Focus on Training

Training for Deadly Force Encounters

By Timothy Hoff
A student uses a limited pen to cover a hallway while his team clears the room behind him.
A student uses a limited pen to cover a hallway while his team clears the room behind him.

For firearms instructors, it does not suffice to simply teach fellow law enforcement officers how to shoot. Each officer must master important fundamentals of marksmanship, such as grip, stance, sight picture, sight alignment, and trigger control. The duties of instructors include more than teaching students to hit a bull’s-eye. Instructors must prepare them to survive deadly force encounters, or, in other words, to win a gunfight.


It is widely recognized that firearms qualification courses do not fully represent a real-world gunfight. Qualification courses measure officers’ ability to apply the fundamentals of marksmanship, but with no one shooting back. Traditional flat-range drills help officers develop basic weapon handling skills, such as the draw and reloads, some of which also are tested during qualification courses. Mailboxes, automobiles, and other props can be positioned on the range to teach officers to seek and shoot from positions of cover and concealment. Reactive steel targets, especially dueling trees, can create safe, simulated “gunfights” in which two officers shoot against each other. These head-to-head competitions create stress by pushing the officers to shoot quickly and accurately.

Even more so than these tactics, shoot houses provide one of the best instruction tools to prepare officers for the threats they will encounter on duty. A shoot house allows instructors to teach law enforcement techniques, such as how to enter and clear rooms, hallways, and stairways, as well as team tactics. Shoot houses may be constructed to allow live-fire training with either simulated or actual duty weapons. The walls of live-fire shoot houses may be built from used car tires filled with sand or ballistic steel walls covered with wood. Top-of-the-line shoot houses even offer moveable walls so the interior layout can be tailored to the mission. The more realistic the environment, the greater the training benefit. A shoot house proves valuable because it helps teach officers how to minimize risk to themselves during violent encounters. Officers learn tactics to clear rooms, hallways, and stairwells while decreasing their exposure to potential threats. They also build confidence by working as a team.

Unfortunately, high startup costs pose the biggest obstacle for developing shoot house training programs. Well-equipped shoot houses can be expensive, especially ones that incorporate multiple rooms, hallways, and stairs. The budget cuts and layoffs of today’s economic climate make funding difficult. Additionally, local zoning ordinances can cause difficulties for departments seeking to build one of these facilities.


Fortunately, the FBI’s Detroit, Michigan, office identified a solution to develop a real-world tactical training program, even under these constraints. FBI Detroit does not possess its own shoot house; in fact, most FBI field offices do not own a dedicated house for conducting force-on-force or scenario-based tactical training. However, this did not prevent the agency from delivering high-quality, realistic training to its agents, as well as other officers. By partnering with the city of Dearborn, Michigan, FBI Detroit provides instruction for deadly force encounters for agents and task force officers, using residences complete with kitchens, bathrooms, stairs, and basements.

This program became possible when Dearborn’s city government implemented a program to improve neighborhoods and maintain property values. As part of this initiative, the city purchased vacant properties, both single- and multifamily residences, in local neighborhoods, all of which had been marked for demolition. Some were allocated to local arson investigators to conduct burns for their own training programs. FBI Detroit realized that if the fire department can burn down a house for training purposes, then, perhaps, one of these vacant properties could provide a safe place to conduct firearms training. Fortunately, the mayor’s office, city council, and building department agreed, and they enthusiastically supported the FBI’s request to use the city’s property.

Clearly, a city-owned property presents some limitations. First, as the house is located in a residential neighborhood, instructors cannot incorporate exterior tactics into the training; during the program, instructors cover most of the windows to prevent outsiders from observing the techniques, tactics, and procedures. Second, the house is not located at or near the division’s firearms range. As such, the training cannot be conducted very frequently, whereas a dedicated shoot house would make it possible to incorporate high-quality tactical training into every firearms training session. Third, a dedicated shoot house would allow trainees to use actual duty weapons. However, given the cost savings and other benefits of using city-owned residences, they provide a viable option for live-fire training programs.


In FBI Detroit’s training program, officers and role players each are armed with realistic training weapons and ammunition. Role players carry guns that produce a loud realistic gunshot sound when they are fired; it is important for role players to fire a weapon that makes a loud noise so that if they surprise students in an ambush, the officers will respond to the sound of the blast. Students’ guns closely resemble the look and feel of the standard-issue weapons for agents and task officers in FBI Detroit, which provides a significant benefit to the trainees.

Students move toward the living room while an instructor watches. The house presents multiple danger areas for students to address even though there is no furniture.
Students move toward the living room while an instructor watches. The house presents multiple danger areas for students to address even though there is no furniture.

Training House

After securing the use of the two-story, single-family residence, instructors developed the curriculum and planned the actual training scenarios. The primary objective is to refine agents’ ability to clear a location using the techniques that they learned at the academy. The house provides numerous opportunities for agents to practice these skills. To this end, this borrowed residence provides the additional benefit of more closely resembling the circumstances that agents will encounter on the job as most shoot houses only consist of one story and use simplified floor plans.

