Managing a Live-Fire Range

A simple method to keep students engaged, safe and learning

By R.K. Miller  |   Sep 18, 2015

Firearms instructor courses sometimes fail to address the important topic of how to safely and effectively manage the firing line. Without proper care, control and forethought, the potential for unproductive training or, worse yet, injury to one of our own is a real possibility.

To correct this deficiency, firearms instructors should keep in mind five basic concepts as they move officers up to the live fire line. These concepts can perhaps best be remembered through the use of the acronym COPSS, which stands for communication, organization, practicality, safety and supervision

Communication

Range commands should be clearly briefed prior to the beginning of the session, and they should be reinforced as the training continues. There are many different options for effective range commands. But a basic philosophy adopted from the military manual of arms may help, especially when dealing with relatively new students and/or techniques.

Rather than just give the order to fire, preface the command with what the military refers to as a “command of preparation.” Typically used during marching drills, this is intended to cue a group of soldiers to an upcoming order. Applying the command of preparation concept to the range, use of words such as “standby” (as well as other info such as the number of rounds to be fired) alerts students to be mentally and physically focused on the task at hand.

This is followed by the command of execution. These are the words or sounds that indicate firing may begin. They should be chosen carefully in order to avoid creating an unwanted auditory “trigger” that might at some future date cause an officer to erroneously use lethal force in the field.

To initiate fire on the range, be sure to avoid words or sounds that might be heard in tense confrontations on the street. We don’t want to link a common word with a lethal force application in the student’s mind. One example is the word gun, which is sometimes used as a command to fire. The problem, however, is that during contacts on the streets, use of this word to alert officers to the discovery of a firearm during a pat down search is very common. It is possible that an officer conditioned on the range to fire on the command “Gun!” may automatically respond with lethal force upon hearing that same word again within a different context.

On another level, effective communication on the range focuses on the instructor correcting improper techniques and reinforcing good performance. Most graduates of Marine Corps’ boot camp can share stories about their drill instructors’ ability to create high levels of stress. But this often bombastic approach to learning was curtailed once the young Marines began firearms instruction. Here, a shooting coach would typically replace the DI. This patient coach would then use adult learning theory to help Marines through the process of developing their shooting skills. Law enforcement firearms instructors should adopt this style when communicating with their students on the firing line.

Organization

The old adage that “proper planning prevents poor performance” holds true here. A good firearms instructor organizes his or her range operation so that it benefits the most important person there: the student.

Preparing for the class well in advance rather than “winging it” just before instruction begins, is the proper choice. This allows for a greater level of instructor confidence and also conveys to the students that the class will be conducted in a professional manner.

Consider also the way the instruction is presented. The learning should be organized so that concepts and techniques are presented in a “building block” fashion that allows for proper understanding of each step in a much larger process. Progressing from single rounds, to double taps and then to multiple rounds fired in combination with the concept of “two to the body, one to the head” (a drug and armor drill) is a common progression. Clearly, it would not be as productive to begin with the drug and armor portion first, especially if there has been no foundational work on the basics such as trigger control and sight picture.

Finally, an organized firearms instructor is prepared for the worse-case scenario. A medical emergency plan should be briefed to students and other instructors prior to the start of the training.

It’s also recommended that each student fill out or have on file a medical emergency information sheet. This may include information such as agency and personal contact numbers. A first aid trauma kit for treating anything from a cut to a gunshot wound should be available.

Poll the class for students who may have emergency medical credentials, such as EMTs. Being prepared for a possible student injury is a responsibility that cannot be overlooked or, worse yet, ignored.

Practicality

Range training must be practical! Case law, as well as statistics from law enforcement lethal-force encounters, points the way. We need only consider landmark firearms training cases such as Popow v. Margate (484 F.Supp. 1195) to find clear mandates for our range training.

In Popow, the police department—and therefore its firearms instructors—was held responsible for the death of an innocent civilian through a failure to properly train officers in the use of their firearms. Specifically, there was no instruction in techniques such as shooting on the move, firing at moving targets, multiple targets and shoot/don’t shoot situations.

