8 discussions every agency should have about pistol qualification & firearms training

Qualification is a physical skills test and not an assessment of an LEO’s judgment, understanding of policy or propensity to comply with deadly force law

Because firearms are inherently dangerous, the need to train law enforcement officers (LEOs) in their safe and proficient use is a self-evident truth.

While opinions differ regarding the type and amount of training and the standards of proficiency necessary for LEOs, it is irrational to argue that such is not essential. LEOs are authorized to carry and deploy firearms in the performance of their duties, and the public has a right to expect each LEO to do so without posing additional risk to the community. LEOs who are not skilled in the safe and proficient use of their firearms present inordinate levels of risk to unintended targets. [1]

Here are eight discussions every agency should have when developing police firearms training and qualification policies and procedures.

In most cases LEOs know in advance the date, time, location, weather and lighting conditions of their next qualification.
In most cases LEOs know in advance the date, time, location, weather and lighting conditions of their next qualification. (Federal Way PD)

DISCUSS: Skills are learned through training, practice and experience

Effectively shooting a firearm at a target is a learned skill, like shooting a basketball into a hoop. Learning is the process of gaining knowledge and skill. Learning implies change and it is recognizable as an improvement. The learning process for playing basketball and pistol shooting includes training and practice; [2] and in law enforcement, we distinguish those from qualification.

Training is the process whereby a knowledgeable coach tells, shows and demonstrates effective techniques to practitioners. In basketball, players improve through team training and in one-on-one training sessions with their coaches. As players duplicate the described and modeled behavior, coaches give feedback to help players improve their performance. The same thing happens in law enforcement training, but we often refer to firearms coaches as instructors. When a duly selected instructor teaches or gives feedback – preferably both – that is training.

Learning also comes from experience. Basketball players gain experience participating in organized games. LEOs gain experience dealing with people and situations in the real world. Both gain experience from scrimmaging.

In law enforcement, the best scrimmaging occurs in the form of reality-based training (RBT) scenarios with live role players. RBT is experiential training. Computer-generated scenarios (interacting with screen images instead of live role players), tabletop exercises, mental imagery and action pistol competition (USPSA, IDPA, etc.) are useful types of scrimmaging.

No basketball player or LEO ever develops enough skill in training alone. They must also practice outside of coaching environments. For hours and hours over many years, skilled players practice in their driveways, streets, schoolyards and gyms. They practice by themselves and with friends. Practice is recognizable as an effort to improve without a coach or instructor present.

LEOs receive pistol training in the basic academy and periodically throughout their career. LEO recruits are coached at the basic academy on the fundamentals of shooting. That is training. Recruits are encouraged to increase their grip strength and practice on their own between training sessions. Training and practice are necessary to initially attain the shooting skills required to become certified as an LEO.

Basketball players learn to dribble and pass. Layups are different from jump shots, which are different from free-throws. Players learn techniques for each of these skills. All those and more are required to be an effective basketball player.

Similarly, police recruits learn firearm safety, efficient gun handling and weapon manipulation, how to press the trigger and shoot with accuracy, how to control recoil and shoot with speed. LEOs learn to operate their weapons with one hand only, to shoot from various positions and at different distances, to handle a weapon in low light, in and around vehicles, to hit moving targets, to make shooting decisions, and more. All of these skills are critical for survival.

Whether in shooting, basketball or other physical abilities, skills perish without use. Therefore, basketball players regularly attend mandatory team training. Likewise, incumbent LEOs receive refresher training from their employing agencies; and individual LEOs are expected to practice enough to maintain their shootings skills. We first attain, and then we are expected to maintain pistol proficiency.

Qualification is, first and foremost, a physical skills test.
Qualification is, first and foremost, a physical skills test. (Federal Way PD)

DISCUSS: Qualification is a physical skills test

Qualification is different. It is not training, and it is not practice. Learning is not the goal, nor is learning expected. Nevertheless, whenever an LEO is intentional about doing their best with a firearm, then the officer is getting meaningful repetitions. In this sense, qualification is practice because the trigger time that is caused by mandatory qualification ensures that every LEO maintains some level of regular live-fire familiarity with their weapon. But qualification is, first and foremost, a physical skills test.

Qualification per se does not attempt to assess the LEO’s judgment, understanding of department policy or propensity to comply with deadly force law. Those are assessed by written tests and by observing performance in training scenarios. Qualification typically refers to a shooting skills test. Whether other assessments are done in conjunction with the shooting test is at the discretion of each law enforcement agency.

