By Warren Wilson
Cops Don’t Get Much Choice How Or When An Armed Confrontation Happens.
Cops don’t get much choice how or when an armed confrontation happens. The bad guys make most of the important decisions such as time, location and severity. What we can choose is our level of preparedness. Too often, we leave the firing range after our precious little time shooting live fire feeling good about a tight group or a high qualification score. We are more dangerous than a six-armed ninja when we’re gunning down stationary paper targets. But, things get a little more complicated when targets move and shoot back.
The routine firearms practice session or qualification affords an officer the time to take that perfect stance, get that perfect grip, and attain that perfect sight picture. There’s certainly nothing wrong with establishing and maintaining that baseline skill set, but basic marksmanship is only the foundation. It takes a lot more to build the house.
The next skill to be acquired is moving while shooting accurately. Reading debriefs and watching video footage of actual shootings, it’s apparent that our chosen stance will have little bearing on an actual armed encounter because we won’t be using it perfectly, anyway. Cops who survive real-life encounters tend to move and do so rather quickly. The really successful ones find cover and/or minimize their profile by “getting small” in the process. Some officers seem prepared for it while others do not. These factors would seem to be the key difference in the most important aspect of our unwritten job description. This leads us to the topic at hand: modified positional shooting.
The downside to moving quickly under stress is that one can inadvertently end up on the ground. The downside to “getting small” is that these positions are often awkward and limited in mobility. We regularly see gunfights end with police officers forced to fire from non-traditional positions for one or both of these reasons. Your more savvy police departments train for such eventualities. Shooting from cover, low kneeling, high kneeling, prone, supine, etc. are positions that more progressive police departments train their officers to be capable of. Most of the commonly accepted and practiced shooting positions haven’t changed much since their inception. However, there are some relatively new modifications on a few of these positions that officers might find useful.
A quick warning: Never practice unconventional live fire techniques without the proper training and having first tried them with an unloaded gun. These shooting positions are advanced and should always be supervised by a firearms instructor or a trained safety officer.
In his book, Handgun Combatives, Dave Spaulding wrote, “…in a gunfight, the worst place to end up is lying on your back with your lower body and groin exposed to gunfire.” He’s right and unfortunately it does happen. Getting knocked down or falling on one’s backside during an assault is more than a remote possibility. In the early ‘90s, a western road officer was attacked by a pistol-wielding felon during a traffic stop. During his natural rearward movement, the officer tripped on a curb. He was forced to fire from his back but was able to end the attack with several rounds of accurate fire.
The most commonly practiced supine shooting position is to allow the legs and lower body to rest flat while elevating the shoulders enough to allow shooting above and between the feet. This keeps the muzzle blast from burning the shooter’s legs, but does put the shooter’s feet in front of the muzzle. This technique works well in practice. However, while in this position and being attacked by a knife or firearm-wielding assailant at close range, a victim’s natural tendency is to throw the feet upward toward the attacker in defense. In a widely televised surveillance video, an undercover officer was ambushed in a motel room by a drug dealer intent on robbery and murder. As the wounded officer lay on his back, the gunman attempted to complete his murderous intention with a final shot. The wounded officer reflexively kicked at his assailant and was able to bump the pistol off target for two seconds, allowing his cover team to enter the room and save his life. This brave cop was unarmed and out of options. If not for his partner’s lethal force backup, the encounter would likely not have ended well.
The problem with the natural (and usually, futile) kick response is that it does little to stop an armed aggressor and may actually inhibit one’s ability to fight back with emergency equipment. One’s feet will be in front of the muzzle at some point. Additionally, during Tachypsyche (what we laymen call, “fight or flight”), the mind is ill prepared to multitask. Trying to kick and shoot at an assailant at the same time is a recipe for disaster.
A possible solution to this problem is “The Overturned Turtle” position. The shooter bends the knees, brings the feet toward the buttocks and squeezes inward with the legs. The pistol should be extended past the bent legs and be a good distance from the pointed feet. (It’s hard to put into words, but we know you looked at the pictures before you started reading. It’s OK. We all do it. So please refer to them as you read on.) This modification to the supine position steadies the pistol and protects the crime fighter’s upper body from an edged assault, since the felon must stop his forward progress and focus downward to continue the attack. As cringe-worthy as it sounds, the legs can even provide some limited ballistic protection to the torso while aggression is being returned to the threat. After merciless practice, the legs should learn to index on the forearms and will hopefully keep the feet out of the line of fire during an actual encounter.
Executed properly, this technique will not endanger any important stuff from friendly fire and also helps tame recoil for follow-up shots. It can be utilized from either flat on one’s back or from either side. One might think mobility would be limited when fighting from the supine position and you’d be right, of course. Keep in mind, this position should only be assumed to save an officer after he/she has fallen and no longer has the luxury of movement. It is not a position to be sought with any more enthusiasm than a tax audit. When I first saw this technique demonstrated by Tony Duggan, a firearms instructor and Colorado executive protection specialist, students were not allowed to even attempt it in live fire. Again, it’s an advanced technique. If you choose to adopt this technique, work into it slowly with a safety officer.
