HOW DO YOU STACK UP?
How do you measure your ability to actually use your firearm?
Written by Louie Tirona
Louie has been a police officer for over 27 years in one of the most active cities in California and has worked various assignments, primarily in the areas of violent crime investigation and use of force training.
How do you measure your ability to actually use your firearm? Is the training and subsequent qualification in which you participated sufficient to know that you are “good enough?” When was the last time you measured your skill? How do you compare your qualification scores against others from different jurisdictions, agencies/departments or military units? This article is written primarily for any of you who may carry a gun as a requirement of your profession but it applies equally to those who choose firearms as part of one’s safety gear.
I am going to discuss an experiment I conducted with my own law enforcement department within the past few months. As a brief background, I have been a cop for almost 27 years in California in one of the most active cities in the Golden State. I have been involved in use of force training for the majority of my career. I was fortunate enough to enter into a department largely influenced by Jeff Cooper’s training and found, compared to the training I saw at other departments, that our training program laid a solid foundation for applying marksmanship, gun-handling and mindset. However, what I found glaring was that the time frames for applying marksmanship seemed rather extended and did not match the situations I experienced on the streets. Our “qualification” course was still based on the PPC courses popular in the 70s and 80s…lots of six round strings at various distances on the rather large B27 targets with very generous par times.
As I gained in experience, influence and authority, I altered the qualification course. The course was modified to include tighter par times and stages that incorporated shooting while moving, all on a smaller silhouette target with better anatomically-correct target areas. Surprisingly, several of the nearby departments adopted this course of fire. This allowed for an apples-to-apples comparison of shooting skill among the departments that used our qualification course.
It may be surprising to learn, but there is no nationally recognized standard for law enforcement-related firearms training and/or methods for demonstrating proficiency. Most departments throughout the state and the country utilize different firearms training programs and shooting tests to satisfy department and state liability concerns. This situation did not and does not allow for an officer in one department to compare his/her skill with an officer from another department or state. Of course, the ultimate arbiter of skill in a real-life deadly force confrontation is who wins and who loses. However, the reality is (contrary to the popular narrative) most police officers never have to use their firearms in the performance of their duties.
The question came to mind as I became more involved in training outside of my own department, “How do my cops compare to others (both in the LE profession and outside) when it comes to pure shooting skills where marksmanship under speed is measured?”
The answer was right in front of my nose. I have been an avid competitive shooter for some time. In two of the shooting sports I participate in (IDPA and USPSA), there are “classifier” courses of fire that allow participants to compare themselves with other competitors and compete against those of similar skill.
I decided to use the IDPA 5X5 classifier with ALL members of my department (approximately 200 sworn). I chose this classifier as it is very simple to administer and score while testing a good set of shooting abilities. At the end of eight separate training sessions (all with the same program of instruction), I had each of my officers shoot this classifier and I recorded their individual stage times, penalties, points down, overall score and classification (as if they were trying to attain an IDPA classification). Everyone used duty type holsters and belts (minimally with a Safariland ALS retention system). One modification I made was to use the CDP (Custom Defensive Pistol) classifier times with all of the participants for simplicity’s sake. Another thing to note is that my department allows for individual officers to carry personal sidearms as their duty gun and we have a rather “liberal” policy when it comes to weapon make/model/caliber. We have officers carrying most of the more popular service weapons currently in use to include Sig 320s, Glocks and M&Ps. We also have quite a few officers carrying single stack 1911s and double stack 2011s. Some officers use slide mounted dot sights.
The course of fire is comprised of four strings of fire, all shot at 10 yards on an official IDPA target using current IDPA scoring. All strings of fire begin with hands at sides. A shooting timer is used to measure the shooter’s time to complete each string of fire. On the first string, the shooter draws and fires five rounds to the chest of the target. The second string is the same as string #1 but is fired with the strong/primary hand only. The third string begins with the gun holstered and loaded with only five rounds. The shooter draws and fires five rounds to the chest of the target, conducts a slide-lock reload and fires five additional rounds to the chest. The fourth and final string consists of firing four rounds to the chest and one to the head.
