Does Your Range Training Make Bad Shooters?

“I learned a ton…that will make me a better instructor.”

-SGM (Ret.) Kyle E. Lamb, Author of Green Eyes & Black Rifles

Article 064 – Does Your Range Training Make Bad Shooters?

Traditional range management practices are at odds with how the brain learns.

Most of our material at Building Shooters is focused on making big-picture structural training changes. One example is changing blocked training to non-blocked delivery. Another is incrementally introducing material progressively—so subskills are consolidated to long-term memory before they are integrated into more complex tasks. We also advocate for interleaving (chaotic learning) methods at a certain point in skills training so that the full set of operationally relevant neural circuitry is constructed while skills performance is honed. Skills then have far more relevance to the real world and are much easier to access and apply operationally.

In this article we are going to focus more specifically on range management processes.  After all, the range (whether live fire or otherwise) is the environment where we traditionally build shooting skills. What happens there either produces good outcomes on the street or it doesn’t.

As we work with law enforcement agencies around the country, it has become increasingly obvious that much of what the industry has traditionally done on the range really needs to change. As with the other training reforms we advocate for, the problems aren’t necessarily related to what is being taught, or in this case even necessarily how the instruction itself is performed. Rather they center around a series of fundamental flaws in how live fire training environments are structured and how these flaws impact learning.

Before diving into the shooting range, let’s first back up a few paces and talk about learning. If you’ve read our books and other material, don’t skip ahead just yet. This discussion is going to go into a different topic than most of our other writing.

Specifically, we want to talk about the necessity of struggle to achieve combined with performance feedback. Dr. Bill Lewinski, Dr. Tim Lee, and the Force Science Institute have done some excellent work pushing out information on this subject recently.  This 2022 article from Dr. Lee is well worth reading. Dr. Robert Bjork from UCLA is responsible for much of the foundational research in this area and there was even a recent article about this general subject published in the Wall Street Journal.

The reader can dive into the academic material by starting with the links provided above. For purposes of this article, we will simplify things by defining that effective learning requires a combination of intent, effort, feedback, and iteration (related to, but more specific than just “repetition”).  We aren’t big on terminology, call these whatever you like, but the underlying concepts will make more sense if we use consistent terms to explain them within this article.

The basic premise is that the learner must not only be trying to achieve something very specific, he or she must also know how the attempt to accomplish it is being made, what was done during the last attempt, how that differed from previous attempts and how that attempt worked out with respect to impacting the outcome. To learn more about the underlying mechanisms involved, start by looking up the term differential learning and drilling down from there.

Unfortunately, our industry standard range management methods mostly fail to support these foundational components of skills learning, particularly with respect to developing shooting mechanics.

Most institutional / professional ranges are run centrally (often using turning target systems), where a line of students will perform the same exact skill sequence in unison, on command.  The skill or skills to be performed, and the expectations of performance, are defined upfront. For example:

From the seven-yard line, on the command of fire, shooters will draw and fire four rounds center-mass. Time is five-seconds.  Shooters ready?  Shooters, watch your targets.

After the script describing the skill(s) to be performed is read, the targets will turn. Each shooter will then attempt to conduct the string of fire in accordance with the instructions.  After the defined time-period is over, the targets will turn again and the instructor / rangemaster will read the next set of instructions, often for a different string of fire, possibly at a different distance.

In this article we will set aside the testing / qualification application for this type of range management. That’s a separate discussion. Our focus here is student learning during the training process.

How does this general method of range management match up with the fundamental neurological requirements for learning, specifically shooting mechanics?

Above we defined these learning requirements as:

  • Intent to accomplish a specific objective
  • Effort expended towards that objective
  • Feedback received about whether the objective was accomplished or not
  • Iteration (error-based learning via repetition with the above factors in play)

For the purposes of this article, we will define the core areas of shooting mechanics (in no particular order) as:

  • Structure (stance, body position, arm position, grip etc.) (Borrowing the term from Mike Seeklander.)
  • Vision (aiming-related)
  • Trigger Management
  • Vision (subject- and situational awareness-related)

One of the very challenging things about learning (and teaching) shooting, especially for combat applications, is that all of these mechanics matter. This will be the subject of a future article (probably several) so we will not get into too much detail here. However, one of the big challenges to learning in traditional training environments is the assignment of tasks in training that don’t require the student to use all (or sometimes any) of these mechanics.

