Force Science Institute published The Naive Shooter from a Law Enforcement Perspective: Hit Probability, a study that identifies the problem with shooters that remain at novice skill levels.

By actual test, an average police recruit completing academy firearms training is only marginally more skilled in shooting than a person who has never shot or even held a firearm. The study found that personnel completing military or police handgun instruction and passing qualification enjoyed a mere 13% improvement over complete novices. Between groups labeled “expert”, “intermediate”, and “novice” there was no effective difference in skill between the identified groups.

Force Science Institute executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski said, “[R]esults indicate an alarming need for improved firearms training for officers,” because despite being academy graduates and passing mandated firearm qualifications the new officers “were a mere 13%” more accurate than novices in shooting at distances where a high proportion of officer-involved shootings occur. What these statistics appear to imply is 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 weapons that is expected of them.”

Testing

This study tested 195 male and 52 female subjects. These included recruits, students, and police officers from two police academies and one college law enforcement preparation program. About 25% the volunteers had successfully completed academy firearms course of instruction. Led by Dr. Lewinski, the research team included Ron Avery (The Practical Shooting Academy and successful competition shooter); Jennifer Dysterheft (University of Illinois Department of Kinesiology); Nathan Dicks (Minnesota State University-Mankato Department of Human Performance); and Jacob Bushey (Minnesota State, master’s student in exercise physiology.)

The subjects were identified as:

• Experts: Subjects having completed formal handgun training through the academy or in the military
• Intermediates: Subjects without academy training but had some prior experience in shooting (hunting, recreation, or military long gun instruction.)
• Novices: Subjects who may have fired a weapon once or twice previously, with many having never held or shot a gun previously.

Test firearms were typical issue semiautomatic handguns (Glock, S&W, and Beretta in 9mm and .40 S&W.) Volunteers were instructed to engage nine silhouette targets placed from one to twenty-five yards and shoot each with three rounds. Specific technique or aim points were not indicated, only that subjects should fire “as quickly as they could without compromising accuracy.”

Results

The Expert group scored the most hits, but only by a narrow margin. There was “no significant difference” in hit rates between Expert and Intermediate subjects at most distances and from six to 15 yards, Intermediates actually registered a better 41% vs 38% hit ratio than academy-trained handgun shooters. At one to five yards Expert shooters hit one of the target’s vital zones eight out of nine shots while Novices did the same seven in nine shots. Novices split times ranged from 0.25-0.33. Novice accuracy fell off significantly at distance but the Intermediates, possibly due to their passing familiarity with long gun shooting.

Dr. Lewinski summed the study noting that police-trained shooters “who had completed standard law enforcement academy firearms training were not more accurate in their shooting” than the Intermediate subjects and were only slightly more accurate than complete novices with little or no handgun experience.

The Real Problem

This study found a tiny difference in skill between complete novices and academy-trained police officers (a mere 13% improvement) because there is no effective difference in skill. Academy-trained police officers are still novices. The same is true in military circles as well.

How to fix this? Dr. Lewinski suggests two potential problems: The over-use of “block education” and the tendency of “internal attentional focus” due to skill deficiency.

As explained by Dr. Lewinski, block education is when instruction is provided along with hands-on practice during a specified block of time. This leads to long, dedicated sessions that are soon over. While this is ideal and convenient for scheduling, and is useful for initial instruction and short term learning, it is not useful for long-term learning or for skill retention. Shooters are given a block of instruction, practice it, then do something else with no skill refresher between blocks. Lewinski noted “block training, which is used in most academies, including the ones in this study, produces one of the highest rates of swift deterioration of a skill once it is acquired.”

Contrast this to athletes and competition shooters that train and practice routinely over months and years. Training requires on-going sessions to build upon improvement. The sessions can be very short, even a few minutes, but they need to be done regularly, consistently, and on-going over time. Dr. Lewinski notes that research indicates people those training skills at more frequent sessions spaced out over time tend to perform better avoid skill degeneration, especially when tested against new, unusual, or complex situations. “Spacing out instruction and practice over time gives your brain the chance to better consolidate and integrate information about the skill on which you are working,” Lewinski says.

Internal attentional focus occurs when the less skilled shooter remains fixated on the equipment and/or in performing fundamental skills and is less able to pay attention and react to the external environment. Such novices, “[H]aven’t had enough practice to move past this concern about the manipulation of their weapon to an external attentional focus, where their visual and cognitive concentration is on their target and their situation. That state can be reached only when weapon management and the motor movements of shooting are so ingrained that they’re automatic, freeing an officer’s mental resources for observation, cognitive processing, and immediate decision-making.” The study notes average academy offers 60 hours of firearms training and in-service perhaps 12 to 16 hours or less a year. Currently structured, it is difficult for personnel to reach this needed, higher-level of expertise without supplementary training, which can readily (and should) be done on their own.

The full study, The Naive Shooter from a Law Enforcement Perspective: Hit Probability which will be published in International Journal of Police Science and Management.

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