Testing initially determines whether a law enforcement recruit has attained the minimum skills established by the basic academy. Subsequently, all incumbent LEOs are periodically tested to verify whether they retain (or regained) the skills established by their employing agency. The verification process is qualification. When an LEO passes the pistol skills test we say they are qualified to carry and use a service pistol.

DISCUSS: Weapon model is not important

It is not the weapon that qualifies. Qualification is a human skills test. It is redundant and unnecessary to require an officer to qualify with a department-issued Glock model 17 and a personally owned Glock model 19, or with models 34 and 45, perhaps others. [3] The weapons are the same make, caliber and have identical operating features. Qualifying with one creates a presumption that the person is capable of operating the others.

For traditionalist instructors or old school administrators who do not appreciate this latitude, consider this. If an officer who qualified with and carries a Glock 17 has a breakage during a firefight or runs out of ammo and sees a Glock 19 on the ground, is it acceptable for the officer to pick up and use the G19? Yes, of course. In this situation, the G17-qualified officer should, without hesitation (and without fear of administrative discipline), pick up and use a Beretta 92 in that same situation, even though the Beretta’s operating system is different. This example is admittedly extreme; but so is every deadly assault and every lethal response to it. Acknowledging what is acceptable in the extremity of life or death helps us recognize that some tightly held notions associated with qualification are arbitrary constructs that have little foundation in the real world of deadly conflict.  

DISCUSS: A qualification course should assess more than marksmanship

A pistol qualification course has some similarities to shooting free-throws in a basketball game. Basketball games are full of dynamic variables as long as the clock is running. However, during a free-throw, the normal dynamics of the game are temporarily paused. For free-throws, the precise distance is known in advance, there is a limited amount of time for the player to prepare for the shot and the number of shots is specified by the referee. In order to put the ball through the hoop, the player must execute the fundamentals of shot accuracy at that distance within the imposed time constraint. [4]

Pure marksmanship can be tested with one shot. Select the size of the target that each officer is expected to reliably hit, select the maximum distance at which each officer is expected to reliably hit that target, establish a time limit to execute that shot, et voila: raw marksmanship can be assessed with one shot. Like a free-throw, one shot is sufficient to test pure marksmanship. But that test is sufficient only as long as we only want to test pure marksmanship.

Free-throws do not attempt to test every aspect of the game, and neither does a qualification course attempt to duplicate every aspect of lethal encounters. Doing so is impossible because variables in deadly situations are endless and the circumstances of each incident are unique. Qual course developers who attempt to test every gunfighting skill find themselves in a never-ending pursuit of the end of a rainbow; and their officers are stuck in a qualification-centric firearms program. Training and practice are better vehicles for pursuing the unattainable level of an invincible gunfighter.

For qualification, each agency defines a set of skills and a means of measuring those skills that will enable it to make the institutional judgment that an individual LEO is (or is not) proficient enough to be allowed to carry and deploy a firearm. Each agency owes this duty to itself, its LEOs, and to the community that the agency exists to protect. A qualification course is the agency’s measure of individual proficiency.

In spite of some similarities, there are also significant differences between sports and law enforcement deadly force incidents. The consequences for a lack of firearm safety, for instance, are worse than missing a foul shot. For LEOs, skills beyond pure marksmanship are necessary for their survival and for community safety. Therefore, a pistol qualification course should assess and verify more than marksmanship.

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DISCUSS: Time and ammunition resources must be heeded

The list of skills for possible testing is limitless. The time available for training and testing is limited. How many skills and to what extent each should be tested is at the discretion of each agency. [5] Limited time is an important factor because as important as skill verification is for armed, public protectors, testing does not increase skill and increasing skill matters more.

Skill with a service pistol is a required part of an LEO’s job description. Training and practice develop and maintain skills. Because skill-building matters more, our limited resources of time and ammunition are best spent in training, not testing. Simultaneously, verifying individual officer skills is imperative for every agency. Both must be done, and both are mandatory; but training should get our biggest allocation of time, energy and ammunition.

Each agency is accountable to its community for the agency’s standards. An agency’s pistol qualification course sets the skills floor for that agency. Establishing elements of the test requires an experienced cadre of instructors to make choices regarding what to test and at what standard. The rest is covered in training. The testing standard is then ratified or modified by the chief executive or their knowledgeable designee because the chief or sheriff must ultimately answer to the community for each officer’s skill or lack thereof. Plus, it is only with administrative support that instructors and the chain of command are able to enforce qualification standards.

Qualification tests each LEO’s mechanical operation of the weapon. Qualification tests the rudiments of pistol shooting. In order to be well prepared for combat, mechanical operation of the weapon should be so well practiced that it occurs at the autonomic level, which frees up cognitive resources for situational awareness and decision-making in lethal situations. Mechanics and rudiments are taught in the academy; then they are the personal responsibility of every individual LEO.

