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FSI Study: The Surprising Deadly Threat Of Firearms Novices

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In a close up gunfight, who stands a better chance of delivering an immediately fatal shot to the head: an officer who has completed typical police firearms training or a subject who has little or no experience with a handgun?

Alarmingly, according to a newly published study by the Force Science Institute, the odds lie with the novice shooter. And even apart from headshots, the research shows that officers on average are only marginally better than lesser-trained shooters in terms of getting rounds on target.

“[L]aw enforcement officers are expected to perform at a much higher level than [civilian] shooters,” writes the lead researcher, FSI’s executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski. Yet the study results indicate that “officer firearms training is not extensive enough and occurs too sparsely for officers to gain, and maintain, the expert level of accuracy with their service weapon that is expected of them.”

In short, today’s cops “may not be gaining the advantage they need from current law enforcement firearms courses.”

Lewinski’s research team explores why this dangerous deficiency exists and what might be done to correct it. Their findings appear in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed publication International Journal of Police Science & Management, under the title “The real risks during deadly police shootouts: Accuracy of the naive shooter.”

The study can be accessed in full, free of charge, at the FSI website. CLICK HERE to read it. It is believed to be the first to examine “the shooting accuracy of inexperienced and untrained suspects who might fire at officers…in a deadly conflict.”

3 SKILL LEVELS

For the study, 247 volunteers, about 80% of them male, were recruited from a Midwestern college’s law enforcement program and from two police academies, one in a Northern state and one in the South. They were divided into three test groups:

  • trained handgun shooters (called “experts,” for purposes of the study), who had completed handgun training in the military or in a formal law enforcement academy firearms course.
  • intermediate shooters, who had not yet received academy training but had previous experience through military long-gun training or in shooting a pistol or rifle for hunting or recreation.
  • novice (or “naive”) shooters, fresh recruits who “had no experience or minimal familiarity with firearms, such as only having fired a weapon once or twice in their life.”

On ranges at their respective locales, with similar environmental conditions, the volunteers addressed specially designed “Grey Man” gridded targets that allowed for measuring shot placement on the target’s head, neck, and torso within one square inch of accuracy.

Armed with a semi-automatic pistol, each volunteer was instructed to fire three rounds at the target “as rapidly and as accurately as possible” when a timer sounded, but no instruction was given on where the shooter should aim. After each three-round burst, the target was replaced and moved randomly on a motorized track to a different distance from the shooter, until nine targets at nine distances, ranging from three to 75 feet, were fired on by each subject with 27 shots total.

SURPRISES!

As would be expected, the researchers found that volunteers in the expert and intermediate groups managed in general to successfully place rounds on the targets at a significantly higher rate than novices. But there were some startling surprises.

  • For one, Lewinski notes, there was no statistically significant difference in accuracy between the intermediate shooters, who had no formal law enforcement handgun training, and the so-called experts, who had completed the full certification requirements of academy sidearm instruction and practice.

Overall, experts scored more hits than intermediates by scarcely one percentage point. At the experts’ most competent shooting distance (3-15 ft.), they edged intermediates by only four percentage points, and in one category (18-45 ft.) the intermediates actually performed better than those who were law enforcement-trained.

  • “Novice shooters,” Lewinski writes, “had 75% hit accuracy [at] distances from 3 to 15 ft.”–distances at which officer-involved gun attacks most often occur. Intermediate and expert shooters did better at these critical distances by “only a small margin of increased accuracy (84% and 88% respectively)….

“In simple comparison, the expert shooters hit one of the major zones on the target with eight of the nine bullets they fired at these distances…. [T]otal novice[s] hit one of the major zones…with seven of the nine bullets they fired at these distances.”

Analyzing the volunteers’ performance collectively over all distances, the researchers found that there was merely a nine percentage point spread between the success of novices and experts in getting on target. “[S]hooters who had completed accredited, law enforcement officer firearms training hardly showed an advantage,” Lewinski writes.

  • Most striking were findings about headshots. “At close distances,” Lewinski told Force Science News, “intermediate and novice shooters tended to shoot at the target’s head more often and with greater accuracy than law enforcement trained shooters.”

Nearly 60% of novices’ rounds hit the head at the crucial three-foot distance, compared to just 21% of experts’ shots. That hit rate dropped to about 24% for novices at nine feet–but to a dismal 6% for experts. Every group’s hits continued to decline as distance expanded, but both intermediates and novices continued to out-score trained officers on successful headshots as distance grew.

“Officers should be aware of the potential threat posed even by suspects with minimal firearms experience,” Lewinski says. “This study demonstrates that rounds fired by novice and intermediate shooters in close proximity encounters are more likely to result in immediately lethal hits, as they fire primarily at the head.”

This is borne out in real-world encounters, the study points out, by 10 years of FBI statistics “indicating [that] roughly three of five officers feloniously killed with a firearm had fatal shots to the head and neck.”

