Firearms training has changed dramatically during the past three decades. When I became a law enforcement officer in the mid-1970s, agencies still qualified using the Practical Pistol Course (PPC) with a change shortly thereafter to the FBI-driven Tactical Revolver Course (TRC). While the TRC was a major improvement to the competition-like PPC, it still did not represent what really occurred in a down and dirty, bad-breath distance, close-quarter gunfight.
Today's officers are fortunate. Many agencies realize static line qualification courses come up short in preparing their officers for the realities of armed conflict. Trainers are beginning to include courses of fire that are similar to what an officer can expect in the street. Multiple targets, extreme close-quarter shooting and dynamic use of cover are just a few items that a well-rounded law enforcement firearms training program should include.
The downside to this trend is that many police ranges still are set up for the one dimensional qualification courses that were in vogue when I went on the job. Such ranges make it difficult to conduct real-world, live-fire training because shooting must always be aimed in one direction.
Shoot House 101
This problem is not new. It was realized in the early part of the 20th century by firearms training pioneers William E. Fairbairn and Eric A. Sykes. While working for the Shanghai Police Department in China, they discovered the firearms training their officers undertook had little to do with what they faced in the field. During this time period, street crime ran rampant in the Chinese city, and armed confrontations with criminals were becoming an almost nightly occurrence. Cops were losing many of these confrontations, which made Sykes and Fairbairn take notice.
After close examination of more than 600 incidents, the duo made major changes in how they trained officers, and one of these major changes, which lives on today, is removing officers from the flat range and placing them in an environment more reminiscent of the real world. Sykes and Fairbairn's real-world training locale was called the Killing House.
The Killing House was a facility significantly ahead of its time. It incorporated hallways, stairwells, rooms, doors, pop-out and pop-up targets, anything to recreate what Sykes and Fairbairn discovered during their previous research. After the Killing House grew to be part of the regular Shanghai PD training program, cops started winning their gunfights.
Other governmental entities took notice. When World War II hostilities began, Fairbairn and Sykes were called into military service to train intelligence officers and other covert operatives. And, yes, the Killing House was part of this new military training initiative. Unfortunately, many of the lessons taught by Fairbairn and Sykes were lost on the military and police communities after WWII when training reverted to static line shooting.
Today, a shoot house is common on many police and military ranges, but not so much that every American police officer can benefit. While a manufactured shoot house from one of the big-name companies is nice, many agencies can't afford the tens of thousands of dollars that such a facility will cost. Fortunately, a fancy, big-buck shoot house is not essential for quality training. One of Fairbairn s killing houses was a large hole dug in the ground, and the quality of his training programs is well documented. Like many things, simple is often quite effective; this is the case with shoot houses.
Tires & Railroad Ties
At one time, the most common shoot house design was stacked tires. These houses still are seen today because they wear well and are inexpensive to build. After all, there is never a shortage of old tires, and most every community in the nation has a supply it is more than willing to get rid of.
Tires alone will not stop a bullet, however; something must be placed inside to make them ballistically capable. The most commonly used substances are dirt or sand. Sand is preferred, and each tire must be individually packed! It's a serious misconception to think you can stack some tires and pour sand in from the top. This will leave empty spots a bullet can penetrate.
A tire house is built best by sinking a metal pole or treated wood post into the ground, which will help keep the stack in position. Then, drop a tire over and pack it full. Each subsequent tire must be filled the same way. Also, remember: the tires must have a similar width or gaps in the stack will result once the next row of tires is built. Two stacks of tires off-setting one another ensure the wall is solid. Remember, tires are round, so a gap is likely where two tires meet. This also makes for a very wide wall, far wider than a normal structure.
A more realistic structure is a house that uses gravel to stop a bullet. This type of shoot house, unlike one constructed from tires, actually looks like a house. Walls are built of two sections of 3/4" plywood spaced four inches apart with 2"x4" supports spaced 24 inches apart. The hollow area of this two-sided structure then is filled tightly with pea gravel. It will stop all common handgun rounds. If rifle rounds will be used, the plywood must be 6 inches apart. Actually, this is probably not a bad idea regardless of what weapons you are planning on using in your facility.
