Shoot Like the Pros – “Old” Federal Air Marshal Course of Fire


The Federal Air Marshal (FAM) Service has existed in one form or another since 1962.  Originally begun under the auspices of the FAA as the FAA Peace Officers program, their basic role has not changed much in the last sixty-plus years. While the FAA originally started the idea of armed agents on planes, it was the U.S. Marshall’s Service that started a “Sky Marshal” program out of the Miami field office in 1969 to combat air hijackings, many of which took place out of Miami. This was totally separate from the FAA’s program. In the early 1970’s the programs were merged into a formal 1970’s “Sky Marshal” program run as a joint project between U.S. Customs and the FAA . . .

During the early 1970’s, in response to the rise of Islamic terrorism, President Nixon ordered the immediate deployment of armed agents who initially came from the U.S. Treasury, but was transferred to the new  Division of Air Security formed under the U.S. Customs department.  Originally teams of 2-3 agents flew on many domestic and international flights, but with the implementation of mandatory passenger screening beginning in 1973, the deployment of armed law enforcement on planed dwindled to nearly nothing.

During the Reagan Administration, interest in placing armed agents on flights to combat terrorism picked up again.  While the ranks of “Sky Marshals” grew, so too did the list of non-airplane riding tasks the marshals were assigned to.  They spent a fair amount of time doing ground security and inspection work and ultimately Sky Marshals spent very little of their time actually flying protection duties on aircraft.

In 1992, the Associate Administrator for the office of Civil Airline Security approached Greg McLaughlin, an experienced Sky Marshal and shared with him his desire to overhaul the program and make the position of Federal Air Marshal a volunteer one whose participants would spend 60% of their time riding airplanes (up from the current 30%-40%). Any existing Marshal could apply for one of the new positions, but they would need to pass an intense battery of physical fitness and shooting qualifications to make the team.  Of the existing 250-300 Sky Marshals in 1992, only 55 ultimately made the new elite team. Most of those who did pass had prior military experience and only one woman made the cut.

McLaughlin wanted his FAMs to be the best pistol shooters in the world, so he engaged the services of Tom Bullins, owner of the Trigger Time shooting school located near Fort Bragg to develop the new curriculum.  Bullins’s organization regularly trained Military Tier 1 Operators, so he was a good choice for the job.  Bullins developed what became known as the Tactical Pistol Course (TPC).  Although all stages are shot from 7 yards, the target is relatively small (more on this in a moment) and the time allowed for each stage miserly.  McLaughlin would later testify that he failed candidates for missing the standard by a fraction of a second, but chose to fail them rather than sacrifice the standards.  All of this hard work and refusal to compromise paid off.  In 1998, when a team of personnel from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) visited the Air Marshal training facility to evaluate its shooting program, their assessment was that FAMs were among the top 1% of shooters in the world.

This would all chance following the September 11, 2001 attacks.   In September 2001, out of 50 authorized positions, only 33 were currently filled.  Following September 11, the number of Air Marshals was dramatically increased with 600 new marshals added in a one month period (most came from other Federal agencies).  Today, while the actual number is classified, estimates place the number of Marshals at 3,000-4,000 worldwide.  Unfortunately, as the demand for more marshals increased, the supply of those who could meet the rigors of the TPC declined.  Most of the new marshals couldn’t achieve a passing score, so a new standard based upon the earlier revolver standard was implemented.  I’ll discuss that new standard in a later post.  Today, we are going to focus on the older, more difficult qualification.

The course of fire is 30 rounds fired over seven drills.  Each drill contains one or more strings.  Each drill has a maximum time limit for all strings shot during the drill.  The qualification is shot cold meaning that there are no warm up shots allowed prior to shooting the qualification.  During the 1990’s Air Marshals were required to report to Washington before undertaking a mission (a flight or set of flights).  They would have to shoot a passing score before being allowed to proceed.  As a result, marshals shot the TPC many times during the year and were not allowed to let their skills atrophy.

One of the things that has bedeviled me is getting some of the details correct.  As I don’t know any of the 33 air marshals who were employed prior to 2001, I can’t say that what follows is gospel.  I have had to make some assumptions.  If anyone out there has a correction, please post it in the comments and I’ll make the appropriate changes.  Please note – only post changes if you can cite the source with reasonably reliability (if your source is a friend of your sister’s roommate’s boyfriend’s buddy or something like that, that is not authoritative).

The target I believe used is the FBI QIT-97 Target.


The target is my first assumption.  I believe this to be correct, but I have also seen reference to the FBI QIT-99 target that has two smaller inner zones as opposed to the single large one.  I don’t know for sure which is the correct one, but as you will likely find when you attempt this drill, the QIT-97 is damn hard by itself. The -99 makes it nearly impossible given the tight time constraints.

The astute reader will note that this target looks similar to the target used in the new FBI Qualification Standard, but there is one key difference.  There is now an inner bottle in addition to the outer bottle and the TPC makes use of this.  The course of fire is 30 rounds.  A clean shot inside the inner bottle (not touching a line) counts for five points.  A shot in the outer bottle (or touching either inner or outer bottle lines, counts for 2 points.  Shots outside the outer bottle or that miss completely receive 0 points.  The maximum possible score is 150 points.  The minimum passing score is 135 points.  Let’s think about that for a moment.

You can have three shots that miss both bottles and still pass.  If a fourth shot misses the inner bottle (even it it hits the outer bottle) you fail.  If you miss the inner bottle five times but all five hit the outer zone, you pass.  If you get a zero even once, then you can only afford three “2”s and the rest need to be “5”s.   Basically, this is a bear of a course of fire and its easy to see why the old Federal Air Marshals were considered the cream of the crop.