Fortunately, the mechanics of shooting and rudimentary repetitions can be done almost entirely through dry practice. Dry practice requires no ammunition and no travel time to a shooting range. There is no excuse to not do it. The benefits of dry practice are available to every LEO who does it.

There is no need to fabricate a gunfight environment for a shooting test, but the skills tested must be job-relevant.
There is no need to fabricate a gunfight environment for a shooting test, but the skills tested must be job-relevant. (Federal Way PD)

DISCUSS: Training volume should dictate qualification frequency

Recurring qualification is mandatory for every LEO who carries a firearm. It is universally understood and accepted that qualification has no exceptions. Every gun-carrying public servant must regularly requalify.

At agencies where there is regular, ongoing firearms training and all LEOs participate in it there is no need to qualify more than once each year. Testing should not be less than that. Some agencies are more comfortable testing more frequently and that is their prerogative. After all, qualification compels repetition of the fundamentals.

Where pistol training isn’t absolutely mandatory it isn’t unusual for individuals in that organization to skip it. For agencies experiencing training absences, a quarterly qualification is a viable option. That way everyone gets regular, ongoing trigger time. But qualification alone is not ideal, because qualification is mechanical, and mechanics are just the beginning of winning in lethal combat. Preparation for combat is the realm of training, and if every session focuses on making free-throws, then the rest of the game is missed.

A combination works for some agencies. For example, quarterly qualification is mandatory; it gets everyone there. At each session, the instructors begin by training all personnel. After the training objectives are met, a short qualification course is administered.

DISCUSS: The cold vs. warm qualification debate is a non-starter

Qualifying after training generates debate about whether qualification should be done “cold,” with no warm-up. [6] Cold theoretically reflects skills as they are on the street. A cold qual is, supposedly, more legitimate because it is more like a gunfight. These are fine ideas, but not practical.

In most cases, LEOs know in advance the date, time, location, weather and lighting conditions of their next qualification; [7] and they usually know the exact amount of time they have to fire a precise number of rounds at each of the exact qualification distances. That isn’t like gunfights. LEOs usually have ample opportunity to prepare for quals by practicing in advance. In fact, we encourage officers to practice before testing. If upcoming quals motivate officers to practice, then the community is well served. It is acceptable to maintain or regain skill any time.

For cold quals, what happens when someone fails? Do they get remedial training and then another attempt that same day? They should. [8] Any subsequent attempt isn’t cold. Nor is any qualification course cold if it has more than one string of fire. Anything after the first volley of shots is warm.

Except to passionate instructors, whose effort and commitment we appreciate (we need them!), whether a qualification is done cold or warm simply does not matter. Reality-based training scenarios with live role players are more like gunfights. RBT is where this energy is better invested.

DISCUSS: How to handle officers who do not meet qualification status

Qualified status means an LEO met or exceeded the agency’s skills floor as of the successful test date. Whether an agent attained, maintained, or regained skills on the day of the test does not matter. “Qualified” is the person’s status when they leave the range.

Achieving or maintaining qualified status with a service pistol does not bestow upon an LEO their inalienable right to self-defense. That comes with birth. For an LEO who doesn’t meet qualification standards by the end of the session, their status is “in progress.” An in-progress officer’s job assignment should be modified to avoid on-duty contact with people outside the office. Sub-standard lethal force is not something we can trifle with. The officer is put on light duty until they regain their skills and pass the test. [9]

When an LEO in otherwise good standing demonstrates sub-standard pistol performance, they should keep the weapon, keep it loaded and keep carrying it. No one can predict when the officer will have a coincidental and inadvertent paths-crossing with a begrudging previous arrestee, or find themselves suddenly in the middle of an active shooter situation. Even an incompetent LEO has the right and authority to defend himself and others. Beyond self-defense, we also want the officer to practice on their own in order to regain skill, and they need the weapon for that.

Finally, agencies must maintain records of each officer’s training and qualification. These records are an agency’s best evidence for demonstrating reasonable care and caution with regard to firearms proficiency among their personnel. Agencies are not expected to (and normally don’t) maintain records of individual officer practice sessions.

Final thoughts

Pistol qualification is an important administrative process for every law enforcement officer in every law enforcement agency.

There is no need to fabricate a gunfight environment for a shooting test, but the skills tested must be job-relevant. Everything from loading to reloading and unloading, from drawing to re-holstering, shooting from near to far and virtually everything that happens in between is job-related. The challenge is narrowing the list so a qualification course doesn’t take an hour to administer.