“Having the written material plus seeing the methodology and technology on the range along with hearing Dustin present the nuances of the material really helps paint the picture of how we should all be presenting firearms training for those who have signed up to protect their communities.”

-John Baggett, Rangemaster, Central Alabama Sheriff’s Office with 200+ personnel

Picture lining shooters up at the three yardline, then asking them to draw and fire six rounds center-mass into a silhouette on command with “combat accuracy”. Since this is happening in a group setting, targets are not individually scored and evaluated, response times and shot splits are not measured or evaluated, targets are not taped or changed between repetitions (nor between relays) and after just a few strings of fire, there is little to gather from seeing impacts on the target after the fact.

Here is another consideration: which of these identified shooting mechanics are required to accomplish the task of launching six rounds in the general direction of a silhouette on a lane range?  Answer: precisely zero.

Let us now shift back to looking at the learning aspect and use the range event of four rounds center-mass from the holster at seven yards to evaluate the process. 

First, the target turns. This tells the student to draw the weapon and fire four rounds (or not) within the allotted time-period. Once the target has turned away, the student holsters the weapon on command from the rangemaster and waits for further instructions.

What was the student’s intent during the technique performance? Presumably there is a standard of accuracy requirement in the event. In most examples it would not be terribly difficult to achieve from this range of 7 yards (FBI “Coke Bottle” or similar). There is also an overall time requirement – which is the only requirement actually defined in the instructions.  Once again, this time requirement is not particularly difficult in this example.

This brings us back to the student’s intent. The instructor’s intent is irrelevant—what happens in the student’s brain is all that matters. What is the student’s intent, exactly?  To get the rounds off in the allotted timeframe?  To achieve a non-challenging standard of accuracy with 80% or better?  Could it be something else?  If so, what, and how could the student know if it was achieved or not?

Keep in mind that this element, intent, is a key component of learning. Without intent, learning does not happen. Two different people can do exactly the same thing with the same number of repetitions and achieve wildly different results. Often, the difference is intent.

Our next element of learning is effort, struggle, or as Dr. Lee and Dr. Lewinski term it, “desirable difficulties.”  What effort is required to perform a task evaluated against two potential non-challenging standards?  Perhaps more to the point, and leading directly to the next foundational element of learning, what standard is actually required during the task performance and how does the student know if it has been achieved or not?

What does this mean, “actually required”?  Specifically, it refers to what feedback the student receives during and immediately after performing the task. Anything else (for example aggregate accuracy examined many minutes later) has little learning value as the student may have no neural mechanism to tie that result to specific elements of performance during the task.

The student knows how many rounds were fired. The student does not know (because the student cannot see the impacts on the target after it turns, or because there are many rounds already fired into the target in aggregate scoring (or unscored) strings of fire) whether the accuracy requirement was achieved for any specific student action.  Particularly when using turning targets, the only real mandatory, “actually required” objective of the student during and immediately after performance of the skill is getting the pre-defined number of rounds off.

Let us briefly shift the analysis back to shooting mechanics.  Immediately after the shooter has completed the task (drawing and firing four rounds in our example), the externally generated feedback (as opposed to self-generated feedback such as shot calling) consists of whether or not the required number of rounds were fired before the target turned away.  Which of the shooting mechanics does this inform? Structure? Vision (aiming)? Trigger Management? Vision (situational awareness)?

There’s admittedly a theoretical argument to be made about structure and also possibly trigger management here. (If the gun is flying out of the shooter’s hand causing them to miss the time (for example), there’s obviously a structure problem.) However, the real answer is most likely none. 

Neither good structure nor good trigger management are required to fire at a pace that will achieve this standard, especially without an accuracy requirement. Remember that we are looking only at the feedback available to the student immediately after performance here—this is what is most relevant to learning as it connects to iterative performance (see below). If there is no connection of the feedback received to specific action taken during the attempt, there will be no learning.

The student’s response times, shot splits, rhythm / cadence, and accuracy are all unknowns. The only information available to the student during and after performance is whether the requisite rounds were fired before the target turned or not.

What exactly is the student supposed to learn from achieving (or failing to achieve) this hypothetical standard of firing four rounds in five seconds (or any other arbitrary standard) with no learning-relevant evaluation of accuracy?  We don’t know either.

While this is certainly dependent on a wide variety of factors, consider that when turning targets are used during range training, it may be similar to asking students to learn motor skills in a sensory deprivation tank.  Learning value (at least with respect to shooting mechanics) is likely to be minimal at best if students have no mechanism through which to evaluate the outcome of the most recent performance attempt.

