Back in 2001, the U.S. Navy found itself in something of a pickle. For decades it had treated small arms as a formality driven more by tradition than by operational need. This was especially true for commands afloat. In some cases, sailors weren’t even issued ammunition, just a gun to carry around for show.

Training in small arms skills was sparsely available, if it existed at all. Even Navy Gunner’s Mates (may the Rate rest in peace) didn’t fire any live rounds during their Rate specific training in “A School.” Most afloat commands had a billeted Small Arms Marksmanship Instructor (SAMI), usually a gunner’s mate, who received two weeks of live fire training aimed at passing and running the various Navy qualification courses. There was also a weapons course for shipboard security that had limited availability and that few people actually went to.  

For most sailors, the sum of their training and qualification with small arms involved having a loaded firearm handed to them by a gunner’s mate while standing on the edge of the ship’s flight deck, firing five rounds and handing the weapon back. If the sailor successfully hit the ocean, they received a qualification on that weapon. Most commanders were far more concerned with the risk of having firearms related accidents than they were with the risk posed by security threats that could require an armed response.

In defense of those commanding officers, they weren’t entirely wrong.

In 2000, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen changed the Navy’s entire outlook on small arms. After-action reports revealing that sailors who were standing security watches, in a known high-threat port, had unloaded weapons prodded the Navy’s top brass into taking directive action.  They mandated that, as of a certain date in 2001, all weapons carried on watch would be loaded. Unfortunately, the infrastructure and corporate knowledge necessary to support this mandate effectively simply didn’t exist.

The fleet complied – and the fireworks started.

For a time, the Surface Fleet was averaging one accidental (or negligent depending on your terminology preference) discharge per day. I used to joke – though not entirely – about starting to wear body armor on my way into work; the sound of gunshots on the pier during shift-change became not uncommon. 

These weapons discharges were reported to the Navy, both because it was required by policy and also probably in the hopes that the mandate would be rescinded. It wasn’t.

However, in typical bureaucratic fashion, an official message was sent out mandating to commanding officers that the now termed “negligent” discharges cease occurring. They didn’t.  

Rates of reporting however, did take a subsequent nosedive.

In recognition of the problem, and of the commanding officers’ collective inability to address it, the Navy took what has become a common approach to addressing training challenges and other deficiencies. They turned to contractors.

This approach was effective – to a point. No doubt readiness with small arms improved. Safety also improved, resulting from a combination of contractor training, a growing body of corporate technical knowledge, improved procedures, and procurement of tools such as clearing barrels. However, it still left an important issue, and in my view perhaps THE most important structural issue, unresolved.

In February 2006 I published an article in U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings. The focus of the article was centered on the argument that commanding officers, not detached, contracted instructors, are responsible for the combat readiness of their commands. In the modern world readiness, even for shipboard personnel, once again includes a requirement for fundamental skill-at-arms. Yet, despite the millions of dollars that the Navy had thrown at the problem and the improvements that had resulted, there was still no functional method or tool available to commanders that allowed them to impact, influence, or improve the combat readiness of their commands in mission areas that required these fundamental skills.

Note: Lest anyone think that I am unfairly criticizing contractors, the service they provide, or the choices made by the Navy in utilizing contractors to fill this gap, I feel it is appropriate to disclose that in mid-2001, as the gap between mandates from big Navy and resources available to the Fleet started to become painfully obvious during the months before the mandated “load date,” I was working as the newly assigned Gunnery Officer on a Navy Frigate. I was stationed in Florida, but I also recognized the serious challenge faced by the many co-located commands in the Norfolk / Virginia Beach area so I made some phone calls and facilitated the introduction of the officers who were working this small arms issue for 2nd Fleet in Norfolk to a retired SEAL Warrant Officer who I’d met several years earlier during a training trip to his facility with the USNA Combat Pistol Team. He was President of a (at the time) virtually unknown (and nearly bankrupt due to lack of interest) training facility located about 45 minutes south of the Naval base. The man’s name was Gary Jackson; the facility’s name was Blackwater. As the saying goes, the rest is history…

The point here is not at all to knock contractor provided training. Rather, it’s to point out that, as operational commanders, commanding officers are ultimately responsible for the men under their command and their performance in combat. Yet, despite this tremendous responsibility, they had no viable resources available to them with which to affect outcomes in this specific warfare area. Sending people off to be trained by contractors, while it may have addressed some of the issues at hand, did nothing to solve this critical gap in infrastructure within the combatant commands.

The Navy has since added a new weapons instructor program, focused on combative skills rather than purely marksmanship. This occurred many years after I left the service, so I have no first-hand knowledge of it or its effectiveness.

It is a certainty however that many, probably even most, operational commanders and supervisors, in law enforcement, security, and still even in many parts of the military—especially for individuals in these professions who are not part of specialized or elite units–still find themselves in the same predicament as these warship commanding officers did in the early 2000’s. They are directly responsible for operational outcomes, outcomes that they have very little ability to affect or impact. This isn’t because they don’t care (they may not; then again they may care a great deal). Rather, it’s because they don’t have access to the resources, authority, or capability necessary to actually DO anything about it.

In other words, it’s an infrastructure problem.

Most agencies, departments, and even military units treat small arms skills as if they are a highly specialized, unique knowledge set. They treat instructor skills in these disciplines with even greater exclusivity, often even tying the authority to deliver any type of weapons training to a specific billet within an organization. If you aren’t filling that instructor slot – heaven help you if you try to teach anybody anything with respect to their firearms skills. So, here’s a radical question: Why?

Seriously. Why?

In professions where skill-at-arms is a fundamental requirement for every member of the profession (it is armed professional after all), why is the capability to develop subordinates or team members in these skills relegated off to a few random people from the agency who have no real operational or supervisory skin in the game?  

Often organizational instructors have no functional relationship with their students. Many times they have no operational function to their job at all because they are full-time, billeted trainers. Even worse, sometimes these important duties are passed off to contractors who have zero skin in the game aside from creating a perception of value to the right decision-maker.

Again. Why? Would we do this with any other important skillset? Mission critical skills are usually trained during an academy/schoolhouse setting by contractors or billeted trainers. Then they are learned to an acceptable level of proficiency under the watchful eye of supervisors, field trainers, and more experienced and skilled team members during on-the-job instruction that occurs in the field.

But we don’t do this with the armed part. We leave that up to people with no responsibility for the operational outcomes or accountability for the student’s performance in the field.

In our opinion, this is an infrastructure problem, and it’s one that needs to be addressed before organizations can realistically expect to improve systemic performance in the “armed” part of their armed professionals’ skillsets, especially if those organizations have limited resources.

This issue is critical for addressing the challenges of the future, especially for law enforcement and security officers. This shortcoming in organizational structure stops the people who have ownership, buy-in, and in-depth knowledge of the operational environment and daily operational performance of people on the street from being able to do anything to improve, correct, change, or maintain that performance. In other words, it gives supervisors a whole set of potential problems and denies them the tools to solve them.

Now, to be fair, there actually are some reasons that things are done this way, two actually: resources and liability.

These two issues are separate, yet both connected and reinforcing in their suppression of operational leadership’s ability to evaluate critical aspects of job performance capability.  In turn this affects their ability to mold their teams’ performance to match the environment and shape operational outcomes.

With respect to resources, there’s something of a standard industry assumption that if you’re going to do firearms training, you need to go to the range. In almost every organization, range access is limited. In most organizations, it’s VERY limited. Most organizations are also not co-located with their range facility—if they even have one. For many organizations, just getting people to the training area is a challenge, both financially and logistically. Forget about training value, it’s a feat just to get them there with enough ammunition to qualify twice per year.

That brings up another common resource issue: ammunition.

There’s a further assumption that’s often made throughout the industry that if you’re going to train (especially if you’re going to the range), that you need live ammunition. This is all well and good; live-fire training is really important. However, it is also very expensive.  

Essentially, it’s virtually impossible in most organizations for operational supervisors to consistently run or oversee firearms training because the need for resources such as ranges and ammunition preclude it from even being a potential possibility outside of specialized units.

Even if resources weren’t a limiting factor, most agencies and organizations still wouldn’t permit supervisors to run firearms training. Why? Because they aren’t billeted instructors and therefore aren’t “qualified” to do so, even if they do happen to hold an instructor certification and/or have the skillset to do so. In other words, liability.  

This liability is two-fold. First, organizations are deathly afraid of training accidents and, to be fair, justifiably so. Generally, the more controlled that something is, the less likely it is to have a problem, or at least that’s the common management perception. As a result, administrators tend to want to control who can deliver firearms training, and where it can be delivered. They also want to control exactly what is taught. In fairness, this also is quite justified. An organization needs to be able to legally defend its use-of-force related training and part of that is being able to define exactly what that training was. If it’s not tightly controlled—this may become difficult to do.

So, the bottom line is that these two factors, liability and limited resources, essentially funnel all firearms related training to a single point, usually a dedicated trainer, training cadre or contract provider.

This is unfortunate. As discussed above, it’s usually not the training cadre or the contractor who owns the student’s operational performance or who knows the operating environment. Certainly neither of these two entities are responsible for the operational outcomes that result from their programs; rather, the leaders are.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical.  

