BULLSEYE: Paper Targets + Creativity = Realistic Training


By Sara Ahrens

When firearms training budgets take a hit, affordable paper targets may be the answer to realistic scenarios.

Many police agencies have firearms training programs that focus solely on shooting fundamentals. Although this is the foundation of any firearms training program, an agency must get beyond the fundamentals and challenge their officers to think and react. Once officers are proficient with the fundamentals, the next step is to put them to the test. The truth is that many agencies have limited funds available for training. With a sincere dedication to their roles and the synergy that training units generally possess, it is possible to develop training that is both affordable and thought-provoking. The goal of every training session should be to engage officers in such a way that there is little doubt that learning occurred. Unfortunately, the typical law-enforcement firearms training program never achieves this goal.

Most firearms training programs in law enforcement focus on fundamentals and drills. On the rare occasions when scenarios are incorporated, these programs have a tendency to be run as ‘gotcha’ scenarios. ‘Gotcha’ scenarios are those where there is only one acceptable outcome. These situations are rigid and damage an officer’s thought processes. It must be recognized that there is always more than one way to effectively handle any situation. Scenarios will always lack necessary details and these gaps will leave officers to fill in the blanks (or the unknowns) with their imagination. Typically, these gaps will be based on their own experiences, or more often, the lack thereof.

Inexpensive Option for Quality Training

The first obstacle that most agencies face in this ailing economy is a diminished or non-existent training budget. Let’s be honest—this will immediately limit options. Although many options exist for scenario-based training, the most inexpensive is the utilization of paper targets. That can be a hard pill to swallow, but once the complaining stops, the creativity will begin, I promise.

There exists a large selection of paper targets, and at first glance, they can present some serious concerns. It is not uncommon for a target to present scenarios that are confusing. It can be argued that an inkblot test is more easily interpreted than some of the targets on the market. Officers’ interpretations will vary widely. For instance, a target exists that depicts a domestic situation with a male choking a female and the female holding a knife toward the male. Who is the aggressor? And, how can an agency use this target effectively when there are differences of opinion among the trainers? Trust me, it won’t take long for firearms instructors to discover the beauty of using these targets where no one is ever really ‘wrong.’

How to Properly Employ Paper Targets

The value in using paper targets is that they are open to interpretation. So everyone really can be right. It’s a win-win. But, this requires that any training with paper targets must include a scenario debriefing. Officers must explain and defend their interpretation of the scenario. There can be no ‘right’ answer, only a ‘right’ reaction to their interpretation.

For example, given the previously described target with the man choking the woman with the knife, the following reactions may be appropriate:

  • Officer determines one of the subjects to be the aggressor and addresses that target.
  • The officer cannot determine the aggressor and doesn’t address either subject. If this is the case, the firearms instructors should prompt the officer by making statements that would assist the officer in their decision-making process.

Just because everyone can be right, doesn’t mean they will be. Some concerns that firearms instructors need to address include any reluctance to take action based on beliefs that are not consistent with law enforcement objectives, such as:

  • The officer does not take action and articulates some irrational fear such as fear of losing his/her job, or
  • The officer determines one subject was the aggressor, but shoots the other. Why would this happen? Find out! Perhaps the officer is not mentally prepared to shoot the subject depicted as the aggressor (female, elderly, pregnant, teenager, fill in the blank).

Pay particular attention to remarks made by officers such as, “Men are always the aggressors.” (Oh yes, you will hear some remarks that will leave you feeling very uncomfortable, concerned and ethically/morally challenged.) Those comments should be a red flag and they absolutely require immediate intervention. A major component of learning with this kind of training is in the interpretation and conversations with the officers. Once the value of training with paper targets is recognized regarding the potential impact it can have on training, the excitement over the possibilities will be evident.

Change is Good

Selecting targets, which depict a variety of scenarios, is important. Some possibilities include targets such as a hostage scenario, a bank robbery, a violent domestic, a vicious dog, a traffic stop, and an active shooter. The goal is to select targets, which represent some of the most difficult situations officers could face. It could be argued that a seed is subconsciously planted in an officer’s mind when he/she only shoots at targets depicting a stereotypical, scary-looking, grey subject (who, by the way, is typically pointing a gun at them).

Consistently exposing officers to one type of target can precondition their thought process and response (similar to how the noise that typically precedes a turning target preconditions an officer to start his/her draw during a qualification). Target overexposure removes thinking from firearms training and defines the ‘bad guy’ for officers. Any experienced officer knows that ‘bad guys’ aren’t always that easily identified. In reality, officers may have to shoot an elderly person, a teenager, or a pregnant woman. These situations are definitely ‘worst-case scenarios.’ Without a doubt, there exists among the ranks officers who are not mentally prepared for, nor capable of, shooting certain targets. The challenge is for the instructors to identify these ‘mental barriers’ and address this through training, if possible.

Scenario Selection

After selecting a variety of targets, consider the scenario. Perhaps the best scenario is no scenario at all? How realistic is it for officers to get incorrect information from dispatchers, or have a situation unfold in front of them with no warning? Maybe the best training is to randomly hang targets at varying distances and angles (not exceeding 180 degrees).

In order to increase stress, an agency can also consider incorporating hooded drills.  Placement of the targets requires thought. If a target posing a threat is placed too close to a hooded officer, are they expected to draw upon having the hood removed? If so, consider the contradiction this poses to other training, specifically weapon retention and disarming. Firearms instructors must be careful that the training does not reinforce improper and unrealistic responses. This is the sort of thought that must occur when arranging the targets and deciding on scenarios.