The instructors emphasize how to enter rooms properly and highlight the importance of visually clearing all areas prior to entry. Realistic photo targets and role players act as the officers’ subjects during the scenarios. Professional support employees volunteer to serve as role players, but on most training days, only one or two role players are available. The photo targets supplement the role players, but they provide another advantage, as well—paper targets can be positioned in places where agents need to shoot at a close distance, such as just inside a doorway or closet.1

Trainers structure the exercises to position the agents for success. As such, they design every scenario so that agents successfully can complete the mission without firing any shots. The instructors strategically place the role players in spots where they anticipate the students might make mistakes; trainers instruct the role players to comply with the agents’ commands, but not to react automatically. The students aim to locate the role players with proper clearing techniques, eliminating the need for an ambush. However, if the agents turn their backs on role players’ locations or fail to clear the areas where role players hide, the role players can fire their guns to alert the agents to their mistakes.

Student Lessons

Many training groups use the appropriate tactics to successfully identify the role players, call them out of their hiding places, and secure them in a safe location, all without firing a shot. If an ambush occurs, the instructors quickly stop the scenario and discuss what mistakes led to the shooting. Then, the students reset and attempt to complete the scenario without firing their weapons. This structure illustrates that students can achieve the desired training results without firing a barrage of plastic bullets and BBs.

Of course, this program does not imply that officers never will be involved in shootings if they receive this training. Ultimately, the subject decides whether to peacefully comply with officers or fight them. Proper planning, such as ensuring superior manpower and firepower and using appropriate tactics, places maximum pressure on the subject to submit to the authority of law enforcement. Nonetheless, instructing officers on these techniques may help them avoid gunfire if possible.

Unlike typical shoot houses, the training house has bathrooms and a kitchen that agents have to clear. In several exercises, groups remembered to check the cabinets and other less obvious hiding places. However, a few groups ignored these danger areas despite reminders to clear all spaces large enough to conceal a two-legged threat. To emphasize this easy-to-overlook hiding place, one of the role players volunteered to hide inside a kitchen cabinet. It was a tight fit, but confirmed that this space was large enough to conceal a person. The role player waited until after the agents deemed the kitchen clear before emerging from the cabinet and opening fire on several trainees. Those agents who were shot, even with a simulated gun that caused them no harm, learned a valuable lesson and likely never will clear a kitchen the same way again.

Instructor Learning

Not all the lessons have been learned by the students; the instructors have acquired valuable knowledge as well. One important lesson came during an exercise in which a role player hid in a hallway closet. The subject did not have a weapon, so he was not in a position to be shot. When a student opened the door and saw the role player, he was so surprised that he literally jumped. Witnessing the trainee’s automatic reaction reminded the instructors about the importance of mental preparation and proper mind-set. Initially, the instructors focused on the mechanics of law enforcement clears, but from that rotation on, instructors stressed to students the mental importance of remaining alert to threats hiding in every cabinet, closet, or corner. The eyes see what the mind expects.

Safety Precautions

During these exercises, safety remains of the utmost importance. In the same week that FBI Detroit conducted training, an officer in another state died during a similar training exercise. The news reports indicated that a fellow officer wanted to demonstrate a technique to his colleagues during a break.

Unfortunately, the officer performing the demonstration unknowingly picked up a live-fire weapon instead of a training gun, and he shot and killed his fellow officer. To prevent such tragic events from occurring, the lead instructor or a dedicated safety officer must prevent any ammunition or live-fire weapons from entering the training environment. Normally, officers learn never to point their weapon at another person unless the situation warrants it (e.g., for self-defense). However, these training sessions differ from standard law enforcement environments because students and role players are not only allowed but expected to point their weapons at another person to complete the scenario. As such, students, role players, and instructors alike must realize the significant risk that accompanies pointing a weapon of any sort at another person, even during a training exercise.

To increase safety even further, the FBI adopted a color-coding system for weapons. For example, guns marked with red are inert—the firing pin has been removed and the barrels have been plugged so that they cannot fire, but they are functional in every other respect. Orange designates simulated guns, which fire plastic marking rounds. The vendor who supplies these weapons agreed to apply orange paint to the slides and magazine floor plate for a minimal fee. This color-coding scheme reduces the likelihood of potentially tragic mistakes.

At the conclusion of training, it is the instructors’ responsibility to make sure that officers return to duty with fully loaded, live-fire weapons. Incidents have occurred when students went back on patrol with training weapons still in their holsters. Fortunately, the color-coded weapons make it readily apparent when an officer does not have the proper equipment.


It still is too early to fully measure the success of this training effort. The real test will be whether or not the program makes FBI Detroit’s agents and task force officers safer while they perform their duties, and that test does not end until the student retires. However, the course evaluation forms were overwhelmingly positive. The most common recommendation for improvement was to hold this type of training more often, which, in itself, indicates some level of success.


FBI Detroit’s program demonstrates a strong example of how law enforcement agencies can deliver high-quality tactical instruction for deadly force encounters, even if they do not have sufficient funds to build a dedicated shoot house. Using city-owned residences provides a budget-friendly, effective way to deliver firearms training in a realistic environment.

No one location or facility will allow for training activities that encompass every potential situation that law enforcement officers will face. Ideally, agencies can establish dedicated shoot houses or 180-degree shooting bays for officers to practice room entries with live fire. However, even if an agency has its own shoot house available, the use of commercial and residential buildings marked for demolition provides a low-cost way to develop realistic force-on-force training programs.

Special Agent Hoff serves as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor at the FBI’s Detroit, Michigan, office. 


To ensure safety, agents should not fire a training gun at a role player without at least three feet of distance or else risk injury.