Lessons learned while building the ultimate RDS train-the-trainer class

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Surf the internet and you will find many law enforcement agencies that have a red dot sights (RDS) policy something like, “If you can qualify with an RDS mounted on your service firearm, you are welcome to use it.” The thinking is that the agency can evade liability for a bad officer-involved shooting if they don’t pay for the RDS or train the officer in its use.

If you ever watched a shooter who is new to using an RDS fishing to find the dot, you know that this is a policy that quickly could lead to tears – and lawsuits. In the Police1 RDS transition article, I talk about the challenges faced when officers move from iron to RDS. But the challenges don’t stop at the rank and file; trainers also face challenges.

Check your ego at the door

In the musical “The King and I,” Anna says, “that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” This is something that we, as firearms instructors, need to take to heart. No matter how good you think you are, or how convinced that your way is the right way, the best instructors check their egos at the door and are not afraid of learning something new.

I saw this over the course of one officer RDS transition class and two train-the-trainer classes I took with Rangemaster Sgt. David Weider and his staff at the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office (SMSO) range. The methods they teach, the way they teach them and the order of skills-building exercises have been changed over time due to lessons learned from each previous class.

Like the SMSO range staff, you need to check your ego at the door and seek out the best training you can find – in this case, a private class with the Modern Samurai Project.

Like the SMSO range staff, you need to check your ego at the door and seek out the best training you can find – in this case, a private class with the Modern Samurai Project. (Photo courtesy of SMSO)

For any agency working to build a red dot transition course, the SMSO has done much of the heavy lifting for you. Sgt. Weider and his range officer (RO) staff run bi-monthly, two-day train-the-trainer classes for other agencies. The two train-the-trainer classes I attended contained a variety of uniforms, including transit, campus, local, regional and state agencies. Some of the best shooters came from agencies that probably would surprise you, and Dave has no problem training shooters who prove to be better than he is (and that is a very high bar).

As he has in the past, Dave graciously allowed me to join as a student so that I could help him share what he and his fellow instructors have learned about successful RDS training. How successful? San Francisco transit agency BART PD Chief Ed Alvarez tells us, “The [SMSO’s] red dot training allows officers to be threat-focused while improving their confidence and accuracy. Humans by and large are visual learners. The red dot allows officers to focus on a target while keeping both eyes open. It has drastically improved scores for trainees in the academy.”

As Dave points out, while some other agencies either don’t give out their syllabus, or charge for the privilege of receiving it, he is happy to send his RDS training manual to verified LE firearms instructors upon request.

What’s on the menu

Day one starts with staff and student introductions followed by a 55-slide presentation. Day two is 100% range time – going through 1,000 rounds in the process. The opening presentation covers these topics:

  1. The four basic safety rules. Why? Too many officers have died during training because these rules were broken. No one is above reciting the rules together.
  2. Injury protocols and trauma kit location. Every RO also has an individual kit on their vest and many students have a tourniquet on their belt.
  3. A readout of training that SMSO has received from others. Remember, you always can improve your skills.
  4. Policy and the law: Graham v. Connor, Tennessee v. Garner, department policies, etc.
  5. Advantages of the RDS. Your eyes never need to take the focus off the suspect – they are the front sight.
  6. Class goals.
  7. Different types and brands of RDS: Open vs. closed emitter, battery location, reticle type, dot size, color and brightness adjustments.
  8. Demonstration of dot size and distance to suspect. A bigger dot is easier to pick up but can cover your suspect.
  9. Mounting an RDS: Direct mount, stock and aftermarket plates, thread locker and screw marking.
  10. Daily function check, cleaning and maintenance.
  11. Zeroing distance selection, sight adjustment, and co-witness.
  12. Running the dot without fishing.
  13. Holdover and offset. Parallax correction needs to be instinctive.
  14. See the dot, take the shot. If the dot is in the window and on target, you’re GTG.
  15. Dealing with potential problems.
  16. Accuracy is key. Groups don’t matter if the point of impact (POI) is not your point of aim (POA).
  17. Review of officer-involved shootings gone wrong due to officers pulling the trigger without remembering topics 13 and 16.

