Let’s Fix What’s Broken

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

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

If you’ve followed BUILDING SHOOTERS for a while, you’re probably familiar with our criticism of the way that armed professionals such as police, security, and military are trained in firearms and related tactical skills. If not, welcome to our page and this subject is our bread and butter. 

The main reason we exist is because of my personal experiences with trying to build a military security command from scratch as a junior officer in the aftermath of 9/11 and the terrorist attack on the USS Cole. It was an eye-opening slap in the face that highlighted just how bad we are, collectively, at developing proficiency in these types of skills.

As an industry, we currently spend an awful lot of time, effort, and energy focusing on equipment, tactics and techniques. We expect instructors (at least good instructors) to keep their personal skills sharp and to stay up on the latest trends and learnings from the field.

There is also an increased (though, in our opinion, still lacking) focus on reality-based training and simulation. Video simulators keep getting better.  Force-on-force training keeps getting more prevalent.

All of this is wonderful.  For those waiting for the “but” comment…there isn’t one.  There is, however, an “and.”

Advances and improvement in equipment, techniques, tactics, and accessibility to methods of delivering low consequence experience are all great.  We should keep this up and continue to improve it.


We also must consider how the structural design of our training systems and our methods of training delivery impact student outcomes, both in training and out on the street.

The best techniques in the world won’t do much good if the students can’t perform them either during or (worse) after training. The fanciest training tools and technologies don’t help people who never get to use them enough to benefit from them. And, the most realistic and advanced experiential training tools and methods can actually hurt students who aren’t adequately prepared beforehand, or when these tools and methods are applied improperly.

The industry’s training structure needs to catch up with the technology we have and the things we are teaching and there is a long way to go before that happens.

Consider the following.

I had a discussion recently with a retired law enforcement instructor who is, by any measure, extraordinarily skilled and knowledgeable in his specific area of expertise. Having participated in classes myself, I can also attest that he is also a gifted teacher, who brought the sort of passion and intensity to his training that most armed professionals can only hope to experience at some point in a career.

An assertion he made during the discussion was that the main objective of the instructor should be to inspire a passion for the subject matter and a sense of need and urgency within the students. In his view, the instructor’s primary mission during training is to give the students a sense of vulnerability and inspire them to train on their own.

With respect to this objective, we have zero disagreement. Personally and/or professionally motivated people who care deeply, have a deep sense of personal ownership of their skillset, and who, on their own initiative, own time, and own dime, pay the dues necessary to develop and enhance their proficiency are a blessing in any profession.  They are also the exception rather than the rule.

It’s tempting for those who are, in fact, in that category to take the psychological moral high ground and relegate everyone else to the “shouldn’t even be here” bin.  Without suggesting that anyone and everyone can do any and all jobs or that “everyone gets a trophy” is how things should be structured (after all – this most definitely is NOT how the rubber meets the road), allow us to advise some caution here.

We’ll make two points. 

The first is that differing individual interests and priorities are not a bad thing. This includes operationally.

Real diversity of skillset, thought process, and capability can often be a blessing. For example, how many of the knuckle-dragging gunslingers out there who virtually live on the range are also tech geeks who spend countless hours working with, playing with, and testing communications equipment configurations because they just love to do it? 

Undoubtedly there are some, though it’s not the most common combination of interests and abilities.

Here’s another question, what’s more important in the field?  Is it firearms skills or technical communications skills?

The question is of course rhetorical. The right answer (like for so many tactical questions) is, “it depends.” Still, read or watch Lone Survivor and consider whether things could have been a whole lot different had a team member with mediocre weapons skills and world-class technical communications capability been a part of Operation Redwing.

Allow us to propose that differing and diverse personal interests and priorities aren’t necessarily a moral or “personal worthiness” issue. They can even enhance, rather than detract from, operational outcomes in many circumstances.

This brings us to our second point which is that responsibility for operational readiness and performance ultimately is owned by the institution, not by individuals.

Unquestionably an organization with a culture that fosters individual ownership and personal responsibility combined with a team that embraces these principles is going to be far ahead of one that doesn’t. However, this doesn’t absolve the organization of its inherent responsibility for preparation, qualification, and, ultimately, operational performance.

During the discussion referenced above, it was asked what the ultimate success rate of the program was in motivating individuals to begin training on their own.  The answer?  About 5%.

Consider that for a minute. 5%. 

5% of the organization is NOT the number of people who achieved operational competence, that’s just the percentage who cared enough after the training to do something about their lack of competency.

Without in any way lessening the efforts, skill, or passion of the instructor, or the content of the training program itself, we believe most people would agree with us that this speaks volumes. Would anyone reading this want to justify a developmental program in life-death subject matter that boasted a success rate of less than 5% —and this assuming a truly world-class instructor?  What if the other 95% or more were still on the job, regardless of whether the program succeeded? (And they are.)

If this gives you some pause, consider that we just described the current state of the majority of law enforcement and security force firearms and combatives training programs. A bit chilling isn’t it?

In order to fix this state of affairs, we need to focus on three areas.

First, we need to change our method and structure of delivering information to match how the human brain receives and learns information. Today, these are completely mis-aligned. This makes our training efforts both inefficient and largely ineffective. Here’s a dirty little secret: we can make people competent if we train them correctly.  This focus area is the subject of our first two books, Building Shooters and Mentoring Shooters.

Second, we need to start using the same neurological and physiological “machinery” in training that is required on the street.  Most of what we have people practice doing now is almost completely unrelated to what is required in the real world. Nobody would expect riding a tricycle around in the driveway to produce a competent driver. Yet, this is an effective analogy for what we train people to do in firearms training versus what they actually need to be able to do for real.  What we should be doing is developing the full spectrum of neurological and physiological functions that are required on the street – during all related training.

Third (and closely related), we need to change how we test and qualify people to use firearms.  Developing high levels of shooting skill is, of course, very beneficial. This should never change. It must remain (or, depending on how absurd the current qualification course is, perhaps become) a significant and important objective of training.

Measurable, empirical standards of performance will never go away (nor, we would argue, should they).  However, as an industry, we need to fundamentally change how we do this. We must develop standards that are based around human performance limitations and operational performance requirements that encompass ALL of the required operational functions, to include iterative information processing and decision making. 

Until we make training for the test the same as training for the fight, we are unlikely to see either significant improvements in training or in outcomes on the street.

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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