Training at distance still matters
Instructors who claim accurate shots at 25 yards or more is too high of a standard for their officers are leaving their students with the curse of low expectations
This article is part of a series for Police1 registered members from Todd Fletcher titled “Police Firearms: Discussion, Drills & Demos.” Todd writes about current hot topics related to police firearms training, outlines firearms training drills and demonstrates shooting techniques on video. If you have a topic you would like Todd to cover, or a training problem you need to solve, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For decades, police officers regularly trained and qualified with their revolvers out to 50 yards and beyond. In the era of six shots and reloads that took an eternity, being able to make consistent hits on a human-sized silhouette at 25+ yards was considered achievable and necessary. Today, many departments limit their training distance to 15 yards. While they may be in the minority, most departments do very little training at 25 yards and beyond.
Many instructors believe that because the “average” gunfight takes place at close quarters, training programs must focus on officers being fast and close. As an instructor, I admire who once said, “YOUR gunfight won’t feel very ‘average’ to YOU!” Since we don’t know what your gunfight will look like, we need to train at a variety of distances and work on improving a variety of skills. If we knew your gunfight was going to be at 10 yards using your strong hand only, we would focus training on using only the strong hand at 10 yards. But none of us can see into the future with absolute certainty, so we need to train for more than the “average” gunfight.
As for speed, I would agree that getting the handgun out of the holster quickly is a good thing, but I would argue that distance is irrelevant to the speed of the draw. It shouldn’t matter if you’re at bad breath distance or 50 yards. Getting the gun out of the holster fast doesn’t mean you should shoot faster. A fast and efficient draw means you have time to shoot better. Accuracy is the only thing that matters.
The studies most instructors use to support their training programs limiting shooting at distance are flawed or contain incomplete statistics. When citing these studies while advocating for short-distance training programs, instructors take these studies and statistics out of context and apply the information to fit their close-range firearms training programs.
What LEOKA data doesn’t tell us
Most studies and instructors reference the excellent summaries of the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) studies. This has resulted in training being developed using data from officers who are killed or feloniously assaulted. The problem is the data only tells us where officers are killed and assaulted and not necessarily where gunfights occurred. Furthermore, it doesn’t tell us anything about the distances where officers prevail in their fights. If you look at the reports showing the number of officer-involved shootings (OIS) per year, there are many more OIS per year than officers killed in shootings.
Instructors who take the FBI LEOKA data and build their programs around it are making the same mistake as the World War ll Allied forces. Planes would return from battle and be inspected for damage. The areas where the planes were commonly hit by enemy fire were strengthened in an effort to reduce the number of planes shot down. A mathematician, Abraham Wald, pointed out that perhaps the reason certain areas of the plane weren’t covered in bullet holes was that planes shot in those areas did not return for inspection. This reasoning led to the planes being armored and strengthened on the parts of the plane where there were no bullet holes. Sometimes the story behind the data is more important than the data itself. We should think critically about the statistics and strive to understand if and why we may be missing some of the data.
Additionally, LEOKA data includes incidents where officers were disarmed by their attackers. An officer who is disarmed and shot by their attacker skews the data toward an OIS at very close range. This should have a great effect on our defensive tactics and weapon retention training, but it really has nothing to do with live-fire firearms training.
The fundamentals of accurate shooting
Frequently, firearm instructors who focus on “bad breath” distance training deemphasize the fundamentals of accurate shooting. The result is officers who can generally make upper thoracic hits on target inside 10 yards but struggle to make a headshot hit at the same distance.
In a spontaneous OIS, it may be impossible to obtain a perfect sight picture and sight alignment. This doesn’t mean officers shouldn’t fight to achieve the best sight picture and sight alignment possible. During training, many firearm instructors tell their students not to worry about their sights because they won’t see them during a gunfight. These instructors are right about one thing: their students won’t see their sights if they didn’t TRAIN to see their sights!
If we fight like we train, then officers who train to constantly fight for their sight picture and alignment use the sights even if under stress their conscious mind doesn’t recall seeing them. Training to unconscious competence should be a goal of all firearm instructors. Even at close distances, the use of a flash sight picture to cover the target increases your odds of stopping an attacker much quicker than not using a sight picture.
In this era of pistol-mounted optics, training officers to pick up the reticle through the optic is vital to making accurate hits on target. If officers are seeing the dot through the optic, using a pistol-mounted optic is like cheating. When officers use the sight, a pistol-mounted optic makes shooters more accurate. Instructors who deemphasize the fundamentals of marksmanship will struggle with pistol-mounted optics robbing their officers of the benefits of this system.
[Police1 reader poll results: What is the maximum distance you regularly train at with a handgun (not qualification)?]
A simple way to overcome the 25-yard line anxiety
The last problem to address is how emphasizing close-range training often means little time remains to train officers at 25 yards and beyond. At these distances, flaws in the fundamentals of marksmanship are exaggerated. Many officers feel overwhelmed at 25 yards even when their mandatory qualification includes it. Maybe the reason they feel overwhelmed at this distance is that they receive so little training there.
A simple way to overcome the 25-yard line anxiety is to use a steel target silhouette and work a simple step drill back to 50 yards or more. Make three hits on target, then take a large step back. Make three more hits on target, then take another large step back. Repeat until you get back to 50 yards or more. Next, go back to the 25-yard line and shoot. Suddenly, the 25-yard line looks much closer and getting accurate hits is much easier.
The curse of low expectations
Instructors who claim accurate shots at 25 yards or more is too high of a standard for their officers are leaving their students with the curse of low expectations. If we train our officers to a higher standard, our officers will perform up to that standard. If we continue to lower the standards, our officers will perform down to those standards.
We should all be grateful to officers like Airman Andy Brown. He stopped an active shooter at Fairchild Air Force Base who was armed with a rifle by making fight-stopping hits with his M9 pistol at distances over 75 yards. And to Austin (Texas) Police Sgt. Adam Johnson, who used his duty handgun to deliver an accurate center mass shot using one hand while holding the reins of two horses stopping an active shooter on a rampage through the streets of the city. There are many other examples, but the bottom line is we don’t know what our gunfight is going to look like, so we might as well train to excellence instead of cursing our students with low expectations.
If you are a firearms instructor, look at your training program through critical eyes. Are you training for the “average” gunfight, or are you training your officers to utilize their skills to prevail at all distances? If you’re an officer, do an honest assessment of your own skills. If your accuracy beyond the 15-yard line is not where it needs to be, spend some time getting those skills up to a higher standard. The loved ones you leave at home are depending on you to prevail.