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(This post is an entry in our spring content contest. If you’d like a chance to win a Beretta APX pistol, click here for details.) 

By Drew Estell
One thing that military and law enforcement officers (LEOs) share, as well as civilians who carry for personal defense, is the need for target discrimination. Considering the civilian perception of LEOs recently, it has never been more critical that an officer properly identifies his or her target.

In the military, we train hard to ensure that non-threats are not engaged. Our operating environment is very different regarding threat assessment and rules of engagement. What constitutes a threat on deployment may not constitute a threat here in the states for our LEO brothers and sisters.

Generally speaking, we are probably better trained in this regard, depending on the military specialty and due to the time we have to devote to it, but your actions are held to a much higher level of scrutiny by the public. Even when it is a good choice, which is 99% of the time. In the military we don’t have to worry about our actions being blasted all over the American media with every possible aspect analyzed by some arm chair expert sitting behind a desk with a microphone in their ear.

I am no expert in how police forces train either. I have seen some of the training on the flat range by a few LEOs and it is only setting up the officer for failure. Hopefully some of the experience and insight I can provide will help explain how military Special Operations Forces (SOF) conduct training and allow us the time to assess a threat while still allowing us the ability to take the life of a bad guy before they can take ours.

Before I moved into a more specialized assault role the majority of target ID was explained by saying, “if they are a threat, shoot them, if not, don’t.” Once I was fortunate enough to attend high level CQB training, it was explained much more in depth and broken down so that the mental process of identification could allow me to be successful.

One of the things that our unit does well is incorporate a sports psychologist into our training section who shows us and our instructors how to do this effectively. A lot of our training cues incorporate three words that get us from threat to decision to action very well. The method that they came up with was the hands, aim, shoot (HAS) phrase. It’s very effective and literally as simple as it sounds.

When you have a potential target one of the common mistakes is looking at “them” by means of the face or center mass. We do this because that’s how we normally train at the flat range. We step up to the line knowing that we are going to take a chest shot or a head shot ahead of time, and effectively cut out any decision making process that we could be using to train for the real world more effectively. There is a place for this in marksmanship training, but we have to remember that it is only training marksmanship and not target ID.

In a job like ours, where this is a critical, no-fail component, it has to be incorporated into training once the marksmanship component has been established. When we conduct training on the flat range it should be to prepare us for the tasks we will be faced with when we leave it. A team Sergeant of mine, who I look up to very much, told me one time, “the mission drives task org.” He was right, and it made me think. Mission does drive our task organization, but it also drives a lot more. It drives physical training, job training, range training, and anything else we do to prepare for our jobs and mission at hand. Our flat range training should incorporate some aspect that prepares us for what we will face when we are on mission or working our shift.

To accomplish this, we use a lot of different types of cartoon/realistic targets on the range. When we start to remember which target is a threat and not one, we cover up the guns or paste something on them which make them a non-threat, which emphasizes our need to identify threats, not just recognize targets. In addition to using them in shoothouses, we use them in drills that incorporate target presentation. Pie-ing off windows, barriers, movement in width where they present around the corner of a barrier, or turning drills like the el-Prez.


When the target presents itself to us we are focused on the hands first. We aren’t looking at the face, chest, or anything else. Marty the meth-head’s cracked out scowl and broken teeth aren’t going to get us killed. Neither is any other part, besides the hands, of any other stereotype going to take our life. What’s in their hands will. For us, that can be a weapon or a detonator such as a cell phone, garage door opener, or homemade battery pack wire combo.

For you guys and gals, the latter probably isn’t something to worry about, but could be in the future. Terrorism is at our doorstep and it’s only a matter of time until those tactics make its way over here on our soil. The hands are the mechanism which can take our life. Outside of drawing down on Chuck Norris where his feet may be the other mechanism, we focus on the hands.

At this point if I have a person who is deemed a threat I raise my sights onto the target and get my sight picture. Notice I said, “raise my sights onto the target.” You aren’t looking down your sights the whole time. Before I reach aim, the eyes should be out of the sights and weapon in a low ready position or suppressed muzzle. A good rule of thumb that we use is I should be able to turn my head left and right and my chin clear my butt stock if I am using a rifle. If I have a pistol, my weapon should be low enough to effectively see the threat area of a target to include the hands if they are down at their sides.

