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An Inside Look at FBI Handgun Training

by Brian McCombie   |  June 20th, 2013 28

The FBI has changed its training regime based on studies of law enforcement shootings, placing more emphasis on close-range engagements

Last year, and without any fanfare, the Federal Bureau of Investigation made a major change in the agency’s handgun training regime. New handgun training protocols, as well as standardized firearms training packages that went to every FBI field office, were changed to emphasize close-range shooting skills and proficiency. How close? From three to seven yards.

Based on a review of nearly 200 agent-involved shootings over a 17-year period, the FBI discovered that 75 percent of these incidents involved suspects who were within three yards of their agents when shots were exchanged. So FBI top brass decided that some changes were in order to better prepare their agents to survive these life-threatening encounters.

“Until last January, the FBI’s Pistol Qualification Course required agents to fire 50 rounds, more than half of them from between 15 and 25 yards,” FBI Special Agent Ann R. Todd explains. “The new course involves 60 rounds, with 40 of those fired from between three and seven yards. It also requires agents to draw their weapons from holsters concealed by jackets or blazers to replicate the traditional clothing worn by FBI special agents.”

In fact, for all law enforcement the majority of armed confrontations happens at close range. For example, according to data gathered by the Criminal Justice Information Services (a division of the U.S. Justice Department), of the 500 local and state police officers killed “feloniously” in the line of duty by assailants with firearms between 2002 and 2011, 235 of those officers had their lives taken by people who were within five feet of the officers. Another 92 officers were killed by attackers who were between six to 10 feet away. That translates to 65 percent of law enforcement officers killed by assailants who are just 10 feet away or closer.

The FBI did not divulge information about the percentage of hits its agents made when firing at these very close assailants. (Some, of course, were ambushed and unable to fire.) But it would seem logical enough this new emphasis on close-in shooting and tactics was deemed necessary because the percentage of hits wasn’t as high as was hoped for.

But hold on. If you and your pistol can drill a magazine’s worth of bullets into a target’s X ring at 25 yards, you should be able to make every shot count at 10 feet or less, right?

It’s a lot harder than it sounds.  According to an article published by the Police Policy Studies Council (a research-based, law enforcement training and consultation corporation), in Florida between 1990 and 2001, officers with the Metro-Dade Police, “fired about 1,300 bullets at suspects, and missed more than 1,100 times. This suggests that Miami police fared no better than a 15.4% hit ratio…”

In New York City, police who used their firearms in “Gunfights, Other Shootings vs Perpetrator, and Against Dogs,” hit their intended targets only 38 percent of the time at distances between zero and two yards—and just 17 percent of the time at three to seven yards. This data was gathered from 1994 to 2000.

Those misses aren’t a huge surprise to Tiger McKee, owner of and chief trainer at the Shootrite Firearms Academy in Guthrie, Alabama. First off, he notes, there’s a huge difference psychologically between shooting at a target range versus defending yourself from an armed perpetrator actively trying to kill you. The adrenaline surge alone can cause jumpy shot placement by even the best pistol marksmen.

That said, McKee adds that traditional police handgun training at the range does not give officers enough practice in real-life shooting scenarios, and he’s encouraged by what the FBI is doing with its close-range emphasis.

“At three yards away, you just don’t have time to get a perfect sight picture,” McKee says. “The good thing is, at that range you don’t need a perfect sight picture—if you’ve had some real practice.”

At close ranges, McKee teaches law enforcement officers to pull off shots as soon as the pistol’s front sight is over the chest area. He also teaches officers how to fire from the “retention position,” shooting with the handgun close to the body and tucked up near the ribcage. The retention option is advisable when an assailant is so close that extending your arm is impossible.

Based on the training he’s given to law enforcement in general, plus staff from various federal agencies, McKee suspects the FBI is using front sight and retention exercises, among other options.

As part of its overall improvement in handgun training, the FBI has also made a significant investment in virtual simulation. Similar to the technology used in movies such as “Lord of the Rings,” the Virtual Simulator Tactical Training system or VirtSim was implemented into FBI training in February 2012.

VirtSim is a three-dimensional technical simulator using wireless and motion-capture technology to create a virtual 360-degree tactical environment. The system captures full-body motion for each of the participating students and projects corresponding aggressor and hostage actions within the virtual environment.

VirtSim can be used to teach FBI agents the proper way to enter and clear rooms in search of potential suspects, ways to confront armed assailants, and how to determine when deadly force is appropriate.

With VirtSim, “Instructors can play back every scenario and capture the students’ movements to critique their tactical performance,” says Todd. “The after action allows the instructor to view the students’ actions from several perspectives—overhead view, first person view, even through the eyes of the aggressor.”

To help hone those up-close shooting skills, “The instructor is also able to view the muzzle discipline and eye movement of each student throughout the scenario,” she says. “These features provide unique instructional opportunities that are not possible in other training venues.”

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