"Enables all new methods of range control."

“We just completed our first full-length police recruit academy firearms training using NURO. We have also been using it for our in-service training to create flexible, cost-effective decision making and skill performance scenarios. Static range drills, repetitive qualification, and pre-defined field courses that don’t scale are the past.”

-Brandon P., Armament Section Head, Syracuse, NY Police Department

"A revolutionary training system."

“I believe NURO will revolutionize the firearms training industry and inform future best practices for use-of-force training. It will fundamentally change how these skills are developed, practiced and tested…NURO is the future of the firearms training industry.”

John Holschen., Heiho Consulting Group, Founder and Principal Consultant

This brings us to the final element of learning (at least based on our definitions for this article) which is iteration. Iteration involves repetition, but it’s much more than that.  Iteration is the opportunity for the brain’s foundational processes of learning to kick in and start working – specifically error-based feedback and corrective action.

Are we achieving the goal?  If not, why not?  What did we achieve? What did we do differently this time than we did last time and why did that impact the outcome? These may or may not be conscious thoughts, depending on the task, but they are how the brain learns and begins the process of constructing or enhancing the neural circuitry that produces motor skill performance. 

This requires feedback with every repetition. It also requires awareness of the objective (intent) and awareness about what was done differently (and what was done the same) as the last time. This allows the brain to compare actions and outcomes, which produces learning. This process is how we learn at a mechanical level inside the brain.

Notice that awareness of what occurred, what its impact was, and adequate processing time to sort this all out (this will differ depending on the task and intent) are critical components of iteration.  If the student doesn’t know what just happened or why, they cannot iterate, only repeat. If the student is blasting through repetition after repetition without any processing or analysis of what outcome(s) each repetition produced and why, they are not iterating. They also are not learning much. Iteration requires repetition; however, repetition without iteration is simply a waste of time and resources.

In our range example above, are the students iterating on the skill(s), enabling them to learn effectively?  The answer, of course, is no. How could they? 

Not only do they not know what they just did, or what its impact was, they are already moving on to the next (different) skill sequence, as directed by the rangemaster. 

To sum this up, most of our legacy range management processes (especially with qualification-centric training and centralized range control) involve asking students to perform tasks with at-best muddled intent of performance, minimal effort required to accomplish the mandatory components of the task completion (e.g., simply get the rounds off in time), little to no immediate feedback relevant to shooting mechanics, and little to no iteration of the tasks.

Said another way, we use range management processes that prohibit learning to make our students perform tasks that predominantly do not require the use of shooting mechanics. Is it any wonder that training programs still using these methods struggle to produce competent armed professionals and civilians?

Somewhat ironically, the more difficulty that a student initially has during firearms training, the harder it is for them to learn with these legacy training practices.

Sure, there is difficulty for them. Sure, the student struggles. But the student is not struggling in a way that’s productive.  Productive struggle requires the elements outlined above: focused intent, valuable and immediate feedback related to the intent, and iteration—all elements that are typically limited, if not altogether absent, in the range environment.

For those on the armed professional side of the training industry, there is a term floating around in some circles that is contextually appropriate here: disparate impact. The training methods themselves create additional disadvantages for trainees who have any type of limitation (such as smaller hands and less relative grip strength), lack of familiarity with the subject matter (first time using a firearm), less-developed visuo-motor targeting skills and other fundamental athletic ability, or lack of general knowledge at the beginning of the training process.

In a very real way, the training process itself discriminates against these students. This is not because of some cosmetic or other immutable characteristic of the student. The discrimination happens because these students actually require training, as opposed to those who have pre-existing related capabilities and skills.

If our goal with range training is to produce competence through learning, we must change our range processes to match how the brain learns and assign tasks in training that require students to use the full compliment of shooting mechanics that are relevant to gunfighting in the real world.

"Stands out as an embodiment of neuroscience-driven methodologies. It is the future of tactical training."

-Justin Smith, Ph.D., Founder, Tactical Neuroscience

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"The clearest, simplest, most well-founded psychomotor training program I have seen for developing shooting skills."
-Dr. Bill Lewinski
Executive Director, Force Science Institute
"Easily one of the more important books of our time when it comes to preparing police, military and armed civilians for armed lethal combat."
-Kenneth Murray
Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition