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Transition as art and science

Editor’s Note: Police1 has partnered with the New York Tactical Officers Association (NYTOA) to bring you feature articles from their outstanding publication, NY Tactical magazine. The following article first appeared in NY Tactical and is reprinted by permission of the publisher. Check back on Tuesdays toward the middle of every month for features from NYTOA.

By Brian C. Hartman

One of the first things that may strike the reader as they thumb through NY Tactical is the size of this article dedicated to the outwardly benign topic of weapons transitions. Yet there is method to our madness. Without addressing a host of surrounding and interrelated factors, the article’s subject matter would be incomplete, unfair and unsafe to the NYTOA members we are dedicated to serve and who seek to better themselves.

Setting yourself up for success: equipment operation and orientation
A wise colleague and friend of mine often says that there are many elements of the fight that we cannot control. The time, place, terrain, and numbers we face are often dealt to us as we are bound to a reactive posture. However we do have the ability to control the equipment brought to the fight. As it pertains to the SWAT operator conducting transitions, there are three principal pieces of equipment that are the main focus having the ability to enhance or hinder: the sling, the holster and the vest.

So-called tactical slings have gained great favor over recent years with 1, 2 and 3 point options. The plusses and minuses of differing slings is an article in and of itself, yet what does pertain here is the placement of the sling in relation to the three elements of head, left and right arm. In the heyday of the innovative MP-5, the issued green cotton sling was placed over the head and around the shooting arm in order to keep the dominant shoulder “clear.” In addition the unit was often snugged up to the point where when released it hovered muzzle-up and close to the chest… ideal for scoring targets and keeping ones hands warm, yet less than desirable for combat for a number of reasons. The adjustment of the sling should most naturally approximate (without tightness) getting the toe of the stock close to the firing shoulder without impeding handgun draw stroke or equipment access even if the long gun is slovenly dropped and not guided to the ideal resting place. Using head and shooting arm through the sling does not support this result. As such we have seen weapons collisions and dropped handguns during these weak transitions.

For those who run the long gun on one shoulder and the handgun on the opposite hip, simply remember that regardless, the combo of “head and non-pistol” side arm is best. There are some that like or advocate looping the sling around only the head or neck providing a more or less “navel-covering” orientation during transitions. While not a bad practice per se, it does raise the issue of excessive weight, strain or shock to the neck and spine as opposed to trapezius or rhomboid muscles. And of course there are the obvious concerns regarding choke defense when operating at close contact range.

Personally, I have found that less is more, and therefore run un-slung as often as possible. At these times it is crucial to have solid one-handed shooting skills with the handgun, or the foresight (at extended ranges) to lower ones profile, ground the deceased long gun and run with two hands. For those who adamantly opposed to one handed transitions, don’t forget how we work the ballistic shield and handheld flashlights.

When it is required to be, my preference is a bit of a “Frankensling.” On the receiver extension the TangoDown PR-4 allows for quick attach/detach into a simple support-side adjustable strap (channeled up and over the shoulder to the rear) to prevent the vest from drooping or sagging in the front.

Like slings, there are a great many “tactical” or “drop” holsters out there with the vast majority being worn incorrectly. Regardless of the fact that many operators quietly like the sexiness or elitism that the tac-holster denotes, the unit is in fact slower to present from, more prone to shift during rapid movement, and more difficult to conduct retention operations from than a robust belt mounted system.

At the end of the day the drop-holster is designed (and needed) to accomplish one goal only: to securely mount the handgun low enough to clear heavier overt tactical armor, vest or chest rigs. The overwhelming majority of holsters are worn too low and too loose. If worn too low, the shooters dominant shoulder will be forced to dip in order to grasp the weapon and defeat any retention devices. Also of concern is the increased amount of fore and aft movement of the holstered weapon the lower it goes. Think of your hip as the handle of a bat and your calf as the surface that strikes the ball… which moves faster? The most reliable rule of thumb doesn’t even require its use: all four fingers should be capable of cupping the bottom of the holster while standing perfectly upright and not dipping. To accomplish this and maintain comfort in the groin, some shooters (myself included) elect to remove the holsters top leg strap. These straps should be snug enough for stability and for the prevention of rotation, but if your toes are tingling, you’re probably overdoing it.

As modern equipment expands in variety and technical capabilities, the number of widgets and their associated pouches increases as well. The fact that real estate on the vest and belt is limited and that manufacturers would have you believe that gizmos will win the fight for you on their own, creates some serious issues. First is the danger of symmetry. Operators and couch potatoes alike crave optical and physical balance… it is our nature. What this means is that oftentimes, pouch and gear placement is driven by what creates a balanced load vs. what is tactically sound.

As this pertains to transitions, the portion of the vest located above the tactical holster (where the weapon must transit during its drawstroke) must remain blank. Officers not following this practice will at best have a slowed, sloppy presentation, and, at worst, muzzle themselves or knock weapons clean out of their hands (yes, we have seen this happen).

