Trevor S. Thrasher: Look at the facts of most police shootings. It should be clear that the average range-based paradigm is not up to par, and the minimal amount of scenario or reality-based training conducted does not provide enough repetition to cement appropriate behavior and skill.

About the author

As a combat veteran U.S. Army Green Beret, Trevor Thrasher has unique and wide-ranging special operations experience. His credentials include law enforcement SWAT, high-risk protective work in non-permissive environments, and counter-terrorism direct action missions done unilaterally and with foreign special forces.

Trevor served as primary defensive tactics instructor for the Omaha Police Department, primary tactical instructor/advisor to a foreign commando counter-terror unit, and is responsible for the groundbreaking curriculum known as High Threat Systems and Reality Behavior-Based Conditioning©.

Thrasher is an 88 Tactical Partner and Senior Instructor.


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How to improve your real-world firearms accuracy: Behavior-Based Marksmanship-Training for real-world events!

The Article

Over the last century, there has been minimal improvement in police marksmanship, short of a few rare examples.

Many studies have concluded that there has been neither an improvement in firearms accuracy nor a correlation between range/qualification performance and real-world performance (Vila & Morrison 1994).

Often what instructors ask officers to do at the range is completely disconnected from the reality of most shootings.

Look at the facts of most police shootings.

It should be clear that the average range-based paradigm is not up to par, and the minimal amount of scenario or reality-based training conducted does not provide enough repetition to cement appropriate behavior and skill.

In 1973 Shelford Bidwell is quoted as saying the primary issue with finding out what truly happens in combat is on ‘dangerous ground because the union between soldier and scientist has yet past beyond flirtation.’

Fortunately, the last 50 years have seen a significant increase in the science of combat.

The previous ten years have unequivocally provided a massive influx of video evidence clearly showing what occurs.

Unfortunately, this has been mostly ignored or forgotten, even if agencies at one time considered the science and data. For example, the FBI changed its firearms qualification course around 2013 to better reflect street encounters based on information known for nearly 100 years.

Typical training is often in direct conflict with what is required by the courts and common sense.

In Tennessee v. Garner, the Supreme Court stated that use of force situations are “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.”

This case demanded that the courts consider the human and situational factors when deciding if a person acted reasonably in a use of force encounter.

In other words, theoretical or static range performance without risk to life should not be the standard by which officers are judged.

Likewise, this should demand that theoretical marksmanship-based or static range performance should also not be the standard by which officers are trained.

Yet, by my estimate, 80% of law-enforcement range training is useful in perhaps 20% of actual encounters that, fortunately for the officer, represent a range-like shooting event.

Likewise, only 20% of the training addresses 80% of real-world conflict.

In addition to Tennessee v. Garner, numerous court cases such as Popow v. City of Margate and Tuttle v. Oklahoma have established the training standard that you must regularly practice based on reality.


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Human stress factors in a simple three-item list

Most departments provide this in check the box form for liability protection, but not in a beneficial form for officer safety and performance.

Officers are most often at their best, leaving the academy only to probably get worse and continue meeting a minimal, often useless qualification standard short of outside training or belonging to a SWAT Team.

The court accurately described human stress factors in a simple three-item list from Tennessee v. Garner:

1. Tense – meaning fearful events short on safety.

The safety factors include the intensity of the threat and whether it is facing you or oriented away, distance, availability of escape, availability of hiding space/ barriers. (Fernandez, 2013)

2. Uncertain – meaning dynamic, changing events short on information.

Studies show that people facing an uncertain threat have more stress than when facing a known clear threat (Petersson & Bertilsson 2017).

Uncertainty can take the form of a confusing situation or one you have no experience dealing with.

3. Rapidly Evolving – meaning changing and happening quickly short on time.

A high probability shooting time frame from imminent threat to shooting is 2-3 seconds: (Petersson & Bertilsson 2017; Hillman 1995).

Getting caught off-guard or surprised is a sure way to add stress to a situation.

Take half of your live-fire training and dedicate it to training officers in a more realistic environment

For most departments, firearms training consists of deliberate, pre-meditated tactics and skills requiring high levels of focus on the shooter or gun to obtain small shot groups in unrealistically slow time frames.

How far is that going to get an officer in a stressful, speed of life shooting?

Not very far.

Although skills like that may be useful in a small number of shootings, they directly conflict with human performance in higher probability and more highly dangerous shootings and very often become abandoned and useless.

How do you replicate some of this in training?

For one, take half of your live-fire training and dedicate it to training officers in a more realistic environment with “immediate action drills,” or what the military calls “battle drills.”

These are short-duration immediate responses to critical situations.

They do not require live fire but can be live fire reinforced once learned.

They can involve occasional force on force using projectiles, but more importantly, they require human interaction and performance in a realistic setting.

These drills can have plenty of value with blue training guns at almost no expense minimal resources.

The focus is on taking the right action behaviorally and tactically.

