Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

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

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

All professionally designed and managed training and certification/qualification programs for armed professionals make use of standards. Without them, it’s difficult to assert that a qualification means anything. It’s even more difficult to defend the program and its operational results in a court of law. Standards are necessary, and important.

Unfortunately, the way that we currently use them across most of the industry has the effect of limiting performance development and inhibiting the program’s ability to positively affect operational outcomes to its (the program’s) full potential.

Let’s start by looking at the standards themselves.

Broadly speaking, there are two general types of qualification standards. There’s the more traditional – marksmanship based – model, still used by most of the professional security, law enforcement and military community, where strings of fire are fired from various yardlines. For example, a string of fire might include firing six rounds from the 25 yard line in some defined time period, or six rounds followed by a reload and then six more rounds, again, in a defined time period at some defined distance. At the completion of the qualification, the target is scored; a pass or fail is granted based on a total numerical value.

Then, there’s the more skill-focused type of standards, usually favored by shooting schools and specialty or elite professional units. With these types of standards, each individual skill is usually considered a pass/fail requirement, independent of the others. For example, a standard might include presentation from a concealed holster, firing a defined number of rounds from the 7 yard line, while meeting a standard of time. A second standard might include firing a surgical shot from a primary weapon system, transitioning to the pistol, and firing several more rounds, again in a defined time period. A third standard might involve shooting multiple head shots while on the move at a specified distance—again within a defined time period. With this type of standard, you can’t do well on one, flub another, and have them balance out for a passing score. You must achieve a defined performance level at each individual skill tested.

The first, more traditional type of standard, is really intended for, and excels at, one thing—putting warm, qualified bodies on the street. That’s about the extent of its value. From any other perspective or outlook, these types of standards are pretty dismal.

First, by their nature, performance of these standards doesn’t usually include performance of anything based in the operational need. Literally, in most cases there are zero operationally applicable skills that are required to be performed in order to pass the standard. For example, during no gunfight, ever, has anybody stood still in one place for twenty plus seconds and fired six slow fire rounds at a stationary target at handgun ranges. Even the fundamental marksmanship skill that is theoretically tested here is not grounded in any operational reality. Literally, the brain memory system used, the type of vision techniques used, the type of sight alignment and sight picture techniques applied, the controlling nervous system, the trigger control technique, the recoil control technique, and (in some cases) even the gripping technique on the firearm that are required for optimal performance here are all different than anything that could possibly be applied in a gunfight. They are completely different skills.

Second, these types of standards don’t measure proficiency in any meaningful way that correlates to any specific performance area – so they provide little, if any, valuable data, even regarding the non-operational skills that are actually performed during the qualification. In most of these qualification courses, the majority of the rounds are fired at close range, where fundamentals can be poorly applied (or even virtually non-existent), yet significant points still awarded. Because the courses are scored based on a total of all rounds fired, this usually means that someone can qualify, and remain qualified over the course of a career, as an armed professional, without ever developing even the basic fundamentals of marksmanship that are supposedly tested at the distance yardlines, much less the operationally based skill to engage an actual threat from those distances.

Third, these types of standards, though of limited actual value, are both time consuming and resource intensive to conduct. In many, if not most, cases, the ammunition allotted for “training” by an organization is only enough to facilitate the actual firing of the qualification course on a periodic basis (usually bi-annually or quarterly—for which many agencies believe they deserve a pat on the back). Furthermore, the conduct of the qualification typically occupies both the range or training facility and the instructor staff fully during the entire training and qualification period. When facility or instructor limitations require that qualifications be conducted by relay, this effectively means that the shooters end up spending most of their already limited firearms training time sitting idle while waiting on others to qualify.

Consider this: For most armed professionals, qualification is the only organizationally provided in-service training with firearms. Yet, during a qualification day, for most armed professionals who are governed using this traditional structure, any single individual is unlikely to spend more than 15-20 minutes with a firearm actually being used in their hands – and none of those 15-20 minutes are likely to involve the performance of a single skill that is actually relevant to the operational use of the firearm.

This is something we all probably know. But it is still somewhat stunning to see it laid out.

The second standard and qualification model, where individual skills are performed on a pass/fail basis, fairs a bit better under scrutiny. If you want to evaluate somebody’s fundamental skill level with a firearm, this is a good way to do it.

Where individual skill based standards can excel is in evaluating and/or developing high levels of fundamental technical shooting skills. We say “can” excel, because too much, too soon can actually inhibit a student’s performance potential by developing inefficient yet “good enough for the standard” technique. But, applied properly within a well-structured training program, this method can effectively develop and evaluate performance of specific techniques.

However, this method still has its own limitations, especially when applied inappropriately.

**Note** The limitations discussed here in relation to individual skill standards also apply to the traditional qualification structure; discussing them twice would have been inefficient and repetitive.

One of the biggest limitations of these types of applied skill standards is that performance of the standards themselves can become the objective of firearms training, especially if they are difficult. This can cloud more pertinent objectives, specifically preparation for positive operational outcomes.

Development of high levels of fundamental technical skill isn’t in any way bad. It is worth asking the question though, how high must the level of technical performance be for the operational environment, and how many skills must be evaluated in this way?  

In Building Shooters we argue that decision-making in response to human-based stimuli is the most critical operational skillset for armed professionals. We also explore some of the brain science and other research which shows that, for a variety of reasons, high levels of technical skill performance during end of training period testing do not necessarily correlate to high levels of operational performance.  

In fact, depending on the training methods used, sometimes lower scoring performers on these sorts of isolated skill tests are, in fact, much better performers operationally. Therefore, for both of these reasons, we caution against basing a training and evaluation program intended for operational purposes upon these types of fundamental firearms skill measurements. (Please note that we do not discourage, and in fact still encourage, the structured development of fundamental, technical shooting skill).

Individual skills performance standards also have the drawback of being the very definition of what is known as blocked training, sometimes also referred to as siloed training. In other words, the student knows what skill will be performed, how it will be performed, the environment it will be performed in, etc. While effective for developing performance of the specific skill tested in similarly sterile environments, these types of drills do little to stimulate or link multiple brain functions in preparation for the chaos of actual contact. 

These drills may be effective at developing unconscious competency (procedural consolidation) of the specific skill, should they be repeated enough times. However, it is also possible to perform skills on this type of qualification test based on information stored in the declarative (conscious access) memory system. While this may accomplish the desired skill performance to the accepted standard during the training period and testing evolution, this does not necessarily equate to successful operational application—when skills must be performed almost exclusively from procedural (unconscious) memory.

When these types of technical performance based shooting standards are raised to a high bar within an organization (which we are not fundamentally opposed to by the way – given the right resources), there are actually two distinct drawbacks which can result specifically from the requirement for the high level of fundamental skill. First, the trainees can become locked into discreet skills performance—with development in little else. Why? Because the standards are really hard. People want to pass them. So they practice. They know how to train, and they want the job, the status, the missions, the pay…whatever. So they train. They train for the test—comprised of discreet skills performance.

Let’s imagine a program with some really difficult standards as its qualification. Let’s pick one, like sub-second cerebral-spinal shots from the holster at 5 yards. That’s a really tough standard – and it’s actually on a pistol standards course out there. If somebody needs to meet that standard on demand, they are going to have to do two things. 1) They are going to have to practice. A lot—specifically at getting the gun out really fast and acquiring a sight picture for a single, relatively refined trigger press. 2) They are going to have to set up their gear to facilitate the best chance of success. The holster must be of the right type, and at the optimal height and angle. The gun probably has to sit out a bit from the body. It should be placed just in the right place on the waistline etc.  

So, here’s the question. Do either of these two things really make somebody better operationally? Is the optimal holster for sub-second presentations likely to be a good holster for any operational application? Is spending hours and hours of training time per week practicing firing a single round from the holster at a static target in under a second, the best use of that training time? What’s better? To get the gun out .25 seconds faster? Or to make the decision to draw 1 second earlier and move to cover—or to gain a clear field of fire behind the target—or both, while getting the pistol out?  

Getting the picture? Sub-second CS shots from the holster are a great standard. We would encourage people who shoot for the sake of shooting to work on it if you’ve got lots of free time. It will teach you an awful lot about the drawstroke, trigger press, flash sight picture, and your own body mechanics among other things. Operationally relevant? Not hardly. If you carry a gun for fighting, will it help you win a fight? Unlikely. Is it worth burning tremendous resources to attain for any practical reason related to operational applications? Certainly not. There are much better places to focus your training hours—if they are limited—places that definitely will help you win a fight.

The other thing that these types of standards can do, especially if they are “hard,” but not over the top, is they can act as long-term performance governors—especially when limited resources are available in the training leading up to them. Let’s look at some examples.

Imagine a standard that involves relatively fast presentation from the holster—say 1.5 seconds or so—at close range (9-15 feet) to the target. Or, perhaps there is even no stringent time limit assigned, but students are encouraged to shoot multiple shots rapidly with a low standard of accuracy (like body shots at 3-5 yards), before they have procedurally consolidated the shooting fundamentals.

In these cases, the students will rise to meet the standard. However, in doing so, the student will also do near permanent (and potentially life-threatening) damage to the potential of their armed skillset. If there is no requirement for the student to ever develop the technical fundamentals of shooting – then the student will probably never develop the technical fundamentals of shooting such as a consistent grip or the ability to shoot with a visual reference under stress. It’s true that this may not matter too much at 3-5 yards for some self-defense applications. However, it’s also true that consolidating techniques (such as non-aimed fire) which fundamentally preclude solving significant components of potential real-world tactical problems, can make a student almost unfixable down the road. In other words, it may be nearly impossible for a student initially trained in this way to EVER apply (or maybe even learn to apply) aimed fire under the effects of the stress response—as one example.