Let’s say that a law enforcement supervisor from a smaller agency gets a new officer assigned to the precinct. That officer is then probably assigned to a field training officer for a probationary period. Before the officer shows up, he or she qualified on their weapon with the training department. The supervisor can probably see the scores, if the agency keeps scores, but this doesn’t mean a whole lot and many agencies have gotten away from numerical scoring to use of a pass/fail system anyway.

There will be some periodicity in between qualifications (usually either 3 or 6 months – we’ll assume 6 here). Let’s imagine that during this period the officer and his training officer are called to respond to a report of a man pointing a gun at people in a park.  

As they approach the scene, the training officer looks over and sees that the trainee is wide-eyed, flushed with adrenaline. The trainee is driving; drives right up onto the man, jumps out of the car, eyes still wide—at least halfway into the audio exclusion resulting from the release of stress hormones, causing him to miss or ignore the trainer’s admonitions to calm down. The trainee sloppily draws his or her weapon, fumbling with the retention device and dragging the front sight across the top of the holster and, as the person whips around, fires repeatedly at a range of a few feet, hands shaking, panting, eyes wide, recoil nearly bouncing the pistol out of their trembling hands.  

Some rounds hit, some miss. Fortunately, nobody else is injured. Unfortunately, the person that was shot is a young teenager holding a toy weapon.

Sound familiar? Now, this entire scenario and all the details in it are made up. We don’t have any in-depth knowledge of any specific current events outside of basic information in the papers and the point is not to add detail to an event or pass any judgment on anything without the facts.

The point is that in our hypothetical scenario—hopefully we can generally agree that it’s not unrealistic—neither the field training officer nor the supervisor really had much of an idea, at least not until the adrenaline spike hit and the fatal series of events were already in motion, that this particular trainee might not have an adequate skillset or performance level in this area. And, at that point in the game, it’s a bit too late to figure out there’s a problem and actually do something about it.

Especially for law enforcement and security officers, one of the real limitations of the existing training model is that the development of operational competence is not really intended to be produced through training structures. That’s supposed to happen through intensive field training under the supervision of an experienced officer.  

Unfortunately, this model virtually skips the application of firearms skills in particular because they aren’t skills that are frequently used on the job. In fact, most police officers and security officers will complete an entire career, retire, and never once fire their weapon outside of the confines of the training range.  

This gap in proficiency development for these mission critical, high-cost, high-profile skills results at least partly from the infrastructure problem describe above (supervisors don’t have the ability to impact performance in these areas) and negatively impacts the performance potential of organizations structured in this way.

Too often we (systemically) look at training in general, especially for in-service applications, as little more than a bureaucratically driven regulatory requirement that provides little to no operational benefit. In fairness, this is often true. However, it doesn’t have to be.  

When properly designed and applied, in-service training can be an invaluable tool for leadership to evaluate, correct, maintain, and enhance mission-critical skills as needed, especially skills that are not routinely applied during day-to-day duties. Getting there though requires that we let go of our dependence on traditional training infrastructures and re-evaluate our systemic approach to liability and skill maintenance with firearms.

Let’s briefly look at a couple of real world examples where training did (or should have) provided leadership with the information and tools to better their operations. These are actual events; however, some of the specific details have been altered to obscure the locations, organizations, and people involved. 

In the first case, an infrequent range training day was set up. As in most cases within working organizations, range training was inconvenient, high-resource, and difficult to arrange for logistical and operational time-management reasons. So, firearms training occurring with operational leadership present was rare. There was a presumption of proficiency in the organization, as all individuals were experienced, though all had not necessarily trained together in a live-fire environment before. During the training, which involved some fairly basic “tactical” walkthroughs (no stress was induced) with multiple friendly shooters in a live-fire environment, one of the individuals involved fired a single round then dropped the magazine out of his weapon, after which he stood still without reloading.

After the drill, the individual responded to questions about what had happened by blaming a faulty magazine. It was the end of the training day, there were no fundamental marksmanship or safety issues (on the static range his targets looked great), and so the range was packed up and everybody headed back, apparently satisfied.

Some months later this same individual was involved in a job related shooting. As is often the case, what specifically happened during the shooting itself is a little murky. However, it was certain that this particular individual only fired one round during the engagement—and had an unloaded weapon after the fact. Fortunately, none of the “good guys” lost their lives that day. When questioned about it during debriefing, he stated that his magazine release had been bumped in the altercation that occurred before the shooting, that the magazine fell out, and that he was never able to reload.  

