Historical Handgun – more on the 1945 FBI course of fire

Over the past year I’ve been developing a new course for KR Training, Historical Handgun, that teaches the history & evolution of defensive handgun skills.  Part of that effort has been searching for old handgun qualification courses of fire, and shooting them using the techniques and equipment used in that era.  In a previous article, I discussed the 1945 FBI qualification course of fire.

Trainer Tom Givens , who shares my interest in handgunning history, provided me with this additional information:

The original course was shot on a range that had individual shooting lanes that fanned out from the 60 yd line. When Hoover said 5 minutes and 45 seconds to run the course, that is how they did it. Once the start signal was given, each agent ran the course, with some ahead of and some behind others. Some time later, the individual stages were broken out and given a time limit because so few police ranges had the fanned out lanes that the original FBI ranges had.

The second stage to the Practical Pistol Course (PPC) consumed 40 shots and, thus, comprised the bulk of the PPC’s various elements. These 40 continuous shots (80% of the entire course) were fired within five minutes and 45 seconds over multiple firing strings at the 60, 50, and 25 yard lines.

Beginning in a standing position at the 60 yard line, at the signal, special agents drew their revolvers as they dropped into a prone position and used a two-handed grip to fire five shots using the thumb-cocking mode.

They then immediately reloaded, re-holstered, and ran or jogged forward to the 50 yard line. There they fired a total of 20 shots, using two hands to fire five shots each from four positions—sitting, prone, and right- and left-hand barricades—that simulated use of cover (e.g., the corner of a building or around a car’s fender). Reloading between these four strings was under time pressure.

After again reloading and holstering, special agents immediately ran or jogged forward to the 25 yard line where they fired a total of 15 rounds—five each from the kneeling, and then right- and left-hand barricade positions, to include reloading between strings.

According to Roberts and Bristow (1969, pp. 77-81), these 15 shots were to be fired trigger-cocked. Considered in its totality, this 40-shot stage brought a sequential closing by a special agent upon his target, something Weston (1973) characterized in the following manner: “The shooter assumes he is under fire from an armed opponent at all times . . . [and] . . . Each of the combat-shooting positions emphasizes target reduction, and the use of barricades suggests seeking available protection in real life combat” (p. 77). There was also somewhat of a military “assault” flavor to this stage since special agents were in a fashion “firing and advancing” on the target. While this is fairly easy to explain given the FBI’s training relationship with the U.S. military, it still seems a curious one for police work. Perhaps experiences such Law Enforcement Executive Forum • 2008 • 8(1) 51 as the prolonged encounters at Little Bohemia and elsewhere where special agents engaged in extended surveillance or conducted raids to apprehend dangerous suspects inclined the FBI toward this feature to the course.

The PPC was a far more complex course-of-fire than conventional bull’s-eye target courses. One of the major differences was in using prone, sitting, and kneeling firing positions akin to those used for rifle shooting positions in order to provide greater shooting stability. For example, in the prone position, one rested the forearms and/or heels of the hands on the ground to fire at the target 60 yards away and, thus, need not attempt to hold the handgun steady at arm’s length in a standing position. The kneeling and sitting positions also were intended to offer support to the shooting arm and hand.

Given the linear arrangement of general purpose ranges, shooters stand in a line perpendicular to the direction of firing. This is a safe arrangement since all shooters are at precisely the same distance from the target line (i.e., not staggered). Recall, however, that stage two of the PPC course had special agents run from the 60 to the 50 yard line, and then from the 50 to the 25 yard line under time pressure. On the conventional target range with its parallel, compact firing lanes, this would be extremely unsafe and pose unacceptable risks for trainees. The alternative of having one officer fire the PPC while others waited for their turns would have been administratively cumbersome.

The FBI overcame this problem to its satisfaction by arranging one area of its range complex in a radial or fan-shaped fashion with firing lanes emanating from a central hub. Several FBI agents would start close together and at angles to one another at the hub, and as they moved down range to the various specified distances, they also moved increasingly further apart on their respective lanes. Critical analysis of the PPC, including discussion of its positive aspects, shortcomings, and alteration by local and state departments is presented further below. Because it was an important development in police firearms training, first we examine how the FBI was able to so effectively promote the PPC’s use by U.S. police departments. Exporting the PPC to Local and State Police No other single police handgun training or qualification course-of-fire has a provenance so generally well-known and its elements so easily recognized as the PPC-based course-of-fire.

Q: Why was the course of fire based on 5 shot strings, when the revolvers of that time held 6?

A: It was a hold-over from bullseye days. All bullseye strings are 5 rounds, or multiples of 5, like 10 rounds. When the PPC was designed, everyone was shooting the NRA bullsye course. The 5 shot Chief wasn’t invented until the early 1950’s.
I believe the bullseye tradition came from carrying cap and ball revolvers and 1873 Colts with 5 beans in the wheel and an empty chamber under the hammer.