CULPRITS

Why is it that academy training seems to provide such little advantage over lesser or untrained individuals? The researchers identify several potential culprits:

  • Different focus. During most firearms courses as they now exist, Lewinski explains, “officers are taught to focus predominately on their weapon and their body,” paying close attention to grip, trigger press, stance, body and arm alignment, balance, sight picture, and so on.

Obviously, these are important elements of effective shooting, but so long as they command primary, conscious attention they keep shooters’ attention “internal”; i.e., focused on themselves and their actions.

With sufficient practice and experience, officers “are able to move past this internal focus on the manipulation of their weapon” and transition to an “external” orientation where their concentration is on their target and the situation they are attempting to control. Lewinski writes. In this sophisticated state, weapon manipulation has become so skilled that it is automatic, reflexive, and essentially unconscious.

Numerous studies, including a significant one by FSI, have established that “external focus promotes better performance,” Lewinski notes, because it frees officers’ “cognitive resources for observation, cognitive processing, and immediate decision-making” in a life-threatening encounter.

Just how much extra practice and experience are required for an officer to transition from internal to external focus is not currently known. But in Lewinski’s opinion, the “firearms training and experience provided by an average North American Police Academy” is not sufficient to enable most officers to effectively make the leap and maintain the skill level.

With “no training at aiming or handling a weapon,” Lewinski writes, novices are “more likely to aim where they are looking”–in effect, an instinctive external focus. In shooting, he explains, novices “emulat[e] the introductory firearms training concept of initially pointing the weapon, much like an individual uses their index finger to point to an object.”

In our culture in close-contact situations, “individuals tend to look at the face,” Lewinski says. So in addressing a humanoid target, that’s where the inexperienced tend to look (in contrast to officers who are trained to shoot at center mass), resulting in the high concentration of head hits.

  • Block training. Often, Lewinski believes, the instruction officers receive that should give them a decisive edge is undermined by the style with which it is delivered.

He explains: “A vast majority of law enforcement academy firearms training courses, including those in this study,” use block instruction, in which skills are taught in “long-duration sessions” over a relatively short period, “(i.e., four- to eight-hour classes taught over the course of two to four weeks, each class teaching a new skill).

“Although this method is often used for efficiency such as range and instructor availability and may be beneficial for short-term learning, block training has been observed through multiple studies to be ineffective for long-term learning and performance….

“In particular, when individuals are challenged with complex, unusual, and new conditions, those with block training consistently performed worse” than individuals who learned their skill using random, spaced, and reinforced practice techniques. While initial learn seems fast and satisfying to both instructor and students, “block training produces one of the highest rates of any type of training on the speed of deterioration of the acquired skill.”

RECOMMENDATIONS

The researchers’ suggestions for improvements going forward include:

  • The goal of every department should be to enhance its firearms training to the point that officers’ weapon manipulation in response to a deadly threat is fully automatic. This will free the officers’ cognitive resources to focus on assessment, early threat detection, strategy, and decision-making and thereby improve judgment and reaction time “even if the attained advantage is measured in tenths of a second.”
  • “Where agencies fall short in meeting this goal,” Lewinski says, “individual officers in the interest of their own safety need to commit to achieving that level of performance on their own.”
  • “Head-shot training should be a part of the [official firearms or personal practice] curriculum,” the study notes, “so that officers can effectively deal with suspects wearing body armor [and can] stop a threat effectively in [other] situations where center body mass shots seem to have little effect or in instances where [a] head shot is simply the best alternative….”
  • Officers and trainers should also consider employing mental imaging exercises to reinforce and enhance their physical training. Studies suggest that those who regularly use such crisis-rehearsal regimens tend to be “significantly more accurate in their shooting.”
  • “The next innovative stage,” according to the research team, “would be teaching officers ‘pattern recognition’–how to read evolving threats and intervene or control them before they become deadly.” Given the “rapid speeds in which a gunfight can unfold and the accuracy of novice and intermediate shooters at close range,…[o]fficers should be able to react to assault cues at the earliest possible moment during an encounter to optimize their chances of preventing or controlling the incident and enhancing their survival.”
  • “After basic skill training,” Lewinski writes, “athletic teams spend a large portion of their training in ‘videotape review’ of their opponents so they can enhance their ability at recognizing and being able to intervene in evolving plays.

“A similar method of incident review training should take place in law enforcement, reviewing the threat cues and dynamics of officer involved shooting situations as recorded by dash cams, body cams, surveillance systems, etc.

“This is a way to begin to optimize…tactical awareness and responsiveness…so that officers [are] able to make better decisions [and] perform in ways that maximize their own safety” as well as that of the citizenry they serve.

Dr. Lewinski’s research team for this study included: Ron Avery, president/training director for the Practical Shooting Academy, Inc., and executive director of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Tactical Institute; Jennifer Dysterheft, a doctoral candidate in kinesiology at the University of Illinois, and Nathan Dicks, assistant professor in the department of human performance at Minnesota State University-Mankato, both research assistants at the Force Science Institute; and Jacob Bushey, a master’s student of exercise physiology at Minnesota State.

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