If the muzzle of my pistol is pointed generally at their baby making machinery, that should be enough to see the hands and target area, while still being able to quickly raise my gun the few inches it takes to engage. The pelvis is a good reference point as well because it is large, relative to the body, there are major arteries running through it, and no one moves well when their pelvis is broken.


I have identified a threat and now brought my weapon up to engage, flipped my weapon to fire, if applicable, and about to fire as many shots as required to eliminate the threat, taking their life if necessary. The split second it takes to raise your weapon is enough for your brain to make any correction if needed. By identifying the threat while staying out of the sights, the 0.75 seconds it takes to raise your weapon up and aim will allow you to correct yourself if needed in the event you misidentified your target.

This could be the difference in being on the news and having an investigation run as to whether or not you should have shot. In the diagram at the top you’ll see it looks much like an upside “Y”or “V”. Depending on where the hands are it could also look like an upside down “T”.

There are numerous reasons for the two different locations of the shot. We might have to bypass the upper chest area and go for the head. In my job they could have body armor, explosive vest, hostage, or be behind a certain amount of cover. It could become a low percentage shot quickly depending on the situation.

In your job, I would imagine many of the same could apply, and I would add in a baby for all our officers in Oklahoma and Kansas. I feel like I see that on the TV show Cops a lot. Either way, be prepared to have to recognize what is at the chest and whether or not you need to move to a lower percentage shot at the head and face.


Now is the easy part. Shoot them. You and your department know what is acceptable in this regards. You’ve hopefully established training standards to hit a target at different distances and now it’s time to execute. Pull the trigger and put as many rounds into the threat as fast as you can while maintaining accuracy to ensure a good kill. You can’t kill a bad guy if you don’t hit him. With that in mind, the person who wins the gunfight is the one who gets the shot off quickest while being accurate.

When we train on the flat range we get into a habit during marksmanship training to put a dot on target and fire. Staying out of the sights is critical during our identification process so that we don’t put sights on target and instinctively pull the trigger if we didn’t mean to. Allow yourself the time and space to make the right decision to take life.

You’ve identified the threat during HANDS. You’ve given your brain the amount of time it needs to find the proper location for your rounds during AIM. You finished the fight and engaged the target when you SHOOT.

The reason we train this way is so that in the moment it’s the only way we know how to do it. It ensures that when we determine a threat we consciously aim our weapon so that when we shoot, we don’t miss.

This isn’t the end all be all in how you apply this. I know officers have certain verbal commands they have to give to legally be within their rights. You are the subject matter expert on that, not me. I’m sure there will be some modification between a patrol officer and SWAT, or it could just be situationally dependent. I hope you can take this and apply it to your next training event so that you are more confident and competent in your jobs.


Drew Estell is the founder of BAER Solutions [Instagram: @baersolutions, Facebook: BAER Solutions]


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  1. “I know officers have certain verbal commands they have to give to legally be within their rights.”
    -Prior to the decision in Tennessee v. Garner, when police could shoot fleeing felons, they were supposed to warn the felon first if possible- ‘stop or I’ll shoot!’ (but it was not legally necessary in all cases). Now the standard for deadly force is imminent risk of death or great bodily harm. If someone is placing you at imminent risk of death by pointing a gun at you, you have no legal obligation to give any verbal commands- indeed, if you are in that position, you probably don’t have time. If they AREN’T placing you or others at such risk, you have no legal authority to shoot anyway(exception: prison escapes and a few other very rare circumstances) and commands should be given if possible.

    “Pull the trigger and put as many rounds into the threat as fast as you can while maintaining accuracy to ensure a good kill.”
    -This might be fine for military applications but this is not a sentence that a police officer or defensive gun user should be adopting.

    • For a non-cop civilian, I guess it would be best modified to “Pull the trigger and put as many rounds into the threat as needed and as fast as you can while maintaining accuracy to stop the threat.”