The scoring above is my second assumption.  I’ve found a number of references that suggest that any hit inside the outer bottle is worth five, an outside bottle line or anywhere outside the bottle (but still on the the paper) is 2 points, but this does not make sense to me.  I have yet to see a drill where you get points for missing the humanoid silhouette, so I’m assuming the same is true here and you only score for shots inside the outer bottle.  Since there are two point values, it makes sense for the five point one to be the inner bottle and the two point one to be the outer silhouette.  I don’t think that you should ever get any points if you miss the silhouette (which would presumably translate to possibly hitting an innocent party (or putting a hole in something important to the airplane’s function).

What makes this course of fire even more difficult is that you have to religiously adhere to the time requirements on each drill.  If you fail to meet the time requirement on even one drill, you fail even if you managed to shoot a passing score over the whole course of fire.

Air Marshals use the Sig Sauer P229 pistol in .357 Sig with a Double Action / Single Action (DA/SA) trigger although they may be switching to the Double Action Kellerman (DAK) trigger.  The .357 Sig round is a bit snappier than most other handgun rounds, so if you really want to test yourself against the actual standard, it’s time to go find a .357 Sig.  The choice of holster appears to be less standard although it seems that many agents favor a cross draw rig or concealed appendix carry as the typical behind the back setup is not quite so effective when your job requires you to be strapped into an airline seat.

All strings of fire are shot at a distance of 7 yards.  Only one target is used except for Drills 5&6.

The nice folks over at have put together a great score sheet that you can use.  Download the PDF here.

Drill 1 (2 Rounds)

Begin with weapon in concealed holster, hands at sides.  On the beep, draw and fire one round.  Holster the weapon and repeat.  The time budget is a total of 3.3 seconds over the course of both shots.  So, if it takes you 2 seconds to draw and fire your shot the first time, on the second run through you need to manage to do it in 1.3 seconds or you fail the drill.  The other way to think of it is that you have an average of 1.65 seconds to make each shot.

Drill 2 (4 rounds)

Begin in the low ready position.  On the beep, raise the gun and fire two rounds.  Repeat.  The time budget is a total of 2.7 seconds over the course of all four shots.  You should aim for an average of 1.35 seconds for each double tap.

Drill 3 (6 rounds)

Begin in the low ready position.  On the beep, raise the gun and fire six rounds in 3 seconds or less.

Drill 4 (4 rounds)

Begin in the low ready position.  On the beep, raise the gun, fire one shot, reload, and fire a second shot. Repeat.  The time budget is a total of 6.5 seconds across all four shots.  Aim for an average of 3.25 seconds for each pair of shots.

Drill 5 (4 rounds)  Two targets should be set up 3 yards apart.

Begin in the low ready position.  On the beep, raise the gun and fire one shot into each target.  Repeat.  The time budget is a total of 3.30 seconds across all four shots.  Aim for an average of 1.5 seconds for each pair of shots.

Drill 6 (6 rounds) Three targets should be set up.  Distance between targets is not specified, but a three yard spread between each target is probably a good bet.

Begin with weapon in concealed holster, back to the targets.  On the beep, turn, draw and fire one round in each target.  Repeat the drill, but this time turn the other way so you practice turning to your left and your right.  The time budget is a total of 7 seconds across all six shots.  Aim for an average of 3.50 seconds for each string.

Drill 7 (4 rounds)

Set up the gun with one round in the chamber and an empty magazine loaded.  Begin in the low ready position.  On the beep, fire one round.  The slide will lock back.  Drop to one knee and as you are doing so, eject the empty magazine and insert a fresh one.  Finish the string with one more shot from kneeling position.  Repeat.  The time budget is a total of 8 seconds across all four shots.  Aim for an average of 4 seconds for each pair of shots.

The time factor is the real killer here.  Sure, you may be able to draw and fire in the time allotted, but can you hit the inner bottle consistently? If not, you fail.  There are a number of folks on YouTube who show off their shooting skills, but I have seen a lot of people using the wrong target.  If you really want to compare yourself, you need to use the right one.

Following my rather stellar performance (if I do say so myself) shooting the FBI qualification, I headed into this one full of confidence.  To say that I got my clock cleaned would be an understatement.  On my first run through (cold), I did manage to make time in every drill, save number four, but ended with a failing score of 97.  On my second run through, I slowed down and failed time in five out of seven stages, yet only managed to add three points to my score.

I have to console myself with the fact that the FAMs that used to be measured by this target were considered among the top 1% in the world.  If you can come close, you are still one damn fine shooter and my hat’s off to you.


  1. avatar Accur81 says:

    That’s some pretty fast shooting from concealment and a retention holster. Those of you used to Kydex holsters in the open can easily snap of fast shots. USS and a lot of other agencies wear suits and sport coats for a reason – fast shots from concealment.

  2. avatar Roymond says:

    I find myself awed by the fact that anyone at all could pass that.

  3. avatar Eric says:

    Thanks Jim. This is a great article.

  4. avatar koolaidguzzler says:

    In the first year or two after 9/11, new fams instructors not only had to pass that TPC — they had to shoot it 100%. That requirement was nationally unofficial, but it was often required in local offices, where the first instructors were trained.

  5. avatar Tony says:

    The first seven classes of air marshals after 911 had to pass both the PPC and TPC to get hired! After the seventh class all that had to pass was PPC and within a year later go to phase 2 where are they had to pass ATPC ( Aircraft tactical pistol course ) which was not as difficult but more pertinent to aircraft. I retired in 2005 so I have no idea what the standards are now.

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