Technology and graphic simulation programs can be large in scale, such as multi-million dollar weapon system trainers for military pilots. But they’re also represented in the everyday Xbox, PlayStation and Wii that entertain us with simulations of military operations, sports and rock bands. Since 2007, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) has been using technology to enhance student learning through the use of driving and marine simulators. More recently, the Avatar-Based Interview Simulator (ABIS) is being studied as a viable training tool for teaching students to conduct interviews using the five-step process they’re taught in class. Even the Firearms Division (FAD) uses laser handguns and branching videos to teach the Judgment Pistol Shooting Course. What about basic marksmanship skills? Could simulation work there as well?
The Big Idea
Recently, the Training Innovation Division (TID) was asked to determine if a laser handgun could be used to teach Basic Marksmanship. At FLETC, a student’s first exposure to the use of handguns is in the basic marksmanship instruction course. This course includes basic weapons-handling skills, including stance, grip, sight alignment and trigger control. So, in partnership with the FAD, the TID began looking at various firearms simulators for this study.
One such simulator is Laser Shot’s “FLETC Course of Fire.” As an enterprise supplier at FLETC, Laser Shot products are used by the FAD in the Judgment Pistol Shooting Course and by the Driver Marine Division (DMD) in marine boat-boarding
training. Laser Shot’s “FLETC Course of Fire” accurately simulates what a real range looks like, including targets that move, turn and face for specific time intervals. In addition, Laser Shot’s “FLETC Course of Fire” can display practically any target while accurately simulating target size at various distances. It can also be set up easily in a large classroom.
Next, the TID and FAD began looking at various styles of handguns. Essentially, there are two styles available: those with recoil and those without recoil. Research by the U.S. Army indicates that recoil isn’t necessarily required to teach basic marksmanship (Smith & Hagman, 2000). Other research has found that, although the technology of simulating recoil has advanced, it’s not always reliable and can actually hinder training (Grant & Galanis, 2009). This is especially true when using a system that requires the weapon to be tethered to a canister that is attached to the shooter’s belt and supplies the carbon dioxide gas necessary to simulate recoil. Untethered systems, which incorporate carbon dioxide gas canisters into the magazine, are available but remain cost prohibitive.
In addition to investigating handgun styles, the TID and FAD compared visible and invisible laser inserts. Although visible laser inserts were cheaper, students couldn’t see the invisible lasers’ impact on the target when fired. This prevented the students from “walking” the laser into the target, requiring them to focus on the front sight.
Based on these findings, TID decided to first conduct research using a handgun without recoil. Specifically, TID, in concert with FAD, decided to use a Glock 17 R with a resetting trigger. Each Glock was fitted with a laser insert that would fire an invisible infrared laser each time the trigger was pressed. Therefore, the basics of stance, grip, sight alignment and trigger control would be similar to dry firing a real weapon. However, a major advantage over regular dry fire is that the Laser Shot system provides immediate feedback of shot placement.
Although students enrolled in the Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP) start out in basic marksmanship, their real goal is to shoot a qualifying score at the end of the semiautomatic pistol course. After attending basic marksmanship, students receive 18 hours of semiautomatic instruction. At the end, students shoot the course of fire and must achieve a qualifying score of 210 out of 300 possible points. Therefore, the real question to be answered is whether the final qualifying semiautomatic pistol course score of those using a laser handgun in basic marksmanship is significantly different from the final qualifying semiautomatic pistol score of those using a live-fire handgun.
To answer this question, TID approached the Coastal College of Georgia about allowing college students to participate in the study. Once approved, TID staff and FAD instructors met with students majoring in criminal justice. Fourteen students initially volunteered to participate. They were then stratified based on criteria including age, gender and prior experience with a handgun.
Students were randomly assigned to one of two groups, those who would use a laser handgun during the course and those who would use a live-fire handgun. All instruction was conducted in accordance with FAD lesson plans and by FAD instructors. After completing instruction, all students participated in the FLETC semiautomatic course of fire.
Due to the time constraints of the semester system, semiautomatic pistol instruction was limited to only 14 hours rather than the normal 18 hours. After completing SPC instruction, students shot a final qualification round. The average semiautomatic qualifying score for those college students who trained in basic marksmanship with a laser weapon was 257.8. The average semiautomatic pistol course qualifying score for those who trained in basic marksmanship with a live-fire weapon was 260.4. Average scores for each group beginning with SPC-4 are shown in Figure 1 (pg. 38).
Though there was only a 2.6 point difference, 14 participants weren’t enough to draw a conclusion about whether the difference was statistically insignificant. However, the results were strong enough to suggest that the FAD and TID staff approach partner organizations about allowing their students to participate in the study. To that end, the FAD and TID want to thank the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) for volunteering three classes of their students enrolled in the CITP to participate in the study. This allowed for a total of 140 students to be assigned to training.
As with the college students, the USMS students were stratified into groups based on age, gender and prior law enforcement or military experience, which included handgun training. The students were then randomly assigned to either train with a laser handgun or with a live-fire Glock 22 .40 caliber handgun. Specific demographics for each group are shown in Figure 2, below.
