3 do's and 3 don’ts for police firearms instructors to improve officer performance

Police firearms instructors can do a wide variety of things to ensure that every minute spent on the range results in positively affecting the students’ performance

Providing excellent police firearms training consists of far more than simply having your students squeeze a trigger X times per year and achieve a passing score on an annual qualification target. 

Police firearms instructors can do a wide variety of things to ensure that every minute spent on the range positively affects their students’ performance. 

Here are three do's and three don’ts which can help get you there. When you’re done reading the article, add your thoughts in the comments area below to keep the conversation going.

1. Do as much advance work as you can in the use-of-force simulator.
Before you even go out to the range, you should have taken full advantage of your department’s use-of-force simulator. This technology has become so realistic that when it’s properly used — ideally, leveraging units which are programmable with department-made video of scenarios and environments officers may encounter on the street — the training can produce critical stress levels far nearer to real-world than a square range can achieve.

Even if your department doesn’t have a good use-of-force simulator, you have a couple of options. Find out what other agencies in your area have, and invite them to participate in your training in return for utilizing their equipment. Another option is to examine the use of laser-simulator products like SIRT Guns and CoolFire conversion kits for your service pistols. 

2. Do as much force-on-force scenario-based training as possible.
A well-rounded firearms training program will have a robust force-on-force component, utilizing Simunitions and appropriate safety equipment and apparel. Once all the gear has been purchased by the training department, the only limit to its capabilities is the imagination of the training cadre, and the availability of interesting places to set up scenarios. 

When you’re designing such training, remember that while these projectiles don’t penetrate skin, they do sting, and will do serious damage if the proper protective gear — helmets, eye protection, and athletic cups, for example — are not employed. 

3. Do everything you can to replicate real-world environments. 
Punching holes in paper from the seven yard line is a useful enterprise in warming up — starting your training day with the dot-torture drill is an outstanding use of paper placed in front of a berm — but don’t let that be a student’s primary memory of the effort. 

You don’t have to create a complete Hogan’s Alley in order to increase the realism of your range training. Because many police gunfights happen at traffic stops, consider bringing a “beater” automobile to the range — have it towed there if need be — and do drills from within as well as around it. 

I once saw a training range with a fire hydrant and an old mailbox (one of the big, blue USPS ones) affixed to wheeled dollies. For safety reasons, you’d obviously need to be very specific about how those metal objects may be incorporated into training — you don’t want a ricochet off one of those items —painted Styrofoam replicas would probably be better, but you get the idea: adding such elements of realism to your training environment can be a relatively easy enterprise. 

Just like making your surroundings as realistic as possible, your students should at the very least have a full duty belt (even if it’s loaded with inert replicas for OC, Taser, etc.). Too often we see range day look more like a day off than a day on the street. Unless your class works undercover detail when they’re on the job, wearing jeans and sneakers is not the right attire for a day on the square range. 

And remember: Gunfights don’t get rained out, and they don’t get cancelled because of a snow day. Some of the best training you can do is when the weather is utterly miserable, so pray for rain. Be aware, however, that sub-optimal elements can also require extra safety precautions. 

Now, for the don’ts.

1. Don’t let the class get too big. 
Some firearms instructors allow an unmanageable — and therefore, potentially unsafe — instructor-to-student ratio. While this is rare  in police in-service or academy training, it happens altogether too often with for-profit firearms instructional institutions. 

A good rule of thumb on numbers is one instructor for every five or six students. This frequently necessitates an assistant instructor or two. In addition to the primary and assistant instructor, there should always be at least one — and ideally, more than one — range safety officer (RSO) present. This individual is not shooting, and is not teaching. Their only mission is watching for the safe operation of the tools on the range. 

One solution for when a class is bigger than it should be is to split the group into two, with one half doing a course of fire while the other half tops off magazines, drinks water to stay hydrated, and does visualizations and mindset exercises. 

Using “down time” for visualization exercises and other non-shooting techniques is enormously valuable in addressing the mindset training required to produce a complete, well-trained firearms operator capable of winning the deadly-force encounter for which your training day is preparing them. 

2. Don’t let your class devolve into social hour with guns attached. 
It’s shocking how many times instructors who put on a training day with the intention to do good, hard work on life-saving skills get a small set of participants who are not only not taking the training seriously, but are talking about totally unrelated topics (sports scores or the cute female attendant at the gun rental counter, for example). These individuals can poison a good day of training, so as an instructor it’s your job to keep them in check. 

A good chuckle can reset the mood of a group that’s stressed out or tired, but the instructor need to be the driver of that, not the two or three class clowns in attendance. 

One way you can help manage the balance of levity and learning is to have a set of class objectives that every student must achieve in the class, and display that list on a whiteboard or on handout sheets. 

3. Don’t ever (ever, ever, ever!) forget safety.
Attend enough firearms training and eventually you’re going to see something that scares you, pisses you off, or both — most likely both. Even professional trigger-pullers have the capacity to lapse into complacency, and complacency on the firearms training range can result in death or great bodily harm. 

Signs posted at every decent range in America declare:

•    Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction
•    Keep your finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard until you’ve made the conscious decision to shoot
•    Know your target, what’s beyond it, what’s beside it, and what’s before it
•    Know how to operate your firearm
•    Wear hearing and eye protection

But operating a safe police firearms training session requires much more than this. 

One very effective way to ratchet up everyone’s attention to safety is to tell every participant that they are essentially a deputized RSO. 

The instructor needs them to be thinking like an RSO, and to tell them that they are required (not requested) to report any unsafe behavior they witness.

If you get them thinking in this manner, they are also far more likely to police their own behavior more diligently. 

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