Use a similar drill at the range with appropriate safety and limitations to validate that officers can perform at the required speed and accuracy with their duty weapons.

Next, keep in mind that true “combative marksmanship” requires speed and precision only after “survival and decision.”

In other words, train officers to keep themselves from being shot first, then to find threats and make decisions to shoot/not shoot or do something else however you can.

A great way to avoid being shot is to hit the suspect first with solid hits; however, thinking this is always the solution or even always possible in many shootings is a disconnect from reality.

By law, a threat has to materialize before an office can shoot, and shootings are at least initially overwhelmingly reactive.

Human behavior prioritizes primitive survival actions first: flinching, moving away from danger, escaping, and hiding. Put those into play.

For example, if your target is a suspect pointing a gun at the officer, and the officer starts with a holstered gun, the behavioral and smart tactical thing to do would be to get the officer moving or moving to cover and firing quickly with at least initial focus on the threat.

Officers must be good enough to have functionally useful skills

Do not ignore your live-fire range training.

Officers must be good enough to have functionally useful skills when performing immediate action and combative marksmanship drills.

Functional meaning, the officer can achieve what they need to accomplish at real-world distances and times, with realistic targets in realistic settings.

There is an over-emphasis on slow accuracy, in my opinion, because trainers incorrectly require marksmanship precision that does not reflect the majority of real-world situations.

Shooting a great group in 10 seconds reflects only a tiny fraction of gunfights.

Shooting multiple rounds into an anatomically important area the size of a sheet of paper in 3-5 seconds incorporating realistic movement at 7 yards is massively more useful.

If your slow accuracy sucks, it won’t get any better under stress with compressed time frames.

Do not use anything I have said to be lazy with your marksmanship or as an excuse to get sloppy.

If you aren’t confident and competent on the flat range, you will be terrible at best in a gunfight.

Decide what your effective enough hit or the effective number of hits looks like, start smoothly and correctly, then get faster at it and achieve it under more dynamic conditions.

Only training slower than a real fight does not make you better in a fight; it makes you worse.

Slow does not become fast if unpracticed.

It can lead to panic if it is clear the fight’s speed is far faster than what the officer has practiced or experienced.

You have to get officers shooting at the speed of a fight with sufficient accuracy in a realistic context before sending them to the street.

Reality tells us that a high-probability law enforcement gunfight will take place at 3-5/7 yards, be over within 3-5 seconds, and require 3-5 rounds fired from the shooter.

This should be implemented continuously into marksmanship training

Different departments have different environments.

Some like NYPD will have a bias towards even closer range shootings.

Others may involve the higher likelihood of a long gun being used pro-actively at extended distances.

Overall, this description of a high probability gunfight has not changed in over 100 years.

Keep in mind this is a high probability gunfight.

Although it may reflect averages, averages alone cannot generally describe gunfighting because gunfights typically occur within different clusters or patterns.

Training for the average gunfight alone doesn’t help you if you find yourself at 20 yards or grappling with a suspect.

However, it would be best to bias your practice towards the higher probability and higher danger events.

After a lengthy study of a vast amount of published use of force data and a review of probably several 1000 shooting videos, here are some of the event clusters that I believe should be implemented continuously into some form of marksmanship training.

1. 0-2 yards, compressed or retention one-hand shooting focusing on controlling the officer’s gun and controlling the suspect’s body.

Often this is a struggle for the officer’s or suspect’s gun, frequently preceded by a situation involving physical control.

This should include an officer defending a fellow officer in a similar event.

At this point, physical control is most often more important than speed or accuracy.

This is a lower probability but an extremely hazardous event.

a.) LEOKA studies show 50% of officers are killed at this distance, and 50% do not even attempt or have the chance to draw their gun.

This clearly indicates you must practice combative and hand-to-hand skills as part of the marksmanship package.

Shooting in these situations also brings up a significant consideration for self-injury or other officers’ injury.

Here is where marking cartridges can be useful, and live-fire training will be minimal and tightly controlled.

2. 3-4 yards, one hand compressed and extended threat-focused shooting prioritizing rapid movement.

Movement should be fast enough to avoid being hit, focusing on getting to a minimum of 4 yards, or shooting quickly with aggressive lateral movement to other angles.

At this distance, the goal is to avoid allowing the suspect an easy target, especially an easy headshot. Emphasis should be placed on moving, then speed, then accuracy.

This event’s probability is relatively high, and it is hazardous.

a) Shooting one-handed happens in a significant percentage of close-range gunfights (20-30% in my review) even though officers do very little to no training with one hand.

It is behaviorally driven because it is simpler, quicker, and allows more rapid movement.

Of course, if you think about it, two hands may be better, but we are talking about events with no time to “think.”

b) Numerous studies, including a Force Science Research study on untrained shooter marksmanship and others, indicate that even untrained people are sufficiently fast and accurate enough at this distance to easily seriously wound or kill another person, and many will intuitively aim for the head.