Scenario Setup Suggestions and Considerations

Some possible suggestions and considerations for target placement and scenario setup:

  • Start this training with air-soft training firearms until you can gauge the officer’s responses and ensure he/she demonstrates safe gun handling skills.
  • Block the scenario from view of other officers and change the scenario setup frequently.
  • Place one target at about 6 feet in front of hooded officers. This initial target may or may not be holding a weapon. This increases stress immediately and should encourage movement.
  • Adhere different weapons to the hands of targets and change them frequently in case officers talk behind the lines.
  • Don’t patch holes on targets—simply mark the previous hits. Once there are holes on a target, occasionally affix empty hands. Sometimes officers will shoot these targets because they see that other officers shot at it. The idea is that the officer should collapse his/her attention from the target’s whole body to the hands. This is training that helps make officers aware of sympathetic shooting. Every officer must articulate why they fired and excuses like, “everyone else did” must be discouraged.
  • Target placement should serve multiple purposes, which reflect the reality of police shootings. Consider utilizing realistic distances, placing barriers, minimizing availability of vital zones, and making cover and concealment available.
  • Set up the scenario in such a manner so as to force movement and communication. Cover one hand on the target with a barricade. Officers will see one empty hand and assume the other is empty as well. The idea is the trainee will order the target to show the other hand or the trainee will move to where he/she can see it.
  • Encourage communication and interaction. Use firearms instructors as ventriloquists to prompt the officers’ actions. Stand behind the officers and respond to the officer’s commands, or provoke the officers into action. Make sure to tell the officer if the target is terminated or not. Do not allow officers to fire two or three rounds and think that the threat no longer exists, as this is not always a reality. They need to learn that sometimes a headshot is necessary. Speaking from experience, a set number of shots are a very bad thing to instill in your officers. They need to know that a shot to center mass does not mean the threat is removed.
  • Incorporate fundamentals. Fill the officers’ magazines for them. Be sure to short the magazine’s rounds, use dummy rounds, and load the firearm on an empty chamber. Taking these steps will result in valuable learning. It will be obvious that previous training programs have not been successful. The instructors will observe the following at a minimum: officers failing to move while assessing the failure to fire and during reloading; freezing, fumbling on a reload; officers failing to recognize the firearm is empty (even with the slide locked to the rear); and the inability of the officers to clear the malfunctions under pressure.
  • Once the scenario is over, have the officers holster their firearms and turn away from the scenario. This is when the debriefing should occur. Ask the officers what they saw, what they did, and why. Prompt them if they forget. If their responses are appropriate, evaluate the targets and their round placement. If their responses are inappropriate, consider possible remediation or further training.
  • Videotape the training if possible. Believe it or not, officers will deny taking certain actions. This doesn’t mean they are lying; due to the stress, sometimes they legitimately don’t recall their actions. This is a good tool for the instructors as well because it helps identify other potential training issues.

The Safety Plan

This kind of training requires a clearly articulated safety plan, especially when conducting this training as a live-fire event and utilizing a hood.

  • Go over basic safe gun handling skills and explain that any demonstration of unsafe practices will result in a ‘cease fire.’
  • Explain the appropriate response to a ‘cease fire’ command—immediate re-holstering of their firearm.
  • uExplain the concept of the training. There is no scenario, just a series of targets designed for them to interpret and take appropriate action. Advise officers that the goal is to incorporate fundamentals and stress the importance of communication.
  • Prepare them for the communication by explaining that the instructors will contribute dialog as the ‘bad guy.’
  • Explain that once at the scenario site, instructors will face them toward the targets and they are not allowed to break the 180-degree safe shooting area from that position.
  • Physically escort the officers to the scenario area, with their gun holstered. Leave the officers hooded to explain the safety protocol. This prolonged blindness seriously amps up their stress levels.
  • Reiterate the 180-degree shooting area, which is directly in front of them (hold their arms out at 180 degrees for them).
  • Explain that it was up to the officer to tell the instructor when the scenario was over.

End on a Positive Note

It is important to recognize and discuss problems, which were identified during the training. Most officers will recognize their struggles long before a firearm’s instructor points it out. Start the conversation out by asking them how they felt the scenario went. Also ask them what they would change if they could redo the scenario.

Once the officers explain their actions, make sure to begin by giving credit for the things they did well. Although discussing any areas requiring improvement is necessary, it must be done gently. The only exception to this would be gross violations of gun safety, which requires frank discussion and possible retraining. Other than those sorts of violations, it’s important to allow the officers to maintain some dignity when things didn’t go as well as they had hoped. Discuss the areas that need improvement and encourage them to work on those areas. Remember that it is important to end training on a positive note. Officers must leave training with the appropriate mindset.

Many law enforcement agencies are facing serious financial crises and it seems like when times get tough, training budgets, like the Arts, are the first to go. This doesn’t mean that quality training can’t be accomplished. As a mater of fact, with a little creativity, some thought, and paper targets, any agency can create a firearms training program that moves beyond the fundamentals and challenges officers to think and react.  PM


Sara Ahrens is a 17-year veteran of the Rockford Police. She is assigned to Patrol as a Sergeant and has experience running training and was the Rangemaster. She was a SWAT team supervisor for four years. She can be reached at sara.ahrens@yahoo.com.


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