Many drills tie back to one or more of these topics. The dot drill ties to topic 13, and the first distance for this drill was selected so that the student must learn about offset, or they will be outside the ring . The idea is to demonstrate to students that they can be surgically accurate with their shot placement if they take the time and follow their training.

The dot drill teaches holdover and razor-sharp accuracy.

The dot drill teaches holdover and razor-sharp accuracy.

Only after students can place every shot exactly where they want it to be are they allowed to open things up and start calling a hit if they are inside the 10 ring, the IALEFI / FBI “milk bottle,” or the boxes on the Viking Tactical skeleton target. The primary skill learned through the dot drill is speed versus precision.

Sample of targets in use by SMSO.

Sample of targets in use by SMSO.

Learning speed versus accuracy is a critical skill. Tactically, there are times when one outweighs the other and it may be a split-second decision in which direction to go. If the suspect is away from others with nothing behind, then speed. If the suspect is holding a hostage or in front of bystanders, then accuracy.

As with all exercises, the student only is rewarded when they master a skill. In the dot drill, the student cannot move to the next dot until they hit within the ring on the current dot. In other drills, a single shot outside the primary target area is disqualification and the student needs to re-do the drill. Frustrating? To some, but these drills could save lives when an officer needs to take a shot on the street.

Trigger prep is more than the click

As an NRA firearms instructor, I teach trigger reset and consistent trigger pull to my basic students. But there is a lot more taught by the SMSO.

Just like I teach my civilian students, first overcome any pre-travel that exists on striker-fired pistols until you are at the wall. At this point, the additional steps from the SMSO’s training are the same for both hammer- and striker- fired pistols. Our instructors stressed that the trigger prep described here is not for conducting felony stops. It is used only when we have made the decision to fire based on policy and the totality of the circumstances.

As you continue putting pressure on the trigger, you start to engage the resistance of the sear. As you add additional pressure, the trigger will engage the mainspring and the sear will move. At some point, the sear will release the firing mechanism. Every gun is different, and you need to know how your own behaves for the highest levels of accuracy. Line up 10 identical firearms and each one will have a different feel as you pull through the sear to fire the weapon. And yes, you have an infinitesimal pull through the sear even on 1911/2011-type firearms.

In the trigger prep drill, we are taught that the student needs to take note of where the dot leaves and re-enters the window during recoil. The student should be prepping the trigger while the gun is in motion so that a follow-up shot can be taken as soon as the dot appears in the window as a red streak. Students need to learn to trust the streak and not wait for the dot to settle and be seen as a dot. Again, this is required only when the decision has been made that multiple shots need to be taken.

The SMSO indoor range has dozens of marks in the ceiling near the 5-yard line where accidental discharges have occurred practicing this drill. And note that I use accidental discharge and not negligent discharge. Over-prepping the trigger during training causes accidental discharges. Doing so on duty could be called negligent.

Ammo and zeroing distance

Using Winchester RA9T duty ammo, the SMSO selected 15 yards as their zero distance. This is the distance where POI will equal POA. A shot taken closer or further is subject to parallax and bullet trajectory – and you cannot say that closer is higher and further is lower. You need to know how your pistol/RDS/ammo combination behaves at different distances.

When I was taking the train-the-trainer classes, I saw each of the SMSO range staff and most of the other agencies’ students run through several cases of duty ammo. While I don’t know how much the Sheriff’s office pays for it under government contract, I know that I pay between 75 cents to a buck a round – double what I pay for ball ammo. That means that each class I took cost me around a kilobuck in ammo; and was worth every round.

Clockwise from left top: Cases of duty ammo; Deputy Michael Koehler demonstrating drill 2 – students consistently need to hold their firearm at the proper angle to place the dot in the window; trauma kit and class participants.

Clockwise from left top: Cases of duty ammo; Deputy Michael Koehler demonstrating drill 2 – students consistently need to hold their firearm at the proper angle to place the dot in the window; trauma kit and class participants.