These studies also show that a typically trained marksman is only 10% better at this distance.

Marksmanship for everyone beyond 4 yards takes a significant dive, so moving or staying at least 4 yards from a threat is critical for safety.

Short of that, rapid movement will make the head an exceedingly difficult target.

3. 4-7 yards, two-handed, “eye-level” threat-focused shooting mixing offense and defense and very rapid threat engagement.

This is a high probability event.

These events will unfold rapidly, and there will be a need for quick hits with focus predominantly on the threat as shoot-no-shoot information is processed to the last fraction of a second.

a) Eye tracking and other studies show that threat focus may lead to better performance and fewer mistake-of-fact shootings.

A review of a massive number of gunfights and self-reporting and witnessed training studies shows that threat-focus will dominate despite officers never or rarely training to do it.

Typically, 70% or more officers report not using or noticing their sights during these events.

b) Occasionally, these situations may require a more precise shot.

For example, use a partially obscured or hostage taker target to develop the ability to recognize and deliver a more accurate shot depending on the threat presented.

Threat-focused two-handed approximate eye-level point shooting will solve 80%+ of the problems found here.

4. 7-15 yards, two-handed, soft, or flash visually confirmed sight alignment.

These situations typically require the balance shifting to focused marksmanship, enabling consistent multiple hits with some precision under compressed time frames.

These events are not the most likely and are slightly less dangerous with handguns involved, but they are still significantly frequent and dangerous.

a) There is another notable drop in accuracy at 7 yards for officers and suspects alike.

Reported real-world accuracy is typically around 25% at this level.

Time frames can still be very compressed at this distance.

Officers need to perform with the effects of significant stress, such as keeping attention mostly on the threat and rough sight, trigger, and recoil management.

Focusing cleanly on the front sight and having the internal and external focus to manage a perfect trigger press will be extremely challenging unless the situation is less threatening to that particular officer.

Officers not adequately trained and under duress will typically point shoot or completely focus on the threat, leading to a lack of round accountability.

Officers have to recognize what they need to do, and they have to have a practiced, stress-resilient means to get it done to achieve multiple, rapid, sufficiently accurate shots with confidence.

Again, consider rapidly getting hits anywhere on a sheet of paper at this distance with little tolerance for misses.

5. 15+ yards, two hands, front sight focused, perfect shooting fundamentals, under compressed time frames.

Without having significant situational and stress control to enable the conscious management of sights and trigger, getting a hit at this distance will be tough.

These events are typically rare and relatively safer for officers but still frequent enough that officers should have this skill available for short exposure targets of 3-5 seconds.

a) Historical reported accuracy at this distance is somewhere between 5 and 10% with handguns.

Keep in mind that even these situations are rarely static.

The threat may be obscured or moving; there may only be a small window of opportunity to make the shot against a fleeting target, or the officer may be under fire.

Considering how real the effects of stress are on handgun performance, possible physiological limits under pressure, and the level of training most officers receive, this should be no surprise.

However, it can be done if practice emphasizes recognizing that this type of shot needs to be made combined with stress control as part of the marksmanship package.

The 80/20 rule is a good rule

Keep in mind there is a clear need for more marksmanship-intensive skills, and officers must be conditioned to recognize the need to use them.

Typically, these are situations where the threat is not directly attacking or is unaware of the officer.

The 80/20 rule is a good rule to follow with any of these clusters. Spend 80% of your training time with the specified skill at the specified distance, then mix up the skills’ application at a closer or greater distance.

Next, add in more context.

Address the stress factors of cover, escape routes/movement, and threat orientation.

Behaviorally, I have found that threat orientation is the primary factor affecting marksmanship; overall stress control is second, then shooting posture or platform, then grip, then trigger, then sights.

For long guns, I switch sights and trigger.

An immediate threat facing you firing or about to fire is a far different threat than a suspect running from you or a suspect oriented on another person.

Watch videos and note the difference in posture and shooting.

It is exceedingly evident.

Take that behavior into account when working your drills.

Because I have found high probability situations typically allow minimal, narrow external focus on the sights and minimal, narrow internal focus on the trigger finger and its movement, I prioritize platform and grip first.

A shooter’s presentation, overall shooting platform, and consistent grip might be the primary mechanism to achieve sight alignment.

Pistols are anatomically hard to shoot under duress because the human hand is designed to squeeze as a whole unit.

Isolating the trigger finger and moving it with precision (not to be confused with pulling the trigger as you squeeze your entire hand) is a fine motor skill achievable for sure, but mostly under the right conditions and with the proper conditioning.

Behavior-based marksmanship starts with the courts, works its way through the realities of shooting situations, works with human behavior, and ultimately brings it all together with marksmanship fundamentals in a very functional, training-efficient manner.

Give yourself and others the training they need to prevail and discount the human and reality factors at your own and your organization’s risk.


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Photos by 88 Tactical | Aaron Guzman | Trevor Thrasher

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