As with the college students, all instruction was conducted in accordance with FLETC’s basic marksmanship and semiautomatic pistol lesson plans. Rod Burnett and Kevin Erdmier served as the lead instructors, with FAD staff providing all class and line instruction. Given that these were regularly scheduled training sessions, the full 18 hours of instruction was provided using the Glock 22.
Those who used a laser weapon during training shot an average qualifying score of 275.8 with a semiautomatic pistol. Those who used a live-fire weapon shot an average qualifying score of 278.2 with a semiautomatic pistol. An independent T-test—a test that looks for statistical differences between two independent groups—found this difference to be statistically insignificant. Average scores for each group during the last seven sessions are shown in Figure 3, below.
To determine if the students in the research study performed differently than students who receive routine firearms training, data was compared to the three previous USMS CITP SPC classes. These USMS participant classes were used as the study control group. In total, 138 students in prior classes who trained with a live-fire handgun in shot an average qualifying score of 275.8. This is the same average as those who trained with a laser handgun. Data analysis indicated that differences between the control group and the study group were statistically insignificant. See Figure 4 below for a summary of qualification scores.
The students with prior military and/or law enforcement firearms training who trained with a laser handgun shot an average qualifying score of 280.1, compared to an average qualifying score of 282.5 for those who trained with a live-fire handgun. These differences were also statistically insignificant.
Those with no prior military and/or law enforcement firearms training who trained with a laser handgun shot an average qualifying score of 265.0 compared to an average SPC qualifying score of 266.8 for those who trained with a live-fire handgun. Again, these differences were statistically insignificant.
Based on the score a student shoots, they’re given one of five possible classifications. Scores below 210 are classified as “Did Not Qualify,” scores from 210 to 254 are classified as “Marksman,” scores from 255 to 284 are classified as “Sharp Shooter,” scores from 285 to 299 are classified as “Expert” and a score of 300 is classified as “Distinguished Expert.” Results by category are shown in Figure 5 (pg. 38).
Results & Observations
Although there’s some variation within each classification, based on the basic marksmanship training method, no statistical differences were found. All students in the study group who didn’t qualify were provided with four hours of additional live-fire handgun training. Subsequently, they shot a qualifying score during the reshoot.
As mentioned before, all training was done in accordance with the applicable lesson plans. However, those training with the laser handguns didn’t need to wear hearing protection. This allowed instructors to carry on normal conversations while instructing students in the proper stance, grip, sight alignment and trigger control. Students could freely ask questions and get answers without having to “yell” or “read lips.” One instructor commented that because he could get “up close and personal,” he was able to see errors in weapon handling, especially in respect to grip and trigger press, which he wouldn’t have normally been able to see.
Other benefits include both a reduction in ammunition usage, accompanying cost savings associated with range maintenance and freeing up valuable range time. This additional range time could then be used to teach more advanced live-fire courses and/or increase the through-put of basic training classes. Furthermore, since BMI using a laser handgun can be taught in a large classroom, those without an indoor range can still train no matter what the weather conditions might be outside.
If a laser handgun is to accurately simulate a live-fire handgun, the impact of recoil must be considered. As mentioned before, there are recoil systems that incorporate carbon dioxide gas cylinders into the magazine. When the trigger is pressed, gas is released, causing the slide to operate. This also forces a student to reacquire their sights.
Some of the more advanced simulated handguns can even be programmed to simulate a weapon malfunction that can be cleared by the “primary immediate action” procedure and emergency reloads. However, even the best simulated weapon with recoil can’t accurately replicate the concussion blast of a live-fire handgun. Future research must incorporate simulated recoil and should seek to partner with other agencies in order to evaluate the success rate with the full range of FLETC students.
The students trained with a non-recoil laser handgun for basic marksmanship achieved statistically similar qualification scores to those training with a live-fire weapon. In addition to the potential cost savings, laser handgun marksmanship training offers several instructional advantages and also provides a safer environment than live-fire.
In the end, nothing will ever replace actual live-fire or “putting rounds down range.” But several studies, including this one, seem to indicate that firearm simulation is a viable approach to certain introductory phases of marksmanship training. Bottom line: It’s on the verge of becoming a valuable tool in both the teaching and learning of psychomotor skills.
The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center
serves as an interagency law enforcement training organization for 90 Federal agencies. FLETC also provides services to state, local, tribal, and international law enforcement agencies. It is headquartered at Glynco, Ga., near the port city of Brunswick, halfway between Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla. For more information on FLETC programs, visit www.FLETC.com
Grant, S. C., & Galanis, G. (2009). Assessment and prediction of effectiveness of virtual environments: Lessons learned from small arms simulation. In Cohn, J. & Nicholson, D. & Schmorrow, D. (Ed.) The PSI Handbook of Virtual Environments for Training and Education, Volume 3, Integrated systems, Training Evaluation, and Future Directions, Westport, CT.
Smith, M., & Hagman, J. (2000). Predicting Rifle and Pistol Marksmanship performance with the Laser Marksmanship Training System (Tech. Rep. 1106). Alexandria, VA: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral Sciences.
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