I asked Dave if his staff and students always use duty ammo or if they use range ammo – and how he came to that decision. He explained that duty ammunition is manufactured specifically for law enforcement and often is Speer Gold dot, Federal HST, or Winchester T-Series. The liability of law enforcement-specific ammo not performing is so great for manufacturers, they make it to the highest quality standards that their equipment will support – equivalent to or higher quality than match grade.

It has been said that you always should train with your duty ammunition so you will know how it performs and recoils. Dave has shot 147 grain 9mm ball next to 9mm 147 T-Series and while he could not feel the difference, accuracy is a whole different ballgame.

If you zeroed your gun with 147g 9mm duty ammunition, equal-weight ball ammunition probably will not perform the same. Dave always tells people to accept the accuracy difference and not to re-zero your RDS every time you switch ammo, or you will drive yourself nuts.

SMSO conducted accuracy tests at 25 yards with benched RDS guns and found the various weights of ball ammunition all performed differently (see the image below for an example of 115gr versus 147gr). If you are a high-volume trainer, you probably use ball ammo for training as it affords you to buy more and train longer.

Five rounds kneeling at 25 yards without holdover – weight and ammo type listed on each target. Knowing how POA affects POI for your specific ammo is important when a “surgical” shot is required.

Five rounds kneeling at 25 yards without holdover – weight and ammo type listed on each target. Knowing how POA affects POI for your specific ammo is important when a “surgical” shot is required.

Anyone who has shot “white box” ammo knows what Dave is saying. Ball ammunition may recoil the same but will impact differently than duty ammunition. He has seen his own staff go bonkers trying to get the same accuracy out of ball ammo as they are used to with duty ammo. Recognizing this, some manufacturers have started making training ammo with the same ballistics as their duty ammo.

If you shoot a lot and train a lot, ball ammunition is a cheaper option. You might use 115gr, 124gr, or 147gr ball ammo. But remember that different bullet profiles and weights will impact at different points especially as you get past 25 yards. You probably pay more attention to price than what weight bullet you are buying, and while that is a mistake when practicing holdover, it might be fine for drills where you just need a hit within the bottle. Just accept the margin of accuracy differences when you train, and things will be fine. If it makes you feel better after training, load up a full magazine of duty ammo and reconfirm your zero if you are OCD.

Accuracy vs. precision

The main goal in every drill is accuracy and not necessarily precision. What does that mean? Accuracy describes how close your fired shots are to the point of aim, while precision is a measurement of how close your impacts are to each other.

It does not matter how precise you are as a shooter if you are not accurate. Putting tightly grouped shots into a hostage, like this LAPD OIS, doesn’t make things better, while one shot to a suspect’s head will stop the threat. In real life, you need to know your exact POI before you take a shot, because you may not be given the opportunity to correct and shoot again.

Automatic holdover correction (often called muscle memory, but which Joel Turner at ShotIQ calls “Motor pathways”) and not taking a shot unless you know exactly where your bullet will hit, is why the dot drill target is used at multiple distances. Instructor-level students also should have no problem mastering the Langdon drill: 10 rounds at 15 yards in 15 seconds, 10 rounds at 10 yards in 10 seconds, and 10 rounds at 5 yards in 5 seconds.

The Drills 

Many of the drills tie directly to a class objective and the order of some drills was changed due to observing students. For example, sighting in was moved from the first drill to the fourth drill. Why? After running their RDS Transition Class a few times, range staff noticed that students had problems getting small groups even with untimed fire (see below, second from bottom right). Unless a shooter can get touching shots at 15 yards, they cannot properly zero their firearm. After spending time on trigger control, groups improved (see below, bottom far right). After this experience, trigger control exercises were moved before sighting in.

Clockwise from left: Sighting in at 15 yards; Shooting B-27 sized iron in the shadows with a handgun at 100 yards – it can be done with a RDS using holdover and proper trigger control; 2” circle standing at 5 yards with proper trigger control; same target with bad trigger control.

Clockwise from left: Sighting in at 15 yards; Shooting B-27 sized iron in the shadows with a handgun at 100 yards – it can be done with a RDS using holdover and proper trigger control; 2” circle standing at 5 yards with proper trigger control; same target with bad trigger control.

