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Hendon Publishing

Challenges in Firearms Training for Female Officers

It was time to sight-in the duty rifles at a training program we were doing with a sheriff’s department. Nicole was the only female officer at the range that day with about 10 male deputies. Everyone stood at the 40-meter line and fired three rounds from their rifles at paper silhouette targets to confirm their sights. I was standing next to Nicole as she fired. When the firing was completed, we all walked to the targets.

As we started walking, I was looking and looking and as we got closer, my eyes were searching every inch of the target—no holes anywhere on the target. How could this be? I had watched Nicole fire, and everything seemed OK. When we reached the target, I saw Nicole was not nearly as surprised as I was. She expected to fail. Failure should be unacceptable, but in reality, it happens every day at the range.

Even with competent instructors, assumptions are made about what female officers should know, should already understand. Therefore, large gaps in the information are left out. Commonly used phrases, which work well with male officers, may not work well when followed literally by female officers. Male and female brains function differently during learning. If instructors have not been taught that, or have not understood it from their own observations, then the failure is bound to happen.

Not all instructors have difficulty teaching female officers how to shoot, and not all female officers have difficulty learning how to shoot. But when there is difficulty, the end result can range from mediocre to disastrous.

The challenge “to teach” requires that the instructor provide complete verbal and/or written information and live or video demonstrations of all that is necessary for mastering the sets of skills for safe, competent gun handling and accurate shooting.


The challenge “to learn” requires the student to take in that verbal and/or written information and the demonstrated skill instructions they have witnessed, process it all in their brain, and then perform those skills to a set standard. The student has “learned” if she can repeatedly perform the skills on demand with competent consistency whether it is five minutes later, five days later, or five months later. What is happening to get in the way of learning? Why is it happening? How do we fix it?


What Is Happening?

She is told to aim the gun at the target, watch the front sight, and squeeze the trigger. There is a good chance she doesn’t understand why she has been told this, but she does it per instruction.


She misses. She repeats the process, and she misses. It doesn’t take long for the frustration to set in. All she thinks about is the fact that she missed. What is she supposed to be doing? How is she supposed to be doing it? And why is she supposed to be doing it? Nothing is working right in spite of the fact she is doing exactly as she is being told. Little wonder that there is no “learning.”

Many phrases are used over and over to students, but the meaning is actually unclear. “You are anticipating.” “You are jerking the trigger.” “You are flinching.” No kidding now, what do those phrases mean? She hears those statements but the meaning is unclear. With assumptions that these phrases mean something to all students, there is little to no explanation given.


Why Is It Happening?

It happens because she listens and literally does exactly what she is told, but it doesn’t work. For example, she hears these words, “Line up the sights and squeeze the trigger.” She does that in sequence as instructed, and gets the same result time after time. The instructor repeats the same words, she does the same thing, and gets the same result: failure. What he is saying is not exactly what he means, but it has always worked with men, why shouldn’t it work with women?

If she is told to squeeze the trigger, she will do just that. To her, squeezing means that she should use her entire hand because you can’t squeeze anything with just one finger! So when she does squeeze the trigger as she thinks the instructor means, she uses force with her entire hand and consequently the sights move out of alignment with her eye and the spot on the target she wants/needs to hit. She misses. She probably never paid any attention to the sights once she aligned them because now she was concentrating on squeezing the trigger.


How Do We Fix It?

Aiming a rifle or handgun at the target with the objective being hitting an exact spot is based on spatial relationships. The spatial relationship is the concept of how objects are related to each other in space: sights, target, trigger, bullet and eye. The concept of spatial relationships is understood intuitively by the majority of males but only a small percentage of females because that is how their brain functions. Since it is not intuitive for most women, she needs words to understand the concept.

She needs to know how the objects are related to each other and to her if she is going to achieve accuracy. To help her learn that concept, the instructor needs to explain verbally and with all the details. He needs to tell her that the sights must stay in alignment with her eye and the spot on the target she wants to hit the entire time she is pressing the trigger. If the sights are not aligned with her eye and the spot on the target that she wants to hit at the exact moment the bullet leaves the barrel, the bullet will land wherever the front is actually pointed at that moment.


Literally draw a picture. Or stand right at the target and show her why she misses if the sights move from the intended point to another point during the trigger press. Show her exactly what is happening when she misses and that will tell her why she misses. Explaining what happens to cause a miss seems to be avoided by many instructors. Women like to do things as perfectly as possible. Explaining to her why she missed will help her correct it.

Words mean things. Be sure to use words that say exactly what you mean. “Pressing” is a better description of how to apply pressure to the trigger than “squeezing.” Pressing implies using one finger while squeezing implies using the entire hand.

As with any story, there are two sides. When I teach classes for male instructors I hear, “I have been teaching men how to shoot for years, but I can’t seem to teach women. I use all the same words, but get different results. Why do they only do well when I am standing right next to them? Why do I have to start all over every time they come to the range?”


Male instructors are puzzled and frustrated because no one has told them that the male and female brains are structured differently. And they won’t know that if someone doesn’t tell them! It is not right or wrong. It is just reality.

When I teach classes for female officers I hear, “My instructor never told me that, my instructor must not even know that!” I heard these very words over and over from some 30 female officers just two months ago at a tactical training conference where I taught handgun and rifle. However, the women were quite pleased to see rapid improvement in their skills once they had details to fill in the blanks left from previous instruction.


The same thing happened with Nicole. She and I spent about 20 minutes during lunch break and talked about what had happened. She solved her problem of no holes in the target and put plenty of them there and her confidence soared. Our discussion revealed the issue.


She had been watching the front sight of her rifle, with no thought whatsoever of the rear sight. As she aimed in at the target, she heard the words of her previous male instructor, “Watch your front sight, watch your front sight, watch your front sight.” He didn’t mention the rear sight, so she never thought it was important. What he thought he had said clearly and therefore had taught her was not at all what she heard and she therefore failed to learn.

These are not the only issues that get in the way of learning, but these are perhaps some of the most crucial.


Be complete and thorough. Don’t make assumptions. Give details and examples. Ask her questions or otherwise have her explain to you what she understands about what you have said. Remember, the goal of both the officer and the instructor are the same: verifiable learning.


Vicki Farnam has been a firearms instructor with Defense Training International for over 25 years. She has taught law enforcement officers and instructors on local, state and federal levels. She may be reached at


Published in Law and Order, Mar 2015

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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