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Harry Cassin
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Eric Carlson
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Training is a safe place to make dangerous mistakes

“Combat load one round. Put two in the tube.” I was calling out range commands while conducting training on the Remington 870 shotguns with a class of new police academy cadets. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cadet raise her hand, and I already knew what the problem was – she had inserted a dummy 12-gauge round into the chamber backward.

As I tried to clear the malfunction, another instructor handed me an already opened folding knife to use as a pry-tool. I shoved the blade’s tip into the plastic side of the dummy round and began to pull backward. This is probably not a good idea. As that thought was crossing my mind, the knife folded shut as my hand slipped down the foregrip of the shotgun. Whew, that could have been bad, I thought as I handed the shotgun to another instructor to let him try to clear the jam.

I looked at my hand and saw blood gushing out the side of my finger and dripping onto the ground. Uh oh, this is about to start hurting. Not to mention more than a little embarrassment as the entire class of cadets stared at me.

After a trip to the ER for some stitches, I was back out at the firing range to oversee the live-fire portion of their training and qualifications. Aside from the obvious safe knife handling lesson I had learned, I realized several other things about how we conduct our training:

First, always have a contingency plan. Our firearms training contingency plans always focused on the unplanned but expected emergencies that could occur during firearms training, and they almost always centered on something happening to a cadet. We had never planned for the Rangemaster to accidentally cut himself and have to make a trip to the hospital. Fortunately, we quickly implemented a modified plan to allow for some quick first aid and continuity of training despite my absence. We can never plan for every possible outcome, but our overall training plans had created contingencies that we could adapt and implement quickly.

Second, know what aspects of our training have the highest probability of failure on the cadets’ part, and have a plan in place to address those failures. As soon as the cadet raised her hand, I knew she had inserted a dummy round into the chamber backward. I knew this because I had seen it happen countless times by various cadets in past classes during this same training block. However, I failed to develop a better plan to remove improperly inserted rounds from shotgun chambers. Up until this incident, we did what we had always done – pulled out a knife and pried it out. We knew that this block of instruction was prone to cadets making this mistake, we had addressed preventing it from an instructional standpoint, but we had never made an actual plan for dealing with it when it did occur.

Third, “that’s the way we have always done it” continues to be an obstacle and a liability to providing high-quality training, especially in stressful training situations. The other instructor handed me a knife because that’s what we always did – that was how we were taught as rookie firearms instructors. None of us ever stopped to ask if it was a good idea or if we had a better way of doing it. Hindsight is 20/20, and as I look down at the scar on my hand, clearly there are many better ways!

Lastly, don’t underestimate people’s ability to make mistakes or their ability to learn from their mistakes. The cadet made a mistake loading that shotgun. But that’s all it was – an innocent mistake to be expected from a person placed in a high-stress training environment. We consider mistakes of this nature to be training issues and different from malfeasance or other typical red flags that manifest themselves in training environments. We can capitalize on mistakes through proper remedial instruction, resulting in a more solidly reinforced trained response in our cadets to a given situation. I was proud to see the cadet later qualify with a perfect score, graduate near the top of her class, and start her promising law enforcement career at a local agency.

I made a mistake too, and I learned a lot more than how not to use a knife through it. It is human nature to see the shortcomings of those we are training in the worst light possible while whitewashing our own missteps as the unfortunate result of good intentions.

It was an educational and humbling day on the range.

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1 Comment

  1. As a firearms instructor, and now a Risk and Compliance Officer, this really hit home. And opened my eyes again. I needed this right now. Thanks.

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