When it comes to firearms training, it’s all about the skills, not the drills By: Leon Reha

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If you’re planning your own training or delivering training to others, consider this question: Are you focused on drills or skills? If you don’t know the answer to the question, you’re not alone.

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This common occurrence is a significant problem. Most law enforcement training programs are designed with a drill as the product of the training. But doing the same drill repeatedly, in the same way, can create an illusion of learning. The illusion is a false perception of skill acquisition or skill improvement.

“But I’ve passed the qual!”

The purpose of our training is not to get good at drills. The purpose of our training is not to pass a test. The purpose of our training is to build skills for real-world applications.The purpose of our training is not to get good at drills. The purpose of our training is not to pass a test. The purpose of our training is to build skills for real-world applications.
The purpose of our training is not to get good at drills. The purpose of our training is not to pass a test. The purpose of our training is to build skills for real-world applications.

“But I’ve passed the qual!” is the war cry of many officers (especially recruits) who think the qualification is a measure of readiness to perform operationally, it is not. For example, when people go to the firearms range to train, are they practicing specific stages of the agency qualification? Or worse still just shooting the qualification and calling it training?

If you’re practicing the stages of a test repeatedly you are not effectively training for anything. Even if the goal were to improve qualification score or speed, repeatedly practicing the stages is not the optimal way to do it. Varied practice is proven to be more effective. In the simplest of terms, if your goal is to draw a handgun and hit an 8-inch circle from 7 yards away, the last thing you should do is practice drawing a handgun and hitting an 8-inch circle 7 yards away.

Performance change vs. learning

Let’s review the isolated task of drawing a handgun from a holster and shooting a target 7 yards away.

If the person learning to complete this task understands the principles and then repeats the same movement constantly for half an hour, we would likely see a change in performance. A change in performance may appear to be an improvement; there would likely be a fumbling reduction, and the acquisition of grip would seem more effective. If retention devices on the holster required removal that would seem to be happening with greater ease, and the time it takes to finalize the use of the sighting system on the handgun would be reduced. If we measured the time it took to execute the task, the final repetition would probably be faster than the first. Learning has taken place, right? Probably not.

The repetitious nature of this task in its isolated format may have resulted in a performance change, but not necessarily learning. So, what’s the difference? Performance is an observable change in real-time, we repeat an action over and over, and we appear to get better at that action. Learning is a measure of whether we can reproduce that performance later. Or better still whether we can apply that skill later in a different environment and apply it appropriately in a contextually relevant circumstance.

Six months after our trainee has “learned” to stand still, draw a handgun, and hit a stationary target, they need the skill. This time it’s raining, it’s dark, it’s 2 a.m., and the officer is cold, wet and out of breath from running. They need to draw and shoot someone who is moving laterally. The person who needs to be shot is shooting back at them and is three car lengths away. How prepared are they for this task based on the qualification stage they practiced? Did practicing a drill over and over one day six months ago build skills that are robust and transferable, or did they get somewhat mediocre at a drill that the test required?

Know your why

The purpose of our training is not to get good at drills. The purpose of our training is not to pass a test. The purpose of our training is to build skills for real-world applications.

Drills are a means to build skills, but somehow the drill has become the objective. People think that their firearms prowess can be measured by their ability to pass a qualification. The handgun qualification may be a way to measure basic safety and rudimentary skills, but it is about as far from a measure of real-world skill as we can possibly get. Somehow it has become an ingrained culture in law enforcement training; if people can perform to the minimum standard, they are now ready for the real world. Drill obsession will not make you ready, skill obsession might.

How should we plan our training?

If you don’t have the power to change the “boxes” you have to train within, such as time, venue, equipment, etc., you can still make valuable improvements to how you learn within those boundaries. We must think critically about what our people need to be able to do to be successful. Focus on identifying the skills they need, then reverse engineer the training to that end. Use a variety of drills to build those specific skills.

Let’s stick with a draw as an example of a skill. The hallowed qualification may measure draw speed in conjunction with some need for accuracy, there will likely be a timed draw drill on most tests of handgun proficiency. Just because it can be done standing flat-footed on a range within the par time of the lowest performer in the department, does not mean that is how it should be practiced. The minimum standard is not the benchmark for ability.

Focus on skills without getting hung up on drills

If our people can draw a handgun to the time standard on a range that’s a great start, now let’s vary the drills and build a robust transferable skill.

Practice drawing in all the varying types of uniforms required year-round. If your part of the world has seasons, your people may be wearing shorts and a t-shirt for some of the year and head-to-toe insulated waterproofs for more of it – the draw needs to be practiced in all that varying attire.

It needs to be practiced in gloves, with hands fouled by water, dirt, or something that represents the viscosity of blood. It needs to be practiced in the dark, the cold, the rain, the snow and in the burning summer sun.

It needs to be practiced with the dominant and non-dominant hands only.

It needs to be practiced sitting at a desk, a dinner table, a restaurant booth, in a car, kneeling, prone, supine, and in the fetal position.

It needs to be practiced on the move, after moving, after exertion, with elevated breathing and heart rate, when the belt has shifted position and when the gun isn’t where we normally reach for it. All those variances can be practiced using an inert training pistol, providing maximum safety at minimum cost.

The skills of accessing the handgun, driving it toward our intended target, using the sighting system if required and touching the trigger or not depending on the stimulus, can all be practiced without ammunition or a range. If we can do all those things well, the simple task of standing still and completing the minimum standard drill won’t even need a thought. Train harder than the baseline and the testing will take care of itself. It’s not about getting good at the drill, get great at the skill.

My critical thinking challenge to you

The next training you plan, deliver, or attend, think about the skills you are practicing and ask yourself, is the drill relevant to your real world of work? How can you vary the construct of practice to start to bridge the contextual gap between the training environment and your required skill?

It’s all about the skills, stop obsessing about the drills.