Similarly, information developed from analyzing lethal-force encounters, makes it clear that the majority of these incidents take place at short distances. With information such as this, it’s relatively easy to create courses of fire based on practical training needs.

In addition, firearms instruction should reinforce department policy and the law. Failure to incorporate this into a firearms course of instruction is like a person’s smile revealing a missing tooth. There’s no doubt that officers—and by extension, the instructor—will be held accountable for their use of firearms on the streets. Department policy is too often ignored or forgotten on the range. The instructor should strive to give the students a complete understanding of the when to apply lethal force and not just the mechanics of such things as trigger press and aligning the sights.

Through practical firearms training, the instructor is, in essence, giving the officer an educated “action plan” to be used when a firearm is drawn in response to lives being endangered. Again: Keep it practical!

Safety

To a professional firearms instructor, this single word conveys so much. Bottom line: The responsibility for a safe and successful range training session rests with the instructor. Ignoring the importance of this fact—or even just growing complacent—is a betrayal of the trust placed in the instructor by both the department and the officers under his or her supervision. It’s true that the student, not the instructor, holds the firearm in his or her hands. But it should be the instructor who defines and guides how the weapon is safely used.

Remember the two prime rules of safety. First, the finger must be off the trigger and out of the trigger guard until the student makes the conscious decision to apply lethal force. This is sometimes referred to as “master grip.” It should be constantly reinforced on the line in combination with continuous monitoring to ensure it is practiced.

Second, the “laser rule” reminds shooters they should never allow the muzzle of the firearm to cross anyone that they do not intend to possibly use lethal force against.  Basically, a firearm should only be pointed at an appropriate target or threat.

Beyond the aspect of individual safety, the big picture must also be of concern. Courses of fire, targets (especially steel targets) and target systems, backstops and fields of fire all require scrutiny for possible safety issues. This becomes even more important when stress and movement, such as in a live fire shoot house, are incorporated into the training.

In essence, the firearms instructor must carry out a safety analysis before the first officer steps onto the range. This discussion of safety could go on and on, adding countless other rules, instructions and guidelines. But firearms instructors would do well to keep in mind the KISS principal: Keep it simple, sunshine! This is never more important than in the area of running a safe range.

Supervision
As you step onto the range, take a look at what’s before you. The facilities and more importantly, the students are now your responsibility. Failure to oversee and correct personnel on the firing line is an invitation to injuries and lawsuits. Therefore, the class must be supervised properly.

Maintain the scene. You (and any assistant instructors with you) should continuously monitor the students’ behavior during the training session. Help students achieve instructional goals within the focus of your control. For example, while humor is an effective tool to be used in the learning process, improper horseplay on the line has to be stopped before it becomes a significant problem.

The student to instructor ratio is critical. Without a good ratio, students don’t learn effectively or receive adequate supervision. Students, who are relatively inexperienced with new weapons, may require a ratio as low as one instructor to one shooter.  Conversely, when working with experienced and competent personnel, a ratio of ten to one may be appropriate. It’s up to the instructors to determine the correct ratio for the training at hand.

The instructor also sets the example for his or her students. A hypocritical “do as I say, not as I do” attitude has no place in this setting. Example: Students must wear impact resistant wrap-around eye protection, but the instructor steps to the firing line sporting a pair of street shades. Not good.

A genuine commitment to the students’ welfare is another essential for properly supervising the firing line. This should be accomplished through actions as well as words. Keeping the class informed and motivated to learn is one aspect. But also ensure that the students get adequate breaks, stay hydrated and, generally, that as much as possible, an overall positive learning environment exists.

Finally, instructors who help with the “grunt work” such as picking up brass and policing the range, make it clear that they haven’t forgotten that they were once students too. Bottom line: Instructors must properly supervise personnel on the firing line, otherwise they’re not doing their job.

Conclusion

By using a common-sense approach to communication, organization, practicality, safety and supervision (COPSS) firearms instructors can be more effective in their most basic responsibility: to ensure that officers are trained for the safe and effective use of firearms in defense of life.