The truth is that hit rates for police involved shootings are pretty abysmal. Oftentimes, we hear hit rates of 25% or less in some agencies. Large metro agencies, such as the NYPD, with their huge number of officers have limited range visits per year with minimal number of rounds fired. Not to gig NYPD, in my own state the police training commission reduced the annual qualification to 25 rounds. Many smaller agencies revolve their firearms “training” sessions on completing this minimal course of fire—only. Put simply, one range visit, 25 rounds total fired per year. Skill-at-arms is never fully developed with these programs and when shootings occur, it shows in poor hit rates on target. The exception is agencies that train on a regular basis and impart the basics; including sight picture and sight alignment, to their officers. Put simply, the more and more efficient an agency trains its cops, the better the end results—in reduced officer injuries, number of shootings and also in hit rate on target. Therefore, we have a measurable outcome—successful rounds on target—validating the method to get there.
The Los Angeles Police Department is one of those agencies. Having spent time with members of their famed Special Investigations Section (SIS), as well as having trained under former and active LAPD SWAT personnel, I can attest that these very active officers, who get in a lot of shootings and have excellent hit rates are trained based on the modern technique, using the Weaver Stance and Flash Front Sight Picture. These training programs develop shooters who perform well on the street in actual armed encounters. There are many other agencies within the United States that are so trained, and do quite well in officer involved shootings.
Getting There from Here
Lt. Antoine Lane called the use of the front sight a “lie” in a recent issue (The Front Sight Lie, February 2015). It’s kind of funny that one of the essentials in the principles of marksmanship can be referred to as a “lie” since I know many friends and colleagues who have performed exceptionally well in gunfights based on sighted fire skill development, including a well-trained SWAT officer on patrol who stated he clearly saw his front sight and fired one shot, achieved one high torso center mass hit, which resulted in one dead armed man at a distance of more than 50 feet. Former Seal Team Six Operator Howard Wasdin commented that the hardest thing to do in the Mogadishu, Somalia, “Blackhawk Down” battle was to focus on his sights to achieve hits as those insurgents were firing at him. Wasdin is not the only Tier One operator with these thoughts on sighted fire. A quick check online elicits comments from Kyle Lamb, Larry Vickers, Paul Howe, Dave Harrington and many more, who will tell you what these veterans and accomplished instructors believe about sighted vs. unsighted or point shooting, and I’m sure they would argue with Lane’s thought that the “final destination” is target-focused shooting. We can go back to the famous NYPD Stakeout Unit officer, the late Jim Cirillo, who stated that in one shooting that he was focusing so intently on his front sight that he saw the lateral striations.
In the author’s opinion, front sight-focused shooting is one of the essentials in the principles of marksmanship.When it comes to high performance in terrible conditions we have multiple examples of officers and military personnel who trained to and indeed did see their front sight.
Claude Werner, former senior instructor at Bill Rogers’ shooting schools told me, “Bottom line at our school is that point shooting in any form does not work for our tests. Under our testing program, students inevitably discover that seeing the sights equal hits—no sights equal no hits.” This information was vetted when Rogers wore an eye tracking camera while running his challenging plate rack course and it clearly indicated that he was looking at his front sight. Force Science founder Bill Lewinski has stated that he believes the sighting of a pistol, if properly developed in training is an “automatic motor program” that the officer will perform without conscious thought.
Even Meggitt’s Randall Murphy, author of the study Lane quotes, told me that the use of sights is the training wheels for officers to learn how to shoot. Murphy even stated, “If the sights are smaller than the threat, the sights are not being used.” This would indicate that, even in the research cited, the use of the sights was indicated based on distance. As I teach the use of the sights, “the further the distance, the smaller the target, the more you must pay attention to your sights and trigger.” In his book, Guns, Bullets and Gunfights, Cirillo wrote about one of his gunfights: “They never told me in the academy that the targets were going to jump and move all over the place. There wasn’t one 3’ × 2’ target to shoot at like on the police range. One gunman only gave me a six inch circle of his moving head to shoot at. The other two jumped behind the cashier and only exposed about nine inches of their bodies on either side of her. Boy was I glad I had supplemented my training by shooting for head shots and reduced targets.” Regardless of a close distance, I would not want to advocate, and Cirillo did not either, that you shouldn’t align or focus on your sights for this type of shot.
Trying to circumvent the sights with instructions such as: Officers should focus like “Superman using his infrared vision to burn a hole through said target. As the shooter looks intently at the target, the handgun is instinctively presented to exactly where the eyes are focused, and the trigger is subconsciously pulled” ignores the science of motor skill development. Furthermore, A) There is no instinct to aim a handgun and B) A shot must be a conscious act. Yes, we want a well-developed motor program (what laymen refer to as “muscle memory”) but this motor program delivers the pistol in a two-hand, eye-level grip and platform. As the late, great Jeff Cooper said, “The body aims, the eyes verify.”
Cooper also stated: “I have been told that I cannot pick the sights with my eye in a maximum-speed shot, but I try, and I think I do.” Getting there, accuracy on target in a shooting is not based on lessening or lowering the fundamentals of marksmanship, including sight alignment and sight picture; it is based upon developing those skills to the greatest extent possible. Saying “you won’t use your sights in a shooting, therefore don’t learn to focus or develop those skills but rather stare really hard” belies the truth found by successful officers who’ve properly developed these skills and applied them on the street to save their life and the lives of others.
Spontaneous or Non-Spontaneous
The real key to success on the street is developing the ability to hit accurately in both spontaneous and non-spontaneous situations.
In non-spontaneous encounters, the officer has time. He or she should get their gun out and ready, put distance between themself and the suspect, then get behind cover, if possible. Hit rates are higher in non-spontaneous events. This is why we want officers to scan their environment and assess a suspect’s body language, movements and hands.
In a spontaneous assault, the officer has little to no time and they should move laterally, if possible, off the attack line during the draw-stroke, and use a default position of two-handed eye-level shooting. If the suspect is closer or time is not available, the officer can and should shoot anywhere from their holster to eye-level. Anything below eye-level is a compromise position based on the officer’s perceptions of time and distance, therefore anything lower than eye-level is inherently less accurate.
Having run thousands of officers through force on force and dynamic firearms training programs, I have seen the truth that when the pistol is below eye-level, hit probability is seriously reduced even at close range. Accurate fire is not now, nor has it ever been, easy as “pointing your finger.”
Bill Jordan, Jelly Bryce and many other legendary lawmen could do amazing things with handguns when firing from the hip. They also trained day in and day out, hour upon hour, to accomplish this mastery. The question is not what works on the street but rather what training methods and amount of repetitions can develop sufficient skill at arms. Learning to use those “bumpy things on the top of the slide” to develop that skill is the way to go. Whether I actually see them or not, or suffer inattentional blindness as to their use, they are the visual confirmation system of the draw-stroke, and the method and way I learned to develop accurate fire. Aligned and on target is best way to achieve accuracy and stop a deadly threat.
Kevin Davis is a full-time officer assigned to the training bureau where he specializes in use of force, firearms and tactical training. With over 23 years in law enforcement, his previous experience includes patrol, corrections, narcotics and he is a former team leader and lead instructor for his agency’s SWAT team with over 500 call-outs in tactical operations.