Repeated strikes to a given area will result in a hole that will eventually leak gravel, a negative aspect of this construction design. The easiest solution to this, though not the cheapest, is to have target stands function as individual bullet traps. Such stands are available from all major target manufacturers, but are a bit pricey.
Here's a homemade solution: Before I retired, officers from my agency built a number of these portable stands using 2"x4"s and large wooden screws. We ordered pre-drilled, 2'x4' sheets of AR-500 steel from a local metal fabricator and attached them to our wood frames. The front of the stand was covered with conveyor-belt rubber, allowing the rounds to enter the rubber and break up against the steel backing. Such a stand takes 90-plus percent of the rounds fired, leaving the walls of your shoot house to catch the round that misses the target completely.
One of the first shoot houses I ever trained in was the railroad-tie house at John Shaw s Mid-South Institute for Self Defense Shooting (www.weaponstraining.com). That was almost 20 years ago. A quick glance at the institute s Web site reveals these same structures are still in use today, a testament to their durability. Many agencies nationwide have copied this design and voiced positive comments regarding its minimal maintenance and long life.
Using railroad ties is similar to the gravel house. Stack two rows of reinforced railroad ties with a layer of rock between. The space left for this layer varies but usually measures around 6 inches. Some agencies, in an effort to keep the ties as snug as possible, use driveway sealer between each, ensuring gaps are held to a minimum. Once the house is constructed, a layer of driveway sealant is spread all over to keep the ties from rotting due to rain or snow.
The Creative House
OK, we've reviewed a number of alternatives to the pre-made steel shoot house offered by target manufacturers. You're still looking for something even cheaper and easier, right? I know the feeling.
When I took over as my agency's training supervisor in the early 1990s and asked for a shoot house, I was given a budget of $1,000. That's right, $1,000. And, I was told if I didn't want it, no problem, they could find a use for it elsewhere. I took the 1,000 bucks and decided to get creative. Fortunately, my agency had an existing range facility, so ground was not an issue. I just had to find a way to stop bullets.
I asked the foreman at a local construction company I knew was in the middle of building a large number of homes if he had some dirt to get rid of. As it turned out, he did and was more than willing to build me a U-shaped dirt berm just to keep from transporting the unneeded dirt to a fill location. Over a period of two days, the company built me a 10' high, 50'-deep horseshoe, which resulted in a facility that would contain any type of ammo I wanted to shoot. It also required no maintenance.
The next step was to build walls inside the berm. I considered a number of ideas I d seen around the country, including a cable grid that would allow me to hang plywood or cardboard in a wide range of room configurations. I also considered using the cable grid with heavy canvas tarps to make walls I could take down and fold, allowing use of the dirt horseshoe for other live-fire training.
Yet another option I pondered was to build portable 8'x8' walls similar to large range barricades that I could move and bump up against one another.
In the end, I rented a post-hole digger and installed a series of 4"x4" posts and nailed 4'x8' sheets of plywood to them to create walls. To change the interior configuration (something more important than you might think), all I had do was pull down the plywood and install it with nails in a different format.
Don't become overly concerned the interior walls of your shoot house will not stop bullets; structures in the real world won't either! What is important, however, is creating a scenario that will make officers clear rooms, doors and hallways as they would in the field. Simultaneous room entry should be avoided in both training and the real world.
One thing I will call the reader's attention to is the importance of placing your shots accurately on the target. Just because you're involved in a training program different from qualification does not mean you should neglect hitting the target.
Unless you are concerned about the number of hits striking the walls of your shoot house, the best training target I have used is available from DVC Targets, the Hard Head Ted. John Hearn, veteran federal law enforcement officer and staff instructor at the Range Master shooting school in Memphis, Tenn., has developed an inexpensive target that reacts only to hits striking vital areas of the body. The target is made from high-quality ballistic steel and fits under a 3D target such as the Tac-Man. Once the 3D torso is attached to the steel target, you can dress it to resemble a human being. This can prove quite disconcerting to an officer expecting to face a one-dimensional paper target.
Rapid decision making is one of the most important aspects of shoot house training. Having a student/officer face a target as realistic as this is probably more important than what the shoot house itself is made from.
Bottom line: Quality firearms training can be as simple as sand and stones. Preparing your officers for the bad-breath, close-quarter fights will enable quick thinking and smart decisions in the field.
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