Firearms Training for Real-World Assaults

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Blisteringly Fast and Intuitively Accurate

The annual Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) studies, in conjunction with research on the speed and biomechanics of assault, continue to provide critical information that must inform training practices.

First, armed attacks can occur without warning and can be extremely fast.  In the vast majority of officer fatalities involving firearms, officers could not draw their handguns, let alone return fire.  These confrontations occurred at extremely close range and often included accurate head and neck shot placement.

The speed of assault by offenders can be blisteringly fast.  The average suspect can remove a handgun from a concealed position, point it at an officer, and pull the trigger in approximately 250 milliseconds.  That can be faster than a blink!

The news gets worse.  According to 10 years of LEOKA studies, over 60% of shots known to be fatal, struck officers in the head or neck.  While some of these officers may have been shot while falling through the plane of gunfire, others were hit by offenders instinctively shooting where they were looking—at the officer’s face.

If an offender is moving quickly and instinctively aiming at an officer’s face, remaining stationary and trying to outdraw the suspect may result in the officer being struck in the head, neck, or face long before they even unholster their gun.  That, of course, presumes the officer was able to perceive and survive the initial assault.

Training to Get Hit

Basic firearm training puts a lot of emphasis on “static line” shooting.  This motor skill training is conducted in a “closed motor action” environment.  Closed motor skills are performed in a stationary environment, where the environment is fixed and predictable.  Suppose firearms training never advances beyond closed motor skills training.  In those cases, agencies may be conditioning officers to perform the opposite response to what is needed for optimal performance in real-world force encounters.

Neurons that Fire Together, Wire Together

Hebb’s Law” (Spike Timing Dependent Plasticity) is one of the most well-researched and accepted concepts in psychology and human performance.  Hebb’s Law informs us that motor pathways are not formed in isolation, which means the context and conditions in which the pathways are created (i.e., the training) matter.

Take, for example, the standard draw stroke of the handgun.  This serial motor program consists of multiple, individual, discrete motor movements.  Officers must grip the gun, release the retention mechanisms, lift the gun from the holster, align the muzzle, drive (present) the gun towards the threat, and move the trigger finger to the trigger.

Every time an officer conducts the draw stroke, the brain’s motor cortex builds stronger motor neural pathways.  During this repetitive process, a type of insulation known as myelin forms around the involved neurons.  This “myelination” can result in a connection that is 10x faster than unmyelinated nerves.  For shooters, this high-speed connection can result in an efficient draw stroke that requires no attentional resources (“motor automaticity”).

Context Matters: The Other Side of Hebb’s Law

Hebb’s Law tells us that we can train to develop efficient and fast motor pathways.  But trainers must be cautioned, as the draw stroke is being developed, so are other motor responses and non-responses.

If officers spend hours on a static firearms range, stand in line, and draw their handgun only after a signal or cue is given (e.g., an audible signal or turning of a target), they are activating and developing the motor response to draw their gun.  The motor program to draw the gun is reinforced.  Unfortunately, the response is dangerously paired to an artificial starting cue and an upright and static physical posture that can significantly disadvantage officers in real-world force encounters.

In other words, if an officer spends hundreds or thousands of repetitions on the firing range, drawing their gun without moving their head or feet, they are likely to do the same thing when an offender suddenly produces a weapon or attacks at close range.  This performance error can be severe, and the unintended pairing of artificial stimuli with ineffective responses should have experts rebuking these firearms training programs.

Hebb’s Law in Practice: The Traffic Stop Study

Applying Hebb’s Law, if a suspect rapidly produces a close-range firearm threat (the stimulus), the officer’s brain will recognize the threat as a cue to execute the automatic or procedural motor response. If training involves repeated static range procedures, the officer may predictably remain stationary while attempting to draw their handgun.

We saw this predictable response from officers involved in the Force Science “Traffic Stop Study.” In our study, 93 officers conducted multiple “unknown risk” traffic stops (ostensibly for a moving violation). During one of the interactions, the driver (role player) would quickly produce a realistic training handgun, point it out the window, and repeatedly fire at the officer.

