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Training That's on Target

​IF SECURITY OFFICERS are to be armed, they must be thoroughly trained in the use of handguns. A comprehensive training program will not only educate officers, it will improve their proficiency on the job and reduce the likelihood of litigation.

While most jurisdictions in the United States have laws requiring specified training for anyone who must carry a firearm for their job, these laws vary greatly. Some jurisdictions mandate 40 hours of classroom training; others require no classroom training at all. Recertification is not required in some places; in others, officers must undergo eight hours of recertification training annually to continue carrying a firearm.

If state requirements are lax, managers should consider exceeding the basic requirements. Besides improving officers’ performance, additional training can help demonstrate a good faith effort to a jury should the training program be questioned in court.

In addition to classroom instruction, all training should include time at a shooting range. A program should also include a system for documenting the training and a refresher course to keep officers current.


In classroom training, instructors must stress the facts about firearms and discuss first aid for gunshot wounds, the psychological effects of shooting a weapon, and how to write reports on shooting incidents.

Facts. Many jurisdictions require that classroom training include the history of firearms and explosives. These topics are covered briefly and provide a general overview of how weapons developed.

Another section provides details of how weapons work. The officer’s life depends on knowing how each moving part of the weapon operates. This segment of the training should also cover the science behind weaponry, including the physics of ballistics and what the bullet is doing when it leaves the gun, as it travels, and upon impact. The training should include details on ammunition, such as how hollow-point ammunition differs from standard ammunition.

Medical. Training must include details on what happens when a person is shot and how to respond should that occur. Trainees are generally unaware that shooting incidents are rarely fatal. The low fatality rate is because security officers are trained to take any shot that will incapacitate the aggressor, not only to aim to kill the assailant. Therefore, it is likely that officers will find themselves attending to a gunshot victim and providing medical attention until help arrives. Also, security officers may be first responders to other altercations involving gunshot victims.

Officers should learn what a bullet does to the human body and how to respond to a gunshot wound depending on where the person has been shot. The training should include how to deal with the surroundings in the aftermath of a shooting—securing the scene, for example.

Psychology. Numerous studies conducted by the FBI indicate that law enforcement officers experience significant psychological stress during a shooting episode. Because of a phenomenon called de-animation, when interviewed after an incident, officers often can’t remember how many shots they fired, what hand they held the gun in, or what position they fired from. This happens to both rookies and seasoned officers.

Training can help to overcome this phenomenon. For example, repetition of simple steps along with a verbal mantra can help keep a sequence of events foremost in an officer’s mind even under stress. Through this repetition, officers can keep calm and maintain firearm safety.

The mantras differ depending on the situation. If, for example, a patrol officer is facing down armed assailants, he or she might repeat something such as: “Here they come, assess the situation, draw the weapon.” These mantras are practiced both in the classroom and on the range.

In addition, this part of the training should deal with the psychological fallout of a shooting. Officers can experience a state of shock after a shooting incident. They should be taught that this is common and should be expected. And they should be told how to seek help and that there is no shame in asking for help to get over this trauma.

Reports. A significant part of the training program should be dedicated to report writing. A shooting is always going to result in the officer having to talk to authorities about what happened; in many cases, a court case will arise as a result as well. Officers must be able to explain to the police and possibly to a judge and jury the sequence of events leading up to and including the shooting incident. Officers should be trained to give a simple factual narrative; they should never embellish or assume.

Any overstatement can harm the credibility of the entire statement. For example, in a liability case, an officer used the phrase “a violent struggle ensued” to describe an incident where he was shoved. The wording made the jury doubt the rest of his report.

Officers should be trained to be accurate at all times, and this often means being vague when appropriate. For example, reports should never say “the time was exactly 11:01” unless the officer was looking at his watch. The approximate time should always be given when describing a shooting incident because the officer is obviously engaged in the altercation, not checking the time. The same principles apply to distances. Because the officer does not have a yardstick, the distance should be described as “approximately 10 feet away.”

This segment of the training should teach officers to defend their reports in court. Scenario training should be used to illustrate the tactics used by attorneys, including rapid-fire questioning and objecting to statements.


After the classroom training, officers should complete practical training to ensure that they are proficient in shooting a firearm. This segment of the training would include sessions at a shooting range and, possibly, training on a simulator.

Shooting range. While officers must spend time at a shooting range to carry a firearm, training should go well beyond the basic target shooting that is generally required. For example, a company that has armed officers working a midnight shift should train those officers in both full-light and low-light conditions. Lawsuits against police departments and security agencies have been won because realistic training had not been incorporated. The simple act of turning down the lighting at an indoor gun range during a training session could have saved millions of dollars in litigation costs.

Similarly, the training should put the officer in stressful situations. For example, officers should be trained to shoot in a noisy environment, while firecrackers are going off, and in the rain.

Simulators. Due to the high costs of ammunition and other handgun training expenses, some companies are turning to simulators to augment the shooting range experience. In fact, on some federal contracts for armed security officers, there is a stipulation that the armed employees be exposed to simulated firearms training. Simulators can range from large, expensive systems to portable devices that use laser-tag technology to allow the user to move around freely. These systems can determine whether the shooter’s stance is correct and if he or she flinched—details that aren’t obvious at the shooting range. Some of the newer systems even allow the officer’s own handgun to be retrofitted with a laser and a target that attaches to a computer. Training can then take place anywhere.


Some jurisdictions require that all training be documented. This should be done whether required or not, however, because without documentation, an organization cannot prove that it had appropriate training if challenged in court.

Documentation also helps to establish a record for each armed officer to show that he or she has maintained a level of proficiency throughout his or her entire career. A best practice is for instructors to keep shooting-range paper targets with the name of the student, dates, times, and scores written on the target. They should be kept on hangers and stored in a fireproof and moisture-free environment.

High-quality training programs will include digital video footage of each student during training. In addition to providing proof of training, these videos can be instructive for students who are having a difficult time obtaining necessary proficiency. The recordings allow students to see what they are doing wrong. Digital recordings and digital photos can be stored on memory sticks or other media.

Students should also have individual “range cards” that they must accurately complete for each point of fire, and then sign and date. A best practice is for the instructor to make written comments on each card as needed and file the cards in each student’s firearm’s training folder. Once the student successfully completes a written exam, the results, with live-fire range scores, are recorded. Whatever filing and archival system is chosen, it should allow for easy retrieval of these records.

Instructors must also maintain their certifications and licenses to train. All of this documentation must be verified and open for review. To ensure that the quality of the training remains high, companies should have the program assessed by a third party or impartial persons who can provide feedback. Those assessors should be encouraged to constructively and objectively analyze every facet of the training program. Some organizations even have a lawyer participate in the assessment of the training program.


A recent informal survey of some of my students employed in private security revealed that only one in 50 had gone to a gun range more than once a year after their initial training. That’s not often enough.

FBI officers and law enforcement personnel must undergo quarterly refresher training. Security should do the same. Refresher training should include roleplaying and as many different light levels and simulations as possible.

In addition to formal refresher training, officers should be exposed to constant on-the-job training. For example, shift supervisors should inform officers that a test will be conducted. Then, supervisors should conduct scenario training, such as an assault in progress, for example. Officers should know a test is coming, but it should occur at a different part of the shift each time. This will give the supervisor a good idea of how officers respond at the beginning of a shift as compared to the end of the shift. This can be done easily with a creative training coordinator and open-minded managers.

By requiring armed officers to complete a high-quality training program, companies can ensure that officers will know how to handle their weapons and themselves appropriately should the need arise. The company also takes a step toward protecting itself from potential liability.

R.A. “Rick” Stern has been a certified and licensed handgun instructor for 27 years. He is also a licensed private investigator and training coordinator for Phoenix International Management Group.