Parallels in Rifle Marksmanship and Law Enforcement
Years after I retired from law enforcement, I became an instructor for a nationwide program to restore our heritage as rifle marksmen. We teach the six steps of firing a shot, natural point of aim, rifleman’s cadence, rifleman’s dance, and the rifleman’s bubble. The goal of the instruction is to put an accurate round downrange every 3 to 4 seconds, out to a distance of 500 yards, with minimal fatigue.
I was struck at the parallels of what we teach reflecting law enforcement’s best service to themselves and their communities. I’ll start with a basic goal of law enforcement of accurately assessing the call for service and responding accordingly to achieve protection of the innocent and prosecution of the perpetrators.
How do we get there from here? The first step in marksmanship is “sight alignment”. Put simply, if your sights aren’t aligned straight with your eye, you will not shoot straight. This is reflected in law enforcement in being aware of and understanding our biases. Our life experiences, both as individuals and law enforcement officers affect our ability to “see straight”. We have all had visceral responses to things and discovered later that our conclusions were incorrect.
The second step in firing a shot is sight picture. In order to place our shot, we must line up our sights with the target. In law enforcement, we must look at the facts at hand to gain a picture of the target, being mindful of the effects our biases have on our perception. What laws, if any, are actually being broken? Does our bias affect how we perceive and listen to what a person is trying to tell us?
The third step is respiratory pause. When we breathe naturally, at the end of the breath is a momentary pause that occurs at the same place each time. Rather than holding our breath to fire a shot, we teach utilizing this natural pause to take advantage of the consistency and reducing the effects of oxygen deprivation we experience while holding our breath. In law enforcement, we will see a range of things that trigger natural responses from outrage to grief to annoyance. Mastery of our emotions during a call holds us on the target.
The fourth step is in two parts. The first is focusing our eye on the front sight. The second is focusing our mind on keeping the front sight on the target. Often, we are faced with chaos, not to mention circumstances that complicate management of the call for service. Anyone pull over a mayor, judge or one of their kids or spouses? Worse yet, another law enforcement officer? What about when we hear the gut wrenching radio transmission “officer down”? It is complex situations like this that requires our focus remains on the target. Protection of the innocent and prosecution of the perpetrators is our proper target, rather than “street justice” or fudging on ethics.
The fifth step is squeezing the trigger straight back, with an emphasis on “ease”. This minimizes the movement of the rifle to allow the bullet to clear the muzzle. In law enforcement, this translates into avoiding rushing to judgment. We do have to make decisions quickly with regards to officer safety. That said, when working to resolve a call to service, we need to allow ourselves sufficient time to gather as much information as we can before drawing conclusions about the people involved and what evidence may reflect.
The sixth step is also in two parts. The first being follow through by holding the trigger back, the second is taking a mental snapshot of where the front sights were when the shot broke. Most people don’t realize that when the trigger breaks, the bullet is not yet moving. When we remove our finger from the trigger too soon, it moves the rifle and disrupts the bullet. Our job as law enforcement officers is not done when we leave the call. We must thoroughly and accurately document an effective case for prosecution, if needed. As public service employees, we must also follow up with victims, their families, and prosecutors to keep them informed on the progress of the case.
One of the most challenging things to teach in marksmanship is “natural point of aim”. When we properly pick up a rifle and get into position, our rifle will naturally point somewhere. Our goal is to align this natural position with our desired point of impact, so that after each recoil of the rifle, we settle back into position ready for the next shot. In law enforcement, this is best reflected in our mental, physical, emotional and legal training. The more effort we put into increasing our capacity to learn and our body of knowledge, the less effort is required to remain on target.
The next principle taught is “rifleman’s cadence”. Once we achieve our natural point of aim, trust it and using the six steps, fire at the natural rhythm of breathing. Doing this prevents over thinking and “fussing” shots. This is especially helpful for rookies and those of us who want to save the world. We have to learn to balance the sometimes opposing demands of conflict resolution, our worthwhile ability to make a difference in a troubled person’s life and effectively managing our time to answer calls efficiently.
Rifleman’s dance is utilizing feedback from the impact our shots have on our target. Albert Einstein mentioned the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. If you aren’t hitting where you want, your target will give you feedback in what may need correcting. As law enforcement officers, we improve when we continually review and adjust our performance in dealing with the public, managing officer safety and developing clear, concise documentation of our calls and testimony in court.
Finally, we teach the Rifleman’s bubble. This is tuning out distractions, noise and hot brass, focusing on the only shot that matters. The shot we’re about to take, not the one we just messed up or the great shot the shooter next to us made. This one, over the long haul, will be the most important to a successful career in law enforcement. Over time we will see much injustice, laziness, ethical challenges and heartbreak. Focusing on our own conduct and standards keeps us aimed on what we have control over. This helps us overcome burnout and provides us with a legacy of excellence in service we can remember with satisfaction.
Juli Adcock began her career in law enforcement with the Escambia County Florida Sheriff’s Office as a patrol deputy until she was injured in a riot situation. She transferred to Judicial Security and retired in 1998. Juli pursued career advancement training with an emphasis on officer survival, interviews and interrogation. She worked with a local Rape Crisis Center and in victim’s advocacy, complementing her college course work in psychology. She currently resides in New Mexico and is an instructor with The Appleseed Project (www.appleseedinfo.com). The Appleseed Project is a rifle marksmanship clinic teaching the fundamentals of firing an accurate round downrange every 3 to 4 seconds, out to 500 yards, as well as American history. Juli has trained military personnel at White Sands Missile Range who are certifying as Squad Designated Marksmen. Juli instructs basic handgun skills to new gun owners in preparation for responsible personal gun ownership and the Concealed Carry class for the State of New Mexico. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Law Enforcement Today.