The results?  Three (3) officers successfully redirected the suspect’s firearm with empty hand techniques to avoid being shot. The remaining ninety (90) officers automatically tried to draw their firearm in response to the threat—some backpedaled, some turned and ran, and some stood flat-footed.

Trying to Outdraw a Trigger Pull

It might take between 1.5 – 1.7 seconds for an average officer to draw a holstered pistol and fire one round in response to a stimulus.  If the trigger cycle rate averages .25 seconds from the suspect, officers who attempt to draw their weapon while exposed to the suspect’s fire could be shot six or more times before they could return fire.  It’s worth noting that our role player was instructed not to aim at the officers’ faces.  Offenders may not be as forgiving.

Evidence-Based Firearms Training

Hebb’s Law may explain how static firearms training may be creating paired responses that leave officers doing precisely the wrong thing when confronted with real-world, rapidly unfolding firearm threats. We understand that we do not ordinarily rise to the occasion during a crisis, and instead, we default to our training. If that is true, then it is up to us to use Hebb’s Law to ensure our training results in optimal performance.

If offenders intuitively target the head, does your training prioritize quickly moving your head at the first sign of an assault? Are you training your officers to “get off the X” and move their torso and feet? Are you prioritizing and practicing physical control at close range? In response to sudden threats, will your officers default to “shoot, move, communicate,” or have they practiced to move first?

Advanced Training for Instructors

Understanding concepts like Hebb’s Law and automaticity is vital for modern police trainers—not just firearms instructors. To improve training practices and enhance public safety, we have developed the Methods of Instruction – Training Practical Professional Policing Skills. This program will be extremely challenging as it introduces trainers to the human factors and training strategies necessary to develop and deliver validated and effective skills across the training spectrum.

Editor’s Note: Chris Butler will be presenting skill-based training concepts in “Five Myths of Training” at the 2022 ILEETA Conference and Expo. Please join Chris and the rest of the Force Science team at ILEETA and stop by the Force Science booth in the Vendor Expo to learn more about our programs. We look forward to seeing you there!

13 Responses
  1. Static training does absolutely nothing and is antiquated. There is no thought process involved. Stand here draw weapon and shoot and reload. It is a basic marksmen ship process, which is required by most law enforcement agencies, for liability purposes. Move shoot, shoot move, creates a distraction. Standing still in a shooting situation will get you killed. Again tight budgets, reduced personnel, makes it very difficult to get law enforcement personnel properly trained. Training does not make perfect, perfect training makes perfect and that takes time. I am a retired sergeant 35+ years of service firearms instructor P.O.S.T., certified. Medal of valor, been there survived.

  2. Robert E Mozol

    While this may be helpful in advanced training, it is far from the reason why officers are being killed/injured OR going too far with force. It is poor DECISION MAKING long before the gun battle starts. A recent example? Why would an officer walk up on a “family trouble” (appearing alone), with a suspect’s hand hidden???????? Why would 8? other officers expose themselves AFTER gun fire has occurred, to get one baby????????? I lived and trained through the last TIME POLICE WENT THROUGH THIS CYCLE. FORGET the quick draw, trick shooting BS and TRAIN THE MIND! I truly believe that MOST, if not all, police trainers are not aware of this repetitive cycle. While you guys seem to be trying to train police, you seem to be focusing on entirely the wrong tool on our belt, instead of OUR MIND. While we may need specific training for traffic stops, family troubles, and the “flavor of the month” active shooters, it is ALL the same, human beings with possible weapons! Once the basics are understood, the application won’t matter.

    1. Chris Butler

      Robert – you make two excellent points. First when one is examining officer performance it is critical that officers possess ‘game intelligence’. That is, do they actually understand what is happening, have proper heuristic mental models to properly assess the risk, and then, do they have a framework for analyzing information to make great decisions. This decision making process is critically important when officers have discretionary time to be able to implement a rational decision-making process. This is vitally important. Secondly, the existing body of research on officers killed and assaulted informs us that in many cases, these attacks are basically ambushes. They are carried out by cognitive aggressors who give little if any warning that the attack is going to occur. In these circumstances, which typically occur at extremely close range (contact or near-contact) officers do not have the ‘luxury’ of engaging in detached, rational, consequential decision making. The exigent, life-threatening nature of the incident requires immediate, reflexive, automatic responses most appropriate for defeating the attack and surviving the encounter. It is these types of attacks and the necessary ‘recognition primed decision-making’ that must be understood and incorporated into our motor skill training paradigms as well.

  3. The first rule is take action to get out of the kill zone, find cover and then deal with the threat . Only as a hail mary option attempt to draw and shoot it out. It was our standards training. Also how many officer’s are strained in the effect’s of fear. Try sprinting hard for 100 yds at the end stop and fire 2 round’s at every exposures of the target at 10 yds. Most officers will be surprised that they fail to hit a man size target . Proper training is needed and the current practise of putting every officer in a state of fear when meeting any member of the public is not it.

    1. Chris Butler

      Ricci – you are correct! It is vital that our training programs replicate, as closely as possible, the accurate operational contextual conditions in which the skills will be demanded on the street; not only for firearms encounters but all motor skills. There is a solid foundation of research over many years from multiple domains that reinforces the need for heavy contextualization of our training. Here is a brand new study specific to police performance that examined this very issue: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/357889482_A_Reasonable_Officer_Examining_the_Relationships_Among_Stress_Training_and_Performance_in_a_Highly_Realistic_Lethal_Force_Scenario

  4. Gary Graff

    Excellent article and responses. While static range training may have a place in a firearms training program to refresh basic skills and safety, it should be aggressively supplemented with situation based training. Technology has greatly enhanced the quality of such training. As we travel, we see many department’s training officers and rangemasters addressing some of the concerns Chris mentions in his article. Force Science is a great resource for planning quality training programs.

  5. Frank S.

    This is why officers need good hands-on skills. In the scenarios mentioned here, the officer really doesn’t have enough time to draw and fire. When I was an instructor, I would tell my officers that the best option in these situations may not be to draw your weapon, but to go hands-on and try to control/disarm the threat using defensive tactics.

  6. Pete Soulis

    Having learned a hard lesson on action vs reaction early in my career, I can assure you that immediate lateral movement and instinctively delivering single handed shot placement has served me well in all of my deadly force engagements. The speed and accuracy of single hand proficiency in spontaneous encounters is advantageous to winning gun fights. Regardless of the training stimulus utilized, immediate lateral movement takes the officer out of the suspect’s visual cone thus producing lag time on the suspects part. This translates to us putting rounds on them before they put rounds on us. Thank you to Force Science for addressing this.

  7. Could law enforcement officers be trained to save their own lives if our industry embraced the evidence-based firearms training ideas that Chris Butler articulates in this article? I’d like to think so. Chris has taken a complex topic and made it easy to understand. Are we as an industry now ready to embrace the science and make changes? “Shoot-move-communicate”, as a default response to a murderous attacker shooting at an officer has been shown to be ineffective. Let’s change the paradigm, change the training, and perhaps even save our own lives.

  8. Chris

    So the average criminal can draw from concealment and fire an aimed shot in .25 seconds, and the average officer draws and fires in 1.5 seconds?
    I don’t know a single shooter who can draw and fire from concealment in .25 seconds.
    While I can agree with and learn from the rest of the article, the above “statistic” leaves me questioning. At it’s core the “suspect”, who can draw and shoot in .25 seconds, is responding to a stimulus just as the officer, drawing from a duty holster, is. What makes criminals so super-human fast on the draw?

    1. Von Kliem

      Thanks for a chance to clarify: The “criminal’s” draw and fire from concealment does not involve a holster, the gun is already in their hand and they are not responding to a stimulus…they are initiating the performance at their discretion. All they have to do is point and fire. There are videos on YouTube that show this occurring even faster than .25 seconds! It frequently occurs faster than the officer even recognizes movement, let alone recognizes an armed assault. On the other hand, the 1.5-second average draw by the officer is measuring a responsive draw from a retention holster.

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