How can you learn proper trigger control without a zeroed firearm? Use the same POA and strive for the tight groups at the same POI. That is, precision grouping is more important than where you hit the target. After your firearm is zeroed and you practice aim, trigger control, and holdover, your small group will be exactly where you want it.

As of this writing in spring of 2023, these are the drills used in the train-the-trainer class, and I have included details on some of them later in this article:

  1. Grip Refinement (Dry)
  2. Draw Presentation – Dry Fire
  3. Trigger Prep (dry then live)
  4. Zero Guns at 15-yard line
  5. Occluded Optic 1 (don’t focus on the dot)
  6. Occluded Optic 2 (learn to shoot with rain and using other landmarks on your firearm if the RDS fails)
  7. Dot Drill (also used for warmup on day 2 and any time a student is backsliding)
  8. Accuracy Drill
  9. Alignment Drill (proving that the dot doesn’t need to be co-witnessed to fire)
  10. Optic Obstruction Drill
  11. The 6, 6, and 6 Drill
  12. Modified 500 Aggregate Drill
  13. Ernest Langdon Drill
  14. Target Traversing Drill
  15. Pivot Drills
  16. Not “El Presidente” Drill
  17. Shooting on the move with the dot
  18. Blaze X Drill (see video below)
  19. Low Light Drill

SMSO’s sworn staff course is 8 hours and includes these drills:

  1. Grip Refinement (Dry)
  2. Draw Presentation – Dry Fire
  3. Trigger Prep
  4. Draw from the Holster
  5. Alignment Drill
  6. Distance Shooting Drill
  7. Live Fire Drill Quick Fire
  8. Ernest Langdon Drill
  9. Shooting on the move with the dot
  10. Blaze X Drill
  11. Low Light Drill

Drill Details

Some of the more important drills are listed here.

Drill 2. Draw Presentation – Dry Fire

Just like academy recruits are taught to draw their firearm by the numbers, SMSO does the same during transition training, with plenty of repetitions at each step. All of these drills are done from 3 yards using a small dot drawn at eye height on the student’s target.

  1. Dot out of window to dot in window. Learn the ending height and angle of your pistol.
  2. Punch out to dot in window. Relearn how to punch out – see below for details.
  3. Draw to dot in window. Putting it all together.

They teach that it is the support hand that should have the stronger grip on the firearm, letting the dominant hand have more freedom to work the trigger.

After drawing and bringing the pistol towards the center of your chest, position your support hand so that your index finger is pressed hard against the bottom of the trigger guard and the bottom of your hand is angled away from your body. Now roll your support hand into place, continuing to press hard against the bottom of the trigger guard. Pressure should be on the trigger guard and grip, while leaving your dominant hand loose enough to properly operate the trigger. Let your thumbs relax. You will find that they tend to point straight up rather than pointing forward, as many of us were taught. Leave them alone as they aren’t contributing anything to working the firearm.

Now rather than step 5 punching out from the step 4 join position, first bring the back of the pistol straight up towards your chin then punch up and out while looking through the window of the RDS. This alteration lets you pick up the dot much faster.

Drills 5 and 6 – Occluded optic

Like any piece of gear, your dot can fail, and you need to push on. There are several landmarks on your firearm that can be used to sight should the dot go dark, or the glass shatters. The easiest to master is the guillotine. Cut the suspect’s neck with the top sight frame and you should hit center of mass. Other landmarks are the center of the backplate (the firing pin on a Staccato or the middle of the four lines on a Glock) and sighting down where the slide touches the frame. With practice, you will be amazingly accurate.

Clockwise from top left:  Landmarks you can use if your dot fails: guillotine; dot in the middle of a Glock backplate; firing pin on a Staccato; where the slide touches the frame.

Clockwise from top left:  Landmarks you can use if your dot fails: guillotine; dot in the middle of a Glock backplate; firing pin on a Staccato; where the slide touches the frame.

With practice, you still can be accurate if your dot fails. Note the holes in the ceiling from practicing trigger prep.