Some folks will lack the flexibility to effectively use “The Turtle.” That’s OK. Find a variation that works for you and practice it. Just pick a method that keeps anything valuable away from the muzzle and always remember that even when mobility is limited, a vigorous counter-attack is still possible.
The prone position is considered to be the steadiest for accurate fire at a distance with a pistol. Generally, this position requires an officer to lie on the belly, rest the pistol butt on the ground, and either lower one’s head to the sights or roll to the strong side (resting the head on the strong shoulder) to obtain a good sight picture. There is growing favor among firearm instructors in keeping the pistol vertical for accurate fire no matter what the body’s position. A modification that may improve the prone position is the “golf grip.” Regular visitors to “the links” will adapt to this technique readily. Others will have a learning curve or “slice” as the case may be. The strong hand grips the gun as usual. The support hand thumb runs up the off-hand side of the pistol grip vertically in the void between the strong hand’s fingertips and palm, while the support hand index finger threads between the strong hand little finger and ring finger. The blade of the weak hand rests on the ground. Clear as a shower door, right? Again, that’s why we have pictures.
When first taught the golf grip, I was a little skeptical. After having had the opportunity to practice it side by side with the traditional grip, I must admit there are a lot of real-world benefits. It allows the pistol a higher platform to get above grass or other obstructions. Another advantage is that the gun is brought up to eye level, which allows the head to stay in a more natural position and keeps the pistol vertical. There is only a slight, if any, reduction in recoil control over the standard grip. At 25 yards, I found a noticeable increase in accuracy and split time using the golf grip. This technique will take a lot of repetitions before it becomes second nature, but may very well be worth the effort.
One Hand vs. Two Hands
I’ve always wondered why it took so long to adopt two-handed shooting in law enforcement. We are a stubborn bunch. As late as the 1950s, one-handed shooting was still being widely taught to young coppers. I wonder if mid-century gun scribes wrote articles like “One-Hand vs. Two-Handed Shooting” like some more recently did with the all-too-frequent “9mm vs. 45” write-ups. Two hands are better than one, in case anyone was wondering. I’ll leave the 9mm vs. .45 debate alone. Although, Jack Weaver is primarily credited with inventing a “stance,” he is among the first people credited with two-fisted hand gunning. That’s at least one of the reasons he was hotter than doughnut grease in the California “Leather Slap” matches of his era. It wasn’t long before others followed his example and saw similar improvement in their shooting skills.
Unfortunately, there are times when the support hand is busy and only one appendage is available for wielding. The common practice has been to extend the shooting hand all the way out and cant inward to the hand/arm’s natural position. Using this technique, the pistol’s recoil tends to force the shooter’s hand both up and left (for a righty) during recoil. There is a newer option. The shooter keeps the gun vertical and draws the hand in about 25 percent. The recoil tends to go straight upward and requires the shooter to only compensate in one direction to get back on target for follow-up shots. Like any other technique, the only way to see if it works for you is to try it. My experimentation has shown positive results.
Marksmanship is an important skill in our line of work. Moving while shooting and minimizing one’s profile during an armed confrontation are even more important. Training for what happens next is just the next step in the evolution of a gunfighter. Throughout our law enforcement careers, we must fully embrace the role of perpetual student. The hardest lesson for cops to learn is that, during an armed encounter, the original plan usually goes awry and it’s imperative that we train for all contingencies. Among those is being able to shoot from awkward positions. I’m not touting these methods as the be-all, end-all. I have found them to be an improvement and so have a few other police officers. No one technique is right for everyone. Find what works for you and practice it. PM
Warren Wilson is a Lieutenant with the Enid Police Department in Oklahoma. He is a former SWAT team member/leader and has been in law enforcement for 17 years.
- A standard grip in the prone position causes an officer to roll her body and lower her head to obtain a sight picture.
- The “golf grip” allows a much more relaxed position for the shooter’s head as it raises the pistol a few inches off the ground.
- Properly executed, the “golf grip” will offer little or no loss in grip strength.
- Officer Michelle James demonstrates the “Golf Grip” in the prone position.
- The traditional supine pistol shooting position keeps much of the lower body exposed to injury both from an assailant and the officer himself.
- The “Overturned Turtle” allows for a steadier shooting position and offers the vital parts of the lower body some limited protection from assault.
- Another one-hand shooting stance is to keep the pistol upright and draw it slightly in toward the body, which requires the shooter to only compensate for recoil in one direction.
- A commonly accepted one-hand shooting technique requires the shooter to extend and cant the hand, which forces the pistol up and inward during recoil.