PoliceOne Roundtable: Training guns, training scars, and officer safety

Blue Guns, SIRT Pistols, Airsoft, and Sims all offer the ability to do vital reality-based training, but create potential weapons-safety issues if not used properly

A Police1 Member recently emailed a really interesting question. He wrote, in part:

“During a recent armed-security recertification class, I ran into some criticism on my perspectives on training with a simulator gun... Today, there are a number of commercial training guns on the market. Where I got wrapped around the axel was the attitude of instruction that training guns should be handled with the same care and caution as real guns (Cooper’s Rule #1). It nullifies the purpose of the training gun if you have to constantly treat it like a real firearm. There are times you need to point at people and handle the training gun in forceful ways that would be inappropriate for real guns. Why have a training gun that has the same safety restrictions as a real gun?”

There was more to that email, but you get the idea. For me, it’s a question of purposefulness, intent, and context. I see a lot of value in practicing with a Blue Gun, and have done a fair bit of training with Sims and SIRT Pistols. I meticulously practice trigger-guard discipline, even with that inert hunk of blue plastic, and I’m highly tuned to never unintentionally muzzle someone. But when in a scenario-based training, I believe muzzling the “bad guy” with an inert firearm on purpose is okay. In fact, it’s an integral part of the training.

Further, I’ve been muzzled with SIRT, Sims, and “rubber duck” guns numerous times in training, but because I had confidence in our safety procedures, I was unconcerned.

Finally, I can’t even count how many times I’ve been hit by Sims rounds. One particular occasion I was the bad-guy and took a Sims round in the fleshy part of the wrist, unprotected by clothing. I don’t begrudge the cop who “shot” me there, although it stung like the devil.

I recently held a roundtable discussion on this topic with four Police1 Columnists — they are trainers and I am merely the student. Review their opinions and add your own ideas in the comments area below.

Dick Fairburn
I have a bit of experience with this training issue, good and bad. In 1979, my old training partner Sergeant Marty Brown and I invented our own RBT training technique using a .38 revolver with a modified brass case using a primer to launch a small chunk of cotton ball. Sometimes the balls would catch fire and more than once a too-close discharge caused a minor wound — I cringe at the “safety” rules we used then. But, it was the most realistic training we could muster at the time.

I wanted to add this level of realism because the first time I had occasion to point a gun at a suspect on the street, I realized I had my shotgun at the “low ready” position. I was so well “programmed” to never point a gun at another human, I had to make a conscious effort to actually aim at my adversary. 

You will fight the way you train, so in my opinion we MUST train through Safety Rule #1 and program officers to point deliberately at their adversary. Effectively programming an officer to aim and engage generally requires multiple repetitions.

As experienced role players know, trainees will often shoot low, which I believe is a combination of overcoming their prior safety programming to NOT point a weapon at a human, and a tendency to want to “see” the threat, so they lower the gun to better see.

As they progress, the trainees then often hit a role player’s hands — they are focusing in on the threat — the weapon. Eventually, their programming becomes solid and you start seeing nice, center-mass paint marks, or head shots when appropriate.

A number of officers have been killed since the advent of RBT training when a live round finds its way into a live weapon. The majority of these tragedies have occurred after lunch — when officers “load for the road” to go to lunch and then get sloppy on their second “search/clear” of the day.

I run RBT scenarios with the following iron-clad safety rules:

1.) Preferably, we use only red (inert) weapons or blue (dedicated paint-marking) weapons for student use during RBT. Since we don’t have a red/blue version of every duty weapon in use, we must sometimes use a live weapon for some officers — See rule #2 below.

2.) NO live firearms are allowed inside the training venue perimeter unless they are double-checked and verified to be empty (chamber and magazine/cylinder), and are then secured in the unloaded condition.
We secure the unloaded weapons by taping the slide/cylinder closed on a pistol (different color tape for each training session — morning or afternoon) or blocking the action of a long gun open with a brightly colored rope through the chamber and magazine well.
There are several commercial devices that serve the same purpose as a rope, but my organization is broke and rope is cheap. Even with secured weapons NO live ammunition is EVER allowed inside the perimeter. If you go to your car for something, you get re-searched.

3.) We ONLY use solid-barrel .22 crimped-blank starter pistols for the “adversaries” who will be firing during a scenario. Any role player who is not assigned to fire during the event will be equipped with a red or blue weapon.
In years past, we have used AR-style weapons as blank guns, firing M200 military blank ammo through weapons equipped with the red, model M15A2 blank adapter secured on the flash suppressor. If you have access to the blank firing adapters and M200 training ammo, this is a safe training technique.

Mark Schraer
I believe that training firearms should be handled exactly as an officer would be expected to handle a real firearm if that training scenario was real. Therefore, if I would hope not to muzzle a partner in an actual shooting, then we shouldn’t muzzle someone in a training scenario — other than the role-playing suspect or suspects I have decided to shoot.

Like most agencies nowadays, we use Simunition firearms on a regular basis, particularly in active-shooter scenarios. Officers shoot the suspect and the suspect in some cases shoot the officer, but until the fight, we expect the officers to follow all of the core safety rules.

While I always stress the need to be dangerous and formidable with a firearm, a component of gunfighting is learning how to subconsciously move safely with a weapon. All subconscious abilities are learned through training and this should include moving with a firearm without accidentally muzzling others.

I have sustained a number of hits to the hands, and more sensitive areas, in Simunition training. Those were great learning experiences.

I will gladly shoot a partner with a training gun in a training scenario.

In NRA classes and my own courses, I will point a Blue Gun at a student, but never intentionally. It may be overkill, but I will always first show the class that it is a “hunk of plastic” and explain that I will be pointing it at this particular student or students to make a point.

Until that point, I treat it like a firearm. It is a respect issue to me, respecting firearm safety and respecting the student. But I also stress this for that one Waterhead who will interpret anything less as an excuse to continue to be sloppy with their safety. If I used a Simunition firearms I would do the same — and then some — before pointing at a student.

Ken Hardesty
I have to weigh in on this issue agreeing with Mark. I know you’ve heard me say more than a few times during courses, ‘even though it’s a blue gun, I won’t muzzle you with it. It’s poor form, and creates bad habits.’

Similar to what I left in your voicemail, as an instructor utilizing a training gun, I consider myself to be modeling behavior. Poor weapon handling (live or training guns) leads to poor performance from students. That’s how we end up with students pulling guns from holsters behind the line, demonstrating to their buddy the ‘latest drawstroke’ or removing the weapon from the holster in the waiting area to conduct reloads.

Having said that, if the training is dedicated force-on-force (using either Airsoft or paint-marking rounds) then the necessity for role players and students to point weapons at each other is understood.

However, even during force-on-force safety briefings, my comments are the same. The range safety rules apply at all times, even during a gunfight. If that gunfight happens to take place during a force-on-force training session, then the same rules apply. 

Never allow your muzzle to cross anything you’re not willing to destroy is a universal statement. It is during the search exercise, or movement to contact, that most ‘unintentional discharges’ occur.

Utilizing threat identification, or ‘no shoot’ targets, also provide good neural pathways that help to minimize the shooting of friendlies or innocents when the student finds themselves under extreme stress, during training or for real.

During live fire training, I can think of only one example where I use a Blue Gun pointed at another to make a point. During the discussion on low ready being distance dependent, I demonstrate that as the distance between officer and suspect decreases the officer must depress the muzzle further to observe the hands and waistband. Even then, I use the second instructor to make the point, not the student.

Lindsey Bertomen
Over the years I have used “rubber duck” guns, pistols with the barrels removed and most recently ASP Red Guns. Like most trainers, I’ve used inert training equipment to simulate the real thing. Most trainers will tell you to operate with a training gun exactly the same way as one would use a real gun, including avoiding safety violations like muzzling another officer.

One thing we don’t want to do is allow a training gun to instill bad habits by failing to enforce safety practices on the firing line.

I have trained with Airsoft products where one does force-on-force and the gun is intentionally pointed at the bad guy.

However, I totally concur with Ken Hardesty’s advice on using a second instructor to make a point, adding carefully worded explanations to the class.

There are some times when one must point a Red Gun or a Blue Gun for training, because there’s no better way for students to learn. The best example of this is when officers are training to slice the pie. Both officer and suspect role players should use Blue Guns and train these skills outdoors, indoors, in small homes and warehouses.

I’ve found the best way to acquire these skills is by using something that simulates the actual duty gun so the officer can slice the pie looking over the sights. Pointing the fingers will not work here.

Officers have to point a fake gun at the suspect in order to train proper handcuffing, especially when practicing teamwork drills, like high risk stops. In scenarios like these, using a Blue Gun and actually pointing it at the suspect is a component of this training.

We hold officers to a high standard. They do point loaded guns at suspects and it is important that these drills are learned with the finger off the trigger. Yes, we “low ready” when its time to “low ready," but I can attest that I have pointed a loaded handgun at a suspect during a high risk event literally hundreds of times. If we can’t learn to do this correctly, we are wrong.

Mark Schraer does a good job summing it up: I have pointed a gun at plenty of people — in training and “for real” — but never unintentionally.

The problem in training is what officers do accidentally. I can remember doing some active shooter training and stacking up for entry into unknown territory. Officers should do this often, because active shooter multiagency training is a workout, if done correctly.

I tactfully pointed out that an officer was “lazing” (pointing his muzzle) at the leg of the officer’s leg in front of him.

“No I’m not”

“Yes you are. The next time you do it, I’ll point it out.”

I did. He was. He never did it again.

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