The overall breakdown (in percentage of all participants and scoring ranges) of classifications is as follows:
Master: 0.5 % 19.18 or less
Expert: 0.5 % 19.19 to 24.09
Sharpshooter: 8.8 % 24.10 to 29.92
Marksman: 24.2 % 29.93 to 37.63
Novice: 66.0 % 37.64 or greater
The results were not very surprising for anyone familiar with competitive shooting sports. However, the results were very surprising for the vast majority of the officers involved.
Before your jaws drop too much, I would submit to the reader that these results are actually better than what I would expect from the majority of people out there who carry guns as a condition of employment or own guns for personal protection. As a side note, this also included members of my SWAT team. The bulk of these shooters fell into the Sharpshooter and Marksman categories.
A good friend of mine teaches the use of firearms at one of the regional police academies. Before any of you roll your eyes at the level of instruction at most police academies, this one is different from the standpoint that this instructor uses teaching material heavily based on true shooting performance. To top it off, he is a top-notch teacher and takes his role seriously. As a favor, during a recent academy class he had his students also run through the IDPA classifier. His students’ results were as follows:
Marksman: 27.3 %
Novice: 72.7 %
Based upon my own experience, most officers are at their peak when it comes to pure performance in hard skills such as firearms, driving, defensive tactics and first aid when they graduate from the police academy. After that, it becomes very department-dependent if those skills actually improve.
An acquaintance from another department graciously administered this same classifier to his SWAT members at my request. He is another excellent instructor and student of the gun. His team results were as follows:
Expert: 0.6 %
Sharpshooter: 13.3 %
Marksman: 46.7 %
Novice: 33.3 %
Again, for most of you familiar with competitive shooting sports, these results are not very surprising. For the officers though, the results were quite eye-opening. They were faced with the realization that they were not as good as they thought, especially compared to “hobby/enthusiast” shooters. One of the positive take-aways was that I saw quite a bit of a competitiveness among the officers as we conducted this classifier (and that can be a very positive motivator for skill improvement) and I had several cops ask about getting involved in competitive shooting to improve their shooting skills.
Of course, shooting a classifier is only a test of shooting skill and not a test of tactics or the mindset needed to prevail in a lethal force confrontation. However, having a high degree of skill can only be an asset when involved in a shooting or a gunfight. Of similar importance is the knowledge gained from objectively testing one’s skill among others. This is the comparative knowledge that can be gained through measuring one’s skill against a large sample of shooters in an identical “qualification” course of fire. Knowing one’s true abilities can directly influence one’s decision making in serious social encounters (not to mention match environments).
Not meant to be an excuse, but shooting comprises a very small (but extraordinarily important) facet of the training an officer must complete regularly. Training such as emergency vehicle operation, defensive tactics, trauma care, investigative skills, interview and interrogation training, crisis intervention training and a myriad of other training needs make huge demands on an officer’s time and a department’s resources. This does not even include the regular duties an officer must attend to on a daily basis. However, not truly understanding one’s skill level in any of these important training areas can be a detriment for the public, the officer and the department.
I would challenge anybody reading this to use objective methods of measuring skill, not just the same old state or department-mandated courses of fire when possible. Whether that is shooting an established “classifier” from one of the major shooting sports or getting involved in competitive shooting, knowing (and not guessing) how well you can apply marksmanship at speed is something worthwhile. If any of you have the opportunity to try this classifier with your own departments/units/agencies and would like to share your results, please feel free to send them to me.
I haven’t even discussed how I changed our actual qualification course (yet again) to better measure these skills, but that is an article for another time.
Louie Tirona – High rank LE Officer and Lead Instructor at Tactical Performance Center
Louie Tirona is a life-long martial artist and first generation American. He has been a police officer for over 27 years in one of the most active cities in California and has worked various assignments, primarily in the areas of violent crime investigation and use of force training.
He has been an active participant in the national discussion over policing and use of force and has implemented training that has garnered national attention for its effectiveness in these critical areas. He is an avid competitive shooter, an IDPA master and member since 2014.