With practice, you still can be accurate if your dot fails. Note the holes in the ceiling from practicing trigger prep.

Day 2 warm-up drill

This drill puts the dot drill paper on a standard target with line 1 shot from on target, line 2 from high ready, line 3 from holster, and line 4 once with dominant and once with support hand.

Warm up drill using the dot drill paper on a standard target.

Warm up drill using the dot drill paper on a standard target.

Pearls of wisdom

Torx drivers

There are two 6-lobe Torx profiles; Torx and Torx Plus, so make sure you know which one you need to use for a specific screw. The difference is in the shape of their head profiles. Torx has a six-point star-shaped design, whereas Torx Plus has an elliptical-based geometry, which allows higher torque with less downward pressure on the driver (and less chance of a cam out which can strip the head). A Torx driver can be used in a Torx plus screw, but not the other way around.

Extension bits should be used if the RDS doesn’t have enough clearance for a standard-length bit (figure 10). If you need to cant the driver while torquing a screw, there is a high chance that the bit will cam out and strip the head.

And always replace screws rather than reusing a previously torqued screw. Torquing stretches the screw, weakening it.

An extension bit will let you get into tighter areas without having to angle the driver.

An extension bit will let you get into tighter areas without having to angle the driver.

Pacing

Drill cadence must be set by the students. Your job is to build student confidence and not show off. You can go faster and set higher expectations teaching a train-the-trainer class versus working with academy graduates, but you still must be able to walk the walk. Don’t expect students to do anything that you cannot. Dave has his instructor team set up realistic minimum skills challenges for themselves every month and an instructor who cannot qualify is benched until the next month. If one of your instructors starts to lose their skills, perhaps take them off training duty and have them practice on their own.

Stance

What shooting stance do you use? Isosceles? Weaver? Modified Isosoweaver? Drop them all and get yourself into a fists-up fighting stance like you are ready to be attacked. Then draw your firearm and rotate until your natural point of aim is the target. The stance you take to fight is your body’s natural and most stable position. If you are hit from any side, you easily can recover and put distance between you and the threat. When standing in the perfect Isosceles stance, you can be toppled if you are pushed forward or backward.

Grippiness

With six to eight hours of shooting each day, hands start to get slippery. During class, Dave introduced us to Petzel liquid chalk in a tube. Along with a handful of other brands, this product makes your hands as grippy as they can be without using glue. This training advantage lets you concentrate on the drills and not on your hands moving from the perfect grip, and is a great solution for students who get sweaty palms during training. It leaves a small amount of residue on your sidearm that will give you a better grip if you need to draw while on duty.

Liquid chalk helps keep the gun in your hands. Also shown, bottles of Paragon weaponlight and optic cleaner and a THYRM SwitchBack flashlight ring.

Liquid chalk helps keep the gun in your hands. Also shown, bottles of Paragon weaponlight and optic cleaner and a THYRM SwitchBack flashlight ring.

Just whistle

During force-on-force training or in the field, the words “threat” and “gun” mean just that. They are informative and do not mean that you are supposed to shoot the suspect. So why do we use them on the range to let students know that they are supposed to pull the trigger?

The different use of the same words during range training, force-on-force training, and on the street can leave what we call a “training scar.” That is, a rookie could hear the word “threat” and automatically take a shot that was not supposed to happen and could lead to a lawsuit.

SMSO changed from using verbal commands during training to using an electronic police whistle. While whistles can be heard on the street, the linkage to taking a shot doesn’t seem to happen.

Summary

SMSO’s train the trainer class is fast-paced and intense – and gets good reviews from their students and the agencies they come from. Each skill builds upon the previous one. While you should expect the highest skill levels amongst instructor candidates, RDS is new and some students either may have few skills using them or they were taught wrong and need to be corrected.

Never make poorer students the butt of jokes: “I thought you were an instructor. Just wow.” If a student cannot master a skill, take them aside and do some one on one until they can. Strive for confidence. Range staff is responsible for ensuring that officers make every hit a good hit, and sworn staff get this result only through successfully completing repetitive drills, and not by passing their annual qual. Teach like lives depend on it because they do.





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