The other major hindrance to efficiency with the handgun is the placement of magazine pouches. Very seldom do officers have the foresight or guidance to don a slung rifle as a tool to direct or point to just where the handgun magazines need to go. Equally as detrimental is assuming that the standard configuration of the patrol duty belt will be sufficient. It is amazing how often we see individual operators fighting their way around their own equipment, but never quite mustering the initiative or connection to do something about it. One of the greatest causes of these breakdowns is tactical officers training on the handgun without the long gun slung on their body. It’s going to be there on game day, so you may as well get used to it now.

Confined spaces: Reality vs. myth
When the question is asked of a group as to why we would execute a transition, the two most common answers are an inoperable long gun and confined spaces. There’s no denying the disparity in size between the carbine and the handgun, but they are held very differently. A proper handgun grip involves extension away from the body while the carbine requires it to be pulled close with actual contact. An overhead or side by side analysis provides a rather startling view (even more so with a short barreled rifle), showing that less may very well be less. If you transition to the handgun (specifically to address hyper-close quarters) and you are not orienting the handgun close to your body in a compressed ready, then you may be better served by simply maintaining the primary weapon.

To safe or not to safe
Funny how training methods of the past which are directly related to a piece of equipment will hold over as people fail to constantly challenge their own doctrine/ dogma. In this case, we are speaking specifically of the MP-5 and the migration away from it to the ubiquitous M4/ AR platform. The inherent poor design of the MP-5’s safety often led to an endorsed policy of running entries with the weapon on fire. At the same time, the MP-5 (and its successor the UMP) will go on safe even if the hammer has fallen. This, of course, is different than the M4 which will not. Years ago I was taught that if the M4 failed to fire and a transition was in order, that we should place the weapon on safe… The word “attempt” was conveniently omitted. We became witness to painfully slow transition times as shooters fumbled (albeit unnecessarily) with a safety that would only engage if the bolt was more than one third of the way to the rear. Like diligent students, we placed more emphasis on rotating the selector as opposed to pressing the trigger a second time. In short, we were being taught rote range dance instead of gunfighting.

Training on hot guns
An additional justifier for placing the carbine on safe during transitions is the obvious purpose of range safety. We have been witness to many organizations training transitions by simply simulating the need to transition. The weapon is still fully loaded and functional and the onus is placed on the individual student to pretend he has a malfunction, safe the weapon, and transition. The reality is that shooters will ultimately be transitioning for no perceivable reason. This is called “half-training”. You train the solution without experiencing the problem. Of greater concern is the inherent danger. We know personally of an incident within the past year on a major metropolitan SWAT team where during transitions with shotguns, a hot 12 gauge was left to hang while on fire. At the conclusion of the drill, the operator went to retrieve his shotgun and his finger blindly crept into the trigger guard. The slug impacted between his feet and luckily he was uninjured.

The most effective and safe way we have found to train the transition is to utilize a fully loaded carbine with the magazine removed. This creates a one shot rifle, which will fire once, return to battery and then fail to fire. It can be safely released and recovered as it is truly “dead”.

Gravity and you
Gravity isn’t just a good idea... it’s the law. We often think of it as this insurmountable force that has certainly caused many a skydiver to pancake. Newton’s law has a rate of acceleration that is 9.8 meters per second squared. As fancy and intimidating as that sounds, we are actually faster out of the gate than gravity and can guide the weapon out of the shooting plane far faster than if we leave physics to its devices. Dropping the weapon and hoping for the best is a formula for disaster. Longer dwell time, interference with the handgun draw stroke, unknown final resting points, and, of course, the self-induced groin strike are all possibilities with the slung and released weapon.

Make your transitions with a consistent index point for the support hand. Namely, guiding the support hand knuckles down to the support side front pocket. This movement should be performed at the same tempo as a fight speed movement of the dominant hand for the pistol. Proper inter-limb interaction has both hands moving to roughly the same location (at the same time) on their respective sides and actually makes the act easier. We have at times seen shooters do strange things with the support hand during transitions. Some have been taught to re-grip and suck the weapon in close or roll the support hand over the top in order to more or less pull it down. In short, there is little to nothing gained from these procedures unless your goal is to be slower. Learn to walk and chew gum.

No long gun is 100 percent reliable or possesses an unlimited capacity. We carry our handguns for a reason that is mission and proximity specific. As such, we must be able to bring them to bear swiftly, smoothly and consistently against threats who likely already absorbed ineffective punishment from now in-operational long guns. Ironically, when seeking to continue engagement with the same adversary while utilizing a different weapons system, the safest, most efficient method just so happens to be the simplest. Minimize the clutter and physical and mental barriers to your potential. Train hard, train endlessly, and stay safe.

The New York Tactical Officers Association (NYTOA) is a not for profit corporation established to promote training, professionalism and the exchange of information between members of law enforcement, tactical units and crisis negotiation teams within, and surrounding, New York State.