Some months later, during another range training event, this individual stepped up on the line as part of a more “tactical” shooting drill involving timed shooting using a shot timer. When presenting the weapon, the same individual dropped the magazine out of the gun, fired a single round and, again, stood still staring at the target without conducting a reload.  

Noticing a pattern?

The second case, which I was personally involved in, involved a trained and qualified individual who had an inexplicable negligent discharge. There was not even a reason, in this particular case, for the individual to have loaded the weapon, much less to have handled or fired it. This indicated that the problem involved was probably related to a significant gap in judgment and/or maturity, not knowledge or skill. As the direct operational supervisor (and, as it happened, the lead trainer) I recommended after an investigation that this individual be re-assigned to duties where no firearms handling was required. Instead, I was directed to re-train and re-qualify.

In this case, I was both the operational leader and the trainer, which provided me with a unique capability. Because of my dual roles, I was able to implement routine weapons handling training in a dry environment. During this training, which occurred over a series of days, I noticed that this same individual was resistant to remediation and consistently could not comply with the basic safety rules of muzzle and trigger finger awareness, regardless of which training technique I applied. After some effort, and a failed attempt at applying negative reinforcement, I made the choice to simply revoke the weapon qualification entirely. I decided that, in this rare case, the problem most likely lay with the individual and putting in additional time and resources wasn’t in anybody’s best interests within the organizational environment.

After I left the organization, the infrastructure reverted to a more traditional model of training, evaluation, and qualification. In this environment, another trainer gave this individual back their qualifications. After all, they performed fine on the range. Actually they performed better than fine, as this person was a capable marksman.

Just a few short months later, this same individual had another inexplicable and very high-profile negligent discharge. This time the round narrowly missed personnel and resulted in significant damage to equipment.

While anecdotal, these two brief examples provide some insight into the potential value of operational leaders having, at their disposal, the tools of being able to provide hands-on training to the people whose actions they are responsible for.  

Access to training as a tool provides leaders the ability to find operational problems which might not otherwise be recognized, ascertain whether an anecdotal observation is an anomaly or an indicator of a significant problem, to work on correcting performance problems that may exist, to enhance existing skillsets, to develop new skills and performance capabilities in the workforce and, yes, on some occasions to remove a person from the workforce of armed professionals who simply shouldn’t be there.

We doubt that anyone would dispute the value in leaders being able to perform these functions. Nevertheless, industries that employ armed professionals continue to use infrastructures that preclude, (or in many cases prohibit) them from doing so.

So, let’s assume that we’ve correctly identified a problem (or least an area where systemic improvement is both possible and highly beneficial) in this article. If we’re correct here, what can be done about it?

First, we need to acknowledge that this infrastructure shortcoming is an issue that affects operational performance potential within organizations that require the practical application of use-of-force based tactical skills. Recognizing and defining an area for improvement is always the first step in addressing it.

Second, we need to re-define what our training objectives are. Currently, most organizations’ only objective with their training programs is to facilitate qualification. Qualification is important, but it’s not, and should not be mistaken for, training. Instead of basing our readiness metrics solely on empirical standards from counting holes in paper and/or seconds on a timer, let’s start looking at and developing the job related neurological networks within the workforce. 

Tools like the brain-based modeling tool that we propose in Building Shooters can allow us to facilitate this transition. (Please note that we still encourage the development and measurement of fundamental skill performance. This is not an either/or proposition).

Third, we need to change our approach to training delivery and our dependence on traditional infrastructure. When we limit ourselves to training only in high-resource environments, or to only training in special facilities, we severely impede our ability to develop and maintain a functional workforce of armed professionals.

Finally, we need to stop approaching firearms based skills for armed professionals as being somehow “elite” or “specialized.” Skill-at-arms is a fundamental component of these professions. Whether someone is a direct-action operator at a special-missions unit or an armed security guard at the mall makes little difference. Certainly there will be differences in the skill-levels and in the tactical applications, and in the variety of skills demanded by the two jobs and corresponding operational environments. However, development of a robust, functional skillset in the operationally applicable areas isn’t less important for one that it is for the other.

Someone who makes it into a supervisory position in an armed profession should possess a refined skillset in the “armed” part of their job. Period. And development of supervisory skills should include the development of the ability to evaluate and mentor subordinates with respect to these skill areas.  

Making these changes can be a game-changer in terms of positively impacting the performance of armed professionals at a systemic level. It will not be easy; overcoming organizational inertia never is. However, with the proper support from administrators and the application of the right training tools and methods, organizations that employ armed professionals have the potential to make a huge leap forward with respect to readiness and operational performance. And, even better, they can do so without incurring significant additional costs.

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"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