What matters more, however, is effect in dangerous conflict, and those skills are developed in training and practice that go beyond the shooting test.

What do you think? How does your agency handle the qualification process? Email editor@police1.com.

Police 1 readers respond

I read your article on qualifications. I understand that it is written for most agencies that have scripted qualifications. What about those agencies that don't have the scripted qualifications? What about using a qualification to test a subject that that was recently trained? 

I get nervous when a discussion starts about training should be the focus with no discussion of testing to ensure the training was effective. I understand that it is impossible to train for a deadly force encounter. However, if training is not tested, haven't we essentially told our officers that this is not testable/won't be on the test? So, if an agency uses the same scripted qualification, its officers will know whether the material they are being trained on is a part of the qualification course or not. If the skill being trained is not a part of the qualification or assist in passing the qualification, how much attention will be given to it?  

I understand that there are agencies that must use a certain course of fire(s).  I think one of the things we as instructors need to do is seek to raise the standard of performance in our training. This can be done in multiple ways. If possible, have a higher accuracy standard on the qualifications, this will lead to officers practicing more, which leads to better performance.

MPO Kevin N. Williams, Rangemaster, Orlando Police Department

Author response:

It is unfortunate, but far too many LEOs let their firearms skills fall to their agency’s skills floor. No matter how low the bar is set, too many officers are content declining to that point. To me, the most important role of qualification/testing is it holds the line. Otherwise, overall firearms proficiency would decline to abysmal. 

Conversely, I am encouraged to see resilience as nearly everyone rises to the bar no matter how high it is reasonably and gradually set. Skills testing is that bar. I hope my article didn’t convey that I think qualification is inconsequential because I strongly believe in it. Testing just doesn’t have to take lots of time (or ammo), so it shouldn’t. 

You mentioned testing based on a current or recent training session. That fits nicely into this excerpt: A combination works for some agencies. For example, quarterly qualification is mandatory; it gets everyone there. At each session, the instructors begin by training all personnel. After the training objectives are met, a short qualification course is administered.

I support setting the skills standards as high as your market will bear. That represents a defendable focus on safety, but it is still a delicate challenge. Recruiting and retention are difficult enough. We don’t want to lose an officer over diminished pistol skills. That sentiment includes administratively and in a deadly fight, and those often feel like competing interests. As the rangemaster, you experience the friction. You seek to improve your officers’ opportunity to win, while other forces within your agency want to make performance standards easier, which drops the skills floor and is less safe.  It’s frustrating, but your influence (pushing the bar upward) is important. Thank you for doing it. 

NEXT: Firearms qualifications: Is your agency doing too many?


1. See Urey W. Patrick and John C. Hall, “In Defense of Self and Others…Issues, Facts & Fallacies – The Realities of Law Enforcement’s Use of Deadly Force,” third edition, pp.143-144.

2. In the United States the word “practice” is often used in sports to refer to team training sessions. Pre-season team sessions are often called “training.” Some other places use the word training for team sessions throughout the season. Because many LEOs play(ed) sports, it helps to clarify these terms as they are used in our profession. 

3. Each law enforcement agency must decide how much gun-carrying latitude qualified status allows, but it should be more inclusive than the serial number the officer used to pass the test. Serial numbers are irrelevant to qualification. Serial numbers are necessary for inventory control and maintenance tracking. What matters of all weapons is that they comply with the agency’s technical specifications for service pistols.

4. The distance is 15 feet from the foul line to the front of the backboard. In NBA rules, from the time the player receives the ball at the free-throw line he has 10 seconds to shoot it. (Rule #9, section I a.)

5. In some places a broader organization (i.e., the state POST) mandates standards for all LEOs within their sphere of control. In those places, individual LEAs may set their own standards only insofar as they exceed (have higher standards than) the skills established by the umbrella organization.

6. Don’t confuse this discussion with a police sniper’s cold bore shot or cold bore qual with a precision rifle.

7. For agencies with their own ranges located where they can pull officers unscheduled off the street, that’s fantastic. But we are still not creating a gunfight environment when officers/agents shoot at fully exposed paper targets that hold perfectly still at predetermined distances with predetermined round counts and time constraints, especially when there is no critical decision-making involved.  

8. How many attempts should be allowed on the same day? That is another detail left to each agency. What matters is that the officer regains skill and proves it by passing the test.

9. How long should an in-progress officer be kept on the payroll in a light-duty assignment? Each situation is unique. Ultimately it is up to each LEA. But make no mistake, pistol competency is an absolute requirement for LEOs. The rare few who cannot or will not attain, maintain, or regain pistol skills must transition out of commissioned law enforcement service.

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