Gunfights Happen Up Close…Except When They Don’t

If you have been in a firearms training class in the past two decades then you have heard the stats about the distances at which officer involved shootings happen.  Most gunfights take place within a few yards and the majority of those within a few feet.  Hence, a lot of firearms training programs focus on fast and close.  There are a few problems, though:  the use of flawed or incomplete statistics, de-emphasizing the fundamentals of accurate shooting, and the lack of training for gunfights at longer ranges.

The first problem with the emphasis on close range firearms training is that the data that most trainers use may be flawed. Many of the studies I have seen referenced come from the FBI’s summaries of law enforcement officers who are killed in the line of duty.  So for a lot of training development, the data used only shows us where officers are killed, not where all gunfights happen, or even at what distances officers emerge victorious from gunfights.  Considering that a lot more officers are involved in shootings than are killed in shootings, it would seem many training programs are developed without considering a lot of very important data.

SWAT trainingSome studies I have seen clearly indicate that the greater the distance between the suspect and officer, the greater the likelihood the officer will emerge unscathed.  This seems to be a significant piece of data that, if accurate, has to be considered in any training development.

One of the problems with the officers killed data is that officer disarmings are frequently mixed into the distance equations. For example, an officer who is shot by a suspect who disarmed the officer skews the distance stats toward close range, when in reality, the officer’s death had nothing to do with firearms training, and everything to do with hand-to-hand skills and weapon retention training.

A second problem with the “up close and personal” training is the general de-emphasis on the fundamentals of shooting like the use of sights and trigger control.  An alarming number of law enforcement firearms instructors are actually telling their students “Don’t worry about the sights…you’ll never need them.”

Perfect sight alignment and an ideal sight picture are impossible to achieve in actual combat.  However, in the vast majority of shootings, even at very close ranges, the use of a sight picture using the front sight to cover the target will increase your odds of hitting and stopping the threat much quicker than not using any form of sight picture.

Additionally, trainees are frequently pushed for faster and faster speeds rather than a smooth draw and trigger press.  If smoothness is sacrificed on the altar of speed, accuracy will surely suffer.  Lack of proper trigger control will ensure bullets missing the intended target.  As the old adage goes ‘Speed is fine, but accuracy is final.’

Lastly, the emphasis on close training often means that little to no training time is ever devoted to teaching officers using handguns to hit targets at ranges of 15 yards, 25 yards, or even greater ranges.  At these distances, imperfections in the fundamentals become exaggerated and misses become more likely than hits.

For anyone that claims that hitting man-sized targets at 25 yards is too hard, they clearly have not mastered the fundamentals of shooting.  At my former department, officers qualified regularly with 2″barreled revolvers and the ‘baby’ Glocks out to 25 yards.  Several decades ago, officers qualified with their duty revolvers out to 50 yards.  Consistently hitting a man-sized target at 25 yards is readily achievable.

My current agency only requires officers to train to 15 yards, with the vast majority of training at 7 yards and less.  No training is done with a handgun at any distance beyond 15 yards.  Many officers feel this is adequate.  Well, the department has had two officer involved shootings (OIS) this year.  The first was at a distance of less than seven yards with a sergeant who is a former SWAT officer.  Four of five shots fired found their target and quickly neutralized the suspect.

The second OIS involved two officers and an armed subject at a distance of about 30 yards.  In this case, the officers fired more than 30 rounds and only about one in five found their mark.  Some of those appeared to be hits from skip shots where the bullets struck the pavement somewhere in front of the target, bounced up, and then struck the suspect.

Both of the OIS involved a single suspect, at night, in outdoor conditions.  The major difference was the distance.   I do not doubt the difficulty of the shot the officers were forced to make in the second shooting, nor do I doubt their bravery or their ability to do the job. What I do question, however, is the firearms training program that failed to emphasize their use of sights and engaging suspects at ranges much beyond seven yards.

If you are a firearms instructor, I encourage you to take a look at your training program and make sure that you are teaching your officers the skills they need at all distances.  If you are an officer, take a honest look at your own skills. If your accuracy beyond seven yards is not where it needs to be, spend some of your off time on the range to bring those skills up to where they need to be.

And keep in mind that all gunfights happen up close…unless they don’t.

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Publisher at BlueSheepdog
Richard Johnson is a gun writer, police trainer and really bad joke teller. Check out his other writing on sites like Human Events, The Firearm Blog and Police & Security News.

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  • Nick Martinez

    Getting right to the point. I’m looking at getting my first CCW and I am caught up in the caliber wars. I was looking for info on the average number of shots fired in police gun fights and other firearm altercations to see if mag capacity should play into my decision (45ACP vs 9mm). That’s when I ran across this article.

    What is your opinion on magazine capacity?
    From what I have read the average number of shots fired when one officer is involved is less than 4.
    To me that number makes the capacity argument completely mute.

    • Aaron


      Richard will have his own thoughts, but I wanted to offer my thoughts as well. First, with the incredible advancements in self-defense ammunition designs in the last decade, the argument of caliber has been greatly narrowed to almost the “personal preference” level.

      However, the BSD Crew typically does not recommend any firearm that is smaller than .380 caliber, and we are very particular with those firearms. With 9mm and larger firearms we feel confident that shooter’s preference will not adversely effect the overall ability to win a gunfight, as long as shots are placed in critical stopping areas (upper torso or head).

      As far as capacity, however, the argument of “more is better” still has significant weight. Unfortunately, the argument of a CCW firearm often pivots on the shooter’s personal preference on the compact size options, rather than the ability of the firearm to win a sustained gunfight.

      You mention officer involved shootings with 4 or less shots fired. Statistically that may be true for the majority of close encounter shootings, however there are plenty of examples of sustained gunfights that involved double-digit rounds being fired (sometimes with a magazine change as well). And those shootouts are often at distances not too much greater than the close ones.

      Many of those shooting events involved only one threat. Whether an officer, or a CCW citizen, we are likely not going to be able to choose the gunfights we will be involved in. If there is an accomplice, or the attacker is moving, or has cover nearby, the potential for firing multiple rounds rises exponentially. If your CCW firearm only provides 5-7 rounds you are going to find yourself in a very dire situation.

      Ultimately, the decision is yours. However, you can make sound judgements on size, comfort, and capacity. When you look at the likely possibilities that you could confront, and the necessary firepower to be victorious, your window of options should narrow down to a comfortable number of selections.