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Back to Archives | Back to November 2010 Contents 

Tips for Training with a Firearms Simulator

Shannon W. Lightsey, Special Agent (Retired), U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command; and Former Federal Air Marshal

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oday there are a variety of companies producing simulators and competing for law enforcement and military business. These simulators, regardless of the manufacturer, provide the opportunity for law enforcement and military personnel to have a scenario played before them, which requires them to gauge the level of force needed for resolution in the given scenario.

Each system presents a variety of film scenarios to learn from and practice officer reaction and decision making. The typical scenario action would be to draw the training laser weapon, acquire target picture, and decide if the deadly force option is appropriate. Whether the situation involves an active shooter in a school, a domestic disturbance call, or a terrorist threat, all of the simulators have the ability to create judgmental use of force situations. The systems offer a variety of amenities ranging from single-screen views to multiple-screen widened views; high- or low-definition resolution; laser-based shooting (with visible laser or infrared); and recoil kits and weapons for firing simulation effects. Scenario branches determine whether the suspect is injured, deceased, incapacitated from an electroshock weapon, or reacting to pepper spray. Some of the simulators offer shock vests, shoot-back cannon systems, and other options to train the officer to seek cover or to realize that a given reaction was too slow for the situation. The main differences between models center on what an agency is prepared for in pricing and what is desired in amenities with the system.

Some systems will provide an indefinite number of scenarios, while others provide a quantity of scenarios and the ability to learn how to film and make original scenarios. Regardless of how the scenario is developed, what is essential is consideration of how the officers work in the field, engage suspects, and react after engagement.

Real-World Implications

When developing scenarios, trainers need to consider the real-world consequence equivalents of an officer’s actions in the simulator. For example, after using deadly force, an officer would ensure the scene is safe by securing the suspect’s weapon; handcuffing the suspect; and radioing dispatch for an ambulance, a supervisor, and backup assistance. Trainers should work these actions into the training scenarios. Whether using a live training partner or a mannequin, officers in simulators should follow up by securing a weapon, handcuffing the suspect, radioing dispatch, and searching the suspect for additional weapons or contraband. The officer’s reaction in the scenario should remain as a first responder, which requires that the officer treat the injured utilizing the basic first aid principals until paramedics and the ambulance arrive.

The training can continue by having the officer write a use-of-force statement; the trainer should review and critique the statement based on the known scenario. When possible, involve the local prosecutor’s office to offer feedback for improvement.

The simulators in use-of-force training are intended to evaluate an officer’s judgmental and critical thinking skills; the total training scenario includes the additional tasks required for follow-up. When developing the scenario, the trainer needs to review the skills required by the state to be proficient in identifying and reacting to a threat, making use-of-force decisions, handcuffing techniques, radioing procedures, securing evidence and weapons, searching suspects, giving first aid for the injured, and writing reports. When the complete training program is utilized in conjunction with the simulator’s shoot/don’t shoot scenario, an automated tasking procedure is developed through repetition training. This automated tasking becomes an automated response in the field. The officer becomes automated regarding the scenario, whether real life or simulated, and training takes effect. This automated response helps to remove some initial shock from an incident and potentially keeps the officer in a defensive and proactive automated mode until backup or supervisors arrive.

Shooting Skills

Shooting skills are perishable skills. Many simulators offer a variety of shooting skill drills and qualification courses. The key to maintaining shooting skills is “trigger time” for the officer. Many agencies struggle to have 100 rounds of ammunition and a year-round range for their officers to fire and practice. However, repetition is necessary to maintain this skill for qualification. By shooting every month on the simulator, officers can develop essential muscle memory for drawing and flash front sight picture.

Some departments create a competitive environment between the officers in a shooting skills competition, and some of the simulators do have a gaming component. Gaming can help in training because it will put the officer in a trigger-pull situation, practicing and developing muscle memory while enjoying training. Even during gaming sessions, a firearms instructor should be mentoring and training by observing the hand grips and sight alignment.

The firearms simulator is for critical decision making in use-of-force situations and in achieving trigger time. Simulators also allow practice qualifications prior to the live fire qualification session, ensuring the officer is ready to qualify. Marginal shooters can participate in simulator practice sessions to develop their skills for qualification before stepping on a firing range. Research studies are starting to show that the marksmanship skills developed with simulators directly reflect live fire shooting skills.1 Departments should take advantage of this skill development opportunity. Simulation saves time and manpower. What would take three to four hours on the shooting range now can be accomplished in a 15- to 30-minute training session with the officer, achieving quality results. The message in using firearms simulators is to train to standard, not to time. ■


1L. Evans et al., Shooting Straight 20 Years of Marksmanship Research (U.S. Army Research Institute, 2000), 14; David R. Scribner et al., A Comparison of Live and Simulated Fire Soldier Shooting Performance (Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.: Army Research Laboratory, 2007), 10; and Joseph D. Hagman, “Using the Engagement Skills Trainer to Predict Rifle Marksmanship Performance,” Military Psychology 10, no.4 (December 1998): 215–224.

Please cite as:

Shannon W. Lightsey, "Tips for Training with a Firearms Simulator," The Police Chief 77 (November 2010): 66–67, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 11, November 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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