      For a cop civilian, it’s roughly the same, but a different nuance – less worrying about the DA and more about public opinion

    • I agree totally. Soldiers doing martial duties do so much differently than civilian police do. Police(in free countries) should use thier brains and at least be familiar with the people on his beats. You can’t just plug in an officer to a new beat every day. Community policing(and some hands on work/play with the kids there show that you really are human. In areas where the po-po may have taken in a child’s parent, grandparent, uncle and neighbor, it is even more important to set a good example.
      Children are scared of police after someone they know comes home beaten down or 2 years layer and they don’t even remember him. It is not the officer’s fault, usually, but the us and them attitude is. I really don’t know the answer, but coaching a sports team or organizing a trip to the beach for a few kids can work wonders.
      Like it or not, a LEO might be the only man the child sees for more than a couple of months. It is not the child’s fault, but if the LEO treats the kid with some kindness, that will be remembered, if not, you can be sure he will hate all LEOs.

  2. If the media talking heads really did have their “microphones in their ears,” the quality of their reporting would certainly improve.

  3. Interesting from a soldier’s perspective but I sincerely doubt that there’s a police academy in this country which doesn’t teach that “It’s what’s in the hands which will kill you. WATCH the HANDS!” Yes, police qualify on “flat” ranges, but many departments also have the equipment to train officers with “Shoot – Don’t shoot” technology to reinforce the need to identify what is a threat and what is not.

  4. Taking the picture into account I didn’t see anything about awareness of what is behind the threat. In this case you have a crowded metro (subway) train that when you if/when you miss is going to be in the line of fire.

    I don’t exactly have qualified immunity to prevent me from going to jail for hitting a bystander or a ROE (rules of engagement) that says limited “collateral” damage is acceptable.

    I’d move my point of aim to the pelvic area that way my rounds would be in a downward path and at the current target presentation seems to be the biggest most appropriate target with a lot of bone and muscle mass to soak up rounds, center mass is nice but a shattered pelvis is going to take them out of the fight and allow me to get away from the threat.

  5. Appreciate the​ good post and comments.
    – I’m wondering about volunteering for some sort of auxillary/deputy position to get in on some of that training/immunity.
    – I’m also thinking about the best stage of HAS for chambering a round from Israeli carry.

    • This article seems to assume your weapon is already drawn, which is more acceptable for police and military, obviously. For a concealed carrying person, I think the draw (and rack, in your case) has to go after “hands” to remain legal, without brandishing everytime you see someone’s hands. As for Israeli carry among military and police, if you’re allowed, then if guess you’d rack right after drawing, like normal?

      • I won’t speak for the military- some branches seem to have no sense in how they carry- but you’re not going to be carrying ‘Israeli’ as part of a normal US police force (if you’re the Sheriff, you can probably do what you want).

        Because ‘Israeli carry’ is @#$^& ridiculous- two* kinds of people do it now. People who can’t trust themselves with a firearm, and people who have watched some tacticool videos and think that it somehow makes them more operator (or think it’s somehow more ‘safe’ to add additional handling to a gun under pressure). It doesn’t. It used to be a bad solution to a lack of training and good equipment. So if you can train and get a modern, drop-safe gun, it’s a bad solution to a non-existent problem.

        Are there people out there who take a cartridge out from under the hammer of a modern, double-action revolver because they saw it in an old western? Because it’s the same idea except slightly less bad because at least all you have to do is pull the trigger twice.

        *okay, three kinds of people- like I said, some military services have bizarre rules for handgun carry because they either have no trust whatsoever in their people or are just addicted to making stupid, senseless rules.

  6. If you have to draw on Chuck Norris, you’re already dead. Besides, he’s quicker than the bullet and can block it, redirecting it back to you.

    Thanks for the advice, good article.

  7. just a nitpick:

    a white guy in civvies holding a gun on a subway platform is probably an undercover transit cop.

    almost no muggings or murders are committed on subways by white guys.

    now, a domestic violence call, or meth lab, that’s where you’ll find white guys with guns that are a real threat to cops.

    • When I first saw the photo I was wondering if one of the little circles was trying to call attention to him holding a badge. In the end it doesn’t matter- that guy would be shot by any cop coming along. Plainclothes cops have lots of rules for how they present themselves and that photo would be an example of how NOT to do it (holding a badge in your hand down there is also useless- neckchain badge is shown to be much more visible than anything else)

    • All law enforcement should always be in uniform. This includes plainclothes officers and off duty cops. How else will we prevent LEO’s from shooting each other in the event of an active shooter situation? – sarcastic response to the argument about how concealed carriers are bound to eventually shoot each other up in mass shootings even though it has never happened before.

      Your comment “a white guy in civvies holding a gun on a subway platform is probably an undercover transit cop,” just made me think of it.

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