The latest round of experiments in the Force Science Research Center’s on-going “hit probability” study has produced preliminary findings with surprising and unnerving implications for LEOs. Among the new discoveries:
- Even “naive shooters,” untrained and unpracticed with handguns, are amazingly accurate in making head shots at close range, and tend to shoot for the head instinctively;
- Shots intended for an officer’s vested area often end up in unprotected vital parts of the body because of a suspect’s poor gun control;
- The speed with which an officer can be put behind the reactionary curve, even by assailants who have no expertise with firearms, is startling.
“These findings deepen our understanding of the true dynamics of a gunfight,” said FSRC’s executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski of Minnesota State University-Mankato. “We’ve now established that even unskilled offenders, to the shock of everyone involved in these tests, are capable of much faster and more accurate shooting at close range than previously believed.
“This gives us a better idea of the speed at which officers need to act to protect themselves, and it raises a very challenging question for trainers: How can we get officers to respond faster without compromising good decision-making?”
That dilemma will be addressed, Lewinski promised, as the long-range research advances to new levels.
FSRC’s 3-phase hit-probability study, which kicked off with field research last spring [6/06], is intended to document the speed and probable accuracy of assailants and officers trying to deliver sudden on-target rounds from various distances within the time frame of most OISs…to confirm which tactical options seem most likely to protect officers…and to determine what training systems seem most effective in increasing an officer’s ability to make fight-stopping hits, as well as imprinting other survival skills.
The years-long project was designed by Lewinski and Ron Avery, an FSRC technical advisor, president of The Practical Shooting Academy, Inc., and executive director of the Rocky Mountain Tactical Institute. Avery, himself a world-class shooter, is in charge of all field testing.
The latest research, concerning attacker shooting performance, was carried out during a recent 2-week period at the indoor range of the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, with the cooperation of Ed Janke, associate dean of the school’s Public Safety Division and a member of FSRC’s National Advisory Board, and Brown County (WI) Sheriff Dennis Kocken. Trainers Bob Willis, Randy Revling, and Erik Walters assisted Avery with the courses of fire.
The participating subjects were 103 volunteers from NWTC’s 2-year corrections and law enforcement program. Predominately, they were males in their late teens and 20s, with a few in their 30s or 40s. “In terms of age, gender, and physical ability, they tended to be very representative of the felon pool” that attacks peace officers, Avery told Force Science News.
“Several had long-gun experience, hunting with a shotgun or rifle, which is not the same as shooting a handgun,” he explained. Over 1/3 had “never fired a handgun and only a few had more than a passing exposure” to sidearms, thereby qualifying them, group-wise, as naive shooters. “A lot said they were very apprehensive and nervous about shooting,” Avery said. “They were not predisposed to like it.”
Naive shooters are important, Avery explained, “because they give us baseline data for human ability, without bias being introduced by training experience.”
After a brief safety review with red guns, the participants were given functional weapons with live ammunition and, in a controlled sequence, were told to address targets especially designed by Avery for ultra precise measurement of shot placement [See Force Science News Transmission, sent 2/17/06]. Those with no experience were allowed to fire half a dozen “familiarization” rounds “to get the feel of sound and recoil” but were not told how to hold the gun, except to “grip it firmly” and to avoid touching the trigger until the muzzle was safely down range. Each shooter used his or her same assigned gun throughout the tests, either a Glock 17, a Springfield XD in 9mm (supplied by Springfield Armory), a Beretta 9mm, or a S&W J-frame short-barrel Special.
The shooters each started from a series of 4 positions, reflecting how offenders commonly have guns when confronted by LEOs:
- Hand on the gun, which was concealed at the rear waistband;
- Gun hidden at the front waistband, with a garment covering it;
- Gun in hand, hidden behind a leg;
- Gun held to a baseball hat which the subject was holding by the bill, simulating a hostage situation or an intended suicide with sudden homicidal capabilities.
Holsters were not used, consistent with the recent FBI study documenting that run-of-the-mill street punks rarely carry weapons holstered. [See Force Science News Transmission #62, sent 1/8/07]
Each shooter presented the gun and fired from each of these starting positions at 9 different distances, ranging from 1 to 25 yards from the target. The controlled lighting was “dimmer than daylight, but not low-light,” Avery said. “They could see their targets clearly.”
The shooters were told that at the sound of a timer they should “shoot as fast as you can, as well as you can, trying to hit the target with every shot but not slowing down in an attempt to gain accuracy,” Avery said. “We wanted them to get the first round off in under 1 second and to complete 3 shots within 1.7 seconds. That’s similar to a real assailant bringing a gun out and firing as rapidly as he can.” They were not told what part of the target to try to hit, just “wherever you feel is best.”
Data from the tests are still undergoing a detailed computer analysis, but based on on-site observations and preliminary reviews, these are some of the highlights Avery and Lewinski consider significant:
An overwhelming majority of the test subjects used point shooting at all distances when firing rapidly, and almost all used 1-handed techniques at close ranges. At 5-7 yards and beyond, many shifted spontaneously to 2-hand stances, with an increase in hit probability noted.
Even though point shooting, the volunteers still tended to extend their arms fully and bring the gun up to eye level. “Rarely did they use a combat tuck,” Avery said. “Even at 1 yard, they tended to extend their arm to shoot.”
To Avery’s surprise, many initial rounds, especially when the gun was brought from behind the back, tended to go to the right of the target (from the shooter’s perspective). This contradicts conventional wisdom, he said, which holds that shots from a right-handed shooter often end up going to the left. If this apparent discrepancy is sustained in further testing, officers who are taught to move to their left in hopes of avoiding early rounds may, in fact, be stepping into a field of fire.
At close distances (1-3 yards), more than half the simulated offenders “shot at the head without being told to” and had a “very high hit probability” with at least 1 of their shots, Avery noted. “It was astounding how they could keep the pattern in the head.”
The chest (center mass) was the second most likely target.
Avery explained that people tend to shoot where their attention is directed. Unless they are trained otherwise, they are likely to look at the face, particularly in close-up encounters. “We communicate with each other nonverbally by watching facial gestures, and we look at each other’s eyes, especially at close distances.” Consequently, he speculated, the much-reported tendency of street assailants to target officers’ heads may be less a “deliberate, diabolical plot” and more related to natural instincts.
Often a shooter missed a desired placement with the first round but was able to “bracket” subsequent rounds for successful hits “without slowing down,” Avery said. “They were able to coordinate their actions, process feedback on hits, and adjust their placement very rapidly, even with no previous training or practice.”
He conceded that due to research limitations this tendency may have been “a little artificial” during the experiments because hit placement was more easily detected on the paper targets than might be true with a clothed human being, especially in low-light conditions. However, even at distances where they could not see their hits, the bracketing tendency was noted.
A strong majority of the shooters fired all 3 rounds within 1.5 seconds. That included reaction time in responding to the timer signal. Some were able to react and shoot all 3 shots within 1 second. A “very large majority” fired all 3 with about a quarter-second between shots. Some were longer, up to .35-.40.
An actual assailant who is deciding when to shoot without reacting to an auditory signal and who is likely bringing his gun out and up with his finger already on the trigger could be expected to get a first round off even faster than the volunteers, Avery said.
At 5 to 7 yards, many of the shooters “directed fire at a bigger part of the body” than the head, Avery reported. But still, “a lot of shots hit in the head, neck, and upper chest.” He attributed this to “the guns climbing in recoil and the shooters not being able to control that at speed.” He said that “a significant number of rounds impacted above the level of a vest,” even at distances where luck became a strong factor in shot placement.
Shooters who missed the intended target altogether often produced “collateral hits on a side target as far as 4 feet away,” Avery observed. This has implications for officers who tend to cluster together. “They need separation to avoid getting hit by accident by shots from a barrage intended for another officer.”
At 1 yard, “specks of unburned powder” from muzzle blast frequently “covered the whole head” of the target, Avery recalled. “Some targets were blown apart.” Without adequate eye protection, an officer risks being “flash-banged and flash-blinded, probably out to 3 yards,” even with near misses from a felon’s gun.
“Within a very short time, at least half the volunteers had a very good grasp” on the basic mechanics of shooting, Avery noted. “A lot of subconscious learning took place within the first 15 shots. For example, without being told, many learned how to set the wrist to control recoil. Some people just have a natural ability to pick up a gun and be able to control it. It was amazing how well many of these people could shoot with no training at all. Flat out amazing!”
