In a time when budgets are tight and resources are scarce, it can be tempting to skimp on instructor staffing for firearms training, but this is one area where you should be hesitant to cut too much – the cost of a mistake is too high when you’re dealing with firearms.

I encourage agencies to consider the NRA LED model for evaluating firearms instructor staffing, and make their own decisions, rather than relying on generic rules of thumb, or the standards in use at other agencies (whose situation may not match yours, nor account for the unique variables that you have to deal with).

Be comprehensive, be deliberate and be safe out there.

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