These types of standards can look deceivingly good on the range. During actual contact – they may be as likely to hurt as they are to help. Certainly, the student’s personal skillset is likely to have just had a performance governor installed on it, one they may never be able to recover from.

At this point we’ve spent a lot of time critiquing how we apply standards in the industry. This is all well and good, but it doesn’t do much to help people who actually need standards—such as every armed professional.

But, all that aside, what if we did want to just get rid of standards? Is it a good idea to get rid of standards from a pure training perspective, given all of the potential drawbacks? In our view, no. It isn’t. Not at all. 

First, standards can help address liability. Most of us may not like the litigious nature of modern society. But that doesn’t change its reality. Especially in professional settings, there has to be documentation of both training and of the performance of an empirical standard for armed professionals. So, we can’t just toss them away and go train.

Second, some people thrive on challenge and accomplishment. Standards within organizations can give people something to strive for, or at least something to prepare for, especially if the standards mean something. And nobody thrives when there’s no standard of performance. Accountability is incredibly important in well-run organizations. Even more so when they involve the profession of arms. That’s something that’s hard to do without standards. Removing (or dumbing down) standards isn’t a recipe for building a top-notch organization, or for putting good performers in the field.

Third, while extremely high levels of technical performance might not be critical in most real-world armed encounters, this doesn’t mean that technical skills performance isn’t important. Shooting, at its most basic level is applied physics. “Correct” technical performance of the skills allows you to make the physics work in your favor. There’s more than one way to do almost everything, but you have to do that way correctly in order to avoid limiting performance potential—which is important. There’s a big difference between not training to the proficiency level necessary to make sub-second surgical shots from the holster and training yourself in techniques that actually prohibit you from ever performing skills at anywhere near that level. The first is a decision to pursue the most operationally relevant capability with the resources available. The second is implementation of personal limitations in problem solving capability which, fundamentally, is tactically unsound.

Standards are important. Don’t get rid of them. Instead, redesign them—and use them productively.

To begin with, let’s get rid of the notion that standards (in and of themselves) either comprise training, or that they should be the objective of training. Instead, let’s use standards for the right reasons. One reason is liability mitigation. We need something empirical to quantify why people are qualified for the job. We don’t need it to be something useless, wasteful, and ultimately counterproductive operationally.  

A second reason is to test ourselves – as instructors – and the effectiveness and design of our training systems. The fact is that the results of standards performance should tell us more about ourselves than they do about the students, and we should use them to do this, so we can continuously improve. It’s easy and convenient to blame the students, especially in organizational training, but this is rarely productive. Instead, adjust training design and delivery to get the desired results in students, even those who really might not be fired up about learning.

Finally, let’s think “outside the box.” Not all empirical metrics have to involve holes in paper, or written tests. Practical application in progressively chaotic environments, also called interleaved training methodology, is one of the most powerful – yet underutilized – tools available in our profession. Repetition, environmental stimuli and contexts, development of neural networks corresponding to operational performance, decision-making, and creative problem solving are all things that can be exercised with empirical measurement and record-keeping in mind, given some forethought in training design.

Specifics are outside the scope of this article, and really should be designed to meet the needs of any individual organization. However, there are a couple of general concepts relating to standards that we currently believe, based on the scope of our existing research and experience, provide the best balance and the best chance for positive outcomes.

First, don’t throw away the need for fundamental skill performance. There’s a trend towards doing this in some parts of the training industry that we strongly disagree with. Fundamental skill performance is the foundation upon which everything else is built. It will not, by itself, produce good operational outcomes. However, someone who never develops it will always face significant challenges and limitations in their operational capability and potential. In our opinion, a short, fundamental skills performance qualification course is ideal for the live-fire, empirical needs of organizations employing armed professionals. It should be short. It should be low in resource requirements, and it should be well within the easy reach of a reasonable person participating in your organization’s training system.

Second, re-structure the overall concept of qualification from one of counting holes made in paper and/or seconds on a timer to one of tracking the targeted development and enhancement of the applicable neural networks for operational performance within the procedural memory system. Using applications such as our neurologically based tool for training system design, trainers can literally track the development of the student’s brain. They can also target information and skills to specific brain systems, on purpose, through intelligent design and use of smarter training methodology. Periodic feedback based standards testing – designed specifically to exercise components of (or entire) networks within specific brain areas can be used to verify the effectiveness of the training system, and inform a process of continuous improvement.

The best part about this, by the way? It actually uses less time and resources than traditional training methods do.

In conclusion, standards are tremendously important. They can also be tremendously useful tools for trainers, students, and administrators—when they are done right. Unfortunately, throughout most of the industry, especially for armed professionals, we still have a long way to go.

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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."
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Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition