In the past 50+ years of shooting my understanding of how to train with firearms has evolved from punching tight groups in paper targets to how to effectively defend myself against a threat. I no longer concern myself with how tight a group I can shoot. I now concern myself only with how quickly I can put effective hits on a target, because one day it could save mine or someone else’s life. With the increasing use of body cameras by law enforcement we are able to see how poor training habits often times result in the death of an officer. I have watched too many videos of officers taking their time to aim, squeezing the trigger, then stopping to see where the shot went before starting the cycle again. At several points in my life I have seen convincing evidence how we train determines how we respond in critical situations. Practicing how to respond is the greatest predictor of how we will respond in a critical situation.
Anyone who has been shooting for a lengthy period of time has evolved their shooting technique. I was introduced to firearms at the age of eight. My father took me and my two brothers hunting and shooting. At eleven I started target shooting at Boy Scout camp using a bolt action .22 from the prone position. At 16 I purchased my first shotgun, a Remington 870 12 gauge I used for hunting. At 21 a Smith and Wesson .357 Model 13 revolver became my EDC. I’ve been adding to my collection ever since.
In the beginning I focused on learning how to shoot. Indexing, controlling my breathing, obtaining my sight picture, taking my time, and squeezing the trigger, after which I relaxed, and checked the target, before repeating these steps. I practiced this over and over thousands of times. My groups became tighter and tighter. I considered myself a proficient marksman. I was able to hunt successfully for many years, and believed my training was both successful and complete, as many of us do. But I was missing something.
I first became aware of the problems associated with training when I entered my career in law enforcement and corrections in 1975. About that time there were three disturbing incidents involving Washington State Patrol troopers. The first was a DUI stop on a remote rural road. The trooper pulled over a suspected DUI driver in a station wagon with two men and a woman in the front seat. As he approached the driver, he noticed a rifle partially concealed under a blanket in the back seat. He removed the gun, unloaded it, and set it on the roof before continuing his contact with the driver. He determined he needed to do a field sobriety test, so removed the driver from the vehicle. A revolver was on the seat between the driver and the woman, so the trooper picked it up, emptied it, and placed it on the hood of the car. Returning to his contact with the driver the male passenger became belligerent, so the trooper removed him from the vehicle, at which point a hunting knife fell to the ground. The trooper picked it up and put it on the hood. Shortly after that the driver and passenger jumped the trooper, took his revolver from it holster, held him down, pointed the gun at his head and fired one round. Miraculously the trooper turned his head at that moment, avoided being shot, and was able to push the duo off of him. They ran to the car and sped off. The dazed trooper was able to recover his revolver and fire the remaining five rounds at the fleeing vehicle, hitting it three times. The vehicle was later spotted by police, the trio arrested, and it was determined they were suspects in a number of armed robberies in the area.
The second, a few months later, was a trooper pursuing a fleeing vehicle on Interstate 5 at speeds in excess of 110 mph. When the eluding driver crashed his vehicle, the trooper stopped, and ran to help the injured driver. The driver exited his vehicle and shot the trooper to death. Trainers at the academy puzzled over these two events and couldn’t comprehend why these two troopers reacted as they did. They were both well trained marksmen. So they began asking the obvious question of a number of troopers, “Why?”. The answer was startling. The majority of troopers they interviewed said at the academy it was drummed into their heads everyone they contacted was a “taxpayer and voter”. It was deeply impressed upon them they were to act deferentially to everyone to lessen the chance they might complain to their legislators, and the department’s budget be adversely impacted. I took note of this and began altering my thinking on training. My next revelation was even more concerning.
I was involved in the third incident. Heading home after a shift I noticed an erratic driver and called it in. The dispatcher responded the vehicle was stolen and believed occupied by a suspect in several recent robberies in the area. I was advised to wait for responding troopers. A trooper responded, following the driver until he unexpectedly pulled into the parking lot of a roadside diner. The trooper did not turn on his lights, or otherwise alert the driver to his presence, but quietly parked behind him, blocking the vehicle. The trooper grabbed his shotgun, quietly walked up to the driver’s door, opened it, shoved the barrel of the shotgun inside and ordered the driver to exit the vehicle. While cuffing the driver, the trooper foolishly propped the shotgun between his legs to free his other hand. Upon realizing this, the suspect turned and grabbed the shotgun. I ran to assist the trooper, we struggled for some time to gain control of the suspect and the shotgun, until a second trooper finally arrived. After the suspect was subdued we realized during the scuffle the trigger of the shotgun had been pulled, but there was no round in the chamber. Why was the shotgun not charged? Troopers were trained to leave the chamber empty to avoid accidental discharges.