“Natural aptitude” was most noticeable among “the more athletic types,” he said. “It was evident that weight training and higher-than-average grip strength give you a clear advantage in shooting, especially at distances beyond 3 yards. But even the smaller, weaker subjects for the most part were able to fire fast and accurately.”
He cited one small female who produced a gun from behind her leg and delivered 3 head shots from 3 yards in less than 1.5 seconds. “And she had never held a gun before,” Avery said.
“These findings,” Lewinski said, “are certain to have significant impact on officer-survival training.”
In the next phase of the hit probability study, Avery and assistants will test various survival options for officers, seeking to confirm which offer the most likely safety, given the distance and nature of an armed attack. The final phase, up to a year away, will explore what type of training will best assure that officers make the best choice when they are suddenly challenged by a suspect determined to kill them.
Findings from the study to date, including results from pilot investigations with the Milwaukee and Austin (TX) Police Departments, have made clear some sobering challenges for officers and trainers alike. Among Avery’s conclusions and observations to date:
1. “Training that is focused on accuracy first and speed second is not going to cut it” in preparing officers for the realities of a gunfight, he told FSN. The emphasis needs to be on developing “relevant speed, especially at close distances, combined with precision shooting.” That life-saving blend is possible to achieve, but it requires specialized instruction that goes far beyond mere qualification shooting and, being a perishable skill, it demands continual reinforcement.
“There have been studies in the past that state the average gunfight lasts 3 seconds,” Avery said. “But with accurate rounds delivered by the suspect, the typical fight may realistically be over in half that time. That’s the new standard officers need to train against. The person who gets a gun out first AND gets the first good shot is likely to be the one who wins. If you don’t train and practice high-speed shooting with accuracy on a regular basis, you are not prepared adequately. It’s that simple.”
(The challenge arises over the issue of judgment, Lewinski pointed out. Other research has shown that as a specific task is speeded up, good decision-making tends to suffer at some point. “The mission will be to find the delicate balance that heightens speed and accuracy in shooting without sacrificing speed and accuracy in judgment,” he said.)
2. In the recent FBI study of attacks on officers, the average age of “Victim Officers” was in the mid-30s. “But don’t confuse experience on the street with firearms ability,” Avery warned.
“Too many officers think that because they’ve been on the job for a number of years or have scored 100% on their qualifications that they’re prepared for the realities of a high-speed, close-range shoot-out. They don’t realize just how fast things are going to happen at average gunfight distances. It’s time for them to reexamine their beliefs, which definitely will not stand up to reality.
“With the current standard of training and readiness in law enforcement, the chances are high that a determined offender can take on a cop successfully at short range. The average kid who decides he is going to kill a cop can hit almost as well as a world-class shooter at 1 to 3 yards.”
3. It is time to reevaluate the benefits of security holsters. When split seconds may mean the difference between life and death, the danger of a delayed response caused by fumbling to access his gun may be more dangerous to a threatened officer than the danger of a potential disarming, Avery asserted.
However, Lewinski pointed out that in a study conducted by FSRC in Los Angeles, “We found that officers wearing a Level 3 holster who practiced quickly drawing on a regular basis were often as fast as the fastest officers drawing from a Level 2. Perhaps we should be holding officers to a higher performance standard if they wear a higher-level security holster.”
4. Use caution in closing distance. “Officers sometimes close in too soon, with an arrest on their mind rather than survival,” Avery said. “These experiments show that at close range, some offenders may very well go for your head. Before you get close, you not only want to see a suspect’s hands and be ready to control them immediately but you also need to have a well-rehearsed plan in mind for what you’re going to do if he still comes out with a gun.”
In the absence of funding from government entities or other sources, the hit probability research is being financed by seminars and other speaking engagements contracted through FSRC, Lewinski said. Independent funds continue to be sought for this project and others that have profound implications for LEOs and their employers.
[For personal comments and opinions from Ron Avery on the hit probability results, visit his website: www.practicalshootingacademy.com. For a report on preliminary testing of “attackers” at the Milwaukee Police Academy, see Force Science News Transmission sent 7/7/06.]