In 1986 the FBI was tracking two former soldiers who were robbing banks in the Dade County, Florida area. Upon locating the suspects the agents decided to conduct a risky felony stop using their vehicles to box in the suspects and force them to stop. During the ensuing gun battle two agents were killed, and five others injured, before the suspects were finally killed. This incident was later made into the 1988 movie of the week “In The Line Of Duty: The FBI Murders”. I watched this film with some skepticism, but great interest.
A while later I attended a seminar presented by an FBI agent, and the discussion inevitably turned to the Miami-Dade shooting incident. The agent confirmed the film about the incident was very close to the actual facts. He then made a revelation not depicted in the film that changed my attitude toward firearms training forever. He said the investigators at the scene were puzzled to find spent brass in the pockets of the dead and wounded agents. The obvious question was, “Why would someone in a desperate firefight against a well armed opponent take the time to put their spent brass in their pockets before reloading?” The FBI interviewed many of their agents and the answer was universal — when they went to the range for firearms qualification it was drummed into their heads by the range master “Pick up your brass! Pick up your brass!” The agents had simply trained themselves to put their ejected brass in their pockets so they wouldn’t have to bend over and pick it up later. Beyond seeking a new firearm for the agents to carry on duty, the FBI also immediately changed their training practices to include teaching agents to drop their spent brass.
When I first attended firearms qualification as a correctional officer in 1979 the range master was concerned with only one thing, getting everyone qualified the first time. He admonished us to take our time and make every round count toward the qualifying score. I was familiar with the Smith and Wesson revolvers and Remington shotguns we used, but had no prior experience with the AR-15 rifles. It took some getting used to, but within a short time I became proficient with it. After my encounter with the FBI agent at the seminar I realized training for speed was paramount in a critical situation.
I began assessing my practice sessions and making adjustments to my grip and stance to allow me to increase my speed without drastic decreases in accuracy. I was no longer interested in how tight a group I could shoot regardless of time. With practice my speed and accuracy improved to an acceptable level. As I began shooting faster, the range master criticized my speed by noting how I was “throwing shots away”. He stopped complaining when he scored the target and found I was well within the qualification range. Sadly, he continued to admonish others to take their time.
My change in practice habits also led me to re-evaluate my firearms. I still have my Remington 870, and over the years aded a Remington 1100 shotgun, and Remington 760 rifles, Ruger 10/22 rifles, and recently a Ruger PC9 carbine. All of these weapons have the same safety. The bolt disconnects or locks are also the same, so I am keeping them because they don’t require me think about where to reach to perform any of these functions. The same cannot be said for my pistols.
When the Department of Corrections switched from a revolver to the Heckler and Koch USP9 pistol I was able to purchase one at the same contract price. It became my EDC for many years. I practiced manipulating the safety/decocker lever thousands and thousands of times until it became routine. After I retired, however, I wanted a smaller pistol for EDC and finally settled on the Beretta PX4 sub-compact. I later added a couple of more PX4s in .40 S&W. I then practiced manipulating the safety/decocker lever thousands and thousands of times until I became proficient with it. Therein lies the dilemma. The safety/decocker on the H&K USP is pulled down to decock and release the safety, while the PX4 is pushed up. It became obvious practicing with both pistols could turn tragic in a firefight as I had to think which way to move the lever to effectively defend myself. While it was a hard choice, I removed the H&K USP from my collection.
I also made another important decision about my remaining pistols. I converted the PX4s to the Type G which eliminated the safety, so in a critical situation I wouldn’t need to remember to release the safety before firing a round. Now all of my pistols and revolvers operated the same. I can carry a round in the chamber safely because they are double action/ single action just like the revolvers. My training is simplified and I am more confident in my handling of these weapons. I still practice at the range regularly, but now my practice sessions are consistent across all of my firearms.
Finally, my practice includes creating and practicing a variety of scenarios, such as what to do if I am confronted at an ATM, faced by numerous attackers, or engaged with an enraged driver. Thinking about and practicing to respond to these scenarios provides me with the ability to deploy a consistent response if confronted by a threat. This has proved useful on two occasions. My wife and I were blocked into a parking space in an underground garage one dark night. When the individual approached with his hand in his pocket and demanded I roll down the window, I was able to convince him he had selected the wrong victim. More recently, while leaving the grocery store with my purchases, a disheveled and apparently intoxicated man who had been refused the sale of alcohol began verbally attacking the clerk. Waving his hands as he hurled profanity laced insults, my attention was focused on his right hand that he kept thrusting into his pocket. At that moment I realized I was adequately trained to respond should he pull out a weapon. I stood six feet behind him, quietly observing, ready to draw my pistol if necessary. I hope I never have to shoot anyone, but practicing how to respond has made me confident I am able to respond should the need ever arise.
Ronald Andring, Sr. is a veteran of a 30+ year career in law enforcement and corrections, serving with the Washington State Patrol, the Walla Walla Police Department, and the Washington Department of Corrections until his retirement in 2005.